Playing Elvis is familiar ground for Kurt Russell

Published Feb. 22, 2001|Updated Sep. 9, 2005

(ran GB edition)

The actor worked with the King as a child and portrayed him in a TV biopic. So when the part in 3,000 Miles to Graceland came up, he couldn't resist.

In the new heist film 3000 Miles to Graceland, Kurt Russell plays a hard-bitten ex-con who disguises himself as an Elvis impersonator in a scheme to rob a Las Vegas casino. It's not the action star's first Elvis-related film. It's not even his second.

Russell, 50, previously portrayed the rock 'n' roll legend in John Carpenter's 1979 TV biopic Elvis, a role that earned him an Emmy nomination. But it was back in 1963 that Russell _ who was only 12 years old at the time _ made his big-screen debut opposite the King himself in It Happened at the World's Fair. And what a debut it was. The scene called for him to petulantly kick Presley in the shin. (There's even a scene in 3000 Miles to Graceland in which an autograph seeker asks Russell to sign a copy of the It Happened at the World's Fair soundtrack.)

Russell, who went on to become a successful child actor and then a major action star, clearly recalls his big moment on-screen with the King. "I remember very distinctly working with him," says Russell, who looks younger than his age. "He was a nice man. Even as a kid, I knew this was someone who was pretty significant."

For his TV characterization of the King years later, Russell says he thought back to the way Presley looked and sounded to him as a boy. "That was primarily what I drew from," he says. So when he was approached by writer-director Demian Lichtenstein to co-star with Kevin Costner in 3000 Miles to Graceland, it seemed somehow inevitable that he would agree to do it.

Russell and Costner play former cell mates who concoct a plan to rob the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas while dressed as Elvis impersonators during International Elvis Week, when they can easily blend in. Surrounded by all the hoopla, the ex-cons and a few of their buddies, also decked out in Elvis garb, have no trouble sneaking into the casino with a small arsenal of weapons hidden in guitar cases. Though both characters are criminals, Costner's Murphy is more of a sociopath _ a self-centered sicko who will stop at nothing to get what he wants _ while Russell's Michael is trying to find his conscience.

During a getaway attempt, Michael falls in love with a beautiful grifter (Friends star Courteney Cox-Arquette), who has a young son in tow. Michael tries to escape with the loot and the girl to start a new life, but the task isn't easy, as he must evade the law as well as the dangerous Murphy, who can practically anticipate his next move.

The cast also includes Christian Slater, David Arquette and football hall of famer Howie Long.

Initially, Lichtenstein planned to cast Russell in the role of Murphy, but Costner, who is generally known for his nice-guy hero roles, wanted to play the ruthless character. That was fine with Russell, who's played his share of villains and thinks moviegoers will enjoy seeing Costner as the bad guy.

"He's really good as a bad guy," Russell says with a laugh.

Russell says he doesn't have a problem with the R-rated film's extreme violence. "This movie has different sides to it," he explains. "There's the shoot-'em-up side. There's a relationship side. There's a child who is headed down the wrong road. But most of all, it's just the funky, groovy, weird world of the whole Elvis thing, which I thought would be fun to do. I thought that with my history _ having done the (Elvis) story _ it would actually fit in a fun sort of microcosm of life."

After starring in 10 Disney movies as a child and teenager, Russell planned to follow in his father's footsteps and become a professional baseball player. But a shoulder injury suffered while playing in the minor leagues pushed Russell back to acting.

Beginning in the '80s, Russell collaborated with director Carpenter on a series of action films, including Big Trouble in Little China, Escape From New York and the 1996 sequel Escape From L.A. Russell's other feature credits include Silkwood, Backdraft and Tequila Sunrise. Often, the athletic actor performs his own stunts, but after injuring himself in the 1998 action film Soldier, he now leaves the dangerous work to professional stuntmen.

"Over the years, I've had a lot of fun doing the stuff I've had to do in movies," he says. "I always did what I felt I could do. . . . I got hurt really bad twice in one week (while shooting Soldier), and I realized that I wasn't as quick as I used to be. From now on, I'll do a lot less of that."

Though he reportedly earns in the neighborhood of $15-million to $20-million a picture, Russell isn't usually mentioned in the same breath as box-office superstars like Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford or even his Graceland cast mate Costner. Russell attributes this phenomenon to the fact that he purposely maintains a fairly low profile in what is typically a very publicity-driven profession.

For starters, he doesn't do much self-promotion. "The last time I did a magazine cover was the last time I had to do one, back when I couldn't afford not to," he says. "That was about 12 or 15 years ago. I've spent my life doing the things I want to do, which is to be with my family. I have a job and I do the best I can. But once I was able to not have to do the magazine covers and devote the time that it takes to having publicity agents and all that bull, I just stopped it."

His longtime companion is Goldie Hawn, whom he met while shooting the 1984 comedy Swing Shift. They've been together ever since and have a son, Wyatt. Russell also has another son, Boston, from his first marriage and is stepfather to Hawn's children, Oliver Hudson and Oscar-nominated actor Kate Hudson (Almost Famous).

Russell talks proudly about Kate Hudson, who recently married Black Crowes lead singer Chris Robinson. He confesses that he nearly lost his composure just before he was to escort his stepdaughter down the aisle. "People talk about their life flashing before them," he says. "I was looking at her and thinking about those little moments when she was 3 and 5 and 7 and 9 _ when she was my little Kate. And there she was, this beautiful woman who I was going to give to another guy. It suddenly hit me, and I was a complete and total basket case. She said to me, "Are you all right, Pa?' And I said, "I'm not even close to all right, Kate.' "

But Russell is getting used to being a father-in-law now and still has Wyatt at home to take to predawn hockey practice on Saturday mornings. Careerwise, he also enjoys doing the kinds of movies that, although they may not always earn critical praise, generate returns at the box office.

"I love this business," he says. "I love watching movies, and I think I've done some pretty good movies. I love it when people come up to me and say, "Hey, Big Trouble in Little China!' _ a movie that had a very limited theatrical release and has become a cult classic to a lot of people. I've had a great time making movies that found a real core audience that loved the movie, loved the characters, loved the things that were said. That's what has pushed me in a creative sense, to know that there are people who enjoy them."

Russell is in production on Cameron Crowe's thriller Vanilla Sky, co-starring his longtime pal Tom Cruise. The ruggedly handsome actor is also supposed to replace George Clooney in the next installment of the Batman series.