Mel Gibson

''There was no way I'd have got out alive if I hadn't taken it,'' says Mel Gibson of his latest role in Chicken Run, a full-length feature movie from the Wallace and Gromit people, Aardman Animation.

''My kids have always been huge fans of The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, so, when the Aardman guys, Nick Park and Peter Lord, were in Los Angeles for the Oscars, I invited them to the house for lunch.

''The kids went crazy and made me promise if they asked me to do a film I would. So, when the role of Rocky, the conman rooster, in Chicken Run came up, I naturally said yes.

''Peter and Nick had seen me playing the charming conman in Maverick and they took a bit of my voice off Maverick's soundtrack and animated a bit of Rocky to go with it so see if it would work. And it did.

''When the time came for me to record the voice of Rocky, a very cocky Rhode Island Red rooster, I was working on The Patriot in Canada, so we did it in a studio in Vancouver. I couldn't record my dialogue with the rest of the cast, except for Julia Sawahla, who they flew over, because she voiced Ginger, Rocky's love interest. So we just had to slip into our Plasticine characters and get talking.''

The story of Chicken Run is a Second World War PoW escape movie spoof - a sort of feathered Great Escape - set on a Yorkshire chicken farm run by a mean farmer and his sinister wife. It's about a group of chickens hatching a plot to flee the hut in which they're imprisoned. Rocky, an on-the-run circus performer, flies in and falls in love with Ginger, the coolest chick in the run. Together, they plan the fowls' break for freedom.

Other voices in the coop include Miranda Richardson, who voices the farmer's wife Mrs Tweedy, Jane Horrocks (Babs), Timothy Spall (Nick), Imelda Staunton (Bunty), and Phil Daniels, as Nick the rackety rat.

For an action hero, Mel Gibson seems quite pleased to have finally done a job sitting down.

''Forty-four and not so fit,'' he sighs. ''I used to be fit from picking up my kids when they were babies, but now I do the bare minimum to get by. Maybe a jog around the block. But I do not have a personal trainer following me around.''

Gibson lights up another cigarette. He gave up smoking for 108 days once, but he says it nearly killed him and he put on a stone. His real passion is Cuban cigars and he has his own ''safe'' of them at the Grand Havana Room at LA's Cigar Club.

''Since I gave up drinking I need another vice, and cigars is it. They will kill you but not as fast as cigarettes do. I've been feeling great since I quit drinking. My favourite drink now is Qi liquid, which is Korean ginseng, and Metamorphasis, a blend of energy-giving herbs. '

He needs energy, having so many fingers in so many pies. His company, Icon, currently has three books in development and has financed films like An Ideal Husband and Million Dollar Hotel. ''Soon, I'm going to direct a remake of Ray Bradbury's sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451.'' (Gibson has directed twice in Braveheart and The Man Without a Face.) ''I'm also planning a remake of The Dambusters. I keep reminding myself that the important thing is remembering to stop and say: 'Wait, I don't have to do anything'. It would be a lovely idea to stop high-action at 35 and to just keep getting smarter with the wisdom of the years. Accept you've done well and head off for some self-preservation. But didn't happen and it ain't gonna happen.''

He says that his father's Eleventh Commandment was always Thou Shalt Not Kid Thyself and Gibson Jnr seems to take it to heart. He lives quietly in Santa Monica and is notorious for not liking the showbiz hype. Though his offscreen antics used to hit the headlines, now he's more likely to retire to the Montana ranch, or their 800-acre cattle station in Australia, and throw himself into the daily grind of running a large farm with his wife of many years, Robyn, and their seven children, aged from 19 to one.

He is Catholic and does not believe in birth control (''it's not natural''). He runs his cattle farm without the use of unnatural products like sprays and chemicals (''one is not meant to use that stuff''). He says his greatest joy is being a father.

''I don't think my kids will turn to acting, but one of my boys, at his seventh birthday party, spent the whole evening on the microphone doing a stand-up. I don't know where it came from. I wouldn't rain on his parade, but I wouldn't encourage him either. I'm trying to stay open on that.''

Next month we see Gibson in a more familiar role, all man, no feathers, in a reported $100m-budgeted American Revolutionary War epic called The Patriot, co-starring 10 Things I Hate About You's Heath Ledger, playing his son.

When asked if he remembers much about the American war of Independence from his schooldays, Gibson replies with his lazy smile, that he'd been sick that week.

''I might have missed out on American history at school but I've certainly learned about it now, making The Patriot,'' he says.

''I play a southern colonist who battles the Redcoats. We even had people from the SmithsonianInstitute down to make sure we got the historical detail right and spent hours learning how to load a musket. I practised shooting all day, every day, at bottles and tins.

''Making The Patriot made shooting Braveheart seem like elementary school. Thank goodness, in my next film I leave the fighting to go into a romantic comedy.''

In What Women Want, he plays a womanising advertising executive who gets passed up for a job that Helen Hunt gets. Bette Midler plays the shrink Gibson's character goes to for help. Mad Max at the shrink? Surely not.

l Chicken Run is released on June 30. The Patriot is released on July 14