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Up from Down Under, Heartthrob Mel Gibson Lives Dangerously—but Only in the Movies

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Mel Gibson is the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen,” says sexy Sigourney Weaver, his co-star in the exotic thriller The Year of Living Dangerously. During Gibson’s recent trek to Manhattan from his home in Australia, fans crowding in for a closer look at those smoky blue eyes and that trim 5’10”, 160-pound physique made it clear that Sigourney is not alone. Still, being the first movie heartthrob from Down Under has put a lot of pressure on Gibson. It’s not the fans, however, that make him want to boomerang back to the bush. It’s the questions. Gibson, 27, does not like producing answers. “It reduces my capacity for surprise,” he reasons.

Until his latest film most Americans knew Gibson only from his Aussie movie roles—the Redfordish soldier in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and the Bogart-tough biker in George Miller’s futuristic Mad Max and its sequel, The Road Warrior. In Dangerously, again directed by Weir, Gibson is a journalist covering the fall of Sukarno in Indonesia in 1965. Raved the New York Times: “If this film doesn’t make an international star of Mel Gibson, nothing will.”

All of which leaves Gibson extremely nervous. Perhaps it’s the astonishing dichotomy between the image and the man. For example, he’s not nearly as fearless as his screen persona. In Manila for five weeks to film Dangerously, the rugged actor admits he was “jumpy” and “frightened” when he received a death threat from Muslims who apparently feared that the film would make Indonesia, a Muslim nation, look bad. “My bodyguard, a huge Filipino with a .38-cal. pistol under his shirt, used to follow me around town,” Gibson remembers. Gibson was relieved when Weir pulled the crew back to Australia to finish shooting.

Offscreen, the lover-boy persona doesn’t fit too snugly either. Gibson wore built-up shoes to work with the 5’11” Weaver and is reluctant to discuss the film’s sex scenes. “It’s a touchy thing with actors,” he explains. Weaver has a better answer. “Mel is shy,” she says, “and he’s also a devoted family man.” Due to his self-imposed veil of privacy, Gibson’s marriage three years ago to Robyn, 26, comes as a surprise to many of his fans. So do the couple’s three children—daughter Hannah, 3, and twin boys, born eight months ago. Actress Linda Hunt (see following story), who co-stars in Dangerously, sums up Gibson this way: “Mel is committed to his roots. He’s very Australian.”

Well, not exactly. Mel was born in Peekskill, N.Y., the sixth of 11 children—he has five brothers and five sisters. “My parents were gluttons for punishment,” he jokes. The family moved to Australia when he was 12 after his father, a railroad worker, won a large settlement for a job injury. Though he retains his American citizenship, Gibson calls Australia home: “I think of myself as an Aussie.”

After attending Catholic school in Sydney, Mel enrolled in the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art. He landed his first movie role, Mad Max, soon after graduation in 1977, in spite of a barroom brawl the night before his audition that left his face looking “like a busted grapefruit.” Other roles in film and theater followed quickly. After shooting was completed on Dangerously, Gibson turned down Hollywood jobs in The Lords of Discipline and Once Upon a Time in America (with Robert De Niro) in order to keep a Sydney stage commitment in Death of a Salesman.

For now, Gibson is happiest staying put in Australia with his family. They’ve just purchased an old boarding house on the sea that Mel says “still has the numbers on the doors.” He stays in shape by running and “eating sensibly,” though Robyn says, “His real exercise is lifting babies.” Given the low salaries paid to Australian actors, Gibson is even beginning to rationalize his buildup as a worldwide sex symbol. “After all,” he adds with a cheeky grin, “it’s good for business, now, isn’t it?”

For tiny Linda Hunt, the role of a lifetime was a real role reversal

If The Year of Living Dangerously establishes Mel Gibson as Australia’s answer to Robert Redford, it also serves as a launching pad for a remarkable New York actress named Linda Hunt. At 4’9″ and 80 pounds, Hunt’s roles have been somewhat circumscribed by her height. “On one level my size has nothing to do with me,” says Hunt, 37. “But on another, it’s got everything to do with what I do.”

Still, even Linda was shocked when director Peter Weir cast her in Dangerously as a man. And unlike Dustin Hoffman’s stunt in Tootsie, the audience is never in on the charade. Hunt’s character, Billy Kwan, is a Chinese-Australian cameraman, a dwarf who instigates the torrid romance between journalist Gibson and British Embassy official Sigourney Weaver. Even the toughest critics have praised her sensitive portrayal of a man with big dreams trapped inside a small body. Though Hunt was scared of the part at first and tried unsuccessfully to convince Weir to turn Kwan into a woman, she found a core feeling to relate to. “I know about that character because I’m the same size,” she says. “But being that small must be even harder for a man.”

Hunt got the role just weeks before the film was scheduled to begin shooting a year ago. Weir had already cast an Australian male for the part, but he was dissatisfied with his performance in rehearsals. After flying to L.A. and New York to interview replacements, he was shown a close-up picture of Linda—and then told it was a woman. “I almost fell on the floor,” says Weir. “Her test was absolutely brilliant.”

Once filming started in the Philippines, Linda ran into problems, mainly because with her closely cropped hair and body makeup, which took an hour and a half every day to apply, she looked like a man both on and off the set. “I once ordered room service in the hotel,” she remembers, “and when the bellboy kept saying, ‘Yes, sir, yes, sir,’ I dissolved into tears. That also happened once in a restaurant.” On the set, Weir insisted that everyone call her Phipps—her middle name and one he felt would cause the other actors less confusion about playing opposite a woman who was supposed to be a man.

Born in Morristown, N.J., the younger of two daughters, Linda grew up in Connecticut. In 1962 she studied at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy. After working with acting coaches in Chicago and New York, Linda appeared in 18 stage productions, mostly off Broadway. Her only previous film experience was a bit role in Robert Alt-man’s Popeye.

Hunt lives alone in New York City, in a studio apartment with no pets or plants because “I’d feel guilty—I’d never be home long enough to take care of them. When I get the big bucks,” she proclaims, “I’ll get a house in the country.” She is now appearing off Broadway as Joan of Arc in Little Victories and will soon play the legendary Pope Joan in Top Girls. Her success in Dangerously may give her type-casting problems. She has already been asked to play a man again—in a new play on Toulouse-Lautrec. Hunt is ready for any challenge. “My dream is to be able to play anything,” she says. “I know that’s the standard actor’s dream, but I’m serious about it.”