Mel Gibson's personal problems have generated more bad headlines than good in recent years. But after a self-imposed exile, he's back with a new film and new-found happiness. The 'ordeal' is over, he tells John Hiscock. His face twitching, Mel Gibson is having difficulty sitting still as he perches on his chair in the swish Santa Monica hotel suite where we meet. In the past, the actor has sometimes appeared somewhat tense and ill-at-ease during interviews, but this time he seems particularly on edge.
Clearly realising it after a few minutes, he feels the need to explain. "I'm kind of jumpy because I gave up smoking seven days ago. I'm three or four days past the axe-murdering stage, but if I fail to find the correct word now and then, please forgive me." Then, joking, he adds, "Where was I? I can't remember." Apart from nicotine deprivation, he has other reasons to be nervous as he emerges from self-imposed exile to embark on his first round of interviews in four years, knowing that there will be a lot of uncomfortable questions to answer.
It has been an eventful and mainly unpleasant few years for the 54-year-old actor, who for a while could not stay out of the news. He was arrested for drink driving, accused of racism and anti-Semitism, excoriated for the graphic violence in films such as The Passion Of The Christ and Apocalypto and, more recently, criticised for fathering a child with a woman 14 years his junior. The affair began while Gibson was still married to his wife of 28 years.
It was, he says, an ordeal of humiliation; and now, looking back on the past few tumultuous years, he can glean a glimmer of satisfaction from what has emerged from the experience. "You ask anybody what their number-one fear is and it's public humiliation. Multiply that on a global scale and that's what I've been through. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger: it's really that simple. You can't do anything but live in the moment and leave the future in the hands of providence and don't regret the past too much. Maybe just take a lesson from it."
After the years of personal strife, during which he relapsed into alcoholism, admitted he was out of control and checked into rehab, Gibson is back in the news in a positive way, talking about his first major role in eight years. He did not think he would act again after starring in The Singing Detective in 2003, saying he preferred to concentrate on writing and directing, but the Oscar-winning British producer Graham King has lured him back in front of the camera in the political thriller Edge Of Darkness, which just opened in the UAE.
"I think any kind of hiatus one takes in an artistic journey is going to make a huge difference," he says, somewhat didactically explaining his disappearance from the screen. "One of the best things you can do to keep yourself well-greased in your sphere of artistic expertise is to go away from it for a while, and the pause will inform the choices that you make. I kind of felt I was getting stale, so having been away for a while has been good."
Edge Of Darkness is based on a 1985 six-part BBC series which was shown in Britain at a time when concerns about the Soviet threat and trepidation about the secrecy surrounding the nuclear industry still loomed large. The series was a popular and critical sensation, winning six Baftas. The political aspects of the story have been updated and the location has been moved to Boston, but the heart of the plot remains the same. Gibson plays a widowed policeman who witnesses the murder of his only daughter and, while on a mission to find her killer, becomes involved in a world of corporate cover-ups, government collusion and murder.
As in most Gibson movies in recent years, the gore flows freely and the body count is high. It's all standard action movie fodder, although the story moves swiftly along and director Martin Campbell brings some surprises to the action scenes. "Why come back with Edge Of Darkness?" Gibson muses in response to my question. "Well, why not? It's intelligent and it's a good story. I liked the original on TV, but it's been very nicely updated and re-styled."
Casually dressed in a grey check sports jacket and jeans, he looks fit and his hair, once tinged with grey, is now dark again. A strange dichotomy of humour and suppressed defiance, he talks in often convoluted sentences, varying abruptly between flippancy and serious introspection with liberal use of four-letter words and flamboyant hand gestures. At one point he lapses into a broad cockney accent in imitation of his Edge Of Darkness co-star Ray Winstone ("Orl roight. O'im Ray Winstun.") If he does not want to answer a question, he brusquely states, "I'm not interested in that."
After the turmoil of his break-up with his wife Robyn, and the upheaval of moving out of the family home in Malibu (he now lives in a house nearby bought from the actor David Duchovny), he seems to have settled reasonably easily into a new life with his 39-year-old girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva and their baby daughter Lucia, who was born in October. Grigorieva, a Russian pianist and singer signed to Gibson's record label Icon, also has a 12-year-old son with her former partner, the actor and former Bond star, Timothy Dalton.
Although Gibson is reluctant to discuss in detail his new home life, he appears to visibly soften as he talks about Lucia. "It's fantastic. There's no gift like the gift of a young life, and she's so sweet. There are no possible words to describe it." Speculation is rife that Gibson, whose fortune is estimated at around US$900 million (Dh3.3billion), may have to shell out half of it to his ex-wife, who filed for divorce last April. The couple, who separated in 2006, have seven children aged between 10 and 30.
Gibson, however, is clearly relishing becoming a father again. "It's the same kind of thing, but this time I'm different," he says. "I'm older and I probably look at it in a more profound way, through the wisdom of the years, but the beauty of having done it young and old is that you can look back on it all and still experience it." Then, he adds philosophically: "Life is life and one has experiences that are painful, and some that are very pleasant and one has reward and sacrifice, and more reward and disappointment and joy and happiness and it's always going to be the same. The thing we're all looking for is happiness, and if we achieve just a modicum of that or even a little piece of serenity even for five minutes a day, we're very lucky. And I have that."
Although widely perceived to be Australian, Mel Gibson was actually born in New York. He emigrated with his family to Australia in 1968, making his name in Hollywood in 1979 as the leather-clad, post-apocalyptic warrior hero in Mad Max. More major roles followed with Gallipoli, The Road Warrior and The Year Of Living Dangerously, before he went on to star in the Lethal Weapon series of action comedies.
After winning the 1996 Best Picture Oscar for directing Braveheart, in which he also starred, he appeared in several thrillers before returning to the director's chair with the controversial The Passion Of The Christ and Apocalypto. It was when he began working on The Passion Of The Christ that he says he "hit the wall", succumbing to the temptations of drugs, alcohol and women until, he says, he reached "the height of spiritual bankruptcy".
In July 2006, after being pictured drinking and carousing with women in a Malibu bar, he was driving home in his Lexus along the Pacific Coast Highway when he was pulled over by police for doing 87mph in a 45mph zone. After a roadside sobriety test he was handcuffed and arrested for drink driving. At the police station, it was reported that he launched a tirade of abuse against the arresting officers, one of whom he believed was Jewish. He also insulted a female officer, calling her a derogatory name.
He blamed his outburst on a relapse into alcoholism - he had publicly admitted problems with drink and drugs in the past - and said later that he had considered suicide but relied on his Catholic faith to pull him through. With the help of Robyn, Alcoholics Anonymous and a spell in rehab, he gave up the bottle and re-evaluated his life. "All of us have a point in our lives where we sort of hit the wall and it's very painful," he says. "As anyone knows, pain is always the precursor to change and it was no different in my case. I had got to a place of personal misery so it was time to stop and turn it back, and it was through faith and The Passion, which is the central theme of Christian faith, that I was able to come back."
Gibson's deep religious beliefs are well known in Hollywood. A member of a traditionalist Catholic group, he is devoted to the Latin Mass and has little but scorn for the modernising innovations of Vatican II, the groundbreaking council called by Pope John XXIII in 1962, which stated that the insular Church needed to adapt in order to survive in a rapidly changing world. Gibson has even built his own private church in the hills above Malibu, where traditionalists can worship at services conducted totally in Latin.
"It's just a private thing," he shrugs, when asked about his faith. "People who want to go ask me if they can, and I explain it to them. I'm not touting, I'm not proselytising and it's not advertised. I just want to worship the way I want to worship." Gibson may have millions of fans around the world but self-analysis and his religion have made him well aware of his faults. "We're all damaged," he says. "We're all damaged goods, but there's something better out there if we reach for it.
"There are episodes in my life when I've done things I'm not proud of, but everybody's got good and bad in them. I'm still a work-in-progress. I am so flawed. I have so many faults; I have so many weaknesses, as do most people." His upcoming films steer clear of religion, although he cannot seem to avoid controversy. He recently finished starring in a black comedy, The Beaver, which was directed by his long-time friend Jodie Foster, and he is soon to begin filming How I Spent My Summer Vacation, which he wrote and also stars in. Set in a tough Mexican prison, the film sparked angry protests when authorities in Vera Cruz relocated some prisoners from the real-life prison location and rehoused them farther away, making it difficult for their families to visit them.
"No one asked for them to be transferred," Gibson is keen to insist. "It was a decision by the Mexican authorities." He is now planning his next directing venture, an as-yet-untitled project starring Leonardo DiCaprio that Gibson describes as "the ultimate Viking movie" and which promises to satisfy his apparent desire for blood and violence on the screen, a prospect he clearly relishes. "I've never seen a Viking movie that does it for me," he says, "so I've decided to make one that does it, that puts the V in Viking."
Edge Of Darkness is now playing at CineStar Cinemas.