As A US Marine, Kris Goldsmith Went To Iraq Believing In The Mission. He Came Back Disillusioned And Suicidal. What Went Wrong?

You always dreamed of joining the army. Do you come from a military family?

“No. My father wasn't in the military, however my grandfather and a couple of people in that generation had served in World War 2. Joining the military was a dream for me since I had been a kid, mainly because I had so much respect for anybody that wore a uniform in my country, whether it be a policeman, fireman or a member of the military. I just saw somebody who was willing to put their life on the line to help other people as the most honourable thing you could do in modern-day life.”

You enlisted during a time of war. Did anyone try to persuade you to not join?

“Well my friends and family all didn't want me to go away. My father had told me that he lost a lot of friends in Vietnam and that all of his friends who were so gung-ho to join the military came back extremely disillusioned, disappointed, in some cases broken because of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD], or what they're now calling 'battle fatigue'. I dismissed that by just saying this is different, this is Afghanistan, this is Iraq, this is the Taliban, this is al-Qaeda, this is Sadaam, this is different from Vietnam: we're going there with purpose. It wouldn't be until years later where my view of that would be totally turned upside down.”

What were your expectations when you went out to Iraq?

“When I joined the army, I thought Afghanistan was the big issue. I thought Iraq was going to be a quick war, that by the time I got out of basic training Iraq would be done with. That turned out not to be the case. In fact when I really got into the military, it was as if everyone forgot Afghanistan even existed for quite a number of years.

“When I saw on television the initial invasion, I saw videos of Iraqis greeting Americans with flowers and thanking and hugging and crying with happiness. And then when I got to Iraq it was the polar opposite, and instead of being greeted with flowers, it was bricks and rocks and bottles of sewage and bottles of oil, and Molotov cocktails, that type of thing. Yeah, it totally turned my little world upside down. When I say little world, I mean my isolated world of being in Iraq and not being able to escape it."

Psychologically, what impact did that have on you?

“Everything I had believed in in the war, and in serving over there, got turned upside down when, instead of being greeted as a liberator, I was greeted as an occupier. It blew my mind and made me nothing but infuriated and angry at the Iraqi people, because I felt that they didn't respect, or they should have been grateful for my decision, my dedication, my sacrifice of serving there for a year of my life.” 

Did you feel, or have you subsequently felt, that you were sold a false bill of goods?

“Yeah, absolutely. When we were getting ready to deploy, we were unofficially told – I mean it's not like it came down in orders or anything – but the general consensus, the way I remember it, was that in the year 2005,  we would be the last Americans to set foot in Iraq. We thought we were going there kind of as a clean-up crew, just take out the rest of the insurgents and wrap up and go home. But when I got there, I started to see all these permanent structures being built, by KBR, Halliburton and the rest of the war-profiteering corporations. That's when I started to realise like maybe this wasn't exactly what it was all cracked up to be."

Was the search for WMD still going on at this point?

“When I got there, we were more or less told: 'Don't even bother, because we looked everywhere.' You know, while I was overseas I came home and saw a video of President Bush making a joke at this big press conference of looking under his desk and pictures of him looking under chairs, joking about how he was going to find these weapons of mass destruction somewhere. That filled me with a kind anger that I will never get over. Because to know that he would make a joke of starting a war under false pretences, that is something that I and my friends would pay dearly for, and continue to pay dearly for, almost a decade later, is something that is absolutely, absolutely absurd.”

Do you think he will ever be held to account for Iraq?

“I don't believe that George Bush will ever pay for his crime of doing what he did to our country.”

You were given a different job to the one you were trained for because there was a truce at the time. What was the purpose of the job you were assigned?

“Well the job that I was trained for was forward observer, which is the eyes of the artillery. Basically, anything you see in the movies that explode because of the guy on the radio, I was the guy on the radio. However, those things what we call 'indirect assets' – mortar, artillery – they produce massive amounts of casualties. So because of the truce, and because I was working in a heavily populated city, I was not allowed to do what I was trained to do. And I was told very early on in my deployment, 'Well either you can be another infantryman or you could find yourself useful on some other way.' So I kind of, with my command, developed a new position on the ground where I would go out with the infantry platoon, the same way as I otherwise would've, but instead of bringing rounds on to targets, I would record and document everything that we came across. No matter what the mission, my job was to report and send it up to intelligence.”

Was what you came across anything that you could be prepared for? Can you ever be prepared for the reality of war and the need to kill if necessary?

“As tough as a bunch of 18 year olds can think that they are, and as able as you may be from your training to pull your trigger and shoot at another human being, I don't think that any sort of military training could strip you of your humanity and stop you questioning what you've been a part of and wonder if you have done the right thing while you are over there.”

You suffered from PTSD. When did you start to feel that something was going wrong inside you?

“I didn't feel, I didn't acknowledge, that something was wrong, because I was in denial for years. Thinking back it's easy to say, like, 'Oh well, as soon as I came back from my first time on leave, when I was home for Thanksgiving, and some woman bumped into me in a crowd and I threw her on the ground.' You know, I should have recognised, 'Okay, this is a problem.' But it took me years before I realised my behaviour had totally changed for the worse."

And when was that? 

"When I really started to be forced to accept I had a problem was in Spring of 2007, after I had found out that I was being stop-lossed, and instead of going to college and getting out of the army, the very same week that I was contractually told I was getting out of the army, I would be deploying to Iraq for an undetermined amount of time – at least a year. I had what I thought was a heart attack and I got to the hospital, and I was checked out from head to toe, and they told me, 'There's physically nothing wrong with you, but you seem to be very stressed out.' That's when I was like, 'Well obviously I'm stressed out. My life just turned upside down and you guys expect me to deal with it.' And from that point I started trying to get treatment. I had been searching for months before that to try and get treatment and it never seemed to be available.”

What was the attitude you were coming up against as you were seeking treatment?

“Well I was trying to be very secretive about getting help because I was afraid of anyone finding out that I was looking for it. So I never really made it clear that I needed help to everyone I know, because it would have ruined my career. What I did instead was I asked my first-line supervisor, I asked some people in my command, I asked the medics where the mental health ward was, or the mental health area was, and they directed me to a system of semi-permanent trailers that was across the street from where I worked. When I went in there, the door was wide open and there were desks pushed over, and it looked like a hurricane had blown through the place. Well turns out Fort Stewart had moved their mental health area without ever putting up a sign on the front door to say where the new location was, which ended up being at the hospital – which I guess people could blame me for not knowing it was there. But my command and the medics didn't know it was there, so how was I supposed to get help without screaming bloody murder for it?”

Stop-lossing people with PTSD and re-deploying them has got to be dangerous for everyone, hasn't it?

“Well I don't know that the effects of PTSD, in my experience, would affect the mission on everyone's level. My experience of PTSD has been, outside of the alcoholism and everything, if I was still in Iraq, what it was was being hyper-alert, and that type of thing, which was all beneficial when you're in combat. However, guys that have gone through repeat deployments that I know of, have had to be shipped home from Iraq for PTSD and the fact that it's affecting their decisions and their behaviour in such a way that it does become dangerous.”

When you come back from a war situation is there a psychological dislocation that is hard to bridge?

“Yeah, when I came back from Iraq I looked at my best friends in a different way. They all seemed to be very distant from anything that I had been involved with in the military and very apathetic. Although they cared about me, they didn't really care about anything I had gone through or any of my friends. Which I think is really what I held against them, inside at least.

“Connecting with civilians was extremely difficult and it was something I was unable to do for years after getting out the military. I was either alone or I was drunk, or I was surrounded by veterans. It was the only three ways that I felt comfortable for a long time after I got out of the military.”

I watched a documentary that seemed to suggest that Vietnam veterans were helping young men like yourself coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Has that been the case in your experience?

“For me, yes, on a very personal level. There's one Vietnam vet, his name is Bill Perry, he works for Disabled American Veterans, or is a volunteer, he is a member of the organisation, he helped me to get my disability benefits, which has financially kept me on my feet. Without it I don't know where I would be today. When I left the military, I was cut out like a cancer. Once I was out, and once I had left Fort Stewart, they didn't want anything to do with me.

“I had been described anti-depressants, I had been getting treatment, and once I was out that all disappeared. Soldiers who leave the military have no support system and they kill themselves because they don't have anything else.”

Do veterans always want to be helped?

“A lot of guys, in my experience, just want to be left alone and want to forget what they've been through, and just want to ignore it. And it's not like these Vietnam vets can come up knocking on our door and say, 'Okay, you need help,' because we're going to say no.

What was your status when you left the army?

“They left me with a discharge paper that says on it I was given a general discharge under honourable conditions for a serious offence of misconduct. That serious offence was surviving a suicide attempt, because the military believe that if you try to commit suicide, you had better be successful. Otherwise we're going to strip you of your benefits and feed you to the wolves.

“Before they decided on the general discharge, they gave me an Article 15, which is a non-judicial punishment. You're not judged by anyone, it's just a punishment handed down by your boss, for two things: one, missing movement, meaning physically not getting on the plane; and two, for malingering. So, not a medical doctor, some officer, decided that he thought I was faking it, so he handed down this punishment for that. Two, I missed movement because I had attempted suicide and I was handcuffed to a gurney in the hospital. So when I said this is absolutely crazy, and I requested a court martial, as I had a right to, they threw the case out. They kept the paper work just enough so they could give me a general discharge, which would strip me of my college benefits, so that would be the big slap on the wrist in terms of punishment. Also, because I didn't have five years in the military, I couldn't protest. I couldn't appeal my discharge. So it was the cheapest and easiest and fastest way to get me out of the military.”

What does it benefit them to try and ruin someone's future in the way they appear have to done in your case?

“Well for one, most people's immediate reaction is saying, 'Well it saves a lot of money because now they won't have to pay for your college.' I don't think that my couple of thousand dollars that I would get to go to school would really affect the big machine that is the military, or the government pockets.

“The bigger thing is they wanted to make an example out of me. They wanted to discourage anybody else from acting out. They wanted to discourage anybody else from admitting they had post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other mental illness that wasn't, in the eyes of my command, an honourable thing to have.”

Was it difficult for you to speak out because from what I have seen online, it put you at odds with other soldiers? 

“Yes. I first started speaking out and telling my story and saying exactly why I believed the war in Iraq was more harmful than good to America, and I initially faced a lot of anger from my friends in the military. I lost a lot of friends because of my views. However, as time goes by and Iraq becomes less and less of a popular war, and a lot of guys, a lot of soldiers, a lot of veterans of all kinds are starting to recognise that PTSD is a reality that they are facing too, they start to understand why I have done the things that I have done since leaving the service and speaking out.”

You would think that PTSD would be something that people were prepared to talk about. Soldiers came back with it from Vietnam and it was even recognised in the First and Second World Wars.

“In the military there are always going to be people who are deployed a bunch of times and come home and say, 'Oh well, there's nothing wrong with me, so anybody who has PTSD is weak.' Some of those people, there may very well be nothing wrong with them. Some of these people may be in absolute denial, which is what I've seen. In my experience guys who say you're weak, blah, blah, blah, and then you look at their lives and their list of friends is very short and their list of divorces is getting very long, and you have to wonder, like, you ask the guy, 'Would your life be like this if you didn't deploy a couple of times? Would you be a raging alcoholic?' These are questions that make them very uncomfortable. I don't want to say anything bad about my fellow veterans, but that is the type of denial that is keeping the stigma of PTSD alive.”

You were a member of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, although I know that you have now left because you disagreed with their approach on certain issues. They tried to do a counter recruitment campaign. If an 18 year old came to you now and asked whether or not they should join the army, what would be your advice?

“Although I was a very visible member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, I had no time and agreement with their anti-recruitment propaganda. For one reason, the lack of recruitment is the reason that stop-loss was enacted and why soldiers are being held in against their contract. But two, I don't believe that people should have the option of joining the military entirely taken away. I believe that they should be well informed, which is what I try and do. I don't try to convince anyone not to join the military; I try to let them know, like, this is what you're getting into. 

"If people insist on joining the military, I try to help them choose a job that's not going to be like mine and doesn't translate to any civilian job. I would rather them get into communications, intelligence, or something that looks good on a resume. Because blowing things up, which is all I was trained to do, is not something that's very useful in the civilian world.”

You mentioned the lack of recruitment, that's also because there wasn't a draft. Do you think there should be a draft? It's argued that one reason they didn't call a draft was because they learned from Vietnam that that's the way to provoke anti-war protests.

“I absolutely agree with that statement. I believe that if America's going to have to fight a war, everyone should have to fight. It should be the rich, it should be the poor, it should be the politicians' sons, it should be everyone within the age of fighting. I think a lot of problems arise with the draft of people not being properly trained to fight and everything like that. But I think they could work those programmes out. The reason why the draft doesn't exist today is because they know that there would be a huge opposition to the war.

“Right now, in America, something like 1.5% of Americans have any real stake in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from personal experience. Less than 5% of American families have sent a loved one to war. So the other 95%, they find it really easy to sit around and watch MTV and talk about who's on American Idol, and ignore the fact that there are Americans paying a very, very big price for the war that they're allowing to go on with their complacency.”

You committed your life to the US military and government. Do you now feel betrayed?

“I absolutely felt betrayed by the military and their treatment of me when I was looking for help. And I absolutely feel let down by Congress, because they have seen this happening. I'm not the first person to talk about getting a less than fully honourable discharge for a suicide attempt. They have been allowing this to happen. This is an issue that should be debated on every channel on TV. It should be debated by Congress all the time. It's not something that should be allowed to sit in a dark corner of the room that everyone wants to pretend doesn't exist.”

* Kris Goldsmith is featured in the documentary, Ward 54
** The interview took place at the Venice Film Festival, 2010

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011

Oren Moverman On The Messenger

Oren Moverman established himself as one of America's most exciting and individual screenwriters by working on films such as Todd Haynes' convention-breaking Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There, and Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son. But it wasn't supposed to be that way.

After serving in the Israeli Defence Force in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories, Moverman moved to New York in 1988 planning to become a director. He studied cinema at Brooklyn College, and with help from an American documentarian he'd met in 1985, while patrolling in Hebron, secured a job with cinema legend Al Maysles (Gimme Shelter).

He was all set to make his directorial debut in 2000 with the self-penned thriller, This Side of the Looking Glass. But just three days before the start of filming, the funding fell apart and the project collapsed. Moverman sent his unfilmed script out as a work sample, and suddenly found himself in demand as a screenwriter. When he did eventually get to direct his first feature, The Messenger, it was less out of choice than because he'd exhausted most other options.

Written by Moverman and a fellow immigrant, the Italian Alessandro Camon, the script about two US Army Casualty Notification Officers (Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson) grappling with their personal demons as they perform the duty of informing families that their loved ones have been killed in Iraq, was circled by Sydney Pollack, Roger Michell and Ben Affleck, who at the time was looking for a follow-up to his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. For an assortment of creative and scheduling reasons, things never worked out. “So I was the last man standing,” says Moverman wryly.

Given that a raft of Iraq war dramas from Nick Broomfield, Paul Haggis and Brian De Palma were released in 2007, with Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss and Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker appearing the following year, Moverman's film, like Ken Loach's recent Route Irish, looks at first sight to have arrived in the UK somewhat late in the day.

Even so, the Iraq war is far from old news and clearly there are still fresh angles from which to view it. Loach, for example, looked at the privatisation of the war - something he believes would not have been possible if he had made his film earlier - as well as the emotional and psychological effects experienced by many returning soldiers (part of the so-called PTSD time bomb).

Moverman, meanwhile, shows the damage done not only to men engaged directly in the conflict, but also to the people at home whose nightmare begins with a knock at the door. A quiet, reflective film, The Messenger mines a side of war that most Americans (or people in the UK, for that matter) don't really see.

In Israel the entire population has a connection with the consequences of war because the IDF is a “people's army”, says Moverman. Indeed, he remembers watching his father leave to fight in the Yom Kippur War when he was growing up, and knew from a young age about the teams that would arrive at a family's home when someone had died.

In America, on the other hand, the voluntary nature of military service means only a small percentage of the population have their lives touched directly by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For most people, death is kept at a distance. In fact, until 2009 the media were banned from photographing coffins draped in the Stars and Stripes arriving at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. While in 2004, Ted Koppel found himself accused of being unpatriotic when he respectfully read out the names of the fallen on an edition of ABC's Nightline. The Messenger was released in America just as the mood was starting to change. Nevertheless, Moverman insists that he didn't want to make a political film.

"That would have been the easy way in,” he says, “and probably the thing that would finish it off. Once you go into politics and argument, you go into emotions, and emotions take you outside of rational conversation when it comes to facts, and then you can dismiss the other side. We wanted a movie that could actually be very gentle and pull people into a dialogue.”
Moverman  didn't replicate his own experiences in the film, although the soldiers' "emotional landscape" is similar, he says. He feels close to Foster's character, who is filled with guilt and anger and desperate to reconnect with ordinary folk, but working in a context where people pride themselves on their ability not to show emotion. “You're a soldier. You're a tough guy," Moverman told his friend and fellow filmmaker, Ira Sachs. "There was no room for emotion, but those things start getting very confusing. I was a guy who came home from the army for a two-day leave and locked himself in a room and watched Apocalypse Now over and over again - in the dark. I was that guy.”

The former IDF soldier Ari Folman achieved some catharsis by dealing with his personal experiences during the first Lebanon war in the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, while Samuel Maoz drew from his time as part of a tank crew in the unnerving and claustrophobic Lebanon. Moverman isn't about to do anything similar, though. “I don't have the kind of military experience I feel needs to be explored on screen," he says matter of factly. "I actually don't think I'm that interesting.” Asked if he saw any action like the other two filmmakers, he pauses for a moment. “I was in Lebanon [after the war] and the first Intifada. I don't know if you'd call it action but it's definitely politically tense situations, both having to do with occupation, just like in Iraq – but very different. It almost seems romantic now, compared to what's going on in the world today.”

He still has family in Israel. “I worry about that place every day. It's beyond tragic and I don't see the [Israeli-Palestinean conflict] getting resolved any time soon. It's sad. We know what the future's going to be: it's either going to be horrifying and terrible, or it's going to be two states living side by side and sharing Jerusalem and making it an international city. The question is: how many people are going to die on the way?”

As for Moverman's own future, his filmmaking career in the States is going from strength to strength. On the back of The Messenger and its two Oscar nominations – for Harrelson and the film's screenplay – he has written (in collaboration with James Ellroy) and directed a second feature, Rampart, based on a real-life case of corruption in the LAPD, again starring Harrelson and Foster, while Steve Buscemi is lined up to direct his adaptation of William Burroughs' semi-autobiographical novella, Queer.

“It's one of my favourite scripts,” Moverman says excitedly. “It's about Burroughs in Mexico City and also it's a story about becoming a writer, and becoming a writer out of a need to tell stories. He can't really express his emotions so he creates these stories that express the emotions for him.”

Sounds like another one from the heart.

The Messenger is released today

* An edited version of this story appeared in The Scotsman, 16/06/11


Jennifer Arnold & Chris Mburu Discuss A Small Act

As a child, Chris Mburu looked headed for a hardscrabble life like other kids from impoverished Kenyan families too poor to afford to keep them in school. But then he became the beneficiary of sponsorship from a Swedish donor, Hilde Back, and his life changed.

The modest sum of around $15 Hilde donated each month, enabled Mburu to complete his primary and high school education. He went on to study at the University of Nairobi, and became a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard. Today, he works as a human rights investigator for the United Nations in Geneva.

He never forgot about the woman who'd helped him transcend his limited circumstances. “Even when I was growing up,” Mburu says, during a trip to London, “I was fascinated: Who's this lady? Why me and not the other kids I'm going to school with?” One Christmas, he became the only pupil in his class to have shoes, thanks to Hilde. “So everyone was talking about my Swedish benefactor. My white benefactor,” he laughs.  “When I graduated from Harvard I was thinking maybe I should make it a little project to find her, and eventually I wrote to the Swedish embassy in Nairobi, and the ambassador later wrote to me and said she had found her.”

Their story, and that of the fund that Mburu helped set up in Back's name in Kenya to sponsor bright but poor children through high school, is now the subject of American filmmaker Jennifer Arnold's thought-provoking documentary, A Small Act. She first heard about Mburu through his cousin, Jane, who also works for the UN, whom she'd met while studying as an undergraduate at Nairobi University. “I remembered she was sponsored, and a lot of my Kenyan friends had been sponsored, and so as the years went on I decided I wanted to sponsor a student. I called Jane and I said, 'Who's reputable? I want to make sure the money gets to a student.' She started telling me about Chris and Hilde, and about the fund that was getting started, and I was like, 'That will be a good movie',” says Arnold, snapping her fingers.

Although Mburu couldn't initially see why people would be interested in him, Arnold found his story appealing partly because it offered hope at a time when optimism was in short supply. When filming started in 2007, George W. Bush had won two elections, “quite scandalously,” she says, “and it didn't matter how many protests you went to about the Iraq war, it didn't matter who you voted for,” people like her felt powerless to make a difference. Mburu's story showed her that “as an individual you can change the world, or change your world, you don't have to be a Gandhi, you don't have to be a Mother Theresa. That was something that was really attractive.”

The connections between Hilde, who also appears in the film, and Mburu went beyond just benefactor and beneficiary. She, it transpires, was sent to Sweden to escape persecution as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Her parents were denied entry and perished in Thereseinstadt and Auschwitz. Was it “fate” or the work of some “connector” that brought the two together? Mburu wonders in the film. “I'm a spiritual person,” he tells me. Even so, he still finds the fact that he's "ended up being a human rights investigator focusing on genocide and crimes against humanity, while Hilde had been the product of a system that had committed genocide and crimes against humanity . . . a bit unsettling.”

Mburu's interest in human rights took root early in life. As a teenager he worked for a magazine that highlighted abuses committed by the Moi regime in Kenya the late eighties and nineties. “It was very vocal,” he says, “and as a result I got targeted and they actually confiscated my passport. My cousin was arrested in a crackdown and sentenced to three years for sedition, simply because he had wanted regime change.”

Education for him, he says in the film, is a matter of life and death, because ignorance and gullibility can be easily exploited by politicians for violent ends. As if to underline this message, an election taking place in Kenya while Arnold was making A Small Act descended into bloody chaos after sitting President Mwai Kibaki's victory was rejected by opposition leader Raila Odinga. The ensuing violence, which included the burning alive of some 30 men, women and children from the Kikuyu tribe, inside a church, took everyone by surprise, says Mburu. “We had come to the brink of ethnic confrontation many times before, and opinions would always say, 'Oh, it's just incitement from the politicians.' So in 2007 I thought it was just going to be that.”

Arnold hadn't covered the election because she didn't see it as part of the story and was going to ignore the violence because it appeared to be “election-based”. When it became clear that it was in fact ethnic, “the parallel could not be ignored between Chris's work and Hilde's history. And even though you can't really compare what happened in Germany to what happened in Kenya, the idea that you can manipulate a desperate and under-educated population based on any differences – religious, gender, ethnicity – for personal political gain, that was something Chris had already talked about and it really crystallised the stakes of the movie,” she says.

Mburu is doing his best to counter ignorance by offering some kids who score highly enough in the national KCPE exam funding to attend high school, which, unlike primary school in Kenya, is not free. The film focuses on three children at a particular primary school as they prepare for the exam, revealing the difference that success would make not only to them as individuals but also to their families.

The impact of A Small Act on Mburu's work has already been immense. After its screening at Sundance in January, they raised $90,000 in 10 days for the Hilde Back Education Fund, which has now grown from a village-based fund to a national one. “With this money we are beginning to establish a strong organisation that can then do the outreach,” says Mburu, “because we all want these kids to have strong role models from Kenya. We want them to see me and Jane and the others and think, 'I want to be like that.' That's the way you develop a country.”

Ultimately, the film's message is a simple one, says Arnold: “If you do good in the world it will exponentially grow, and if you do evil that will also exponentially grow.”

 Originally published in The Scotsman,  9 April 2011


Ken Loach Takes Aim At The Mission In Iraq, Capitalism, And Corporate Greed

Sitting down with Ken Loach to discuss his explosive new film, Route Irish, I remind him that the last time we met he was under attack from the likes of Michael Gove, now the Government's Education Secretary, and Simon Heffer over his sympathetic portrayal of the Old IRA, in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. “Oh yeah,” he says smiling. “Right-wing shits, they are.”

Heffer hadn't actually seen the Palme d'Or-winning film but declared pompously that he did not need to “any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was.” Far from feeling hurt, Loach says he regarded such criticism as “a badge of honour”. If they hadn't attacked him and the film's screenwriter, Paul Laverty, “I don't think we would have done the job properly,” he insists. “When you catch [people like Gove and Heffer] on the raw, that's brilliant. The urbane ruling class mask of genteel superiority slips and you see the kind of bandits they are underneath.”

He expects – and I suspect he might be disappointed if he doesn't receive – similar blasts for Route Irish, which explores aspects of the Iraq War that Loach believes no one on the Right wants to talk about. “They just want our brave boys doing a brave job,” he says, whereas Route Irish addresses “the torture that we've either done or approved of or accepted or condoned,” and “the greed that was involved and the corruption. I don't think they want to hear that anymore.”

Taking its title from the dangerous stretch of road connecting the relative safety of Baghdad's Green Zone to the city's international airport, the film follows Fergus (Mark Womack), an Iraq war veteran in Liverpool, as he tries to uncover the truth about his best friend and former brother-in-arms Frankie's (stand-up comedian John Bishop) violent death in Baghdad. He was working for a private security firm and his bosses claim that he was simply in the “wrong place at the wrong time”. Fergus is unconvinced and sets about investigating events, all the time haunted by the horrors of the Iraq war and struggling with the damaging effects of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

That Loach, an outspoken opponent of the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, has tackled the controversial war is not surprising. What is, however, is that his film has arrived four years after Nick Broomfield's Battle for Haditha, Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah and Brian De Palma's Redacted, among others. I ask him why has it taken this long?

“We just didn't want to join the group of films where it was all about the minds and the bodies on the street and people running around shooting each other, because what we wanted to get at were the things you wouldn't necessarily see if you do that, which is the illegality, the corruption, the lies, the greed, the brutality, the torture and the privatisation.”

The privatisation became more apparent, he says, when the military began to move out and private security outfits like Blackwater started to move in to take their place. Operating under Order 17, they had the freedom of the land and immunity from Iraqi law, which they exploited with sometimes lethal consequences for the local population. Their emergence “brings it full circle”, argues Loach, because “it was the greed of the big corporations that drove the war. They have to constantly expand. They are driven to find new markets . . . That means they have to have an expansionist foreign policy which means that their political apologists, or the political people that they put in power, effectively, like Bush and his gang, pursue their interests through American foreign policy. It was very important for us to deal with the private contracting companies because they are a part of that. So there is a kind of virtue in waiting to see that.”

As Fergus's probing peels back more layers, it reveals more of Loach's litany of iniquities: “So you find out everything you need to know just in investigating that death." Fergus's behaviour throughout is informed by the brutality he has witnessed and been a part of, first as a soldier and then as a security operative. At one point he even waterboards someone in a desperate bid to extract a confession. Trevor Williams, the actor who played his victim, experienced panic attacks for days after shooting the scene, says Loach. “He's a brave guy. If there's any justice, he'd be up there collecting his bauble.”

The film leaves little doubt, if there were any, about where Loach stands on the war and its effects. The violence doesn't stay on the battlefield but comes home with the men whose lives have been changed irrevocably by their experiences. Fergus is a danger to himself and other people; violence is his primary mode of connection. “Car explosions, landmines, torture have been his world for a long time,” says Loach, “and he can't make contact with anyone. His normal human interaction is denied him. He's horrified by what he's done but he can't relate in the normal emotional give and take with people.”

A nurse working with soldiers with PTSD – a timebomb which can take 15 years to go off, according to the filmmakers -  told Laverty, “These men are mourning for their former selves,” because they can never be who they were, such is the damage done to them. A soldier said, “The Army winds us up but they can't wind us down,” recalls Loach. “They come back and they're shot to pieces mentally. They're edgy and they're volatile. It's not surprising, really.”

Meanwhile the people responsible for the war appear to have got away with what the film-maker regards as a crime. He doesn't expect Chilcot to turn up anything new, and believes that we already know enough to haul Blair et al into court. “The illegality couldn't be any clearer. And waterboarding is torture. This rendition that they talk about is collusion because they're taking [people] places to be tortured. So there's no question of their guilt." As for Teflon Tony, "What really gets up people's noses about Blair, I think,” spits Loach, “is that he's on the American lecture circuit coining millions from his villainy.  Jesus, I just hope he can't sleep at night.”

Route Irish is available to buy on DVD, courtesy of Artificial Eye

Julian Schnabel Talks Miral

Director Julian Schnabel explains why he had no problem going to Israel to make a film about the Middle East conflict

Julian Schnabel , director of Miral. “I think it draws a pretty good mirror up to both sides” The acclaimed New York artist Julian Schnabel never intended to make movies. But when fears over the direction that a biopic about his late painter friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, was taking compelled him to direct it himself, he became an accidental filmmaker. “I did it as a rescue mission,” he told me, in 2001, “and had no intention of making another film. But it was just something that came very naturally to me.”

He went on to garner praise for Before Night Falls, starring Javier Bardem as the gay Cuban poet Reynaldos Arenas, and, especially, for 2007's awards-laden The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered total body paralysis following a stroke. Schnabel had made the latter film for his cancer-stricken father, Jack, “because he was stuck inside his body dying.” His latest film, Miral, now connects him to the humanitarian spirit of his Zionist mother, Esta, who died in 2002, and to his Jewish roots.

Adapted from Palestinian Israeli author Rula Jebreal's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Miral explores the Middle East conflict through the experiences of several generations of Palestinian women, and the influence of Hind Husseini, who used her wealth to transform her Jerusalem home into an orphange/school for Palestinian girls, after stumbling across 55 abandoned children in 1948. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rumbled on, she taught her charges the importance of education over violence.

"She was a modern Arab woman, a Muslim,” says Jebreal, who grew up under Husseini's tutelage and became a prominent political journalist in Italy. “She understood from the beginning that there's no way for sustainable diplomacy or peace without regular people having access to education. And she also understood that the women are the weak part of the conflict. So she tried to save as many as she could.”

When Schnabel read Jebreal's book after meeting her in Rome (they now live together in New York), he was impressed by its vivid vignettes of everyday life, parallel stories, and the feeling it gave him that he “knew Rula since she was a little girl”. He helped her adapt it into a screenplay, but knew he would have to visit Israel to see what life there was like for himself before filming began.

Although he admits to not having known about the complexities of the Middle East conflict when they started the project, Israel has been a part of Schnabel's consciousness since early childhood.

His mother twice became President of Hadassah [the Women's Zionist Organisation of America] in Brooklyn: first in 1948, before Schnabel was born, and then again when he was around 11 years old. She helped survivors of the Holocaust find places to live (his older sister remembers strangers walking around their house in her parents' clothes), and raised money to plant trees in Israel. “We saw Exodus at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City and everybody stood up when Hatikva came on,” Schnabel recalls. “They put their hand on their chest and Mother was very proud. She aligned herself with Israel and every battle that was fought. But I think that the kind of peace and human rights that she would expect for Jewish people, she would expect for everyone.”

Schnabel visited Israel for the first time in 1987, when he put on an art exhibition for Jerusalem's Israel Museum in the hope that he and Esta could spend time there together. However, the first Intifada broke out and she was unable to join him,  "because my dad was scared there was a war on. Anyway, I felt like I owed it to my mother to go there and really see what the issue was. So the book really brought me to a point in my own personal history that I kind of left behind for a while."

Ironically, when I met Schnabel he was promoting Miral at London Film Festival at the same time as Mike Leigh was explaining his reasons for boycotting Israel over the government's new loyalty oath. Asked whether he believed in cultural boycotts, Schnabel said: “I went over there because I needed the help of Israelis. People that worked in Tel Aviv – cameramen, production designers - worked on my movie, which is not something that is exonerating everybody for whatever's happened, because I think [the film] draws a pretty good mirror up to people's faces on both sides [of the conflict]. They live in that country but they don't believe in what the government's doing; the government's not representing those people.

"My attitude is to jump in, deal with it, confront it . . . I wanted to make something that people could use as a vessel, a physical fact that they could react to, that they could talk about. I wanted to change minds, and that was my way of doing it.”

Like the book, the film ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with the Oslo Accords promising an end to hostilities. Since then, of course, we have seen the rise of Hamas, rocket attacks and suicide bombings, IDF violence in Gaza, and a failure to resolve the thorny issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The film, which left Moshe Dayan's granddaughter Amalia in tears, Schnabel claims, makes it clear that probably the greatest stumbling block to peace is fanaticism, on both sides.

For Jebreal, the most important line in the film is spoken by a young PLO activist character who ultimately rejects violence (and is killed by his own people as a consequence), when he tells Miral, “Our allies are not the Arabs and not even the United Nations. Our allies are the Israelis themselves, and they're not going anywhere and neither are we.” This was also Hind's vision, Jebreal says. “She knew that there's no solution for one without the other.”

Adds Schnabel: “My mother was a humanitarian person and I think Miral is also a civil rights film. It's about people stuck in the middle. They're not fanatics. They're not militants . . . And then there's this teacher who's saying, 'Don't be throwing rocks,  that ain't the way to do it.'”

He says the Israeli-American filmmaker Oren Moverman (The Messenger) called the movie “a beautiful poem, a cry for peace”. Question is: will anyone want to listen?


X-MEN: The Freaks Rule

September 11 was but an unimaginable future horror when Bryan Singer set to work on his sequel to X-Men. Yet, in the time it has taken for the $120 million comic-book blockbuster to reach our screens, a weird synchronicity between art and real life has occurred. Almost by chance, X-Men 2 now looks like a highly polished mirror held up to our troubled times. It is not just post-9/11, but post-Iraq.

Given that the timeless themes of intolerance and prejudice have always been at the heart of the X-Men universe - the first film even opened in a concentration camp - and given the seemingly limitless adaptability of the comic books’ mutant metaphor, it is not a complete surprise to find our own world reflected in the multi-layered fantasy of X-Men 2. What is astonishing, though, is the sheer clarity of that reflection.

"It’s really, truly amazing," gasps Brian Cox. A newcomer to the franchise, the acclaimed Scottish actor plays William Stryker, a US government official who uses a mutant’s attempt to assassinate the President to justify an attack on Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, by implying that the target is a terrorist training facility.

Soldiers enter the mansion at night and shoot tranquilliser darts into sleeping children. As military helicopters hover noisily above the mansion, all is panic and chaos inside. The upshot is a local war between "normal" humans and mutants which threatens to escalate into global mass destruction. Sound familiar?

Although there was a press junket for X-Men 2 in LA, Cox says London is the first place he has done publicity for the film.

"I think the Americans are very nervous about Stryker, because they don’t want to damage their opening weekend. But you can’t blame the film for history kind of realising itself. Stryker does happen to be Director of Homeland Security, though. So that - and the fact that we’re dealing with these right wing hawks - makes it a little awkward, to say the least.

"This shows you the kind of mentality that is going on and the pressure that people are under in the States. It’s not a very nice time, to be honest. It’s also about fear, because everybody’s afraid of their position."

As if to illustrate Cox’s point, Dan Harris, one half of the film’s young writing duo, later tries to distance himself from comments he made to the American magazine Cinefantastique comparing Stryker to George W Bush, and the events in the film to the invasion of Iraq. "I was just blabbering, and I apologise for that. So we can’t talk about that. I was wrong, because I said some dumb, dumb, dumb things that weren’t true," he says, unconvincingly.

Stryker could be "a bit" problematic, admits producer Lauren Schuler Donner, because he represents the government and reflects "government suspicion of anybody who looks Middle Eastern. But that’s an unhappy coincidence," she suggests. "In terms of themes, X-Men 2 would be relevant at any time."

Donner is right. Historically, the X-Men comics have always had their finger on the zeitgeist, so X-Men 2 is simply carrying on that tradition. "Spider-Man is about a teenager growing up and getting the girl," sneers co-writer Mike Dougherty. "The X-Men films have a political awareness."

Indeed, it was in part the conflicting ideologies of progressive liberal Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the militant Magneto (Ian McKellen) that drew Bryan Singer, who was keen to make a science fiction fantasy film, to the X-Men story in the first place.

"The notion that Professor Xavier was Martin Luther King and Magneto was Malcolm X, and these were two men who had very strong, decent beliefs, but had taken different roads. And the irony of that, and the moral ambiguity of that, intrigued me. It was a step beyond simple crime-solving, superhero action. It was much more socio-political, and in that way exposed more truth."

Of course, there are myriad other readings - Xavier and Magneto could be Jews fighting for and against assimilation, for instance - which is partly why the X-Men comics have lasted 40 years and are now spread across six different titles (as well as spawning an animated TV series and video game). Another reason for this longevity is the mutant metaphor, which is so allegorically adaptable that it allows for a high level of identification whatever your race, creed, colour, religion, sexual orientation, age or whatever. The fact, too, that its superheroes are treated like outcasts and freaks is, ironically, also highly comforting, especially for adolescents.

"The things that make the X-Men freaks also empower them, which is cool," says Shawn Ashmore, who plays Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, in the films. "Because when you’re a teenager reading this comic book or watching the film, it’s like the things that make you feel different are usually the positive things, but you don’t see it at the time. You sort of have to grow into that."

Singer was a perfect choice to direct this material. Not only is he able to handle large ensemble casts but, as a gay Jew, he also knows what it is like to be part of a minority. More than most summer event movies, X-Men 2 - and X-Men before it - feels like personal film-making. Where the first film seemed to express his feelings about being Jewish in America, the new one makes its themes of homosexuality and homophobia more explicit. None of the characters is actually gay, but one does literally "come out" to his parents about his mutant powers. "Have you ever tried not being a mutant?" asks his shocked mother.

Elsewhere, the fact that Alan Cumming is gay gives his casting as Nightcrawler, a teleporting blue-skinned mutant who happens also to be Catholic, a mischievous subversive twist.

"He’s a devout Catholic but he looks like the devil, so I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than putting an openly gay actor in that role," laughs Dougherty. "It’s like an openly gay actor playing a superhero, which people don’t usually think go together, and playing a superhero who is a Catholic demon. It’s a perfect match."

Singer’s identification with the material, I discover, goes beyond questions of religion and sexuality. He was, he tells me, an "infant adoption", so Wolverine’s quest to discover his origins has become an increasingly personal journey for him. "Because it’s not just about where did I come from, who am I really, but how important is that to who I am now and to who I’m going to be?" says Singer.

So these films are a way for Singer to explore his own situation?

"Absolutely. And what better way than in a giant, action, summer event movie. I could think of no better place to spill out one’s own personal problems and foist them onto the world," he laughs. "And for that I apologise.

"But then again," he adds, "these ideas and concepts have existed in the X-Men world since its creation at the height of the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s. They are what has been the backbone through all six offshoots of the comic book, the graphic novels and the animated series - tolerance, acceptance, finding your place in the world, prejudice."

Linking the X-Men movies to Singer’s previous films, The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, is a fascination with the cause and nature of evil. In X-Men, Magneto’s militant line and cynical view of human nature is founded in his incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. The fear of the knock on the door haunts both X-Men films, while Cerebro, the machine Xavier uses to communicate telepathically with the world’s mutants, becomes a weapon by which Stryker could carry out his final solution to the "mutant problem".

Underneath its thrilling set pieces, humour and moving relationships, X-Men 2 is actually quite a chilling film. Ultimately, it all goes back to Singer. "I was very obsessed with the Holocaust as a child and man’s inhumanity to man and, ultimately, it came from my fear of intolerance. In certain places, for whatever reason, just for being Caucasian or having blue eyes, someone might want to cut my head off. For being American, for just being myself, someone might want to destroy me. That concept is so terrifying that it constantly bears exploration."

With luck, he will continue this exploration in a third X-Men film. Certainly the door is left open for another instalment, although only X-fans are likely to know the meaning behind the movie’s mysterious final image ...

Published in The Scotsman, 23 April, 2003


Last Night Star Eva Mendes Shoots From The Lip

Eva Mendes on the rough and the smooth of Hollywood.

The last time we met was for the James Gray thriller We Own the Night.

“That was a really amazing experience for me. I love that movie so much.”

You said you hoped it would attract more dramatic roles. Did it?

“You know, it did. Not everything is instantaneous in this business but it absolutely did, because I did Bad Lieutenant with Werner Herzog, and you don't get any more serious than him. For me he is one of the few legends. From the documentaries to his films, woo! Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre Wrath of God - I am so in awe of this artist. He saw me in We Own the Night, and that would have never come about, and it's a dark, edgy film and raw. And now I've done Last Night with Keira Knightly, Guillaume Canet, and Sam Worthington, and I would never have gotten that if the producer on that didn't see me. Well, he produced We Own the Night and saw my dedication, saw how far I'm willing to go for my craft, and then he told the director. So it absolutely has helped me.”

Are you looking for directors who are going to test your limits?

“Yeah, absolutely!”

Going darker in some of your more recent roles, have you discovered new sides to yourself that you haven't been able to express before?

"I think that that happens naturally with age, you know? I grew up very, very sheltered, like really sheltered, in a Cuban-American family. Well they're Cuban, I'm the only American, the only one born in the States. So I grew up incredibly sheltered. When I went to Europe for the first time I was 19 years old or 20 years old and for me it was huge! And I didn't start, like, experiencing life until a much later time. I had my first puff of a cigarette at 28?! Everything happened so much later. And I thank God for that because I was able to deal with certain things in my own way. But, at the same time, I just had a childlike existence throughout my 20s, like really immature in a sense.”

But did that put obstacles up, emotionally or mentally, that you then had to overcome to be able to do certain roles?

"I think so, because I lacked the life experience. So I think what happened was I had to kind of learn quick. And the business will do that to you, so it was great: I needed the dark experiences the business has provided for me so that I could be a better actress.”

What kind of dark experiences?

"Those are personal things. But whether they're more personal or they’re people promising you the stars and the sky and the moon and you're really believing in them, and they're looking you straight in the face, looking at your eyes, telling you how good you are, and then the next minute it's, 'Who are you?' That might sound superficial to somebody but to me, when you look at somebody in the eyes and you say, 'The role is yours and this is happening,' that means something. Your word means something with me. To be just disappointed by people over and over again hasn't made me bitter, thank God, but it's made me aware and made me feel those feelings of utter and complete devastation and disappointment.”
So has your relationship with Hollywood, or your attitude to it, changed?

"Yeah it has. I just laugh at everything and I don't take anything to heart. Anything. And if it happens it happens, fantastic. But I no longer take what people say to heart. Not that I don't take it seriously, I just don't take it to heart, because I'm really sensitive. I'm just not letting it affect me. It's not easy to laugh, but if you just force yourself to chuckle and get into a laugh, there is a nice release there and you go, 'You know what? Screw it. It's not a big deal.'”

In the past you said you were not scared of nudity onscreen but you were worried about portraying sexual intimacy. Why was that, and did doing your first sex scene in We Own the Night overcome that?

"Well, I was always okay with nudity in the right situation because it's circumstantial. But I've become very guarded about my body and my image in a certain way, because I never want to feel objectified. So it's got to always be on my terms, and it has been and I'm very happy about that. But like I said, it's on my terms. So when I go scantily clad for Calvin Klein, I knew going into it this is going to be a provocative campaign and I thought, 'Cool.' I was in great hands. It's Calvin Klein, the most iconic American brand we have, and known for controversy, and I was ready for it.

"When I do certain photo-shoots it's very calculated. It's: 'Okay, do I want to do this men's photo-shoot now? Do I want to be on the cover of the magazine scantily clad? Yes, I do, because I'm promoting a movie such as Ghost Rider or such as The Spirit, and that's my audience.' I'm not just like, 'Oh! There go my clothes off again!', although I make jokes about it that way because I'm self-deprecating and I'll be like, 'Oh, oops.' But the truth is I'm a smart cookie and I know what I'm doing. So nudity is one thing I'm very comfortable with in a film, if it makes sense.

"Training Day was my big break in the business and in the scene where I have to do full frontal - it was very tasteful, I thought, and I really trusted that director [Antoine Fuqua], and trusted Denzel Washington, of course - I wasn't doing a love scene and that was okay for me. It's a strange thing, I think, the intimacy. It's a tough one.”

I spoke to Maggie Gyllenhaal once who talked about doing a sex scene that left her feeling bad afterwards because it was a quite an emotionally grueling scene and because sex is such a personal thing, if you're an actor who puts everything into your work you can be left . . .

"Feeling exposed and vulnerable? That's why, for me, it's who you're working with. The scene in We Own the Night, that opening scene, I was exposed - not to make a joke out of it, I was literally exposed -  and I was very emotionally vulnerable. And I could not have done that the way I did it, which was with honesty and being completely in the moment, if I didn't trust Joaquin Phoenix completely, and I didn't trust [the director] James Gray completely. So it's about the people you work with as well because you are left feeling very vulnerable. The truth is that's you out there.

"But it's not just love scenes that leave you feeling like that. Also in the scene with Joaquin where we're fighting in the room and I smack him, I was so depressed when I went home that day. It was one of the things where you've got to go to that ugly, dark place; so there's a lot of times where that's the result of it. But I think, too, with a love scene, a sex scene, it's just embarrassing, you know? So it takes extra effort. But that's when I thank God I'm a trained actress. I still go to school, I've been with my acting coach for almost 10 years, and that's when I say, 'Okay, thank God for the training.' But I still think, 'Oh gosh, there's a camera right there.’”

Did doing that film made you look at roles that you maybe wouldn't have contemplated before because you hadn't got over that hurdle yet?

"No, I would never shy away from an amazing role because there was a sex scene or a rape scene. Look, nobody would look forward to a rape scene. But if the script was amazing, that's part of the deal.”

When you have control over your image the way that you say you do, can doing something like the risque photo-shoot you did for Italian Vogue in 2008 be empowering?

"[Giggles and smiles] Yes! It was amazing! I love that you brought that up because I want to make a comparison and I know that you totally get what I am saying. The Italian Vogue shoot was so empowering. We came up with a character - we had two days and it felt like I was doing a mini film - and I let loose! My inhibitions were out the door! And, of course, again it's circumstantial. I'm working with Steven Meisel, one of the best living photographers we have. So I didn't even have my publicist with me. I just knew it was about me and Steven, and it was about just getting down and dirty. Our inspiration was Elmer Batters, this crazy photographer from the 50s and 60s that had a foot fetish [laughs].

“I'm so proud of that [shoot]. I've never wanted to put a magazine I've been on the cover on, on my coffee table before. And I didn't because I thought it might be tacky. But that was the first one where I thought, 'I'm proud.' I loved it.

"Now the complete opposite of that was the first time I was on the cover of a men's magazine. It was my first interview, and it was my first photo-shoot. This was for 2 Fast 2 Furious, and it had to be five or six years ago. I had never done a cover, nothing, and I will say it: I was manipulated in the photo-shoot. The images aren't disgusting by any means, you don't see anything very much, but there's some images where they had me on a piano, everything was white, and I was manipulated. They saw a young girl who didn't have experience, who didn't know how the situation was, and I felt very manipulated. I saw those images and till this day I cringe when I see them. Not because I'm scantily clad - look at the Italian Vogue - but because it wasn't on my terms. I vowed to myself never again. Never again.”

So it was a learning experience?

"Absolutely. Because, literally, my soul hurt. Literally. And it's a big men's magazine. Huge! I'd go into a 7-Eleven or an ampm, those little marts, and I couldn't escape it for a whole month. It was staring at me right there, because it was everywhere. And again it wasn't anything that anyone else would blink an eye at. But for me, for my soul, I said, 'Who's that girl?' I feel that the cover looks like I'm about to cry.”

You felt like something had been taken away from you?

"Absolutely. And I didn't do sexy shoots for a few years because I was like, 'I got to get this under control. I got to figure this out. I got to gain some control over this.' And then the last few years [claps her hands], I feel like it's a [tongue in cheek] renaissance.”

How does your partner feel about some of your photographs? He's got to be pretty secure.

"He's very secure or he wouldn't be here, you know? I always joke around people. When they ask, 'Are you with somebody?' I say, [dreamily] 'Yeah, I'm with the cutest boy.' But the truth is he's a man, and he just gets it.”

So when he saw the Vogue shoot, how did he react?

"He loved the Italian Vogue! He loved it! But, you know, we're cut from the same cloth. We're yin and yang but we have the same core values and he gets it. He's such a little artist. I say it like that not that he's a little artist but [wistful] I just see the artist trapped inside of him. I'm like, 'C'mon . . .' So he loved it. He gets it.”

When you did The Spirit it was something completely new for you because like Sin City, which Frank Miller co-directed, it was completely shot using green screen.

"Yeah, and I hated it. I hated it the first few days. I thought, 'What am I doing? How am I going to do this? What is happening?' First of all, it's really green in the studio. It's really annoying because everything is green and your eyes have to adjust, and you're like, 'Can someone turn on the lights? Like why is everything green?' But that's a minor thing, obviously, and you adjust to that. But it's like if you and me were in a scene together, the only thing that would be there would be the seats we're actually sitting on, that's it. If there's a clock on the wall that you need to reference, it's not there. If there's a, I don't know, a mini gorilla at the end of the room, he's not going to be there. So it's really about connecting with the other actor, which I love, but it's also about using your imagination.

"The cool thing about that is, the first scene I shot, like my first day, I was so unhappy with it. I just didn't have it, I just didn't get it, and in the middle of shooting, or a few weeks in, I said, 'Frank [Miller, the director],' who I adore, I said 'Frank, can you help me out? Can we re-shoot that first scene? I didn't bring it. I didn't give it to you.' And he said, 'Absolutely.' And that's the beauty of it, too, because we don't have to go back to a location or anything. We just added it. At the end of the day when I wrapped, we added that scene [getting excited], re-shot it, and it's so good now!

"That was actually a big victory for me too, because speaking up sometimes is difficult, believe it or not. I know I come off as a loudmouth, I understand that. And I am at times obnoxious. But speaking up for what I want? You know, I think a lot of females share this kind of quality where even if you're raised in a progressive household, you don't want to rock the boat. So I really pat myself on the back every time I do that, because it was easy. I just asked, and it happened."

Well it's your face that's going to be up there, it's your performance, so I guess you do have to try and keep some control over it.

"You do, but asking to re-shoot a scene, that's a big one. But then I realised, 'Wait a minute we don't have to go to another location.' Normally I don't think that would happen, because it's so much money to re-locate, you know what I mean? So it happened.”

You play a jewel thief in The Spirit and I wonder if you enjoy playing the villain or outlaw-type character, because I remember the first time I saw you was when you were kicking ass in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, opposite Johnny Depp?

"I was so nervous on that movie.”


"Yeah, 'cos I was such a baby in the industry as far as experience [goes]. I'd done a few things but I was nervous because I was working with Johnny Depp and I was like, 'Oh my God.’ And I realised, I think on that film, that the only way I could cure my complete anxiety before doing a scene with a star like Johnny Depp, a star that really knows their work and has true chops, is by completely being over-prepared. OVER-prepared. And that taught me that. But I was so nervous. I had fun, though.”

Is it fun playing these outlaw types?

"Yeah, it is fun. To be honest, I just want more range, because that is definitely fun. And I'm not sitting here going, 'I want to be taken seriously as an actress.' I just want more range, because I do feel like that's one of my pluses. I can do a comedy and I can do a drama. And I can do a dark comedy and then I can do a slapstick. I'd love to work with the Coen brothers. Oh my gosh, I would love to go that far. And then my dream director is Mike Leigh. Dream director! I've heard about his process and, oh my God, I would be committed. I would stop my whole life to work with him.”

It can take months.

"It takes months and then the improvisation, the character study - I would die for an experience like that. Die!”

When you played the lead in the reality TV satire Live! the character was originally written as a man. So is it quite difficult as a woman to find complex roles?

"Absolutely, because they all go to Kate Winslet first, which is understandable. I'm a huge Kate Winslet fan. When I talk about range, that's what I mean. It's like that's it, that's the dream career. That's the career I would love to have because she really does it all. And yeah, those roles are really hard to find.”

How do you change that?

“By just being diligent in my work and really showing people that I'm here to stay, and that I work my ass off for my craft. And I will tell a new director when I'm up for a part, 'Call my directors. Call all of them.' Whether it's Ghost Rider or it's We Own the Night, or it's Bad Lieutenant, my approach is always the same: I do my character study, my script breakdown, and I go for it. I just go for it.”
Finally, can you comment on the fact that the ad you did for Calvin Klein's Secret Obsession was banned from US TV?

“Yes, isn't that cool.”

Were you surprised?

“I was surprised that we were banned. But it was actually kind of exciting because I've never been banned from anything before, and it felt very rock-'n'-roll.”

What is it with Americans and nipples? People were scandalised when they thought they saw a flash of Janet Jackson's nipple at the Super Bowl.

“I know! I mean, come on, it's no big deal. You know I love being American, and my family fought so hard to come to that country, so I have a respect for it, and yet I think we need to do less with the violence and celebrate the human form more, and be okay with it more. We need to learn from the Brits. Yeah, we need to learn from the Brits.”

© Stephen Applebaum, 2011