Josh Lucas has enjoyed success on the New York stage and in small parts in a series of well- regarded films–“You Can Count on Me,” “American Psycho,” “The Deep End”–but his previous roles have mostly featured him as shady east-coasters. That’s why viewers may be surprised to learn that he was born in Arkansas, the child of political activists who traveled widely around the country. Despite the nomadic lifestyle and his current Big Apple residence, however, the up-and-coming young actor still thinks of the south as his home.

“My most basic feelings about myself are southern,” Lucas said during a recent Dallas interview. “And strangely enough most of my friends are southern, even though I live in New York. I have a great group of friends I play poker with–they’re all from the south. A lot of the women I’ve been with have been southern. It’s just a strange thing for me–it’s always been the thing I’ve related to most, I guess, the thing I’ve felt the most connection to about myself. But at the same time it’s something I hadn’t done as an actor at all.” But he added emphatically: “Not by choice.”

That’s why he was so attracted to the script of “Sweet Home Alabama,” the current Touchstone release in which he co-stars with Reese Witherspoon and Patrick Dempsey in a romantic triangle not unlike those featured in Hollywood’s old screwball comedies. Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, a successful fashion designer who gets a marriage proposal from Andrew (Dempsey), the hunky son of New York’s breezily cynical mayor (Candice Bergen). Before the nuptials can occur, however, Melanie has to take care of one little detail by securing a divorce from her husband Jake (Lucas), her childhood “soul mate” whom she married and then left, keeping her past a secret in her new world. Melanie goes back to her little Alabama hometown, but the encounter with family, friends and especially Jake makes her wonder which life she actually prefers.

“Interestingly,” Lucas remembered, “[the filmmakers] only really wanted to see me for Patrick Dempsey’s part. I said please, I want to play someone more like myself for once.” The executives, however, were familiar only with his previous work, which gave no hint that he could make a southern good-old-boy believable. “I finally got into the room to meet the director [Andy Tennant], and the director said, ‘This is the guy I want to do this movie.’ Now why he said that I don’t know, because my audition–I’m not being coy–was terrible, terrible. And then Disney was like, ‘No way…this guy’s done nothing to make us think he can do this, and now he’s got a bad audition that proves he can’t do it.'”

Looking back on the experience, Lucas believes that it was his very training as an actor that prevented him from inhabiting the character easily and smoothly. “It was because I was used to playing characters that are all so far away from myself that I understand how to do that very well,” Lucas said. “I technically understand what it is to layer movement and voice, and all those different things into the way that you create a character. And…for the first time I was having to strip away things [instead], to display more about myself and who I am and what my roots are and what my essence is. And so I kept having this thing of being able to use these tricks that I knew–not tricks, but the training that I had spent so many years doing–to create a audition. And suddenly I was having to…just be basically myself, and I was fighting it without psychologically realizing that I was fighting it.”

The poor audition convinced Lucas that he’d never get the role. “It was incredibly painful to me,” he recalled, “because I felt such a sense of destiny with this movie. I so felt like this is something so close to me and something I so want to do,…having fallen so madly in love with Reese during [her 1991 movie] ‘Man in the Moon’ and just wanting to work with her and to play comedically for the first time–because everything I’ve done has been so dramatic and dark….But for whatever reason Andy kept saying, ‘I know he can do it.’ It’s just something about his instinct as a director.”

Having secured the role, however, Lucas found that he still needed some technical assistance. He had to relearn the accent he’d worked to eliminate early in his career, and it was “by total coincidence,” as he noted with a wry smile, that his dialect coach turned out to be “the same woman I used ten years ago to get rid of my accent.” He spent much of the shoot watching Witherspoon and Tennant, learning how to do comedy from their example. Witherspoon, he enthused, is “someone who’s incredibly good at what they do and incredibly smart–Reese is like wicked smart, one of the fastest minds I’ve ever seen.”

His lead romantic role with a major female star in “Sweet Home Alabama” gives Josh Lucas much higher visibility than before–a development that’s likely to continue when he appears in Ang Lee’s “The Hulk” next year. It’s an element of his professional growth Lucas isn’t entirely comfortable with. “I’m scared of it,” he said, “because I have this very private, anonymous life and a very specific, small group of friends. A lot of actors gets into this for fame; for me I got into it because I’m madly in love with the process of transformation. What being in a position of being famous does, is you’re very much limited, because people start to know you as one thing, and they want you to be that thing. And for me, up to this point, no one’s ever known me. I’m not used to it yet.”

However concerned Josh Lucas may be about the process of losing his anonymity, however, “Sweet Home Alabama” suggests that it’s something he’s going to have to learn to deal with.