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In Welcome to Mooseport, Gene Hackman plays a retired US President (a nicer one than he played in Absolute Power, 1997), which just goes to show, once again, how far he stretches as an actor: in real life heís shy and retiring, reports Andrew L. Urban, who met him on set in a hail of bullets on the set of Narrow Margin, out this week on DVD.

Gene Hackman, America's shyest actor, is a paradox; on the one hand he's so reserved he prefers to speak the words of his characters, on the other hand he carries a formidably authoritative screen presence.

And although he agrees to the occasional interview, he never reads his own press.
Hackman is so private, even the directors who work with him find that he is something of a recluse on set, just getting his job done and then vanishing. British director Alan Parker, who directed Hackman in Mississippi Burning, and kept a daily diary during filming, wrote:

"April 12: Gene walks into the 'Social Club' for his confrontation with Frank Bailey and Deputy Pell. Watching Gene at work in this scene made me realise how lucky I was to work with him. There aren't many actors who understand, as he does, how to block, pace and play a scene and his instant dissection of the work at hand with a minimum of 'actory' bullshit was a revelation throughout the film. I know I promised (at the start of this diary) no movie publicity puke but I sincerely believe that working with him would be how it might have been working with Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart.

"I can't say I ever became 'pals' with him, he retains his privacy and distance from everyone, but I never stopped watching him and marvelling at secrets that so few actors seem to have uncovered. If this sounds like bullshit, it's what I believe. Warren Beatty said to me before we started, that Gene was the finest American movie actor, and I happen to agree with him."

In the words of Narrow Margin director, Peter Hyams, "Gene Hackman, I would think, is one of the first actors to come into any director's mind. He's probably the most limitless actor around, with this uncanny ability to make things look effortless. He's extraordinary, and someone I've always wanted to make a film with."

"blend of action and character"

Well, at last his wish came true, when Hackman took the starring role in Narrow Margin, which Hyams wrote and directed - and even photographed. Shot mostly aboard a speeding train in the Canadian Rockies and more than a thousand metres above Vancouver on Grouse Mountain, Narrow Margin is that blend of action and character that Hackman is so good at.†

Hackman plays Los Angeles district attorney Robert Caulfield, who goes to a remote cabin in Canada to retrieve a reluctant but vital witness to a mob slaying, Carol Hunnicutt (Anne Archer, best remembered as the wife in Fatal Attraction). He inadvertently leads the mobsters to her, but the two of them make a frantic escape by crawling away under the isolated log hut and onto a Vancouver-bound train - only to discover that the hitmen have followed them on board.

For the next 20 hours they play tantalising cat and mouse as the DA and his witness try to elude the hitmen who are after them, on a train rocketing through the Rockies.†

They get me to stand by the side of the log cabin up on the mountain above Vancouver as the cameras train on a helicopter gunship swooping in, firing ferociously. Wood splinters near my head as the effects guys hit the dummy explosions in the timber. The racket is intense. I sense the danger, at the same time knowing it isnít real. But itís disturbingly close to it.

After lunch with the cast and crew under tarpaulin, Hackman is ready for our interview, which is to take place in his caravan at the main camp further down Grouse Mountain. It means getting one helicopter to take Hackman down from the actual shoot site, followed by a second helicopter carrying your reporter.†

Changed into a pair of worn blue shorts and a short sleeved shirt, Hackman looks larger than one might expect, lounging on the narrow sofa of his trailer, a shy, expectant smile playing on his face.

Does he get sick and tired of being told what a wonderful actor he is? "No, it's nice to hear that. Thank you...er...are you saying that or just asking the question?" We laugh. "Do you think of yourself as a good actor?"†

"Yes I do...I think of myself as a, well, confident actor. And I do enjoy it when I'm actually doing it, although the business part of the work is not very enjoyable..."
A lot of that is surely done by lawyers and agents, "yeah, but there's still a lot of stress involved. You know, it's a funny process because what you do - if you do a lot of films as I do, two or three a year - you're meeting a whole new group of people every two or three months, and if that doesn't come naturally to you, and it doesn't to me, then it is kinda stressful to have to continually find a way to work.

"there's always that kind of thing...stress."

ďíCause everyone works differently and you may find a new director who wants certain things a certain way; there's always a bit of trepidation about 'Is this guy gonna be a big star on us..' You have to work through that, and the worry that maybe this director is going to ask me to do things I don't want to do; would he trust me? So there's always that kind of thing...stress..."

Hackman enjoys his work no end, largely because it's an outlet. "Well it's not unusual to find an actor that's somewhat introverted...I think probably, you know, you have this painful thing that you go through and you want to find a way to express yourself."†

Expanding on this theme, Hackman admits his characters are a kind of extra voice for him.†

"I think so, yes. The voice of things that you would have liked to have been, or like to do, and I think that's the great thing about acting of course, you get to do all these kind of fun things."

Some of it is like a game to him, because he feels that to make an audience enjoy what he does, "you have to have some joy in you".†

Hackman's less obvious talents lie in painting and sketching. On the set, he likes to use charcoal to sketch faces of the cast and crew, and he prefers oils to watercolour when he paints. He doesn't plan any exhibtions, but it is the one thing that opens up his privacy.

When free of work, he spends time with his children. "I'm divorced, but I'm very close to my children; two daughters Ö and my son who lives in Santa Barbara."

Hackman has just turned 74, and has been an actor since he was 30. He started in theatre - the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Legend has it that Hackman and Dustin Hoffman were voted "least likely to succeed". Hackman moved to New York and got his first Broadway job (in Ash Wednesday) in 1964.†

"You can always learn movie technique"

He still believes that the best training for actors is in the theatre. "You can always learn movie technique, it's not that tough." So what started Gene Hackman off; what made him want to be an actor? "I think I was around 10. I was coming out of a movie theatre in my home town of Danville, Illinois and I remember looking at myself in the mirror in the lobby of the theatre after this film, and being stunned that I didn't look like the character who I'd just seen in the film, because I believed so strongly that I was that character - I was really living that film. That was what started the process of me thinking: "Maybe I could do that when I grew up..." I didn't have any real desire to do it then, because I was painfully shy, but I finally got around to it."

Published April 29, 2004

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Gene Hackman ... in WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT






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