Enter the eco warrior

Mel Gibson speaks candidly about matters close to his heart. 

Australian Oscar-winning actor and director Mel Gibson is not your run-of-the-mill Hollywood star. Rather than play the fame game or live a typically hedonistic celebrity lifestyle, Gibson prefers to keep a low profile and busy himself by putting his name and money to a selection of good causes, both environmental and humanitarian.  

The man who spent two decades as a leading man in popular films like Mad Max and Lethal Weapon and who directed the ground-breaking and critically acclaimed Braveheart, The Passion of The Christ and Apocalypto may have courted controversy in recent times, but the one thing he cannot be accused of is not being wholly committed to whatever he strongly believes in. 

Playful: Actor Mel Gibson throwing a paper plane he made during a press conference, at one of the journalists, after the signing of the MOUbetween Petra Group and the Royal Society South-East Asia Rainforest Research programme.

Like his good friend and business partner in Malaysia, Petra Group president and chief executive officer Datuk Vinod Sekhar, is quick to point out during an exclusive interview at Sekhar’s home in Kuala Lumpur, Gibson walks the talk, especially when it’s something that he feels passionate about.  

For instance, Gibson, who is on a two-week vacation in Malaysia, made his presence felt in local environmental circles recently when he attended the MOU-signing ceremony for the conservation of the rainforest, between Petra Group and the Royal Society South-East Asia Rainforest Research programme. 

He also lends his name to Green Rubber Global, a Petra Group firm in the United States that operates a tyre recycling plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

Over in the tropical forests of Guatemala, Gibson has risked putting the noses of the poor rural farmers and loggers out of joint by lending his vocal and financial support to the establishment of a 525,000-acre Mayan national park. 

The forest is home to El Mirador, 15 square miles of buried temples and pyramids first uncovered by archaeologist Richard Hansen, which could well be the most extensive Mayans ruins uncovered to date. In response to severe opposition from local villages, Hansen roped Gibson into the Mayan Park project. To date, the actor/director – who visited El Mirador to evaluate the site for Apocalypto – has donated US$500, 000 (RM1.75mil) to Hansen’s work and agreed to serve on the board of his foundation, and serve as spokesman for the project. 

Charitable nature aside, anyone engaged in a one-on-one chat with Gibson can find it somewhat unnerving. When he fixes his famous piercing blue-eyed stare on you, it’s intimidating, to say the least. He’s affable and polite, without being too friendly, and seems to size you up as he speaks. 

He has the air of someone who does not suffer fools gladly. He’s brash, to the point, and not afraid to call a spade a spade. But he’s also utterly fascinating once he warms up to a subject.  

Get him talking about something he really cares about and he starts to come alive, with intelligent insights. His eyes twinkle and the gentle burr of a voice begins to rise excitedly as he leans closer to get his point across. 

You seem to have been devoting a lot of your time to environmental and humanitarian causes of late. Has the movie business taken a back seat?  

Gibson: No, not really. I’ve always had interest in trying to help people. I’m not a tree hugger or anything, but hey, why not help people or save the planet if you can. I’ve always liked nature. I had a farm at one point and tried to do things there without using chemicals. If you are in a position to do some good, then it’s really a no- brainer to get involved in some way. 

Piercing stare: Gibson’s blueeyes seem to size up the writeras he speaks.

You’re also a share-holder in Green Rubber and regularly attend board meetings ... 

When I heard about what they were doing (Green Rubber recycles rubber into a form of material that can be reused for most purposes), I thought it was an amazing service to the planet and everyone in it. What a legacy to leave behind.  

I’ve seen how the technology works and it’s truly amazing. Petra Group has these foundations and stuff attached to it, so that the proceeds that come from this technology go to cool things, and that’s rare. Most people are too damn greedy to think about other people.  

Why get involved? It’s fun and interesting. It’s like, you invest in an excavation project in Guatemala and three years later, you get to walk up the steps of the ancient pyramids that they unearthed. I almost had tears in my eyes. 

The Mayan Park Project in Guatemala is something you’ve been passionate about for years. What attracted you to it?  

I was amazed when I went down there. It just blew my mind. I mean, the greatest archaeological find in the Western Hemisphere is virtually ignored. You’ve got the biggest pyramid in the world there; volume-wise, it’s bigger than the biggest one in Egypt.  

Up till 1930, they thought it was a volcano. Then they realised it was a very, very large pyramid and there were others near it almost as big, and there were 26 large cities in the basin.  

They have been perfectly preserved and not been looted. There are libraries; there are kings, there are tombs. It’s like the Valley of the Kings and yet, nobody knew about it. 

And you know what else? They’re 2,000 years old! People think they didn’t have pyramids in the neo-classical period. Bullshit! In fact, they had them bigger than they did later. People are going to start discovering a lot more things when they start unearthing this.  

There seems to be a fair bit of opposition to the project from the rural farmer and loggers. 

Here’s the deal: the forest is threatened and it’s the last remaining rainforest in Central America. If it burns and there are fires all around, it’s gone. People are trying to encroach and log it. Once you put a road in there, it’s over. All 26 cities will go. You won’t find the libraries, the tombs or who walked across the Baring Strait from Asia to get there. 

I tell you: The Mayans looked like you guys (Asians). In fact, I know a Mayan shaman, who went to Tibet and spoke his native tongue to a Tibetan and the guy was like, “Ah!” (Gibson makes a gesture of amazed recognition.) They had some similar words that mean the same thing. It’s pretty wild when you think about that.  

I tell you, these Mayan cities hold the key to a bunch of stuff. And they were sophisticated, like Pompeii. These cities are enormous. These were huge civilisations. These people who are opposing the project just don’t understand how important a find this really is. I’ll even give loggers the same amount of money they’d get for the trees to not touch them and I have done that.  

If you turn the forests into tourism, you’d get a hundred-fold what you might get if you were to log them. I’m putting money into their pockets. A lot of these people don’t know what is really going on. And they believe a lot of things that they are told. And there are people who are malicious, people out for short-term gain. The newspapers are too quick to paint a bad picture of me.  

Your fascination with Mayan culture came to glorious fruition with the excellent Apocalypto. Why make a movie about Mayans shot entirely in Mayan native tongue? 

I was always been intrigued by Mayan culture. Richard Hansen had some really good theories about the Mayans and why they disappeared, which are in the film. If you look closely, you can see all the things that dragged their civilisation down. They were destroying their environment and the arability of their soil.  

Good friends: Gibson and Petra Group president and chief executive officer,Datuk Vinod Sekhar, sharing a light-hearted moment after the signing of the MOU.

With regards to the language, there are a lot of Mayan dialects. We chose Yucate, which is being used today. It’s a very colourful language. 

With the cast, I made a point of getting people who looked indigenous, like real Indians, you know. All these people looked like they came from a different century. I thought the cast looked great. A lot of these people had never done any acting before. They were mainly carpenters, construction workers and schoolteachers.  

The film sets were something else, too. I used the same guy who did the sets for Braveheart. He oversaw the construction of the city, pyramids and temples – and did an amazing job. The whole city and the town around it came alive. It was fully functional, with people actually living in it. People would go there and get blown away by the set.  

We shot the film in Mexico because they had some nice jungles there. I found it better to film in the rainforests there because they had larger trees and bigger canopies, which kept the undergrowth down, so you had some depth of vision. In Guatemala, the jungles were too dense. Filming in the jungles was the hardest part about making the movie. 

Like The Passion of The Christ, Apocalypto had its share of controversy. 

There’s this historical revisionism that’s going on, kind of like, “That didn’t happen!” I just don’t get it. Now they are doing it with the Mayan stuff, too. 

I read an article saying my film is historically inaccurate. It’s not meant to be a historical piece. But there was human sacrifice back in the neo-classical period, very much so. I did my research, man. I like looking at periods of history and drawing stories from them. My obligation is not to portray history to the letter; my obligation is to entertain, educate and, hopefully, lift people to a higher spiritual plane.  

Do you plan to return to acting? Will we see you in an action hero role any time soon?  

I think I’m too old for that, but you never know. I just like telling stories. Entertainment is valid and I guess I’ll probably do it again before it’s over. You know, do something that people won’t get mad with me for. (Laughs)