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SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Mel Gibson took a deep breath, shook his head and stared down at his palms. “I just can’t do this. You’ve got me at a disadvantage.” The movie star, his voice a croak, was a mere 19 minutes into an interview, but it was clear there was no way he was going to make it to 20.


“I’m coming rapidly to the conclusion that right now, today, my brain cannot function. Honestly? I’m six days off the cigarette. You’re looking at someone who’s having a pretty bad withdrawal from a 45-year habit.”


The question that sent the jittery Gibson on his way out of the room was about the cultural riptides that await anyone who brings religion into the modern public life of Hollywood. “I’m not running away from it. I want to give you a fair trot. I like where you’re coming from with these questions. I just feel ill-equipped to answer.”


These are difficult days to be Mel Gibson, with or without nicotine.


On Friday, the 54-year-old will find out where he stands with moviegoers as a leading man with “Edge of Darkness,” a dark thriller that marks Gibson’s first starring role since “Signs” in 2002. In those eight years he has devoted himself instead to producing and directing, most notably the massively successful “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. He also found himself starring in a bleary mug shot in summer 2006 after a DUI arrest that would become a life-changing calamity after the anti-Semitic remarks he made while in custody were reported across the planet. Gibson apologized and called it “a moment of insanity” and a “public humiliation on a global scale” that had one positive aspect in that it led him to get help with his alcoholism.


Once, back in the 1980s, the tales of Gibson’s wild ways made him just another Tinseltown bad boy, but in recent seasons he’s come off as just plain bad. Now, stepping back into the spotlight as a movie star, he is trying to balance his pride with his need to do some serious reputation repair. It’s taking him to some strange places.


A few minutes after cutting short the interview, there was Gibson, marching through the underground parking garage below his offices in Santa Monica. He was looking for the visitor he had just sent home early. “I forgot about your parking,” he blurted. “I’ll wait at the gate for you.” Then, to the befuddlement of other drivers waiting to pay, one of the most famous men in the world perched himself next to a guard shack and waited, shoulders slumped, for the moment of validation. “Don’t worry,” he promised with a weak wave, “I’ll see you soon and we’ll get this done.”


Three days later, Gibson looked like a new man. “I’m sorry again,” he said as he reached out to shake hands, “I was in pretty rough shape. Today is better. Nine days is better than six.”


Putting in time is never easy. Gibson was standing in a suite at the Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica, where he was enduring two long days of press interviews to promote the new movie from Warner Bros. and GK Films. The place was crowded with reporters eager for their chance to get Gibson on the record about his DUI, the anti-Semitic rant and the recent juicy twists in his personal life (Gibson is in the process of divorcing his wife of 29 years, Robyn, with whom he has seven children; 39-year-old Russian musician Oksana Grigorieva, meanwhile, gave birth to the actor’s eighth child, Lucia, on the day before Halloween).


“It’s going OK,” Gibson said gamely of his movie-star chores. “It’s always a struggle. This part has always been a struggle to sort of friend-up and be that.”


The junket was not without its bumps. Some female journalists were aghast that Gibson told a marriage joke with some coarse language. (Gibson is still dogged by the perception that he referred to one of his arresting deputies as “sugar tits,” which he has denied.) Also, a day earlier, Gibson’s interview with Sam Rubin of KTLA turned sour after the anchorman mused that some people think the leading man “should never come back” after his ugly rant about Jews. Gibson leaned forward, ready for a fight. “Why?” Rubin looked desperately uncomfortable and, really, who could blame him? Every moviegoer learned long ago that no one comes uncorked quite like Mel Gibson.


The whole Mad Mel persona shaped Gibson’s stardom with the nut-job cop role in the four “Lethal Weapon” films and then the far-from-funny battlefield rages in the gore of “Braveheart” and “The Patriot.” The angry man is back in Gibson’s new movie; the actor said he chose “Edge of Darkness” for his return vehicle for the simple reason that it had an excellent script by William Monahan (who won an Oscar for “The Departed”), but it’s probably no coincidence that the movie falls into the uniquely American cinema of vengeance — playing the righteous and violent man has given Gibson some of his biggest commercial successes.


In “Edge of Darkness,” Gibson portrays Thomas Craven, a Boston cop whose daughter is gunned down. “I’m the guy with nothing to lose,” he snarls in the trailer for the film, “fasten your seat belt.” Just like the instantly infamous “Get off my lawn!” line in the ads for Clint Eastwood’s tough-geezer film “Gran Torino,” there’s a satisfying click to hearing Gibson get back to the basics of his popcorn menace.


“Edge of Darkness” is directed by Martin Campbell, who is best known for reinventing James Bond with the 2006 success of “Casino Royale.” He said the script called for an actor old enough to have a 24-year-old daughter who also possessed a ferocity. The list of big stars that fit the bill was exactly one name long.


“There was nobody else,” the New Zealand-born filmmaker said. “I liken Mel to the old Hollywood stars like Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, William Holden, people like that, and we’ve got none of them now, do we? Everyone now is so lightweight. Even George Clooney, who is a terrific actor, he’s too polished. Mel has this masculine kind of emotional weight that others don’t. Possibly Russell Crowe, but he’s too young for this role. Eastwood is gone (from acting) and Harrison Ford, he’s got the grit, but he doesn’t have the menace or the power.”


The big predators — bear and lions — they slow down as they grow old, but the last thing they lose is their power. It’s a comparison that Campbell seized on. “That’s it, absolutely. You wouldn’t want to get hit by him. I know that. You’d want to be careful getting into a dark corner with Mel Gibson. You might take on Harrison Ford in a fight, but not Mel.”


Campbell said the movie wouldn’t have been made without Gibson in the lead but he also conceded that there was discussion about the star’s standing with the public. “Obviously, we discussed the controversies and then we dismissed it. We felt lucky to get him. It never came up again.”


Gibson would be thrilled if moviegoers were as forgiving, but the sins of the past can be especially persistent in this age of TMZ and celebrity-skewering. Last weekend, the biggest laugh of the night for “Golden Globes” host Ricky Gervais was when he brought a pint of beer on stage and said, “Honestly, I like a drink as much as the next man ... unless the next man is Mel Gibson,” just before the actor walked out on stage to present the night’s trophy for best director.


Gibson said afterward it was a good gag. “I can take it,” he said, “believe me.” Perhaps, but it’s telling that on the eve of his big comeback, the star skipped the red carpet and dinner and was headed home before any of the after-parties even started.


This past Tuesday, the rare sound of thunder rolled across Los Angeles. In the conference room in Gibson’s office in Santa Monica, the hard rain that came down was especially loud — the room has a glass ceiling and a window for one of its walls.


“You can really see the storm coming from in here if you open the blinds,” Gibson said. “And, man, it’s coming. I read this one weather report, it sounded almost biblical. It was a meteorology guy, a PhD scientist, and called it a frog-strangler. ... We could go start building a boat, but I think that’s been done before.”


Gibson, with a dozen days off the smokes, was positively chipper, and his loopy humor came through. The topics were all over the place, for which he apologized. “I have a problem with stillness.”


Gibson, on turning 54 this month: “This journey is more than half over. I’m way past the halfway mark. It’s kind of scary. And you ask yourself, ‘What the hell have I really done? What have I accomplished?’ And it seems pretty puny ... we’re all so transient. The mission is leave something.”


On Jesus Christ: “Here’s a guy that was killed in public and then thousands of people saw him come back from the dead. Um, I’m sorry, that one is hard to deny.”


On protecting daughters in the world: “Oh, you get scared. We all know what dogs all guys are because we’re guys. But we shouldn’t despair. The beautiful truth is that all women are smarter than men.”


On his plan to direct Leonardo DiCaprio in a viking epic that will have Old Norse dialogue: “We’re going hammer and tongs on the script right now. When I was 16, learning about the history of the English language I became fascinated with vikings ... There’s never been a good viking film, not that I’ve seen ... The real problem is making those guys sympathetic. They were monsters.”


On the plans for a fourth “Mad Max” film: “I’m glad (franchise director George) Miller is making it, and it’s going to be the best one. I’m not going to be in it, that’d be corny.”


On his Boston accent in “Edge of Darkness”: “I got some of it from my mother, who was from Brooklyn, which has a piece of it in there. But I went for a tough-talking cartoon dog in the movie.”


On making movies: “You’re cooking a meal for people who are going to eat and then comment. Some of them are going to like it and some of them are going to hate it. Some of them are going to throw up and some of them are going to ask for more.”


The storm outside was relenting and, after more than an hour and a half, the movie star seemed to finally let down his defenses. Some topics remain off-limits: “The family is doing fine, everybody’s healthy,” he said with an expression that made it clear that was all he planned to say about his children. In a way, Gibson seems like a man from some unconstructed time, someone who lives in an age of prophecy, codes of honor and falling on your sword, even if the only reason is that you drank too much and tripped on your scabbard. “I put myself in a position where they could do it to me,” he said. “It was my own fault.”


Graham King, the producer of “Edge of Darkness,” said he initially wondered if America really wanted to sit down with Mel Gibson in a theater with the lights out. But while filming in Boston, he watched as gawkers gathered to catch a glimpse of the star as a scene was shot in a public park. “Look, I was the producer on ‘The Departed’ and there was a crowd that came to see Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio, but Mel drew a bigger crowd then those two together.”


Others in Hollywood are also optimistic that Gibson is a rehabilitated persona; Gibson has already finished making his next film, a quirky comedy called “The Beaver,” directed by Jodie Foster, an old friend of Gibson’s who will portray his wife in the movie.


Gibson is uncertain what to expect from the ticket-buying public. “I would hope people would be gracious and give me a chance.” They might. Behaving badly is often forgiven in Hollywood — just ask Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr. and Kiefer Sutherland. Gibson, though, is wrestling with a different challenge; he’s the man who went on a bender and blamed all the wars in history on the Jews.


There’s a moment in “Edge of Darkness” in which a glowering Gibson warns a compromised man that he needs to decide whether he wants to be the one on the cross or the one doing the nailing. Gibson smiled when asked about the line. Martyrs, religious symbols and mayhem are tricky topics for a Mel Gibson who is trying to put down the lightning rod and weather the storm.


“Religion and politics hit nerves,” Gibson said. “There’s a lot of anger about a lot of things. It’s not easily resolved. I guess that’s what wars are about. Wars are about prejudice and fear. Hit first before you get hit. Believe me, I know.”


Gibson is an extremely wealthy man as the producer of “Passion” and a longtime player in the real-estate market. He says he came back to acting only to prove something to himself. “I walked away in the first place because I felt like a dinosaur,” Gibson said. It happened during “Signs.” M. Night Shyamalan cast Gibson because the director, as a young moviegoer, had been so struck by Gibson’s suicidal-cop performance in “Lethal Weapon.” But then on the “Signs” set, the filmmaker took Gibson aside and said his acting was too over-the-top.


“I felt ham-fisted,” Gibson said, plainly embarrassed. “He told me I was just doing too much. I looked around, though, and I was the oldest guy on the set and I felt like the least sophisticated. I decided I needed to rethink everything. I got into this, all of this, because I wanted to be good. I walked away because I don’t know that I was bringing much new to anything. It could be argued that I’m not bringing anything new to it in this film, but I would argue that I did. Another seven or eight years of living informs the choices one makes.”

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