The gender bender

I'm not an actress, Mathew Modine tells Geoffrey Macnab

For reasons best known to himself, Mathew Modine decides that he would like to be interviewed lying down. The tall, boyish, thirtysomething actor (whose new film, The Blackout, opens in the UK this week) manoeuvres a single bed into the middle of his Rotterdam hotel room, falls back on it and stares happily at the ceiling. His interviewer, who has reluctantly agreed to play the part of amateur analyst, pulls up a chair beside him, notebook in hand. "I haven't been in therapy since I was 10 years old," Modine confesses conspiratorially. "The teacher said I was crazy."

The first question, something along the lines of Why Did You Make Your Last Movie, elicits a long, rambling response in which Modine ponders the meaning of the word "real" in American culture. In Tom DiCillo's The Real Blonde, he plays a struggling New York actor sickened by the inanities of the New York media and fashion world. The role is a stark contrast to the boozed-up movie star he plays for Abel Ferrara in The Blackout. Modine understands just how the character in The Real Blonde feels. "In America," he frowns, "real has become a concept for selling... it's something you should be deeply suspicious of."

In the course of the movie, he shares several awkward, emotional moments with his co-star Catherine Keener (who plays his long-term girlfriend.) They are one of those movie couples who love each other but can't communicate. Modine has tackled this kind of part before, most famously in Robert Altman's Short Cuts in which his character (an uptight doctor) bickers with his wife (Julianne Moore) as she wanders around the apartment naked below the waist. "But that wasn't a problem because Altman was a director who understands and appreciates the intimacies of a relationship. And Julianne is an actor. Catherine Keener is an actor too."

Catherine Keener an actor? Noticing his interviewer is doing a double take, Modine elaborates. The term "actor," he explains, is not gender- specific. "A lot of women say that being described as an actress is demeaning. At the same time, there are some male actors who are actresses. You know what I mean?" The interviewer shakes his head, so Modine patiently clarifies his point yet further. "If you erase the gender, you'll see some people are actors and some are actresses. An actor is someone who is very serious about the craft. For instance, Jack Nicholson is an actor who has sometimes been in movies where he was an actress. Brad Pitt is an actress who wants to be an actor."

Has Modine himself ever been an actress? He thinks hard. "There have been a couple of times when I have been an actress," he confesses, as if it is tantamount to admitting he used to wet his bed as a child. "In Cutthroat Island, I was a bit of an actress."

Is Modine sometime an actress so that he can subsidise being an actor? "Well, in Cutthroat Island, I wasn't paid that much, so that probably wasn't the reason." Michael Douglas was originally pencilled in to play the buccaneer, but dropped out when it became clear that Renny Harlin was making a film about his then wife, Geena Davis. "They were careful to conceal that from me. I thought I was going to be in a different movie." Once he arrived in Malta, Modine realised he had blundered into a project he wanted nothing to do with. "So I made a short film while I was out there. It was called Ecce Pirate - all about a young man who is kidnapped and taken aboard a pirate ship. I'm sure you can see the metaphor. In Cutthroat Island, I was basically just a stuntman who had some silly lines to say."

If he is scornful about Cutthroat Island, Modine is downright contemptuous about James Cameron's Titanic. "I'm astonished at the reviews that film got. Yes, it's fantastic technically, but the stories and performances are ludicrous. For Janet Maslin to compare it to Gone With The Wind in The New York Times... someone must have slipped her some money, bought her a house out in the Hamptons or something!"

Clearly exasperated at the lack of meaty roles which come his way, Modine has moved behind the camera. He recently finished shooting his first film as director, If... Dog... Rabbit. "I'm editing it at the present time; it's on my dining room table in New York." The title may sound oblique, but Modine claims it is common usage in the States. "It's an expression that means if doesn't count. If the dog didn't stop to have a shit, it would have caught the rabbit."

No, the film does not have anything to do with incontinent alsatians in pursuit of floppy-eared bunnies. "It's a story about family deception and robbing a bullring in Tijuana, Mexico... it's very good, if I say so myself."

Modine shot the film, which stars John Hurt and Bruce Dern, on the cheap to ensure that he would retain final cut. Directing, he says, wasn't a matter of imposing his artistic vision on actors and technicians. "Most of the time, it was simply solving problems." He wrote the script himself, apparently with the encouragement of Stanley Kubrick.

Of all the filmmakers in whose movies Modine has appeared (a list encompassing everybody from Alan Parker and Alan Rudolph to Robert Altman and Abel Ferrara) Kubrick seems to be his favourite. Modine worked with Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket in the mid-1980s and has stayed in touch with him ever since. The picture he draws of the reclusive American director isn't the conventional one of the eccentric misanthrope, holed up in Home Counties seclusion. "Those ideas that people have of him lead you to expect you're going to meet a deeply strange human being. All that's weird about Stanley is that he's an artist. He doesn't feel it is necessary to go out flogging his wares... like me."

The implication is clear - one thing that Kubrick never has to do is lie on his back and be interviewed by strange journalists. Modine describes him as the "king of the independents, the man who defines the term", and speaks in awe of his single-minded dedication to his craft. "He is a contradiction. People have this idea of him as this strange guy who lives out in the middle of nowhere. But he's very warm. He loves his wife, his children and his animals. He's not hermit-like or eccentric at all. He is just deeply passionate about what he does."

A few moments earlier, Modine has been railing against Tom Cruise movies in which the hero always conquers every obstacle by the final reel. He seems to regard Cruise as the embodiment of everything he dislikes about the American star system, surely an irony considering that Cruise is appearing in Kubrick's new film, Eyes Wide Shut. "But I guess Tom wanted to mature as an actor and have a movie where he fails. And what better actor to have fail than the biggest winner in pop culture?"

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