Alpha Mel

What drives Mel Gibson to the edge of darkness?

“Press conferences; when someone borrows your dental floss,” Mel Gibson told the Current and a handful of other publications in a recent phone conference. “Nuclear winter’s another good one. That would put you in a pretty dark spot.”

Gibson’s devilish laugh followed most of his quips as he fielded questions about his new dramatic thriller Edge of Darkness, based on a 1985 British TV series of the same name and helmed by the same director, Martin Campbell (Casino Royale). A fan of the original series, Gibson said the formula for both was fairly similar.

“`Edge of Darkness` is a very human story involving heightened circumstances,” Gibson said. “It kind of has the same structure as one of those Jacobean tragedies of the 17th century. Everyone gets even and gets their just desserts.”

Gibson’s character in Darkness, however, is less like the title part he played in Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version of Hamlet — the most famous of these revenge tragedies — and closer to the role that reportedly convinced Zeffirelli Gibson could take on Shakespeare: Lethal Weapon’s Sergeant Riggs. In Darkness, Gibson stars as Thomas Craven, a homicide detective for the Boston Police Department who uncovers deep-rooted political corruption while investigating the murder of his activist daughter.

“He’s a blue-collar cop dealing with grief and loss of a child,” Gibson said. “He’s probably on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I suppose I’ve been in similar territory before, but this had a nice feeling to it.”

Gibson’s role in Darkness marks the first time since 2002’s Signs that the 54-year-old Academy Award-winning director and producer of Braveheart gets top billing as an actor. In the interim, Gibson stepped behind the camera to make The Passion of the Christ in 2004 and the underappreciated Apocalypto in 2006. The hiatus from acting, he said, was welcome.

“Quite frankly, I felt like I was getting a little bit stale and I wanted to walk away,” Gibson said. “If you really want to hone your craft and make it better, the best thing is to let go of it for a while … and go do ordinary things like dig a hole, build a fence, or run a farm. It’s a great mystery how this somehow magically forms your creativity, but it does seem to be the case.”

The transition from director to actor has been a challenge, but Gibson says it has allowed him to reevaluate the responsibilities both jobs entail.

“One has to know when to bite one’s tongue and stay out of someone else’s business and vision and give them that creative space,” Gibson said. “The great thing is, having done all those other aspects of the business provides you a great deal of empathy for all of the parties involved. I actually felt bad for `Campbell` some days. That’s pretty hard to do.”

Gibson hasn’t made himself seem so sympathetic in recent years. When Passion of the Christ earned more than $600 million worldwide, it did so despite accusations of anti-Semitism. His DUI arrest in July 2006 overshadowed the release of Apocalypto five months later.

“People can focus on whatever they want to focus on,” Gibson said. “I’ll just go about working and trying to make art. It’s just the way things are.”

Whether audiences embrace Gibson’s return will remain uncertain till the studio counts its money. But artistically, Gibson, says, his past missteps have helped him develop as an actor.

“When you come back, you make different choices,” Gibson said. “One necessarily has to go to a dark place in order to investigate that aspect of themselves.”

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