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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

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A traveling junket of talent came to Denver in December to promote Glory Road. The film tells the story of the first all-African-American basketball champions in the NCAA.

The man who coached that team is a bit of a mystery, even for Josh Lucas, who portrayed coach Don Haskins in the movie.

“Haskins, some people would say, is one of the most intimidating, powerful, difficult human beings they’ve ever met,” says Lucas. “But its such an odd thing because he’s also beloved. His players hate playing for him, but the day they finish playing for him, often times, they’re lifelong friends. So it’s a really weird mix.”

Playing Villains

Lucas sees two sides to coach Haskins
Lucas sees two sides to coach Haskins

My co-interviewers, from Bias magazine, pointed out that Lucas should be used to playing characters who are hated. They put it a little more bluntly than I might have, prompting him with “... you’re not playing a total cock in this movie.”

Having just come from a more family-friendly interview, Lucas nevertheless took the question in stride: “I like playing total cocks, to be honest with you. They’re fun, honestly. You get to accentuate the darkest aspects of your personality. You can throw yourself into a madness that you don’t then have to deal with at home. Someone like Ron Lonnie, the guy I played in Wonderland, you walk away from them and they definitely screw with your mind. So yeah, this was a totally different challenge.”

We all seemed surprised that playing a villain would take an emotional toll. Bias asked if Lucas really had to ratchet himself down after playing these roles. Lucas didn’t hesitate, “Yeah, you do. [In] Wonderland, part of it was figuring out how to look like I was drugged out of my mind. And the way to do that is [to] not sleep. And that causes you to go mad.”

Driving the point home, Lucas added, “Or to put myself into the mindset of the guy I did in Undertow — which is a true story — it plays with your head. The thought of trying to achieve looking like you would hurt your own children, and making an audience believe that....” It was all he needed to say.

The State of the South in Movies

Undertow had impressed me, as had its director David Gordon Green, who brings an honest, local eye to movies about the South. Born in Arkansas, Lucas had said in other interviews how much he liked the South’s portrayal in Sweet Home Alabama. If you’ve seen both movies, you might be surprised at how different they are.

Lucas sees the difference and embraces both views. “Sweet Home Alabama is truthful, and Undertow is truthful. That’s the thing about the South. The South has such total duality to it. You have the angry little racist white woman who hates all black people, who lives next to angry little black woman, and yet they’re best friends and they cook for each other every night. That’s the bizarreness of the South. So the nasty dark element is right there, as is the glossy, playful, beautiful side. They both exist.”

I wondered if he would live there if it weren’t for work. He didn’t say for sure, but he did say “I actually love the South. I find it very honest. I think the rest of the country is quite segregated, still to this day. People [elsewhere] don’t admit their issues, as opposed to the South, which is much more straightforward about those problems.”

Ang Lee vs. Jerry Bruckheimer

The interview rambled over Jessica Biel, The Poseidon Adventure (Lucas was wearing a cast — he had broken his arm on the set), and the spectrum between fun and work. We ended by talking about Ang Lee, whose Brokeback Mountain had been in the headlines.

Lucas praised Lee, saying “He’s a totally incredible director. He’s probably my favorite of anyone I’ve ever worked with. It’s literally like working with the Buddha. There’s a sense of brilliance about him, but also human beauty. He takes everyone and raises them without making them feel bad. Some people challenge people in a way that is aggressive. Ang challenges people in a way that makes you feel inspired.”

A different tack from what he experienced with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director James Gartner?

“They balance each other, no doubt. Bruckheimer is a controlling producer.”

I asked if that meant Bruckheimer’s influence reached to the level of an actor’s performance. Not quite, according to Lucas. “He knows what he’s doing, is what it comes down to. He’s a totally creative personality that way. But Garnter is a man who has made 3,000 commercials, [so] he also knows what he’s doing. The two of them together, they drove the ship really well.”