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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

His new joy ride

Jockey Gary Stevens reflects on the challenges of a recent calling -- that of actor, in 'Seabiscuit.'

August 03, 2003|Anna Nicholas

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has won almost 5,000 horse races in a career that includes eight Triple Crown wins (three Kentucky Derbies). He's also been dubbed one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" -- and most recently, he's managed to more than hold his own on screen with some of Hollywood's biggest names. On his first acting job. In everything this mountain of a 5-foot-3 man does, he says you're only as good as your last race, your last movie -- his is "Seabiscuit" -- or (by extension) your last beautiful person accolade.

In "Seabiscuit," you play George Woolf, the jockey they called "Iceman." Is that you?

I love pressure. You either fold, let the butterflies get you, or you use 'em to get to a whole new level. That's the ice water thing. Give me the most difficult challenge and I'll meet it head on. I had no idea what to do with the script, though. I'd sit on my patio reading my lines and my neighbors thought I was nuts. So Gary Ross ["Seabiscuit's" director] set me up with Larry Moss, the acting coach to the stars. I go, I'm scared to death. What does Larry do? He pours some wine, and we smoke cigars. The next night we start reading the scenes and he says, "This isn't hard for you, is it?" I said, "I'm not doing anything." He says, "Exactly. We're done." Then he calls Gary and they tell me to just ride my horses and we'll start shooting in a month. What could I do? I stopped worrying.

How's a good horse race like a good movie?

Good raw material and relatively equal talent. I can't make a mule win the Kentucky Derby, but I can win on the best horse of the day, just like the best actors can't make a poorly written film work. If good actors are working with a good script, it's a no-brainer.

Were there any similarities between working for Gary Ross and, say, Bob Baffert (trainer of Silver Charm, which Stevens rode to a Kentucky Derby win)?

Trainers who know you, have faith in you -- they don't need to say a whole lot to get their point across, just ride the horse. These are the trainers I've had the most success with -- 'course, they had good horses -- but they'd give me very few words. Gary Ross could trigger any emotion he wanted the same way.

What was life like behind the scenes?

In the race industry we'd joke that the fences around the track weren't there to keep the public out, they were to keep us in 'cause we're all nuts. We don't realize there's another world that exists out there, and on the movie set it was refreshing to see the same thing. Food's better on the set, though.

Anything surprise you about making a movie?

The family atmosphere that grew with the filming. When we were on location in Kentucky for five weeks, we got real close, and my last day was tough. I knew I'd probably never see these people again. It was like the three-week race meetings during the summers when I was a kid -- you build relationships, then one day everyone would be gone. In the long run, it probably just teaches you not to get too close to anybody 'cause it's just gonna break your heart.

Is that a good thing?

It's a character builder. Actually I've stayed in touch with a few people, which I'm told is unusual.

You are kind of unusual though, or have you become a hardened member of the movie industry?

(Laughs.) Maybe I showed them something they'd forgotten about -- being a little more human. I wear my emotions out there for all to see. It's gotten me into trouble on occasion.

Would you do another film?

Acting is the only other thing I've done that gives me that same rush as racing. You can't predict what emotion the person you're acting with is going to give you, and you never know how a horse race is gonna go. All you can do is react, and you know when you hit it right. You've got the lines, but you can prepare only so much. When you're out there doin' it, you just do it. If you think too much, the opportunity to move your horse, or say your line a certain way, is gone. The hole closes. Right now I've got about six horses I'm working with, and Gary Ross put together a team of believers for me at ICM. There's talk of another project, but for now, I'm just going to keep riding to win.

-- Anna Nicholas

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