I ran into Gabriel Macht — literally– last week at the premiere of "The Spirit." We were both in the lobby of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre walking briskly in different directions when we collided. He smiled and gave me big slap on the back — the guy seemed to be glowing, he was so excited. We had met last summer when I was the moderator of "The Spirit" panel in Comic-Con International in San Diego and then we met up recently for a cup of coffee and an interview that we conducted while hiking through the Hollywood Hills.
That interview resulted in the story below, which is running in the Los Angeles Times tomorrow as a lead-up to the opening of "The Spirit" on Christmas Day.
Once upon a time, superhero roles were considered career-killers. But not anymore, not with Christian Bale, Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr. and Hugh Jackman proving that if the glove fits, you should wear it.
Still, for Gabriel Macht, who suits up as the latest masked man in “The Spirit,” which opens Christmas Day, there are new and different risks in this modern era of cinematic crime fighting.
For one thing, there’s the danger of getting upstaged by the bad guy, who in “The Spirit” happens to be the nefarious Octopus, a near-invulnerable crime boss played with great zeal by Samuel L. Jackson. Macht first got a sense of that threat while doing an informal script read-through with his future costar.
“I needed earplugs when Samuel L. Jackson started doing lines, he had the volume at 11,” Macht said with a bewildered smile a year after the table read. “Look, when actors come to read-through in Hollywood they don’t give anything; everything is a whisper. They’re not risking, they’re not showing anything, and they’re not trying to do stuff with the character. The attitude is: ‘Put on a camera, get me lights and makeup and hair and wardrobe, that’s when I’ll perform.’ Not Sam. He shows up and he was screaming and went crazy. It lifted everyone. And I knew way back then that we were going to be taking chances in this movie.”
And “The Spirit," is absolutely a film that cranks the volume and goes for broke. The movie aspires to mint a leading-man career for Macht, who may be a veteran of the New York stage and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon School of Drama but has a Hollywood résumé of supporting roles and indie fare. The movie is the solo directorial debut of Frank Miller, the acclaimed comic book creator, and, like his artwork in the pages of “300” and “Sin City,” “The Spirit” is a stylized vivid visual swirl that instantly divided viewers into love-it-or-hate-it factions at advance screenings.
More from my feature on Gabriel Macht…
One person who is clearly in love with the outsized action is Jackson, who bellows and stomps his way through cartoonish monologues and changes his costumes more often than Cher. Early in the film, he and Macht (who both play characters that bounce back from injury better than Wile E. Coyote) hit each other with fists, an oversized wrench and a toilet in a showdown that might be called a battle royale with cheese.
The film also features a squadron of beautiful actresses, with including Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Jaime King, Paz Vega and Sarah Paulson, who play women who alternately want to kiss or kill the Macht’s bulletproof hero, who is a sort of Don Juan meets Dick Tracy.
After the nasty flop of “Speed Racer,” there may be some built-in skepticism about a hyper-reality film with a campy cartoon heart, but Macht said the film and its director are pushing the proper envelope.
“Frank Miller is more of a visionary than any director I’ve ever worked with, and he achieves that vision better than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “He put us in this extreme and abstract universe, and my reaction afterward was that I want to be in every movie that he makes.”
Macht, now a month shy of his 37th birthday, has been an actor since age 8 (he is also the son of television actor Stephen Macht) and is consolidating his career in Hollywood after his past stage work. He costarred with John Travolta and Johansson in the 2004 film “A Love Song for Bobby Long” and was cast by Robert De Niro in his film “The Good Shepherd.” Macht also played the doomed cosmic-country singer Gram Parsons in “Grand Theft Parsons” and, keeping the music theme, one of his favorite stage roles was when he played as Elvis Presley in a production of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”
He’s now at work on the dark indie comedy “Middle Men,” which is written and directed by George Gallo (the writer of “Midnight Run”) and has Macht leading a cast that includes Giovanni Ribisi, James Caan and Luke Wilson. Macht’s wife, Jacinda Barrett, also appears in the tale of Internet porn and Russian mobsters.
On a recent afternoon, Macht took a reporter along for an afternoon hike up his favorite trail in the Hollywood Hills, one where on evening walk the Bronx native has seen coyotes loping in the shadows. As he followed the path, he chewed on the idea that “The Spirit” is the movie that will define him and his career to this point.
“This is your ‘breakthrough chance,’ but I feel like every role gives you something different, lessons and opportunities,” Macht said. “When I look back the ones I really remember were the times I got the role in the room. When I auditioned for Steve Martin and he said, ‘I want you to play Elvis,’ or when I read for De Niro and he gave me a hug and said, ‘I want you to be my guy.’”
Miller says Macht (who dyed his blond hair dark and has blue eyes for the Spirit) had no problem holding his own on the screen with the irrepressible Jackson, the sea of green-screen special effects or the film’s eye-candy brigade of actresses. “He has the looks and the talent, and most of all he has this ability to make a connection with the audience. There’s a realness to him and his performance. I knew right away that I had found my Spirit.”
Costumed hero roles are all the rage right now and Oscar winners routinely grab roles in comic-book films with no downside other than appearing on Slurpee cups. But success isn’t guaranteed for this particular project.
As a character, the Spirit has more history but far less traction in the popular memory than Spider-Man or even Wolverine. The character was createding in the 1940s by Will Eisner (a beloved and influential icon in comic book circles) and ran as 16-page inserts in Sunday newspapers with a charming meld of the private-eye noir and Hollywood’s screwball comedies.
Macht, like most people his age and younger, had never heard of the Spirit until this movie project came along. He also found it a major challenge to step into the throwback, Lew Archer-style dialogue for an anachronistic movie that blends the fedora era with cellphones and cloning. It’s not that easy to say lines such as “I’m going to kill you all kinds of dead” for an audience that might smirk at the wrong times.
“I had to roll that voice over in my head again and again and find the way to say things like, ‘This is my city,’” Macht said. “You say it as honest as you can. That’s where it had to come from. You work out to get the physicality that’s right for a guy who could take on the job of crime-fighting, but the trick is finding the gravel for the voice. As soon as you throw that hat on you say, ‘All right, this is it, go with it, be honest.’"
One thing Macht had going for him was his fedora experience. On the set of “The Good Shepherd,” he said, De Niro was “absolutely obsessive on the curves of the hats” and Macht took note. “It’s got to be a certain way, and if it’s not that way, it’s wrong. Believe me, I spent a lot of time making sure I got the hat right.”
Walking down a steep slope on the trail, Macht said that with all the superhero films churning coming out of Hollywood these days he isn’t sure if he should try to land another role, such as Captain America, which is ramping up now as a film project. Miller is also making a Buck Rogers movie and, well, Macht has said he is ready any time the director calls.
“I don’t mind doing the green-screen stuff at all, and in fact it’s a lot like black-box theater, which I did plenty of in New York,” Macht said. “These are the movies they’re making now, and this one is my turn in one. This whole big thing is on my shoulders and on Frank’s shoulders. And I’m ready for that.”
— Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED
AP photo Gabriel Macht at the premiere of the "The Spirit." Samuel L. Jackson in "The Spirit," image courtesy of Odd Lot/Lionsgate.