Vincent D'Onofrio on fatherhood, mental health and why acting is 'sort of like Stockholm syndrome'

Vincent D'Onofrio on his new book, mental health and being a dad. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Vincent D'Onofrio on his new book, mental health and being a dad. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Vincent D'Onofrio is adding a new string to his bow this week: published author. The acclaimed actor and director best known for searing performances in Full Metal Jacket, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Men in Black and, yes, Adventures in Babysitting has just released the book Mutha: Stuff + Things, an eclectic, stream-of-consciousness-style collection of his poems and other musings, with a foreword from close friend Ethan Hawke.

The book, D'Onofrio tells Yahoo Life, began as a "fake journal [written] from different perspectives" created while starring in the Hawke-directed 2013 off-Broadway play Clive, based on Bertolt Brecht's Baal. The performers would take turns reading the entries he'd written as a morale boost. He eventually started to perform them in collaboration with composer and jazz musician Dana Lyn. Now, D'Onofrio's added more material and released it as Mutha, with plans for two more books in the pipeline: one a children's book, and the other a book of poetry. "They all have a different feel," he teases, "but they are still all stream-of-conscious stuff."

To find out more about what's on D'Onofrio's mind, read on as he opens up about acting, fatherhood and mental health.

How has writing become a creative outlet for you?

It is that... It's sort of like my actor brain idling in between jobs. Playing characters for a living for so long is such a wild experience, and I've been fortunate enough to have been able to do a lot of them [laughs] and most of them are pretty deep things. And so this is kind of my way of being idle... These words just kind of stream out of me and flow out of me. So I just write them down and now I share them. It's good for my head.

Interestingly, if you search your name on Amazon, you'll find journals inspired by Vincent D'Onofrio, which are written by, I suppose, people inspired by you.

Yeah, my way of thinking. I do release a lot of my stuff on Twitter. I write in the moment, in real time on Twitter.

You alluded to these intense, dark roles you're known for playing. How do you switch off from a heavy performance?

That's a good question, because, you know, everybody has their different way of doing things in my business, actors and actresses. We all kind of are sort of based these days on the work of [character actor and theater director Konstantin] Stanislavski... I would call myself a method actor, but a lot of people think method acting is sort of like what Daniel Day-Lewis does, and nobody really does what Daniel Day-Lewis does. Daniel Day-Lewis is just a genius on his own, and he's just amazing. And there are people that try to emulate him, which are sort of full of s***, which is kind of a whole other conversation. But most of those people who try to emulate him are not actually doing what Daniel does. And Daniel, to me, obviously bases himself on Stanislavski's work, but his way of going about doing it is completely unique. As you know, it's just stunning to watch. But all of us, like my good friend Ethan [Hawke] — I mean, I could go down the list of actresses and actors that I love and that I've worked with — we all have our different ways of doing things.

I don't take it home per se. Things do affect me. Like I have nightmares or dreams — nice dreams about stuff that I'm studying or researching or a character I play. It definitely gets into my voice, like my cadence of talking will change sometimes, or I might sound a little less New York and a little more south or Southwest or northern or Northwest in my voice. It bleeds in in that way, much like when somebody goes to Europe for the first time. If they got to England they come back with kind of a sing-song voice for some reason, which is not British but it sort of sticks with them for some reason.

Acting does the same kind of thing. You become its captor... It's sort of like Stockholm syndrome; you kind of fall in love with the story you're telling and the character that you're using to service the story. That love kind of fills you and it becomes part of you. I have kids and a lot of responsibilities in life and stuff, so I can't be — first of all, my kids wouldn't put up with it for a second [laughs], it's silly to even talk about — but I guess the very short version of a very long answer I'm giving you is that I just don't take it home.

Moving on to mental health, do you have any ways that you prioritize yourself or check in?

I do. I mean, there's some super-personal things that I won't discuss, but I do see a therapist every once in a while, and I've known him for a long time, for many, many years, and so it's a really good relationship and a very positive one. And I have close friends to check in with once in a while...

There's a great film called Papillon. There's a scene in it when [Steve] McQueen's in prison and there's two prisoners side by side... and every once in a while, they would have to stick their heads out these cubby holes through the cell door so the guard could come along and check their teeth and stuff. But one of the things they would do during that period is they would look at each other and ask each other, "Hey, how do I look?" And they would confirm that they looked OK, or sometimes you could tell that they were lying to each other. So it's like, I have that kind of relationship with my good friends [laughs].

And also, I think a lot of us have found very unique ways to get through this period that we've all gone through in this world, and also the period before, which was caused by a man that shall remain unnamed. I think we all had to find peace in ourselves. Hopefully, we did somehow some way, especially during the bad president days. It was tough. It was a tough time to find peace and it was a tough time to see your neighbor in a decent way if they disagreed with everything that you believed in or agreed with everything that was going on. So there was a real test, and I think the best of us achieved some kind of peace with that. I think by way of hard work and being put through through these scenarios, like the pandemic and that jerk-off, I mean it's unbelievable what we've had to come to peace within ourselves... We figured out ways to still remain a lover of humanity.

Let's talk about self-care. For some it just means pedicures or facials — both of which I'm sure you get regularly...

I don't get pedicures. I have done for characters, but in real life, I don't get pedicures... I should get a facial.

Same. But self-care in a broader sense can also mean taking care of these non-negotiable needs, like decent sleep, or having coffee. What does that look like for you?

I definitely have to have one cup of coffee. I know that I can do without it these days, which when I was younger, I didn't know that. I do know that I can do without it, but I actually enjoy a cup of coffee, so when I can have one, I have one. Sleep is definitely an important thing; I have to get somewhere between six and seven hours or I'm just totally screwed, especially if I'm working.

Things have changed a lot in the business, but when I was younger, they used to work us like crazy. There still are people that get worked like crazy and they shouldn't allow it to happen, but they do for some reason and maybe it's lack of experience and they just have to learn better. But a lot of companies and a lot of sets and a lot of directors and producers are working normal [hours], like 12 to 13 hours, these days, so you get a decent turnaround, which means you get a certain amount of time before they can get you in a car that gets you back to work. During that period, a good six or seven hours is really important for me. Sleep is one of those things that I don't mess about with.

You mentioned people working too much. Are you a big firm believer in setting boundaries to have a work-life balance?

I think if it's your choice — like, some people are just wired a certain way — it's great. I think you should celebrate that. Whatever you are innately, you should celebrate. I think as long as you're not hurting yourself or anybody else, you're doing really good. I just think that if people are being controlled by their boss or the powers that be to work more than they should, really, for the money they earn, or at the expense of their life outside of work, I really don't like that. I'll speak for myself: I have the same work ethic as I did when I got paid nothing to act as I do when I get paid good to act. My ethic doesn't change. And the idea of somebody trying to get more than they deserve from me, in an amount of hours during the day? The other half of my life is too important to avoid.

What brings you joy?

When my children are happy... My daughter [actress Leila George], she's not a kid anymore, and just to see her so happy in life is just an amazing thing for me. And then my sons: My 13-year-old, is finding his way, and my 20-year-old is a very unique person and lives in his own world, but he's also finding happiness. I can't help but only narrow my happiness down to my kids, really. It's really about that for me. I mean, I do enjoy what I do for a living and I do enjoy my friendships, but to me, all of that is expendable. At my age, having been on the earth for 61 years now, I think that the only really important thing is that I recognize every day that my children are happy, because it does bring me a lot of pleasure.

Conversely, what stresses you out?

People in the wrong job; there's a lot of that that goes around, especially in my business. And liars — I don't care if it's business or whatever it is, nobody has an excuse to lie to somebody blatantly. Doublespeak's become very popular, and that's pretty irritating.

I'm lucky these days that I have to kind of put thought into what bothers me, whereas when I was a kid, I could name off 20 things on a list that made me angry. So I think it's human behavior — all of my anger can come based on bad behavior. Believe me, I'm no angel — I definitely wasn't an angel when I was younger — and those mistakes that I made, I'm glad that I made them and learned from them. It's tough when you're speaking to people that are your age and they still haven't learned a lot of lessons in life. That's a bit frustrating at times.

Speaking of lessons, is there any advice or mantra you carry with you to guide you through tough times?

Stay calm, Vincent. Yeah. Just stay calm. Everything's going to be OK. It'll be alright, just give it time.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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