Last Updated: Monday 26 June 2000  Entertainment

The next one
Scripts are coming fast and furious for New Westminster's Nicholas Lea, chosen by fans as the new Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger Glen Schaefer, Staff Reporter The Province

File photo, The Province / After Nicholas Lea wraps up filming in Vancouver, he'll head back to L.A. to meet with TV executives from NBC.

The catering budget for Vertical Limit was about the same as the entire cost to make Lunch With Charles, both starring Nick Lea.

Nicholas Lea, who co-stars with Theresa Lee in the Vancouver-shot film Lunch With Charles, fits the bill of an action star -- he's lanky, well-toned and more than six feet tall.

The next big movie action hero is taking a breather in the wilds of the Seymour Demonstration Forest before starting the day's work on -- what's this? -- a low-budget romantic comedy.

Nicholas Lea topped a recent USA Today poll as the actor most fans would like to see taking a place alongside Cruise, Willis and Schwarzenegger, but the day we talk he's going for a few wry laughs in a cross-cultural comedy from a first-time Vancouver director.

"It gives me a chance to be funny," Lea says of the script for Lunch With Charles, written by director Michael Parker. "I think I have an aptitude for it but few people see that because I'm such a dark character on The X-Files. On the smaller projects you have more responsibility and more room for creativity."

USA Today's readers, polled last May, want to see Lea in the big stuff. Those fans know him best through his recurring role as Agent Krycek on The X-Files.

"With the face of an angel, the body and muscles to tempt a saint, a gravelly smoky voice and eyes more beautiful than the brightest emeralds, Nicholas Lea warms more than my heart," Oklahoma fan DeAnna Hughes, 28, told the U.S. paper in casting her vote.

Lea certainly fills that bill as he kills time by the river, waiting for filming to start with Lunch With Charles co-star Theresa Lee. Unlike most of those elevator-shoe-wearing action stars, the New Westminster-raised Lea is a lanky, well-toned six-foot-plus, who looks like he could drop kick any of those others into the next sequel.

"I didn't take it seriously at first," he says of the USA Today poll. "It's not the light that I want to be seen in. I hope my opportunities are a little broader than that."

Which brings him to Lunch With Charles. The movie is set in Hong Kong, Vancouver and Banff, starring Lea as the owner of a failing bed and breakfast whose marriage to a singer (Bif Naked) is falling apart. Add to that mix a Hong Kong businesswoman (The Alberta-raised Lee, who made her mark in Hong Kong action films), her culturally-challenged husband (Asian star Sean Lau), throw them all on a trip to Banff (Riverview Hospital substitutes for the Banff Springs Hotel) and you have Parker's road comedy.

"It's a very sweet script," says Lea. "It has a lot of heart and it was filming in Vancouver, which meant a lot to me."

This day's scene has Lea and Lee together on an odd-couple trip, stuck in the woods with a car that won't move. It's suggested that there might be a bit of 1930s comedy It Happened One Night in this story and Lea agrees. "Yeah, people are forced to be together and find their strengths and weaknesses."

Rookie director Parker, who cut his teeth as a production manager on Asian-Canadian co-productions with his Hong Kong-born wife and producer Shan Tam, was surprised when he heard that Lea was interested in doing his film.

"The casting director got the script to Nick in L.A. and he sent an audition tape back," Parker says. "He kind of fell into our lap. And the day he came up from L.A., that USA Today poll came out and I thought: 'That's it, he's gone.'"

But Lea says he can afford to pick and choose his projects. Earlier this year he spent six months in New Zealand working on the $90-million US climbing adventure Vertical Limit, alongside Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, Scott Glenn and Chris O'Donnell.

Lea plays a climbing guide leading a rich man and his wife (Paxton and Tunney) up K2, the second-highest mountain in the Himalayas. A storm catches them, they fall in a crevasse, and Glenn and O'Donnell play rescuers.

The movie, set for release next December, is directed by action vet Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro).

Lea says he was worried about going the big-budget route.

"I saw Mission: Impossible-2 the other day and I just walked out, I was so angry," he says. "It seems there's a sliding scale between the money they spend on a movie and its creativity."

But Vertical Limit wasn't just an action movie, he says. "It's a human drama. I spend most of the movie on my back with a broken leg and crushed ribs. We're dying of edema and hypoxia."

He worked with some of the best high-altitude climbers in the world to prepare for the role. There's a joke in low-budget movie-making about making a film for the cost of an action-movie's catering budget but that's a near-accurate comparison between Lea's New Zealand movie and the current Vancouver project.

On Vertical Limit, helicopters were used to ship hot gourmet meals to cast and crew in the mountains, at a cost that probably approaches Lunch With Charles' entire $2 million budget.

After he finishes work in Vancouver, Lea will head back to L.A. for a meeting with executives of the U.S. NBC network. That's one result of the USA Today poll -- after it came out, the suits came calling with talk of a possible series of his own.

And what of The X-Files, the series that put him into millions of North American living rooms? With star David Duchovny agreeing to appear in just half of the episodes this year, there's been talk that Lea's Krycek will get a higher profile.

Lea shoots that down, pointing out that Vertical Limit's long shooting schedule kept him out of all but two X-Files episodes last season.

"I know I'm coming back but I never know what I'm doing until I crack a script," he says. Again, he's able to pick and choose now. "I don't sit around and wait for the X-Files. I go with the opportunities and do the X-Files based on my availability."

Lea figures he turns down about 70 per cent of the movie scripts he reads. "I'm trying to do the kind of projects that I want to see in the theatre. I'm trying to make responsible decisions now. I would like to look back on my career and be proud of what I've done. That's why I say no a lot."

So what's the toughest thing about acting? Fans of the next big action star, take note.

"I was always athletic, I did a lot of sports, so doing action was easiest for me," Lea says. "People talking, that's the hard part."