You know his face, and you know his wife, but quite possibly you don’t know how to pronounce his name. Josh Duhamel (say, doo-mel), the good-looking, 38-year-old husband-of-Fergie, parlayed charming turns on All My Children and NBC’s glossy-if-unmemorable Las Vegas into a robust career playing second fiddle leading man to either female leads (Kristen Bell, Katherine Heigl) or robots. In his movies, as in his personal life, Duhamel’s name goes on the marquee, but he’s not the draw: If he doesn’t shoulder the blame for his movies’ box-office performance (or dalliances with strippers), he doesn’t get the credit either. But coming off his previous romantic comedy bomb, When in Rome, Duhamel’s due for a credit check: The performance of this weekend’s Heigl-starring Life As We Know It will go a long way in determining whether he’s bound for meatier roles, a long career playing the affable Mr. Right — or a short one. We spoke to industry insiders about Duhamel’s future to get an answer to the question: If Josh Duhamel were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: A North Dakota boy born and bred, Duhamel spent his early 20s modeling before landing a part on All My Children as boyishly charming former cad Leo Du Pres. Duhamel won a daytime Emmy and legions of soap fans, before leaving the show to join NBC’s prime-time soap Las Vegas in 2003. While working on that series, Duhamel met his future wife, the Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie, played a matinee idol in romantic comedy Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, and suited up for the first Transformers film. And that run pretty much defines the three edges to his career: husband, rom-com leading man, and Major William Lennox. At the end of 2009, he had a brief flurry of negative tabloid attention after an Atlanta stripper claimed she’d had a one-night stand with the newly married actor. Yet the scandal never fully captured the public’s attention, and much like his movies’ box office, left Duhamel only a little worse for the wear.
Peers: As a good-looking, slightly generic thirtysomething, Duhamel’s not lacking for competition. He’s chasing similarly genetically blessed but higher-profile actors like Bradley Cooper and Ryan Reynolds, and running shoulder to shoulder with a cohort that includes James Marsden, Michael Fassbender, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (though, admittedly, the latter two have a bit more thespian cred than Duhamel does). Having wrapped up his Las Vegas TV gig in 2008, he’s pulled ahead of boob-tube stars like Adrian Grenier and Kevin Durand.
Market Value: In Transformers, Duhamel is obviously part of a lucrative franchise, but its box-office performance is, first and foremost, a credit to Michael Bay, explosions, and CGI: He could be replaced even more easily than Megan Fox with little effect on grosses. It’s with romantic comedies that Duhamel’s value is most clearly on display, and, unfortunately, there’s not much good to see there. This year’s When in Rome, grossed only $32 million (Duhamel’s breakout film, Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, only grossed $17 million), and The Romantics, his indie with Katie Holmes and Anna Paquin, has only made $107,000.
But the box-office failures of those films has never been on Duhamel so much as his female co-stars. If he has nothing much to do with Transformers’ success, the movies (the third of which arrives next summer) have kept his profile up and his name in circulation. Also going for him: He’s cheap, and, as one manager says, “Most people think of him as a real man. He’s tall, strong. Not one of these smaller movie stars who can get away with it onscreen, but off-screen actually still looks like a boy. He feels like a quarterback, a guy’s guy, a ‘real man.’” Add all this up, and Duhamel continues to work. He’s filming a segment in a genuinely star- studded movie of comedy shorts (Richard Gere, Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Emma Stone, Elizabeth Banks, and Naomi Watts are also participating); he’s set to star in Disney buddy comedy What’s He Got; and, in a welcome change of pace, will join Samuel L. Jackson in pulp action flick Sympathy for the Devil.
What Hollywood Thinks: Much like moviegoers, insiders don’t quite know what to make of Duhamel: Yes, he’s tall, handsome, and game, but what’s underneath the surface? (It’s not for nothing that Duhamel’s first movie role was the titular role in The Picture of Dorian Gray.) “I think he’s been a cipher for a really long time, letting his wife or co-star take the spotlight. He’s like a Ken Doll — a bit plastic,” an agent says. A manager seconds, “There’s certainly a little blandness. He’s not offensive in any way. Ladies love him because he’s a good-looking guy, but I don’t think he’s connected with a role that makes guys go, ‘That guy’s fucking cool, man!’”
A more positive take on Duhamel’s blandness, according to one agent: “There’s an intelligence behind that façade. He really has a humor that’s arch, sardonic, and discrete. And that can be confused with ‘blank,’ because by the time a guy gets to where he is, we think we know him completely and so we usually have affection or contempt by then.” A more scathing counter, however, is, “I actually think no one has any feelings about him: I don’t think his parts have been that provocative.”
On this matter — provocation — insiders agree: Duhamel needs to look for better, more unique material. “You have to say no to a lot of stuff,” a manager says. “Bradley Cooper wasn’t the first guy on the list for the The Hangover, but they got a cast for cheap and it gives a guy like Bradley an opportunity. That’s the only thing that will help Duhamel, really. He needs to say “no” to a lot of tempting stuff. And that’s hard, because when you’re not ‘that guy!’ yet, you have to pay the bills on a mortgage.” (Though it should be noticed that Fergie can probably swing the monthly bills for both of them for a while.) A publicist advises, “If you have a craft, you have to fight for it. You have to fight your agents who want you to take the money jobs if you want to be That Actor.” (The publicist also advises Duhamel to clean up his Google: “He needs a publicist who knows how to do Search Engine Optimization, because when you type ‘Josh Duhamel’ and hit the space bar, the [second] proffered search term is ‘Josh Duhamel cheating.’ That’s step one, dude.”)
If Duhamel can’t, or won’t, try to find the interesting parts, he’s likely to remain, as a manger puts, “the Tab Hunter of his day” (without the gay part). Or, even more to the point, the Tad Hamilton: a lightweight, scandal-tinged movie star on the hunt for the Big Picture that will save his career. “It’s kind of funny that he starred in that movie Win a Date With Tad Hamilton” says an insider. “Now that’s how some people here think of him.”
The Analysis: Life As We Know It has been touted as a crucible for Katherine Heigl, who is coming off a box-office dud herself (Killers) and still contending with her unruly “image problem.” But it is no less of a crucible for Duhamel, who finally finds himself playing leading man against an A-list actress (all due respect to When in Rome’s Kristen Bell), in the first film in which he clocks equal screen as the movie’s other lead. In short, Life As We Know It is the first Josh Duhamel movie in which Josh Duhamel legitimately deserves credit should it succeed, and discredit should it fail.
Certainly, he’s not likely to garner as much of either as his more famous, female co-star, but the movie’s success could go a long way toward positioning him as a guy fit to hold his own romantic comedy (hey, if Patrick Dempsey can do it … ). Or, even better, it could help him branch out beyond the genre. Should the movie disappoint, Heigl will shoulder most of the blame, and Duhamel will be able to keep plugging along — he’s got the next Transformers, after all — but only for so long. If Duhamel wants to jump to the next level, or even just continue at this one, at some point, he’s going to have to take a calculated risk. As a manager says, to become a movie star these days, an actor has to “(1) have been in something that was a great success, or (2) have been really good in a movie. Otherwise, you wind up in the tabloids, and kind of stick around, but never break out.” An action drama like Sympathy for the Devil is, therefore, a move in the right direction. But Duhamel needs to make more choices like this, and relatively quickly, if he doesn’t want to be permanently tagged as a competent, likable B-lister.
The Bottom Line: To this point, Duhamel’s career has been predictable, boiling down to rom-coms and Michael Bay. For Duhamel to break out, he needs to find the one audience-connecting role that proves he’s not just a generic, by-the-numbers leading man. Barring that, he at least needs to star in a film that does solid box office for which he — and not his co-star or director — can plausibly take credit. If Transformers ends before Duhamel finds that role, or that hit, he won’t have many more chances.
Buy/Sell/Hold: STRONG HOLD: If Life As We Know It tanks, this quickly turns into a weak sell. Duhamel will keep working, but he’ll probably never return high dividends.