Josh Lucas charts the tides of a career

May 31, 2012

If Josh Lucas looks a little antsy, it’s understandable: His wife is seemingly minutes away from delivering their first child – and here he sits, in his publicist’s SoHo office, talking about his new movie, “Hide Away.”

He makes sure his phone is on, noting, “I’ve got a bad reputation about not being available by phone,” with an embarrassed smile.

The film, “Hide Away,” is a tone poem of sorts about grief, directed by Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals”). Shot in Traverse City, MI, in a mere 15 days, the story follows Lucas’ character, called the Young Mariner, as he buys and moves onto a dilapidated sailboat near the end of summer and spends the fall and winter living on it while he fixes it up. The story examines the character’s efforts to come to terms with a tragedy in his recent past as he contemplates whether or not he has a future.

A film in which the weather, nature and silence are as much characters as the Young Mariner or the few people he interacts with (including Jon Tenney, James Cromwell and Ayelet Zurer), “Hide Away” was a challenge for Lucas – and, he recognizes, will challenge audiences as well.

“The challenge is that it’s an almost silent story of the revival of one man’s soul,” Lucas, 40, says. “So we had to find the poetry in a script that was like a 75-page treatment. It might say, ‘The young mariner cleans the boat,’ and that would have to equate to 10 minutes of screen-time. So the challenge was how to do it and not make it boring or indulgent.”

The other challenge was to portray a variety of seasons while shooting in early winter. Chilly weather was not a problem; portraying a warm day in autumn or a sunny summer afternoon was something else.

“We had to fake spring and summer – so the crew would be standing around in serious winter gear and I’d be in a t-shirt,” Lucas says with a rueful laugh. “Then it was, ‘Can you stop shivering for 30 seconds so we can get the shot?’ Believe me, when I had to act cold, I wasn’t acting. The whole shoot was cold. The weather became both our great friend and our great foe. It really dictated the shoot.”

At one point, in a moment of drunken sorrow, Lucas’ character pitches off a dock into the icy waters of Lake Michigan: “A couple of minutes into it, I panicked,” he says. “I was in long enough to feel the effects to my body. I think the water temperature was, like 36 degrees. I was going calmly numb. It was a very strange sensation.”

Lucas is under no illusion that “Hide Away” is a mainstream film. But he enjoyed taking the risks inherent in making an independent film with a very personal point of view.

“The thing we ran up against – and one of the film’s flaws – is that watching someone go through true depression is inherently indulgent,” he says. “It’s difficult to go through in real life. In a movie that doesn’t have moments of drug use or violence, it’s a deeply internal struggle. We’re portraying it in a way that hopefully is more mysterious and poetic than indulgent. It was a tough battle in the editing room.”

For Lucas, an acting career has offered the same struggle of trying to find the right balance. While he has been at or near the center of such big-budget studio efforts as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Stealth,” he’s just as at home – if not more so – in theater and in smaller, more personal independent movies such as David Gordon Green’s “Undertow” or Anders Anderson’s “Stolen.”

“The smaller movies are so difficult to finance or to get people to support,” he says. “So the bigger movies become tools, to pay the bills and to give you some exposure that helps the little movies come to life. For example, Robert Pattinson is going to do a movie I wanted – and I understand why they wanted Robert Pattinson.”

To boost his own profile, Lucas signed on for “The Firm,” a short-lived NBC series that picked up 10 years after John Grisham’s best-selling novel left off. A mid-season replacement, it was not picked up for the coming fall season, much to Lucas’ relief.

“‘The Firm’ was pretty dreadful,” he says. “There was a deep and tremendous divide between what Juliette Lewis and I signed on to and the reality of what the show’s creators and producers could do. The difference amounted to one of money. They wanted it to be much more of an out-of-date legal thriller. And that was absolutely not what any of us assumed it would be. I thought it would be more of a hybrid of complex characters and story, something more like an action film – not something like ‘The Practice.’

“TV has evolved from the ’90s to some pretty great TV. We all went in thinking this was an attempt to do that. But it was designed to be a crappy TV show. It was a devastating experience.”

But Lucas is philosophical, as he faces imminent fatherhood.

“More and more, I’ve realized this is a career of tides – some high, some low, some in-between,” he says. “You make things that are not great, things that are not bad, things that fall between the cracks. I’ve learned to trust that none of those are who I am, and that the good ones are as important as the bad ones and the mediums. What’s kept me going is the belief that, every once in a while, you hit one you love.”

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