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FRASER, BRENDAN: Mummy, Gods & Monsters

It seems to be Brendan Fraser year - he's the gardener and object of desire for Ian McKellen's James Whale in Gods and Monsters, the dashing 1920ís hero in the action blockbuster The Mummy, the wide-eyed innocent coping with the 90s in Blast From the Past, audiences are getting to see him in all these roles as the films hit our screens from late June 1999. But the success hasn't gone to Fraser's head - yet, as PAUL FISCHER discovered when he met the actor in Los Angeles.

What is it that distinguishes Brendan Fraser from any other A-list star? Diversity, pure and simple. While he has carved out a respectable niche playing wide-eyed innocents of late, look at the current crop of films in which Fraser appears, and you would be hard pressed to find a pattern.

"diversify the choices"

Fraser is drawn to the independent cinema, as he is to mainstream Hollywood. Perhaps doing the bigger films allow him to take time to make the smaller ones. "That has something to do with it, but it's also helpful to diversify the choices. But that equation does seem to work. That is, if you work in smaller, more artistic movies, then it's said that feeds the artistic need in our souls, while the larger budget studio pictures allow for recognition, and it's good for one's career to gain the opportunities to do the sorts of projects that one would want."

One such project is Gods and Monsters, with its premiere at the 1999 Sydney Film Festival in June, followed by a long-awaited general release. The film has been universally acclaimed, winning an Oscar for its script, and garnered Fraser his best reviews. But the film's success, argues the actor, had little do with Fraser's recent ascent to stardom. "George of the Jungle was a really big movie, but it hadn't been released at the time we were shooting Gods and Monsters. So I won't hazard to say that the success of Gods and Monsters, or at least the very nice notices that Ian and I received, were built on the success of the large budgeted movie like a Disney film."

Gods and Monsters is set in 1957, and tells of Hollywood movie director James Whale, (Ian McKellen) director of Show Boat, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein, who had long since stepped back from the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. A stroke triggers once buried flashes of memory of his life in Dudley, his film career, and, most influentially, the trenches during the Great War. Haunted and lonely, he recounts many of his experiences to his muscle bound gardener, Clay Boone (Fraser).

Despite the social and cultural divide that exists between them, their friendship develops. Reliant on his sternly disapproving housemaid, Hannah, (Lyn Redgrave) the flamboyant director whose time has passed sees himself slipping away, unable to stop the decline, and indulges his fantasies by coaxing Boone to model for him. Even now, when Fraser recalls the experience of working with Sir Ian McKellen, Fraser speaks in awe of the British actor.

"I was inspired by him even at that early stage." on working with Ian McKellen

"Ever since I was in college studying acting, he was definitely an inspiration, doing Shakespeare on video. . . I was inspired by him even at that early stage." There's no doubt that Fraser learnt a lot from working with McKellen. "I was very nervous at first. After I found out I got the part, I hadn't met Ian in person at that point, so I visited him in downtown Los Angeles, where he was doing a play, but he was very generous. As an actor, apart from his brilliance, the nuts and bolts of acting seemed always to be tightly cinched into place. Whenever we'd go and do a scene, he'd just say [imitating McKellen to a tee] 'Now Brendan, sit down and say the woooooords and just forget about acting'.

"My role in the film was very much an exercise in listening, because of the action of the piece being that it's a series of interviews and portraitures of sorts between these two unlikely characters." Fraser further describes this complex relationship in Gods and Monsters, as "two unlikely characters whom we know should become friends because they're such polar opposites and shed their inhibitions, stripping away those barriers, ultimately realising that they really do need one another. They're both, in one way or another, searching for love and looking for a father. Thatís what that film is about, thematically, to me."

Born in Indianapolis, the darkly handsome actor is the son of a Canadian tourism official. After an early appearance in Dogfight (1991), Fraser got his break in 1992's Encino Man as a Stone-Age man unfrozen in modern-day California. Fraser has since proven equally capable in both comedic and dramatic roles; according to one magazine article, he seeks out roles combining "silliness and sexiness." The two come together more appropriately in what has emerged as Fraser's biggest film to date: The Mummy.

"Dynamic and exciting and romantic," on the script of The Mummy

Loosely adapted from the classic 1932 horror film starring Boris Karloff, The Mummy is set in Egypt, where over 3,000 years ago the high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) was given the all-important assignment of preparing the recently dead for their journey into the afterlife. However, Imhotep made one terrible mistake - he became smitten with Anck-Su-Namun, the mistress of the Pharaoh. Driven mad by jealousy and love, Imhotep murdered the Pharaoh, and his punishment was to be buried alive and suffer the torment of an eternal life in his wretched tomb.

In 1925, a band of adventurers seeking fame and fortune - led by Rick O'Connel (Fraser), an American expatriate who has joined the foreign legion, and Evelyn Carnarvon (Rachel Weisz), an amateur archaeologist - find a previously unknown burial site in Egypt. The team starts to dig, hoping to find lost riches, but instead they disturb the tomb of Imhotep, and soon the cursed priest rises from his grave to wreck vengeance on humanity.

"Dynamic and exciting and romantic," are Fraser's words for the screenplay of the new Mummy by the film's director, Stephen Sommers. The script's action-adventure elements resemble Raiders of the Lost Ark and are equally reminiscent of the Bogart-Hepburn African Queen in its Mr. Hard Case/Miss Snooty love story between Fraser's renegade American-born French Foreign Legionnaire and the English Egyptologist played by Weisz.

"At the same time," Fraser adds, "it harkens back to the treatment of the material in the Boris Karloff film. It has many of the same names and situations and the same exotic allure" - indeed, maybe twice as many ancient legends, cults and curses as the 72-minute original - "but all brought up to speed with special effects from ILM."

"I relished the adventure of it all" on The Mummy

On choosing the film, Fraser says he was in the mood for a "straight-ahead action picture. Universal Pictures was investing a lot in reinventing The Mummy, and if there's an action picture I'd take, that's the one. Any other action pictures I was offered weren't reinventing anything and didn't have the weight of that commitment behind them."

Fraser also was keen to soak up some new experiences, and The Mummy took him and his cast mates to Morocco (which stood in for Egypt) to ride camels in 130-degree heat. "I relished the adventure of it all, being in the Sahara Desert," he says. "There were the usual pits and perils, creepy crawlies underneath stones, and a Snake & Bug Wrangler, as they were known, guys who walked around in yellow turbans, carrying metal pipes, killing things."

And, it was a learning experience. "I only spent two-and-a-half months there with a crew and support from the production to get us safely from point A to point B. But I learned that I take for granted world history. To see a walled city, architecture still in place from the 13th Century. . . the weight of history gave me a certain grounding."

In Blast from the Past Fraser next returns to familiar territory, continuing to define the innocent fish-out-of water persona he created in George of the Jungle, co-starring with Alicia Silverstone. Fraser plays Adam Weber, a young man who ventures out into the world after living all of his 35 years in a bomb shelter. There are obvious parallels that one can see between George and Adam. "In a way they represent a parallel type, given that they are both naÔve. They are both characters who are going to be surprised by the discoveries that they make, as if they are, for the first time, making those discoveries. Adam, in Blast from the Past, is what we, in our nineties sensibilities, would remember about who is the iconographic man of the sixties."

"there's absolutely nothing of me" of Blast from Past character

That man, Fraser explains, "is a snappy dresser, well mannered, he has a backbone and is a gentleman, one who endeavours to make those around him as comfortable as possible, which is the theme of the whole movie." Fraser then jokes that "there's absolutely nothing of me" in this snappy character - except maybe the way Adam dances. In the film's most talked about sequence, Fraser's Adam dances up one hell of a storm. "That was pretty wild, dancing with two girls of the nineties while living in the sixties."

What the public gets next from Brendan Fraser is more in a goofy surrealist vein. He's already wrapped the live-action Mountie spoof Dudley Do-Right. "I'm not allowed to tell you much about Dudley's look, but he's all derring-do, a bit befuddled, means well and still rides his horse backward."

Why do something so similar to George Of The Jungle? Fraser laughs. "I'm just following the Jay Ward pantheon," he says, naming the late cartoon genius behind both characters as well as Rocky & Bullwinkle.

Following that is another cartoon-Monkeybone, from stop-action guru Henry Selick (James & The Giant Peach, The Nightmare Before Christmas) which is filming now. In it, a cartoonist goes into a coma and meets his creation, a Capuchin called Monkeybone. "Together they cheat Death, played by Whoopi Goldberg," Fraser says. "But the monkey's diabolical and takes his body. He's possessed by the spirit of a cartoon."

"It's the infinite possibilities.." on cartoons

What is it about him and cartoons? "It's the infinite possibilities, when the audience watches a cartoon, belief can go in any direction you tell it to. I mean, to do George Of The Jungle as a human being who was equally a cartoon character, that to me was a coup."

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... with Ian McKellan in Gods & Monsters

... in The Mummy

... in Blast from the Past

... in George of the Jungle

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