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Penelope Cruz and Matthew McConaughey get sultry in "Sahara"

The fictional creation of the popular author Clive Cussler is explorer Dirk Pitt, a man who takes on the adventure of his life when he embarks on a treasure hunt through some of the most dangerous regions of West Africa.

Searching for what locals call “The Ship of Death,” a long-lost Civil War battleship which protects a secret cargo, Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) and his wisecracking sidekick (Steve Zahn) use their wits and heroics to help Doctor Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) when they learn the ship may be linked to mysterious deaths in the very same area.

Several years ago Hugh Jackman was close to signing for the role of Dirk Pitt, but due to the 9/11 attacks, filming was postponed. It was delayed once again when Jackman was busy with the X-Men 2 franchise and Van Helsing, and he eventually pulled out altogether so that he could appear on Broadway in The Boy From Oz. As it turns out, McConaughey’s deep tan and Southern charm go a long away toward winning fans over — not to mention his costar, Cruz (the two are now an item).

But Cruz brought a different date to the world premiere in Hollywood. “I hear he’s kind of fuzzy and carries a lot of water,” says McConaughey. He’s right: the “date” was a nine-month-old baby camel. Director Breck Eisner (yes, of “the” Eisner family) said they’d discussed having Cruz ride a camel by the press line and photographers, but “If she fell off, that would not be a good thing.” So instead, wearing a sheer, backless pastel-colored gown, she led the camel on a rope and even smooched the beast as photographers snapped away.

“I had to train six times a week,” Cruz says of learning to ride the so-called “ships of the desert” proficiently. “For the camel scene, I trained a couple of months before we were able to do it. Everything you see there is us, next to the train. We did that for three days. We had to go 40 kilometers per hour, in a special order. I had to be in the middle and we had to start moving when the train was five minutes behind us. It was amazing choreography, and it was a great adventure for us.

“At the beginning, I had nightmares about it,” Cruz confesses. “I wanted to ask Breck to do it with a double, but I wasn’t feeling good about myself saying no. So, I just trained and trained and trained for two months, until we had total control of the camels. All of that is us. I hope people notice that it’s us because we worked very hard for that.”

Cruz had a lot of harrowing scenes in the film (it is action adventure first, then romance, mystery and comedy) but she enjoyed playing the doctor. “She’s smart and she has a sense of humor. She saves the hero as many times as the hero saves her. I loved that because, for this kind of action adventure movie, it’s for the whole family and it’s funny. Sometimes, in films I’ve read before, the character of the woman wasn’t interesting enough. But, in this one, she was there for a reason. I really loved the character. That’s why I hadn’t done a movie of this genre before. This was the first time I found the character to be interesting enough for me.

“She’s very stubborn. I consider myself stubborn too. I identify with the character that way,” says Cruz. “She loses part of her team and she ends up alone with these two guys that she doesn’t know, but they end up needing each other and helping each other. The mystery they are trying to solve turns out to be almost the same one, but they don’t know that at the beginning. She trusts her instincts. People tell her that she’s crazy and that her theories aren’t going to be right, but she ends up being right.”

McConaughey liked playing Pitt so much, he says he’s already on board to do sequels. He describes his characters as “A bit of a fighter, a bit of a lover. He has fun, has some serious moments, has got a lot of heart. This character sure was pretty dynamic like that, and the story and the tone was something that was all those things. And,” he adds with a wink at the premiere, “The movie is funny as hell.”

As for Sahara’s setting, it’s a little different from, say, the Indiana Jones movies. “You’ve got something like this that is fiction, but it’s set in the real world modern day. And playing a guy, Dirk Pitt, who’s bound to no one, an island unto himself.”

Speaking of the fiction, the real author of it wasn’t so sure that McConaughey would be right to play his hero on the big screen. “I’d pursued this seven years ago. Clive was apprehensive about Hollywood. I went his house in Colorado, spent half a day with him, I went to his house in Phoenix, Arizona. Other people wanted to be Dirk Pitt, but I kept going to see him and calling him. I told him generally what I like about the character, I thought these were great adventures with really cool narratives that would be good on screen.

“Heading off to some new exotic land, Dirk also has a personal treasure hunt that he’s on. Meet a beautiful woman who’s over there helping stop a conflict. Our paths are going to cross and hopefully we’re going to end up on a beach somewhere.”

Or at a Hollywood gala premiere, kissing camels.

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