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Kicking back with Kurt

Whether it's been leaving acting for a stint as a second baseman or taking on roles that would one day become iconic, actor Kurt Russell has always been a maverick.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

(continued from page 1)

The plot's almost identical in the sequel, 1996's Escape from L.A. This time, a massive earthquake predicted by a rabid preacher-turned-U.S. president has sheared off most of Southern California and created an island that is being used as a maximum security prison for the country's undesirable elements, the unworthy and, this being L.A., those grossly disfigured by too much plastic surgery. Both Carpenter and Russell, a coproducer on Escape from L.A., may have been uncomfortably prescient in their take on what New York and Los Angeles, and society in general, would be like in the not too distant future. Russell credits the films' cult status to a couple of things: his portrayal of the iconic figure, the movies' statement on the future of government, and the fact, Russell says, that most men really, really deep down want to be Snake Plissken.

"You know, when Escape from New York first came out, a lot of people said, 'I don't quite understand this movie…is this some kind of comment that, like, New York is a prison?' and years later a lot of people," Russell laughs, "are saying, 'You know, New York is looking a lot like that movie.' In Escape from L.A., it's a story about a guy who just wants a cigarette. He just wants a cigarette! Everybody laughed back then because there was no red meat, no cigarettes in the movie. Well, look around! It's happening! You can barely smoke a cigarette anymore and [although] I quit smoking six months ago, the [antismoking] laws are enough to make me want to smoke!"

Russell admits that while there are numerous roles he's taken where he, within himself, recognized what made the strong male character tick—lawman Wyatt Earp in 1993's Tombstone, firefighter Stephen McCaffrey in 1991's Backdraft, troubled, cigar-smoking detective Eldon Perry in 2002's Dark Blue, the determined husband in 1997's Breakdown, the obnoxiously macho boat captain in 1992's Captain Ron—he also says that his favorite character "that anybody's every done, in any movie, ever, is Snake Plissken. Every man wants to be Snake Plissken.

"He's completely independent. He's given up on everything on earth except for food, air and water. It's every man's fantasy to be completely, completely, capable of walking anywhere, at any time, fearlessly. He has no connection to anything. Nothing. He doesn't care about you, me or anybody. He does not care. He's not human that way [in that] he's not bothered with anything, he's not tied to anything, he has no agenda.

"You know," Russell continues, "when you're not walking to or from anything, there's no walking away…there's nothing to walk away from. New York, L.A., it's all about a person's ability to escape. Snake just survives, minute by minute, and it does tickle his fancy, you know. He does have a sense of humor about it, but he's just got this psychotic need to survive," the actor says with a laugh. It's fascinating to hear Russell talk about a character who doesn't care, who walks alone and doesn't need anyone or anything as being the ultimate male fantasy, since the depiction doesn't seem to bear any resemblance to Russell's own family life. And this is not a guy who conforms to anyone else's idea of what his life should or shouldn't resemble.

In reality, Russell's a devoted son, brother, father and grandfather, and he and Goldie Hawn have been a couple for 23 years. Their combined family of four children includes actors Kate and Oliver Hudson (Goldie's two children from her second marriage to musician Bill Hudson), Boston Russell (Russell's son from his marriage to actress Season Hubley) and Wyatt Russell, his son with Hawn. The family got slightly bigger in 2004 when Kate and her musician husband Chris Robinson added son Ryder into the mix. For the record and despite media stories to the contrary, Russell reports, Ryder does not call Goldie "Glam-ma" and Kurt "Mr. President."

"I couldn't pronounce my middle name, Vogel, when I was a kid," Russell explains, "so I'd tell people it was 'Gogo.' It became a family nickname and 30 years later I discovered that it was Goldie's nickname as a child, too. So Ryder calls Goldie 'Gogo' and I'm 'Gogi,'" he says, chuckling.

Gogi? This soft side of Russell is so obvious at times, such as when he's talking about his kids, Goldie or his grandson, but so thoroughly absent when discussing less personal matters. He's more critical when talking about work or politics or offering up his opinion on weapons of mass destruction (they're out there, we just haven't found them), the role of the media (we're lazy, complacent and not doing our job), government wiretapping (he couldn't care less since he's not personally talking to anyone in Afghanistan right now) or political parties (he's Libertarian). It's all just part of the fascinating dichotomy that becomes apparent in Russell only after long periods of exposure.

Russell is ambivalent about allowing that exposure and, not surprisingly, just doesn't see himself as a particularly complex guy. He doesn't have a personal publicist, he says, because he doesn't really want publicity. With this interview taking place just a few days before the Academy Awards, Russell makes his point by joking that, in giving their acceptance speech, award winners shouldn't thank their spouse, their director, their mother or the Academy; they should thank their publicist. It's the publicity machine, he says, that propels people in the acting world, publicity that gets them bigger roles, bigger contracts, bigger paychecks.

Russell himself gives very few interviews—and when he does they're typically short, 10-minute sound bites—because, he insists, he doesn't have anything to say. Plus, the media, he insists, will just get it all wrong or, because they're basically lazy, scrounge up material that's already been in print and just recycle it, accurate or not. Like this whole nasty macho stereotype.

Kurt Russell would like it to be known that he isn't macho. Never has been, he says, and the term is "crap. Fucking crap. My family reads that stuff and just shake their heads. They laugh about it, my sisters do and my mom does, because they want to know who that guy is that they're reading about. It sure as all hell isn't me!"

When asked to supply a word that his sisters might offer as an alternative, he blurts out "sweet," before thinking about it for a moment and then, almost defensively, saying it again. "I'm sweet. I am. I can be really sweet and I like to do things for the people I'm close to."

Prodded for an example, he offers up "I make Goldie a cappuccino every morning and sometimes," he mumbles, staring down at his feet, "I draw little designs in the foam."

That he's still got a soft spot for Hawn after nearly a quarter of a century is obvious; he readily admits to still being knocked out by her beauty (Hawn just turned 60 but could easily pass for 15 years younger) and describes her as strong, spirited, hardworking and committed to having fun in life.

Both Russell and Hawn, whether in interviews or in Goldie's 2005 memoir A Lotus Grows in the Mud, have tackled the question of whether they'll ever get married with humor and quick-witted replies such as "Been there, done that twice…and I have the financial statements to prove it" (Hawn) and "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" (Russell), but Russell says that while it's still not out of the question, it's not all that big a deal to them. He says that at various times over the years they've asked the kids whether it was important to them that they get married, whether it was an issue for them at school or among their peers, and said that if it was, they would.

Obviously marriage wasn't and isn't a very big issue in the Hawn-Russell household. More of an issue recently, it seems, is public reaction to some of what Hawn had to say in her memoir and on the subsequent author tour with regards to monogamy. In summary, Hawn's take on the subject is that men were never built to be monogamous—it's not in their genetic makeup—and to force the issue is to lose some of the characteristics that drew a woman to the man in her life to begin with. Feminists and talk-show hosts have had a field day with the concept, most notably following an interview Hawn did while on the female-hosted morning show "The View," but if her belief that men "by nature need to spread their seed" raised some serious eyebrows on network television, the concept seems scientifically solid to Russell.

He also wants to be clear that this is a concept that he and Hawn have talked about. A lot.

"What I like about Goldie is that she is [committed] to not only examining things, but does so understanding that she may come to a conclusion which may not be peaceful to her but is a reality. She forces me to do the same, which is what I really love about her. We both have the same opinion on [this] and I think it's very misunderstood."

What it all boils down to, says Russell, is genetics, DNA and "what's really great about the next 25 years is that they're actually going to understand, scientifically, why men and women are the way they are. Look, men have to suffer tremendous rejection based on women's ability to smell [their] DNA from 50 feet away in a crowded room. You can't do that as a man, so you go over and make a fool of yourself to someone who's never going to be interested in you, [because] if her nose has already told her that you're not going to make offspring with [her], don't bother.

"Men are hardwired to spread their seed," Russell continues, "as far and wide as they can to perpetuate a species. So what has mankind done with this in terms of creating a society? It's created a society where men are supposed to be with one woman…let me see you [explain] that one scientifically. It's not true! But here's the thing that wasn't talked about [and] is what Goldie and I find. Are there instances, rare instances, when people may be just hooked into one person? Yeah. I got news for you, there are. I'm living in one of those relationships," he says. "That doesn't mean I'm immune, it doesn't mean she's immune. It's not without its potential for failure, but when I hear 'oh, they have an open marriage,' then they've gotten the wrong message."

Mainstream concepts? Maybe not, but the Hawn-Russell collaboration seems sturdy and strong enough in terms of family, home and shared interests. Besides the home in Malibu (and a new property being built nearby), the family shares a home in British Columbia and the 72-acre "Home Run Ranch" outside of Aspen. Skiing is a shared passion, as is sailing and traveling the globe.

And, of course, there's the shared career. Although Russell and Hawn have made multiple films together over the years—the most notable ones being Swing Shift and Overboard—it's been decades since they've appeared in a movie together. They're hoping to change that with a script Hawn's written called Ashes to Ashes. A drama based predominantly in India, which is one of Hawn's favorite countries, both Hawn and Russell would star in the film, with Hawn also directing.

At 55, Russell looks…good. And if "good" on Russell isn't necessarily what might be deemed the same by much of Hollywood, so much the better. Russell's good looks are rugged. You aren't likely to find plucked brows or artfully streaked hair on this guy, at least off the set. And if he's sporting a light tan, it's not from lying on a bed or being sprayed with tanning foam. Russell loves the outdoors, and the squint lines around his blue eyes—no nip-and-tucks there, either—are proof of a life spent batting and fielding balls, skiing, sailing and playing on the beach. He's also remarkably down-to-earth and, as the time approaches for a photo shoot, remarkably unconcerned with how he's going to look in the photographs. He doesn't want a fashion stylist, doesn't want a hairstylist or a makeup artist. He simply sits down on a bench, still barefoot, with the breeze off the ocean ruffling his shaggy hair.

Russell's disregard and seeming disinterest in the "fame game" often associated with life in the limelight only adds to his rugged, guy's-guy charm. It also adds to the challenge of figuring out what makes Russell, the man, and Russell, the actor, tick.

He's got a sharp, analytical mind and a cobra's instinct for striking during debate that he rarely lets on to in public. He's a strikingly handsome man who doesn't appear to care much about his appearance or even in appearances. He's a consistently busy actor who professes to be able to walk away from Hollywood at any moment, an athlete who doesn't pencil in regular dates with a trainer into his BlackBerry and, well, forget the whole BlackBerry thing, anyway; Russell may be comfortable enough with his mechanical skills to perform preflight checks on his plane and handle his boat halfway up the western seaboard, but he professes to not know how to turn on a computer or use e-mail.

Russell's chalked up some 44 films in his acting career, not to mention television roles and a few early-in-his-career stage performances. By Hollywood industry standards he's a veteran performer who, in spite of working when he wants and taking time off when he wants—maybe to watch his son play hockey for a season, maybe to sail for a few weeks, maybe to go to Katmandu with Goldie—he maintains a reputation as a consistent, dependable performer with consistent, dependable box office draw.

And, if the guy's willing to skewer the very idea of a stage actor's curtain call following a performance ("Having to act and behave as if you're humble is insane. Insane. These guys, actors, bask in what they consider their glory, their due, and that makes me just want to throw up…Linda Blair—style throw up.") or insist that for him, Goldie and the kids acting is simply work ("We're working people. We make a lot of money, but we're working-class mentality: 'Go to work. Do the work. You can't just take the money and walk away. Take responsibility for it, good, bad or indifferent.'"), you have to give the guy credit for speaking his truth, even if it might make his agent, a studio or his publicist cringe. Oh, wait a minute, he doesn't have a publicist.

"Look," explains Russell, "I know every piece of this industry. Sound, music, direction, writing, producing, acting…I've done it. I would have had to go in there and shut my eyes and ears to not learn it all after 45 years, and there are times when I've just kind of felt, 'I've had it.' But you know, then you get another opportunity that's really fun where you get to work with really good people. To me, that's the fun part of this business, it's always the great people. That's why you take on a new film."

Well, that and perhaps the toy buying abilities that come with that new film's paycheck. Russell's a guy who has places to go, people to see, and isn't inclined to wait on others to make things happen, least of all the Transportation Safety Administration. When Russell's got a yen to get on the road, he simply heads up in the air. In recent years, the multi-instrument-rated pilot has most often been heading north to Canada, where his 19-year-old son Wyatt plays professional junior league hockey.

Russell's musings on flying are consistent with a lot of Russell's musings on the world in general; the actor's world is predominantly black and white without a whole lot of room for anything else. The single biggest area of gray that Russell may even consider are the winter skies that often hang over the home that he and Hawn bought in British Columbia when Wyatt began playing hockey in Canada some four years ago.

Short of that, the black and white of flying—the preflight check, the intimate knowledge of one's plane, the rules and regulations and the very fact that you either gain altitude and manage to stay up in the sky or you don't—seems to fit right in with Russell's take on life and his acting career: you're on board or you're not, you're prepared for the flight or you're not, and if you aren't hip to the occasional turbulence that brings bumps, thrills or a drop in altitude, stay on the tarmac.

Russell is currently flying a Socata TBM 700, but is getting, well, a little altitude attitude. "I find myself flying distances now for work and for business; you're at 28,000 feet and flying in the clouds and basically flying from Point A to Point B [and] I get up there [Vancouver] in a little less than three hours. Not," Russell smiles, "a lot of romance there.",

Russell mentions two or three other planes he's considering trading his single prop jet in for—most of them smaller, lighter planes—but then all of a sudden mentions that he's beginning to seriously consider a Waco.

Not a whacko, a Waco.

Russell hops up to show off the "planes for sale" pages with the ads he's circled for Waco biplanes and excitedly begins to reel off the planes he's traded in for different models over the eighteen years he's been flying. When it's pointed out that he trades airplanes the way little boys trade baseball cards and slightly bigger boys trade sports cars, he grins for a moment before becoming thoughtful. "Yeah, but the way it works, you see, is that if I want another plane, I guess I've got to do another movie."


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