A Steppenwolf in film star's clothing

 

ACTORS who have turned director were to the forefront on the set of the kidnap drama, Ransom, an unusually complex thriller by Hollywood studio standards and a major box office success in the US. The film, which went on release in Ireland yesterday, was directed by Ron Howard, who started out as a screen actor at the age of four and turned film director when he was 23, making such popular movies as Splash, Cocoon, Parenthood, Backdraft, Far and Away and Apollo 13.

The leading role in Ransom, that of a morally flawed airline tycoon whose son is kidnapped, is played by Mel Gibson, who won the best director Oscar last year for Braveheart, his second movie as a director. And the nemesis of the Gibson character, a shrewd and corrupt detective, is played by Gary Sinise, a veteran stage actor and director who has been making his mark belatedly as a screen actor in recent years. His sturdy performance in Ransom should ensure that more and more movie roles will be coming Sinise's way.

"The thing about being a director as well as an actor is that you understand what the director is going through," Sinise said when we met in New York recently, sitting on the 17th floor of a hotel overlooking Central Park. "You know the process, the objectives, the problems. So you can help sometimes. Ron, Mel and I sat around together with Richard Price, the writer, and we tossed out a lot of ideas. But I don't think it was ever intimidating for Ron. He's quite secure as a director."

Sinise initially turned down his role in Ransom when Ron Howard offered it to him. "When I first read it, it was for a 55 year old retired cop," he says. "Ron said not to worry about that, but I didn't see how it could be changed and I didn't want to put on a fat suit and a bald cap or grey hair. When they decided he should be a younger guy, I got more interested. Then I was offered the starring role in the film of Tom Clancy's book, Without Remorse, and I signed to do it. The day after I made the deal, I read in Variety that the production company fell apart and the film was off."

Soon afterwards, Sinise met Ron Howard's producer partner, Brian Grazer, at a Hallowe'en parade organised by the school attended by Grazer's and Sinise's children. "I said, `How's Ransom going?' and Brian said they were sorry I wasn't in it. He said they were talking to Alec Baldwin about it, but there was nothing set. I went back home and called my manager and asked him to check it out. The next day I got a call from Ron asking me if I was still interested, and that was it."

Gary Sinise, who turned 40 last year, gained his earliest experience as an actor in his teens at an upper middle class high school in his native Chicago. "My first role was in a school production of West Side Story," he says. "I rumbled my way across the stage as a Puerto Rican dancer, Pepe the Shark. It was ridiculous - all us pale faced Jewish kids from Chicago pretending to be Puerto Rican.

When he was 17, Sinise went to Wisconsin and spent three months working with a summer stock theatre company. They did a play a week for eight weeks and I was an apprentice there, running lights and building sets, he says, and the play which affected him most was Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come. "I fell in love with it and when I went back to high school I co directed it with my friend, Jeff Perry, and I played Private. I did so much theatre at high school - Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman, Brecht, Ionesco, Osborne - I was Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger. I was a terrific experience, a real education.

HOWEVER, it was the experience of co directing and co-starring in that high school production of Philadelphia, Here I Come which encouraged Sinise and Perry to set up the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago in 1974, when they were 18. Sinise's prodigious output as an actor and director at Steppenwolf included True West, Of Mice And Men, Streamers, The Caretaker, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and he played Tom Joad in their acclaimed production of The Grapes of Wrath which travelled to Broadway, where Sinise received a Tony nomination for his performance, and to London.

The company's alumni include John Malkovich, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Terry Kinney, and Moira Harris who married Sinise. In 1985, when Harris was starring in The Fantasist, which was shot in Ireland, Sinise joined her in Dublin towards the end of shooting. "We have three kids, so she's been out of acting for a while now, but she's very keen to get back in," he says. "She really wanted to do Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney, which she would be terrific in. We did it at Steppenwolf recently, but she couldn't get away from the kids. Actually, I'd really like to make a movie of that and get Friel to write the script, It's a beautiful story."

Twenty three years after he set it up, Steppenwolf is still thriving in its twin auditoria in Chicago - a 500 seat theatre on ground level with another, 300 seat one upstairs. "In 1982 Malkovich and myself took our first play from Chicago to New York, Sam Shepard's True West," he says. "It was a big, big success and got a lot of attention and John became a movie star as a result. After that, every year for about six years we would bring another play to New York and get more and more attention.

"All of a sudden, Steppenwolf Theatre went from this little Chicago group to a national group to an international theatre company. We've been to Australia, to London. And at the same time our actors started working in films. They would come back to the theatre and work and then go off and make another movie." The theatre's most recent major success was a reworking of another Sam Shepard play, Buried Child, which went to Broadway last year and earned a Tony nomination. Sinise took a month off from filming Ransom to direct the Broadway production of the play.

In 1987, when colleagues such as Malkovich were already established in cinema, Gary Sinise made his first film as a director, Miles From Home, a modest and involving road movie featuring Richard Gere and Kevin Anderson as brothers, with appearances by Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Terry Kinney and Brian Dennehy. Moira Harris had a small role in the movie, but her director husband left her on the cutting room floor.

"Making that film was frustrating and educational, and at times really gratifying," he says. "But, because it was my first film, it was very intimidating. I'm much more at ease with the whole process now." Miles From Home was selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival, as was Sinise's only other movie to date as a director - an adaptation of Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men with Sinise and Malkovich in the leading roles.

Sinise's career as a screen actor was lowkey to say the least until 1994, and he pinpoints the period from May to July in that year as the turning point for him. "Within just two months, suddenly I was in these two things which drew huge audiences," he says. "In May there was the mini series of Stephen King's The Stand which was shown on television over four nights and was watched by 50 to 60 million people. An enormous TV viewing figure. Two months later, Forrest Gump came out and became this huge hit, the third biggest ever in America. And I was in both of them, so things were really changing for me then."

Sinise received an Oscar nomination for his performance as the amputee, Lt Dan, in Forrest Gump, and followed it with another big hit last year, reuniting with Tom Hanks and playing real life astronaut Ken Mattingly in Ron Howard's Apollo 13. Sinise and Hanks are developing another movie together a Vietnam drama set in 1968.

Is there an altered perception of Sinise among his loyal Steppenwolf following now that his star is in the ascendant in Hollywood? "Not really," he says. "I haven't acted at Steppenwolf since all this movie stuff happened. The last time I acted there was in 1988, in The Grapes Of Wrath, and I haven't acted on stage since we did that in New York in 1990. I'm going back there to play Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire soon, so it will be interesting to see how the perception has changed. We'll probably sell more tickets, and that's good. Our shows always make money and we're never in debt. Can you believe it? How much debt does the Abbey have, I wonder?"

Even though it has been so long since he acted at Steppenwolf, Sinise says that he is involved with the theatre on a weekly if not a daily basis. "That's after 22 years of working there," he says. "It's a great love. We built something that's ours. It's got nothing to do with Hollywood."

As evening falls on Central Park and our interview draws to a close, Gary Sinise says that there are so many stories he could tell about his experiences at Steppenwolf. "I'll tell you one, the most infamous terrible story," he grins. "The play was Christopher Hampton's Savages, about the Indians being exterminated. John Malkovich directed it and it was one of the worst things I've ever seen. It was so ill conceived by Mr Malkovich. It was one of the worst things we ever did and we're still laughing at how wrong headed it was and how many funny things happened on stage.

"I could tell you stories all day about Savages. The next time you see Malkovich, tell him I told you about Savages and how terrible it was, and he was totally responsible - except that I picked it. It was the first play I picked as artistic director at Steppenwolf. But I'm glad we did it. There are so many fun memories about it."