Heston Still Shows His Star Power
Choosy about new parts, the actor famous for 'The Ten Commandments' and 'The Greatest Show on Earth' continues his career with a family project
NEW YORK — "Alaska" is a family film made by a family team.
It was directed by Fraser C. Heston, who supervised the arduous production in remote northern locations, some of them above the Arctic Circle.
And one of its key roles is played by the filmmaker's father: Charlton Heston, whose seemingly endless list of credits range from 1950s classics like "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "Touch of Evil" to recent projects like the comedy "Wayne's World 2" and Kenneth Branagh's coming "Hamlet."
Still as ruggedly handsome as when he captivated millions in "The Ten Commandments" and "Planet of the Apes," the elder Heston visited New York recently to launch "Alaska." He plays a devious poacher who causes trouble for the main characters - two youngsters in their early teens - as they trek across the frozen wilderness to rescue their father after his plane crashes during an emergency mission.
Heston enjoyed the experience of working for his son, but takes care to say that his part in "Alaska" was suggested by someone outside the family - a top executive at Castle Rock Entertainment, who called to ask if he'd mind playing the villain of the story.
Heston replied by listing a few of the bad guys he'd portrayed in the past - Cardinal Richelieu in "The Three Musketeers," pirate Long John Silver in "Treasure Island," the autocratic Henry VIII, and a "rather tough CIA director" in "True Lies," among others - and concluded that he wouldn't mind playing another one. "I've done a few of them before," he says with a smile.
Filming on location
As for the prospect of flying to inhospitable places in the extreme North, he welcomed the opportunity to let authentic backdrops enhance his performance, as very different places have done in past movies.
"When we filmed 'El Cid' we found a city on the Mediterranean with walls and gates and a castle," he recalls. "And that kind of location can give you a reality that you then don't have to act. I rode through the gates in front of 1,000 mounted knights, got off a horse, climbed up an 11th-century staircase to a crenelated wall, looked down and saw 2,000 people screaming, 'Cid, Cid, Cid.' After that, I know what it's like to take a city. I have taken a city! You don't have to act something like that, you just are there."
This doesn't mean he takes the craft of acting lightly, and he feels a special responsibility when portraying a character drawn from real life. "I've played more historical characters than any actor I can think of," he says. "I have to strive to get inside someone like Moses or Richelieu or Brigham Young, and I do research and read biographies and extant papers, if there any."
By contrast, playing a make-believe person like the poacher in "Alaska" gives him more opportunity to express his own personality.
"Ben-Hur was fictional," he notes, recalling the title character of his 1959 historical epic, "and playing him I realized that for once I didn't have to be Michelangelo or Andrew Jackson or Thomas Jefferson or any of those guys. I'd already researched 1st-century Rome and Judea for other parts, so I thought ... why can't I just be me in these clothes and places and scenes? I did it that way, and it was me, because I saw no reason not to be me."
Does this mean Heston believes in the "Method" style of acting, digging into one's own memories and emotions to make a part more realistic?
This technique has made an impact on every American performer since the 1930s, he replies, and he is no exception. "The idea of making the circumstances of the scene as real as you can is very useful," he observes. Still, there are limits to this approach. "Nobody ever totally becomes the person he's playing. If you really believed in the dagger scene in 'Macbeth,' that you were going upstairs to kill Duncan, you'd go offstage and stab some poor stagehand!"
Equally hard to pin down definitively is what creates the movie-star quality that Heston and other Hollywood giants are famous for. "You have to 'be there,' as they say," he muses when asked about this. "The camera has to love you. That has nothing to do with how you look, and some of the most beautiful women in the world just don't register for the camera. It's difficult to explore this from my point of view without sounding vainglorious, but to put it minimally, I have an employable face."
Heston has put his employable face to work not only in popular entertainment but also in political activism, using his celebrity to help organizations ranging from the National Rifle Association to the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as environmental causes. Given his recent visibility in TV spots for the controversial firearms lobby, it's surprising to see him appear in "Alaska" as a bad guy with a gun. "But this character is a poacher," Heston says with emphasis, denying any contradiction. "I was raised as a hunter, and hunters deplore poaching."
Roles to avoid
Are there movies he wouldn't do because of the ideas they represent? There certainly are, he answers, citing the notorious "Natural Born Killers" as an example.
"I was offered a role in the 'Mars Attacks' picture that Tim Burton is doing," he continues. "He's a good, highly regarded, hot director, and he wanted me to play the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the film. But it's a movie where the only good guys are a couple of [housing] project kids who practice shooting bottles off the roofs of their buildings. Everybody else is an idiot - except the Martians - and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the most idiotic of all. I said I didn't want to do it, thank you very much."
Heston keeps up actively with current films and rejects the notion that "they don't make 'em like they used to," as some Hollywood veterans insist. Times have certainly changed, he acknowledges - it cost more to make the modest "Alaska" than the colossal "Ben-Hur," for example, measured in today's dollars - but the medium itself remains basically the same.
"There's always been bad movies and good movies," says Heston philosophically, "and the bad ones always outnumber the good ones because it's hard to make a good one.... [But] there's no shortage of good filmmakers or good actors."
His own favorite among the many he's made? "I don't know," he replies, grinning at the predictability of his answer. "I'm not through yet."