“It was like real-life Zoolander…I felt like Miss America when I won that thing,” Josh Duhamel tells me in a confessional tone. It was 1997, and Duhamel, then at the height of his fly-by modeling career, went head-to-head against Ashton Kutcher for the title of Male Model of the Year; Duhamel won. “The truth is I only did that for about a year and a half, and I was really unsuccessful at it.”
It’s not difficult to picture Duhamel striking a Blue Steel down the runway (facetiously or not). Best known for his the Transformer series and romance flicks including Safe Haven, the 43-year-old North Dakotan has also achieved a certain folk appeal on Instagram, where he can often be seen clowning around with his wife, Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie, and their two-year-old son, Axl. (We particularly dug his recent Halloween shot, in which he was actually a clown.) But in his latest film, Trey Nelson’s Lost In the Sun, Duhamel is trying bad boy on for size, playing an ex-con who recruits a teenage orphan to join him on a criminal spree.
Duhamel called us up to tell us about his newfound evil side, doing the two-step in Texas and fighting with “Fergs” about how to dress their son. “I’ll see paparazzi pictures of my son in leather pants and sunglasses and a scarf,” he laughs. “I’m like, ‘What the hell are you dressing him in?!'”
RO: So you’re not too likable in Lost in the Sun, huh?
JD: He’s a complicated dude, this John. It was one of those things where I read it, and I didn’t see him as a criminal as much as I saw him as a guy who was under a lot of pressure and really desperate. When you’re under those circumstances you make decisions that you’re probably going to end up paying for. I sort of got into the psychology of why rather than who he was.
RO: Was it fun doing something a little darker than you’re used to?
JD: Yeah, this is why I got into this business, to play characters outside of who I am as a person. It’s like cops and robbers. You get the liberty to act absolutely despicable, and it’s okay.
RO: You star alongside 17-year-old breakout Josh. Lost was his third ever feature. What was it like to work with someone so fresh to the business?
JD: We looked pretty far and wide to find the kid who was going to play Louis in the movie, because we needed him to be the right age and maturity, and he couldn’t be too polished either. He had to be vulnerable yet tough. This kid had it all. He’s a really subtle but intense actor. A wicked smart kid too. I loved working with him, and I hope that he has a huge future.
RO: Did you do any two-stepping while filming in Austin?
JD: Well we went to the Broken Spoke a couple of times, and we went to watch some really good rock ‘n’ roll. If I were a college student I’d probably want to go to school there.
RO: Before you acted, you modeled. How did you switch gears?
JD: The truth is I only did that for about a year and a half, and I was really unsuccessful at it. I never felt comfortable posing in front of a camera. I always felt like I’d have more fun if I had something to do, if I got to act rather than pose. That was the reason I kept hammering my agency to send me on commercial auditions. I’d been taking classes, and they were like, “No, no, no—those auditions are for actors,” and I’d be like, “Oh, I’m gonna show you.”
RO: And yet you beat Ashton Kutcher in a male modeling competition in 1997. Did you ever get to discuss his defeat face to face?
JD: Yes, we’ve had many laughs about that. Every time I see him we talk about it. We were such green horns coming out of the middle of nowhere. He was from Iowa, and I was from North Dakota, and we’re like in New York City. It was like a real-life Zoolander. It was amazing—and I took it so seriously; I so wanted to win. I felt like Miss America when I won that thing.
RO: What’s your Blue Steel?
JD: [Laughs] It’s less steely, more doe-eyed vulnerable.
RO: Then you moved onto music videos, specifically Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” music video.
JD: [Laughs] I was basically an extra in that video. If you pause it at just the right time [1:58], you’ll see me. When you’re in that stage of your career, you’re just trying to get whatever work you can. So, any opportunity I could to do it, I took it.
RO: Which is your favorite Transformer?
JD: Ironhide because it was this big, badass, black truck, and I have a black truck that it reminds me of. And he was sort of on the periphery of good and bad. He was considered an Autobot, but he was kind of an outlier.
RO: Have you named your own truck after that?
JD: My truck’s name is Black Betty.
RO: How is little Axl?
JD: He is fantastic. He’s the little star of the show at our house. He’s two, and he’s a very active kid.
RO: What does the life of an active two-year-old look like?
JD: You obviously have no children [Laughs]. He is really, really into trucks. Like, construction vehicles, backhoes, excavators, all that. He also loves watching videos with mom.
RO: What does he wear?
JD: It’s a constant struggle between Ferg and I about how we dress him. Her style of dressing him is much different than mine. If she’s out of town I take him to school, and if I’m working she takes him to school. So I’ll see paparazzi pictures of my son in leather pants and sunglasses and a scarf, and I’m like, “What the hell are you dressing him in?!” She’s like, “What? He looks like a little boy.” He looks like a little boy in a boy band. I’m more baseball cap and bare feet.