Focus : Still Trying to Shake Things Up : FOR KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, POLITICS IS ALWAYS ON HIS MIND

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's past 3 p.m. and Kris Kristofferson is just reporting to work on the movie "Troubleshooters: Trapped Beneath the Earth," premiering Sunday on NBC.

The former Rhodes scholar, actor and acclaimed singer-songwriter ("Me and Bobby McGee," "Help Me Make It Through the Night") is not quite awake as he lumbers into the production office. One can forgive his grogginess. Kristofferson, a fit and lean 57, had been filming until the wee hours on "Troubleshooters," which deals with a father and son rescue team attempting to save people trapped in a multi-level building by an earthquake.

After a quick handshake, Kristofferson departs for the makeup trailer. He emerges 30 minutes later and suggests going back to the trailer for the interview. He grabs a few cans of Mountain Dew and is ready to talk.

But not about "Troubleshooters." Politics is on his mind this afternoon. And it certainly doesn't take much to get him talking about his favorite subject.

I saw you in concert in 1980.

Kristofferson's magnetic blue eyes perk up at the mention of the year 1980. He pops open a can. "It was a bad year," he says in his gravelly Texas drawl. "There was (Anastasio) Somoza. He got thrown out that summer down in Nicaragua. The shah of Iran got overthrown. And those right-wing revolutionaries were gathering in their offices to assassinate my last real movie, 'Heaven's Gate.' It came out when Reagan came in. They cut a swath with that thing. They blew it out of the water."

Lambasted by the critics, the lavish Michael Cimino Western died an ugly death at the box office. According to Kristofferson, though, the government killed the film. "No one ever addressed that," he says. "Listen, (the government) had meetings with studio heads in which they said, 'This won't happen any more. We are not going to be having any more of these movies that show America in a bad historical light like 'Heaven's Gate.' "

The film, Kristofferson believes, parallels what the Contras did to the Nicaraguans. "The mercenaries going in to kill the Johnson County people were just like the Contras going in to to attack the Nicaraguan people," he says. "The end of the film looks like the fall of Saigon. And America, played by me, was walking around wondering why everybody else was dead. The capitalistic system had conquered him. Money meant more than people did. He winds up on that yacht--the isolation of post-Vietnam War America--just like us, an old man thinking about freedom and wondering how it got so far away from us."

Kristofferson wasn't disillusioned with Hollywood after "Heaven's Gate," but his blossoming feature film career came to a halt. "I went from being right up with the bigguys to nobody," he says, laughing. "I have gotten more radical as I have gone along."

During the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, Kristofferson says, many Americans thought he was a traitor because he came out against the war and his concerts were picketed. "I was probably the only guy on the road who was against the war," he says, flashing the grin that melted female hearts back in 1976 in "'A Star is Born."

"Nobody was against the damn thing except for Ross Perot," says Kristofferson, who was a staunch Perot supporter last year. "We bombed a defenseless population for 44 days around the clock," he says. "We're holding these people responsible for what their government did or didn't do. It's just too evil for words."

So would he even turn down a role for political reasons?

Kristofferson replies it was a difficult decision for him to do the controversial ABC miniseries "Amerika," which depicted America under Communist rule. "To me, it was right-wing propaganda that was reinforcing old stereotypes about the evil empire, Russia," Kristofferson explains. "I turned it down twice. I don't know if I should have done it. For me, personally, I was able to come to terms with my decision to do it.

"It was going to be made. And it could be made by me playing this revolutionary leader, or it could be played by someone like Charlton Heston, who would have been only too glad to reinforce the stereotypes. I knew I was going to be damned if I did or damned if I didn't. I took the film."

And he prayed. "I am not that good at praying," Kristofferson says, laughing. "I am not one of these people with great correspondence with Jesus. But I decided to do it and see what damage we could control."

Despite his strong beliefs, Kristofferson says he would never run for political office. "The whole political process is so depressing to me," he explains. "In the first place, if they can make Ross Perot look dirty, can you imagine how dirty they can make me look?"

"Troubleshooters: Trapped Beneath the Earth" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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