(September 20, 2009 in Hollywood, CA) When you think of Gen-X Hollywood icons gone to seed, one doesn’t first picture the innocent star of Vision Quest, Full Metal Jacket or Private School as a pathetic, pot-smoking has-been who’s willing to shove his hand up a furry mammal’s backside to grab a piece of the publicity whore pie. So just remember that, despite the very self-deprecating and funny things Matthew Modine will do at the Geffen Playhouse as he tries to save the alpacas, any similarity between Matthew Modine and the star of this satire is purely coincidental.
Though written for the stage, Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas continues the big-screen meta-trend of Being John Malkovich and Cold Souls, where such acting stalwarts as the bald, ever-accented one and Paul Giamatti played “themselves” as they confronted mind-tunnels and spirit-bottling machines. Here, the conceit is that Modine is “the chosen one,” sanctioned by the U.N. and a borscht-scented publicist to travel to South America, where his Hollywood vanity will save an oh-so-noble native tribe. With a plot that’s simultaneously as insane, if not quite as far out as its predecessors, Alpacas hits closer to Beverly Hills home, where adopting African babies, self-distributing sex tapes and latching onto the Green cause du jour has filled every show and site from Entertainment Tonight to TMZ and Defamer.com.
Raised with a love of film inspired by a dad who operated drive-ins, Modine’s youthful looks and air of bemused innocence made him a near pretty-boy idol at the start, yet he was always careful to balance entertainment with art, with such films and shows as Birdy, The Hotel New Hampshire, Equinox, Pacific Heights, And the Band Played On, The Real Blonde, Transporter 2, Weeds and Law & Order. Sure, Modine’s path may not have reached the kind of Tom Cruise heights which Alpacas mercilessly ribs, but Modine’s continued and prolific career has more indie street cred than direct-to-DVD atrocities like Funky Monkey. It might take today’s generation a couple of minutes to place Modine’s face with the film when his name is mentioned, but you don’t envision coke-snorting, sexual excess and supporting PETA by the time it will usually take you to hit on either Vision Quest or Full Metal Jacket, let alone Cutthroat Island.
Possessed with a keen metaphysical intelligence that’s as impressive as his stage portrayal is appallingly self-serving, Matthew Modine reflects on how he has evaded the kind of vainglorious excess and alpaca poo that his namesake dives into for his desperate climb back to the top of Hollywood’s Mount Olympus via Latin America, by any means necessary.
Daniel Schweiger: Did you know what an alpaca was before you did this play?
Matthew Modine: Sure. It’s a camel-loid or something like that — one of those Latin words which means that you’re part of the camel family, which the llama belongs to as well. I have a farm in upstate New York, where some people raise alpacas for their fur. They’re just really sweet animals — kind of like big dogs. I’ve actually never met an alpaca, though.
DS: Will you in this play?
MM: There will be people dressed up as alpacas, but there will be real ones that we’re going to have at a party here in Westwood. They’ll be marching through the streets!
DS: When someone writes a play called Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas, you’d better be sure that Matthew Modine is going to be in it! Were you attached to the production from the start?
MM: The play’s author is Blair Singer. We met when I starred on Weeds two seasons ago and had a great time working together. Blair told me that he was a very passionate playwright and would love to write one for me. I said, “Well that would be quite an honor.” It wasn’t the first time someone said that to me, and I didn’t know if it would actually happen. Then, all of a sudden I got a phone call from Blair and a script in the mail. Now it’s been several dozen months and a bunch of rewrites later, and here we are.
DS: How much of the “real” Matthew Modine are people going to see in this play?
MM: Well, it’ll really be me on stage, but what’s so clever is that the play has nothing to do with me, because this person is so self-serving and egotistical and desperate — three things that I’m definitely not in my personal life. But since those are aspects of a person’s character, I certainly understand those feelings. I also think that people using their celebrity for charitable causes is something that, when done for the right reasons, is truly honorable. Paul Newman raised millions of dollars with his Newman’s Own products. Jerry Lewis has done the same with his Muscular Dystrophy telethons. The beautiful Audrey Hepburn gave a lot of her time to charities, and Danny Kaye just stopped working altogether to devote his life to charitable causes. Stella Adler, who we talk about in the play, told me that the things actors do and say have an impact on people’s lives. Theater, films and television are art forms that touch them that way and, because of that, you need to take responsibility for your words and actions. That’s not something I’ve ever taken lightly, because it’s always been an absolute privilege to work in this profession. There were actors, when I was coming up, who were truly brilliant yet they never worked. Maybe it was because they didn’t “bounce” off the lens during the audition process, or have that stupid thing called “it,” but somehow, in some way, I have found success in this profession, and I don’t ever take that for granted. I’m really lucky to have been able to work in it for almost 30 years, so I feel really, really lucky.
DS: There are a lot of jokes about your character going to the Z-list — the kind of direct-to-DVD realm populated by otherwise talented and once-popular actors who’ve fallen down the Hollywood ladder. But you’ve never been in films that had some combination of the words “lethal” or “obsession” to them. Matthew Modine and grade Z DVD don’t go together, unless you’re talking about Funky Monkey, of course.
MM: Funky Monkey sounded like a really good idea at the time, especially because it was a Warner Brothers picture. I happened to be in France working with Merchant Ivory on Le Divorce, which was not a very good movie. I was only part of that production because I wanted to make a film based on an Aldous Huxley book called Jacob’s Hands, and if I’d star in Le Divorce to help sell it, then Ismael would help me get the rights to Jacob’s Hands. So there I was in France, in this beautiful little hotel in Paris. Suddenly, this guy calls me up and goes, “Are you doing the picture or not?” I said, “Who is this?” And he responded, “I sent you a script. I need to know today.” And the script slides under the door at that moment! They were shooting Funky Monkey in the South of France, which was supposed to be a substitute for San Diego. Now that should have me suspicious. But Warner Brothers was doing the movie, and they were calling me because Carey Elwes had just dropped out of the movie. It was about a guy who’s teaching chimpanzees martial arts and then discovers the real reason behind it is because they’re making an army of chimpanzees to go fight wars for American soldiers! The story was just so retarded, so crazy that I thought this could be a really fun children’s movie. And then disaster ensued. The director was fired and the producer took over directing the film. The chimpanzees were supposed to come from America, but the French government wouldn’t let them in so they brought a chimpanzee from a circus — an old female who was much too angry and ornery to be working on a film set. She proceeded to bite me and then almost pull my arm out of its socket! Their response was to fire the chimpanzee and the trainer, and put a little angry French man in a monkey suit, which looked more like a dwarf gorilla. Imagine this smoking alcoholic inside of this little gorilla suit in the South of France during the summer. It was a disaster. Warner Brothers finally looked at the dailies and realized what was going on, so they hired another director to come in and rewrite and re-shoot the film, this time finally in San Diego. All of this is a long way of me telling you that I have never gone to work on a film that didn’t start with the best of intentions. Then it all falls apart.
DS: In that way, this play is another story where an actor with good intentions goes and gets involved with animals, then things go horribly wrong.
MM: Yeah. Matthew Modine just wakes up one day in the Winnebago where he’s been living and smoking dope. He asks himself, “What have I done? I’m losing my life. I have to get back on the A-list. What do I have to do?” So he goes to see this really powerful publicist who is responsible for many peoples’ success stories in Hollywood, which has been manufacturing stories and relationships since its onset.
DS: Are there any actors whose latest “cause” strikes you as being complete bullshit?
MM: Yeah, I think that sometimes, when people are getting arrested for drunk driving or shaving their heads, that they’re pleas. It’s just kind of sad. You can say some of the things that Britney Spears has done are ridiculous, but I also have a tremendous amount of compassion for her because she’s a really talented girl who’s grown up in this business, and it can be particularly cruel and harsh in how it objectifies women. It says she’s “too this” or “too that.” It complains if she’s out too late, she’s not going out, or if she’s reclusive. There are people like that who just can’t win. In that way, I think they do things out of desperation. I just feel sad for them. I think it’s good to have a sense of humor about yourself. It’s also healthy for us to be able to make fun of things that people hold to be so serious. That’s satire, and it’s really important that Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Jay Leno are able to make fun of the president. We picked somebody who’s really smart and capable, but in the end, he’s just a man who shouldn’t be above being made fun of. In that way, I think Obama’s also has a tremendous sense of humor about himself, which is really healthy. I don’t think George Bush had any sense of humor about himself.
MM: Yeah. Dick Cheney has no fucking sense of humor. I don’t think Donald Rumsfeld has any sense of humor either.
DS: The satire in Alpacas certainly goes quite a bit further than any kind of self-deprecating actor thing we’ve seen before in movies like Being John Malkovich or Cold Souls.
MM: I think that will make it a really fun night in the theater, where people will be experiencing something that they’ve never seen before. As an actor, you’re always trying to be in something that’s fresh and unique, and I know as soon as we get that first laugh, we’ll be able taking them for a ride like Borat did. Oh my god, that movie was so much fun. What I really loved about Borat was how he exposed ignorance and prejudice. It was fantastic.
DS: Hollywood satires have been around on stage and screen since What Price Hollywood or Speed the Plow. The Town has always been an easy target. What do you think it takes to do something that’s really perceptive and funny about Hollywood — to dig deeper than its obvious stereotypes?
MM: You have to be smart, and that’s where we’re blessed with having a writer like Blair Singer. Though he’s not afraid to go for a cheap laugh, he’s made sure that the foundation of the play is real classic satire and takes somebody who’s educated, well-read and understands the mechanics of dramaturgy. So that’s where we’re blessed.
DS: You turned down Top Gun to do Full Metal Jacket. If you hadn’t, you might have the same level of insane superstardom that film helped to give to Tom Cruise. In a way, are you relieved you don’t have that?
MM: You always hope that the films will be tremendously successful. I did a film for Alan J. Pakula where I starred with Albert Finney and Kevin Anderson. It was called Orphans. That film means a lot to me, but they didn’t know how to sell it and we suddenly found ourselves like orphans when it barely got released. We thought we were going to win every Academy Award ever designed, and we were all really shocked when it didn’t find an audience. That kind of disappointment gives you a shake of reality and the realization that your best efforts are not always rewarded. Stanley Kubrick said, “The longest line is never outside the best restaurant,” and I found comfort in a beautiful and poetic saying like that.
DS: Not only is Birdy my favorite film of yours, it also might be the best movie I’ve ever seen.
MM: Birdy was an extraordinary experience. I had just finished Vision Quest for Harold Becker and Streamers for Robert Altman, and I’d gotten cast in Mrs. Soffel with Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton. So I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic. I’m really on a roll.” Then I went in to audition for Alan Parker for Birdy, but I didn’t see myself as that character. So I hoped to play the other, more aggressive lead of Al Columbato. At the audition, Alan spent a lot of time holding a video camera really close to my face, which was really unnerving and scary. Then I went off to Toronto to make Soffel, where I got a phone call saying, “Congratulations, you’re going to be in Birdy.” I was like, “Wow. Great. Are you going to change the character’s name or do you want me to play Al as an Italian-American?” Alan said, “What are you talking about? You’re not playing Columbato. You’re playing Birdy!”
I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it. Me? Playing Birdy? He was such a sensitive person. I imagined Barry Miller from Alan’s Fame in the part. Now I was terrified. Birdy was a really a daunting role to play, and thankfully the gift into his character was William Wharton’s book, which showed me all of Birdy’s needs, sensitivity and desires. I also asked the spirits of all the people who’d ever fought in a war since the days of Cain and Abel to help me find this person who was frustrated and confused by the violence that she saw in the world. I swear to God that I’m not religious, but when I asked, I got flooded with emotion and help from the spirit of humanity.
DS: Another terrific and unusual “art” movie you’ve done is Alan Rudolph’s Equinox, where you played a set of good and bad twins.
MM: I love that movie. Alan Rudolph was a protégé of Robert Altman, and this was the first time I was in a film where I realized that there really is something kind of insane about acting. I always thought, “Oh, you know, it’s not any more complicated than a guy delivering ice cream who gets struck in traffic. All of his ice cream melts, and he goes home angry.” Sometimes you go to work as an actor, you have a frustrating day, and you come home and you’re angry. But what you’re doing is playing a role. You don’t have to live it. And here I had to go from playing Freddy to Henry and then back to Freddy in the course of one day, with all of the emotions that came from switching between them.
I just recently read that they put EKG sensors on an actor’s body to measure their heart, breath and perspiration rates, and what they discovered through this process is that your body doesn’t know it’s acting. Sure, you might be thinking about hitting your mark in front of a camera and saying your lines, yet the actor’s body is being put through emotions as if he was in a fight or making love, so you’re really going through something, even though your mind and your body are separate. In that way, the experience of playing a role like Hamlet is the equivalent to running a marathon for your body — from the breath, the muscle, the adrenaline, and all that shit that happens when you’re acting.
DS: I imagine those kind of reactions didn’t get more insane for you then when you starred in Cutthroat Island, whose anniversary edition just came out on Blu-ray.
MM: Michael Douglas was supposed to be in it, then he dropped out when they were in pre-production on a very expensive film. When I got cast in it, the movie I imagined we were making ultimately became something very different. But the great thing I got from that experience was working with Vic Armstrong, the stunt guy who’d worked with and doubled for Harrison Ford on the Indiana Jones movies. I said, “You know, Vic, I think there’s a good chance that I might not even be in this movie, so I’d like to do all my stunts.” He said, “Don’t worry. You’re going to do everything.” So I had the experience of what it was like to be a really top-notch stuntman. The things that Vic put me through were incredibly dangerous, and I don’t think I’d I ever do them again, but I’m happy that I got to when I was that age. Making Cutthroat Island ended up being really fun. I was making a pirate movie! People thought that was blasphemous, like we should have been doing Gone with the Wind or something. But this was a silly pirate movie that was never supposed to be heavy. So if you went to the movie with that attitude, then you’d have a really good time. And Geena Davis was really fun. I loved working with her and Renny Harlin.
DS: I imagine a lot of actors are going to see Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas. What do you think they’re going to get out of seeing you play “yourself?”
MM: They’ll see that I’m not playing myself but that I’m playing a character named Matthew Modine. I think there will be things that are very painful for them to watch, because there are tremendous rewards to this profession and being an actor. There’s also a lot of shit that’s horrible, humiliating and degrading about it too. We attack all of those things in a humorous way, and the satire’s funny because it’s so painfully true. So if you could turn a camera around and film our audience, I know you’d probably see a lot of people squirming and laughing at the same time.
DS: Do you think this play will save alpacas?
MM: Absolutely. The Ecuadorian Andes are going to be the safest place on the planet because of it, and it will cause a rush on alpaca sweaters. They’ll be the thing to have this Christmas.
Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas runs from September 8th to October 18th at The Geffen Playhouse.
For more information and to buy tickets, go to Geffenplayhouse.com.
Join Matthew Modine as he helps our environment at bicycleforaday.org.
Then watch Matthew not play himself at movie theaters soon with Opa!
Special thanks to Nancy Bishop at Venice Magazine.