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Random Roles: Matthew Modine

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Matthew Modine has worked with many of film's top directors: John Sayles (Baby It's You), Tony Richardson (Hotel New Hampshire), Alan Parker (Birdy), Robert Altman (Streamers and Short Cuts), Alan J. Pakula (Orphans), Jonathan Demme (Married To The Mob), Abel Ferrara (The Blackout and later Mary and Go-Go Tales), Alan Rudolph (Equinox), John Schlesinger (Pacific Heights), Oliver Stone (Any Given Sunday), and the guy who directed Private School. But Modine's longest, most rewarding and physically and emotionally draining collaboration was with Stanley Kubrick, who cast Modine in the demanding lead role of smartass photographer "Joker" in his 1987 masterpiece Full Metal Jacket, a film Modine spent two intense years filming. Modine can currently be seen on DVD in the 2007 romantic comedy The Neighbor and will appear in USA's Sex And Lies In Sin City beginning October 25. He also directed the feature film If… Dog… Rabbit and the new short "I Think I Thought," currently available on iTunes.

The Neighbor (2007)—"Jeff"

Pacific Heights (1990)—"Drake Goodman"

Matthew Modine: This'll be interesting, because I don't spend much time dwelling on my past or actually thinking about films that I've made. I once believed that the best roles are ahead of me rather than in the past.


The A.V. Club: Do you still believe that?

MM: Absolutely! When you're young, you get by on charm and good looks, not that I miss being charming or good-looking, but then you start to understand things about life, about the craft of acting. You approach it a different way. It's much more fun now than it was, because you take more chances and risks. I enjoy acting now more than when I was young.


Anyway, The Neighbor is kind of like Pacific Heights, which I did with Melanie Griffith and Michael Keaton, except, obviously, with a different outcome. Rather than killing Michael Keaton, I end up shagging the next-door neighbor, which implies that something greater is going to come from the rivalry of landlord and tenant.

AVC: So it isn't a thriller.

MM: Yeah, much more of a romantic comedy.

AVC: Although there was a lot of explosive sexual chemistry between you and Michael Keaton in Pacific Heights.

MM: Well, there was supposed to be. In the original script, not between myself, but… Michael Keaton's character wanted to fuck everybody. If I had a dog, he would have wanted to screw my dog. That was the script that John Schlesinger was given. He was just an angry guy who wanted to hurt people. It wasn't me specifically or my wife specifically. He wanted to hurt people. He wanted to hurt the world, because he was kind of like a trust-fund baby whose family had cut off his trust money, and he was angry. So he wanted to screw everybody.

AVC: Did they change his character a lot?

MM: I think that they wanted to take the idea of homosexuality out of the story. John Schlesinger was gay, and I think that was part of the reason John was attracted to the material. Not just specifically because of that, but I think he liked the elements of that, just somebody who was a sexual and pathological. Deviant.


Baby It's You (1983)—"Steve"

MM: This was a great opportunity to work with one of America's really interesting independent film directors, John Sayles, who had given so many young actors an opportunity to work when they were struggling to get their foot in the door. Robert Downey Jr., Fisher Stevens, Meg Ryan, Rosanna Arquette, they sort of had the leads. There were all these other people where this was their first film. Their entrée into the world of film. Vincent Spano and Rosanna Arquette and Tracy Pollan, Michael J. Fox's wife. It was just really fun to be working with people that you met in the acting community of New York, everyone that you would meet on auditions. All of a sudden, all of us had jobs on a film.


Private School (1983)—"Jim Green"

MM: The talent working on that thing was extraordinary. It was [cinematographer] Walter Lassally, he'd won the Academy Award for Tom Jones. [Consultant] Jerry Zaks was a young theater director who is now one of the legendary theater directors of New York. He's probably been nominated for 50 Tonys for plays he's directed. So you've got Jerry Zaks, this guy Lassally, and the director [Noel Black], who had just been nominated for an Academy Award. He won the prize at Cannes for "Skaterdater." It was a short film he made. And of course, you've got Phoebe Cates, who had just become really famous for walking half-naked out of a swimming pool in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. It was just the fantasy of millions of young boys all over America, and I got cast to be the guy who's going to be in love with her, so that was pretty good.


AVC: Didn't you do a scene in drag so you can go to visit Betsy Russell? Or was that Phoebe Cates?

MM: I go to see Phoebe Cates, but I get cornered by Betsy Russell, and she obviously knows who I am, because I'm probably the ugliest woman in the world. I did not look good in drag. So I think that I've fooled her, and she starts asking me about her breasts. Do I think her breasts are too big, and what about her ass? Do I think her ass is too this or too that? And he's just having sexual conniptions. That was fun. That was the first film where I had the male lead, so it was exciting. I had just come out of drama school, and all these things you learn in drama school were completely inapplicable to working on a film like that.

Streamers (1983)—"Billy"

MM: That was a tremendous opportunity to meet a legend, Robert Altman. Just the whole rehearsal process, the casting process, and then going down to Texas to work in his brand-new studio that had been built in Las Colinas. It was a really, really, intense experience. It was a bunch of guys who didn't have their girlfriends or their wives and who all went down, and it was a very drunken… You know… working with Robert Altman. It was a great experience. It was a lot of drinking that went on down in Texas. There was a lot of partying that went on down in Texas. Then we won the prize at the Venice Film Festival. It was an unprecedented award that gave the Best Actor award to the cast. It was an ensemble.

The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)—"Chip Dove/Ernst"

MM: The Hotel New Hampshire was the first time I played a real scumbag. I was working in Toronto with Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton on a movie called Mrs. Soffel, and I went to see the movie open up there in a theater in Toronto. And I remember the people sitting behind not recognizing me and going, "I hate that guy. What a prick." And I thought "I'm never going to play another bad guy again, because people don't like you." The Hotel New Hampshire was fun because it was Tony Richardson, who had directed Tom Jones, and he in his own way is a legendary filmmaker. I was working with Nastassja Kinski and Jodie Foster, so that was real pleasurable.


Birdy (1984)—"Birdy"

MM: Birdy was the movie that every actor of my generation wanted. The interesting thing about Birdy is that I auditioned for the role of Al Columbato [the part eventually played by Nicolas Cage.] I didn't audition for Birdy. I imagined somebody very, very different playing Birdy. I was up in Toronto working with Mel [Gibson]. We were living together, we were sharing a house together, and Alan Parker called and said, "Congratulations, I want you to be in my film." I was like, "Are you going to change the name of Columbato, or am I going to play an Italian-American?" And he goes, "You're not playing Al. You're playing Birdy." I was like, "What?" I had to get my head around playing Birdy. I never read one line for Birdy, and he cast me as Birdy.


AVC: Why do you think he did it?

MM: Yeah, that's a question for Alan Parker. Later that day, it was really weird. We were at Mel's house, and it was kind of a weird snowy day, and this big red robin came into the house and crashed into the glass. It was like a scene out of Birdy. I picked up the robin and kind of held it for a minute. It was clearly dead. I held the bird for a little while and stroked it, and in fact, it wasn't dead, and it hopped up on my finger and just sat there. I have a great photo of Mel and I standing there that my wife took. He's laughing and going, "This is a sign! This is a sign! You were meant to play Birdy. Look at this, man." So a wonderful omen. One of my favorite films I've worked on was Birdy.

Vision Quest (1985)—"Louden Swain"

MM: Vision Quest was maybe the hardest film I've ever done, because I never wrestled before in my life. I was a struggling actor that wasn't really fast. I was in drama school smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and trying to like every young actor at a drama school, trying to be James Dean and be posing. So when I met [director] Harold Becker, he said, "Can you do five push-ups?" I was pretty skinny, so I had to get in shape to do Vision Quest, and that was really, really, really hard and a real pleasure to work with that girl Linda Fiorentino. She's a tough New Jersey broad, very much like her role in the film. It was just fun and a very, very, very hard film to make.


Full Metal Jacket (1987)—"Pvt. Joker"

MM: It would be easier to tell people to go pick up the diary I wrote about Full Metal Jacket and read about how that came to be, but Val Kilmer might be responsible for how I got the part in Full Metal Jacket, because I didn't know anything about it. You had to audition. You had to send a videotape to Stanley Kubrick to audition for the film. That was back when people didn't have cameras and stuff like that. That was a brand-new technology. Clearly Val had auditioned for the film and sent his tape, and he was pissed-off at me and wanted to get into a fight with me, because not only had I done Vision Quest and Mrs. Soffel, which were two films he had maybe auditioned for, but now I was doing Kubrick's film, and he was pissed off and wanted to get into a fight. I told him I wasn't going to apologize, and if he wanted to take it outside, I was happy to do that, and I was in shape from Vision Quest. I would have kicked his ass. [Laughs.] So I ran out of the restaurant that we were at in Los Angeles and called my manager and asked if he knew anything about my getting the role in Full Metal Jacket, and he didn't know anything about it.


Alan Parker was editing Birdy in London and Vision Quest was a Warner Bros. picture and Stanley Kubrick made his pictures with Warner Bros., so I said "Let's call Warner Bros and get them to send Vision Quest, get Alan Parker to send some footage over to Kubrick in London," and I got the part. So had Val Kilmer not sort of gotten pissed-off and challenged me in a restaurant and been angry at me for getting Full Metal Jacket, I would have never known about it.

AVC: What was it like filming Full Metal Jacket?

MM: It was hard. Stanley Kubrick was, in every sense of the word, an artist. He knew everything there was to know about film production, about cameras, editing, music. He was just extraordinary, his depth of knowledge. He'd clearly read books about acting, but I think he didn't trust emotions. One of the movies he always wanted to make was a film about Napoleon. Emotions were the downfall for Napoleon, in that he was such a strategic, amazing general in the way that his mind functioned, but the frailty of human beings is emotions, and what do actors work with but emotions? Drudging up memories of happiness and sadness. That was the complicated thing about working with Kubrick, was to be a technical actor and a well-oiled machine, and knowing all the aspects of what your character would be doing or what your lines are, but then there was emotion… human emotion. That was always a frustrating thing about working on a film, just the emotional aspect of the film.


AVC: Full Metal Jacket deals extensively with the conditioning young men go through when they're in the military. They're taught not to have emotions. They're taught to turn themselves into emotionless killing machines.

MM: Yeah, and one of the most emotional moments in the film, in my personal opinion, is when Pvt. Joker has to deal with another human being who is begging him to kill her. It's an excruciatingly painful moment in the film when that girl is saying, "Shoot me! Shoot me!" And he's got to make a decision to take her life, and that's the real beauty of the film and the real tragedy of war. We know that death is a consequence of life, and we know that young soldiers go off and get hurt and get killed in war and it's a terrible loss of life and it's sad, but what we don't think about enough is that the real, real tragedy of war is those people who have to return, having had their lives changed forever. To have this indelible mark made upon their psyche of having had their friends die in their arms, to see people who blow out their brains in latrines, of being in battle and killing another human being, or having this young girl in the case of Full Metal Jacket asking him to end her life because she's in so much pain. Those are the indelible marks of war that young men who come back from Iraq, from Afghanistan, from Vietnam, from the Second World War, that are traumatized for life. That's the real tragedy of war. It's sustaining those memories.


AVC: Was filming Jacket an exhausting experience?

MM: If I answered that question closer to when the film was shot, I would have given you a different answer than what I'm giving you today, because the experience was so rewarding. It's like remembering what it was like when you were in school with difficult schoolteachers that demanded so much from you, pushed you so hard. At the time, you think those teachers are real horrible, and they're mean, and they make you suffer, but as you get further away from the experience, you appreciate those experiences so much more, because they made you better. They made you stronger. They made you smarter. In every sense, I'm a better person emotionally, mentally. I'm just a better person having gone through that experience of working with Stanley Kubrick.

Orphans (1987)—"Treat"

MM: Orphans was right after Full Metal Jacket, and it was so cleansing. It was the Nestea Iced Tea after Full Metal Jacket. It was really tight; it was, I think, 25 or 30 days of shooting. It was a play, so it was a movie about language. It was wonderful working with Albert Finney and Kevin Anderson and Alan J. Pakula, who had directed Klute and All The President's Men and Sophie's Choice. It was just maybe my favorite movie that I've ever worked on.


Married To The Mob (1988)—"Mike Downey"

MM: Married To The Mob, uh. [Laughs.] I was still kind of… Emotionally, that's when I started to realize that the experience of working on Full Metal Jacket had taken a rather painful toll on me that I really hadn't recovered from yet. While I was working on the film, I appreciated the opportunity to work with Jonathan Demme, one of the great American directors, and Michelle Pfeiffer, who is a great actor, but also an extraordinary beauty. I just wasn't ready. I didn't realize how emotionally upset I was still from having that experience of working on Full Metal Jacket.


AVC: Do you think that affected your performance? Do you think it shows through?

MM: I don't think it shows in my performance, but it certainly… I understood what it meant to be in the grip of depression. The people that really truly suffer from depression, it's not something that you can go, like, "Hey! Snap out of it, man. Have a good time." When you are in the grips of depression, there isn't anything. You're inconsolable. There isn't anything anyone can do to help you. It's really, really scary. A scary place to be. I was really suffering with depression when I was working on that film, but it was great to be working on something that was so light and good-natured. Because contrasts are always good, like a yin and a yang thing. That was where I was emotionally in my life, so it was interesting to be working on something that was the opposite. You know, in many ways, it saved my life.


Gross Anatomy (1989)—"Joe Slovak"

MM: That was fun. I got to learn all about life and death. The story was about a student going to medical school, and for me, it was about learning about the fragility of life. Life really is very brief. When I was studying to prepare for the film, I went to a gross anatomy lab—a real one. It was at the University Of Southern California, and it was a room filled with 40 cadavers—people who donated their bodies to science for the benefit of these medical students to learn about the human body, the human anatomy. What you realize when you walk into a room of 40 people who are dead is that there's got to be something else. I'm not talking about God. I'm talking about energy, just pure, simple, the energy of life. We can't go from being animate objects to inanimate objects without something kind of… that energy just has to go someplace. It's got to do something. Who knows what it is? Maybe that's the great big collective consciousness. Maybe we go back into that kind of pool of energy. But that was the really valuable thing. You know, it's not talking about actors or what the experience was of working on movies, but if you are to ask me about it today, that's what I learned. I learned a lot about life and death on that movie.


Short Cuts (1993)—"Dr. Ralph Wyman"

MM: Short Cuts was… That was a very difficult film, because Robert Altman was juggling a lot of balls, a lot of characters, and a lot of things going on. You were a part of a great big puzzle, but the wonderful thing was that you were invited to be a part of that puzzle. The wonderful thing is, if you ask anyone that worked on that film, they would probably say that they were honored to have been invited to that party. That was a good party. Bob's movies were always parties.


Cutthroat Island (1995)—"William Shaw"

MM: Yeah, Cutthroat Island. I was given a script that was so amazing about a guy and girl that Michael Douglas was going to do. Then Michael Douglas dropped out, and I think there was a tremendous amount of pre-production money that had been spent and everything, and they needed to replace him really quickly. I got… My father was sick, so I said "I can't do this movie." I had to take care of my dad. And they said, "Oh, no. Everything will be fine. We'll help you and get this done and that done." I went to Paris, met Geena Davis and Renny Harlin. I flew back the next day, and I was playing the part, and then I came home. My dad stabilized. He was fine. And then I went off to the island of Malta to make the film, and was given a script. It was unrecognizable from the script that I had said "yes" to. It went from a movie about a guy and a girl to a movie about a girl and a guy. He was just kind of on the boat. I had the part that would have been normally allotted to the female, the heroine. She had like a dude's part. They might as well have put on a strap-on on Geena's character.


AVC: Do you think part of that was because she and Renny Harlin were married? Did that affect the balance of the film?

MM: I think that had a tremendous amount to do with the outcome of the film. I mean, I had a blast. Once I realized what I was in—you have to make the best of the situation. So I had a great time with Geena Davis, and she's a really good actor. So we had a good time working together. The outcome of the film, that's never in an actor's hands. That's in the hands of the director. I know that we gave them the pieces that were necessary to have cut a bit of something together. You know, the way a film gets cut together, that's the way the cookie crumbles. There's a really good movie there.


AVC: Who wrote the original draft of Cutthroat Island? A bunch of writers were credited.

MM: Yep, exactly. That's the problem. You know what the problem is? You can't put a woman into a man's role. A women's journey in life, I'm not speaking disrespectfully of women and their roles in life, but a woman's journey in life is very different from a man's. That doesn't mean a woman can't do a man's job, but it doesn't mean that a woman should do a man's job the way a man handles it. The things that men question themselves about in life are quite different from the things women question themselves about. A man doesn't have women's intuition. A man doesn't have the ability to create life inside of his uterus. He's not tied to the cycles of the moon like with a menstrual cycle. These are all things that make us quite different. Instead of thinking that one is more or less than the other, they should be celebrated.


So when you write a movie, you can't just try to change the sex of a character and think that it's going to work. You have to change the aspects of the story. You can't just put the women into a man's role. That's why there's so many writers on the film. When they would try to write tough for Geena, they made her sound bitchy, and when they would try to write things as a woman would speak, they thought it sounded weak. And I think that Hillary Clinton faced the same kind of difficulties. She's a tough, smart lady, but when people felt she was too feminine, they had to butch her up, you know. Make her talk like a dude. And it's stupid. It's stupid.


Any Given Sunday (1998)—"Dr. Ollie Powers"

MM: No. Yeah. It was… uh… There wasn't much to talk about. It was Oliver Stone, whom I was really happy to work with. I think that Oliver is a really important filmmaker, but yeah, there's just not much to talk about. It was a big ensemble film, but it was a different kind of ensemble than, say, working on Short Cuts.


The Blackout (1997)—"Matty"

MM: I worked with Abel [Ferrara] on Blackout just before I directed If…Dog…Rabbit…, and I'm so happy I worked with Abel on that film, because he's not like any filmmaker I've worked with on any film, and he is like every one of the great filmmakers I've worked with. There's aspects of him that are like Stanley Kubrick or Oliver Stone or Robert Altman. And he's intensely bright. He's not able to do things he doesn't understand or hasn't emotionally been through in his personal life. He uses a motion-picture camera to tell the story of things he suffers, things he's afraid of, that he fears. Bad Lieutenant is a great example of that. He needs, like everyone, a really good writer. He needs to have somebody that really understands. To write a play, to write a screenplay that gets you involved with the characters, that makes you go on an emotional journey with the characters, is really, really difficult. And sometimes when you have actors improvising, it can be fantastic, because you capture things rather than recreate things, or act things. So sometimes that improvisational stuff really, really works, and other times it doesn't.


Going back to drama school, when you're studying drama, when you're a young actor, there are simple rules about acting. "Why am I here? What prevents me from leaving? What am I trying to get? How do I hide something?" So when you're making a film like Abel's movie, you want to be thinking about those things all the time. And you wanna be armed with those things, and you hope the other actors you're working with have the same understanding of drama and scene and acting. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Blackout has, I feel, some of the most exciting scenes I've ever been in. There's a scene where I ask Beatrice Dalle if she had an abortion. I think it's one of the best scenes I've ever been in. It's really painful, it's really scary, and you're seeing someone whose life has come unglued, that he doesn't remember something he's said about telling her to have an abortion. And she did tell him she didn't want to have the baby with a junkie. It's a really good scene. It's really fantastic. It's violent, it's scary. And then there are scenes that don't work, ultimately.

Mary (2005)—"Tony Childress/Jesus"

MM: Mary, I think it's an amazing, gorgeous movie. Talking about somebody who's really searching and digging through their emotional life. I think Mary is one of [Ferrara's] best films. I just love it. We won a prize at the Venice Film Festival. The Pope gave it a blessing like, "This is a really great film about someone questioning their faith." There was a problem with clearance of title, who wrote the script and who didn't write the script. Somebody saying they wrote that script… There isn't one line I spoke in the film that I didn't write, and the things that I didn't write were written by a bunch of old Jewish guys that wrote the Bible. So you wanna take credit for that? Go ahead. But yeah, that was a problem.

Go Go Tales (2007)—"Johnny Ruby"

MM: Go Go Tales, that's the least interesting of the three films I made with Abel. He was trying to do something with comedy. Everything needs to have structure. You have to have needs and desire and everything set up. Go Go Tales is just crazy. It's a crazy movie. Some people really love Go Go Tales. I prefer Mary.


AVC: Have either of them been released in the States?

MM: No.

AVC: That's gotta be a little frustrating, to do work that you think is great, and not have it reach an audience in your home country.


MM: Yeah, but that's the most complicated thing about the film business today: distribution. People say, "I haven't seen you in a movie in a while." I work all the time. There's Opa! that I did on a Greek island. I've seen it at like four film festivals, and it's always a festival favorite. It's a favorite up in Toronto, it's a favorite over in the Napa Valley Film Festival. I mean, people really love the film, but when movies come out that they spend $100 million promoting, and you have a film that cost the catering budget of that film, to try to compete and get a film seen when your advertising budget is half a million, or $1 million with prints and advertising, how are you gonna compete? How are you gonna find a way for people to be aware of the film in such a crowded, expensive market? But you hope it goes to some festivals, wins some awards, and gets some attention. That helps pay for some of the advertising budget, just the fact that it got notoriety and reviewers wrote about it at the festival. So it's advertising that you didn't have to pay for.

Bamboozled (2000)—"Matthew Modine"

MM: Alec Baldwin was supposed to be doing that part. So Alec didn't show up to do the part, and Spike called me up and said, "Would you run down here and help me out?" And it happened. I like Spike. I think Spike's an important filmmaker.


Weeds (2007)—"Sullivan Groff"

MM: That was just absolutely really, really fun. Mary-Louise Parker is an old friend—we did a movie together that wasn't distributed called The Maker. Mary-Louise was the female lead and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers was my little brother, and Jonathan and I were friends from that. She's a really sweet girl, and Elizabeth Perkins and I sort of came up together. She was from Chicago. But that's somebody all the way back from Baby It's You. We didn't work together, but we sort of feel like we've known each other since then. I hosted Saturday Night Live once, and Kevin Nealon was in the cast. He's just a great guy, you can tell he's a great guy by just watching the show. So Sullivan Groff, it was really fun to play one of these fake Christians that wore a crucifix on the collar, have a kind word for everybody, and are just hypocrites.


'Cause I think that all those fuckin' religious people are all hypocrites, liars. They're all in it for their own gain. Real spiritual journey in life is the discovery of self. I think once you take all the religious bullshit away from Jesus Christ, it's saying it's about this journey of discovering who you are, and what's really important in life is simply love. That the journey of civilization, the journey of understanding, is forgiveness, is empathy. And that's what humanity is striving for. Otherwise, we're just animals. And if you and I disagree about something, and I just punch you in the face, then I'm just a fucking animal. But if I say, "Listen, Nathan, let's sit down and have a conversation and try to find a way we can work this out," that's what humanity is. That's what love is. You know, the biggest compliment you can give yourself is, "I'm not somebody that inflicted pain on another human being, and I found some way to negotiate and make things work." New York City is proof that humanity works, 'cause you have Jews and Muslims and Christians and atheists and spiritualists and Mormons and etcetera. People from all over the world living, and what do they all want? They want to be able to go home to their lovers, go home to their families, come home from work and have some food and be able to enjoy life. That's all anybody wants. All that other shit is just bullshit.