- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Mel Gibson is now 60, and sports a full beard of graying hair for his upcoming role in “The Professor and the Madman,” about a 19th century educator who is compiling the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

At first glance, one might be forgiven for assuming this is now Mr. Gibson’s natural state. The controversial actor was once the world’s most highly paid thespian and an international sex symbol before scandals drove him largely from the public eye. He has only seven roles to his IMDB resume in the past decade — two of them as villains.

It’s also been a decade since he last went behind the camera as director for “Apocalypto.” But Mr. Gibson always knew he would return to do what he does best — and now he has, with the new World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge.”

“I saw this 10 years before I decided to actually do it. I looked at it again, and there’s tears on page 54, and I’m like ‘what a great story,’” Mr. Gibson told The Washington Times of the film, opening in the District Thursday.

Based on a true story, “Hacksaw Ridge” stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss, a Virginia Seventh-Day Adventist who, though a conscientious objector, nonetheless enlists so that he can become an Army medic and heal the wounded in his platoon. Doss never fired a shot or even handled a weapon during his tour, and was the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor for his bravery under fire at the notorious Okinawa battlefield.

“They offered it to me three times. I’m picky,” Mr. Gibson said of at first being reluctant to take up the demanding project, adding that he also initially turned down “Braveheart,” the Scotland epic that won him a best director Oscar in 1996.

Ever since bursting on to the scene as an actor with the Ozploitation “Mad Max” series in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, Mr. Gibson has forged a path uniquely his own, adding action and hard-hitting drama to his resume and becoming as known for his offscreen charm as for his on-screen work. Fame and fortune — as well as controversy — have followed.

Mr. Gibson has directed only five feature films in his career. As with his 2004 film, “The Passion of the Christ,” “Hacksaw Ridge” deals with questions of faith and man’s relation to the divine — something Mr. Gibson, a devout Catholic, has wrestled with in both his work and personal life.

“Desmond’s perhaps one of the most heroic figures I’ve ever read about. The fact that his faith was a big part of who he was is just intrinsic to that man,” Mr. Gibson said of his main character. “All good stories are hero stories, and he’s the pinnacle of that.”

“Hacksaw Ridge” was filmed entirely in Australia, where Mr. Gibson first gained fame as a young actor after his father moved the family there from New York. The cast comprises an all-Australian roster save for Mr. Garfield and Vince Vaughn, who co-stars as the stentorian Sgt. Howell.

Mel is one of my favorite directors. His movies are incredible storytelling,” Mr. Vaughn, seated not far from Mr. Gibson for this interview, said. “He does a great job of making the movies fun and have great humor, vulnerability and love. And have real dramatic moments as well, obviously.”

Mr. Vaughn, 46, has largely made his name as a member of the so-called “Frat Pack,” a company of thespians portraying arrested-adolescent adults in films such as “Dodgeball,” “Anchorman” and “Old School.” (Other Frat Packers include Will Ferrell, the Wilson brothers, Ben Stiller, Steve Carell and Jack Black, who frequently rotate in one another’s movies.) But Mr. Vaughn has increasingly turned back to drama. In last year’s Season 2 of “True Detective,” he played the serious, morally complex Frank Semyon — never once going for laughs.

“I was really thrilled this came my way,” Mr. Vaughn said of his tough-as-nails American sergeant in “Hacksaw Ridge.” “I thought, here’s a fun character you can do a lot with.

“I had never heard of Desmond Doss. And then looking him up and realizing that he did even more than was mentioned in the movie I found just inspiring.”

Seated between Mr. Gibson and Mr. Vaughn, Australian actor Luke Bracey, uncommonly handsome and unfailingly polite, spoke of the work ethic of his home country and of parroting American timbres for his role as Smitty, a crucial fellow member of Doss’ platoon.

“There’s a very workmanlike atmosphere Down Under which I enjoy,” Mr. Bracey, 27 and a Sydney native, said. “You gotta work hard, long hours, and I like that.”

Mr. Bracey flawlessly inhabits a New York accent for Smitty, for which he spent time in Brooklyn interacting with the locals in order to perfect.

“You get uninhibited that way,” Mr. Bracey said of soon enough being able to speak like an Outer Boroughs native, “just walking around and talking the accent. It just becomes, when you open your mouth, hopefully you’re not thinking about it.”

Australians’ can-do attitude toward labor, he said, is partially born of inhabiting a continent that can be unforgiving. This also likely leads to their propensity to party hard off the clock.

“Selfishly, I got to go to my sister’s on Sundays and BBQ and spend time with my family,” Mr. Bracey said of filming at home.

“My invitation must still be in the mail,” Mr. Vaughn deadpanned next to him, which caused both his co-star and his director to laugh. “Let’s leave Vaughn out there twiddling his thumbs.”

Actors cast as soldiers often undergo an abbreviated boot camp to train them in warfare and also to make their on-screen military unit appear cohesive. Mr. Vaughn praised the Australian cast, who showed up already in decent physical shape and weren’t jostling to see who would get the most screen time.

“You’re wondering, will everyone have a little ego?” Mr. Bracey said of the young actors portraying the American soldiers. “Everyone was really well aware this was a bit bigger than anyone’s screen time.

“I was ready to get cold water on my face at five in the morning,” Mr. Bracey said of his expectations of film boot camp.

“We didn’t have the budget to torture them,” Mr. Gibson said with a smile.

Mr. Gibson was entreated by the producers of “Hacksaw Ridge” to take the small role of Tom, Desmond Doss’ father, but Mr. Gibson cast Hugo Weaving, a fellow alum of Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art — and perhaps best known as Mr. Smith in the “Matrix” films — instead of take it on himself.

“I’ve done that, [being] in front and behind” the camera in “Braveheart” and “The Man With Two Faces,” Mr. Gibson said. “It just kills you. It’s an extraordinary workload.

“I like being behind the camera much better,” he said. “I’m OK in front; I’ve managed to do it for a bunch of years, but behind the camera I really feel like that’s where I belong.”

Nearly 500 veterans of World War II die each day. Mr. Gibson is proud that several who served at Hacksaw Ridge, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ grandfather, Ray Akins, cheered the film when the closing credits rolled.

“They’re in their nineties, they came in wheelchairs, and when it was over, they were on their feet,” he said. “One of them put Luke in a chokehold.”

“Whenever it was that acting first bit me, it was these kinds of stories [about people] that really overcame stuff and had convictions,” Mr. Vaughn said. “They don’t make these movies much, where there is no clear path to sequels. It felt nice to be part of story that was really inspiring.”

Nearly 30 years after the first “Lethal Weapon” film, a new TV show based on the odd-couple cop action-comedy series that starred Mr. Gibson and Danny Glover is airing on Fox. However, neither of the former stars are involved in the new iteration in any way.

“I did those four films, and it’s like a lifetime ago,” Mr. Gibson said. “I haven’t seen [the TV show], but good luck to them.”

“I love those films,” Mr. Vaughn said, a sentiment echoed by Mr. Bracey.

Mr. Gibson says he occasionally phones up Mr. Glover, who now lives in San Francisco and, like Mr. Gibson, is a grandfather.

“He’s getting all white hair,” Mr. Gibson said, his eyes seeming to cloud over with a thought that is both mysterious and wonderful.

“So am I.”

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