Gary Sinise for “Mission to Mars”

Gary Sinise is finally heading to space. In Apollo 13, the actor ended up staying behind, so perhaps, one questions, Sinise’s reason for doing the new Brian de Palma sci-fi adventure, Mission to Mars. Yet, despite his double foray into the space genre, Sinise, who goes from strong support actor to lead star in Mission, admits that he was never a real fan of the genre.

“No that’s true and in fact only became more involved and interested in it once I started working on Apollo 13, on which I actually got to do so much research.” That included “spending three or four days at space camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I went down watched the shuttle go up and at the Cape, went to Johnson Space Centre and spent time with astronauts, went in the simulators, spent time in Mission Control, did an awful lot of – went up on a KC-135 and did zero gravity training. We did so much research on that and I had NO time to do any on Mission To Mars so all that research kind of came in handy when I was working on this one.

In Mission to Mars, Sinise plays astronaut Jim McConnell who, along with co-pilot Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) are on a rescue mission to save the survivors of an earlier doomed Mars mission. For an actor whose roots are in the theatre, Sinise, who has appeared in close to a dozen feature films, is relishing the chance to do some big-budget films. This one he was keen to do “because I can take my kids to it and that’s a nice thing to be able to do. They’ve been asking me when I’m going to do something that they can see. I didn’t get to go on the spaceship on Apollo 13, while in this one I get to go on the ultimate ride.

He also loved the fact that “he’s a very noble character with very pure intentions and it’s nice to play somebody like that, having played two or three villains in the past five years.” There are a number of disparate elements to Mission to Mars, and for Sinise, some of those elements are less far-fetched as they see. “It may be science fiction but the themes in the movie are very real and spiritual,” Sinise explains. “My character has a particularly interesting personal journey that I was eager to explore.” Once Sinise arrived in the Canadian city of Vancouver last year to begin work on Mission to Mars, he realised he was in for what he likes to refers to as “tape acting.”

“There are 500 special effect shots in Mission, which meant most of our days we were looking at pieces of tape and reacting.” He compared that experience to working in the theatre. “I compare all that to being on stage and having to look at, let’s say, Moscow burning, while you’re really just looking at the exit sign in the balcony and everybody’s going “aah aah,” It’s the same thing; you have to pretend that you’re looking. You go to the window in the back of the set and you’re looking out and you’re seeing the mountains of Switzerland or something, whereas it’s just a stagehand with a cup of coffee, who is reading a magazine over there. In this movie I have to pretend: ‘Look, there’s an asteroid! Look, there’s Mars! Look at Mars blowing up!'”

Sinise didn’t have to do any tape acting on the set of John Frankenheimer’s thriller Reindeer Games, which is also about to open, and in which he plays yet another psychopath, opposite Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron. “John insisted that all the stunts be done for real. He categorically refused to use computer-generated images. He makes films the way directors used to before the computer guys took over the industry,” Sinise says. He describes his character in Reindeer Games “as a real animal” so set about changing his look to reflect that.

Because he filmed Reindeer Games and Mission to Mars back-to-back, Sinise spent eight months in Vancouver. “I think that makes me an honorary Canadian,” he says. Sinise has completed another sci-fi thriller called Impostor. “It’s a bit like Blade Runner and I’m the runner. It’s more action than I’ve ever done before. I’m glad I got in shape for Reindeer Games and Mission. Still, I had a physical trainer on the set to work with me between takes.”

Sinise also has a cameo role in The Green Mile and has completed Shirley Maclaine’s comedy-drama Bruno. “I’ve been on a roll these past 12 months but, in 1998, I only worked a total of five weeks. This is precisely why actors are so insecure. Sometimes you’re in great demand. Then suddenly your career hits the breaks. I save money when I’m working so that I never have to take a role simply to pay the bills.”

Sinise began his career with roles that were very much about character, in films as diverse as Of Mice and Men (which he also directed) and his Oscar nominated turn in Forrest Gump. Even now, though, his perceptions of acting haven’t changed. “I think I’ve learned a little more about film acting than I did – than I knew then. Mice And Men was only the third movie I had acted in and since then I’ve done more television and bigger, more demanding roles. I’ve learned and worked with really fine directors: Frankenheimer, Ron Howard, Bob Zemeckis, you know, some fine folks there who know a lot and so I think I’ve just learned more about film though I certainly don’t know it all. I just feel like every time you get a part that is going to stretch you as an actor, you’re going to learn more. You’ve got to keep taking certain risks, because my priority is in acting. It’s not in movie stardom.”

Sinise is also interested in continuing developing as a director. “I know that I will at a certain point get back to that when I find like the right project. Right now I don’t have anything that I’m dying to do. I’m not like one of those actors who’s a frustrated director. I’ve directed enough in the theatre and a couple of films to know that – to feel fairly secure that if I find a story that I really like I can probably get it done somewhat.”