PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Matthew Modine

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Matthew Modine talks about his recent stage projects, including the showbiz satire Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas, now playing in L.A.
Matthew Modine
Matthew Modine

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When someone puts your name in the title of a play, is it a compliment or an insult?

That's what actor Matthew Modine had to decide when playwright Blair Singer handed him a copy of Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas to read. The lead character has the same name as the star of the films "Married to the Mob" and "Full Metal Jacket," but he isn't exactly an exemplary figure. Instead, he's a callow celebrity desperately trying to boost his career by participating in a publicity scheme in which he tries to save a rare breed of Chimborazzi Alpacas on the verge of extinction. Fortunately, Modine knew the writer, and recognized the value of the showbiz satire that Singer had built around the actor. The show recently opened under the direction of John Rando at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeeles. Modine talked to Playbill.com about what it was like being the star, and the subject, of a play.

Playbill.com: I'd say it would be a brave actor who would star in a play that has his name in the title. Did it actually have your name in the title when they sent you the script?
Matthew Modine: It did.

Playbill.com: What was your initial reaction when you saw that title?
MM: I thought it was kinda funny. And then I think I had the same reaction initially that my son had when he read it, that this writer really hates me. Because it's not a character that's like me by any means. He's very shallow. It's the first time I've played a character that has no arc. He arrives at the same place he began in the story, just simple and vain and self-serving. But a nice guy. (Laughs) Playbill.com: When you met the playwright, did you ask him, "Why me?"
MM: We're both New Yorkers. We both happened to be in Los Angeles doing a show called "Weeds." He was one of the writers while I was doing an 11-show arc. He said he was a playwright and that's what he was really passionate about, and he would love to write a play for me. And that's been said to me a couple times over the 30 years I've been doing this. But this guy actually did it, and he came back with that play with my name on it. We thought about changing the character's name. But people's reaction who read it thought it should be Matthew Modine. Because the thing that was wonderful was how confusing it could be for people who saw the show, who think, well maybe that is me. By the sheer fact that I'm an actor, there are going to be things that happen to this character that I have in common with him. And the ugliness of the business, the way people become discarded and tossed like yesterday's cold gravy, I think the biggest stars in the business have experienced that at some point in their career.

Matthew Modine and Peri Gilpin
photo by Michael Lamont

Playbill.com: Some people have mentioned being reminded by this play of "Being John Malkovich," in the sense that Malkovich was in that movie playing himself, but the character was not anything like him. Did that occur to you, too?
MM: I didn't see "Being John Malkovich." Any comparison like that, I think it's like saying "Stagecoach" is like "The Searchers" because they're both cowboy movies. They're very different stories. People always look for comparisons. Playbill.com: Did it take long for you to say yes to the play?
MM: No. I thought it was a very funny play. I was on from the moment I read it.

Playbill.com: You've done quite a spate of plays in recent years, including Arthur Miller's Finishing the Picture in Chicago and To Kill a Mockingbird at Hartford Stage. Was that a conscious decision?
MM: Well, the opportunities arose, and I haven't been happy with the kind of film opportunities I've had. I've always wanted to work in the theatre, anyway. It's why I moved to New York when I was 18, it's why I studied with Stella Adler. I think some of the best roles ever written for the stage are for people who are the age I'm coming into. So, I thought I better get in shape, better get my chops up and be ready for the challenge.

Playbill.com: To Kill a Mockingbird was a great box office success at Hartford.
MM: It was a great experience for me. The adaptation we did is really true to the book and quite different in many ways to the film. There's stuff in that production that they couldn't put in a film in 1963, the first thing being some ambivalence from Atticus Finch to take the case, because of the danger of it. In the film, Gregory Peck is such a fantastic actor, but in the 1960, things were much more black and white. Good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black hats. There couldn't be any question that someone like Gregory Peck would take that case and not be ambivalent about it. In the book, Atticus says to his mother, "This is a case I hoped would never come my way." You can see there's a chink in his armor, and fear of taking a case or representing a black man who's accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s.

Peri Gilpin and Matthew Modine
Peri Gilpin and Matthew Modine
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