- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2000

CENTURY CITY, Calif.
Gary Sinise is about as close to celebrityhood as he can get.
The verb " •an" is critical here. The handsome Chicagoan, now a Los Angeles resident, has top billing in the $90 million-dollar sci-fi movie "Mission to Mars," but he acknowledges he isn't a household name and may never become so.
He probably won't if he continues to stay away from Hollywood parties and refuses to push for cover photos in mass-market magazines.
"If I had a personality that was marketable, I probably would have sold it by now," he says with typically sly humor, gritting his way through publicity rounds for "Mars." The film opens Friday.
This is decidedly an unusual stance for an actor, even one who hopes to continue his work before live audiences as well as the camera. A founder 25 years ago of Chicago's renowned Steppenwolf repertory theater company, he will appear in the company's production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Rehearsals begin soon for an April 16 opening.
Nor is it absolutely certain that Mr. Sinise, 44, would relish a reputation as one of Hollywood's leading men, one of the half-dozen who command the equivalent of a celebrity athlete's annual salary to appear in single movie.
Still, self-effacement can be something of a pose, too, he grudgingly concedes in a round-robin, three-hour interview session during which reporters fire questions at him. "If you lose some of the mystery, maybe that might, you know, affect the way people perceive you as an actor," he says in his low-key, raspy voice.
"On the other hand, I' • not the kind of guy who is going to reveal a whole bunch of himself in People magazine and tabloids. There is only so much people need to know about me, and the rest is in the work I do."
Within a 18-month period he will have made four movies and appeared in one TV special, "That Championship Season" on Showtime in January 1999. He had a featured role as a bad guy in John Frankenheimer's "Reindeer Games" a familiar character for the man who starred as a villain opposite Nicolas Cage in "Snake Eyes," which, like "Mars," had Brian De Palma as director. He also just finished shooting "Imposter," which will open in August, with director Gary Sleder. He plays a physicist, whom he describes as "a good guy who is developing a kind of superweapon to defend the Earth against a hostile force."
Production began on "Mars" two weeks after filming ended on "Reindeer Games." In "Mars" Mr. Sinise plays an astronaut whose nobility is almost beyond reality's grasp. But the movie's simulation of a space flight taking place in 2020 is transfixedly real.
Noble astronauts generally don't have the opportunity to exhibit a range of emotions that will lift them above caricature. Mr. Sinise had plenty of practice and emotion as the disappointed astronaut in the 1995 movie "Apollo 13" who doesn't get to fly because he was exposed to measles on Earth.
Although Mr. Sinise has appeared in two astronaut roles within five years, he says he never aspired to portray one. His "Mars" role is different from the previous one since "as the central character I get to go on a ship. I get to save the day." But he isn't about to boast that top billing affects his experience as an actor.
Like a good astronaut, the blue-eyed Mr. Sinise with the fashionably cut brown hair has his emotions well in check. He can even make a statement that he is just "an actor trying to do good work" sound believable.
"My thing never was to be a big star… . If being a big star is in the cards for me, then that is what it's going to be. I just want to continue to work, make a decent living, do good work."
He makes clear that he doesn't entirely agree that astronauts are colorless people bred by scientific or military discipline to be stoics. "They are very serious, but at the same time there is something very crazy about them, too, to be able to put themselves in harm's way like that," he says.
The versatile performer, who is known as one of filmdom's notable character actors, doesn't step out of character in playing someone of integrity. He is a family man the father of three who has been married to the same woman, actress Moira Harris, since 1981. She was in the Steppenwolf company, along with Mr. Sinise's friend John Malkovich. Although now a Californian because of convenience, Mr. Sinise was leaving the next day to spend a few days with his family in Mesa, Ariz., to watch his beloved Chicago Cubs in spring training.
"I just don't know any other way to be, myself, you know. That is just who I am," he says in response to a query about whether he has to rationalize alternating commercial parts with so-called serious roles. Sometimes the two are the same. He was nominated for an Oscar for his "Forrest Gump" role as Lt. Dan, the disgruntled double-amputee.
The portrayal of Lt. Dan as a legless man was aided in part by computer effects which figure prominently in "Mission to Mars."
"To me [all the roles are] all different, you know," Mr. Sinise says. " 'Mission to Mars' is as far as you can get from 'Reindeer,' and you know that was really nice to go from that kind of character to a kind of noble character like Jim McConnell [the astronaut sent up to help save a mission in 'Mars'] in a movie that I can take my kids to. There is nothing wrong with that. My kids have been asking me for years, 'When can we see one of your movies?' Finally, I think this is one I can take them to and they can enjoy. And you know what? There will be other ones I do movies that aren't for them."
Undoubtedly, part of Mr. Sinise's charm stems from a Midwestern reserve, which translates into a screen manner somewhat reminiscent of the late Gary Cooper. He has been both a director and actor, and makes the point that he didn't get in front of a camera until after he had directed movies and only at age 35. (That was "Miles From Home" with Richard Gere, released in 1988.)
"I think there is something to be said for taking the slow road," he says. "Directing, you stay fairly anonymous unless you are [Steven] Spielberg or something or end up having a lot of success in that area. I' • glad, too, actually. It has been a steady progression. I've built up a lot of experience in the theater and working with a lot of actors, and that has all come into play."
Another plus, he feels, is having worked in partnership with other people "where my career was tied to a lot of other people's careers." He was named artistic director of Steppenwolf in 1980. "My priorities were to build a theater, not just my own career.
"Being nominated for an Oscar in 'Forrest Gump' was good, but so was the first play I was in in high school. I remember that experience as being a life-changing thing. A very emotional time. A wonderful time of discovery. If you keep that in perspective and remember those wonderful moments along the way, it is part of the tapestry, you know."
Watch out. The high school production was "West Side Story" and he played the part of Pepe the Shark.

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