|Patrick Bergin in "Mountains of the Moon"
For Patrick Bergin, star of the new film "Mountains of the Moon," the glamor part of movie stardom took a little time to kick in. When he was shooting the film in Kenya, the experience was anything but. There's nothing particularly romantic about having lions thrown at you.
"Having a quarter of a ton of lion thrown on top of me was pretty fantastic and lousy at the same time," he says, laughing. "It certainly nearly killed me."
The scene involved his character, 19th century writer and adventurer Richard Burton, being chased and attacked by a male lion. Fortunately for Burton, the beast was fatally wounded as it leaped through the air at him.
"They had to tease the lion to my heels with meat, so he got very close to me," Bergin recalled last week by phone from San Diego. "Then, in order to show me coming out from underneath him they had to drop him on top of me. He was sedated, but one was never sure just exactly how sedated he was."
The actor laughs again. "And he bad bad breath. "We must have done it at least four or five times," he said. Then, after waiting a beat, he adds: "And of course the first take was the best."
"Mountains of the Moon" is a Hollywood anomaly -- a big-budget epic starring a cast of relative unknowns. It's a device you expect from a director like Bob Rafelson, an unorthodox filmmaker if there ever was one. Rafelson's credits include "Five Easy Pieces," "The King of Marvin Gardens," "Stay Hungry" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" -- all unusual tales about people locked in unusual relationships. "Mountains of the Moon" is a film filled with relationships, most of them between Burton and his contemporaries -- both male and female -- and between the explorer and the land. So, going in, Bergin had a tall order to fill.
The actor has appeared in a few feature films, including "The Courier" and "Taffin," but the roles were on the small side. In "Mountains of the Moon," Bergin receives top billing and is the undisputed star. The casting process, he said, was a long one. But ultimately, Rafelson saw something he liked and hired him. Bergin theorizes he might have landed the job because of his "curiosity about the world and my sort of renegade nature."
"Mountains of the Moon" tells the story of two explorers, Richard Burton, an Irishman, and John Speke, an Englishman, who set off together in the 1850s to search for the headwaters of the Nile. The men made two expeditions together into the uncharted interior of the African continent. The first was aborted quickly, after a skirmish with hostile tribesmen, but the second proved more successful. While Burton lay ill in a tribal community, Speke continued to explore, finally locating Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile.
But Speke's scientific research was sorely lacking -- he didn't take accurate elevation readings or circle the lake to find out whether a significant amount of water was flowing out of it. As a result, Burton doubted the veracity of his partner's claims. After both men had arrived back home in Britain, Speke went public with his "discovery" and left Burton in his dust. Burton, an intensely loyal friend, remained silent on the subject for some time.
But now, according to Bergin, the Irish author and adventurer is becoming respected for the many great things he accomplished -- such as his numerous anthropological studies of indigenous tribes in the areas where he traveled, including meticulously detailed descriptions of mating rites and other sexual practices.
"Well, in the Royal Geographical Society you'll see a portrait 0f Speke and you will not see one of Burton to this day, yes," Bergin said. "And most of Burton's books and papers have been taken out of the Royal Geographical Society and bought up by dealers and other people. But he, certainly from an establishment point of view, is less regarded. However, I think ... with the general public of the world, Burton's character and personality is much more sought after and much more intriguing."
Bergin, who like Burton was born in Ireland, is also said to bear a striking resemblance to Burton.
"When they had the bust of my head made it was remarkably similar," he said, referring to a model that makeup artists used to make certain Burton's facial scars fit correctly. "Even I was shocked. There was an expert on Burton who walked into the room and said, 'Where did you get the bust of Burton?' And it was quite remarkable."
Although Burton wrote some 43 volumes about his travels, he is still most widely known for his translation of erotica -- including the "Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana" and a 16-volume edition of the "Arabian Nights." Bergin, too, said that was about all he knew about him prior to auditioning for the part in the movie.
"I think he'd more or less disappeared from the pantheon of heroes," the 36-year-old Bergin said, recalling what he knew of Burton during his own childhood, "but my father had a copy of the 'Kama Sutra' on the bookshelf, which I read. So I knew about his erotic background, but less so about his adventures."
(Another footnote to Burton's life which might interest Utahns is that immediately after publishing his own book, "Lake Regions of Central Africa, refuting the claims of Speke in 1860, Burton crossed the Atlantic and hopped aboard a stagecoach to Salt Lake City. The information he gathered during his stay here was published in "City of the Saints" in 1861. The book detailed life in the Mormon community, including what has been referred to as a "dispassionate" view of polygamy.)
All of America, of course, will have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Burton's remarkable life when "Mountains of the Moon" opens in theaters around the country today. But with a cast of unknowns, it faces an uphill battle for success.
For now, though, Patrick Bergin is in the spotlight and loving it. In addition to doing a mess of interviews to promote the film, he's preparing to start work on "Sleeping with the Enemy," a thriller directed by Joe Rueben ("The Stepfather"). And the attention doesn't bother him a bit.
"I'm like a duck to water. No problem at all," he says with a laugh. "And it's a great privilege and I'm enjoying it. And that's what the important thing is -- to enjoy it."