It's hard work, all that swinging from vines

Brendan Fraser: Interview
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is easy to be typecast if you're a character who specialises in swinging on lianas and crashing into trees, but Brendan Fraser has also played college students, as well as Shirley MacLaine's son and Sir Ian McKellen's protege. Carol Allen interviews the star of `George of the Jungle'.

Brendan Fraser is an extremely polite young man: the kind who still opens doors for women and insists on carrying their parcels. Dressed in a dark suit, shirt and tie, and sporting a neat, slicked-back, college- boy haircut, he cuts a very different figure from the shaggy, loincloth- clad character he plays in George of the Jungle.

George, an anarchic Tarzan spoof, is a live-action movie based on a cult American cartoon series, which Fraser remembers watching as a small boy.

"It was set in a very funny jungle. There was a man who swung from a vine and smashed into trees; he had a talking ape named Ape, a girlfriend named Ursula - I wasn't sure if it was his wife or not - and an elephant who thought he was a dog. And there was a goofy song they played all the time, that went, "George, George, George of the Jungle, watch out for BANG OUCH that tree". It was like The Simpsons of its day. On the surface it was children's entertainment, but it was jam-packed full of subversive humour, incorporating an entire political and satirical agenda that it sneaked in underneath the kid radar."

Putting into a live action movie cartoon characters such as an elephant that wags its tail and rolls on its back like a dog, and an ape which behaves like a combination of tutor and butler, and is voiced in the urbane tones of John Cleese, is made possible these days by means of animatronics and computer-generated images. Such techniques obviously fascinate Fraser, who can give a detailed run-down on the workings of the radio-controlled "ape suit" worn by the simian movement specialist Nameer El-Kadi, as the physical body of the ape named Ape.

There were, though, plenty of real animals on the set: the elephant herself, whose bristly hair made riding her a bit of an ordeal when wearing nothing but a loincloth; a lion named Hercules, which, Fraser recalls nervously, looked at him as if he were a walking steak; and a highly expressive capuchin monkey called Mr Binks, a screen veteran, who infected the world with a deadly virus in Outbreak, and was David Schwimmer's pet for a while in television's Friends.

"David and I actually ran into each other in Los Angeles and we swapped Mr Binks stories, namely how he always tries to steal the scene," Fraser remembers. "I think he was genuinely quite camera-aware. If he didn't get his take, he would squeal and pull my hair. He played jokes on me, too ... in one scene he had to whisper to me. He behaved perfectly in rehearsal, but on the take he stuck his tongue in my ear."

Apart from the hazards of working with animals, playing the navigationally challenged George was physically taxing, with all that swinging from vines and bashing into trees, which is a running gag. Fraser went into strict training for several months before shooting began, and did a pumping iron session before every take to bring his muscles up to their chunky best. For the vine-swinging sequences he was supported by a mountain-climbing harness concealed in his loincloth: officially called a Swiss seat, it became more familiarly known, he admits with an embarrassed laugh, as a "butt flap".

As well as satirising the "jungle boy" myths, the film also has a Crocodile Dundee element, with George being taken home to San Francisco by Ursula. The innocent from another world let loose on contemporary society is a character Fraser has played before: early in his career he was cast as Encino Man, a teenager from the Ice Age, who is thawed out into the modern world; and next month he starts filming Blast from the Past, a comedy in which he plays a young man raised in a bomb shelter - his parents having sought refuge there in the Sixties, believing the world to be under nuclear attack - who goes out into the Nineties behaving as if it were still 1962.

"I'm intrigued by characters who are naive, who need to find the road, who are essentially fish out of water," he explains. "Like George in the San Francisco scenes. He doesn't understand why everyone's running round like antelopes in the mating season, and it makes him want to go home. But at the same time he discovers things for the first time, and that's something that I love to play."

It would be misleading, though, to imply that Fraser specialises in unworldly characters. In School Ties he played a Jewish boy desperate to get to Harvard, trying to hide his racial origins in the anti-Semitic environment of an expensive prep school, whereas in With Honors, which received only a video release over here, he played the other side of the coin, as a snobbish university student forced into a relationship with a down-and- out, played by Joe Pesci. He was also Shirley MacLaine's son, suspicious of the young woman he suspects of impersonating his dead brother's widow, in Mrs Winterbourne, another video-only release; and he has two more films completed and awaiting distribution.

The first, Still Breathing, is a romantic comedy made on lots of love and very little money by a new writer/ director, Jim Robinson, for which Fraser won the best actor award at the 1997 Seattle Film Festival.

"I've never won anything before," he admits, "and I was really touched by it because it was my home town crowd, the city where I studied acting at Cornish College, giving me a pat on the back ,and I really appreciate that."

The other film, which he made earlier this year, is Gods and Monsters, in which he stars opposite Sir Ian McKellen, one of his heroes. "He's a favourite actor of mine, and an inspiration. He's one reason why I wanted to be part of the world of theatre and films, ever since I saw him acting Shakespeare on video cassette when I was a student 10 years ago."

McKellen plays James Whale, director of the Thirties Frankenstein movies, while Fraser plays the young man who meets him in the Fifties, towards the end of his life, and through whom Whale's story is revealed.

"The relationship is quite seductive," explains Fraser. "Sometimes it's like mentor and student, sometimes executioner and victim, sometimes father and son. I wanted to do something that would go against the grain of what was expected of me after George of the Jungle, and I very much wanted to work with Ian. He's a truly great actor." Theatre has been a passion for Fraser ever since he discovered it as a child, when his father, who worked for the Canadian government and had to move the family around the world every few years, was stationed around Europe in the Seventies.

"I'd come to London in the holidays to see plays. I remember seeing Oliver!, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Mousetrap. London's where I fell in love with the theatre."

Returning home to high school in Toronto, Fraser started acting with local theatre groups. "It gave me a wonderful opportunity to escape from the clutches of an academic environment, which I wasn't enjoying. I wasn't stupid or uninformed. It's just that I'd been to so many different schools, something like six or seven by then, that I wasn't able to achieve the standards that the school expected, and I found a whole new world that I could creep away to, where I felt accepted. I'm sure my nomadic childhood was one reason why I went into acting, because it was a matter of starting over and redefining oneself every three or four years, which is pretty much what you do every time you play a new part."

And on his recent whistle-stop visit to London he was at the theatre every night: to the National to see McKellen in Enemy of the People, and to Art and Wallace and Gromit.

Fraser celebrated his 29th birthday this month, and some time soon he has an even more important event to arrange - his wedding to Afton Smith, who plays one of Ursula's society friends in George.

"We'd known each other for four years before I proposed to her. She's my girl, and we'll pick a date probably when I finish on Blast from the Past. In the meantime, we've got a lot of planning to do."

`George of the Jungle' opens Friday 19 December

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