A journeyman movie star
It could be that he recently moved to Canada, or that he doesn’t have his own publicist. Or that he’s been acting professionally for 41 of his 51 years, or that he once played minor league baseball for the Angels and the Padres. Maybe it’s that he flies airplanes, hunts deer and holds political views that oppose those of his liberal friends, or that he hasn’t made a career of trading on his dimpled good looks.
But if there’s one main reason Kurt Russell stands apart from most of Hollywood, he says it’s that “I don’t care to make you love me. I just don’t.” Sitting in the backyard of his large Brentwood home during a recent interview, Russell averts his crystal-blue eyes, perhaps to prove his point.
Russell plays an explosive redneck cop in riot-torn 1992 Los Angeles in his latest film, “Dark Blue,” which opened Friday to mixed reviews. Not just any crooked cop, his Eldon Perry follows in the footsteps of his father, an LAPD officer who had taken his son to watch him shoot looters during the Watts riots. A true believer in the police brotherhood, right or wrong, Perry starts to question his worldview when his superior orders him to deliver street justice to the wrong suspects in a quadruple homicide.
“This guy sinks into hell,” Russell says. “The question is, once you’ve stepped into hell, can you step out?” Another question might be: Are audiences ready to sympathize with an amoral cop who just follows orders?
Producer Cotty Chubb says filmmakers are banking on Russell to accomplish just that. “He’s an actor with an extraordinary ability to carry people with him. That was our bet.”
Known as a versatile, durable but sometimes undervalued actor, Russell has starred over the years in comedies like “Used Cars” (1980) and “Overboard” (1987), thrillers such as “Executive Decision” (1996) and “Breakdown” (1997), action adventures like “Escape From New York” (1981) and the television movie “Elvis,” which earned him an Emmy nomination in 1979.
Having grown up in the business, Russell has become a sort of journeyman movie star with 63 films under his belt, often cast as a regular beer-swilling guy in a muscle T-shirt. “Comedies to action pictures to serious drama -- he has enormous range,” says “Dark Blue” director Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump”). “And obviously he has longevity.”
Just off the Hollywood A-list, he doesn’t always get the respect he deserves, admirers say. “He makes acting look easy. People who do that don’t get the credit,” notes Shelton.
“Part of him is ambivalent about this Hollywood stuff,” says longtime friend and director John Carpenter. “He doesn’t want you to know how hard he works.”
Along the way he’s had his share of hits and flops; two recent films, “Soldier” (1998) and “3000 Miles to Graceland” (2001), fit in the latter category. He’s philosophical about the ups and downs.
“The truth is, it’s a director’s medium,” says Russell, who wears his hair in a pompadour and preserves a middle-aged boyishness. “You work with good directors, you do good movies.”
He chose “Dark Blue” more for personal reasons than for the money. The film’s modest budget was less than Russell’s reported $20-million salary for “Soldier.” He calls his performance the most satisfying of his career. “I really like that character, I like the way it came out. What I wanted to do, I got to do.”
After crime novelist James Ellroy successfully pitched the story in 1995 (originally titled “The Plague Season” and set during the 1965 Watts riots), a script was written with Russell in mind, Chubb says. “Kurt is a working man. He can be rough. He can embody dark qualities. Eldon Perry does some pretty bad things in the movie, but you can’t be repulsed by them.”
Russell had passed on “The Plague Season” but was drawn to the project, rewritten by “Training Day” screenwriter David Ayer, partly because the subject covers new ground and partly because he and Shelton wanted to make his character more complex and sympathetic.
“The screenplay was very one-note,” Russell says. “At the end of the day, he was a bad guy. I didn’t think that had to be the case.” Russell points to Wyatt Earp, a character he played in 1993’s “Tombstone,” as a model. “Through his experience, he came to his own code. It made sense to him, and he didn’t step across the line. Similarly, this policeman, through his experience, has come to his own code, and it’s not without its morality.
“Therefore, it’s not about wrong thinking,” he says, “it’s about behavior.”
Russell worked with Shelton and Ayer to develop Perry’s character. “I liked him. I thought he was funny,” Russell says. Perry’s locker-room humor is something Russell relates to from his baseball days. “If some guy is 0 for 25, you don’t sit down next to him and say seriously, ‘Hang in there and have some good swings.’ You say, ‘You know, I think you’re pretty [messed up]. You’re looking at 0 for 30, baby. If I was you, I’d find a bucket to stick my foot in before the game starts.’
“I’ve lived my life this way,” he says. “When you explain the humor, people get it. But when you do the humor, some people think it’s incredibly insensitive.”
Cops and corruption is a familiar theme in movies, from “Training Day” through “L.A. Confidential” and “Serpico,” but the filmmakers behind “Dark Blue” hope the film conveys new ideas about the subject. Chubb says he wanted to explore what it means to be a citizen of Los Angeles. “Cops are a kind of citizen. They’re like surrogates for us,” he says. “They’re doing our will. [Perry’s] behavior is our behavior.”
‘Who’s going to do it? You?’
Until “Dark Blue,” “no one had done anything with the Rodney King world, the whole thing the riots came out of,” says Russell, referring to the videotaped police beating of King and the subsequent acquittal of the accused officers. In the film, the cops “are moving in a world that had become so trying and difficult that they finally go over the top,” he says. “If you’re looking for a politically correct sense of police work in a democracy, working smoothly, this is a very poor example. But this is what the movie’s all about: Who’s going to do it? You?”
Director Carpenter, who boosted Russell’s career with roles in the Elvis movie and the “Escape” franchise, says Russell’s political views are to the right and thus outside Hollywood’s mainstream. “He believes in certain things very much, and he isn’t afraid to tell you all about them,” Carpenter says. In 1999, when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave a career achievement award to Elia Kazan, liberals upset with Kazan’s role during the blacklist period refused to stand up and applaud the director’s work. “Kurt was standing up, clapping away,” Carpenter says.
Born in Springfield, Mass., Russell grew up in Southern California, the second oldest child among three sisters in a raucous, physical family. “Whatever we did was an adventure,” he says. Russell was a serious student but also played baseball, took karate, had a paper route, went skiing and raced quarter midget cars (“My sisters and I all held world records,” he says). As a child, he also started acting in such Disney movies as “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” (1969). When he looks at his old films and TV shows, Russell says, “I was a cute kid, but I didn’t act cute.” When he came across happy-go-lucky kid parts, he says he thought, “Who acts like that? When I started working, I just did it my way, the way I thought was normal behavior.”
Rather than dreaming of movie stardom, he says, “I was much more interested in the fact that I could hit the ball and chase down that fly ball and throw someone out at first base.” Russell played minor league ball for the San Diego Padres (Shelton was also a minor league baseball player) and the California Angels until 1973, when, like his father, Neil, he quit professional ball after being injured and turned to acting for his livelihood.
The reason he’s lasted unusually long in the business, he says, is that he has never tired of acting. He also views the craft as a means to an end. Russell says he doesn’t understand men who are obsessed with work and career. “To call [acting] work is stretching it. It’s a job, it’s what you do for a living, so it qualifies. And it’s disappointing when it doesn’t work. But I’m 100% about my family. That’s all I care to be about. I can’t imagine any other way of living your life as a man,” he says.
On the patio, the warm February sun provides a contrast to snowy Vancouver, where he and 20-year partner Goldie Hawn recently bought a house (adding to others in Colorado, Toronto and New York) in order for their 15-year-old son Wyatt to play in the Pacific International Junior Hockey League.
A phone rings. Inside the house, a cook takes a message from Hawn, calling from London: “Tell Kurt I love him.” The pair, who met in 1983 on the set of “Swing Shift,” have endured, though never married, partly because they let each other be themselves, says Russell. “We both decided we’d be with each other and have fun until we didn’t. We still are,” he says.
“The only thing I can point to in my life and say I was sheer genius, somehow was in having that person [Hawn] want to be with me,” he says.
Across an expanse of green lawn, a life-size replica of a cow, a humorous gift from Goldie, stands between an antique statue of Buddha and a pool. The yard, with its own basketball court, has been the scene of parties, complained about by neighbors and thrown by their other children: Kate and Oliver Hudson, Goldie’s children from a previous marriage to singer Bill Hudson, and Russell’s son Boston from a previous marriage to actress Season Hubley.
The children call him “Pa,” he says, ever since the families blended and he asked them to come up with an affectionate name with less emotional freight than “Dad” but warmer than “Kurt.” “Katie said, ‘How about Pops?’ I said that sounds like an old man. Ollie said, ‘How about Pa?’ We all looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
Russell’s nest is emptying now, but they all remain close, calling one another and staying in touch through their production company, Cosmic Entertainment. The entity comprises individual companies for Kate, Goldie, Oliver and Russell, and develops and produces material for them and others. Of 20 projects sold so far, about half have involved family members, says Cosmic’s president Jay Cohen. Everybody looks for material and contributes ideas, Cohen says, from Boston, a theology student, to rocker Chris Robinson, Kate’s husband.
Russell suspects his son Wyatt will one day follow the others into acting. Russell wanted Wyatt to play his son in “Dark Blue.” Not only is he “the best actor in the family,” Russell says, he’s also “the spitting image.” As it turns out, he wasn’t available for the movie because of a hockey conflict. Russell’s nephew Chapman Russell Way took the part.
Sometimes, looking back, Russell fears he hasn’t lived up to his parents’ example by offering a wide range of unfettered experiences. “My father and mother were flat-out great. We were never taught any limitations on what might be interesting to do. I never looked at this business as failing or succeeding. It was just go do it and see if you like it.”
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Good cops, bad cops
Filmmakers have long explored the theme of police corruption involving beat cops and top brass. Some are true: In “Serpico” (1973), a whistle-blower (Al Pacino) loses his career. Others are fictional: In “True Confessions” (1981) a police detective (Robert Duvall) battles L.A.'s power structure. Some other examples:
“Narc” (2002) -- When a narcotics cop and friend of an unstable Detroit police officer (Ray Liotta, left) winds up dead, another investigator (Jason Patric), on leave for killing a woman with a stray bullet, is brought back to solve the crime. Each employs his own unique methods.
“Training Day” (2001) -- A rogue LAPD narcotics investigator (Denzel Washington) impresses a rookie with the need for sometimes unlawful street justice to clean up the streets of South-Central L.A. David Ayer (“Dark Blue”) wrote the script.
“L.A. Confidential” (1997) -- Russell Crowe (hand extended), a fierce straight-arrow cop, and Guy Pearce, an ambitious one, rethink their ethics after a shooting forces them to face a high-level conspiracy in the corrupt LAPD of the 1950s. Based on James Ellroy’s novel.
“Prince of the City” (1981) -- Treat Williams turns against his fellow elite NYPD detectives who have been shaking down drug dealers -- and he pays a terrible price for it -- in this drama directed by Sidney Lumet and based on true events.