Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Josh Lucas began his life miles away from Hollywood. He was not thrusted into the industry—nothing in his prodigious career has ever been handed to him. After starring in a string of television programs throughout the 1990s, the Southern actor caught his defining break on the set of American Psycho, the polemical satire adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’ lurid novel. From there Lucas was catapulted into larger Hollywood properties. He has played a racially progressive basketball coach, a child murderer, right-hand men to geniuses, and, most recently, a mercurial bohemian in The Mend. For an hour Lucas described 15 years’ worth of work with clarity and pain.
Josh Lucas: I was a little nervous. I hadn’t really done much, film-wise, and had done a little TV. I hadn’t done anything with real pressure on it. But I would say American Psycho had real pressure on it because of the extraordinary book. Mary Harron had busted her ass to keep the job of the director and also to have the visions that she had for it—which were definitely different from the book. She was incredibly specific, wanting Christian Bale for the lead role.
On my first day at work I’m with Willem Dafoe and Bale, and I was really fucking nervous. And I drove to set in a van with Dafoe and I said, “I’m really nervous.” Dafoe turns back at me: “Man, I am too. If you’re not nervous, there’s a problem.” I’ve taken that advice for the rest of my career. I feel like that movie really stood the test of time, and all those memories are still close with me because they are some of my earliest ones.
The A.V. Club: Did you know what Harron was going for on set? The lunacy of it all?
JL: Look, I was only worried about my little part of it, but I had read the book and I didn’t really understand it. It was insane to me. I felt like Mary was trying to do something a bit less insane. The book is so repetitive. There are 37 pages where he writes about putting a rat inside of a woman. It’s mental, manic writing, and I feel like Mary was using the source material and making something more comedic and entertaining and ironic about Wall Street culture and New York wealth. It captures the ridiculous, coked-out, New York wealth of that period of time. Talk about soulless people being terrified and worried about the wrong things, like what restaurant they chose and their business cards.
AVC: How did you not die of laughter in shooting that business card scene?
JL: We kind of all did. It has an [iconic] status to it. To this day, people hand me a business card and reference that scene. I know that I look at business cards differently because of it. I also think—look, we were a group of insecure, competitive young actors. I don’t know if we were laughing as much as we were being like those characters and being dicks. We would sit around rooms and try to out-act each other.
JL: This was a motherfucker for me because it’s the movie that started me smoking cigarettes. I had never smoked cigarettes prior in my life, and the character chain-smoked. That first night, after smoking scene after scene, I went home, threw up, and I was a smoker. There was something about that character that was working class, raw, and broken. We had this fascinating group of actors, many of whom have become friends over the years. The great Scottish actor Peter Mullan, who is a real man. I mean that on the highest level. He is a deep, beautiful man and he was a guy, from day one, who talked about the traps of movie stardom and the idiocy of what happens to people.
The reality that very few people know about that movie was that, to some extent or another, it was a test. It wasn’t even a real movie. It was a test for George Lucas’ camera for Star Wars. They wanted to see how the movie operated, specifically in dark, lowlight situations. The director, along with his DP, found this incredible location in Danvers Lunatic Asylum, which has been torn down and turned into condos. Pretty terrifying considering the history of Danvers. Danvers is the real Salem, where the Salem witch trials happened.
Anyway, there’s no art department in this movie. Ever single shot is what we discovered working in the environment we were in. We shot the film in 15 days, and there were multiple disturbing experiences that happened in the making of that movie that were mystifying. Down to Peter Mullan heard voices—a man who does not believe in ghosts—telling him to throw himself off the roof during a scene. We had crew members—union guys—quit because the place was too haunted, too disturbed. We were playing in a place that was bad.
JL: That’s a very opposite experience for me. Russell [Crowe] was one of my favorite actors at the time after seeing The Insider. I have this thought in my mind that if you’re Andre Agassi you want to play Pete Sampras, in the sense that you want the ball hit as hard and fast as possible. Sometimes it’s harder to play good tennis with a bad tennis player—the same way it’s hard to be a good actor with a bad actor. It’s just an unpleasant experience. And as challenging as Russell is as a person, he’s a fucking amazing actor and brilliant guy. You were aware you were making a good movie. Ron Howard is a commander of a director. He’s got this very nice, Opie-like reputation. But the reality is he’s totally in control, even with Crowe.
The story that stands out the most to me is that there’s a scene later in the movie where my character is older, and John Nash [Crowe’s character] has tried to get control of his demons. He’s come back to Princeton, and he asks me if he could come back to school. And I had auditioned with the scene we were shooting, and when we started doing it, Russell was acting very crazy off-camera. Pretending to be schizophrenic at a severe level, and I was responding to it as a performer, playing with it. Then Ron Howard came to me and said, “Man, fuck playing with him. He’s trying to throw you off. Just do what you did during the audition, because what you did during the audition is how I’m going to edit the movie. I’m not going to edit his performance; I’m not going to let him be that crazy.”
And if you see the movie, Russell is a brave performer who was willing to go way outside the boundaries, knowing he had a director who was going to rein him in in the edit. It was a huge lesson for me. And the movie allowed me to get Sweet Home Alabama and have a bit of a Hollywood presence.
AVC: And two years later you land Hulk. In contrast to the smaller movies you had been starring in, how was this?
JL: Ang [Lee] is the best director I’ve ever worked with. I’ve been very lucky and worked with some great directors, but Ang is the one director that I would say is bordering on brilliance, if not genius. And I think that’s a word that is ridiculously overused in the industry. But if you look at what he’s doing from a visual storytelling standpoint—and Hulk was a movie, in his oeuvre, that he was preparing for Life Of Pi. If you look at how he was making a comic-book actually come to life, flipping the pages of a comic-book visually—he was trying things that were so deep from a psychological standpoint of his understanding of Hulk, the Marvel Universe.
I think obviously the movie was limited by the CGI that was possible at the time, but the vision was fucking brilliant. I felt on a daily basis I was working with somebody who was a spiritual, deep, Buddha-like master of something bigger than just a filmmaker. The guy is a profound, profound man. I actually saw him recently, and he told me how he’s using 3-D to tell dramas because he feels like the depth of acting and human storytelling has only been explored from a Marvel universe. He’s doing a film now that I understand is again borderline revolutionary filmmaking. When you have a director like James Cameron say, “Life Of Pi is the most perfect use of 3-D technology in storytelling yet…”
JL: David Gordon Green’s movie. It’s a pretty amazing film. It’s flawed and dark and troubled, but it’s somewhat based on a true story that Terrence Malick had heard from a child. My understanding is that they found the child dead the day he had called Malick while working in a runaway shelter. Malick had worked on the script for years and then when he saw George Washington, he gave it to Green and we made this tiny budget movie I think really is Southern gothic at its best. The character was horribly difficult to play because he’s a man who basically kills his own children. For me, it was a real artistic, psychological experience because I was trying to figure out what kind of mind could do this. Trying to figure out how to make that character anything other than what he could’ve been on paper: a violent monster.
AVC: This movie is still kind of perfect.
JL: It’s my favorite film of my career. There’s multiple reasons as to why, but primarily it was the experience of making it. I had not only the real Don Haskins, who was a mentor to me before and after the film, but then I had people like Pat Riley as my technical advisor. And we had this group of actors, many of whom had never really acted before. They were basketball players who were doing some acting, and I was put in a position by the director of the movie to be the coach; to deal with them and coach them, and be, in a sense, in charge of the acting from these guys. Every day I felt this responsibility to do the Disney version of that story—the true story is much darker—but we were very much making a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, and that’s what Don Haskins wanted. We had a lot of tools from a financial standpoint to tell a wonderful story of a breakthrough in American racial relations.
Then, the best publicity tour of my life was these guys on Jerry Bruckheimer’s private airplane, going from one town to the other showing the movie. Every single night that movie would get a standing ovation. Then we would have this crazy party and we’d get back on Jerry’s airplane with this group of basketball actors and go to the next party. And they would find girls.
There was a weird moment where we showed the movie in El Paso, Texas, to the real basketball players in the original story. And they did not like it at all. They felt like I completely missed how badass Don Haskins really was.
AVC: How did that make you feel?
JL: I was really upset and sad about it. Then Don Haskins came to me and said, “Fuck those guys. You did exactly what I wanted you to do. You did the version that I wanted for the kids.” And then all those guys really came around to the movie, and they felt like the movie existed on its own.
AVC: Is there a part of you that wishes you made the grittier version?
JL: You know, not really. I’ll tell you why: I saw a 10-year-old boy walk out on the street in Dallas, Texas, and say to his mom, “I don’t understand, white people didn’t like black people?” This was a white kid. I think racial relations in this country are still fucked up, but young white culture looks up to black athletes and black musicians that there’s some sense that for a younger generation, the movie is eye-opening to them. I think had the movie been a grittier, darker story it would have had even less success. The movie did well, but it didn’t do wildly well for Jerry Bruckheimer. It fell somewhere in between. “Is it a black movie? Is it a sports movie? What movie is it?” I think it’s pretty clear-cut as an uplifting sports racial movie.
AVC: Then you hop to Poseidon. Good experience?
JL: You know, Poseidon was difficult… When I first accepted it, I had serious reservations because I felt the script wasn’t ready after I already said yes. I had a very bad feeling about the movie after I had said yes, so I tried to back out of it. And I was unsuccessful at backing out of it. The pressure came from all sorts of levels, from Warner Bros. to my friend at the time, Akiva Goldsman, who had written the script, to my agents. They were telling me it was going to be a big, huge movie. And I had this bad premonition, not necessarily about the quality of the movie, but about the fact that I was going to get hurt making it. It was a relentlessly difficult movie to make. Everyone involved in that movie was hospitalized, if not once, multiple times. In the end I took a gnarly fall, was hit by a water cannon, and I ripped my thumb almost off of my hand, and had to have very serious reconstructive surgery the day after the movie finished.
AVC: So the premonition came true.
JL: It did, and whether the premonition was a premonition, or my subconscious created it, it was a bad injury. The movie was a very dark spot in my career, and I think the movie is actually pretty damn good, but it didn’t perform well in the U.S. That movie, combined with the lack of performance of Stealth, was a real one-two punch to my career. It really shut my career down, from a Hollywood standpoint. It kicked my ass and took me out of the game for awhile, which after something like Glory Road, was extraordinarily heartbreaking to me.
Honestly, from a box office or commercial filmmaking standpoint, I’ve never recovered from it. And I’m totally okay with that… [Laughs.] It took me awhile, though. That level of movie stardom and movie pressure was overwhelming me. I wasn’t very happy in that period of my life, and I was working too much on projects were maybe rushed. I know why I did Poseidon… because Das Boot is one of the great action movies of all time and Wolfgang [Petersen, Poseidon’s director] said to me, “I’m going to remake Das Boot.” And to an extent, he did, although a somewhat Hollywood version of that. But we just didn’t have a script.
AVC: That is the main problem with the movie. As a spectacle, it dazzles, but the narrative is really disappointing.
JL: Dude, Richard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell, and myself would walk on set every single day and try to figure out what the script should be. I mean, there was no script. They had spent $100 million making locations that they didn’t have a script for. So we would arrive and look at the script, and look at an old script, that had no relationship to the location we were looking at. So we would say, “All right, what do we have to do to get from point A to point B? The less we say the better.”
AVC: That has be extremely frustrating to walk on a set and to collectively look around and say, “How the hell do we fix something that should’ve been fixed before this even started?”
JL: Yeah. It was a real tough heartbreaker, honestly. You have guys like Dreyfuss and Russell who are action masters, and both of them were saying this is the hardest thing that they’d ever done. You weren’t alone in the creative and physical difficulties of the movie. Everyone was getting sick from the water. And then the movie comes out and it doesn’t perform and knocks you down even further in a way.
AVC: You say after Poseidon, Stealth, and Glory Road, your career took a nosedive. It’s hard for anyone in any profession to get knocked down and then come back up. So, has what you wanted in your career, your aspirations, changed over time?
JL: By no means did I set out in this career to be a movie star. I set out, very clearly, to be an actor whose work I respected.
AVC: But you felt you were there, yeah?
JL: One-hundred percent I was there in the sense that I was getting offered $100 million dollar-plus movies at a high Hollywood caliber. The reality was—and I’m not just saying this to justify it—I wasn’t particularly happy and was overwhelmed by the movies. Soon after I became scared financially, became scared from a career standpoint. I wasn’t even getting independent films suddenly because I had become, not box office poison, but people said, “Oh, he’s not working as a film star.” So I had to say, “What the fuck am I, if not that?” And I said to myself, “Josh, you did this job because you love acting and storytelling and playing characters.” I did a tiny play. I started going back to doing these movies that were personal filmmaking. Even there for a couple of years I kind of missed. I did movies that were indulgent. Too tonally inaccessible. They didn’t work. They had no commercial viability. But Hide Away is a movie I really love. I worked my ass off there, and I poured my soul into that movie and it wasn’t even released. It was a very lonely and very scary time.
And has it shifted? Not necessarily, I’m still here fighting for The Mend, because I think it’s a very worthy movie and I know that someone people love it. I think my performance is raw and borderline dangerous. I’m hoping that some people find it. Then you start making bigger life decisions, man. I had a kid. I went through a tough divorce and I went through a period of time where I was really tested. My career wasn’t going well; my life wasn’t going well. And I was having to really look at myself in the mirror to figure out what I’m going to do to get through this.
Honestly, I probably chose a very commercial TV project, and to be number two, so I could spend more time with my son and take care of him in the early years of his life. I was making choices that were very specific: Make a living, take care of your family, and if you can, find some movies that you can sink your teeth into. And just not worry about whether anyone sees them or not. Have the goal be the experience of making it. If I could walk away from it and feel I had learned something, that had to become enough, because otherwise I would’ve kept waiting for validation from commercial or critical successes.
AVC: You found value elsewhere.
JL: I think the thing is the Joseph Campbell journey, right? There’s nothing abnormal about my experience. And look, you know who said the best thing to me? Alec Baldwin. I was sitting at a sushi restaurant, and I knew him vaguely. He said, “Hey man, whatever happens, don’t let them make you believe that when you fall from the movie star tree that you’re rotted fruit.” He put it so beautifully, because he said, “Everyone falls.” And it’s true. Everyone falls. What happens to so many actors, when they fall, is that they get really fucked up and broken and usually are gone. Those weird eccentric talents like Christopher Walken or Mickey Rourke—who fall from that tree—and they’re just so whacked-out interesting that they come back and have these resurrections. But a lot of people just disappear. It’s incredibly rare for someone to live in an incredibly exalted way for huge periods of time. The Meryl Streeps of the world are total anomalies.
AVC: You are certainly not alone in the destruction of plans—things unfolding differently than we had imagined.
JL: And also realizing, “What’s it really about?” At the end of the day I’ve come to some conclusions that I think it’s about this idea to be creative. If you can be creative, either every day or a couple times a week, whether it’s just painting some awful painting that you’re the only that loves it and it doesn’t matter who cares about it—you just enjoy the process. What matters is that you enjoy doing something creative. And I’m more and more seeing that as the key. That success and money or any sort of accolades are really not the experience of the journey. It’s all about the process of building something.
AVC: This is you on the other side of it all, yes?
JL: There’s some eating-shit element to that movie, too. I’m going to do a tiny part in a Matthew McConaughey movie when I’ve had a guy almost try to get in a fist fight with me because I wouldn’t sign an autograph as McConaughey. [Laughs.] There’s been a weird symmetry to our careers, and yet we couldn’t be more different as human beings. I was offered this small part in the movie for no money and I just went and enjoyed it and was good in it. I liked the director a lot, and McConaughey was very good. He’s had a hell of a burst of creative power in the last number of years that’s been great to watch.
AVC: Full disclosure: This movie still doesn’t make much sense to me.
JL: Look, I tried something when my career was really struggling: reaching out to people, to filmmakers I wanted to work with. I genuinely wrote a letter to Clint Eastwood saying, “Hey man, I’m a fan and I would be an extra in your movie.” Because of it, through his casting team, asked me whether I would be interested in auditioning for the part of Lindbergh. Movies and life become a little more symmetrical when you start asking for and looking for connections. My grandmother was called a WASP. She was one of the first pilots in the United States. She flew with Amelia Earhart and was in love with Lindbergh. She flew in the war and commercially, so I felt there was a great symmetry for me to play this man. It’s just one of those moments where it all started to make sense again. I think the movie is actually fascinating, because here you have one of the great rogue, Republican male figures of heterosexuality, Clint Eastwood, making this weird little gay love story. It’s an eccentric film that’s trying to tell this story of a clearly fucked-up man. I don’t think Eastwood is going back and analyzing his movies. He’s fearlessly creating, and has built himself an empire that allows him to jump from movie to movie to movie. I found him to be childlike and full of sparkle and joy of film.