- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

In the espionage farce "The Tuxedo," which opens today, Jackie Chan is cast as a cabbie who must be resourceful enough to substitute on short notice for a master spy whose best weapon is his dressiest suit of clothes, a computerized tux.

The fairest adornment of the movie, the young actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, agreed to substitute for Mr. Chan on short notice and conduct a series of phone interviews, appended to a promotional workday that began with an appearance on the "Today" show in New York City.

Miss Hewitt gives the appearance of being a very happy camper during "The Tuxedo," which casts her as a crack chemist for a CIA counterpart called the Central Security Agency. She confirms the impression. "There was really no acting happening," she says. "Well, maybe 'no acting' is putting it a little unprofessionally. That might sound as if I wasn't so good at my job.

"I mean I had a really good time. I've always wanted to be in a Jackie Chan movie. For me, the whole experience was like winning a contest. I went to Canada for four months to watch my favorite superhero and I got to play with my favorite superhero."

The playtime did nothing but enhance her high opinion of Mr. Chan. "Oh, absolutely, Jackie's even more of a hero now," Miss Hewitt attests. "It can be kind of scary if you get the chance to work with someone you admire so much. There's some fear that this person might not be exactly what you want him to be. What if he's not nice, for example? Jackie was 900 times greater than what I was hoping."

The movie was shot in its entirety in Toronto, simulating an unnamed city. "I think New York might have been a specific location in the script I read originally," Miss Hewitt recalls. "That fell by the wayside, I guess, so think of it as Toronto-New York-Chicagoish."

The screenplay was in circulation for a while and hadn't been written with Jackie Chan in mind. By the time it reached Miss Hewitt, "The Tuxedo" had become a Chan vehicle, and it was scheduled on the heels of another Chan vehicle, leaving the star little time for adjustment and his leading lady uncertain about the sort of preparation she might need to be a stunt-wise co-star.

"I didn't know what would be required," Miss Hewitt says. "I was doing some other things and had about a month to get ready. The next thing you know, you're starting in a matter of days. I didn't want to make a fool of myself with Jackie Chan.

"The week before I flew to Toronto, I also did a crash course in karate, boxing and stunt work. How to take kicks and punches. How to throw kicks and punches. They threw me around on wires in this big warehouse and then put together a simulated stunt sequence, with things I might need to do in the movie. We shot that. Then I was in Jackie's hands. He trained me for everything I actually did in the movie. I wouldn't do any stunt stuff until we were preparing to shoot something."

Miss Hewitt and Mr. Chan had talked briefly before the production began, but it proved even easier to trust him when they began working. "I knew Jackie was not going to let anything harmful happen to me," she says. "He has so many people asking him so many things. I didn't want to add to that burden. I just did what he told me, and that was fine."

Born in Texas, Jennifer Love Hewitt proved enough of a precocious child performer to drag her family out to California to support a juvenile career. "We arrived on my 10th birthday," she recalls. "The basic plan was to get a record deal, but during that trip, I auditioned for a show called 'Kids, Inc.' on the Disney Channel.

"That started an acting and singing thing together. The singing had started when I was about 6, and I've been doing it ever since. I did take dance classes when I was younger, about 3. I'm the family freak. No one else was a performer. After a certain point, it was the only thing I wanted to do. This has always been it. All my goals and dreams and aspirations were built around it."

Miss Hewitt's parents worked in health services, and her older brother has become a chiropractor. She's a big fan: "He's 32 and just gorgeous and smart and amazing."

He definitely is not one of the guys she has in mind when remarking, "I've always wanted to do an action movie. I have a little bit of a tomboy side to me, so I thought, 'Cool, I can beat up guys.'" Was that really an incentive? "Kind of. It sort of depends on your last date."

Miss Hewitt became familiar to young television viewers as a regular on the teen soap opera "Party of Five." She made her feature debut in "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit." Her first brush with movie stardom came as the imperiled heroine of the horror sleeper "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

She survived to confront a fresh wave of assaults in the sequel, cleverly titled "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer." As a partner in her own production company, Miss Hewitt had the temerity to impersonate an inimitable star, Audrey Hepburn, in a TV biopic. Her next movie project, a romantic melodrama set in London, will be the company's initial theatrical feature.

Miss Hewitt observes that shooting a Jackie Chan film tends to be organized to polish off the dialogue scenes in the early stages and leave ample time for stunts in the weeks that remain.

"It's partly to minimize the risk of an injury that could jeopardize the entire shoot," she says, "but, really, the hardest part for Jackie is the dialogue stuff."

Miss Hewitt feared that her own verbal style was causing Mr. Chan some frustration. "I have a very specific way of talking," she remarks. "Very fast. That kind of delivery is hard for Jackie to comprehend or match. Some of the stuff I was babbling he didn't understand.

"His English has improved a lot, but he still has a rough time with some lines. The verbal side is not what he really enjoys, either. Dialogue scenes are kind of an ordeal for him. It took us a while to do those. I worried because I didn't seem to be helping very much. In fact, I think I was making him a little dizzy, wondering, 'What is she talking about?' We were fine in the long run, but it was not an easy thing for us to get comfortable talking for the camera."

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