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— by Shaheem Reid

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — When a giant orange monster made of rocks yells out the score of baseball's National League Championship Series, even if he's not talking about your team, even if you don't like sports, even if you're not sure he's talking to you, you're going to pay close attention.

 Photos: On The Set

 "Fantastic Four" Set Visit

"The Astros beat the Cardinals, by the way," Michael Chiklis, in full costume as the Thing, shouted into a crowd of reporters converged under the Brooklyn Bridge to interview the Fantastic Four.

"You! You!" he yelled once more, pointing to a pretty blonde who turned almost as red as he is orange when she realized he was talking to her.

"You're from Houston, right?" he asked. "The Astros just beat the Cardinals."

Way before "The Incredibles" were fighting to keep the world free of danger, another family was making sure the cosmos was safe from villains across the universe. Reed Richards, his wife Sue Storm, her brother Johnny Storm and family friend Benjamin Grimm comprised the Fantastic Four, better known by their alter egos: Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing, respectively. After decades on comic stands and several incarnations in animated television programs, the Fan Four are finally ready to make the jump to the big screen, during the "Fantastic" Fourth of July weekend of 2005, no less.

 "Fantastic Four" Photos

The sea of journalists that Chiklis shouted to last month wasn't actually in Brooklyn — the reporters were nowhere near New York; in fact, they weren't in the U.S. at all. Filming for "Fantastic Four" has been taking place in various locations in Vancouver, under the direction of Tim Story, and will continue through mid-December.

"We hope it's going to do well," Chris Evans smiled, sitting next to his onscreen Storm sibling, Jessica Alba. Both were in the middle of the set that fans will come to recognize next summer as the decadent office of Dr. Doom, the collective's arch nemesis. "We're keeping our fingers crossed. "

"We hope it makes a lot of money," Alba giggled. "I've never been on a movie like this. From even doing exterior shots where we have no dialogue, everything's just raised to such a professional level; everyone is at the top of their game. It's real cool."

Chiklis, who starred in the police series "The Commish" and currently plays Detective Vic Mackey on the drama "The Shield," isn't quite so cool.

"The heat is like the seventh circle of hell," he said, describing the ordeal of getting into his character's costume, which takes a total of three-and-a-half hours to put on.

"It's an intense experience, I've never gone through anything like it," he explained. "As a matter of fact, when I put the thing on, I didn't think I was going to be able to do it. I'm not claustrophobic, but if you are remotely claustrophobic you can't do it. Once you get into this suit, you can't get out on your own. Once the hands are on, that's it — you're in. And no matter how I'd struggle, I wouldn't be able to get out of it. And it's intensely hot."

At the Brooklyn Bridge set, Chiklis even had to hook his outfit to a tube connected to an air conditioner. He was afforded a minor luxury between takes, though — he got to take his Thing feet off and walk around in tube socks and flip-flops.

"I never imagined this would be a psychologically challenging job," he added. "I knew it would be a physically challenging job, but I had to overcome that and knowing that I couldn't get out and I had to trust other people to get out. All those things make for a very uncomfortable job, but the thing you keep in mind is 'eyes on the prize.' This is what we're doing. When we see that movie up on the big screen, it's going to be something else, it's going to be something really for the grandkids, something real special."

Even though Chiklis — a confessed lifelong Thing fan — has the most elaborate costume in the film, it doesn't mean his peers have a cakewalk getting dressed every day.

"The hardest thing for me has been getting in the damn suit," Evans said of his blue spandex Human Torch duds. "It takes three people to just [help you put it on]. Once you're in it, you're in it for the day. So it's a bit of a pain."

In the film, Reed Richards and company are "imaginauts" who take a space flight. When their ship is infected with radiation, all four heroes' DNA is altered, giving them super powers. As their names suggest, the Invisible Woman can turn invisible and create force fields. The Human Torch can turn his entire body into flames and fly.

Then there's Mr. Fantastic.

"He's able to elongate any part of his body," the soft-spoken Ioan Gruffudd explained of his character before Chiklis, seated next to him, jumped in with a Ben Grimm grin, "That's any part!"

"He can wrap himself around the Thing to prevent him from bashing Johnny Storm or he can save the day using his long arms," Gruffudd added. "He's a great character."

"He's a brick house, he's a rock-hard stud," Chiklis chimed in about the Thing. "I mean, the guy can bench press 85,000 pounds. He's the ultimate tough guy. He's rock hard with a heart of gold."

Of course, no superhero summer blockbuster would be anything without a powerful villain to antagonize the good guys.

"It was an honor for me to be selected to play this character," "Nip/Tuck" 's Julian McMahon, seated back at Dr. Doom's sprawling headquarters, said of his turn as baddie. "I have been a fan of the comic series since I was a kid. And Victor Von Doom was always the kind of original bad guy, the original nemesis, the Darth Vaderish kind of character."

Maybe Darth Vader meets Daddy Warbucks. Doom is just as rich as he is evil and vain. His office makes most luxury homes look like a hovel. There's a huge "V" hanging above his desk, a consuming view of the New York skyline, and outside, there's a 35-foot statue of himself.

"I think that what's really great about this movie. You're being given an evolution of these characters," McMahon continued. "The Fantastic Four doesn't start off as the Fantastic Four. You get to see that man before he becomes that Dr. Doom character. You get to see that kind of more business-oriented, more charming, gentlemanly type of guy to the Von Doom monster he becomes. It's really a wonderful trip."

And if you don't think Dr. Doom — who wears a mask made of metal — can tangle with the Four, think again. If he wanted to, he could hit them with one of the huge wads of money from his seemingly endless bank vault — or he can just use his powers.

"Victor becomes a man who's basically made of steel and [is] indestructible, and then he has the power to send lightning and electricity and shock waves," McMahon explained. "He is very strong. He can punch a hole through massive walls and elevator doors. He's a pretty powerful dude. He's not that easy to get rid of. Trust me."

Trust Dr. Doom? We're just going to have to wait until the summer when the opening bell rings at the box office.




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