Josh Lucas


Actor Josh Lucas has anchored the casts of movies both big (Glory Road and Poseidon) and small (Undertow and Little Murder). More impressively, he has done so while making a name for himself as a stylish, intelligent and charismatic on-screen force.

by Chris Neumer

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During some downtime in his publicity heavy schedule, Josh Lucas is regaling me with Nick Nolte stories.  Like baseball cards, Nolte stories are things to be collected and traded with your friends.  Ignore his troubles with the law and that unfortunate mug shot and know that Nolte is a very gentle soul with some curiously amusing foibles; he is fascinated at looking at his bodily fluids under a microscope, for one.  It’s hard not to be taken in by his sense of humor and charismatic eccentricities.  Not many people can weave the topics of addiction, Vietnam era poetry, Chicago-area actors, Mexican cancer remedies, the appeal of being a baby, how one deals with blindness, a love of Ernest Hemingway and how one achieves inner and outer peace into just one conversation; Nolte not only can, but does.  I interviewed Nolte for a lengthy feature story in 2005 and have some unprintable gems from the experience.  Lucas worked with Nolte on The Hulk and has a more than a few of his own… and a spot-on Nolte growl.

When Lucas learns that Nolte talked at length to me about ozone therapy, he erupts into laughter.  “He loves the ozone therapy!” Lucas exclaims.  Lucas’ voice drops into a raspy, gravelly base and he says, “Josh, you should try this ozone therapy sometime.  It will change your life.”  Lucas nods appreciatively and then informs me that he hasn’t yet tried it.

Lucas saves the best story for last.  “Nick, Sam Elliot and I are in a limo, stuck in traffic in LA,” he begins, stopping only to acknowledge that ‘Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot and Josh Lucas are in a limo’ sounds like the beginning of a pretty good joke.  “We were on our way to a studio event for The Hulk,” he says, “and the traffic was just horrible.  We weren’t going anywhere.”  Lucas shakes his head and relates that he was slightly apprehensive about being late to the event; besides having co-starred in Sweet Home Alabama, this was by far the biggest film he’d ever made at that point in his career.  Nolte remained cool and continued waxing on philosophically about a myriad of topics as only he can.  Finally, the three men learned that the studio was so intent on having them at the event on time that they were sending out a helicopter to pick them up by the side of the highway.  When the helicopter touched down, Nolte, Elliott and Lucas stepped out of the limo and began to clamber aboard.  As he was stepping in, Nolte shot Lucas a glance and said, “Kid, now you’re officially a star.”

In the span of a mere five months in 2006, Lucas is anchoring the cast of not one, but two $100 million blockbusters, producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s Glory Road and director Wolfgang Peterson’s Poseidon.  At this point in time, it’s doubtful the ever-humble Lucas even needs Nolte to remind him that he is, indeed, a star.

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Actors are an ever-enigmatic bunch.  On one side are the method actors who prepare for their roles as alcoholics by binge drinking and video-taping their drunken speech patterns, as Nicolas Cage did while researching his role in Leaving Las Vegas.  On the other side are the incredibly nonchalant and relaxed actors, like Leonardo DiCaprio, who don’t spend months and months researching their characters and who, on set,  are able to start joking and making light of things the instant the director yells ‘cut’.  Lucas is strikes a definitive middle ground in this matter, creating his characters by combining some research with a hard-to-verbalize sense of who he feels the character is.  The latter is the reason that people occasionally hear stories about actors fighting hard to have their characters wear zip-up sweatshirts or long side-burns; it’s what they have envisioned for the role.

After years of playing the deliciously menacing bad guy, the striking loner and the soulless sociopath, Lucas admits that playing ‘normal’—the romantic lead or the guy-next-door—is occasionally hard for him.  He shakes his head, thinking back to his role as the intensely normal Jake in Sweet Home Alabama.  “I’ve spent so much time playing characters who are so far away from the real me, learning how to technically build and how to technically put something on top of you that it wasn’t easy for me to do,” Lucas says of the more normal roles.  “That role became about having to strip things away!” he exclaims; how often are actors penalized for having ardently developed their craft?  He smirks his almost patented Josh Lucas smirk and says, “I had to strip those levels of techniques, those levels of instinct and those levels of different things I had learned from years and years of acting.  It got to the point where my initial reaction was, ‘This is genuinely harder than the other stuff I’ve done.’”

Lucas is an amazingly good sport.  During his photos shoot with Stumped, Lucas cracks up the eight people in the room by responding to Terrance Gold’s off-handed remark that Lucas isn’t behaving like a big movie star by stating facetiously, “I can’t believe I’m getting heckled at my own photo shoot!”  Likewise, during our interview, he tolerates me giving him guff about the statement that Sweet Home Alabama was a ‘genuinely hard’ project for his to approach.  “Sure, sure,” he says, grinning broadly at my comment that it’s amazing that a romantic comedy opposite Reece Witherspoon is the biggest leap he’d taken at that point in time in his career.  It’s a phrase he loves to use and he claps his hands once and says it again.  “Sure, sure.”  Lucas takes a deep breath and explains one last time, “You have to understand, I felt so much of a relationship to that character.  I was so worried about making sure that he was truly honest and deep and had an intelligence and was within the truth of being southern,” something the South Carolina raised Lucas knows about all too well.  “These were all different responsibilities that I put on myself that I don’t normally do when I am playing someone who is so far away from the real me.”

Apropos of nothing, I learn of Lucas’ southern heritage when he states very matter-of-factly about Sweet Home Alabama’s opening sequence: “When I first read the script, I liked the opening scene, the two of them just running along the beach naked.  I grew up in South Carolina where that was pretty common just to run around naked.”

Lucas faced a slightly different challenge in Glory Road.  Marking his first role of note in 2006, Lucas played Don Haskins, the renowned real life coach of the Texas Western (now the University of Texas El Paso or UTEP) basketball team.  Haskins secured his place in history in 1962 when he became the first NCAA coach to start five black players.  That Haskins’ team then went on to win the national championship that year against the famously bigoted University of Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp, is merely icing on the cake.  “It sounds like an obvious Disney cliché,” Lucas says about the matter, “Just like when one of the players runs out after [breaking his nose] in the catcher’s mask, but it’s all blatantly true.”

Playing a historical figure and historical figure that is still alive and that was seen on set a time or two provided Lucas with a debate about ‘truth’ that he’d never contemplated before.  “For me, there were certain moments where I had to walk a line,” Lucas says, rubbing his chin stubble with his palm.  “I had to figure out ways to say, ‘This is the truth of who Haskins is.’”  And while he certainly had access to the real Haskins, this could occasionally have the opposite effect as intended: it could, and often did, make more work for Lucas.

“Oh, Don…” Lucas smiles.  “He came to me at one point and said, ‘I never wore a tie.’  I said, ‘Don, I have 700 photos of you and you’re wearing a tie in all of them.  You wore a tie during that season.’  It wasn’t until after that year that he stopped wearing a tie and started wearing cowboy boots.”  Lucas inhales deeply and finishes his thought, “So, there were certain times where I’d have to disagree with Don.  I’d just tell him, “You know, you were a different man after you won the national championship.’  I think that season he hadn’t fallen into his own sense of himself.”

There is a core essence of acting to Lucas and, contrary to the broken, damaged and psychologically impaired characters at which he excels playing, it isn’t exactly what one would imagine.  It centers around one quality: intensity.  He describes Haskins as intense, likens his character in Undertow to unknowingly and criminally dominant, cites Sweet Home Alabama Jake’s reformed alcoholic nature as one of the things that drew him to the part and talk glowingly about the “totally charismatic and maniacal nature” of his character in The Hulk.

“Though Haskins never got violent with his players and never swore—the opposite of Bobby Knight—his intensity was beyond anyone’s,” Lucas tells me.  “The first time I met him, he froze me with this intense and borderline violent look in his eyes.”  The master of this very look on the silver screen, Lucas, chuckles, having faced his forte in real life, “It’s really quite intimidating.”  This moment with Haskins sold Lucas on the character and, as we go on to discuss, there are more than a few instances where this passionate, possibly scary intensity comes through in the final cut of the film.

“There’s a big difference between a lovely nature and a dark nature,” Lucas says about his performances.  “I always go to the dark first.  It always feels the most dramatic, the most wildly interesting.  And often times, it’s not necessarily the most truthful.  Violence and pulses of rage are things that happen in life, but are actually really, really rare.  I’ve had to learn to go light.  Sure, I can still be pissed off and edgy, but it has to come from a much more gentle place.”

This is a skill that Lucas has begun to adapt to as he has accepted more and more mainstream roles.  His character in Poseidon, Dylan Johns, is the perfect example of this.  Playing the part of a gambler with a dark past, Lucas nails John’s edginess, giving the role depth and intensity, to use one of his favorite words, but does so with the warm nuance necessary to ingratiate his character to audiences.

“It’s easier to act in something that has wide ranges,” Lucas says, intrigued by the topic of dramatic intensity and how it impacts an actor’s performances that we have stumbled into.  “This is very interesting, actually,” he says, continuing, “if you play a character who is not particularly expressive or emotional, that’s where it gets difficult to be good and to have an audience want to watch the entire movie.”  Lucas leans forward on his chair; it’s one of his two sitting positions: 1) leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees, hands clasped in front of him or 2) sprawled back with his legs extended as far forward as possible without slipping off the chair.  “I think Around the Bend is an interesting movie in this respect.  I struggled through out that shoot and shut down emotionally in many ways.  I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go until the obvious dramatic and explosive moments.  At its core, Glory Road is about an incredibly passionate man and the highs and lows are inherent, as opposed to Around the Bend.”

Lucas shifts positions in his chair, fascinated by the conversation.  “Middle ground is the state of television,” he says,  “You wouldn’t want to see someone crazy on TV.  In film, It’s hard to be interested in someone who is seemingly quite normal, seemingly quite standard.  You instead go with a manic-depressive character; they are captivating to watch… and horrible to be around.”

Lucas has evidently spent some time on his own pondering these matters, because he references that fact several times.  “It really is interesting that you are asking this,” he starts, “because I’ve been fascinated by this exact thing.  You know who is really incredible at this?  William Hurt.  William Hurt can play very normal men and make them incredibly fascinating.”  Lucas pauses and points a finger at me, “But,” he says, “Hurt can do it without a lot of highs or lows.”

When I ask if this is like a reverse Owen Wilson, Lucas lets out one of the heartiest and more genuine peels of laughter I’ve heard from an interview subject.  Finally regrouping, Lucas says, “That’s funny, an intellectual Owen Wilson.  Yes.”  He thinks about this for a brief second and asserts, “I think it would be great to play the role of someone who is a bad actor and then be interesting or to play the part of someone who is a little bit boring and yet not be boring myself.  That’d be very, very tough.”  He replays the statement through his head to make sure he got it out correctly—he did—and asks me, “Did you get that?”  He doesn’t wait for an answer and continues, “I remember seeing a Sean Penn film called The Indian Runner a while ago.”  The film focuses on two brothers (David Morse and Viggo Mortensen), one of whom is a headstrong criminal with a temper, one of whom is a peaceful family man.  “After I saw it, I thought to myself, ‘By the time I’m 35, I want to be able to play both of those characters.’”  Lucas acknowledges, “If you combine both characters, that’s a particularly difficult thing to do: where you have a good person who is capable of very bad things.”  He shakes his head, marveling at the task.  “That’s one of the very, very good things about Crash,” he says.  “You’re watching people with all sorts of complexities and dualities.”

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