Ask Jon Voight why he decided to direct and the Oscar-winner breaks into a mischievous grin.
"We are just getting older," quips the 56-year-old Voight. "We have to find other other employment!"
It's an overcast afternoon on the set of his latest movie, "The Tin Soldier," which premieres Wednesday on Showtime. Voight makes his directorial debut and stars in the contemporary fantasy based on Hans Christian Anderson's beloved fairy tale, "The Steadfast Tin Soldier." If Voight's nervous about wearing two hats on this film, he certainly doesn't show it. He's relaxed and easygoing during his lunch break on the set near downtown Los Angeles.
"The Tin Soldier" focuses on a young boy named Billy (Trenton Knight) who moves to a dangerous neighborhood in Southern California with his widowed mother (Ally Sheedy). Billy is alone a great deal because his mother works two jobs in order to make ends meet. Powerful gangs have a firm grip over the students in his new school and one day Billy is caught in a confrontation between two rival gangs. Escaping the melee, he seeks refuge into a toy store owned by Mr. Fallon (Dom DeLuise) who gives Billy a tin soldier. Fallon tells the boy he hopes the toy will help him with his troubles. Later that night, the toy transforms into a life-size soldier named Yarik (Voight), who informs a startled Billy he has come to serve him.
Showtime is presenting "The Tin Soldier" during "Voices Against Violence Week," which features a week of cable programming devoted to the examination of societal violence.
Voight originally wanted another actor to play Yarik, but came to the realization that he had do it. "I worked very hard on the script (written by Patrick J. Clifton) and developed this character. It became a situation that it was probably smart for me to do it myself because I knew so much about it. I knew I would care about how it would turn out. I've always wanted to take the step into directing and it was a good kind of project for me to do it with."
He also wanted to make a film with a purpose. "I'd like to be able to help things along a little bit with the films I do," says Voight, who won the best actor Oscar for 1978's "Coming Home" and was nominated for 1969's "Midnight Cowboy" and 1985's "Runaway Train."
"You always make a film for a purpose," he explains. "The purpose can be sheer entertainment."
Like the films of Fred Astaire. "They are as close to sheer entertainment as you can get," he says with enthusiasm. "Yet, they are extraordinary films that talk about being buoyant in the face of difficulty, that life is a love story fundamentally and everything is not to be taken too seriously. That is a very beautiful, extraordinary statement, not to mention the artistry with which it is carried forth."
The message behind "Tin Soldier" is that everybody needs help and guidance. "I look at the situation for kids today and you don't know what to do," he says. "You say, 'This is a terrible mess and how did it get this way?' It's crazy. So I look at this situation and say, 'We need some help here and we need greater help than humans, maybe.' I very much believe that when we are all going through our daily challenges, we need help greater than ourselves even if we don't acknowledge it. We all pray when we are in tough situations."
As a director, one thing Voight the actor misses is his private time on the set. "I like to come to the set in one thought, be very protective of that energy, talk to very few people and enjoy myself a little socially, but not be too connected. Just stay with my concentration from morning to the evening when I finish. I can't do it here. I have to do everything that I am doing."
Voight feels very blessed with his cast, especially Trenton Knight who plays Billy. "This boy is as talented as anyone you'll meet," he says warmly. "He is so positive. Then we have the blessing of working with Ally Sheedy and Dom DeLuise. They are just wonderful."
Still, Voight acknowledges he's "a lousy director of himself." So he's enlisted the help of a young filmmaker, Gregory Gieras to be his co-director. "I asked him if he would be able to help me with this one knowing I wouldn't be able to handle a lot of things," he says, "especially gearing up for this. I needed somebody to prepare the crew, do a lot of scheduling work, do storyboards and talk to me about the scenes. I stayed with the script and did some story boarding. We work good as a team. On the set we have different sensibilities sometimes but, we respect each other's responsibilities. It seems like we will get the best of both worlds."
Lunch is over and Voight is being summoned back to work. "Right now, with the last week to go, I am full of energy," he says with a smile. "I haven't been defeated by this arduous journey. I am pleased with all the people I have working on it. We are going to have a nice piece."
"The Tin Soldier" premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Showtime; it repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.