After his breakthrough role in 'Forrest Gump,' the actor puts his theatrical career on hold

Gary Sinise is a scarred man. “This is from training for the Vietnam scenes in Forrest Gump,” he says, touching a thin line on the white, marred underside of his right arm. “This,” he continues in his nasal Chicago drawl, drawing his finger along a lower, deeper gash, “is from a fight scene in The Grapes of Wrath. And this,” he adds, lingering on a fresh, pink scratch, “is from playing with my children.”

The 39-year-old actor-director may have kept fame at arm’s length until now, but thanks to his turn as Lieutenant Dan, Tom Hanks’ surly Vietnam commander in Forrest Gump — following his starring role in ABC’s high-rated May miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand — Hollywood is paying attention. “I’ve never done anything that anyone’s ever seen before,” he says, nervously shifting in his seat at a Pasadena eatery as the waiter circles like a shark, trying unsuccessfully to place Sinise. It’s not easy. His most notable work has been in the theater, which, he says, “I probably never would have started in if I were interested in fame and fortune. When I think of work, it’s mostly about having control over your destiny, as opposed to being at the mercy of what’s out there.”

The question of destiny is at the heart of Sinise’s character in Forrest Gump, as well-a person who feels he should have died in battle rather than live on as a double amputee. The character turns from a driven military man into a raging alcoholic who ultimately reclaims his life. “My brother-in-law was a lieutenant colonel, and he died of cancer,” Sinise says. “When he was dying, he couldn’t believe it. Why would he survive two tours of duty in Vietnam and then wither away at age 39?”

While special effects erased Sinise’s legs in some scenes, Gump director Robert Zemeckis says, “The true illusion is 80 percent Gary’s performance.” Sinise also went to South Carolina, where under the eye of Vietnam vet and film consultant Dale Dye, he led his movie platoon for three days across leech-filled marshes. “It was amazing to be in a jungle and have it totally dark, and suddenly machine guns are going off. People took it seriously. We weren’t just goofing off.”

Sinise (pronounced suh-NEESE) hasn’t taken much lightly since he barely scraped through high school in Highland Park, Ill. “I was like a rabid dog,” he says. “I never had any interest in being taught. I was not a good cooperator — I couldn’t be in the band and not be the leader of the band.” His sophomore year, he was introduced to the theater, and in 1974 he cofounded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company — famous for its high-octane, physical acting style — and was joined by Laurie Metcalf, John Malkovich, and actress Moira Harris, Sinise’s wife since 1981. “He wasn’t the best student, and he hadn’t done a lot of reading,” says Metcalf, still a close friend. “We used to tease him that he would only read the plays he was about to do. In that sense, he’s come miles.”

It’s been a long journey. After first winning notice for his Steppenwolf productions, Sinise earned a Tony nomination for his 1990 Broadway role as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath; later that year, John Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, granted him the rights to direct an Of Mice and Men remake. The critically acclaimed film looked like his big break, but then, for the next year, nothing — only occasional parts in marginal films, like Jack the Bear. “Maybe it’s taken a little longer for Gary,” says Metcalf, “because he goes off and directs movies and plays. When he flips back and forth, people don’t immediately know how to peg him.” Sinise is determined to change that: He’s staying put in Pasadena with his wife and three kids — Sophie, 5; McCanna, 3; and Ella, 22 months — and putting his Steppenwolf work on hold. Until now, he says, “I haven’t ever said to myself, ‘Hey, focus on film and acting.”‘

Molly Ringwald, who played his girlfriend in The Stand (and lost out to Sherilyn Fenn for a part in Of Mice and Men), says he’s making the transition with grace: “On The Stand, he had more experience than the director [Mick Garris] and could have made him uncomfortable, but he let him do his job.”

Still, praise does little to soothe Sinise’s occasional sense of being a newcomer. Nor does his newly won role, again opposite Hanks, as an astronaut in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. “I have that insecure acting thing, and the more it sets in, the more it feels like you’ve been found out. Now, it’s good,” he says cautiously. “But in time, it will be somebody else’s turn. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Forrest Gump
  • Movie
  • 141 minutes