Santa Monica, California — Brendan Fraser walks into a roomful of reporters staying at the oceanfront Casa del Mar Hotel and bellows out a hearty “Good morning!” When he gets no response, he offers a very sarcastic, “Good morning, Brendan,” as if he’s a substitute teacher having to lead a class that doesn’t treat him with quite enough reverence. It’s an appropriate entrance for a guy who carries himself with an odd mix of humility and confidence.
On the one hand, Fraser seems like a dad (he is, actually, father to three children). On the other hand, when his eyes bulge and he slips into an odd assortment of strange, whispered voices, chuckling nervously all the while, he seems like the product of arrested development. That combination makes him the perfect action hero, and his mere presence has pushed crappy movies like The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Journey to the Center of the Earth to big box office numbers.
“He has an inner child and has a great playfulness,” says director Iain Softley, when asked about Fraser’s appeal during a roundtable discussion at the Casa Del Mar. “If you’ve seen him with children, you can see how he adores them and they adore him. That’s the role children see him as when they go to the movie. Inkheart is a variation on that. He’s playing the straight man to a degree. He doesn’t get to breathe fire or jump down off tall buildings with agility. He’s a reluctant adventurer. It’s interesting to see him do that.”
An odd set of circumstances preceded Inkheart, which is based upon German scribe Cornelia Funke’s children’s book. Funke wrote the lead role of Mortimer “Mo” Folchart with Fraser in mind. When she sent him the finished novel a few years back, he went to meet her in Hamburg, and the two became fast friends. While it wasn’t a sure thing that Fraser would get the role when Softley (Skeleton Key, The Wings of a Dove) signed on to the project, it’s hard to turn down the guy upon whom the role was initially based. “The studio doesn’t like you to tell them who their leading man will be and they gave me a lot of names,” says Funke, who served as producer. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I owe him. The part is inspired by him.’ I said, ‘Of course, if you want to do it with someone else, you can, but I won’t back it.’”
Fraser says he’s flattered that Funke based her character upon him. “I don’t know what to say other than ‘thank you,’” he says. “It’s precedent-setting in my life. I haven’t researched it to see if it’s happened to someone else. The thing you need to do is just show up on time, know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.”
Fraser actually does a bit more than that in Inkheart. He leads his 12-year-old daughter Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett) and Aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren) on a wild chase in search of the elusive Inkheart novel. Mo, who possesses the ability to make characters in a book come to life when he reads out loud, is trying to find his wife Resa (Sienna Guillory), who’s been abducted by the evil Capricorn (Andy Serkis). Along the way, an ambiguous character named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) helps them out as they enter a world (really Northern Italy) that’s both fanciful and dangerous.
“We’re moving so far with technology, we have to get back to storytelling, which is where Inkheart comes in,” says Fraser. “It’s essentially about the reunion of a family. My participation in Inkheart was a unique situation. I hit a flat period in my career after Looney Tunes, and I was looking for something to do. A book showed up inscribed by the author that said something to the effect of ‘Brendan, thank you for inspiring this character. I hope you have the chance to read this to your kids one day.’ I wasn’t aware of [Funke’s] work but quickly became as well-versed as I could be. I was in Amsterdam and skipped off to Hamburg and met her, and realized we shared many sensibilities. She’s quite exceptional and well-spoken. We were able to come up with a story that does two things. It tells a worthy tale and it has subtle message about literacy. It’s a movie about the love of books. Worse things could be promoted.”
While the movie’s a bit derivative of the fantasy films popular with tweens and teens (Harry Potter, Narnia and The Golden Compass), it’s very well-acted (Bettany and Mirren are especially good) and features a promising turn by newcomer Bennett.
“Seeing her working with Helen [Mirren] showed the talent she has as an actress,” says Fraser. “They even shot a video of her singing the Michael Bublé song that plays in the credits. It’s on YouTube somewhere, so you should check it out. Her talent is prescient for her age and ability.”