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Tossed at Sea : JACK LONDON'S 'SEA WOLF' IS A NATURAL SETTING FOR REEVE

April 18, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lure of the sea captured Christopher Reeve's heart when he was a young boy.

"I used to race down the Jersey shore in all sorts of small boats," says Reeve, 40, who flew to superstardom as movie's "Superman" in 1978. "I started crewing on bigger boats with people and started long-distance sailing."

A few years ago, Reeve had his own 46-foot "proper yacht," the Sea Angel, constructed for long-distance sailing trips. "I sail all over the East, Nova Scotia and Maine," he says. "My idea of a wonderful weekend is to be 50 miles offshore with people, if they are hardy types, or alone. I enjoy long-distance sailing alone."

He finds solo sailing to be the most enjoyable because, ultimately, it's an endurance test. "To work against fatigue is a real challenge," Reeve explains. "You have to rely on yourself. Your ingenuity is tested. If something breaks, things go wrong, you think, 'What do you do?' You just go out and test yourself as far as the conditions warrant. It's fun to go out there and tackle the elements. I have sailed to Bermuda a few times. I haven't done anything particularly dangerous. But it is a real challenge."

Ironically, in his latest project, TNT's "The Sea Wolf," Reeve plays a 19th-Century San Francisco swell named Humphrey Van Weyden, who doesn't have his sea legs. Adapted from Jack London's classic novel, "Sea Wolf" chronicles the adventures of Van Weyden and con woman Flaxen Brewster (Catherine Mary Stewart), who are the only survivors of a capsized ferry boat. The two are eventually rescued by the Ghost, a seal-hunting ship bound for the Sea of Japan. The Ghost's captain, Wolf Larsen (Charles Bronson), treats his crew like dogs and physically and mentally abuses them.

Larsen refuses to return his survivors to shore. He turns Van Weyden into "Hump," the ship's cabin boy. But since Larsen is a self-taught intellectual, he finds Van Weyden to be a perfect intellectual sparring partner.

The 6-foot-4 Reeve also was a great acting partner for Stewart, who had been a big fan of his since "Superman."

"A lot of times actors were shorter than you expect them to be, but he was bigger than I expected him to be," she says, laughing. "That is a little intimidating at first, but he is really open as an actor and wonderful to work with."

"Sea Wolf" was filmed last year off the coast of Vancouver on a 110-foot schooner. "They had hired it from a group in Seattle," Reeve says. "It was built in the 1920s. They just restored it to the way it was. What was sort of fun in between takes was that I spent a lot of time working with the crew, sailing the boat or handling lines and stuff. Then I would have to step in front of the cameras and pretend to be absolutely sicker than a dog and disoriented. It was just kind of funny."

The actor decided to play Van Weyden as a snob, not as a fop. He didn't think he would be convincing as a "hothouse flower. Just because you are a big person or have a large physique doesn't necessarily mean you know how to use it," Reeve explains. "So if you play it as a man who is an intellectual, a jaded sophisticate, he can still have an athletic frame and not be (athletic) because of his upbringing. Spoiled people come in all shapes and sizes."

Reeve discovered his acting style was quite different from the veteran movie tough guy Bronson. "He does thing very technically," Reeve says.

Bronson was in constant dialogue with the director and crew, Reeve recalls. "It seemed like he had to have control."

By contrast, Reeve doesn't like to orchestrate his scenes, or even want to know how he's going to react in a scene.

"He has that element of spontaneity, which is really fun," Stewart says. "It gives you a sense of freedom. When you work with someone like that, you tend to fall into that sort of technique as well."

"I read the script. I read the scene," Reeve says. "My job, I felt, was just to listen (to Bronson) and see what would come out. I don't know what I am going to say next, so why should it be different when you are acting. I would see him orchestrating things and I thought, 'I am going to try to find a different technique because we have to try to find all the differences between us.' The movie is about the differences between us, so let's work a different way, too."

One of the benefits of being an actor, Reeve says, is that he can have adventures in "controlled circumstances." That's one of the reasons he did "Sea Wolf."

"Most of us sit around, I guess, fairly comfortably," Reeve says. "Though we are not exactly couch potatoes, we are not challenged."

In the movies, Reeve explains, he gets the opportunity to be challenged, "to borrow from the personae of people who are better than you, more intense, more interesting. Because a movie has to have some kind of edge to it, like a fight for survival--a fight between good and evil, a fight between the rational man and the animal man. All of those kinds of topics are interesting. We can visit them for the length of a movie and then go back to comfort. It's a safe way to play."

"The Sea Wolf" airs Sunday at 5, 7, 9 p.m.; Monday at 1 p.m.; Thursday at 7:50 p.m. and Saturday at 5 p.m. on TNT.

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