"I could be quite happy screwing up my career," says Patrick Swayze.
Possibly, he means it. His last two films have been about as far from the macho action dude of "Roadhouse" and "Point Break" as it was possible to get, and even further from the sensitive romantics he played in "Ghost" and "Dirty Dancing."
In "To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," he spends the whole picture in drag behind a face-full of Carol Channing's makeup, and in the yet more peculiar "Three Wishes," which opened yesterday, he plays a drifting hippie-philosopher stuck in the grimly conformist year of 1955.
It's a movie of feeling good, a celebration of family values and the human capacity to love.
"We fully expected the jerks [meaning movie critics, by the way] to go for this movie's jugular," he says cheerfully by car-phone. "That's what happens when you try and make a movie with heart."
Heart? Well, yes. Swayze's character, Jack McCloud, moves into a fatherless family's spare bedroom and becomes a father-figure, a lover-figure and a conveyor to all and sundry of the universe's mysteries and possibilities. Then he moves on, leaving the possibility that he wasn't even there in the first place, but a necessary figure of the family's collective imagination. It's Frank Capra crossed with "On the Road."
But for Swayze, it's yet another direction to take in a career that has refused to take a single direction.
"In Hollywood, it's difficult to avoid stereotyping. And some actors like a niche," he says. "But that would destroy me. I want to find out how far I can go. If you just live for fame and stardom, it will kill you."
He started out as a beefcake killer with a pretty-baby face in such films as "Red Dawn" and "Tiger Warsaw," all but forgotten today. Then he got his first real career goose by combining his there- tofore hidden dance talent with his silky bedroom demeanor in "Dirty Dancing," and became a surprisingly potent sex icon for a few years. Losing the wind again, he tacked and came up with a purely romantic role in "Ghost" and found himself a major movie star.
But solid roles evaded him, as he slipped through ludicrous projects such as "Roadhouse" and "Next of Kin."
His most ardent part, the role of a young doctor seeking redemption in the slums of Calcutta in the big-budget "City of Joy," was laughed off the screen by critics, which is now why he routinely refers to them as "jerks" and claims he does not read them.
But he credits that film's director, Roland Joffe, with helping him to the breakthrough that's guiding his career now.
"I came back from India hating my life. All of a sudden, I decided to do what I wanted. Roland had helped me to discover new levels of trust. Performing eventually becomes about trust."
This has led to the new Swayze, the chance-taker, the character-actor, the anti-egoist.
"The secret is analysis. Now I study a script; I concentrate on the other parts, not mine. I study every other character's relationships. That enables me to focus on the whole rather than on the individual."
He isn't sure if the role of Jack in "Three Wishes" was written for him, but he knows "the filmmakers were after me from Day 1. It's been in my life for over four years. It's very hard to get a movie like this made in Hollywood today."