Brendan Fraser on Playing John Crowley in Extraordinary Measures

Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser in Extraordinary Measures
Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser in Extraordinary Measures

By Kara Rota, Contributor
February / March 2010

Brendan Fraser’s name might be most often associated with his work on major high-tech Hollywood movies like The Mummy series, George of the Jungle, Looney Tunes: Back in Action and Journey to the Center of the Earth. But in conversation, his thoughtful, halting speech and meaningful insights on his most recent role, that of John Crowley in Extraordinary Measures, are reflective of the emotional depth that he has brought to films like Gods and Monsters, School Ties and Crash.

You’re a Canadian-American actor, but as you and all your brothers have recognizably Irish names [Kevin, Regan and Sean], there must be Irish heritage there somewhere. Do you know anything about your family’s Irish history?
I was in Dublin years ago and when I was first being introduced to the press, I was asked, “Is your name really Brendan Fraser?” Like it was some sort of joke. Is there Irish heritage? Yeah, I’m sure. It goes [way] back. [And] Scottish, German, Czech. . . I’m certain some French Canadians came through there too.

Your career has always included a balance of family-friendly action movies, comedies and more serious, socially compelling dramas – I’m thinking of Gods and Monsters, School Ties and Crash. Can you talk about the progression of your acting and how you decide which roles to take? What drew you to Extraordinary Measures?
I’m always trying to diversify my roles. It keeps it interesting for me – same for the audience, I hope. I look towards working with more established directors and actors. I’m quite enthusiastic about all the best new technology that cinema has to offer, starting with 3-D and more recently in terms of CGI. But in particular [I’m enthusiastic about] a film like this one, which has none of those bells and whistles. Extraordinary Measures is the story of what a family will do to save their children, and the lengths to which they’ll go when the odds are stacked up against them. In my view, John [Crowley] is quite a remarkable individual, one of the most principled people I’ve ever met. And in terms of accomplishments, look at what he’s done in the field of progressing the science of enzyme replacement treatment. But he says his wife Aileen deserves all the medals, which gives you an indication of the kind of guy he is. He’s tenacious, he won’t take no for an answer, and it was a challenge to portray that. I don’t sound like him, we certainly don’t look alike – I’m told he’s very good looking – he’s the head of a pharmaceutical company, and I’m an actor.

I wanted to ensure that I had an opportunity to take a run at the part – not in terms of headlines in a periodical. The story broke in The Wall Street Journal – but in terms of how is it possible that an individual – John [Crowley] is very much alive, a living entity – with a Harvard MBA raised some hundred million dollars, practically single-handedly, in order to save his kids’ lives? And, well, we just worked backwards from there. It became a screenplay after it became a book by Geeta Anand, and now we’ve got a film. Harrison [Ford’s] character is a composite of three, maybe four different scientists and certainly they work together as a metaphor for the core, so much of the ideology scientifically. Also the determination that [Ford] made as a character choice to provide the edge to press up against, the grit, the hard-nosed stubbornness that turns into a begrudging respect in the relationship between these two men, but sort of through a not-so-subtle stag battle.

How was it working with the other actors on the movie?
The kids are great in this movie; they were wonderful to work with. Little Meredith Droeger who plays Megan [Crowley]. And Keri [Russell who plays Aileen] is just – she touches everything with a light feather. It’s also that she walks that way too. She’s a former dancer for sure. I don’t think she leaves footprints on the beach where she walks. She’s delightful. I’ve known her since she was a kid, actually, and – I’m making myself sound old here.

If you were to sum up the experience in a sentence, what would you say?
I guess this film is the culmination of everything I look for towards making a nice family film. Playing a fully fleshed-out character who is indeed an individual who had some serious consequences to contend with, had measures of success, setbacks, challenges for sure, and has left a mark on society in a positive way that allows for us to reflect on how those sorts of virtues are so important for us as individuals and us as functioning members of a family, however that is conceived.

John Crowley talked about how although the situation that they are going through is specific to them, the themes in the film are universal. Can you talk about how you relate to this story as a parent, and how you think it speaks to a broader audience?
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for my kids’ well-being, so I understand certainly from that point of view. Thankfully, my own children are very healthy and I can only imagine the horror that it would have been to have gone through an iota of what John did. I admire him deeply for the courage and the ongoing – moment by moment, not day by day necessarily – persistence that one has to contend with when living in a family where the lives of the children count on each breath, as they’re on life support systems and they’re just so fragile.

But putting all that aside, there’s something to be said about this not being mawkish, sentimental or in any way pretentious, and I mean that sincerely. At the end of the day, it’s about being a kid – there was actually a scene in the film that was from their real true lives that didn’t make it into the cut. It had Meredith, who plays Megs, having a kid fit in the grocery store because she can’t have sparkle sunglasses. And her mom, on the phone to her husband, is saying, “Where are you? Why are you not here?” You know, one of those conversations in a marriage. And he’s saying, “I’m working, I’m doing everything I can.” It’s very stressful. And Aileen, or Keri’s character, turns, whirls into action and says to Megan, “You know what, just because you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you get extra toys.” And on paper, it was shocking. To shoot it, it was somehow astonishing. And then I was told they actually did screen it and it came off as funny, there were laughs. But we couldn’t keep it for time reasons. I mention this with the point being that these are kids just like any others. They can misbehave, they can deserve a time-out, they need their praise, they need to have boundaries and limits, they need to go to school and have specific bedtimes and routines. It’s a family. And for that, I think that everyone can be able to find something to relate to, if not specifically. And be appreciative of the good things that they do have in their life.

Were you able to spend time with the Crowleys? What were your impressions of them?
I did. They came to the set, and I went and saw John at his research facility, the lab in New Jersey, which was fascinating to get inside a real, functioning, working laboratory, I’d never been to one before. He took me around on the dime tour, as he called it. He’s being modest; it’s a massive facility. His company is really run by strength of character; the value that [the staff] people have as individuals seems to accompany or surpass in many ways what they have to offer one another in terms of their intellect. They’re a group who inspire one another. The whole company assembled, as they often do, and they are not just nerdy scientists – although they might laugh and admit that they are – but they realize that what they’re doing has an effect on people’s lives. They’re not just crunching numbers and doing experiments just for the sake of being clever. They very much realize the impact of their research and the good that it can bring; it’s in their company’s manifesto.

Yes, I’ve spent some time in the Crowley house; I met Aileen and Patrick and John Jr. and their terrier who doesn’t stand still. I had a movie open around this time last year, called Inkheart, and they came in for the screening. That’s when I met them the first time. I have to tell you, I was not prepared for the Herculean effort that it takes to transport these kids, the whole circus that goes with it, and this is how John would describe it, the number of people who need to accompany them in terms of their medical needs, the transportation, the vans, the planning in advance. But the thing is, it just shows you right away that this is a family who will stop at nothing to give their children as close to any opportunity that any other kid would be deserving of. And it was their pleasure, it really was. And it was humbling and it gave me a real strong sense of purpose, and humility, to draw upon. It gave me a good center to begin this project, which I started shooting shortly thereafter.

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