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BASINGER, KIM: I Dreamed of Africa

Kim Basinger went to Africa to star in I Dreamed of Africa: she describes her trip to JENNY COONEY CARRILLO as "the biggest challenge I’ve ever had in my life, both professionally and as a human being - and especially as a mum."

Kim Basinger, an Oscar-winning actress, wife of actor Alec Baldwin and mother of Ireland, 2 ½, landed the role of a lifetime in the epic drama I Dreamed of Africa, the true story of Kuki Gallmann, a single mother living in Italy who risks everything to move to Kenya with her young son and new love Paolo (Vincent Perez) to discover adventure and her true self. Based on Gallmann’s own beautifully descriptive book of the same name, the film also gave Basinger an opportunity to experience a life-changing adventure, traveling with Baldwin and their daughter to shoot in Kenya and remote South African locations near the Lubombo Mountains. The 46-year-old star was deeply affected by her experience of Africa and talks passionately and articulately about the gut-wrenching decision she made to take on her biggest fears.

"my biggest fear"

"After I initially said I’d do it, all my fears rose to the surface and my biggest fear was taking a two-and-a-half-year-old into the bush," Basinger recalls candidly. She's sitting in the relative luxury of a New York hotel suite sipping an iced tea and looking more the glamorous movie star we’re accustomed to than the woman she became in Africa, trapped for several months with no running water or sewerage lines. "I’ll never forget the torment of waking up in the middle of the night sweating, and I’d wake up Alec and say, ‘we can pull out of this right now, I just have a feeling I don’t want to do this and I’m scared’. One friend of mine finally said, ‘things can happen to Ireland in New York or Los Angeles or Texas, so I think it’s your own fear you don’t want to face’ and she was right."

Published by Viking in 1991 and Penguin Books in 1992, I Dreamed of Africa opens with a John Keats quote: "A hope beyond the shadow of a dream…" What comes next is an astonishing chronicle of one woman’s remarkable existence – a tale of amazing adventures, laughter, deep love and the excruciating pain of losing loved ones and starting over. Gallmann had steadfastedly refused to let Hollywood splash her life across the big-screen and, in fact, had never even intended for the journals to be published in the first place. "People in the United States go to a lot to psychoanalysts and they talk," Gallmann explains. "I also talk – all Italians talk – but in general, the empty page is my psychoanalyst."

But producer Stanley Jaffe (Kramer vs. Kramer, The Accused) read the book on a plane and became determined to bring the saga to the screen, persevering until Gallmann finally came around. Five years after their first meeting, production began on the set constructed at Hluhluwe, KwaZulu Natal in South Africa and Basinger’s own adventure also began as she learned how to handle the harsh and unpredictable weather conditions, a tractor and a 13-foot python, not to mention avoiding the tick fever which struck almost everybody on the set except her own family.

"Everything has teeth in Africa, even the trees."

"It would be an all-day interview for me to even try to verbalize what it was like to go into the bush for as long as we did, to live with all the water being flown in and with puff adders and spitting cobras and bush spiders this big (she opens her arms wide with a shudder) and poisonous frogs and with a two-and-a-half-year-old with you and your husband," Basinger says, her voice full of emotion. "Everything has teeth in Africa, even the trees. The only thing that happened to Ireland the entire time was while my husband was carrying her on his shoulders and they walked past a branch of an acacia tree, which can really cut you up, and it scratched down her whole body," she says. "But Africa was really a tremendous gift to all of us and when the wheels on the plane pulled up as we left, the three of us held hands and cried for hours."

Kuki Gallmann’s experiences have already touched millions of readers and could well touch millions more through the film, directed by Hugh (Chariots of Fire) Hudson. She and Paolo (played by Vincent Perez in the movie) set out to open up their lives, engage in self-discovery and find a new way of living. Ultimately Africa dealt Kuki some cruel blows with the loss of both her husband and son but in the end she also came to realize that she was the current trustee of a certain chunk of Africa and that all life on that land was her responsibility to protect from poachers. Still living at the now-famous Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch home in Kenya with her surviving daughter Sveva, Kuki Gallmann started the Gallmann Memorial Foundation in 1987, dedicated to the harmonious co-existence of humans and the wild. She was instrumental in a now-widespread campaign to prevent the slaughter of elephants and rhinos and recently published a second book, African Nights.

"intimidated"

Understandably, Basinger was intimidated at the prospect of playing such a woman and deliberately avoided meeting her before making the film. "It was my choice and at first even Kuki didn’t understand why I didn’t want to meet with her," Basinger says. "I felt her book was the thing that made me want to do the movie and I didn’t want to travel to Kenya and talk with this very accomplished conservationist and woman I admire and then see the ranch as it looks today. I wanted to start from day one, like baking a cake myself, and I thought the influence from her would be overwhelming. Since I was not emotionally prepared to meet her, I just took the book with me to the set every day and whenever I wanted to know how she was feeling, I would read a paragraph and it would all be right there."

Basinger has since met up with Gallmann and admits she lived up to expectations. "We met in a hotel suite a few months ago and I’d already heard she liked the film, although I know it was an incredibly emotional experience for her to watch it with her daughter," she reflects. "I was very nervous about meeting her and in walked this woman whose shoes I hoped in a cinematic form I filled for her and I saw her eyes and it really gave me goose bumps; seeing the woman who had actually lived this life, experienced this pain and had done so much for Africa. All I could do was grab her and hug her and then we had a really nice talk and went to dinner."

"there is a piece of me that is very gypsy-esque"

Although Basinger’s own journey to stardom shares little in common with the tragedy and triumph of Kuku Gallman’s life, the former beauty queen from the South says she feels closely connected to the story of a woman whose spirit cannot be tied down or kept down for long. "I’m always buying books with titles like ‘The Simple Life’ and ‘Give It Up’ that seem to focus on people who have gone to work as missionaries or in the health field or something like that," she says a little sheepishly. "I’m very drawn to these stories because I think there is a piece of me that is very gypsy-esque and maybe one day, although it’s not practical for me right now, I could write a book that says, ‘and then she took off and now she’s working in Uganda’. I love to dream but whether I would ever have the guts or the opportunity to go for it, I don’t know…"

Plenty of Basinger’s dreams have already come true, almost in spite of the fact that her Amazonian blonde sex appeal stalled her serious acting career on more than one occasion. "If you’ve ever had the word sexy attached to your name," she says with a sigh, "as many doors as it opens, you can also hear them shutting from here to Kansas!"

The Georgia, Atlanta native moved to New York shortly after high school and landed a modeling contract with the prestigious Ford agency, finally making the transition to acting five years later with guest appearances on shows such as Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels. Her big-screen debut was promising: Basinger’s Southern accent helped her win the role of the forlorn girlfriend of high-living cowboy Jan-Michael Vincent in the low-budget but well-received 1981 drama Hard Country, and her career began to gain momentum in 1983 when she appeared as Bond girl, Domino Petachi, in Never Say Never Again and in the same year co-starred with Burt Reynolds in Blake Edward’s remake of The Man Who Loved Women.

"Once shy, always shy,"

Finally a break through role came as femme fatale Memo Paris romancing Robert Redford in The Natural in 1984 and Basinger hasn’t looked back. Along the way, she’s had plenty of misses: Blind Date, My Stepmother is an Alien, Cool World and The Marrying Man, which bombed at the box-office in 1991 but provided the meeting place for co-stars Basinger and Alec Baldwin to fall in love and eventually marry in 1993. But then there were hits such as the titillating 9 and ½ weeks, with Mickey Rourke, and her triumphant 1997 Oscar-winning performance in L.A. Confidential as a prostitute made to look like Veronica Lake. After I Dreamed of Africa, Basinger stars in Bless the Child, playing a nurse whose heroin-addicted sister drops a baby on her doorstep.

Yet the object of many accolades seems strangely embarrassed by the attention. "Once shy, always shy," she explains. "When I was a really young kid I wanted to be a public servant but I was too undisciplined to do medicine or law so I thought about it and I remember saying to myself, ‘well, what can I do to make people feel better’ and I remember being more of a clown at home than anything else, so I decided I wanted to make them laugh and that turned to acting. So between ‘action’ and ‘cut’, I really love my work but everything else about the job is hard to do. I’m just basically shy so it’s not that I don’t like to sit here and talk to you," she interrupts herself, the Southerner in her anxious not to offend, "but it has been hard to go on shows and do interviews and be the focus of attention."

As painful as that may be for the star, Basinger is willing to sacrifice herself to the media for her animal causes. "I will always be and have been since I was a young girl trying to help bring awareness and education to people who really don’t realise how much abuse goes on in this world with animals," she says. "The liberation of animals has always been a huge important subject of mine and I will continue that fight. I’m currently spokesperson for the Free the Elephants campaign for PAWS (Performing Animals Welfare Society) and I hope everyone who sees the movie realises there is nothing in the world better than seeing an animal in its own natural habitat, with no chains and no abuse and no man commanding it to perform."

"left her heart in Africa"

Basinger clearly left her heart in Africa, but is now a resident of Long Island, New York, where her daughter attends pre-school. "It was Alec’s dream to live on Long Island and if we ever live to be 80, we’ll never resolve where Kim wants to live and where Alec wants to live," she says with an amused grin. "But I knew that I’d have to pay for it if I never tried it his way, so here we are."

Like Gallmann, Basinger, too, dreams of Africa. "I wanted to move to Africa," she says with a nod. "It was amazing what it did for us and how it played with us. You can’t just go to Africa; she gives you something and you give something to her and the exchange is wonderful and you have it forever. I think it’s really sad that we live in such a rushed, hurried society and we’re all so busy that we never have time to just stop."

Almost as if on cue, Kim Basinger the movie star is signaled that she is needed elsewhere and must move on. She acknowledges the irony, almost apologising that her life’s work is playing people like Kuku Gallmann and not living those lives herself. "I love to act and I hope I do it for a long time," she stands at the doorway as she concludes, "but I also hope there’s something else down the road for me in animal causes or work with seniors or the foster care system, because I see so many places I’d like to put my energy..."

(August 17, 2000)



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