Real man from Rancho Bizarre

Sheila Johnston gets the crystals and burn-out-triangles experience from Hollywood's latest drag queen; the monday interview Patrick Swayze
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Before starting a film, Patrick Swayze likes to perform a little ritual. He makes his fellow cast and crew members hold an emerald-and- crystal-encrusted sceptre he found in India. As he places it in each person's hand, he intones, "This is to bless the production and create an atmosphere devoid of mutual ego."

When stories like that are on record, you'd better not be an arrogant son of a bitch in subsequent press encounters. Swayze, when we meet, is all eagerness, rattling on a mile a minute about his new picture. "It's a fun one to talk about 'cos I'm really proud of it," he says animatedly, for all the world as if, at 5pm after a long day of interviews, he can't imagine anything he'd rather do than give another one. But he wouldn't let me touch his sceptre.

A trained ballet dancer and gymnast, he is still in shape - trim and graceful in a sea-green shirt that mirrors his eyes, the best features of a face that is sensual, leonine, a little heavy; it would turn fleshy if he allowed himself to run to fat. He has slicked down his main liability - the Seventies-vintage blow-wave. Unlike some stars, he's not coquettish. Flirting involves an element of playful, calculated insincerity, and Swayze is too ingenuous, too earnest for that. He is into self-discovery. His conversation is peppered with references to himself "as a human being".

Swayze's private life is a Hello! wet dream. He has been happily married for 20 years to his childhood sweetheart, actress and dancer Lisa Neimi. They live in the lovely Pennsylvannia Dutch-style home they restored in the mountains above Los Angeles. It's called Rancho Bizarre, not, of course, that he would want me to assume that meant anything kinky. "Strange things go on there." Like what? "Er, all kinds of things. It's kind of like a world unto itself. We called it that because we wanted it to have a sense of fun about it."

He could have been an action-movie contender, a nicer, better-looking version of Jean Claude van Damme. He made a handful of such films - Youngblood, Uncommon Valour, Red Dawn - but you always felt his heart wasn't quite in them. When, in Road House, he was hired to clean up a sleazy small- town dive "where they sweep up the eyeballs after closing", his character had a degree in philosophy and didn't believe in violence. He was the world's first Zen bouncer.

Then he became a major heart-throb, atoning for the flock of turkeys with two huge and unexpected blockbusters - Dirty Dancing and Ghost. His appeal, it turned out, was to girls, not the six-pack crowd. He was sensitive, caring, unthreatening, in tune with his own emotions. So could it be that, underneath the toned and tanned pecs, Patrick Swayze was just a big girl's blouse?

It would seem that way from To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, in which he plays a motherly transvestite named Vida Boheme. He talks dutifully for a bit about discovering his feminine side, although he is also careful, as in all the interviews he has given on the film, to stress his own "terminal" heterosexuality.

"Vida was hard to cast, apparently. They found Noxema and Chi-Chi [the two other drag queens in the movie, played by Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo] fairly easily, but Vida needed a real sophistication, a real dignity and a heart - a character you could confide in and she would be your best friend," he says. "I figured the one advantage I might have was that I saw this as a serious film. Most actors would come into the audition being outrageous, but I felt if the movie did that, I wouldn't want to be involved with it because it would be tongue-in-cheek. It would be a put-down to people who didn't deserve it.

"I found dignity in a lot of these drag queens when I was researching the role. It was really surprising to me because I've always thought myself to be very open, but I got to see how much masculinity in being a male is innate. A man holds himself in a very specific way, whether it's about containing emotion or looking cool or whatever. I got to confront a lot of things in myself. I realised that Patrick had a certain level of judgement that said, `this choice to be a drag queen in one's life is pretty weird'. But when I started looking at it, I realised it took a lot of courage. Given the pain of their lives, it was very healthy for them to create a beautiful world around them. It was interesting to watch that metamorphosis in me as a person as I lost that judgement."

Wong Foo has come under fire for unsexing its gay characters - none of them gets laid. Swayze, not for the last time in our conversation, sounds disappointed by the crassness of people. "Isn't that amazing? People always have to bring things down to sex. I guess that's the only way many of us can sort out strong emotion. But this is not a film about gay men. I think the drag queens are really used as a metaphor for life. If you come from a loving place in your heart, you deserve a chance at happiness like anyone, whatever your race or creed or sexual preference. And," he adds with commendable honesty, "if we'd let this movie start addressing sexual issues, we would have alienated 98 per cent of the world audience."

Somewhere in between all the features about being the sexiest man alive something funny happened to Patrick Swayze. He stopped getting the girl (or, in Wong Foo, the boy). In film after film - Ghost, City of Joy, Point Break, Three Wishes - he played benevolent, nurturing and protective types - virile, certainly, but alone at the end.

He leans forward. "If I followed that road, don't you think it would be a dead end? But right now, I'm looking for a romantic film, because it's time to go back to being a leading man." Later, he elaborates on this, referring to a project he is developing about "a mysterious Bedouin in the Arabian desert who turns out to be an escaped horse thief/gunslinger from the United States. He's contracted to kill a mare, but as time goes on, he can't kill her. It becomes a sort of love story between a man and a horse. That's where I'm going to create my epic romantic hero." Well, at least this time he will get the horse at the end of the story.

Swayze has had his troubles, notably a recurrent drinking problem and periods of depression (the same anxiety, perhaps, that drove his elder sister to suicide last Christmas). "A while ago, I was doing too many movies back to back and went to my acting coach, who was a kind of guru for me at the time. I got this phrase in my head - burn-out. I said, `I'm feeling burned out, I'm sick of the lie of playing this game, of everyone trying to push you into this hit machine.' He said, `Patrick, just bear with me for a minute.' And he drew a little triangle with `burn-out' at the top and he drew a line down to `boredom', and then another line over to `calculated risk', which completed the triangle.

"And," Swayze's face glows with the revelation, "he said, `If you ever have boredom, there is always a cure, which is calculated risk. Make a choice that absolutely should not work and make it work.' That really hit home because it was so simple. That really turned me around." His risks included playing an idealistic surgeon in Calcutta in City of Joy, a casting that met a chorus of derision. But Swayze redeemed himself honourably in the role. And there was an assortment of characters with fey names. Vida Boheme is just the latest in a line-up that includes chaps called Tiger Warsaw, Nomad and Sam Wheat. He was a philosophical surfing bank- robber named Bodhi (short for Bodhisattva) in Point Break. In his next film, Three Wishes, his Jack McCloud is an angelic vagabond with a magic dog and, yet again, Zen leanings (he drinks "sun tea" and coaches a Little League baseball team by getting them to chant "Om").

That Swayze carries off stuff like this is a testimony to his acting skills, which have often been underrated, and to his sincerity. There is the sense that he genuinely believes in these naff creations. And, unlike many movie stars of his generation (he is 43), he isn't afraid of parading his feelings. "I've got very specific rules that have to do with me as a human being," he says. "My point of view is that all I have is my integrity and if I give up on that, I have nothing."

Swayze is no fool; he knows the media's capacity to sneer is boundless. He has no time for the knockers who, when he rode an Arabian stallion last spring in Qatar's International Desert Marathon, merely wrote that he finished last. "Sure enough, the press grabs hold of that. They don't print the fact that 54 horses started this race and only 19 finished. At the end, my horse and I had a real bond. We became friends. And I got to do my dream - I got to ride an Arabian horse in the deserts from whence they come. I am a romantic fool to a fault."

I decide against mentioning how he sent Derek, his poodle, on a dog survival course to learn to walk a tightrope and ride a surfboard towed by a dolphin. But I did want to hear about the sceptre. To my surprise, he pulls a tiny three-inch object out of his pocket. "I have quite a few of them. This is the one that stays on me all the time. It has an amethyst at one end for healing and quartz crystal at the other for spiritual power. It's one which I don't actually let people hold. It's got my energy in it."

But, he adds quickly, not wanting to seem elitist, "I have another which I let everyone hold. The press always goes, `well, this is very airy-fairy stuff'. My point of view is that it's very organic, down-to-earth stuff. The hardest thing to achieve on a movie set is a mutual goal and team spirit, and what this does is get people working together."

Surely, even in La-La Land, there must be some doubters? Swayze swats the spoilsports aside with magnificent contempt: "Who cares? All they have to do is touch it. Whether it has power, who knows? But everyone, in their heart of hearts, wants to do something good and if you can get them to key into that energy, a movie set can be a wonderful place."

As I rise to leave, Swayze grips my hand warmly. "Neat interview," he says. In his voice, I hear the irrepressible enthusiasm, the unassailable conviction of generations of salesman and tele-evangelists and authors of paperback bestsellers about one simple formula that could change your life. And I think: "This, this is the essence of can-do America. This, not the Chippendale torso or the dancer's elegance or the big, broad, open face, is surely the secret of Patrick Swayze - human being and mensch."

`To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar' plays around the country. `Three Wishes' opens on 15 December.

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