NEW YORK — What keeps me centered?" Kim Basinger thoughtfully repeats the question, and then replies, "My faith in God, and my sense of humor."
She needed both when on location for the movie "I Dreamed of Africa," which opens today (see review, page 15). It was the role every actress wanted, playing the real-life environmentalist Kuki Gallmann, whose bestselling book vividly portrayed the triumphs and the tragedies of her life as a bride, mother, and widow.
"It's the best role I've ever been given," the Oscar-winner says (she won Best Supporting Actress honors in 1998 for "L.A. Confidential"). "But, for a mother, the real challenge came to either be separated from my then 2-1/2-year-old baby daughter, or to take her with me. I could be away from her, but I was afraid of taking her to Africa."
Her husband, actor Alec Baldwin, helped to ease the problem by accompanying her and their little girl, Ireland, on location. They spent six months in Africa. "We settled into a very different way of life," Ms. Basinger says. "It was wonderfully balanced, and it turned out to be the most magical, mystical, spiritual, educational journey my family and I had ever been on. We were just handed a gift."
That "gift" had some strings attached.
"To me, everything in Africa had teeth," she recalls. "There were the poisonous baby frogs, the spiders, the snakes hanging out of trees, the puff adders [poisonous vipers] curled up at every corner, and the spitting cobras."
"That's when I made up my motto, 'Do it afraid.' The operative word here is 'do,' " she says. Fear subsided when she saw how her daughter adapted with ease. She visited mama on the set daily; she made friends with Zulu children her age.
Basinger had still other challenges. She decided not to meet Ms. Gallmann until after production finished.
"I'm not sure if she understood my reasons," Basinger confides. "I basically wanted to stay within the pages of her book. When I needed to know her reactions and emotions, I'd just go to my well-worn copy. It's a beautifully written account of her journey as a woman.
"Kuki and her daughter still live in Africa, and I was afraid if I met her at the beginning I'd be so impressed by the well-known environmentalist and conservationist, I might wander from the enthusiastic young woman seeing Africa for the first time [that] the novel so well describes."
The role took Basinger on an emotional ride on and off camera. Would she be able to sustain the character, not only emotionally but physically? She had to learn to drive an all-terrain vehicle, shift with her left hand, and look as if she belonged in that truck.
She also received an education about pythons. "I had to handle [one], and let it slither around my neck - without looking scared to death."
For another scene, she had to stick her hand into a bag of 30 snakes and pick one of them up.
"The more I faced all these things, the better I felt." Basinger's "Do it afraid" motto became ingrained in her vocabulary when she learned she was not alone.
"There's a strength, an inner power, that lets you know you aren't out there by yourself. You can call it up, and it responds. I know I'm not alone, I know I'm being carried half the time." She pauses and adds, "Maybe most of the time."
Discussing her career, she says, "I don't want to look too far ahead. It's always a mistake to have one foot in the future and one in the past, because you neglect today. My goal is to live each day for all its worth.... Why live in yesterday?
"I like to think of myself as a student in life. I learn something every single day. When I wake up, I look forward to what will be new."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society