Kurt Russell has been playing the Hollywood game for 28 of his 43 years, and he says he can smell a loser movie the minute he walks on a set.
Before he walked onto the set of "StarGate," the sci-fi thriller that opened Friday, he said he was filled with the usual amount of anxiety that comes with making any film. But there was added tension because it was a big-budget movie with special effects.
"The script doesn't tell you what the special effects are really going to be like or how much they're going to spend on those effects," the actor said. "The script doesn't tell you the filmmakers' level of enthusiasm or what they're willing to do to accomplish their goals.
"So you accept the role based on the script in what amounts to a gigantic leap of faith and arrive enthusiastic but cautious to the set. This is the moment of truth. I've been around so long, I can just smell cheap."
Mr. Russell, fresh from a well- received portrayal of Wyatt Earp in the box-office hit "Tombstone," said he sniffed around the set that first day, looked into the eyes of the director and producer, and knew he had picked a winner.
"This movie is a spectacle, and that means that the filmmakers have to spend money to make it work," he said. "I knew these guys were willing to spend the money. I knew they were going after this thing whole hog."
Mr. Russell plays a tough career military officer who leads an expedition through a portal to a world millions of light years away. James Spader is a scientist who is brought along to determine whether the people on the other end of the stargate actually started our own civilization.
"Frankly, I'm not sure how interested the audience is in this long-held theory that people from another planet had a hand in building the pyramids and developing our civilization," Mr. Russell said. "It's always interested me, but I'm not sure that's enough to get you into the theater.
"I approach any movie the way any audience member approaches a movie, and I'd want to go to this movie just to find out what Kurt Russell and James Spader are doing in the same film. That alone is interesting enough to get me to plunk down my money and buy some popcorn and malted-milk balls."
Mr. Spader is the main focus of the film and gets all the best lines and the girl. But Mr. Russell, who usually is cast in that leading-man role, said he didn't mind stepping out of the glare for this film.
"In whatever role you take, you're either the glue that holds everything together or you're the guy with all the great moments," Mr. Russell said. "This movie is not about me; it's about him, and that was fine with me.
"I had just come off 'Tombstone,' in which I had to play both parts. I had to be the glue and I had all the great moments. It was a lot of fun, but it was exhausting. I didn't want to do it again right away.
"I remember walking on the set and whispering to James, 'It's your ball, run with it.' I meant that. It's nice to sit back and be the reserved one. It was my job to create a sense of mystery in the movie, and that can be fun by itself. Sometimes it's more fun to be Han Solo than Luke Skywalker.
"Of course, you have to be able to go back and forth. You need to get back to the character with all the freedom. After 'Unlawful Entry,' in which I had to be the reserved one while Ray Liotta burned up the scenery, I jumped right into 'Captain Ron' because I needed it. 'StarGate' is a great change of pace, but next I'll need a different kind of role."
Mr. Russell, who lives with girlfriend Goldie Hawn, has been at the acting game since he was about 10, when he started appearing in television programs, such as "The Travels of Jamie McPheeters."
He segued into a teen star in a series of Disney movies, including "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes." With "Used Cars," "Escape From New York" and "Silkwood" in the early 1980s, he made the transition to adult star. Now he says he is considering a new direction.
"I don't ever want to get out of acting, but I would eventually like to get out of my acting career," he said. "With an acting career, you have to pay attention like you would with any career. You have to be aware of where you are, where you've been and where you're going. You have to know what scripts are being offered to you and what you're getting paid. You have to do publicity and play all the studio games.
"I just don't want to do that anymore. I'd like to do some stage work and maybe small independent films. I'd like to get to the point where money doesn't matter anymore."