Film: Gods and mummies

Brendan Fraser's films used to go straight to video (if they were lucky). Working with Ian McKellen changed all that. Well, almost.

Brendan Fraser has been described as the new Harrison Ford. And when Ian McKellen went on the BBC television chat show Parkinson to discuss his performance as James Whale in Gods and Monsters (which nearly won him an Oscar), he was mad keen to talk up the talents of his co-star. "I think he's going to be one of the great Hollywood actors," he declared. "But he's made some silly films." He might have been talking about The Mummy, which opens at the end of June. A remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle for Universal, it stars Fraser as a French Foreign Legionary who is forced to defend Rachel Weisz from 2,000 computer-generated Tuaregs and the cloth-wrapped menace of Imhotep. Silly would be understating it. It's idiotic, and - despite making $44.6m on its opening weekend in the United States - it's also extremely bad.

The daftness inherent in Fraser's career is probably the reason why the British cinema-going public appears barely to know who he is, despite the 26 movies that grace his CV. It may also explain why The Guardian's film critic, when reviewing Gods and Monsters, inadvertently referred to him as Brendan Foster.

So before we get to the interview, we need to fill in the story. It begins in 1992, with Fraser's first big break - School Ties (1992), a prep-school melodrama in which he was showcased with fellow up-and-comers such as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris O'Donnell. Until last year, his co-stars had most of the luck: O'Donnell briefly became one of Hollywood's hottest mid-price leading men, and Affleck and Damon swag-bagged so many awards for their work on Good Will Hunting that they became Establishment players overnight.

Fraser's projects, conversely, have tended to crash straight to video. Blockbuster is the only place you'll see With Honors (1994), The Scout (1994) or Mrs Winterbourne (1996). Others - such as Younger and Younger (1993) and Glory Daze (1996) - failed to appear in the UK in any form. Those that did make it into cinemas were the kind of bone-headed comedies that critics love to hate. Until this year, his best-received work was as the title character in last summer's George of the Jungle, an exercise in arboreal slapstick that endeared him only to a pre-teen audience.

Then along came Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters. The film is a modest chamber piece in which he plays Clayton Boone, a handyman who forms a strange intimacy with his employer - who happens to be James Whale, the eccentric director of the original film version of Frankenstein. To date, Gods and Monsters has won 28 awards, including the best adapted screenplay Oscar. Suddenly Brendan Fraser is being taken very seriously indeed.

Nowadays, he's a big enough name to warrant the attention of the Hollywood loon who photographs Driveways of the Rich and Famous. When I meet him for brunch at the Dorchester in London - and there's another clue as to his current status - I show him the image of his alleged driveway, downloaded from the Internet. "You haven't got much of a front garden, have you?" I observe. "I can't answer that question for security reasons," he returns.

Fraser is pleasantly unstarry, spookily calm and polite, and so softly spoken as to be almost inaudible. Velcroed to his jacket is a yellow badge with "BRENDAN" written on it in cheerful blue letters - a souvenir of The Big Breakfast, apparently. As I sit down next to him he slaps it on my jumper. Then he tells me how he secured the part of Clay Boone. "I wrote to Ian [McKellen] when he was doing Richard III. The casting director was very rude to me, and I had a very humiliating meeting with her where I told her I was willing to do anything - push a broom, craft service, anything - just to work with McKellen. To prove to her that I could speak with an English accent - at least one that was better than Robert Downie Jnr's - I was reading the menu off the table in a British accent. And she was critiqueing me. What did she know? She was from Brooklyn."

Undaunted, he wrote McKellen a letter and received a card expressing the hope that they might work together in the future. It wasn't an idle threat. A couple of years later Fraser found himself cast in a film which, at that point, went under the title "The Untitled Piece With Ian McKellen", and soon became Gods and Monsters.

Fraser had idolised McKellen since seeing him in John Barton's Playing Shakespeare video in the college library, and was rather shocked that Condon's team couldn't afford to give him more knightly treatment. "The film had no money," he recalls. "And instead of a car, they picked Ian up each morning in a truck with a flatbed in the back with springs sticking out of it. And I thought: `they can't do this to Ian McKellen!' So I took to driving him home at night, and we went through a real-life Clay and Whale get-to-know-you process.

"I developed a rather protective instinct towards him, making sure that he was fed, and ensuring that he didn't burn down our trailer with his herbal incense. He'd light this great spliff-looking thing of sage and then get distracted and wander off, and later we'd open the trailer door and all this smoke would billow out."

One of the central discomforts of Gods and Monsters is the way in which Condon's camera objectifies Clay's body, colluding with Whale's prurient interest in him. The process culminates in a bizarre scene involving a gas mask, a thunderstorm, a fluffy towel and an almost-naked Fraser. "There was a lot of argument about this," he recalls, pulling the chicken out of his toasted sandwich. "Should we see Clay completely nude on screen, or not? Bill wanted that and I know Ian did too. I didn't. Not because I'm precious about that sort of thing, but I don't know if male nudity really belongs on screen. There's a more distracting quality about male nudity." I ask him to elaborate. "I think that the image takes precedence over the action in the scene. I'm with the school of Shakespeare and Orson Welles, in that the most interesting things happen off the screen."

Was it an accident, I wonder, that Fraser went straight from this role to The Mummy, another Karloff-related project? "I don't know," he replies. "But smoke follows beauty, my friend." I'm not sure I understand what this means.

A little later, we're in his hotel suite to take some photographs for this article. I mention, by the by, Anthony Quinn's remarks on Fraser's performance in Gods and Monsters - "I'd only ever seen him in rubbish before (George of the Jungle, Airheads), and was initially surprised that he could speak, let alone act." Brendan takes it like a man. "Rubbish?" he exclaims. "Airheads was like Dog Day Afternoon. It's about what happens when you open Pandora's box. It's a scathing satire on the nature of modern culture."

A pause, as we all reflect upon this, and try to connect it with the dumb-ass movie about the heavy metal band who hijack a local radio station. Trish, his matronly PA, shimmies over and scoops back a strand of hair that has unmoored itself during this tirade, and then Brendan Fraser smiles ironically into the camera lens once more.

`The Mummy' opens 25 June

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