Matthew Modine:​ ​‘I didn’t want to do Stranger Things but ​t​he Duffer Brothers kept ringing me up’

The actor and environmentalist on playing Atticus Finch, the character’s importance today, and why he dyed his hair white for Stranger Things

Actor Matthew Modine, born in California in 1959, came to fame in the 1980s, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). More recently, he’s best known for playing Dr Martin Brenner, the sinister scientist in the Netflix series Stranger Things. Next week, he steps into the role of the crusading Atticus Finch, a lawyer defending an innocent black man on a charge of rape, in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird in the West End. Married since 1980, he has two children and lives in New York.

What made you want to play the part of Atticus Finch?
The content of the story – it’s specifically about the history of racism in the United States. The past is not something that’s ancient history. As Aaron Sorkin writes in his adaptation, the civil war is yesterday and it will always be yesterday until we deal honestly with that past. In the US, there’s a crack in the foundation of the constitution because “we the people” didn’t include people of colour when it was drafted. We’ve never honestly dealt with that and when you build a country the foundation is very important. What we’re seeing today is what happens when the walls start to get out of whack, the doors don’t open and the roof starts leaking. We just have to be aware of what happened in the past so that we can fix it and move forward. The play deals with that. I wanted to be a part of it, because I want to be a part of solving problems.

What’s it like being back on the London stage?
Well, the last time I did, it was a rough go. [He was one of the stars of Resurrection Blues, a 2006 flop directed by Robert Altman]. I’ve been doing this for four decades now and I’ve never gone to work on a production where everybody wasn’t happy and enthusiastic and didn’t think: this is going to be terrific. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t and I still haven’t figured out why. But it was 100% great to work with Robert Altman. He gave me my big break in Streamers, which won the best actor prize at the Venice film festival [the entire cast was named best actor]. We worked on Resurrection Blues at the moment in his life when he knew he was dying. I wasn’t with my father when he died. [But with Altman] I was able to hold his hand on that journey and try to take care of him in those last months of his life.

Modine in Full Metal Jacket, 1987.
Modine in Full Metal Jacket, 1987. Photograph: ScreenProd/Photononstop/Alamy

What was making Full Metal Jacket with Stanley Kubrick like?
I respect him as a film-maker and then I got to know him as a man, as a father, as a husband. He was probably the most independent independent film-maker I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He figured out how to be able to work for 20 months and still be financially viable. What he did was create an environment where he was able to explore and experiment. He often said how funny it was that people would always ask how many takes he did. He said: “Imagine someone going up to Mozart and saying, ‘Wolfgang, how many notes are there in your concerto? Or to Picasso and saying how many strokes in that painting?’ It’s just it’s so rude and who cares? The result is what you should be interested in.”

Is Full Metal Jacket the film you’re most proud of?
I think I love some of the children that nobody ever saw. I love Birdy, that film by Alan Parker. That was extraordinary experience for me as an actor. I also worked with Alan Pakula, who was the producer of [the 1962 film version of] To Kill a Mockingbird, on the film of a play called Orphans, opposite Albert Finney. I loved working with him so much that I did The Browning Version, directed by Mike Figgis, purely because I wanted to work with him again. He had a real joie de vivre and then when it was time to work he was so focused and so prepared that it was different from any other actor I’ve ever worked with. Probably the next person I would compare him to would be Ian McKellen, who I worked with on And the Band Played On. Another gentleman.

You became known to a new generation when you played the villainous Dr Martin Brenner in Stranger Things. What made you take the role?
I didn’t want to do it. The Duffer Brothers kept saying: “Oh he’s going to be really important.” They never told me he was kidnapping children. I passed, but they kept ringing me up and made it really difficult for me to say no. I responded to their passion and he became a really interesting, complex character.

Is it true that you came up with the idea of him having the white hair and smart suits?
When they described my character, he was unshaven, with work boots and a flannel shirt. And he had a lot of expositional dialogue, which an actor never wants. When I finally said yes, I said, I want to dye my hair white because evil characters in Japanese anime always have white hair and I want to wear a suit like Cary Grant in North by Northwest, where if I fall down, when I stand up, it’s clean. And give all that dialogue to the people around me. They said yes to all of it. It made his stillness and his quietness that much more compelling.

You built up a good relationship with Millie Bobby Brown, who was just 11 when you started working with her.
My desire was to protect her. When I was a young actor, if you had a show that was successful in 20 or 30 territories around the world, that would be unbelievable. Netflix is in more than 190 territories. What Millie and her generation have been exposed to through streaming is a kind of celebrity and power and reach that’s bigger than anything in the entertainment industry before. It’s a rollercoaster: there’s ups and downs. The adoration and the love are not real, it’s for something that you’ve created and it can be devastating.

Modine in Stranger Things with Millie Bobby Brown.
Modine in Stranger Things with Millie Bobby Brown. Photograph: Netflix

You were pitched as a heart-throb early in your career; could you have gone off the rails?
In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes walking down a long hallway with a bunch of doorways. The beginning is birth and the end is death and you have the opportunity to go into many different rooms. When you open the door, you can say: “Oh, that’s not for me” or you can go in. Sometimes you never come out. There were tremendous opportunities for me to have gone down a path that would have been very destructive or would have been a different kind of celebrity. I’m famous for turning down Top Gun, but the truth that I was looking for didn’t exist in that film. I’m looking to solve problems with peace and love and conversation and negotiation. I have chosen to avoid roles which show me taking a baseball bat and beating somebody’s head to be a winner. I wouldn’t want to play Vladimir Putin, for instance.

You’ve been an environmental activist since the 1980s. How much time do you devote to that?
Every day. Everything. I try to live by example. It demands all of our participation in order to fix this, because we’re consuming the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable pace.

How do you feel watching Cop27?
I feel like Greta [Thunberg]. I feel it’s blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. If you’re the prime minister of this country, if you’re president of the United States, and you don’t address it, you’re part of the problem. One of the things that has to stop overnight is motorsports, you know, motorcycles going around the racetrack, cars going around the racetrack, travelling all over the globe. It’s a crime, not a sport. There’s no place for it in a world where the climate is under threat. That’s something that you can start by doing today.

Are you at all optimistic about your country?
I want to say yes, I want to give some glimmer of hope. But it’s frightening to think that Trump could lead us, if he runs again, into a kind of civil war. It’s quite possible. The people who have all the guns in America support that man. I don’t have a gun.

I have to say it’s been such a joy to be in London. It’s probable you can hear a dozen different languages, different accents when you walk from one place to another. There is still a happiness and optimism that exists here. It’s so refreshing.

Contributor

Sarah Crompton

The GuardianTramp

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