Interview: Tom Sizemore - Saving Tom Sizemore

Nick Hasted meets the rising star of `Saving Private Ryan' - and hears how Robert De Niro rescued more than just his career

Robert De Niro was sitting next to Tom Sizemore, talking urgently. Their work together on Heat had just finished. "You're going to die," De Niro told Sizemore. And Sizemore thought he'd been doing so well. In the previous few years, he had become Hollywood's psychopath of choice. In Natural Born Killers (1994), he was Jack Scagnetti, the serial-killer expert who was worse than those he hunted. In 1996, he'd completed a hat- trick of riveting performances: in Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress, he convinced you a life was in the balance; in Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, his stare masked feverish depths; and in Michael Mann's Heat, he played one of De Niro's gang. This had been his chance to act with his hero. As a child, Sizemore had watched De Niro's nobility in The Deer Hunter and wanted to be that man. Now, De Niro was sitting right across from him, saying that Sizemore's heroin use was killing him. De Niro was driving him to his private plane, taking him to be saved. He was going to stay with him till he was well.

"It was magical," Sizemore says. "I watched this guy in the dark when I was 14, and wondered who he was. And here he is. I'm in his car and he's driving me to the airport, he's telling me that the gig is up, he's telling me I'm a wonderful actor, that he's not gonna let me die. `I love you,' he told me, like you're my son." Tears well as Sizemore speaks. "I didn't wanna go. But I couldn't say no to him."

Three years on, 34-year-old Sizemore is a picture of health, a shirt yanked loose from his once-bulky frame, a crucifix signifying strengthened faith. He bullets out stacatto sentences when a subject grips him. He seems in a state of barely subdued, and understandable, pleasure. Since De Niro's intervention, he has gone from his first leading role, in last year's hit horror film The Relic, to the coveted part of Sergeant Horvath in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. He had to turn down Terence Malick to take it. His next major roles will be for Martin Scorsese, in Bringing Out the Dead, and Oliver Stone, in Any Given Sunday. He's happily married, to the girlfriend who helped De Niro save him. It's everything he dreamt of as a child. In between the nightmares.

"I'm from Detroit. I was from a kind of violent neighbourhood," he remembers. "I was an anomaly, because my father was a Harvard man, and he came from a family of poor people. He doesn't like me talking about the family, but two of his brothers were heroin dealers; one of my mother's brothers was a pimp. Although my mother and father were both completely legit, it was all around me, this crime and licentiousness. I'd go to my grandmother's at the weekend, and every two minutes there'd be someone knocking at the door. The person would go downstairs, and then they'd come out and leave. My dad's little sister told me what was happening, `Your uncle's selling drugs.' I said, `That's what I thought! Is it dangerous?' `Oh no, no, no. He's a very well-respected drug- dealer.' I was nine."

Sizemore's childhood was still idyllic, in a way. He was encouraged to be creative, writing and performing for his family. "I had that special kid thing," he remembers. When he was l3, his parents' vicious divorce began his wildness; but he had already grasped a way to escape. He watched Clift, Brando and Dean on the movie screen and loved their alienation and their beauty; rather than revering them, he saw himself on their level. His life had always felt heightened - he had been gossiped about since he was little - and, when he discovered that acting could channel his rage, everything fell into place. He studied hard, worked at his craft, and went to Hollywood. He wanted to be a great actor with great parts. He would have to be a movie star.

Sizemore showed an early glimpse of talent in his first major role. In Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (1992), he drew on his own suppressed emotions to play a gay serial killer. Then he was made to pay his dues until Natural Born Killers gave him his break. It was a defining moment: to play Jack Scagnetti, the serial-killer-hunting detective who strangles a prostitute, he had to cut deep into himself. He made a Faustian pact with his talent. To play Scagnetti, he had to become him.

"I carried him around a lot," Sizemore says, vanishing into what he did as his memories build. "I stayed in. I got into Jack very heavily. Because he was hard for me to find. In the beginning, I couldn't identify with him, really, with his viciousness, his pettiness. I had to steep myself in serial murder. I read Bundy interviews. I met John Wayne Casey. I made myself sick. I felt sick, like there was a tumour in me. I put it in me. Even in the hair. I had an Eraserhead haircut. I lost weight, to turn into a snake, a lizard. Killer. Cold-blooded. No remorse. No conscience. Sociopath. Psychopathology." What did he gain from his "tumour"? "It made me a better actor."

Natural Born Killers was made a still more exhausting experience by its director. Oliver Stone created a psychotic mind-set for his actors, shoving them through scenes, with no time to think. Sizemore relished it. It was in the hours between such intense working days that he built up the habits which would almost kill him. But on a stream of excess, the parts flowed too. Scagnetti led to Strange Days, Devil in a Blue Dress and Heat. The roles were revealing, with hostility bubbling beneath the surface. There was a doubleness to his characters, a falsity. "Well, in Hollywood, in my whole life, I had to pretend that everything was okay," he says. "When it wasn't. Now I've learnt to say, I'm not fine, I don't feel good. This is bullshit. I don't like this. I don't like what I'm hearing, I don't like these people, I'm leaving. Whereas before I might say, just get higher. Fuck it. The hypocrisy, not just of Hollywood, but of life in general. It could drive me to distraction."

Saving Private Ryan, shot two years after Sizemore's salvation, tested his new freedom to the limit. As part of the preparations for his D-Day epic, Spielberg sent Sizemore and other members of the film's platoon - including Tom Hanks - to boot camp, under a veteran Marine called Dale Dye. Suddenly, Sizemore's mind was being clamped down again. "I was dreading it," he remembers. "They try to reprogramme you. They try to take out parts of your personality, bring out your aggressive nature, make you a killing machine. I had a couple of run-ins with Captain Dye. He called Tom `Turd Number One', called me `Turd Number Two', and the rest of them were just turds. And at one point I said, `Don't call me a turd any more. I don't like it. I'm not a turd. I'm as tough as the next guy, I'm doing my job out here, and don't do that any more.' I saw his point about burying part of your personality, though, for the good of the unit. And I came to use that as part of my character. There are parts of Horvath that he just doesn't show. He puts principle before personality."

At least the hypocrisy of Hollywood is in the past. On Saving Private Ryan, he seized his chance. He stayed on set every day, watching Spielberg pull shots from chaos. He wrote his own best scene, deciding to shoot a mutinous squad-member; Spielberg used it. Waiting for Ryan's release, he has made smaller films - starring in Gotti as a favour to De Niro; helping a friend make blue-collar drama, The Florentine; finishing the Scottish comedy The Match. But it's the Scorseses and Stones that matter to him; the chance to be great, at last.

"I have tried to make decisions to work with great directors, with good scripts," he says, "and that makes the pickings real slim. That's why I don't work a lot. Because I won't work on crap. I just refuse to. I have been offered some big, big movies to star in, with lots of money. But they're crap. I don't wanna do 'em. I'd be embarrassed to be in them, I'm not interested in it. I'd rather read. I'd rather read King Lear again. There's more there than - I don't wanna say whose, but several different actors, all the movies they've done - there's more in the first five pages of King Lear than there is in any of their movies."

As Sizemore prepares for stardom, the day De Niro saved his life still seems an instant away. "I feel incredibly blessed," he says. "I got out from underneath a boulder with that addiction. And that has made my life entirely different. Now I feel more like a man. I haven't lost the wildness I used to put into heroin. I'm more aggressive, I guess, in my life. My energy goes there. I read aggressively. I'm a devouring kind of person. And I'm ambitious. I'm writing a screenplay. It's about trying to keep in touch with one's dreams when they're shattered. How does one stay in life in a positive way when something bone-crushingly tragic has happened? I'm so thankful that the old times are over. Every day is like gravy, like I should have been dead. Sometimes it's like walking on air."

`Saving Private Ryan' (15) is released nationwide on Friday.

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