In the indie drama “Hide Away” (opening in Los Angeles and New York this Friday), Josh Lucas plays a businessman haunted by his past and unable to make peace with his demons. The character couldn’t be further from the actor I meet for a 20-minute chat in a cavernous SoHo office to discuss his role in the film, directed by Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals”). Amiable, direct and remarkably candid throughout our conversation, Lucas proves to be the type who’s fearless to confront past experiences (both good and bad) and move on from them.
And really, can you blame him? Since first making a big impression in Frank Marshall’s survival drama “Alive,” Lucas came close to becoming a big-screen heartthrob to rival Matthew McConaughey thanks to a swoon-inducing turn opposite Reese Witherspoon in “Sweet Home Alabama.” He then went on to appear in a number of underperforming blockbusters (“Poseidon,” “Hulk” and “Stealth”), despite turning in stellar supporting work in films as varied as Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winner “A Beautiful Mind” and Mary Harron’s controversial “American Psycho.”
But for some reason, leading-man status in Hollywood has evaded the actor. He recently tried his hand at being one on television in NBC’s legal series “The Firm” (based on John Grisham’s book that was made into a film of the same name starring Tom Cruise), but the show was canceled after its first season after failing to deliver ratings. He referred to his time spent on the show as a “heartbreaking experience.”
In my talk with Lucas, the actor reveals his passion for independent film, talks about the working conditions of “Poseidon,” explains his move to New York from Los Angeles, and really lets loose about his time spent working for NBC.
Full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of Ang Lee’s “Hulk.”
I know a lot of people didn’t respond to that movie because it’s not “The Avengers,” it’s the opposite. It’s a $125 million poem.
In preparing for my chat with you I was baffled that the production notes for “Hide Away” list this as your first lead dramatic performance.
It’s funny, I saw that too and I was like, OK, maybe of 2011. I don’t know how that happened. I think that was from a weird article written in SXSW by a journalist who didn’t know my work at all. I think he/she thought I had only done “Sweet Home Alabama” [laughs].
When your name comes to mind, I immediately think, strong lead male. But looking over your resume, I was struck by the amount of supporting performances you’ve turned in over the years. How would you characterize your career up to now?
It’s a little bit feast or famine. There are times where you go, wow, I’m getting offered these great lead parts. And there are often times I find where some of the better work is in supporting roles, not just the roles but the movies themselves. For example “J. Edgar,” Leonardo was obviously already attached, but that was a personal moment for me because my grandmother was one of the first female pilots in the United States and she’s always been fascinated by Charles Lindbergh. So I was kind of connecting those dots.
Each time it’s whether it’s a journey I can relate to. It’s not so much of whether it’s a lead or a supporting role.
Do you agree with the term character actor?
I find it, in a way, an honor. Yes, there are great leading men, but one of the problems with that is that it’s easy to get pigeonholed once you’re a leading man. It’s hard to break out because you’re recognized in certain way — like with TV actors. What ‘character actor’ often means is that you really can bounce around amongst characters, and that people aren’t recognizing you as something, so they don’t dismiss you if you try to do something outside of those boundaries.
Not only do I not have a problem with that, I think it’s in a way a great thing. My favorite actors are usually ‘character actors.’ Chris Cooper’s one of them.
That begs the question: Why would you then take on lead duties in NBC’s “The Firm”?
“The Firm” was a total extraordinary mistake from day one, honestly. The original conversations I had had with the people creating it was that the show was like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” this really extraordinary television that is happening right now. Television is obviously having not just a renaissance, but it is one of the best things happening, particularly in terms of drama. It’s hard to finance a dramas these days in film. So the very best writing in happening in television these days.
That was the road we were going on, and we veered completely sideways without me having really any input whatsoever. I ran up against what is reality, which is that television is a corporate medium. There are risky, powerful people out there — the people making “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” — people who are capable or making the show they want and making them successful too. HBO’s doing it brilliantly; so is Showtime. In this case, it was always very safe, very beige, very middle-of-the-road corporate mentality that drove it. No matter what Juliette Lewis myself, or any of the actors, creatively did, it did not matter. In fact, our influence was thoroughly and completely dismissed. So it was a very heartbreaking experience because you’re locked into something you disagree with on a daily basis.
I didn’t really think of it as a leading-man vehicle by any means. I felt like the journey could have been something like “Breaking Bad,” something really interesting. That was the original pitch and then, boom, it got shifted. We couldn’t change the course.
Obviously you’re not going to close your doors to TV-related work.
I think on network television it’s tremendously difficult to do anything with real bite. All the shows that I mentioned are outside network television. The corporate interests are so overwhelming to television these days, from a network standpoint. And I think networks are getting their asses kicked because of it. I think the reason why all those shows I mentioned are from cable or pay cable networks is because they are capable of being more fearless, more character driven, more writing driven. I would be quite reluctant to do network television, because I felt in the end it had to play it safe. I think that’s why audiences are getting bored.
Do you think it’s too far of a stretch to say there’s a correlation between independent film and cable, and studio films and network television?
The problem in what’s going on with independent film right now is that there’s very little avenue for it to find an audience. The story there is if you click on pay-per-view these days, there will be 50 or 60 films that you’ve never heard of, some of which star friends of mine, major incredible actors. I’m always like, what’s this movie? I think what’s happening is that it’s kind of similar in that way. These movies are falling between the cracks.
There is the audience for television out there. People are finding these shows and these shows have that support. It’s generating not just press, but there’s media support underneath it. I’ve had a number of movies that have been some of the of the best movies that I’ve ever done, that are literally sitting on a shelf.
But the bigger movies, definitely I feel consistently, unless they have an extraordinary director behind them, are corporate entities these days. Studios have really changed. They used to be run by filmmakers or people who love film, to nowadays being run by financiers and people with banking mentalities. That’s changed completely the kinds of films we’re seeing come out. There will always be a place for big, huge-budget action stuff like “The Avengers,” but I think these little movies are now starting to fall between the cracks and people are yearning for them. So they find places where they can easily be discovered. We’re going to be in a bit of a glut for a while.
On a personal, artistic level, what do you get from working on something like “Hide Away,” versus a film like “Poseidon”?
Well “Hulk” was a little different. I always felt “Poseidon” was like working on an oil rig. I was very well paid, it was very dangerous. It was very unrewarding in a way. Your job is literally to get into the water, go down wait, put a regulator in your mouth, light the water on fire, get out of the water, go back to your chair and wait. As opposed to “Hide Away,” which was the exact opposite. It was a completely creative, joyful, collaborative time. People coming together to tell the best story they can tell in 15 days with this tiny amount of money, with this crazy weather.
There’s such a difference between big budget and small budget that way, where one is so much about the joy of problem solving, and the other is often times about at what level is this movie almost have too much money? My favorite films are always the smaller films.
Independent filmmakers no doubt bring you on board because a name like yours can essentially fund their movie. Do you feel more pressure going into a film like “Hide Away,” where your name is thrown into the mix to help the team break even, or is there more riding on you when you take part in something like “Poseidon,” where you’re part of a huge machine?
I think 100 percent more I feel the pressure on the big films, because there is a corporation on top of you. I think because the system has changed so much, and that only Will Smith can open a movie any more, it doesn’t matter if you have a name brand like “Poseidon.” If the film doesn’t look interesting to people, then they won’t search it out. I think “Hunger Games” is the perfect example of a film that somehow struck a chord with people. It was just interesting looking to people. It ended up firing on so many different rounds, without any movie stars.
Do you track the success of the smaller projects you do once they enter the marketplace?
I try to because I’m interested as a producer: what’s working, why it’s working, how it worked. The format’s are so different these days. I was talking to someone the other day about Ed Burns, and how he’s now doing movies for tiny, tiny budgets, off the radar completely. From what I understand he’s actually making a lot of money doing that because he’s finding ways to put it out there so that people can find without having the constraints of financing weighing it down. I’m more intrigued… I follow it more from an interest standpoint, over checking in to see if my value is successful. I would be psychotic if I thought like that. I’ve had so many failures. I mean honestly, seriously, I’ve had five movies in the past couple of years that haven’t even gotten released. People lost $10 million a piece on them. I can’t say that the movies are anything as good as anything I’ve done, but it’s just merely that they became so weighed down by politics, that no matter how good the movie is, it just got too expensive to release it. That’s just goes to show you how the system has changed.
What kind of work are you gravitating towards now, then? Are you just looking to be fulfilled as an artist?
I think it’s a little bit of both. One of the reasons I did “The Firm” was because I thought there an audience for it. What I now think, is that the journey of the experience matters more. It’s become more and more zen in my mind. Dude, it’s about the walk, it’s not about the destination. If I can make a decent or even an honest living doing something that I love, I’m already having an experience which is entirely rare. The success of it is really mysterious to me more and more.
Someone said to me the worst you can possibly do is plan to win an Oscar. All you can do is — it sounds so obvious — is just do the work. I do get my heart broken by busting my ass on films and having an entire crew work their ass off, then have the film be sitting on a shelf. I imagine it’s like a great painter who gets his work locked in a room. It’s strangely unrewarding, even if the experience of making it is great. That’s why you go out and support movies.
So how do you feel about this film getting a theatrical release?
This one is an interesting one because it doesn’t answer any questions. It’s not “The Artist,” in the sense that it’s not a silent film that’s fun to watch. It’s a very sad, tiny personal journey that I find quite beautiful. The experience making it was so good, even if it was incredibly challenging. I give huge about of credit to the producers who risked a lot to put it out there.
Chris is a remarkably unique filmmaker. His taste and his day-to-day essence, does have a Native American perspective to it that is… you feel it. Sitting with him, you feel it.
The film takes place on a boat. Did you method it up and live on the boat during the shoot?
I would have. I actually asked to! But the truth is I spent a lot of time on boats and that’s one of the reasons I did this movie. It’s one of the places I’m most comfortable.
I had moved to New York because of being on a sailboat that was hit during a terrible storm that threw three people overboard. We thought one person was going to die.
At the moment I was living in Los Angeles at the time doing really shit television and making decent money. I was 22 years old, and was really bored already and felt like I wasn’t risking anything. I had this profound lightning bolt go off in my head saying, This is what’s wrong with your life right now. You’re not risking anything, you’re not putting yourself out there, and the place that’s going to do that to you is New York. It’s going to beat your ass and challenge you. So I moved there within a week.
I’ve always been attracted since to stories about this journey that someone goes through where they face themselves. That sailboat experience did that to me.