The Bit Player

Vincent D'Onofrio may be the best actor of his generation, but who would notice?

"I'm not the celebrity type," says Vincent D'Onofrio, and he does not lie. His is a household name in very few neighborhoods; it appears in film credits buried just beneath those of actors more famous, or just luckier. Rare is the filmgoer who utters the words, "Dude, let's go check out the new D'Onofrio movie." On the movie-star food chain, Vincent D'Onofrio sits somewhere between Donal Logue and Matthew Modine. He is the quintessential character actor: On screen, in a film like Men in Black or Full Metal Jacket or the just-released The Cell, he can fill a theater like air conditioning. He can score from the sidelines, stealing movies from those more famous, men and women who glide by on a smirk and a wink. Off screen, he is nearly anonymous.

It's quite possible that Vincent D'Onofrio is as endowed an actor as Sean Penn or Robert DeNiro or John Malkovich. It's possible, if not likely, the 40-year-old ranks among the most talented actors of his generation. But who can tell? He is handsome but not beautiful, charismatic but not commanding, confident but not cocky, gifted but not flashy.

"I am," he says simply, "not a showboat."

Vincent D'Onofrio, an actor somewhere beneath the layers
L. Sebastian
Vincent D'Onofrio, an actor somewhere beneath the layers
"Do you wear a hat?" D'Onofrio, in last year's The Thirteenth Floor
"Do you wear a hat?" D'Onofrio, in last year's The Thirteenth Floor

D'Onofrio has had small roles in big films (JFK, Malcolm X), big roles in small films (Claire Dolan, The Whole Wide World), and he disappears into all of them until he becomes the guy you recognize, but only as a half-remembered dream. He has been directed by Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Oliver Stone, and Spike Lee; he has starred alongside Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, Robin Williams, and, now Jennifer Lopez. He is better than all of them, and still, you probably have no idea who he is, which is a shame--though it couldn't bother D'Onofrio less. After all, once the character actor becomes famous, he is doomed. He becomes complacent, smug, lazy--in other words, Bruce Willis. For someone like D'Onofrio, it is better to thrive in the shadows than melt in the sun.

"Do you wear a hat?" he asks, by way of explaining himself. "If you go to a hat store, right, and you see a really nice straw Stetson and you put it on, you feel different. That's why I do the things I do."

He possesses the résumé of a man who likes to work, even if it means appearing in films no one outside of his immediate family will ever see: The Blood of Heroes, Signs of Life, Hotel Paradise, Guy, Naked Tango, Fires Within, Crooked Hearts, Salt on Our Skin, Imaginary Crimes. It goes on and on, enough movies to fill Cinemax's schedule for months. He played a dirty cop in Katherine Bigelow's end-of-the-century rave Strange Days; showed up briefly and brilliantly as Orson Welles in Tim Burton's Ed Wood; got to beat the hell out of Keanu Reeves in Feeling Minnesota; and was murdered by movie studio executive Tim Robbins in Altman's The Player. In one movie, 1997's Good Luck, he played a blind ex-NFL star who joins a wheelchair-confined Gregory Hines in a white-water raft race. In another, he played the brother of Al Franken's dysfunctional Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley.

The man makes more movies in a single year than most people see in 12 months, and even then, most of D'Onofrio's films languish on the shelf; they're so often released direct to obscurity. Two films due for release last year, Happy Accidents and Spanish Judges, remain nowhere in sight, and since then, he's completed work on half a dozen other movies, including the just-released The Cell, the Abbie Hoffman biography Steal This Movie! (he plays the radical organizer like a tornado), the forthcoming sci-fi thriller Impostor, the revenge drama The Salton Sea, and a film version of Chris Fuhrman's novel The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.

He may not be proud of every single film in which he has appeared--"Sorry about that," he says when informed that his interviewer has seen most of the movies on his résumé--but he is not ashamed that every single one defines him.

"I just kind of carry it all with me," D'Onofrio says, sounding softer over the phone than he ever has on screen. "It's a character actor's career, and I'm really proud of it. I think I've really maintained an eclectic career, and it's something I just want to keep at the same level and keep doing the same kind of hard work. I think of it as kind of...No, not kind of. It is my history, so I've been very fortunate, but it helps me to know that I have a history in acting. It's all kind of different kinds of character work, and it helps me along, because I'm not the kind of actor who has to worry about box-office receipts. It's not like the big studios sit around and go, "We've got to put another D'Onofrio movie out.' I'm just a hired gun, and I want it to continue that way."

If he is known at all, it's for two roles: Marine recruit Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence in Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Full Metal Jacket, and Edgar in Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black a decade later. In his first role, as a Marine suffering through basic training before getting shipped off to Vietnam, he is barely visible beneath layers of fat; his whole body jiggles, even his fleshy nose. Leonard's eyes are dim, a sky devoid of stars, and his mind is empty--especially an hour into the movie, when the mad Marine shoots his drill instructor, then swallows his own rifle. But it's less a performance than it is a photograph brought to whimpering life: D'Onofrio's transformation from man to menace takes place so quickly, so inexplicably, we're shocked by his suicide but hardly moved by it. As Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker in 1987, Leonard is "no more than a comic horror, like a sad, fat crazy in an exploitation film."

In Men in Black, D'Onofrio disappears beneath an entirely different suit, this one made of rotting flesh and insects that live up his sleeves. As Edgar, D'Onofrio was barely decipherable--he spoke as though his mouth were full of marbles and cockroaches--and hardly recognizable. (He explains that Edgar's accent is a combination of John Huston and George C. Scott.) A year earlier, D'Onofrio had given a remarkable performance as Conan the Barbarian's creator, Texan Robert Howard--a man tormented by his inability to fall in love with the one woman who could love him back. But in Men in Black, he was an actor cast as a special effect, a man in a monster suit.

"It sounds silly, but no matter what kind of character you're playing, you never pretend to be anything that you're not," he says of playing a giant bug trapped in a human's skin. "What I did was as soon as I got the idea--this guy's frustrated and uncomfortable--I wondered how I could do that. I watched documentaries on bugs and animals and I'm thinking, "Oh, my God, how am I gonna do this?' I was walking by a sporting-goods store, and in the window they had these basketball knee braces, and I bought two of them. I put them on my knees, and I bent each knee slightly and taped them off so they couldn't bend back straight. Then I took all this duct tape, and I wrapped my ankles and my feet so I couldn't rotate my ankles in either direction. Then I just stood there with my knees slightly bent and my feet slightly bent and tried to walk, and that's how I came up with Edgar's walk. It's ridiculous work, but it works."

His role as The Cell's serial killer Carl Stargher--a man who kidnaps women, drowns them in a holding tank, then bleaches their skin until they resemble a child's doll--similarly forces the actor to peer at the audience from behind a mask of makeup. He appears as both demon and snake, clad in horns and scales, and as the fey, frightening king of a demented land that exists only in his demented mind. It's sometimes hard to tell if he's any good in the role, because director Tarsem Singh has fabricated a movie in which visuals overwhelm actor and audience. Plot and performance are rendered meaningless in Singh's surreal dream world.

Still, D'Onofrio takes nothing for granted, struggling to reveal a little humanity beneath the body paint and nipple rings; he finds the man, if not the tortured child, beneath the freak show. It's clear he prefers making films such as The Whole Wide World and Steal This Movie!, but he doesn't cheat even when acting against a blue screen. He speaks often of the work that goes into a role--the hours of research involved, the need to devour writings about and drawings by the criminally insane before shooting commenced on The Cell--the way an architect might before designing a skyscraper. D'Onofrio is a craftsman.

"Some of the roles I've played are more heartfelt, and some of them are just plain old hard work," he says. "The Cell was just plain old hard work. I needed things to make sense for me. I needed to define the difference between me and these people who commit these horrible acts. I needed to know what defines us--where is the defining line between us and them--and to acquire that, I had to do this extensive nightmarish work and expose myself to the most horrific things. It was terrible.

"But when you do a story like The Whole Wide World, that's a love story. It's kind of like Steal This Movie!--it's about somebody that's real. Steal This Movie! is a drama, and The Whole Wide World was an unconsummated love story, yet they're about people who really lived, and those parts are very moving parts to play. There's so much inhuman stuff in The Cell, and to perform that is a task in itself. But to do these kinds of human stories, that's what I love most, because it has hope and faith and love and denial and joy and pain--all the things a good drama is going to have. I like that stuff the best."

His finest performance can be found on the small screen: On December 5, 1997, he appeared on an episode of NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street as a man trapped between a subway car and the platform--a man who knows that in a few minutes, he will be pried loose and literally cut in half. It was an eloquent, grand performance writ small-scale: D'Onofrio could barely move, could barely breathe, yet he held his own against Homicide star Andre Braugher, one of the few American actors with D'Onofrio's range and rage. Watching them spar, two actors trading bruising barbs, was like watching a pay-per-view heavyweight fight; the only thing missing was Jim Gray, reporting from ringside. They pounded each other into submission, until they both lay battered and broken on the platform's canvas. "It was perfect," D'Onofrio says of the experience.

When he was young, working off-off-off-Broadway in the early 1980s, D'Onofrio was, by his own admission, an arrogant actor. He believed he needed to turn himself into his characters; he embraced the Method, wanting to be Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando--someone who suffered for art. He thought actors were nothing more than clowns playing dress-up, idiots who pretended for a living.

That changed in 1983, when he auditioned for a role in a Broadway show called Open Admissions, about three kids going to college. D'Onofrio read about the show in the trades and convinced himself he was right for the role of a guy from Brooklyn prone to delivering speeches from the works of Shakespeare. He was broke and had no agent. He also had no shot.

"I just went to the fucking auditions without even being allowed to," D'Onofrio recalls. "I lied my way in, and I went in character. I was born in Brooklyn--I really was--but I was raised in Florida and Hawaii, so I didn't have a Brooklyn accent. I went in and lied my way through the whole fuckin' audition, and I got the part, and it made me realize I can do this kind of stuff on my own. I don't have to be anyone I'm not. This is me. If I choose to be from Brooklyn, I can be from Brooklyn. Vincent can be from Brooklyn. Vincent doesn't have to be Montgomery Clift from Brooklyn.

"The minute you try to make yourself the character, you're pretending, and that's going in the wrong direction. There's nothing romantic about it. You talk to any real actor that's done theater and that knows how to take apart a script and put it back together again and knows how to study the structure and composition of a story, and there's no romance in it. There's work. The romantic part is when the camera's rolling or when you walk out on stage. That's as romantic as it gets."

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