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MEL GIBSON is a sensitive family man who also knows how to have a good laugh, but deep down he's probably a potential 'Viking killer', as Jenny Cooney Carrillo discovered during this candid interview at a plush Beverly Hills hotel.

The Patriot is being marketed as a sweeping epic period drama set in the Revolutionary War, but in many ways it is really a small story about one family's struggle to stay together. And that's something Mel Gibson knows plenty about, being a father of seven, playing a father of seven on-screen for the first time, albeit a widowed one in the movie.

In reality, he's been married for 20 years and is one of the few movie stars in Hollywood to happily espouse his devotion to Catholicism - a far cry from the Scientology followers who garner more negative media attention. In The Patriot he plays farmer Benjamin Martin, a widower with a dark past determined to stay out of the war until the war comes to him and threatens the lives of his children.

I understand you are a religious man. How important is this in your personal life and the way you raise your children?
I have just as many character flaws and weaknesses as everybody else. If I were to follow my natural inclinations I'd probably just be some Viking. I'd probably go into convents and stuff and chop people up, but it's just not socially acceptable and the karmic retribution would be a bitch! So there needs to be something higher to aspire to than the human condition. I was raised with that idea, I believe in it and I try to instill that in my children. But they have to live in the real world and they have to conquer self and their own ego which is a raging monster. I'm 44 years old and I still haven't got a grasp on it. Maybe by the time I'm 80, it'll be easier and I'll have a few more answers but by then no one will want to listen to me. They'll be putting me in a home or changing my diaper by the time I figure it out.

Were you kidding about being capable of killing?
I certainly have imagined and know what it is like to want to kill somebody. It would take an awful lot to go there. I've been really enraged about things to the point of blows. When I was younger, I used to get into blows but there is no profit in that, it's just really stupid, because usually they hit you back! But as you get older, you just realise it's just a waste of time and to not even get angry, if possible. Anger itself is a minor form of murder, because you get the anger going and then you'll get a resentment going and that stays with you and it brews and festers and it actually eats a hole in your soul, and if you get enough of it eaten away, you'll get a gun and shoot somebody. So you have to be careful about that stuff. That's why there is a rule about it - Thou Shalt Not Kill - because people are capable of it and they do it every day.

Was it a coincidence that your character in The Patriot has seven children like yourself?
Actually when I took the job, I only had six kids and the script already had seven so I had to do a lot of work . . . It was the most exciting research I've ever done! (laughs) It was just a coincidence, I guess, but one that I could understand.

You described Benjamin Martin as a hell-raiser who can't quite dodge his brutal past. Could you relate to that?
I think we all have some basic kind of thing that we're handling, trying to get away from and it takes a lot of different forms. Some people are kleptomaniacs and they can't help themselves even though they know they shouldn't do it. That's part of the human condition and that's what I like about this story. The guy had a lot of stuff still in the war chest in his room that was really bugging him but he kept it. Who hasn't had a dark night of the soul? You know the one where you want to go to sleep but you can't and it's not much of a big jump from there to pretend to be that way in front of a camera.

Your next movie is called What Women Want. What do women want according to Mel Gibson?
Boy, this'd be a two-week interview if you try and answer that question! Impossible, no one knows the answer. I mean, Sigmund Freud spent his entire adult life trying to answer the question, what do women want and he died and still didn't have the answer. I've been trying to figure out what one woman wants for the last 20 years and it's like starting to scratch the surface on that. The answer lies somewhere between conversation and chocolate, and that's good enough, you know? If you just talk and listen, then you're kind of in the right area.

Is it true that you renewed your wedding vows for her birthday?
Yeah, I got the celebrant in there and we got remarried in front of the children and that was a cool moment, and it was a big grin on her face. She didn't know it was coming either. It was her birthday and she went upstairs and I said, 'put a nice dress on' and she was like, 'what?'. I said, 'put a nice dress on'. She went upstairs and I stuck some necklace on her and said, 'come down' and I gave her a bunch of flowers and the guy was there with the book and so we did it again. So it was cool and it really gave us a kick too. It gave the kids a kick. They were like, 'yeah, wow!' all standing around laughing and acting stupid, but they liked it.

How are the kids reacting to having a new baby in the house?
They dig the boy. He's just like everybody's little plaything. He's better than a dog and he gets to stay inside! He does this little trick where he walks on just his feet. It's great. But they all dote on him, of course. They think he's the best thing ever, so he's a lucky little boy because he's got all this focused energy on him. So he's going to grow up very confident, very loved and even if half of us get killed - oh, never mind, that's a terrible thing to say! He'll be fine, so they're all old enough to take care of him.

July 20, 2000

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