Dubai International Film Festival The Mummy actor was telling a group of journalists a complicated anecdote about his two co-stars in Inkheart, a new fantasy film based on the novels by Cornelia Funke.
Gifted... in every sense of the word
The Natura Bissé lady takes a spatula and smears goo on the back of my hand. It's a body scrub, apparently, and as black as a coal scuttle. Unlike most scrubs, the woman explains, this one is to be used after showering, not before. "Unusual," I say suavely. "It's got diamond dust in it," she says. I squeak. The scrub feels, in this order, slimy and gritty. Mme Natura produces what appears to be a Philippe Starck library stamp and waves it over my wrist. There's a crackle and the goo vanishes: magnetism, it turns out, not witchcraft as I first supposed. "It leaves a little diamond dust on the skin, and it's really well moistured," she says. "Just feel his skin now." My grizzled colleague extends a finger. "My goodness," he says weakly.
We're in room 361 of the Al Qasr hotel, which for the duration of the film festival has been converted into an Aladdin's cave of free stuff - free, that is, if you happen to be very famous. It's what is known as a gifting suite. One finds them at celebrity events the world over: wherever the famous go, the PR people trail after with armfuls of offerings. Will the anointed take their Karl Lagerfeld sunglasses on to the red carpet? Will they waft their perfume under a magazine journalist's nose and murmur: "Eternity"? No, most likely they won't. But the slender odds to the contrary are what drive this generosity.
So, who got what? Jeffrey Wright picked up some Vice perfume for his wife. Harry Belafonte seems to have moved through the suite like a locust: every stand we came to marvelled at his powers of consumption. Even as we spoke, he and his wife were taking a spa in town, compliments of Natura Bissé. There was excitement at the prospect of Brendan Fraser's arrival later that afternoon. What would he go for? The Baby Bling diamanté-studded children's clothes? The Swarovski crystal earphones? A celebrity endorsement might come in handy for some of these products.
Fraser hadn't quite been gifted by the time I caught up with him. The Mummy actor was telling a group of journalists a complicated anecdote about his two co-stars in Inkheart, a new fantasy film based on the novels by Cornelia Funke. These are stories about books bleeding into the real world. The author had imagined Fraser in the lead role when she was writing them and then contrived to bring this aspect of her own books to life, a sequence of events whose metaphysical horror deepens the more you think about it. By the look of him, the actor had blocked it out.
"We were riding on a buggy," he said, "and we got called and we've got to get back to work. And somehow Eliza ended up holding the Oscar, and was separated from Helen, and I just had this mental snapshot of seeing this little gold statue in Eliza's hands and thinking: 'You might get your acceptance speech together one of these days, kiddo, because if it's not that little statue it's going to be something...'"
Helen, by the way, is Helen Mirren; the Oscar was for The Queen, which she won during the making of Inkheart. And Eliza? That's Eliza Bennett, a 16-year-old British actress who plays the film's heroine, Meggy. Fraser called her gifted - and not only in the room 361 sense. "She's prescient in her ability," he said with awe. "That doesn't go away. It just gets better and better." Frankly, the idea of any increase in Bennett's power is creepier than the circumstances of Fraser's casting. "My first job was when I was nine," she told us with an airy shrug. "I did Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End for a year and a half. Which is obviously a really different experience because the stage is very different from filming." Obviously. Precocity is disconcerting stuff. When Bennett described the process of filming in Italy, one reporter asked what she had most liked eating at the hotel where the cast had been put up - a teasing, avuncular inquiry. She smiled and said, not "Chips," but: "Do you know what? People say because it's Italy that you'd order pasta and pizza, but I found every single food that I ordered there was amazing. They didn't do anything badly." She spoke with the voice of a 35-year-old PR executive. Journalists exchanged looks.
What were her ambitions? "Films seem to be slotting in at the perfect time," she said, "and I've had gaps where I need gaps. But I'd like to carry on with my education; that balance is really important to me. Because it could stop at any point. It's important to have a back-up plan." Grey-faced, we trooped out of the interview room. A back-up plan; it took me until my mid-twenties to stumble on plan A.
Outside I spot Fraser. His skin has a sheen to it, a sparkle. Then the sun goes behind a cloud and the actor vanishes. I check. The back of my own hand looks mottled and ill, as usual. Case not proven.