Role Recall: Matthew Modine Talks 'Dark Knight Rises,' 'Full Metal Jacket,' 'Short Cuts,' and Kissing Michelle Pfeiffer

When Matthew Modine starts talking about his 30-plus years in film, it’s hard to feel more jealous of him because of the directors he’s worked with — like Stanley Kubrick, Jonathan Demme, Robert Altman, and Christopher Nolan — or the co-stars he’s canoodled — like Julianne Moore, Linda Fiorentino, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Either way, he gives a great interview, as I found out when Modine called to promote this week’s release of Memphis Belle for the first time on Blu-ray. While he was keen about that flying-fortress film, he jumped at the opportunity to talk about the other movies in his fantastic canon.

Memphis Belle (1990)

In this based-on-a-true World War II story, Modine plays Dennis Dearborn, captain of the Memphis Belle, the B-17 bomber that has flown 24 successful missions and attempts, against all odds, to make one more.

Fortunately the director [Michael Caton-Jones] arranged for us to go to a kind of boot camp, to learn to cooperate with one another, to try to approximate 1/100th of what it must have been like for the combat crew on a B-17 that had been through 24 combat missions. I don’t think that we could come close to it, but they hired these British SAS, which I think is the equivalent of our underwater demolition team, to put us through this boot camp for about ten days and just beat the hell out of us.

The guys still call me “Captain” when they see me … Michael Caton Jones, really cast this film wonderfully. He found people whose personality types fit the roles that they were playing. They had an understanding, from D.B. Sweeney to Harry Connick Jr.  to Billy Zane to Eric Stoltz and Sean Astin. They were wonderfully cast in their roles, and they fit the personalities of the people that they were playing, and I don’t know if they honored me by making me their captain, but I was honored that they put me in that exalted position to be their captain. … Those guys, that I continue to be friends with and still love to this day, they honored me by putting me in that exalted position, and I don’t take it for granted.

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Vision Quest (1985)

Modine plays Louden Swain, a high school wrestler who decides to drop two weight classes to wrestle the state’s best. There’s also a B-story where Swain romances an older woman (Linda Fiorentino) with a little help from a not-quite-famous bar singer, Madonna.

The funny story about that is that I was married at the time. I had just gotten married to my present wife, we’ve been partners now for more than three decades. Her name is Cari. But Cari came to visit me while I was, I think about in the fourth or fifth week of wrestling training. And she was in bed with me, and I’d gotten so sensitive to somebody putting their arm around me and to try to not let them get me in a hold, that she put her arm around me while I was sleeping and I threw her out of the bed and pinned her on the floor. I really did!

Modine also co-starred with Michael Schoeffling, who had just played Jake Ryan from 16 Candles, and later dropped out of the limelight.

I don’t think he was ever comfortable with the celebrity and fame and the paparazzi and the whole thing was kind of icky to him. I don’t think he was even happy. … The idea of posing for a picture was just, it was just silly to him. As a person who makes furniture now, I see why that would be silly and uncomfortable for him, because he wanted to make a living actually producing something that had value and strength and integrity and probably something beautiful rather than his own physicality.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

In Christopher Nolan’s Batman finale, Modine plays Deputy Commissioner Foley, who shirks his crime-fighting responsibilities as Bane (Tom Hardy) wreaks havoc. Foley finally comes around and leads a LARGE group of policemen into the fight.

There was, no joke, a thousand men behind me. A lot of them were police officers that I knew from New York City that I became intimate friends with during 9/11, a lot of guys were stunt men, and then a lot of guys were just people that they dressed up as police officers. It’s quite something to have that much power, to be a part of something so powerful, and when we started running, you had to be really careful, because if you lost your step, if you fell down, you were going to be trampled, you were going to get squashed, because there’s no way of stopping that many people when they’re running forward at that full speed that we were running.

When 9/11 happened, I was downtown, I rode my bicycle down, and I stayed there until two, three o’clock in the morning and then went down for weeks, handing water bottles out and doing what I could, because you couldn’t work on the pile, but you could do things to help the people who were working on the pile. So I knew a lot of those policemen that were there from that event and it was nice to see them.

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Full Metal Jacket (1987)

In Stanley Kubrick’s terrifying exploration of Vietnam, Modine plays Pvt. J.T. “Joker” Davis, from his first difficult days at boot camp to the murderous insanity in the streets of Hue.

Well the interesting thing about that was that Lee Ermey was hired as a technical adviser on the film. … Vietnam was filmed before boot camp, and so we were together, working with him as a technical adviser on the film before he knew that he was going to be playing the drill instructor in the film. He always said that this was a role that was written for him, he should be playing the part. He auditioned all of the extras that were going to be in the boot camp scenes. Stanley wanted somebody to audition them on videotape so he could go through and handpick the guys that he wanted to be in the film. Lee Ermey was the one that was auditioning them. And when Stanley saw him doing his thing in front of these people’s faces, auditioning them as a drill instructor yelling at a recruit, Stanley decided it would be insane not to use this guy because he’s not acting. [That’s who] he is. That was something that was really important for Stanley, is that you don’t play a role, that you be the person, don’t play, just be.

You get a guy who had as much experience as [Ermey] had, and with the breath that he had, the breath of rotting teeth, or cigarettes and too much coffee, yelling in your face, the horror of the smell that came out of his gut and his mouth was… It could melt varnish off the furniture.

Modine shares a memorable scene with Vincent D’Onofrio, when D’Onofrio’s character, Pvt. Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, kills himself.

We couldn’t find it. The scene kind of wasn’t working. So we worked on it and worked on it and worked on it. There was a little bit too much dialogue. There’s some really good footage that Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Vivian Kubrick shot — she was making a documentary about the making of Full Metal Jacket — and Stanley and I and Vince are in Stanley’s Winnebago improvising the scene … Stanley saying what I was saying was right, it was the right emotion, it was the right sentiment, but it was too many words.

You assumed that Stanley knew everything, that he had all the answers. And that wasn’t the case. What he did with his career and his work was create an environment for him to be able to explore and experiment, and this is a perfect example of a scene that was explored and experimented with until we found the right words and the simplicity to do that scene. Even the brains on the bathroom wall, Stanley wasn’t happy with the way that the special effects guys had come up with putting a gun in someone’s mouth and blowing their brains on the wall. So he asked me  he knew that my father was a drive-in theater manager  and that I’d grown up watching movies in my dad’s drive-in. He said, “What’s the best head wound you’ve ever seen in a film?”

I said, “Oh, that’s easy, To Live and Die in L.A.”

And so, a couple of days go by, and Stanley says, “Come here, I want to show you something.” … So Stanley had the f—-ing movie To Live and Die in L.A. on a flatbed in the back of a truck. To me it was flabbergasting, it was like who does this?

And he goes, “Is this the scene?” And he shows me the scene. He called the studio and they sent him a print of the film and we watched it. Then he goes, “That’s it.”

I said, “That’s it. It’s fantastic, isn’t it?”

And he goes, “Yeah, now watch this.” And he turned the sound off, and we watched it, instead of 24 frames a second we watched it about five frames a second, and all of the magic of how it happened was revealed. … He goes, “It’s really good but we can do it better.”

And then we got a tube, and we got compressed air, we put a bunch of pasta and bloody movie blood into a tube, and it was all timed really beautifully. And Stanley said, “I’ll just cut one frame out when the guts travel from the tube onto the wall, and you’ll never know that … the guts came from off-camera.” Because we didn’t throw the guts from a bucket, we shot them from a compressed air in a tube, it was traveling so fast that I don’t even know if Stanley cut a frame out of the film. He may have.

Short Cuts (1993)

In Robert Altman’s exploration of Raymond Carver short stories set in modern-day L.A., Modine plays Dr. Ralph Wyman, who, in a memorable pantsless scene, learns that his wife (Julianne Moore) slept with another man.

What was scripted was I was chasing her around the house and berating her, and demanding that she tell me what happened. And what Bob [Altman] would always do when you worked with him, he’d say, “What do you want to do? OK, Modine, what are you going to do?”

I said, “You know Bob, I know it says that I’m chasing her around the house, but it feels like they’ve had this conversation before.” Because this is not the first time that they’ve had this conversation, that he’s asked her where was she that night, what happened?

And I said, “I think that tonight is the night that I sit down with my piña colada, and I sit down in my chair, and I ask her. And I ask her, and I demand that she tell me what happened that night.”

He said “Oh, really. Julianne, if Matthew was staying in the chair how do you feel about that?”

She says, “Well I think it’s great. He’s still chasing me around the room with his words.”

And so he goes, “OK, good. That’s what we’ll do. That’s how we’re going to shoot it.”

And we shot Julianne first and she was extraordinary and she came over and she asked me, she said “You know, I’m perfectly happy to do the scene without my panties on and without the dress on for you off-camera.” Even though she would be just now walking around for the crew, being an eye line for me to react to, and that’s just the generosity of Julianne and her willingness to do that for me, but it wasn’t necessary, because I’d already had an eyeful, and it’s called acting, so I didn’t need her to walk around the room naked.

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Married to the Mob (1988)

Modine plays an undercover FBI agent who gets involved with a mobster’s widow who is part of the investigation he’s working on.

Married to the Mob was a terrific experience. Working with Jonathan Demme, and it was my first comedy, and Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mercedes Ruehl, and Dean Stockwell, who both got nominated [for Oscars], Michelle and Dean, for that film, which was extraordinary because actors never get nominated for comedies. It was just such a pleasure, kissing Michelle Pfeiffer. I’ve said it for 20 years now since that movie’s been made, she was like kissing a bag of marshmallows, just so sweet. Just a sweet, sweet lady.

Birdy (1984)

Alan Parker’s touching portrait of a Vietnam vet (Nicolas Cage) who, while recovering from his own physical injuries, tries to help his old friend (Modine) cope with the post-traumatic stress that’s causing bird-like behavior.

Birdy is a beautiful film. It’s a really important film and I wish that more people would see it so that they understood post-traumatic stress, especially now. I do a lot of work with the Wounded Warrior Project, and it’s so important. It’s an unbearable number of young men and women that are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan that are taking their own lives, and it just feels like most of the nation is not even aware that we continue to be at war, that everybody’s not home yet.

We do these bicycle rides to help empower them, get them back on their feet, make them feel whole. It’s something that I wish that more people in the country could participate in, just so that they have an appreciation and an understanding of the cost of war.

The Rocking Horsemen (2015)

After a lifetime in front of the camera, Modine is finally making his feature film directorial debut.

I’ve got three of my costars from Memphis Belle Billy Zane, Eric Stoltz, and Sean Astin have all agreed to be in the film  and Miles Heizer from Parenthood, Jared Gilman from Moonrise Kingdom, Riley Griffiths from Super 8, Isaac White from The Butler, and a really terrific young actor-musican named Ray Goren may be in the film. He may be my final piece for the band, the Rocking Horsemen Band.

It’s a film that takes place in 1962, about these high school kids, like the same year as American Graffiti, that want to play rock ‘n’ roll music. It’s just a beautiful film, it’s a really interesting moment in American history where there really wasn’t anything happening. Birth control hadn’t come out, Kennedy was still alive, the Civil Rights movement hadn’t begun, Vietnam hadn’t begun, but it’s all about to happen, it’s all right there on the periphery of the story. So where these lives of these kids in this band are unaware of the world and how it’s about to change, it’s all happening to the adults in the outside of the story, where they start to become conscious about how everything’s about to change, and America’s about to go through a real transition with loss of innocence of Kennedy, Vietnam, Civil Rights, we’re about to go through a real, real change. But it’s a beautiful film.

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Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.