Life is a never-ending voyage for this Hollywood perennial

The day after Kurt Russell filmed a pivotal scene in Poseidon he saw the footage on a monitor and was moved to tears.

'He was very emotional about it,' says Wolfgang Petersen, who directed the remake of the 1972 disaster movie (The Poseidon Adventure) about the sinking of a luxury cruise ship. 'That scene really affected him.'

Russell plays Robert Ramsey, a former New York mayor who fights to save himself and his daughter (played by Emmy Rossum, the star of another recent remake, Phantom of the Opera) from the stricken ship. Although he has worked consistently over the years, turning out solid performances in films such as last year's Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story, Miracle (2004) and Tombstone (1993), Poseidon is one of his biggest movies to date.

Russell is no stranger to high drama. An avid aviator, the 55-year-old says that several times the only thing between him and disaster in the sky has been a level head and experience.

'It's happened six or seven times, that sensation of going down,' he says. 'The only way to survive is to be prepared - when the plane does this, you do this. When things go wrong in an airplane, they go wrong slowly. But then it gets really bad, and that happens very quickly.'

Despite such stomach-churning moments in the air, he has never been deterred from returning to the skies. Rather, he regards these close calls as valuable lessons. 'If you don't pay attention when flying, you won't survive very long,' he says. 'It changes you as a person.'

For Russell, flying means much more than the simple pleasure of getting from A to B. He's licensed to fly any aircraft, from jets to twin turbines and acrobatic planes. He belongs to a coterie of Hollywood flying enthusiasts that includes John Travolta, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

With his star billing in the big-budget Poseidon, Russell won't have to cut back on air travel any time soon.

There's no doubt that the film was hard work for all concerned. Russell did many of the stunts himself, the underwater scenes were exhausting, and almost all the cast got bruised, cut or felt as if they were drowning during shooting. The actors spent much of their time in a huge water tank, designed to replicate the after-effects of a cruise liner struck by a 46-metre wave.

Through it all, Russell says, the part got him thinking about the choices people make in times of great stress. 'When a ship capsizes like that, you only have two choices: you can stay in this one room where there's still some air and hope you'll be rescued before the ship goes down completely, or you can trust that feeling inside that tells you to take matters into your own hands and try to save your own life.'

Unlike his character in the movie, Russell says he's not an over-protective father. His step-daughter, actress Kate Hudson, doesn't need much protecting, he says. 'She's a very strong and capable girl. But I think I've been instructive.'

Still, some of the vigilant father in him surfaced with Wyatt - his son with long-time companion Goldie Hawn. Wyatt, now 19, is a skilled hockey player. When he was offered a spot as goalie for the Richmond Sockeye Junior Team a few years ago, Russell and Hawn agreed to move from Los Angeles to Vancouver.

'We moved for him when he was 15,' says Russell. 'We didn't want our last child to be gone from home at that age.'

With a Hollywood career that stretches across 45 years, Russell is still one of the most bankable actors in the business. He landed a part in an Elvis Presley movie, It Happened at the World's Fair, when he was 10 years old. Walt Disney himself signed the child star to a decade-long contract. 'He spent a lot of time with me,' Russell says. 'That's where I got my education in this business.'

He briefly dropped out of show business to play minor league baseball, returning in 1979 to play Presley in an ABC television movie. Then there were a number of films that brought him acclaim, including Silkwood with Meryl Streep. He met Hawn in 1984, when they worked together on Swing Shift. Although there were a few lacklustre years, his parts in films such as Backdraft helped to solidify his status in Hollywood.

He says the industry has changed significantly over the decades. 'Things are different. Sets are quieter now because everyone has headsets.'

Also, the prevalence of deluxe trailers has put paid to much of the sense of camaraderie among cast and crew members.

'It's very seductive,' he says. 'Trailers are like your home on the set. They have everything - food, television, radio. They become your home for months at a time. You get into the habit of going into the trailer when you're not working, so sets aren't as geared towards relationships. Back in the day, we were on set for a long time, so we got to know the crew.'

Now that Poseidon has wrapped, Russell says he doesn't have much more lined up - except possibly a movie with Hawn, Ashes to Ashes, about a New Yorker who travels to India to bury her husband's ashes.

Poseidon opens on May 31