Kurt Russell says he was drawn to his new film, "Backdraft," because "there is something old-fashioned about the fire department, something very sweet. It has dignity."
Ron Howard was another inducement. Like Russell, Howard was a child star. Like Russell, Howard made the professional transition to adulthood. Howard went on to become a director, Russell continued as an actor.
"I've always wanted to do a film with Ron," said Russell. "We never had the opportunity to work with each other. There was talk, but we never got to it. This one was a really good project, and Ron's involvement was terrific. I'm thankful it took place. It was really what I wanted to do."
"Backdraft," an action-mystery that takes place in Chicago, opens here Friday. Russell and William Baldwin (brother to Alec Baldwin) play brothers who are firefighters.
Russell said that working on the film with Howard was like "looking into a mirror. Our experiences were identical," he said. "As child stars, we were treated the same. Our personalities are different, but the circumstances were identical.
"Our parents were similar. They took the same approach on the raising of a son. It was a very unique situation. My best friends have no concept of what my life is like, but Ronnie does. He's had much the same experience."
A reporter at a recent press conference with the star said that both Russell and Howard seemed to make the transition from child actor to adult-in-films with ease, that it looked relatively "painless."
"Painless?" asked Russell. "That's not true. There were things that were tough about being a child actor, and those things continue and multiply as you grow up.
"One of the most painful things for Ron and me is the assumption that it was all sort of an easy run, that we were sort of non-creative individuals, but that's not true. Nobody works harder at his job than I do. We do our darnedest to bring you a great movie, and it's painful. It just looks easy because that's the look we give it."
Russell has been acting since he was 9 years old. His father, Bing Russell, was also in the business. Bing was the sheriff on "Bonanza" for 14 years, so Russell came by this somewhat naturally. By the time he was in his teens, he was starring in Disney movies. He did 10 of them, including "The Barefoot Executive."
He took a holiday from his career when he decided he wanted to become a professional baseball player, but he tore his rotator cuff and that took care of that. Later, he did movies for television. In one, he was "Elvis," and this led to an association with director John Carpenter, with whom Russell did three movies, "Escape from New York," "The Thing" and "Big Trouble in Little China."
"Used Cars" followed. So did "Swing Shift" (1984) in which Russell appeared with Goldie Hawn, the woman with whom he has been living since they did the film. They have a daughter, 4 years old, and it looks as though the association will continue. Russell speaks of Hawn and his children (he has an 11-year old son by his first marriage, and she has two boys by a previous marriage) as any husband-father might. "My private life is great," he said. "That's been documented."
For the moment, Russell will continue acting in films. He isn't that eager to direct. "I've been asked to do it a lot, but right now I'm not interested," he said. "Taking the time out to direct a film, to do it properly, doesn't interest me as much being an actor. If I thought it was something I had to do, I would, but I much prefer to offer my two cents worth to a director. Maybe some day. That may be a cop-out, but I'm not driven."
Asked what his most difficult experiences have been, he said that the birth of his son was one. "He's fine now, but he had a number of problems at birth. He was going to die, and I had to face it.
"The rotator cuff problem was another jolt," he said.
"And being a child actor had its drawbacks. You have to deal with people recognizing you. You also have to deal with the fact that as a child actor in school, you are a freak show. In school, you are also an object of sexuality, something the other kids resent, and all this time, all you want to do is be one of the group.
"But hey, if it's all that bad why not get out? Well, hey, I like it. It's been a great time, an unbelievable pleasure to lead the life I have led."