Josh Duhamel: Keeping up appearances as a screen idol

Juliane House as Katie and Josh Duhamel as Alex in Safe Haven
Juliane House as Katie and Josh Duhamel as Alex in Safe Haven
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Laid-back, easy-going and genial – and out to show that he is a lot more than just a pretty face. Film critic Tony Earnshaw meets the charming man that is Josh Duhamel.

Pretty boys have a limited shelf life in Hollywood.

Even George Clooney has joked that he’ll finish his career in a box on Hollywood Squares.

Josh Duhamel is aware that his clock is ticking. In London to promote the latest Nicholas Sparks chick flick Safe Haven, he gets all fired up about another, vastly different, project that shatters his nice guy image.

But first things first. Duhamel is 40 but looks 30. He’s tall, tanned, honed, charming, self-deprecating, funny and earnest. He’s done TV, made 16 movies and is eager to prove himself as more than just beefcake.

Thus it is that the conversation turns to Scenic Route, a new, recently completed indie in which Duhamel and Dan Fogler play two guys who get stranded at the side of the road. Four days go by and they’re running out of food and water. Duhamel describes it as “a buddy comedy/survival movie”.

“I have a Mohawk in this one,” he laughs, “it’s awesome! I think everybody should get a Mohawk. There’s an example of something that was probably the most difficult part I’ve ever had, the most demanding dramatically.

“I never really know (about a project) until I read it. I like to do something that’s outside of what I’ve done. It’s really about the script and it’s about the director. If I read it and I love it, then I’ll chase it. That movie was scripted and that’s why I jumped at it: ‘You want me to have a Mohawk? I’d love to!’”

Clearly Duhamel chased Scenic Route, viewing it as a springboard to more serious work. Having started in episodic TV, enjoyed a featured role in a series (Las Vegas with James Caan) and a smattering of supporting roles in biggish movies he’s eager to find that elusive project that requires genuine acting talent.

“For me it’s always been about trying to bust out of some kind of a box I’ve been put in,” he says, suddenly serious. “I started out in soap operas. Then I did primetime TV. Then people (said) ‘He’s just a TV guy.’ Then I thought whether I could do movies. Then it was ‘Oh, he just does romantic comedies’ or ‘He’s just a puppet on Transformers.’ I’d rather sneak up on people than have them expect me.”

He was initially unsure about Safe Haven but accepted the job when Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom signed on.

“We really talked about how you get inside this guy’s head. I talked to a lot of people who had lost a loved one, and were raising kids on their own.

“That’s the challenge in making a movie like this. You can get beat up or people can be truly moved by it.” It’s left unsaid but Duhamel knows he has a lot to do. Safe Haven pairs him with Julianne Hough, the dancer-singer-actress 15 years his junior.

It’s a formula film that puts together two of Hollywood’s beautiful people. It’s a film loaded with the Sparks brand, which leaves very little for Duhamel and Hough to do other than look gorgeous. Playing a young widower with two kids didn’t provide much of a stretch though Duhamel offered up his own take on the character.

“I tried to talk them into letting me have a full beard, I wanted a pierced ear, I wanted him to just be the guy who lives in a marina and owns a general store.

“What would that guy look like? I tried to convince them and they’re like ‘Yes, I understand all that, but it’s a Nicholas Sparks movie’. They want the handsome sex appeal and all that stuff and if that’s what they’re hiring you for, you have to give it to them.”

Duhamel is less inclined to talk about Fire with Fire, a Warner Bros thriller in which he plays a California firefighter who witnesses a murder, testifies against the white supremacist killer, goes into witness protection and then heads back home when the bad guys track him down.

It’s headlined by Duhamel, and propped up by aging action man Bruce Willis in an oddball cast that also includes Vinnie Jones and rapper 50 Cent.

Stateside critics have panned the movie. In the UK it is unlikely to get a wide release and may even go straight to DVD. Part of the problem seems to have been the choice of director – long-time stuntman turned TV director David Barrett.

I ask Duhamel if he has a hit list of directors he wishes to work with – the Scorseses, Spielbergs and Soderberghs of the movie world.

“It’s unrealistic if you’re narrowing your scope that much,” says Duhamel as he nods his head in agreement.

“There’s a certain level of director that you want to work with, obviously. I’m a fan of about 30 directors who I would die to work with. A lot of times there aren’t roles in their movies for you. That’s why I’m very specific, especially these days, about who the director is.

“It’s really important. You may have a great script and it may be a first-time director, and I’ve been burned. I’ve been burned on Fire with Fire a little bit. A great script but the movie didn’t work the way it was supposed to or the way I’d hoped it (would). And so ultimately that to me is it: if you have a great script and a great director, you are really increasing your odds of making a really great movie.”

Duhamel’s next job is as the host of the Kids’ Choice Awards on March 24, which has prompted him to take dance classes. Is he falling into the trap of wanting to be a song-and-dance man when he should really just stick to acting? He smiles again.

“I want to do things that people are not going to expect from me. I’m not going to dance because I want to show the world what an amazing dancer I am. But I want to surprise people [so that they say] ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that from him.’ So why not try and be as good as you can be for that specific reason? Not because I’m going to try and have a second career at it, but because it may be fun.”

Growing up on screen

Formerly a fashion model, Josh Duhamel got his acting break on the long-running TV series All My Children.

Early film roles included the title role in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and as Oscar Wilde’s narcissistic Dorian Gray in a 2005 adaptation.

He spent five years on Las Vegas, playing casino security boss Danny McCoy.

In the CGI-heavy Transformers franchise, he scored as Captain Lennox, an all-too human soldier waging war against extra-terrestrial robots.

He is married to Stacy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson of the Black Eyed Peas. The couple are expecting their first child.

Safe Haven is on general release now.