Don't look for actor Tom Selleck to stump for George W. Bush or Al Gore - at least not any time soon. His allegiance is to one and only one presidential candidate: Gov. James Reynolds Pryce. A fringe candidate? No, a cable candidate.
Pryce is the character Selleck plays in a TNT movie called "Running Mates," airing tonight at 8. He is a Michigan Democrat who is assured of his party's nomination but finds himself confronting women from his past and ethical dilemmas from his present. The big-money boys are willing to open their pockets, but at a price. The nominee's selection of a running mate will signal much about the body politic and his soul.
The GOP convention ended earlier this month and the Democratic convention opens tomorrow in Los Angeles, but Selleck will be MIA. "I've been asked by both parties and both candidates to get involved, but I won't. I think the republic will survive me staying out of this election," Selleck said in a phone interview.
"Look, I have an ethical obligation right now to promote this movie." He doesn't want to pull the audience out of the TNT race and into the real one. He also doesn't want to appear to be advancing an agenda when he's on "somebody else's nickel, and I'm on Turner's nickel. They haven't bought my life or my family, but they have bought my access to the media."
This movie has many of the same touchstones as the real races: speculation about vice presidents plus goofy delegate hats, elaborate state-by-state introductions and acceptance speeches. This time, though, we also get to see the behind-the-scenes maneuverings.
"Running Mates" also stars Nancy Travis as Pryce's wife, Laura Linney as his campaign manager, Teri Hatcher as a Hollywood fund-raiser and Faye Dunaway as an ambitious, boozy and frustrated wife of a fellow politician.
Selleck didn't have time to shadow a senator or governor, but he said, "I certainly understand what it's like to get out of a limo and have flashbulbs go off. I know what it's like to be the guest of honor. It may be a sad commentary on our politics that the cult of celebrity is so closely resembling the cult of politicians."
Pryce is a Democrat, and Selleck, it turns out, has been a registered Independent for the past decade. "I don't give tons of money to people, I just give what I'm allowed to, as an individual. But I've probably done that in presidential races to about the same amount of Democrats as Republicans.
"That being said, I knew some of the perceptions wouldn't be that. And if I were to only play people I agree with - morally, philosophically and every other way - I'd never work and I wouldn't be acting."
Pryce is a stand-up guy who is caught in the tangle of modern-day politics. "The movie is not so much about campaign finance reform, because there's no specific platform mentioned, as the theme is about money and corruption and politics and how much groveling candidates have to do to get it.
"I agree with the Supreme Court. Money, especially for challengers and less so for incumbents, equals speech. ... It made me think a lot. What we see now, the only viable challengers to incumbents are either celebrities or rich people because you can't limit how much somebody spends on himself."
Selleck, who studied the masterful styles of Presidents Clinton and Reagan for some convention speaking tips, understands how campaigns can become such slippery slopes.
"I think most people get into politics for good, noble reasons. Politics is the art of compromise. Our system is designed, however frustrating it may be for true believers, to get half a loaf. But it's a question of what you're compromising.
"Politicians should be willing to compromise on policy, on programs, on solutions, but not on their ethics and their standards. This guy is at the point in the movie where he is confronted with what I think is a confrontation most people have with themselves. "My intentions are so good, I want to do so much good and with these intentions, why don't I just put my ethics and standards on hold for this last little run so I can get there and then when I get in office, I'll be good again.' "
But that can be a fatal compromise for an ethical person, suggests Selleck, a board member of the non-profit Josephson Institute of Ethics.
Before the cameras started rolling, the actor had to confront one crucial question: Mustache or no mustache? He decided the role called for no facial hair. After all, the last U.S. president with facial hair was Theodore Roosevelt and he wasn't on television.
Selleck, who is still strongly associated with "Magnum, P.I." along with his Emmy-nominated role on "Friends" as Monica's sometime squeeze, says he didn't sport a mustache in "In & Out" and he obviously wasn't born with that brush of hair above his lip. "Before 'Magnum,' I worked more without it but it got identified with me. Probably in a role like this, it's a good idea that I look a little different."
The movie did reunite Selleck with onetime co-star Nancy Travis from "Three Men and a Baby" and its sequel. "I married her once before. I knew we'd be up to speed when the picture started." Years ago he did a screen test with Hatcher and he says, "I knew one thing. I knew I could flirt with her on screen, and I knew Teri was a good actress."
Although Selleck jokes that he's unemployed, he's not without projects on the horizon. He produced and stars in "Crossfire Trail," an adaptation of a Louis L'Amour book scheduled to air on TNT in January. That same month he starts rehearsals for a revival of "A Thousand Clowns" on Broadway.
"I'm thrilled. That play had a huge effect on me, all through my early acting days. Herb Gardner, the playwright, wants me to do it. To do that play with his blessing is just a huge thrill. Scary but exciting."