In casual conversation, Matthew Modine happily slips into anecdotes involving his past collaborators. It's not name dropping — he's passionate about the people who helped shape him as an actor, who continue to shape him. When his casting in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises comes up, the actor points to the ideology of one his most respected directors. "Robert Altman [who worked with Modine on Short Cuts] said directing a movie … 90% of it is in the casting. If you look at Robert Altman's films over the years, his most tremendous successes were in really wonderful casting. The films that didn't work so well, it was casting that was inappropriate. I have no idea why Christopher Nolan chose me for the role. Other than the fact that, perhaps, he wanted to work with me."
Nolan is a director who shrugs off the obvious Hollywood casting choices in favor of the right casting choices. His past is full of inspired picks: Gary Oldman in Batman Begins, David Bowie in The Prestige, Tom Berenger in Inception — known actors who don't scream "blockbuster." Modine fits the bill, a great actor capable of bouncing among many types of projects with relative ease, but who may not be the obvious pick for the third installment of a Batman movie. "Chris Nolan expressed interest in me and suggested I put myself on tape and submit it to him," says Modine, recalling his first talks with the director. "I live in New York City, he lives in Los Angeles. I've been in this profession for a long time, and my feeling was that it wasn't Christopher Nolan questioning my abilities, it was Christopher Nolan testing my interest. So I didn't believe putting myself on tape was the appropriate way to have an opportunity like this. I flew myself to Los Angeles to meet with him on my own expense. Which was really good, because the part that was sent to me was, in fact, the wrong part." Yes, even Hollywood is prone to goofs. "It was the first thing he said to me when I came in the room. He said, 'oh no, this is the wrong part!' So I went to having a good part to having a very good part. Besides the fact that it was worth the trip to meet Christopher Nolan, it was worth the trip to discover the opportunity to play a much bigger role."
Having worked with both legendary and fresh-faced directors on projects big and small, Nolan stands out to Modine as a man who knows exactly what he wants, ready to convey that vision with unique language. "There were funny directions he gave me that I've never received from any director in the 30 years I've been doing it," says Modine. Attempting to explain Nolan's style (while avoiding spoilers — Modine sees that Dark Knight Rises NDA looming in the background), the actor compares the work to a moment from his past with another great filmmaker. "It was kind of like one that Stanley Kubrick had given me after a take. Stanley came over, pulled on his beard, looked down at his shoes, with his chin down looking up at me in my face, said, 'Matthew, you're not going to do it that way, are you?' [Laughs] And it's one of my favorite directions."
The Nolan/Kubrick comparison has been made by film critics and movie buffs alike, but Modine isn't quick to relate the two. "Their view on life is quite different. That's a circumstance of time." Whereas Kubrick grew up post-World War II, Modine believes that the "the cynicism of the Vietnam Era and the wars in Afghanistan" shaped Nolan's sensibilities. "Those wars kind of distort the world we live in, the politics of the world we live in, and the lives that exist in the world. They're shaped by them."
While they're children of different eras, Modine's time with both directors has given him insight into their commonalities. "The one similarity that Kubrick and Nolan share are there enthusiasm for filmmaking. The fact that they're on the set while the film is being made. Stanley Kubrick operated the camera almost 90% of the time we were making Full Metal Jacket, and so he was there, on the set, in the scene with the actors, participating by operating the camera. Christopher Nolan stands beside the camera and listens and pays attention and hears what the actors are saying. He has a wicked sense of humor. That may sound like, 'oh, of course the director is on set by the camera,' but most directors today don't. They set in the video village, the thing that's set up away from set, and they watch the movie on a television screen. They're not really engaged or participating in the performance."
For Modine, what makes directors like Kubrick and Nolan so fantastic is that their sets are like independent films. On The Dark Knight Rises set, it would routinely be only a handful of people — including Nolan, Director of Photography Wally Pfister, the 1st AD, and the sound guy — on the actual shooting set. "There's an army of people outside doing prep work and follow up and post-production, but on the set, you never feel like there's more than three or four people making decisions. Because they've worked together so many times, there's a shorthand language and they know when they're ready to move on to the next scene. That's refreshing."
Nolan's approach to big budget filmmaking is wildly different than blockbusters of eras past — a style of filmmaking Modine knows well from his time on 1995's Cutthroat Island, which he cites as a great experience. "It was a pirate movie, something I had a great time participating in. But it was a production that was like trying to grab the tail of dragon and hold on." Modine admits it was difficult to pick up the reigns after original star Michael Douglas left that production, and that the personal relationship between Renny Harling and Geena Davis was an obvious hurdle. "It was one of those instances where… I don't know how that prayer goes with Alcoholics Anonymous where you say, something like, 'God grant me the strength to accept the things I can't and the wisdom to control the things I can.' So my wisdom said, 'Do what you can to make your experience the best that you can and do the best in all of the scenes you're involved in.'"
Modine finds it hard to compare Nolan's reality-first mentality to the past. "There's no comparison. The difference, is you have a director, his producing partner (his wife [Emma Thomas]), his brother who wrote the script, and a very tight crew — it wasn't someone trying to hold the tail of the dragon, it was someone who was on the back of the dragon, telling the dragon where to go." Unlike Cutthroat Island, a movie shot almost entirely on stages, Nolan's methodology pushed him to take Batman into the grand, but recognizable world. "With The Dark Knight Rises, the reason we shot in so many different countries and different locations, because what Nolan wasn't interested in was creating artificial environments," says Modine. "He wanted to go to spectacular environments that actually exist. Monolithic human constructions. Tunnels into the Earth, amazing geographic locations. He wasn't interested in creating an artificial world, he was interested in exploiting the one we share. "
Having dabbled in what will easily be one of the biggest movies of the past decade — if not of all time — Modine has no problem scaling things down for indie work. His next project is Jobs, the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher in which the actor plays former Pepsi Co VP and Apple CEO John Sculley. To better define Sculley, Modine is looking at both the big and small picture. "You want to try and understand the man. The word of advertising, the manipulation of consumers. Why people consume things. It's extraordinary when you start to study the psychology of consumerism and the people who create these fears in us that make us believe if we don't consume something, our lives are incomplete. I guess Mad Men explores that — though I haven't really watched Mad Men. But the psychology of sales is a great science."
But just looking at the surface level of accomplishments isn't enough for Modine to really capture Sculley has a person. "A thing Robert Altman taught me when he made the movie Vincent & Theo. The letters between Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo are amazing letters of love, desperation, and frustration. He said, 'Think about the letters you've sent your family over the years. You're either exaggerating, or lying, or you're making people feel sympathy and sorrow for you.' So you can't just read the letters and say, 'Oh, you have to take this for fact, because that's what was written down on the paper.'" Modine's drive as an actor is to find out what makes a larger-than-life figure personable, real. "So if I read Steve Jobs' book, an amazing compilation of facts and figures that this person has put together, but what I have to find, the director has to find, what Ashton Kutcher has to find, is what's inside those facts and figures. The mistake people make with biopics is suddenly they think they're character doesn't s**t, have sexual desires. They don't make them human."
Immersing himself in both the history and personal elements of Sculley has already helped Modine tinker with the script for Jobs. "That psychology of advertising has exposed something, some dialogue that I had in the script, something that someone as smart as John Scully is, would never say," says Modine. "There was a line that said, 'You can't sell people things they don't want.' Well, that's advertising 101. You would never say that — not someone who was the head of Pepsi Co. for as long as he was. That's why Steve Jobs wanted him to come run Apple. Of course you sell people things they don't want!"
With years of great performing behind him, Modine is still excited to be part of something as gigantic and influential as The Dark Knight Rises. Few of his movies have been embraced by the masses quite like Batman, fandom already showing its face with Photoshopped posters featuring the actor. "It's the best! First it was Bane, Batman and Catwoman, but the fans decided that Modine deserved a poster. It was the first one!" Modine knows he's not the star of the show, but he's humble to be apart of the ensemble. "It's exciting to be on board such an enormous vehicle."
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