Under Siege

In the foyer of the movie theater, there's a media session. The TV people are freaking out because Seagal's supposed to be in here and he isn't. A well-groomed TV guy talks frantically with his producer on a mobile phone. Seagal's publicist says he'll be here in a few minutes.

"That's what you said a half-hour ago," the guy tells her.
The atmosphere is bizarre. A couple hundred invited guests, media and others, run around the foyer, scarfing free food and beer. Everyone babbles excitedly about "Steven."

The calm at the center of this storm is Steven Seagal. His state is somewhere far beyond laid-back, and somewhere just short of catatonic.

They bring him in, and he sits in a chair in a roped enclosure. There's a chair right next to his. Each invited journalist gets to go into the enclosure, one at a time, sit in the other chair and ask him questions.

Seagal's air is that of a Zen master or a village idiot. His voice is so soft it's really a loud whisper. Because he's a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism and has recently been recognized as an incarnate lama, people take his every utterance--however throwaway it might be--as a jewel of wisdom. As I wait my turn to talk to him, I'm prepared to believe he might be a misunderstood imbecile, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, or Ronald Reagan.

He isn't.
What's most striking about Seagal when you talk with him is that such an intelligent and thoughtful man can be such a talentless actor--and not realize how talentless he is. With a decent actor, his movies would be good action flicks. With him, however, they're classics of pulp cinema. Seagal--and, remember, this is coming from one of his biggest fans--may be the worst actor working today. He makes Chuck Norris seem like Robert De Niro.

But he takes himself 100 percent seriously. He presents himself not as a visiting Hollywood celebrity here to promote his movies, but as a combination of religious and spiritual leader. He refers to himself repeatedly as "an artist."

When I sit down beside him, I notice him reaching up his sleeve. He's been doing this for a while. I look and see that he has a string of mala beads--Tibetan prayer beads--strung around his right wrist, and he's been touching them while he's been interviewed.

There have been articles--most notably in Spy magazine--that present Seagal as a major jerk. He may have been at one time, or he may never have been. What's certain is that he isn't now. It could be argued that he's just pretending to be a nice guy, but--let's be realistic--if it's an act, he's not a good enough actor to carry it off. He doesn't have a celebrity attitude; he seems as interested in the reporters as they are in him.

I introduce myself, and he asks about my paper and my country of origin. I ask him how he manages to reconcile his spiritual beliefs with his hyperviolent movies. He says he doesn't see it as reconciliation, but exploration.

I tell him I was surprised at the spiritual element of The Glimmer Man. Was that his doing?

He smiles. "Of course."
Then why didn't he do the same with previous movies?
"When I made The Glimmer Man, I knew I was leaving Warner Bros., and I wasn't going to let them control me anymore. I think the world is ready for more spiritual films. The time is right, and I'm just trying to use skillful means to spread joy. Whatever it takes to make people happy."

Will future movies be less violent?
"Perhaps. . . . The films will probably become less violent, which is not to say that I won't make a lot more action films. But I hope the violence will be more meaningful. I'm not going to ignore violence and suffering. I'd like to examine it."

The hero of The Glimmer Man spends the movie preaching peace and spirituality--while beating lots of people senseless--and then goes berserk at the end. When his partner asks him why he doesn't practice what he preaches, he says, "I'm stupid."

I suggest to Seagal that this is an admission of failure, of defeat, and ask if he plans to address the question of the necessity of violence in future.

"Yes," is all he says.

The movies are starting. Following our conversation, I decided to go and see The Glimmer Man again. As I go into the theater, a guy asks if he can buy my press pass. At first I don't get it; he obviously has tickets or he wouldn't be in here. Then he explains that my laminated pass, which is strung around my neck, has Seagal's name on it and he wants it for a souvenir. I tell him I still need it. I get a few similar offers. These people are hard-core. It's fitting that Seagal is a better musician than an actor, because the guy is a rock star.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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