‘This is some screwy way for an adult to be spending his career, right?” laughs Brendan Fraser.
The actor stars in two big summer movies released in Japan in August. And each film puts Fraser in a role that is far from unfamiliar. Though he has participated in a gamut of screen genres, Fraser has been more or less pigeonholed into two of them: adventure films, thanks to the success of the Egyptian-themed “The Mummy” (1999) and its sequels, and comedies — romantic and otherwise — such as “George of the Jungle” (1997) and the 2000 remake of 1967’s “Bedazzled” (which originally starred Dudley Moore). Both his new movies are popcorn-munching adventure flicks; but perhaps the more anticipated is the sequel “The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” which opens in Japan on Aug. 16.
There’s much speculation as to whether this third installment in the “The Mummy” series, released seven years after the second and set in China rather than Egypt, will be anywhere near as popular. Yet even if it doesn’t match its predecessors’ popularity — which it may, partly because it will also be released in China sometime in August, and features such Chinese stars as Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh — it’s bound to be an international hit.
Fraser explains: “This time we switch to China and Central Asia and East Asia. It’s a whole new concept. Really, it’s a brilliant concept. It’s sort of surprising no one thought of it before. You know that Terra Cotta Army of soldier statues that they found, a long time ago already, in the tomb of (Emperor Qin Shi Huang)? The concept is that this fabled Dragon Emperor — and there’s also a female sorceress in the plot — is able to raise up this army from the clay. And naturally, the army is up to no good. There’s 10,000 of these reanimated guys, and the obstacles that face Rick (O’Connell, Fraser’s character in the series) are as great as anything Indy (Indiana Jones) ever had to face, believe me!”
The movie features Rick’s brainy, beautiful wife Evelyn (Maria Bello) and his son Alex (Luke Ford). Series director and cowriter Stephen Sommers is still in charge, and locations for the picture (which does feature some stereotypical Chinese bad guys, such as Li’s Dragon Emperor) include Beijing, Shanghai, China’s Hebei province and the Himalayas, plus locations in Canada such as Riviere-du-Nord in Quebec.
Fraser’s leading lady, played now by Bello since Rachel Weisz — who has won an Academy Award for “The Constant Gardener” since the last “Mummy” outing — departed the series.
“I was talking with Maria Bello,” gushes Fraser. “Did you know her last name means ‘beautiful’ in Italian, but the male version (of the word)? And she is quite, quite beautiful in real life — definitely the female version.
“Maria said since she was a kid she always wanted to star in an action movie. She wanted to get to be in an ‘Indiana Jones’ movie. But have you seen Maria in ‘Yellow Handkerchief’ (a 2008 road-trip flick due in Japan next spring)? Oh, you definitely should. She is absolutely fantastic in that.”
Fraser’s other summer adventure epic this year is a remake of Jules Verne’s classic novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” released Aug. 9. It began filming more than two years ago, helmed by Eric Brevig, and involved several scriptwriters. The film stars Fraser as Trevor Anderson, a science professor who investigates a forbidding cave that leads to the beast-infested bowels of the planet. It’s interesting that Fraser, who has no intellectual pretensions, gets to play very brainy, professorial heroes in his more popular movies.
Included in “Journey . . . ” are the characters of Trevor’s nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) and a local Icelandic beauty, Hannah (Anita Briem). (A popular 1960s version starred James Mason and redhead Arlene Dahl.)
“Our version’s kind of an update,” offers Fraser. “It’s got incredible visuals. You know, Iceland’s the youngest country in the world, with lots of volcanoes and very little ice — it was wrongly named. But it is a journey into the Earth’s core, and along the way we all get to experience surreal creatures and incredible special effects and lots, but lots, of suspense!”
His enthusiasm continues: “Jules Verne wrote so many fantastic novels (including “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Around the World in Eighty Days”), some of them almost prophetic, and certainly ahead of their time. I wouldn’t mind being in more adaptations of his work. He wrote the sort of things that can still be enjoyed by both adults and kids.”
Fraser enjoys talking about his movies in a way similar to someone talking about a favored toy or a hobby. The star, who turns 40 on Dec. 3, is one of the more likable box-office Hollywood actors. His smile is earnest, he’s down to earth, and no costar or coworker appears to have disparaged him in print.
But how does he react to his own screen image?
“That’s sort of like asking someone to be objective about their photos,” he replies. “It’s almost impossible to see yourself as others see you. The difference from photos is that for an actor, you also get to see yourself talking and moving about on that screen. You get the whole totality, which makes it, in a way, kind of embarrassing.
“Like most actors, I’m not really fond of watching myself in a movie. It’s also very, very hard to judge my (own) work.”
But as for being cast as adventure heroes, as in his two latest outings, he attributes it to the first “Mummy.”
“That was such a hit, around the whole world, and then the followup, it sort of established me as a guy who’s a good husband and then in the sequel a good father, too, but a guy who can stand up and fight; and who gets into these incredible situations but doesn’t lose his cool or his sense of humor; and who, naturally enough — I mean for movie endings — triumphs in the end.”
Of his films, Fraser says he’s particularly proud of “Gods and Monsters” (1998), in which he played a gardener who befriends the real-life movie director James Whale (portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen). The film tackled gay issues, based around Whale’s troubled last days.
“That film became almost an instant classic, and it did have something to say,” he says. “Plus I think it was such a great chance to get to shine — if not quite as brightly as they did — with actors like Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave. I would have given almost anything for Sir Ian to (have won) the Academy Award for that.” McKellen, openly gay and playing the late gay director, was Oscar-nominated for the role.
Asked whether any of his films constitute a career low point, he is diplomatic: “Well, I don’t like to single out a film, mostly ‘cos I don’t want to embarrass any particular director or anyone else involved,” he says. “You know, you simply do not set out to do a bad movie. And on top of that, ‘bad movie,’ well, it’s sort of really an opinion, isn’t it?”
But he does admit that “I felt pretty self-conscious seeing myself in ‘George of the Jungle,’ in the loincloth and with the dialogue I had to say, and with the talking ape and everything.”
Though he says he’d like to do more dramatic roles now and then, and hopes “to get the chance once I’m in my forties, which to tell the truth I am looking forward to,” he says he is “pretty comfortable with what I’ve been doing lately.”
Brendan was born in 1968 in Indianapolis and moved often with his family — his Canadian father who was a travel executive, his mother and three older brothers. However did he survive having three older brothers?
Fraser laughs, replying: “From what I’ve seen and heard of other guys in my situation, you either become very tough and hardened, especially if your brothers were on the brutal side, or you get a little spoiled and mellow, having three big brothers to do your fighting for you. Guess which way I went?”
One reason Fraser enjoys adventure films is that they appeal to his own offspring — all three of them.
“I know some actors and actresses who have to keep their kids from watching their movies till they’re a bit older, because of the sort of adult content of the movies,” he says. “Not necessarily sex or nudity, but also emotional . . . tension and intensity. Kids can be pretty affected by movies.”
Fraser has a sunny disposition, and talking about fatherhood gives his voice an even warmer tone. By contrast, he sounds pained when the topic of divorce comes up in passing. In 1998, Fraser wed actress and four-year girlfriend Aston Smith, but in December 2007 their breakup was announced. The topic is to be avoided, the actor’s publicist had warned.
Of his kids, Brendan says: “Being a father is my most important role. It’s wonderful — I love it.”
He’s even taken several months off at a time to be with his sons. “Well, what’s more important? Earning money?” he asks. “An actor in my lucky position earns a lot of money, so I don’t have to be going out there constantly to earn more.
“We’ve all heard of the earn-a-lot, workaholic dads who hardly ever get to see their kids, and then when they finally do slow down and get more time at home, it’s almost too late, because the kids are teens (or) the kids have left home.”
It’s the kid in Fraser that seems to strike a chord with movie audiences of all ages. But does the very private actor have any particular plans for when he turns 40 this winter?
“I’ve actually heard of some actors throwing mourning parties for themselves when they turn 40, or for 50 or 60,” he laughs. “But I think for me it’ll just be a time of quiet contemplation, sort of a looking back and summing up, and then . . . well, I think a good attitude is just to pick up your right foot and move on. Good times, bad times, you simply have to move on, to enjoy what you can while you can, and do your best. That’s all.”
“Journey to the Center of the Earth” opens Aug. 9; “The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” opens Aug. 16.