Mellow? Mature? It's Mel Gibson

In recent years, Mel Gibson has made anti-Semitic remarks, his marriage has ended, and he has only directed. Now he is back to acting and parenthood. By Gill Pringle

During a glittering 31 -year film career, Mel Gibson had, mostly, grown used to life in the spotlight. That was until four years ago, when the publicity turned ugly with lurid headlines detailing his DUI bust and anti-Semitic rants, followed by the unravelling of his 28-year marriage and subsequent affair with a Russian singer, who recently gave birth to his eighth child.

If he's at all nervous to be back in the public eye, then its not apparent when we meet to discuss his starring role as a homicide detective investigating the death of his own daughter in Martin Campbell's Edge of Darkness, a big-budget remake of Campbell's original award-winning BBC miniseries, first aired on TV 25 years ago.

The role also marks Gibson's return to the big screen after an eight-year absence, in the interim achieving much acclaim as writer-director-producer of both Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ.

"It's kind of like riding a bike, and it was time to come back," says the 54-year-old actor. "I felt the earning, sorry, I meant the yearning, not the earning. Was that a Freudian slip!?'"

Gibson's own well-documented fall from grace happened on the evening of July 28, 2006, when he was stopped for speeding in his car, with an open container of alcohol, in Malibu (later renamed by local pranksters who altered a local city sign to read "Melibu"). He subsequently admitted making anti-Semitic remarks during his arrest, and later numerously apologised for his "despicable" behaviour.

Ask today how he felt during that darkest hour, he smiles tiredly: "Look, I've told some whoppers when I'm loaded. And the other thing is: OK, do you know what the number one fear of every human being is? It's among the top three fears that almost everybody has? It's public humiliation. If you think about public humiliation, it's also about loss of anonymity, a little like what Tiger's going through now. All this stuff, it's public humiliation. 'We'll beat Tiger for a while...'"

His own lack of anonymity, he reckons, is the main reason why none of his own eight children – ranging in age from 29 years to three months (his girlfriend, musician Oksana Grigorieva, gave birth to a daughter, Lucia, in October last year) – have thus far followed him into Hollywood.

"None of them want to be actors. They've seen [my life], and they're like, 'the famous thing isn't so hot'. Everybody wants to be secure, of course. But I don't think they want to be wealthy and they're not. They've had to work for it. They don't want to lose that precious commodity: anonymity."

Gibson is unsure what the remaining two top fears might be: "Oh God, I mean fear of death, certainly, but public humiliation is even worse. I just hope to make it all mean something.

"I try and eat right but I don't work out much. I quit smoking so that's something in the right direction. I just don't do anything fun anymore. But that's dying, isn't it? You die in stages. You let things go in pieces. It's more than halfway through, right? Life's experiences, whether they be pleasant, unpleasant, torturous or excruciatingly wonderful and blissful, season you somehow and hopefully you learn from them. Isn't that what it's about?

"All I'm trying to do now is put some information on a chip that I can leave to my progeny and maybe they can do a better job than I can in this crazy, spinning piece of dirt. How did I quit smoking? It was torture. I'm on day nine now so it's almost over. The first three days I was like an axe murderer."

He remains ambivalent about his own mortality. "I did [have bodyguards] for a little while but it's a drag. If your number's up, its up. If I'm lying in bed and somebody comes into my room, I'll either wake up or I won't. And I'll either hit 'em with my big stick that I've got or my gun that I have stowed away... or they'll hit me. Look, in this day and age, you've got to be tooled up."

Born in New York, the sixth of 11 children, he spent his formative years in Australia until his 1979 breakout role in Mad Max brought him back home, and he went on to star in some of the most memorable films of the past three decades, including Gallipoli, Tim, The Year of Living Dangerously, Hamlet, four Lethal Weapons and two further Mad Max outings, along the way collecting both Best Picture and Best Director Oscars with 1985's Braveheart. In 2002, he announced he no longer wished to be a movie star.

However, under a deluge of negative publicity, its no wonder he would take refuge in acting, in Edge of Darkness, shortly followed by the release of Beaver, by Jodie Foster. "The Beaver is an odd concept, a guy's clinically depressed and finds a ratty old beaver hand-puppet and starts to express himself through the puppet. Ultimately, I'd like to direct more stuff."

Gibson will next direct Leonardo DiCaprio in a still untitled Viking movie which, like Apocalypto and Passion, will use native language. "I think it will be in the English that would've been spoken back then and old Norse, whatever the ninth century has to offer. I want a Viking to scare you. I don't want a Viking to say, 'I'm gonna die with a sword in my hand'. I want to see somebody who I've never seen before speaking low, guttural German who scares the living shit out of you."

Though Edge of Darkness is originally a British story, it has been reset in Boston; producer Graham King and director Martin Campbell agreeing that there isn't a British leading man capable of opening a $100m-budget Hollywood movie. It's about a beleaguered cop. Gibson says: "I look like I was going to die in this movie. I look like, 'Eww!' all drawn out and leathered. And I have aged. It's just a natural part of the holy human condition. What am I going to do? Get surgery? That just looks weird. Besides, that must hurt, so what's the point?"

His settlement with his wife, and mother of his first seven children, Robyn Moore remains unresolved, an estimated US$900m fortune at stake. In the aftermath, Gibson admits to something of a transformation, after meeting Grigorieva, 40, and starting a new family.

He has also directed her in four videos; her song "Say My Name" featuring on the closing credits for Edge of Darkness.

He admits that later-in-life parenthood is different, his newborn being only his second girl; his first-born daughter Hannah, is now 29."It is different because I'm different but the thing that isn't different is that I don't think I'll ever be able to get over the fact that there is a little life there in front of me staring at you with complete innocence and a total angelic blamelessness. So we'll see if I can do it better this time."

"I think I'm a lot better because maturity brings things out. I just wish I had that youthful spring again. But it's a trade-off, right?"

'Edge of Darkness' is out on 29 January