The US Interview
The romantic screen star backs up his declaration of "I don't care what people think of me anymore!" by playing a drag queen
By Tom O'Neill
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARY ELLEN MARK
Photo editor Jennifer Crandall
It's a tableau so fitting, so utterly of the moment, that it must've been conjured by the gods, not, as they'd tell you around here, by the director Martha Coolidge. As the sun sets on the Los Angeles National Cemetery, where the city's war heroes go after they die, Patrick Swayze, onetime icon and romantic hero the world over, stands amid a sea of uniformly cut headstones, each with a small American flag planted firmly at its base. With the intoxicating scent of nighttime jasmine rising and the playful sound of Coolidge's 6-year-old son, Preston, searching for dandelions lending an innocent air to the proceedings, Swayze inhales deeply and prepares to shoot the final scene of his forthcoming film, Three Wishes.
Set in the 1950s, the "realistic fantasy," as the producers call it, is about a mystical drifter (Swayze) who, along with his canine traveling companion, comes into the life of a lonely war widow (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and her two young sons and teaches them - what else? how to love again. For Swayze, who lost his beloved 11-year-old dog, Cody ("my best friend and son"), to cancer a week ago and his sister Vickie to suicide last December, the message of the film could not be more timely. "It's about how the only thing we have is love," says the actor, who has more or less made a career of wearing his heart on his sleeve, both on camera and off, "and that's all you take with you when you die."
Swayze has not had a moment's respite from work to mourn either of his losses, and he is, by his own admission, a walking time bomb. Two days earlier he stormed off the set in tears when a crew member innocently asked after Cody, and yesterday he canceled this interview at the 11th hour because he couldn't imagine sitting down to talk.
But today, surrounded by the ghosts of soldiers, many of whom undoubtedly suffered far worse fates than he ever will, the actor seems humbled. With a dog at his side and the sound of a child at play, Swayze appears, at least for now, to have found a modicum of peace.
Perhaps he ducked into his trailer and practiced one of the many methods of relaxation he's studied throughout his 41 years (including Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, est, Buddhism, mantras, past-life exploration, crystals and various 12-step programs). Or maybe everything simply fell into perspective when, on the way to the location, he passed a veterans hospital on the hill overlooking the cemetery and recalled out loud, "You know, Lisa and I built all the sets for I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can in there when we first got to L.A."
He's referring, of course, to the 1982 Jill Clayburgh weeper and, more important, to his wife of 20 years, Lisa Niemi. She accompanied him here from New York after he'd injured himself dancing and they'd decided, together, to sideline their ballet ambitions and pursue acting careers instead. While hers hasn't been nearly as successful as his, the two Texans, who met when she was a 15-year-old student in his mother's dance class (he was 19) and married three years later, have stuck together through the rocky, often virulent passages of his climb to stardom.
Early in his career, the former high school football star and ice hockey player, as well as Disney dancer on ice, appeared sans shirt, blue eyes blazing, Texas drawl thick as mud, in a series of forgettable teen-aimed dramas and action flicks (Skatetown, U.S.A.; Red Dawn; Youngblood). Swayze captured the public's attention with what he still calls his greatest role to date: that of the Southern plantation kid who becomes a Confederate general (and ages 30 years) in the 1985 TV miniseries North and South, before finally achieving big-screen stardom in 1987's ode to romance Dirty Dancing. (This was despite the fact that the film saddled Swayze with what he laughingly calls some of the treacliest dialogue ever written for a motion picture. " 'Nobody puts Baby in a corner'?" he says, quoting himself with a hoot. " Come on! That was one of the hardest lines I ever tried to pull off in my life.")
It was about this time the actor's life changed forever. No longer able to go out without being mobbed by adoring women - who often pushed Lisa out of the way to get to him - the couple had little recourse but to retreat behind the electronic security gates of a secluded ranch in the San Gabriel Mountains. Populated with a menagerie of pets and farm animals (including a collection of Arabian show horses) and with recording and mirrored dance studios, the five-acre spread has become their own Neverland, at best, or Graceland, at worst.
Swayze's intense emotional accessibility, almost unimaginable in contemporaries like Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, was his saving grace three years (and no hits) after Dirty Dancing, when he forced his way into an audition with director Jerry Zucker (who was dead-set against him) and left a roomful of studio executives in tears with his reading of the title character, Sam Wheat, in Ghost. Once again, the movie tapped into a female audience's thirst for romance, racking up a box office of $218 million and winning Academy Awards for original screenplay and supporting actress.
"Patrick Swayze is one of the reasons I have my Oscar," says pal Whoopi Goldberg. "He fought, stomped, kicked and screamed to make sure I got that part. Honey, I would wash his dirty linen any day of the week."
After a second post-hit slump (Point Break, City of Joy and Father Hood), the actor has made his most courageous - and, perhaps, most calculated - career move to date: electing to play a wise drag queen in the highly anticipated road movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Like John Travolta's murderous junkie in last year's Pulp Fiction and, to an extent, Tom Cruise's radically against-type Lestat in Interview With the Vampire, Swayze's decision to portray an aging, unapologetically gay character who prefers to dress as a woman (he appears out of drag only once, in the opening scene when he's undressed) defies Hollywood's conventional expectations of its leading men - especially its sex symbols.
"Well, if I said to you, 'I have this perfect part for a drag queen, and I want Patrick Swayze,' I think there's bound to be a certain amount of... surprise, " says director Beeban Kidron (Used People, Antonia & Jane), recalling the resistance from the studio when she approached them with her first choice.
Like Zucker, Kidron had been reluctant to meet Swayze but was instantly persuaded by his audition - which, this time, was a little unusual. Instead of reading from the script, the actor arrived in drag and delivered an improvised 45-minute monologue drawing from his painful boyhood memories of getting beaten up by the town bullies for being a ballet dancer.
"I hope the world rewards him for this performance," says Kidron, who admits to being astounded at the lengths Swayze was willing to go to reach the emotional core of his character. "He does have these doubts, these demons, these agonies," she says, "and he uses them as leverage to get a performance. It's not the easiest way to be - on or off the set - but for me, as a director, it's worth it, you know? Whatever it takes."
Swayze, who is known to put himself through hell on a daily basis, can't abide seeing it happen to others. Miss Coco Peru (a.k.a. Clinton Leupp), a New York drag queen who had one line in the film and became Swayze's fast friend and tutor during his stay there, recalls how the actor watched out for him and a bevy of drag queens he invited to the wrap party (which Swayze hosted at his restaurant, Mulholland Drive Cafe). "He made sure that we were having a good time and everyone treated us properly," purrs Leupp, who looks like a cross between Marilyn Monroe and a young Joey Heatherton. "Of course, he's Patrick Swayze and people wanted to be around him and take his picture, but he made it clear by his actions that that was not what he was there for. At one point he pulled me and my guest off to the side and said: 'Let's just sit down and talk. We don't need to deal with that.' And we sat around a table and just chatted away."
Back in his trailer, after Swayze has said goodbye to everyone from Three Wishes (his role has wrapped, though the company will shoot for two more weeks without him), he settles in at the kitchen table for a conversation that begins around 7 and doesn't end until well after midnight. Between interruptions caused by lingering farewells, gifts from adoring crew members and one call from Lisa wondering when he will finally come home, it's clear that the actor's drained. While he hasn't slept for three days or eaten for two ("too much adrenaline, no time!") and seems haunted by something darker and more intangible, he has made a commitment to this talk and refuses to postpone it.
This is the first romantic film you've made since 'Ghost,' which was -when? - 1990?
I don't know. I don't keep track of time, I have no idea. The segments of my life are in movies or animal generations.
Or lunar calendars, I bet.
[Smiles] Yeah, full moons mean a lot to me. They affect me. I live by full moons. I vibrate with emotion and can never figure out what's wrong with me. Then I go, "Oh, it's the full moon!"
Do you schedule any special activities?
I try to take my horse into the mountains [of the Angeles National Forest, which abuts his property]. Nobody has the courage to go with me because it's an adrenaline-junkie ride. People forget and almost kill their horses and themselves because they don't expect that level of wilderness.
Do you stay out all night?
It depends. I keep my saddle packs packed all the time. All I have to do is put food in them, fill my canteens and throw them on my horse, and I'm gone. I design these things as soul rejuvenators [when] I feel like a caged animal and I'm ready to eat the furniture.
You seemed like that yesterday. I thought you were going to jump out of your skin.
That had to do with the full moon and the level of emotion in the scenes I'm doing and just the condition of life. A lot of things are out there wanting to beat me down right now, in terms of personal things.
[Sighs] Everybody gets their turn in the barrel, and I seem to be getting my share of dying around me right now. Cody - my guardian, my conscience, my friend, my son, my bodyguard for years - this 115-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback, who truly was a supreme being, died last Friday. I had to postpone being on this movie because I would not leave the hospital. Lisa and I stayed with him around the clock, and when I saw them carrying his IV and everything outside, I... [chokes up].
You and Lisa were with him when he died?
[Nods] Our animals are our children, so it was the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life. Everybody thought I was crazy trying to keep him alive and I was just setting myself up for hurt, but I had a communication with this dog that was beyond belief. Not like a household pet. This dog and I have taken on six guys together.
Six guys jumped you?
Tried to. I don't want to go into the particulars. It was in the times that I was going to the wrong places. I kept trying to have a normal life. I kept trying to go to the bar with the crew and hang out and act like this movie-star stuff doesn't change anything. I really couldn't go places anymore. Then I'd go out, and sure enough, it would turn into [shouts], "Come on, dance with my girlfriend, man!" "No, I really don't want to." "What's wrong she ain't good enough for you?" And -boom! - there it'd go.
Lovely. When was the last time you had to defend yourself?
Long time. That stuff isn't happening anymore because I don't go to bars. I don't drink anymore.
Yeah, I noticed when someone suggested we do this interview in a bar, you said, "That'd go over with Lisa like a fart in church."
Nah, I've gone off the wagon here or there, you know, but alcohol and me don't mix.
You seem to have your demons at bay.
My demons are plaguing me every second.
I had a lot of rage growing up, and I tried to deny it, lie about it and therapy the rage out, but I realized that that intensity is going to be with me forever, so I've stopped lying about it and trying to blame things life or people - and just accept that it's a part of me. But I love these demons. I don't fear them anymore. I've embraced them. I nurture them. I've found if I fight them, they'll kill me. If I lie about them or deny them, they'll kill me.
Are you in any kind of therapy now?
[Laughs] I've been in everything. I tried this therapist and that therapist, but I've discovered that so many times 98 percent of the people you find out there just read it out of a book. [They] didn't live it .... Lisa is my shrink.
Are you aware that your marriage has become something of a role model in this town of broken relationships?
Yeah, but we don't think there's anything more special about our relationship. We've just been willing to hang in there and trust that no matter what comes down, the other one's not going to walk out the door.
I don't want to be insensitive, but I know that Lisa had a miscarriage five years ago. Do you still want kids?
Absolutely. It's just timing. I've been dying to be a father for a long time, but I also wanted to deal with my rage first, that adolescent rage, because it was all-consuming.... I feel what I could give a child now, as opposed to years ago, is light-years more.
Are you both ready for it now?
Absolutely, absolutely. It would not be respectful to her to go into too much about the miscarriage.... Sure enough, some trash journalists got hold of it.... [Pause] The day after it happened, I was presenting at the Grammys and four trashy magazine journalists asked, "So, Patrick, how do you feel about your baby dying yesterday?" [Pause] If I could've gotten to those people, I would be in jail for the rest of my life. It is wrong for anybody to get paid money to do that kind of crap to other human beings just because they happen to be in the limelight.
Can I ask about your sister Vickie? Can you talk about her death?
Not really. She was a beautiful, beautiful being who just, you know, had a chemical imbalance, and it just got to be too much for her as time went on.
When you do a film like 'Three Wishes' or 'Ghost,' which are about death and redemption, can that console you?
Absolutely. I feel very, very lucky that I was working on a movie with such a beautiful spirit. It forced me to go to a place, whether I liked it or not, that her memory and her love... [voice cracks]. I don't know how far I want to talk about this.... Like in Ghost and Three Wishes, you do take the love with you when you die. My sister's memory will live in me and my brothers and sister and the people that she came in contact with because she was a beautiful sister. She just happened to be plagued with a disease that she could do nothing about.
I know you carry your father's knife as a keepsake. Do you have anything of your sister's?
This is my keepsake [holds up an emerald-and-crystal-encrusted scepter]. It's my magic wand. It has been in the hands of holy men in India and Japan and all over the world. I put it into each person's hand and say that this is to bless the production and create an atmosphere of mutual goal devoid of ego.
How do the studio executives respond to this?
They may hold it just to appease little Mr. Movie Star, but who cares [grins]? If it really has power, then it will do its business. If it doesn't, then it just creates the right energy for talking.
Um, Patrick, do you ever worry about how all the spiritual stuff, like the wands, might affect your image - both inside the studios and out?
I don't care what image I have! Take any image you want of me, I'm going to change it, because we are chameleons. We have the crazy person, the shy person, the angry person, the intellectual person, the ignorant person, the gay person, we have the little boy in us, the little girl in us... Oh! Heaven forbid we have a feminine side! I've now ceased to worry about image, because I don't care what people think of me anymore. Because I've had such a battle with what I think of me and with trying to find a way to like myself.
Speaking of that image, what on earth are they going to say back in Texas when they see you in a turban and false eyelashes?
Who cares? Hopefully, Vida Boheme will be such a beautiful being that no matter what tunnel vision a person's stuck into, I did a good enough job that anyone can identify with her and the beautiful heart she has and it won't matter whether it's Patrick Swayze in a dress or not.
Which is the message of the movie, I suppose. By the way, I'm told you have magnificent gowns.
Oh, baby, I am dressed to the nines. I am wearing some, like, very serious Chanel.
Why did you want to do this movie so badly?
I did Vida to honor a lot of friends in my life, from real drag queens, who were some of the closest friends I ever had, to beautiful beings stuck in a redneck body - like my dad. He was a cowboy with the heart of an angel, but he still had to [drops voice to a baritone] do the cowboy thing.
Who advised you not to do 'Wong Foo'?
Most anyone from Texas. My mother was horrified when I told her about it. There was a silence on the other end of the phone. But it was sweet because I found out that what she was really afraid of was that the movie was going to ridicule people she loved. Oh, there were a lot of raised eyebrows, a lot of people said, " What are you doing? " It's been interesting. It scared everybody a little bit. Well, this is a career move. A very specific, serious career move.
Like a second act to your career?
[Nods] In the same way Nick Nolte made a very specific transition to character leading man - not just leading man - in Q & A [the 1990 cop drama]. It's not so much about trying to make a transition as about wanting more and more challenges. I mean, leading men get boring and one-dimensional real fast, and I'm not a person that can be satisfied. I've gotta keep trying to see if I can better myself as a person and an actor.
Did you find it difficult to make the transformation into a woman?
I knew I could turn into a woman physically because I had the ability - the flexibility and training - as a dancer. The hardest thing was that I've got these big Swayze hands and forearms. I had to keep my hands in gloves the whole movie. And at first, when we were putting me together, I was a seriously ugly woman. I kept looking in the mirror and going, "Ewww! Ewww!” I was going to get out of the movie if I didn't finally look at a picture where I'd sleep with me. It wasn't working until I saw one Polaroid that seriously intimidated me, and I went: "Oh my God! I believe myself in this movie!" [He takes out a stack of photos of himself in drag and proudly spreads them across the table.]
You're gorgeous. In fact, you look like someone famous.
Some people think I look like Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke.
You went to drag clubs for research. Who would you go with?
[Co-stars] Wesley [Snipes], John [Leguizamo] and Beeban [Kidron, the director]. Then I got my own group together with drag queens like Candis Cayne, Miss Coco, Miss Understood. [Laughs] We were a motley group, but a beautiful group.
Had you ever dressed in drag before?
No, except when I was little, my sister Vickie dressed me up and called me her sister Susie.
How does Vida rank? Was she the most emotional role you've ever played?
Yeah. I thought I was going to breeze through this because I knew these people, they were my best friends. I knew how to play this role, except I didn't anticipate really becoming this character - really becoming a man who believes he's a woman. It gave me so much sympathy for women I can't believe it.
Lisa must've benefited from that.
When I was doing that stuff, she said, "Darling, you just stay away from my closet. " And I said, "Sweetheart, I'm not interested in your closet, just your accessories."
I guess she couldn't tell you what to do with one particularly annoying nuisance.
[Laughs] What do you do with your penis? You tuck it back under. You have these "gender benders" that they actually make for this purpose, but I almost never had to wear one unless I was wearing tight pants or something.
Bet it wasn't too comfortable.
Oh, Lord! You get scared it's going to fall off - all day long just squished and crimped, you know? You're afraid the circulation's gonna stop, and you're gonna get gangrene or jungle rot or something.
And what do you wear for breasts?
Actual silicone implants.
What dedication! You got implants for the movie. I wonder if De Niro would've done that!
[Laughs] No, no, no - in a bra. So they would have movement.
So, you've had some good stuff happen this year, but a lot of bad stuff, too. Are you pulling through?
Yeah. Everybody goes through what Lisa and I call their turn in the barrel, and we're just trying to look at it like it's our turn. I'm realizing that the tests don't ever go away. It's not easy to hang onto the things you believe in, like innocence, purity, integrity, passion or whatever. I've found out that if I don't have hardship, I'll create it because I'm accustomed to breaking through obstacles or finding a way around them. If I don't have obstacles, life's too easy, it's boring.
Contributing editor Tom O'Neill profiled Richard Gere for 'US' in July.