Mel Gibson: Mel's Moves
As the darkly heroic Revolutionary War epic The Patriot breaks out on screens, Mel Gibson looks back on the other dark heroes he's played, names the films he's proud of, disses some losers, and explains what he was thinking when he made the many choices that have turned him into the near legend he is today.
On location in Charleston, South Carolina, Mel Gibson is dressed in 18th-century garb and hair extensions only slightly less wild than the ones he wore in Braveheart. He's portraying Benjamin Martin, a man who has buried a past of brutal experience from the French and Indian War, but is forced back into fighting during the Revolutionary War to protect his children. The film is The Patriot, written by Saving Private Ryan scribe Robert Rodat and directed by Roland Emmerich, whose last brush with Independence Day had to do with the world being blown up by aliens. As is common with summer event films, the shoot has run longer than expected and Gibson's face betrays the wear and tear of the production, but neither he nor anybody else looks unhappy. "The first few days you watch him and say, 'My God, this is fucking Mel Gibson,'" Emmerich tells me. "But he's so disarming you quickly forget." Gibson knows everybody's name as he strolls the set, and he dotes on the young actors who play his children. At the dinner break, he attacks the buffet spread along with everyone else instead of retreating to his trailer. When his plastic spoon breaks while eating a mishmash of apple crisp and other desserts, he keeps shoveling with what's left of the utensil.
Gibson wears the calm confidence of an actor who has evolved over two decades from a handsome, hard-living star-in-the-making to a household name who also happens to be an Oscar-winning director and producer. In fact, he's more remarkable than that. While most actors who achieve his fame and pay scale find themselves caged into a screen persona they can barely stray from, Gibson has played truly divergent characters over the years, many of whom have specialized in objectionable behavior worthy of a screen villain rather than a hero. The Mel Gibson known to us from countless interviews over the years is a self-effacing, prank-pulling, pun-spewing, occasionally reckless guy who somehow lucked out between The Road Warrior and Lethal Weapon and became a screen icon, but who's really just a great guy... and so on. The Mel Gibson you can't help missing if you look at his resume is a guy who's made many interesting calculations over many years, taken some whopping risks and ended up on top with breathing space to spare. Having chatted with Gibson when his company, Icon Productions, made a TV movie | from a book I'd written on the Three Stooges, I decided to talk with him about the choices he's made in his career and the priorities that have guided him. He tends to laugh off everything, but only the Stooges would believe he's laughed his way through the decisions that have gotten him where he is today.
MICHAEL FLEMING: I thought you'd be amused by this Wall Street Journal column that claims you're being paid $25 million for The Patriot.
MEL GIBSON: [Wincing at the sight of it] Jeez, I hate stuff like this. [Lights a cigarette, looks around the hotel dining room we're sitting in after shooting has finished for the day] This room is a last bastion for smokers. But at least they've got: a smoking section, which is better than L.A.
Q: You always seem in your interviews to have either just quit smoking or just quit quitting smoking.
A: Well, I guess you've got to have at least one vice.
Q: Now that we've covered big money and little vices, let's talk about The Patriot. What appealed to you about this film?
A: It was a really personal story that put a guy into an extraordinary situation. I love that. The screenwriter, Robert Rodat, is pretty dark when he gets going, and he really displays it here. There are elements to the story that are shocking, and yet it has to go there to convey the character's desperation. The thing that really got me is when he takes his very young sons with him to kill people. What was cool was that, OK, he needs their help. But he's also thinking, "I'm going to teach them how to kill." It's kind of knuckle-dragging stuff.
Q: Did you wonder whether this was too close to your character in Braveheart, a reluctant warrior who turns out to be a brilliant war tactician?
A: What's different with this character is that he's truly afraid of himself, of his own sins. He's always had the feeling there will be retribution for his past misdeeds, which he obviously feels were war crimes.
Q: Your character was based on the real Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox," but then fictionalized. Why?
A: It's partly based on Francis Marion, but we took the attributes of other heroic types and melded them in to create a conglomerate Revolutionary War guy. To avoid confusion and finger pointing, he was given a different tag.
Q: When you chose this film, did it give you any pause that the director was Roland Emmerich, a German-born filmmaker with a sci-fi resume?
A: I liked the heavy sci-fi stuff he and [producer] Dean Devlin have done. The fact that they bit into this script and said "Wow" made me feel OK. They had more enthusiasm for it than I did. Roland has the constitution of a cockroach, and I mean that in the best possible sense. You look at him and wonder when he's going to fall over. He smokes all the time, doesn't eat, doesn't sleep. I don't know how he's doing it. I always watch directors, and he's full of surprises.
Q: How does his approach to battle scenes compare to yours in Braveheart?
A: It's totally different from anything I would have tried. It's more beautiful, the whole atmosphere of it, like a painting. I got the atmosphere of Braveheart by just being brutal. He's more particular about things. It's just so beautiful to look at. It's John Ford.
Q: Being a franchise star with the burden of carrying a film cages an actor in terms of choices, but you seem to have created a larger cage than some of your peers. Have you consciously managed the neat trick of getting people to accept you in darker, risky roles?
A: Yes, I think one has to be conscious of it. You say, can I do this and have people understand the character, even though he's committing heinous acts? I find that an interesting challenge.
Q: Do you ever miss the days when you weren't so famous and there was less weight on each choice?
A: A little bit. But it's unrealistic to think you can turn the clock back that way. You've got to work with what's there.
Q: Do you consider yourself a brand name, or is that an insulting notion?
A: It's not insulting, because one way or another, whether it was well planned out or not, I orchestrated this whole thing. I wanted to do the things I wanted to do, and for the most part they've been successful and this is a by-product. You're never going to shake that stigma you've created for yourself. It's a nice fantasy to think, "Oh man, I'd like to come at this from no place," but it just ain't gonna happen. And all you can do is use as many of your skills as possible to give the illusion you're coming from nowhere. I'm not sure you ever pull it off, but you try.
Q: Could you have taken a role like Hannibal Lecter?
A: I don't know if I could have gone that far. I like to think so, but maybe that's ego. The thing about Hannibal is that he had to come from no place. Tony Hopkins had been all over the place, certainly, but he was nevertheless real fresh. Same with Brian Cox, who played Lecter in Manhunter and was the best part of that whole film. It's that unknown quantity, the fact that you're discovering this monster.
Q: How do you decide whether or not you can play a character?
A: I decide whether I can actually put myself into those places and help the audience into that guy and take the audience on a vicarious journey that they might not want to take naturally. You have to find a way for the audience to access it.
Q: Any examples where you tried that and it didn't work?
A: I don't know, you tell me.
Q: One example might be the 1984 film The River, the first film you made in the U.S. Your character, the farmer who wouldn't give up his farm, was so stubborn he lost all sympathy.
A: Yeah, he went too far, God, just this morning TNT showed The River, and I stayed on it for about two seconds and I couldn't bear it. But you can't trash it because it's what you did back then, a kind of stepping-stone to better things.
Q: The best example, though, is last year's Payback. How many franchise good guys would play a character who asks a guy for a match and when he doesn't have one, says, "What good are you?" and blows his head off without conveying a shred of emotion?
A: [Laughs hard] Well, everybody has those dark sides. There's something there that people can understand. And if you can make it understandable, then it's OK.
Q: Did you do a lot of soul searching over whether you could pull off that character?
A: Oh, no, no. I liked it right away. I liked the unyielding quality. I decided the best way to do something like that was to just embrace it. I had an acting teacher when I went to university who used to talk about doing dialogue that you just couldn't bear. He said you have to make that your favorite part, you have to make love to what you despise. By not avoiding, but confronting and embracing it, eventually you find a moment of truth the audience can relate to. They might hate you, but they'll understand. That's what it was with my character in The Patriot.
Q: How do you figure the limits of the audience's sympathy?
A: With Payback, we stacked the deck a little bit--everybody's so heinous that it works. I remember watching this old John Carpenter movie called Assault on Precinct 13 a few years ago. I loved it because it went places that made me say, "I can't believe I just saw this." It went too far. In one scene, a little girl runs up to an ice cream truck and says something like, "Hey, mister, you gave me chocolate and vanilla, I only wanted chocolate,' and this guy who's switched places with the ice cream truck driver shoots the girl through the ice cream cone and she falls over dead. All you can do is just laugh because you can't believe somebody went there. I'm sure that's the reaction it got in the theater.
Q: Was there a potential ice cream truck moment in Payback where you felt you had to pull back?
A: Absolutely. There was a fight with my wife, played by Deborah Unger, that was just hideous. Deborah gets a star for physical courage. This chick was like, "Throw me on the deck harder! Ram my head into this oven." I'm thinking, "What are you, out of your mind?" My character beats the daylights out of her, and it was too much. It crossed the line.
Q: So you pulled that out and made up for it by having him rip the pierced nose ring from the drug courier in the next scene.
A: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. I'd always wanted to do that.
Q: So you really like movies with darkness in them?
A: Talk to any kid and ask what kind of story they want to hear at night. The one with the birds and flowers--Bambi--or the Grimm's fairy tales where you have to race your own id. I want the nightmare. I need that conflict, the edginess that makes you want to know what happens next.
Q: Do you make your choices mostly by script or director?
A: Mostly script. I read a lot of scripts.