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Mel Gibson talks about Braveheart, movie stardom, and media treachery

In the 16 years since he made his screen debut, Mel Gibson has seen plenty of action. Part of what makes him so charismatic is his ability to take a licking and keep on ticking: enemies can beat him, shoot him, torture and humiliate him, but he always comes back for more, hurling hot lead, uppercuts, and really awful puns.

But for all the abuse he's absorbed in the name of entertainment, Mel Gibson has never looked as exhausted onscreen as he does right now, sitting in a plush chair in his suite at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. He's wearing a hand-tailored, three-piece Italian suit in various shades of slate, but it's wrinkled and amusingly unbuttoned in places; he's slung the jacket over a chair because it's stuffy in here. Gibson's close-cropped brown hair is matted, and his eyes look red and puffy. Slumped unceremoniously in the chair, head bowed at a sleepy angle, he looks less like a millionaire matinee idol than a little kid who much preferred sleeping in on Sunday to going across town to visit his hug-crazy, mustachioed Aunt Ethel.

He's come to Dallas as part of a multi-city tour promoting his latest film, Braveheart, a $70 million medieval epic about 13th-century rebel William Wallace, a Scotsman who led his countrymen in a desperate crusade to evict the occupying British. According to his printed itinerary, since 6 a.m. today, he's done three locally broadcast one-hour radio shows, two TV appearances, and four one-on-one interviews with major print outlets. He'll probably do a couple more print interviews--roundtable discussions with reporters from minor publications and college papers. Then maybe a workout to keep his much-coveted physique in salable shape. And tomorrow morning, he'll drive out to Las Colinas, clamber onto a platform down by the Mandalay Canal, and present an award to the Boy Scouts' "Scout of the Year." Then it's off to the airport and on to Chicago or Denver or someplace--Gibson is too tired to remember where--to begin again.

The interview begins with an abstract question about acting: since he's nowhere near as physically imposing as Schwarzenegger or Stallone, does Gibson have any pet performer's tricks that he employs to make moviegoers believe in him as an action hero?

"Well," Gibson says. He squints, thinking."Well...if you can convince..." he trails off. "If you can make...If...If, uh, the audience...If you can add some..."

He is silent for a good 30 seconds, squinting extra hard.
"God," he finally mutters. "I don't know the answer to that question. Maybe if you'd asked me this morning, I could have come back with something interesting, but now I'm having trouble even getting a sentence together in my head. I'm fuckin' exhausted, man. I just woke up from laying down for a few minutes, and I'm still trying to put my brain cells back in order. This movie had a long shoot--105 days on location, no breaks. It took a lot out of me. It was fun, but it was pretty taxing, too. And the stuff that comes after the shoot takes a long time, too. The editing. The previews. This..." He waves his hand at the reporter, the tape recorder, the hotel room.

Gibson pulls down an estimated $10 to $15 million salary for each movie he appears in, plus a cut of the gross box office receipts, videocassette sales, and just about everything else. When you tally up domestic and foreign box office receipts, the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon movies alone have grossed nearly a billion-and-a-half dollars. A star of Gibson's magnitude usually wouldn't be caught dead traveling the country, cozying up to any journalist who will listen to his spiel, and engaging in photo ops with Boy Scouts.

But Gibson has too much riding on this movie to go the low-impact route. First, Gibson directed the film; he's only helmed one other, the 1993 tearjerking melodrama Man Without a Face. Second, he's credited as a producer. Third, his independent production company, Icon, assembled half the picture's shooting budget from various foreign investors, with the other half coming from Paramount, which figured Gibson's name on anything was worth kicking in $35 million. And last but not least, besides Gibson, Braveheart has no stars. It's an exceptionally violent three-hour epic about an obscure historical rebel figure driven to vengeance and grief and outrage over the murder of his beautiful fiancee by British soldiers. And he dies a graphically violent death so that others might live to fight another day, thus making Braveheart a one-shot project with no sequel potential.

Now that the film is almost finished--the print screened for the press the night before was complete except for a final, digital sound mix--does Gibson find himself obsessing over any aspect of Braveheart? Like the quality of his performance, or the picture's lengthy running time, or the promotional campaign, or how it will ultimately be received by critics? Anything?

"The paycheck," he quips, without missing a beat.
Then he laughs and shakes his head. His face twists into an almost surprised grimace. Mel Gibson, who is known by his colleagues as perhaps the only first-rank action star who doesn't take things too seriously, suddenly seems troubled by the realization that he just cracked a joke.

"Jesus, I'm kidding," he says. "What am I obsessing over? The whole thing. Every part of it. I mean, it's my reputation that's on the line, obviously. If the movie's a huge success, I get the credit, and vice versa. My name's all over this movie, so obviously, I'm under quite a bit of pressure. And yeah, I'm worried. Fuck...Wouldn't you be?"

At first, William Wallace, Braveheart's hero, seems to fit handily into the gallery of heroes Gibson has played throughout his career. He's a handsome, likable loner with a crude, pubcrawling sense of humor, a flirtatious streak, and a moral code buried just deep enough beneath his easygoing facade that the bad guys mistake him for a fence-sitting noncombatant. As a child, Wallace saw his rebellious father murdered by English soldiers. He fled to Europe and wandered for years, seeing the world beyond Scotland, studying swordplay and tactics, and learning six languages. He returns to his village to court his childhood sweetheart, Murron (Catherine McCormack).

The nefarious King Edward of Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan, in a sublimely wicked performance) has declared that English lords stationed in Scotland shall have "first night" rights over Scottish brides--meaning that whenever a Scottish citizen marries another, the boss of their province gets to kidnap the bride after nuptials and return her the next morning. "We'll breed them into submission," the king declares. To foil the English, Wallace and his bride marry in secret and avoid each other in public. But the bad guys catch on, and when one of them tries to sexually assault Murron and put English law into practice, Wallace fights back, slaying several of the king's men.

But poor Murron is murdered shortly afterward. And Wallace the ne'er-do-well is transformed overnight into Wallace the crusader, determined to avenge his broken heart on the entire nation of England. He travels the countryside, stirring up resentment among his formerly cowed countrymen, practically shaming them into rebellion.

The film isn't especially complex or disturbing; despite its oceans of gore, it's a surprisingly old-fashioned epic adventure. It has scope but not depth, mostly because once Wallace's beautiful bride is murdered, he becomes an angel of vengeance fueled by an almost supernatural thirst for payback. Whatever subtle shadings the character possessed before are incinerated in the furnace of his rage.

The picture remains gripping because Gibson, possibly the most intensely physical actor in English-language cinema, acts as an emotional eye for the picture's hurricane of action. Charging on foot or on horseback, swinging a giant, bloodstained broadsword, shrieking inhuman taunts through a face smeared with blue-black war paint, crashing through enemy phalanxes, and leaving hacked limbs in his wake, William Wallace is positively demonic--a force of nature enthralled by his own agonized bloodlust. His masklike face tells his men what kind of life they're in for if they fail to beat the English: it says, Follow me or you'll end up like me.

The cinema has produced a number of terrific large-scale battles, but at their very best, they're lucky to touch the hem of Braveheart's kilt. There are thousands of extras onscreen during some of the sequences, and they employ complex tactics that a lazy director might not have bothered to elucidate. But Gibson lays everything out with such precision and economy that you always know which side is which, who's winning and who's losing, and where everyone is in relation to their enemies.

Not that the film treats combat as an intellectual exercise; far from it. Few films have so indelibly captured the horrific exhilaration of war. Like the chopper attack sequence in Apocalypse Now and the St. Crispian's day battle in Olivier's Henry V, the Battle of Stirling--the film's visceral centerpiece--is simultaneously ecstatic and frightening. When the English unleash a flock of what looks like a million arrows, the camera follows them as they arc high over the battlefield, streaking toward the Scottish soldiers, who crouch down and hoist up their makeshift shields and pray. Then the English horsemen charge, and Wallace's men are instructed not to evade them, but to wait until the last possible second, then lift up long spears to impale the horses and riders. But Gibson's perverse sense of humor never completely disappears. At the start of the Battle of Stirling, Wallace and his men taunt the prim English soldiers by mooning them; as the men flip up their kilts, the screen fills up with jiggling genitals and asses. It's Antietam meets Animal House.

During quieter moments, Gibson's touch is less confident. He pulls off a few lovely closeups, in which the camera lingers mercilessly on the face of someone who's just been defeated, one-upped, or betrayed. And he gives his supporting cast plenty of memorable scenes and lines and lets them create fully rounded characters. But the hero's furtive tryst with a French-reared English princess (Sophie Marceau) makes narrative but not quite emotional sense. And the finale, in which Wallace dies a martyr's death by undergoing three different forms of ghastly torture, ought to rise to heights of awful, soul-wrenching grandeur, but instead it's merely unpleasant. And it smacks of directorial privilege. As the scrappy, muscular little star is hung by the neck and stretched on a rack, we seem to be witnessing the ultimate example of Christlike posing by an actor-director. Eastwood, Stallone, and Costner have pulled this stunt, too--sometimes more than once in the same film--and whether it's justified by the screenplay or not, it always seems more self-indulgent than enlightening. As sensible and entertainment-oriented as he is, you'd think Gibson would know better.

In a peculiar sense, though, Gibson, more than almost any other star-turned-director, has earned the right to celebrate his own cinematic immolation. He seems to belong to another, earlier era--an era that celebrated testosterone-stoked movie heroes like Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, and Lee Marvin--womanizing, hard-partying, hypermacho tough guys who enjoyed themselves offscreen as much as viewers enjoyed them in the theater.

Born in 1956 in upstate New York to strict Catholic parents, his family moved to Australia when Gibson was 12 so that he and his siblings could avoid being drafted into Vietnam, which then seemed as though it would never end. Raised in a land that worships fast cars, tough fighters, and fierce constitutions, he flowered into a first-class hellraising rebel, and he's admitted on many occasions that he's never really changed. Like Popeye, he yam what he yam. The idea that bad press--and he's gotten reams of it--could somehow shame him into reforming, becoming sensitive and politically correct and socially conscious, is laughable. Mention this prospect in front of him, and he looks truly bewildered.

He's an infamous practical joker, miming injuries after shooting potentially dangerous scenes just to get a reaction out of people, hiring out 40-piece high-school marching bands to greet friends on other film sets, belching and farting and scratching himself to test whether squeamish onlookers will muster up the nerve to complain. And he has a retro sense of how to appear boyishly charming to women. His Braveheart costar Sophie Marceau told Entertainment Weekly that Gibson kept unexpectedly flashing his penis at her on the set to lighten the mood. And Stephanie Mansfield, a reporter for GQ, witnessed a Gibson sight gag that would eventually serve as the finale of her June cover story: Gibson had to leave their interview at Icon Productions to attend a meeting and told her she was welcome to wait in his office until he returned, and Mansfield jokingly warned him that she might take the opportunity to look through his drawers. "You wanna look through my drawers?" Gibson shrieked, and began to pull down his pants.

Gibson has also been involved in other juvenile spectacles with more serious repercussions. Gibson was arrested for driving under the influence in Toronto while filming 1984's Mrs. Soffel, and his 1990 bar odyssey with three college students ended up in the tabloids, complete with personal snapshots. People magazine's first "Sexiest Man Alive" cover story found Gibson in the Australian desert during the shooting of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in a tequila-sodden stupor, going out of his way to make everyone around him feel as shitty as he did.

Gibson attended his first Alcoholics' Anonymous meeting five years ago, and by most accounts, he's since become a more stable person, living a relatively sedate life with his wife of 15 years, Robyn, and being a father to a small platoon of children.

But that doesn't mean he's now a stranger to controversy. He's made vehemently antigay comments to reporters on several occasions. The most recent came three years ago in an interview with Spain's largest newspaper, El Pais. Asked about the stereotype that actors are usually gay, Gibson stood up, grasped his buttocks, and declared, "This is only for taking a shit...They [gays] take it up the ass." He then asserted his heterosexuality in a curiously defensive tone. "Do I look like a homosexual?" he demanded of the reporter. "Do I talk like them? Do I move like them?" The gay political magazine The Advocate responded by naming Gibson its 1992 "Sissy of the Year," an honor bestowed on celebrities who treat homosexuality in a "timid or cowardly" fashion.

All of which unfortunately colors one aspect of Braveheart: the king's relationship with his son, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), a spoiled, petulant, weak-willed young gay man. In the movie's (admittedly slight) defense, the character's sexuality is backed up by historical record, and the film portrays him less as a villain than as a victim, continually persecuted by a hostile nation, a treacherous court, and his own hateful father. (He was also the subject of the late Derek Jarman's politically charged 1992 experimental feature Edward II.) But in light of Gibson's past remarks, the way Braveheart unflatteringly contrasts Prince Edward's effeminate mannerisms with William Wallace's supermacho posturing comes off as unsavory. And the scene in which the king throws his son's male lover out of a window in a fit of pique might strike some viewers as downright creepy. It certainly strikes the San Francisco-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) that way. "The Edward II character in Braveheart is a throwback to the classic celluloid queer played for laughs as a simpering weakling," declares GLAAD's executive director, Ellen Carton. The organization plans to demonstrate outside theaters on the picture's opening day in nine major cities, not including Dallas.

I asked Gibson whether he feels uncomfortable exposing himself to a multi-city schmooze session with journalists. After all, in the past the media has sometimes painted him as unpleasant, a drunk, a bigot, or worse.

"Journalists are always looking for a hook, an angle," Gibson says, shifting somewhat uncomfortably in his chair. "That's part of the job."

How, then, does a celebrity who's been skewered before decide willingly to wade into the lion's den and do several cities' worth of one-on-one interviews, even if the success of a very expensive and very personal film is at stake? Isn't he just opening himself up for more minor scandals?

"Well, obviously, after a while you do learn to think before you speak," he says.

He pauses for a moment and does just that.
Gibson makes no attempt to address unflattering stories about himself, whether they concern alcohol, abusive behavior, or offensive remarks. He doesn't deny that he said any of the things he was quoted as saying, nor does he claim that his words were subtly distorted to make more lively copy.

I asked whether someone who's made enemies in the gay and lesbian press takes a more cautionary approach when dealing with gay characters, like Edward of Longshanks' son in Braveheart.

"No!" says Gibson firmly. "In what way? I don't understand the problem. No way."

He falls silent. He puts his face in his hands and rubs his eyes. When his visage becomes visible again, it is confused and troubled.

"Y'know, somebody brought that up at the junket last week," Gibson says quietly. "I didn't understand why it was being brought up. This writer said to me, 'Well, I mean, you threw that character out the window because he's gay.'"

Gibson stares straight ahead, expressionless, as if picturing the unpleasant exchange in his head.

"So I said, 'Well, what? Should I have cut it out? Should I have cut Wallace's death out, too? They killed Wallace because he was Scottish.' Everybody's part of some group that somebody else hates. The king didn't throw that character out the window because he's gay. He did it because the king's a psychopath. That [reporter] was looking at it the wrong way," he continues, frowning. "It's not gonna be everybody's cup of tea. People are gonna see things that they wanna see, whether it's that way or not. And if they have an insecurity, that's their problem."

He's remarkably levelheaded about the whole affair. He views PR as a business transaction: You give me press and I give you a story. And although he's not big on self-analysis--at least not in public--I treated him to a few choice quotes about himself from other sources. One is from film historian David Thomson, who said that Gibson always struck him as someone who was more comfortable doing comedy than drama, and that he really ought to do a screwball comedy someday.

"Huh," Gibson says, looking at his hands on his lap, a bit sheepish. He smiles. "That's interesting. I hadn't read that. I don't know what to say to that."

Another comes from actress Sigourney Weaver. She said that Gibson's acting style is so cinematic that when she was on the set with him during The Year of Living Dangerously, she initially thought he was an attractive blank. Then she saw the dailies and realized Gibson was acting for the benefit of the camera alone, doing things so subtle nobody else on the set could see it.

"Sigourney said that?" Gibson says. As I read the quotation to him, Gibson puts his hands over his face. Now he's peeking out hesitantly from between two fingers. "Well...that's nice of her," he says at last. "Of course, what she might've been seeing was insecurity. Maybe when I was younger I was a little less adventurous about certain things, about how far to push 'em. I used to err on the subtle side."

In that case, do exaggerated, slightly flamboyant characters like Marty Rigg, William Wallace, and MacKussic, the genial drug dealer with the heart of gold from Tequila Sunrise, represent the sort of parts Gibson feels more comfortable with? Does he ever miss the earlier phase of his career, when he was asked to do more with less in films like Gallipoli and Mrs. Soffel and The River?

And does he ever see himself doing a Harvey Keitel--taking cameos as eccentric minor characters in Hollywood movies and doing hardcore, from-the-gut method acting in low-budget independent pictures?

"Maybe, yeah," he says. He says if he's intrigued by the prospect, it's because it would allow him to take some time off from the stress of making movies--especially with films as expensive and involved as Braveheart. His company, Icon Productions, has made eight films in four years. "It might be nice to do something smaller," he says. But he doesn't sound so sure, and he's not eager to elaborate.

But when the subject is movie narrative, Gibson will talk your ear off. He has detailed philosophies about how to shoot a nonconfusing battle scene ("You always wanna make sure the audience knows who's who, otherwise it's like you're at a sporting event and both teams are wearing the same color jerseys") and the importance of humor even in grim scenes ("If this movie didn't have some funny bits, it'd be unbearable--the audience would fuckin' hang itself"). He's a meat-and-potatoes filmmaker. The approach mirrors his view of what constitutes effective acting. He likes his stories and emotions simple but big, he likes to play to the balcony, and he likes the good guys to win. If he ever plans to branch out and try something obscure or experimental, it won't be for a while. For now, he wants to make entertaining stories.

"Some of 'em are gonna be good and some of 'em might be shitty," he says. "But that's the way it goes. Either way, they're a part of the history of the medium. Film is our inherited culture. It's my culture. It was my mother's culture. That's how we express ourselves and see ourselves. We don't paint. We go to shows and do public dreaming. It's populist, but it's great.

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