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Gene Hackman: On Top of His Game

At 70, the consummate actor shows no signs of slowing.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

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While it sounds fairly practical and a good way to avoid unnecessary stress, Hackman is all too aware of the egos whose artistic growth have been thwarted by their own hubris, often to the detriment of creating a good product. "It's about power. Everybody loves power. But I think that you have to direct your power to where it's most valuable. And to me, your power as an actor is most valuable when you're in the scene, not when you're over telling the director the way you want a scene run or casting the film. I think that if you're a leading man and you have that kind of career, maybe that's OK if that's what you want to do with your life. I was never afflicted with that, probably because I was never a leading man. I had the opportunity to do character things that were fulfilling to me, so it's easy for me to say that's the way to go. I think maybe after French Connection I might have had enough juice to finagle a very big commercial career for myself. I don't think it would have lasted, though."

"Gene makes us look at ourselves. He can give you a well-rounded character; he'll give you the dark side. He always finds, and he completely understands and is interested in, the complexity of the darkness as well as the other parts of the character. What I love about Gene is you get these shades everywhere." --Roger Spottiswoode, director, Under Fire (1983) While many of Hackman's characters always seem to be playing with the light and dark sides of their psyches, creating the clear-cut heavy doesn't appeal to him. "I don't think I can play just an out-and-out villain," he says, resolutely. "I wouldn't know how to do that, because what's interesting to me is to do behavior and human kinds of things to make somebody a fully fleshed-out character. And in doing that, you end up not having a character be sympathetic, but having an audience empathize with who you are playing. "A character like Frank Ramsey in Crimson Tide is fun for me to do. He's not a villain, but he's kind of a by-the-book guy and it's fun to portray somebody like that. I suppose I probably have enough of that in me to be able to play that character. I loved working on that film. It was very intense, really concentrated work. Not only because it was claustrophobic but also the nature of the script was that Denzel [Washington] and I dominated most of the dialogue in the film."

Musing about the changes he has seen over the past 40 years in the business, he offers, "The cliché answer is to say that we're inundated with technology and all that, but the acting hasn't changed. Regardless if you're in a space movie or whatever and there's a lot of technical things going on around you, you still have the basic problem of making contact with the other actors, making the moment work, fulfilling the author's intent, satisfying yourself in terms of who you are as a person or as an actor. So those things never change."

But as giant conglomerates continue to swallow up film studios and stock prices become more important than quality filmmaking, there is one sensibility that he doesn't share. "I think that there is kind of a creeping peril that is hanging over the business. It's a 'green peril' that has to do with money, that has to do with schedules and the bottom line. Not that it wasn't always true, but it seems to be much more prevalent now that there's so much more money involved. It's hard for me to deal with the 'business' part of acting because somehow or another I feel I shouldn't have to. I don't like working with people who are constantly talking about money and the bottom line. But there's nothing more satisfying to me than making a scene work and knowing just that little thing that clicks in front of you." That sense of story and character also led him to undertake a nontheatrical project--a novel. Not surprisingly, the beauty was in the process of creation. Co-authored with noted marine archaeologist Dan Lenihan, the novel, Wake of the Perdido Star, was published in 1999. "The story came first," says Hackman.

"We were sitting here in this café talking about what we like to read and why those stories weren't written anymore, and we found out why: because they're hard to write and people just aren't interested in them anymore. Though we did sell 50,000 copies, so I guess it wasn't that they weren't interested; it just wasn't a runaway best-seller. We would each write eight or nine pages and come in here and exchange pages and have lunch and talk generally and maybe read over some of it. And then we would call each other and say, 'How about this or that?' And then the last 50 or 60 pages we mapped out because we felt it was very important to pull it all together." Laughing about his own baggage in writing a novel, Hackman admits, "The hardest thing to me was the editing. I've relied on my instincts so much as an actor that there was so much resistance to change some of the things I had written, and that was hard. But after a while I decided to let the chips fall where they may; bad reviews weren't going to kill me."

Hackman costarred with Keanu Reeves in this summer's comedy The Replacements, as coach of a team of National Football League strikebreakers. This fall, Hackman will costar in Under Suspicion with Morgan Freeman. A labor of love, the movie took Hackman nearly two decades to make. "I had the project 18 years ago and I sent it to everybody I knew and nobody wanted to do it. I had worked with Morgan Freeman on Unforgiven and ran into him about a year later and told him about the project and sent him the French version of the film. And he liked the film a lot and I told him I'd play either role. I'd leave the decision up to him." In the tense psychological drama, Hackman plays Henry Hearst, a wealthy pathological liar who is being questioned by a detective who is an old friend (played by Freeman) in connection with the rape and murder of two prepubescent girls.

"What was compelling about the character is that we all fall into our own clichés and our own ideas of who people are," Hackman says. "And that we commit these crimes of the mind against them without really knowing if they're guilty of certain things. What I love about the script was the idea that we have these perceptions about people based on our own needs, our own idea of what is fair in life. And life just isn't fair, you know. We many times find that we've done all the right things and still get screwed. And many times anger drives us to all kinds of decisions in life that are not always fulfilling."

Hackman is still unsure about the overall impact of the film. "I wanted to see if I could play that multilayered kind of sophisticate. I never really got to where I liked my work in this film, probably because we shot the film in seven weeks under pretty tough conditions, and somehow I feel we just never got to it. I felt pretty good in some scenes, but I'm not sure if the film works or not." Costar Freeman agrees. "[Under Suspicion] really does create a dialogue and that's a good thing, I know. But in something like this, you really don't know if you really got to the tap root of the story, if you've really served it to its best." At an age when many of his contemporaries are long retired, Hackman still revels in his work, often making several pictures a year. "You know, it's wacky, I've been doing this for so many years, but it's something I'm stuck with. What's kind of scary is now I see that I may not have so many opportunities left to do good work. I've done 70 films, and let's say I work another five years or so..."

His voice trails off as if he can't comprehend the gravity of his words, then he continues. "If you enjoy it the way I enjoy it, then you'd understand what I'm saying. I used to be able to go in and kind of not really work on a part and do it out of pure instinct. But I feel like maybe I can do more now. I think I'm more specific. More direct. I just feel that I care more now. Or I am more aware of how much it means to me."

"At my age," he adds, "you have to love it or you can't do it. It makes me alive. I never feel as alive as when I'm acting." It is that passion for his work that puts the laughter in his resonant voice, the vitality in his 6-foot-2 frame and a twinkle in his bright blue eyes. For whatever it's worth, he sure doesn't look 70. Although the "age thing" creeps into his conversation, Hackman appears to have made an uneasy truce with the milestone and most of its ramifications. "Physically, I don't feel 70. It's just a number," he says. "But it's a number that is a wake-up call. You know that you don't have too many more decades." Pausing for a moment, he takes care not to sound too earnest.

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