LONDON -- An off-centre sort, Brendan Fraser generally has a lot in common with the cartoonish, fish-out-of-water characters he plays in movies like Encino Man and George Of The Jungle. But he admits his role in The Mummy is a stretch.
That would be Rick O'Connell, a brash, two-fisted American mercenary, circa 1923, who goes to Egypt for fame and fortune and ends up in a race against time to send the malevolent spirit of Egyptian priest Imhotep back to the land of the dead.
Think Indiana Jones, but cheaper. (The real stars of the $80-million scarefest are the special effects, $15 million worth from George Lucas' ILM. "Brendan is who we could afford," says producer James Jacks. "The FX are our Mel Gibson.")
But "brash" is the opposite of erstwhile Toronto kid Fraser, who's so soft-spoken, only state-of-the-art tape recorders can follow his sentences as they trail off.
And his gentleness is in direct proportion to his size (a fairly-well-muscled 6-foot-2).
So where did his performance come from? "I can't not make a nod towards the swashbuckling films of yesteryear," he says in his trademark weirdly-formalized, pause-filled diction. "Robin Hood, Buck Rogers, Sinbad ... there's so much action going on around you, you have to fire your lines off like bullets."
A FAN OF THE MUMMY
Why The Mummy? Fraser, who approaches career choices the way one might approach a buffet, says he was in the mood for a "straight-ahead action picture. Universal Pictures was investing a lot in reinventing The Mummy (one of its properties from its monster glory days in the '30s and '40s), and if there's an action picture I'd take, that's the one. Any other action pictures I was offered weren't reinventing anything and didn't have the weight of that commitment behind them."
A simpler reason would be that Fraser has a wide-eyed thirst to drink in new experiences. And The Mummy took him and his castmates to Morocco (which stood in for Egypt) to ride camels in 130-degree heat. "I relished the adventure of it all, being in the Sahara Desert," he says. "There were the usual pits and perils, creepy crawlies underneath stones, and a Snake & Bug Wrangler, as they were known, guys who walked around in yellow turbans, carrying metal pipes, killing things."
There was also the local culture of commerce to experience. "Carpets, knives, carvings, trinkets. I bought eight or nine carpets that, when I got them home, boy did they smell! I found out later it was a dye thing." (The dye apparently used camel urine as a fixative).
"I only spent two-and-a-half months there with a crew and support from the production to get us safely from point A to point B. But I learned that I take for granted world history. To see a walled city, architecture still in place from the 13th Century. The weight of history gave me a certain grounding."
BACK TO CARTOONS
What the public gets next from Brendan Fraser is more in a goofy surrealist vein. He's already wrapped the live-action Mountie spoof Dudley Do-Right. "I'm not allowed to tell you much about Dudley's look, but he's all derring-do, a bit befuddled, means well and still rides his horse backward."
Why do something so similar to George Of The Jungle? Fraser laughs. "I'm just following the Jay Ward pantheon," he says, naming the late cartoon genius behind both characters as well as Rocky & Bullwinkle. Does that mean he'll be Super Chicken next? "And then Tom Slick," he enthuses.
In fact, his next job is another cartoon -- Monkeybone, from stop-action guru Henry Selick (James & The Giant Peach, The Nightmare Before Christmas) is filming now. In it, a cartoonist goes into a coma and meets his creation, a Capuchin called Monkeybone.
"Together they cheat Death, played by Whoopi Goldberg," Fraser says. "But the monkey's diabolical and takes his body. He's possessed by the spirit of a cartoon."
Uh huh. Fairly standard stuff. What is it about him and cartoons? "It's the infinite possibilities, when the audience watches a cartoon, belief can go in any direction you tell it to.
"I mean, to do George Of The Jungle as a human being who was equally a cartoon character, that to me was a coup."