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There is perhaps no living lion of screen acting who inspires as much respect as Gene Hackman, a man of whom it has been said, he never gave a bad performance. For the past decade, however, the screen has had to soldier on without him; it has now been 10 years since the actor made his last film, 2004's "Welcome to Mooseport."
So what's he been doing since we last saw him? Living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife of 23 years, Betsy, and writing novels. His latest publication is "Pursuit," a taut thriller about a Missouri cop who sets out on a desperate manhunt after serial killer abducts her daughter.
We spoke to Hackman, 84, by phone from his New Mexico home about the book, his new life as a writer, and the big question: when will his fans see him again.
So what made you decide to start writing novels? "Pursuit" is your second solo writing. How did you get into this rat race?
Actually, I started with a fellow who I knew in Santa Fe, where we live, a friend who actually was a marine biologist. We were having lunch one day, talking about what we were reading and that kind of thing. Then we said, "Why don't we write a novel?" you know, like a lot of people do. We got together, it was a difficult process writing with somebody else, but we did it. We wrote, I think, three books together.
How's it been writing solo?
I think I probably like it a little better. I feel like it's my responsibility and it's my sense of what's going on and my poor writing or whatever. It seems to work better for me. I've spent my life, actually, with other people trying to create and it's kind of a different process and kind of exciting in a way.
In acting you're so dependent on the director, the editor, the script, so many other things; but in a novel, it's all you, start to finish. Is that liberating?
It is. In a sort of way it is liberating because you don't have a director right there at your elbow giving you a little nudge now and then or telling you how he thinks you should pronounce a certain word or emphasize a certain phrase or whatever. Many times it goes against the grain, you know? You have to have an ego to be an actor, you really do. I think that compared to the writing it's liberating in a strange way. I know that I'll never be the writer as successful as I was as an actor, but in some ways it's maybe more creative.
How does creating a character as a writer compare to creating a character as an actor?
It's kind of a peculiar thing. I have to go back to my early days as an actor when my first or second professional job was in improvisational theater. In improvisation, one of the cardinal rules is not to deny what the other person on stage has given you. So you have that always on your mind; to take what they have said and expand on it. When I began doing television in the early days and feature films, I always had great respect for the author's intent and I never wanted to change that, even though there were times where you would like to expand on what somebody says. But I tried to put that behind me in some ways because the spur of the moment is not always the best way to proceed creatively, I don't think.
What is your writing process? Do you do it at a certain time of day?
Yes. Always in the morning. I can't write past two o'clock in the afternoon. If I do, then I'm up all night. I have a little office, you might call it. It's just a writing desk and a pretty comfortable chair. I write longhand and I go back and I go over it I don't know how many times and I hand it to the professor and she types it up. Then we go over it a number of times and get a little bit of a critique from the wife and like that.
How did the germ of "Pursuit" come to you?
Well, in the previous book that I had written on my own, it took place in and around Santa Fe, where I lived, in New Mexico. I just thought I would expand my horizons a little bit and do this one in Missouri. "Payback at Morning Peak" was fun to do because it was oh, I don't know, childhood dreams and that kind of thing, where the next book, "Pursuit," was maybe a little more serious.
Your book is built around a very memorable, tough as nails female cop who is also the target of the story's villain. How did she come together?
I started with wanting her to be a strong woman, a little unusual if you will, in that she was handy. She was physically handy and kind of mentally sharp and I liked that idea that she was not in an area of a put-upon women or the frail female. She was very capable. There's so many detective stories done and they are almost all male detectives unless they are written by females. I just thought I would kind of try to stretch it a little bit and see if I could do a female. It was great fun because every time I would write something, I would have to really dig down and think about how is this going to work? Is this what a women would really do? In some ways, that was kind of helpful because it kept me on my toes.
Did your wife help with fleshing her out?
Yeah. I batted things around with her a lot. Of course, she's my savior because I write longhand and she's the typist and the wordsmith.
Your heroine seems to get annoyed with pretty much everybody that crosses her path. Is that something you relate to?
Yeah, I do. I like that in this strong woman. I like the idea that she's able to maintain some kind of professionalism and yet still speak her mind.
Did it scare you living with your psychopath character as you were writing this?
Yeah, I think that's one of the things that's exciting about writing, for me at least, is the fact that you can kind of get inside those people and kind of pull up all the stuff that you wouldn't normally be thinking about. It doesn't take you off the hook but you kind of live with them. With me it takes quite a long time, at least a year maybe a little more by the time I go through two or three edits, professional edits, but it's still fun because it's always a challenge.
How did you get inside his head and capture what was driving him?
I felt maybe these kinds of guys are dreamers and we all have dreams of course, but our dreams are usually limited by some kind of reality check and because a guy thinks because he can pluck a guitar a couple of strokes he thinks he's going to be Elvis Presley or whoever. I think that disconnect between a certain reality is kind of good for that kind of psychopath mentality.
You seem to have the details of Missouri down very well. Did you go look around the area? It feels very real.
I did. I'm a big one for trains so I took the train to Kansas City, rented a car and I drove around Missouri for four days. Went down the back roads, the rivers and the lakes. It's kind of an interesting country and I've always been fascinated by the Mississippi river although I didn't do a lot of the Mississippi in this book, but it's an interesting country and one that, not to put Mark Twain behind, but certainly was established by Daniel Boone and a lot of pioneers in American culture.
The final inevitable question: Can we hold on any hope of seeing you on the screen again?
Only in reruns.
Yeah, that's it. I'm at a place where I feel very good about not having to work all night.