HOLLYWOOD — WARREN BEATTY, wearing black shirt, pants, leather jacket, and of course, dark glasses, settles in for some conversation.
"When you make a movie, you want it to be seen, but you don't want the chatter or publicity about the star to override it."
Leaning forward in his chair, he continues, "That's the way I felt 12 years ago. I just decided all these stories are getting out of hand. It's ridiculous. It would be better to drop out."
That's the actor's explanation of why he stopped giving press interviews, until a year ago when he cautiously came forward to talk specifically about the making of "Dick Tracy," which he starred in, directed, and produced. Even then, he was more guarded than glib.
Warming to the conversation, he unzips his jacket and leans forward to rest his elbows on the table, saying, "I think it was a mistake. [Pause.] I know it was. You're in a public business, and the machine rolls on with or without you. It's not that you're that interesting, but if a story isn't forthcoming then someone will invent whatever they want to say about you. More often than not, it's negative.
"It goes in cycles. Right now positive things are being invented about me."
The Los Angeles film critics just voted his new Touchstone film, "Bugsy," (his 19th movie) best motion picture of the year. Beatty's performance as the 1940s mobster, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, is being rumored for an Oscar. He's been nominated 11 times for an Academy Award, and won in 1981 as Best Director for the movie, "Reds."
ve wanted to make a film about Siegel for eight or nine years," Mr. Beatty says. "He's a fascinating character. Here was a mobster who wanted to be a movie star, who even screen-tested himself; he worked hard to lose his Brooklyn accent, and he wanted to improve his vocabulary."
By now the actor is rolling, getting into a topic that holds great interest. The shyness, the pauses, are gone. So are the dark glasses.
"Everything in this film is based on fact, even the part where Siegel wanted to kill Mussolini. Only the time factor was compressed. That diction exercise Bugsy kept repeating whenever he was alone, '20 dwarfs took turns doing handstands on the carpet' was an actual speech drill the mobster practiced.
"There was a part of him that loved his wife and family, and wanted to be straight. A part of him that was a dreamer who built the first night club in Las Vegas which was a lonely desert. Siegel could be pure charm one minute and a psychotic killer the next.
"I don't know when my research for Bugsy began. I'm always juggling three or four things, and I take so much time before I make a movie that I wind up doing it because I'm embarrassed not to have done it.
"I knew I wanted to play Bugsy, but not direct the film. When someone else is willing to come in there and do all that work, it's like a party - it's so enjoyable. Barry Levinson did a great job directing this, and always made me feel like we were cracking him up."
When James Toback, who wrote the screenplay, joins our group, he says, "When I heard Warren wanted to play Bugsy, I confessed since I was 19 I'd had a Dostoevski-inspired fascination with Siegel.
"From the time we agreed on the project, seven years elapsed. I made two other movies, and registered 29 different scripts on Siegel with the Writers Guild.
"If it hadn't been for the ferocious pressure Warren was under, I might not have it done yet. There were several other companies peddling stories on Bugsy, but Fox actually was pursuing Warren to be in their version. Finally, it hit me, after my years of passion with the story, I couldn't let someone else do that script."
In all the years of preparation, Beatty never blew his stack. Says Mr. Toback: ve only seen him lose it once in 14 years and that was a phone call over some promotion for his film, 'Heaven Can Wait.' It lasted about 30 seconds, and then he was his usual self."
Picking up the conversation, Beatty says, "I have a friend from Tennessee whose father was a great orator in the State Assembly. He said, 'The greatest gift God can give a man is to enjoy the sound of his own voice. The second greatest gift is to get someone else to listen to it.
Choosing actress Annette Bening as his "Bugsy" costar proved to be important in Beatty's real and reel life. He didn't know Ms. Bening until she was cast in the role of Siegel's girlfriend and great love, Virginia Hill. Now, Bening is continuing that role off-screen.
Beatty has other films on the backburner, including one on eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes.
"But, I don't rush into anything," he says, raising his eyebrows and laughing.
His definition of success? "It's when you don't know if you're working or playing."