Matthew Modine: ‘America has never dealt honestly with what its history is’

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Jacob Stolworthy
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<p>“I wish I’d have said yes a little bit more often:’ Matthew Modine on the film he regrets turning down</p> (Getty Images)

“I wish I’d have said yes a little bit more often:’ Matthew Modine on the film he regrets turning down

(Getty Images)

Matthew Modine hated Vincent D’Onofrio so much on the set of Full Metal Jacket that he felt like killing him. His words, not mine.

“I really wanted to! In all those boot-camp scenes where I’m teaching him how to do up his top button, make his bed, lace his shoelaces…” Modine says. “He just got weirder and weirder as he went into the world his character was entering into.”

Things started going south when the pair were filming a marching sequence for director Stanley Kubrick in east London. D’Onofrio – a method actor who was deep into his role as the tormented Private “Pyle” – was wound up to see Modine having a laugh between takes. “You should stop messing around,” he instructed Modine, who played Private Joker. Modine is anti-method and believes performers should “use their imagination” when bringing characters to life.

“What are you gonna do if I don’t stop joking around?” Modine recalls asking. “And Vince goes, ‘Well, I’m gonna kick your ass.’ I’m holding this M14 rifle that weighs about 30 pounds, and I just wanna crack it across his skull. All the extras were like [adopts British accent] ‘Oooh, oooh, go on, Matty!’ That was the end of our friendship for the rest of the shoot. But it was good for the film.”

He’s not wrong. Viewing Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam war drama with this knowledge certainly adds tension to an already uneasy watch. Look no further than the scene where the platoon of US marines surrounds a pinned-down Pyle to brutally thwack him with bars of soap wrapped in towels. Modine, who classes D’Onofrio as a good friend, admits he went a bit further than he should when shooting that moment.

Tensions ran high on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s war drama ‘Full Metal Jacket’Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock
Tensions ran high on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s war drama ‘Full Metal Jacket’Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

“In the film, I give him a couple of whacks, stop, and then give him a few more,” he says. “I often wonder if that was, ‘Here’s a couple for the movie, and here’s a couple more from me, you f***er.’ We obviously just used a knotted-up towel, but we were doing it take after take. Poor Vince was covered in bruises.”

It’s almost impossible to speak to Modine without mentioning Full Metal Jacket, so it’s a relief that he raises the subject himself. We’re talking via Zoom about his new film, Wrong Turn, a reboot of the 2000s slasher franchise. The new film presents an intriguing spin on the horror genre. It begins at a point after films of these types typically start – with concerned parent Scott (Modine) arriving at the scene of his daughter’s disappearance. As he grapples with intimidating townsfolk spouting eerie rumours of deadly mountain dwellers, Scott weapons up and takes matters into his own hands. A fair bit of gore follows.

It’s a departure for the 61-year-old, who spent his formative acting years playing the wide-eyed, innocent everyman. There was the sweet outsider in Alan Parker’s underrated Birdy (1984), high school wrestler Louden Swain in coming-of-age film Vision Quest (1985) and Melanie Griffith’s loving husband in the nail-biting Pacific Heights (1990). And yes, that is him in the “absolute classic” film-within-a-film that Rhys Ifans shows Hugh Grant in Notting Hill (1999).

But it was as a loving father of two grown-up children that Modine found the Wrong Turn script prompting some eye-opening questions for the first time in his life. “If somebody were to harm your children, would you cross that line? Would you kill?” he asks. “I pray I’m never put in that situation, but I would go climb a mountain and do everything Scott does to try and protect my own children.”

In flashback, we learn that Scott’s daughter Jennifer (Charlotte Vega) has been abducted by The Foundation, a self-sufficient community of people who, hundreds of years ago, shunned civilisation to live in the wild. One gruelling scene sees their leader (Bill Sage) show off his penchant for spilling blood. “You’re barbaric,” Jennifer tells him. He replies: “Barbaric? Men and women of all races and creeds came here to avoid the Armageddon they knew was coming. We have no cancer, no poverty, no war – we are one body working together. You tell me, whose world is more barbaric?”

It’s a line designed to raise uncomfortable questions about the societies we have created. I want to know what Modine makes of the aftermath of the Trump years, which witnessed the police killing of George Floyd, and the storming of the US Capitol by the president’s own supporters – both beamed around the globe. Can America recover from the shame? Modine, a New York resident, says the unrest exacerbated by Trump can be fixed, but thinks it requires his country to dig deeper than it’s ever done before.

Matthew Modine as the avenging father in new horror film ‘Wrong Turn’Signature Entertainment
Matthew Modine as the avenging father in new horror film ‘Wrong Turn’Signature Entertainment

“America has never dealt honestly with what its history is – the slaughter of the indigenous people, the enslavement of millions of Africans that were brought over to build our country,” Modine says. “The dream is for everyone to have an equal voice, for racial and social justice, but you can’t do that until you deal with cracks in the foundation that this country was built upon.”

He dismisses the concept of American exceptionalism – the idea that America is different, and superior, as a nation because it was created according to admirable principles. “The truth is, if we look in the mirror to see ourselves as who we are, it’s bulls***. The only way I believe we can recover is if we honestly look at our past – otherwise, we’re going to continually make these mistakes.”

Modine grew up in California and Utah, the son of a drive-in movie theatre manager and a bookkeeper. He’s been a fixture in Hollywood ever since his wildly contrasting debut leading roles: in the teen comedy Private School (1983) and, that same year, Robert Altman’s Streamers – an adaptation of David Rabe’s Tony-nominated play about four young soldiers dealing with racial tension and their attitudes to sexuality while waiting to fight in Vietnam.

Though Modine’s career has existed on a lower level of fame than some of his contemporaries, the actor displays a healthy combination of their best attributes – Tom Cruise’s boyish good looks, John Cusack’s unrefined charisma and Nicolas Cage’s brashness. To this day, he has better hair than all three. For Modine, being an actor was never about being the biggest box office star; it was about picking the right projects. Call him the George Harrison of 1980s movie stars.

“I wish I’d have said yes a little bit more often,” he admits. “I kinda got that beaten out of me by my communist socialist teacher, Stella Adler. She was a student of [Russian theatre practitioner] Konstantin Stanislavski [the godfather of method acting, which Adler, in part, rejected] – everything was very political with her.”

Matthew Modine (and his great hair) in 1984 film ‘Birdy’Moviestore/Shutterstock
Matthew Modine (and his great hair) in 1984 film ‘Birdy’Moviestore/Shutterstock

Modine is the first to acknowledge he’s less of a household name than, say, Cruise or Cage, and it’s known he turned down the former’s role of Maverick in Top Gun (1986) and Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) in Back to the Future (1985). While he’s glad to have avoided those, especially Top Gun (he disagreed with its politics), I wonder if there are any other films he rejected that a) are not common knowledge, and b) he regrets not doing.

“I wish I’d done Big,” he says. “When the script was sent to me, it was a much darker movie. They had offered the film to Robert De Niro and Harrison Ford before coming to me, so it didn’t make sense, ’cause those guys are almost 20 years older than me. I thought if I was cast in the film, it wouldn’t have the irony it needed. Obviously, the tone changed so much, and Tom Hanks is terrific in the film. It would have been very different with me.”

Unexpectedly, Modine’s star wattage grew much brighter thanks to Netflix. In 2016, he appeared in the streaming service’s mega-hit Stranger Things as Dr Martin Brenner, the villainous father figure to Millie Bobby Brown’s superpowered Eleven. “I have a fanbase now,” he says of the show’s success, adding: “Nothing can touch the kind of global awareness that Netflix can bring to you.”

Modine says he’s campaigned for his return to the series – he last appeared in a cameo role in season two, having died offscreen in the first – and has told its creators, the Duffer brothers, “how important it is for him to come back”. Modine’s certain his character is still alive and believes Brenner’s scenes with Eleven to be the most “compelling” part of the series. The fourth season is expected to arrive later this year; we’ll wait and see if he shows up.

For now, Modine is happy the series has inspired a younger generation to seek out his films, including Full Metal Jacket, which turns 35 next year. It makes the permanent cough he’s had since shooting at the now-demolished Beckton Gas Works feel more worth it (“I feel like I’ve had a catarrh in my throat ever since that film!”) and, crucially, it also means his endurance of D’Onofrio’s method acting antics paid off.

Despite the name of Modine’s character in the film, though, he thinks it’s his co-star who had the last laugh. “In a way, good for Vince because he created some sparks between the two of us. In his own clever way, he forced me into working in his style.”

Wrong Turn will be available on digital platforms from 26 February

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