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The actor, the Prince and the fan mail

by Tomoko Otake

British actor Ben Barnes shot to fame in 2008 with his portrayal of the then-Prince Caspian in “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” the second installment of the film adaption of author C.S. Lewis’ classic seven-book series, “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

Barnes successfully played the naive, hesitant prince who eventually finds the courage to fight against his evil uncle Miraz. Now, three years later, the 29-year-old London native returns as King Caspian in the third film in the series, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” which opened on 900 screens across Japan on Friday.

Just like his character’s transformation in “Prince Caspian,” Barnes has evolved into a stronger and more confident actor — thanks to a series of acting opportunities he has landed since making his major breakthrough in that film.

Interestingly enough, Barnes has found that many of his growing number of fans hail from Japan — where the handsome movie/stage actor is mostly known for “Narnia” and not for the variety of other roles he has had in recent years, which range from a Russian thug to an Irish rock star and a World War I officer.

“I get bags and bags of fan mail in the U.K., and I’d say almost half of it is from Japan,” Barnes tells The Japan Times during his third visit to Japan earlier this month. “And when I was doing a play (last year at London’s Comedy Theatre), there were people who came over for one week’s holiday to England and they would see my play five times — every night of their holiday!”

While he says he doesn’t know why he has more fans in Japan than any other country, Barnes is certainly appreciative, humbly adding that his popularity can be attributed to the power of the stories.

In fact, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” had the biggest impression on Barnes, he says, when he first read the books and watched the television version, which was shown in the U.K. when he was 8 years old.

In the story, Edmund and Lucy, the youngest two siblings of the Pevensie family, are drawn again to the mythical country of Narnia, where they, along with their cocky cousin Eustace, join the now-enthroned Caspian’s quest to find the seven lords who had gone missing during the brutal rule of Miraz. But to complete their mission, all of the characters must conquer their innermost desires and temptations.

Barnes says he remembers “The Dawn Treader” story as the most “episodic” in the series.

“You remember the pool that turns things to gold, you remember a boy (Eustace) turns into a dragon when he wears the treasures,” he says. “I remember lots of little moments, and those things stick with you for your whole life.”

Barnes claims that the change of studio to 20th Century Fox from Walt Disney Pictures, which had produced the previous two movies, did little to change the extravagant look of the film, though acknowledges that the budget for the movie was significantly lower than the earlier entries.

“I think they tried not to let it affect it as much as possible,” he says, noting that the producers used most of the same crew, assistant directors, wardrobe department and even the same stunt team. “It just meant that, because they wanted to bring the budget down, we shot more inside studios. But the set design was so brilliant that they conjured up all these worlds in the studio . . . It’s going to make the same amount of money as ‘Caspian,’ and it cost half to make.”

Barnes, who recalls he was “thrown in very much at the deep end” for the second film (his first appearance in “Narnia”), says shooting was much easier this time, both physically and psychologically. For that one, he’d also had to learn how to ride a horse and how to fight with a sword.

“I promised myself after the first movie, which was fairly hard for me — because I was very anxious a lot of the time — that this time I would really enjoy it, because if you focus too much on worrying about the outcome all the time your life just flashes before you,” he says. “Suddenly (I had) this amazing, probably the most amazing opportunity in my life, probably the best thing that will ever happen to me . . . and you don’t want to miss it by worrying about whatever happens. I wanted to enjoy it and I really did.”

Surprisingly, Barnes says that fame hasn’t changed his personal life much — as opposed to his professional life, where options are now much greater. His next film, to be released in the U.K. in April, is “Killing Bono,” a comedy in which Barnes plays an aspiring Irish musician outdone by an old school friend, Bono — singer with the rock band U2.

“I’ve just finished six months working in a theater in London,” he says. “I went to work on the train, the Tube, and I would walk to the theater. When I came out there were usually 10 or 20 people waiting outside, and I would sign autographs, then I would walk home.”

What does he aspire to achieve as an actor? As much as Barnes has enjoyed appearing in the “Narnia” series, he says he doesn’t want to be tied down to fantasy films or films in any other genre for that matter.

” I’ve done dramas, I’ve done comedies, I’ve done fantasy movies,” he says, with that princely smile that has won over many — mostly female — fans the world over. “I’ve done a bit more fantasy things than other things, but what I really aspire to is not to be associated with any particular genre, but just to be seen as someone who can flip between things. That would be my ultimate goal, really.”

Whether that is good news to avid Barnes fans in Japan is uncertain, but with the “Narnia” PR blitz heating up, for the time being, at least, he will probably not have to worry about a drop in the volume of fan mails from Japan.