PEEPING AT TOM
By Robert Olen Butler
FAME Magazine - April 1990
Tom Berenger's got it; so why doesn't he flaunt it? The reclusive star of Someone To Watch Over Me and Platoon has always pared himself down to essentials, currently living far from the madding Hollywood crowd in South Carolina, where he resists the threat of imminent superstardom. Now in Alan Rudolph's eclectic hit Love at Large, Berenger opens up to Robert Olen Butler about life, love, and the pursuit of an Oscar.
It comes out almost accidentally. In his hotel suite in New York, Tom Berenger is talking about the scars he put on his face as Sergeant Barnes in Platoon, and he slides off into a story about a deformed child in the Philippine village where they were filming, how the child loved to ride on the actors' shoulders. Then Berenger says, "I tried to adopt a little boy once. His parents were murdered down in South Carolina."
As he explains that the infant was found in his car seat by the side of the road while his parents lay beaten to death in their house, Berenger's face angles away from me and his eyes narrow just a little. The naturalness of this gesture, the sense of a sudden depth in this handsome man with his down-home dress and cadence, seems to me to show what it is that makes him an enormously interesting actor. He yearns for the welfare of a strange child. He has four children of his own (two from his first marriage and two from this current one). Yet when he and his wife saw an orphaned child one night on the television, he found it a natural thing to say to his wife, "Let's do something about this," and he called a judge in Charleston and tried to open his home to the child.
This is not the sort of thing that goes on in Hollywood. But Berenger doesn’t live in Hollywood, after all, or even on Central Park West. He lives in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he married Lisa Williams, a real estate agent, after filming The Big Chill there. He is far outside any well-known clique of actors, socially or professionally. I wonder if his between-projects seclusion in Beaufort has held him back professionally, but I save that question until after we leave his suite.
He puts on a leather jacket and we head for the lobby. "It's a little stuffy in this place," he says, and he does not glance at the bar that, the night before, wouldn't let him in without a tie and coat. We get in a cab and go across town to Runyon's. ("I was sort of surprised when I met him," Elizabeth Perkins, his recent costar, tells me later. "He was sitting in a bar drinking a beer. He was like the boy next door - like everyone I went to high school with in Vermont. He immediately started talking about his wife and his kids. That's the kind of guy he is.")
At Runyon's we both seem more relaxed, sharing a devotion to the St. Louis Cardinals. The sportswriters are laughing at the bar, nursing their last drinks at lunch, and I ask Berenger if he feels that he's been considered an outsider by important people in the movie business who otherwise might have been helpful to him.
Here is the text of this answer: "Perhaps. But it's been too many years for me to care. You hear what I'm saying?" Set up our scene in a bar and give the lines to almost any actor, and he's play the clear objective: defiance, weary exasperation, hell-no-I won't-put-on-a-tie-for-your-goddamn-bar. But Berenger himself is full of the same kind of surprising subtexts that he brings to his portrayals on screen. He says their words with an unmistakable gentleness, with the tolerance of a man whose independence is genuine, a man who can work in a business that would like to make him into a lap dog or an ass-kisser or a pretty boy playing the same roles over and over, and still not lose a clear sense of himself.
Perhaps part of Berenger's independence comes from the way he began to act. He did it to win a bet. He was born in 1950 in Chicago and grew up on the South Side, the son of a printing equipment salesman. Thinking he'd become a journalist, Berenger went off to the prestigious journalism school at the University of Missouri. But then, as he puts it, "I got started on a bet with my roommate in college." The roommate challenged him to audition for a role. "I heard an ad on the radio to try out for the university play, which happened to be "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", and I got a lead part."
This turned out to be one of those extraordinary experiences for an actor, the kind that creates an instant passion for the profession. "We got a response to that play that I've only seen one other time in the theater. Like there's no applause when you come back out. The four of us come back out holding hands for a curtain call and there's just silence, and I'm like, 'Maybe they didn't like it. What's going on?' And then the clapping started, and they got on their feet for a standing ovation. And the director says, 'Boy, that's maybe the only time you'll ever see that in your career. That's better than a standing ovation. That's better."
Consequently Berenger moved to New York and studied at H.B. Studio, run by Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof. Up to that point, Berenger says, "sometimes I was good and sometimes I wasn’t'. This is where I learned technique." Then in 1975 he played the lead role of Jocko DeParis in the Circle Repertory production of "End as a Man", and for the second time Berenger encountered the phenomenon of the curtain call begun in stunned silence and ending in a standing ovation. "That production was really where it started," Berenger says. "Casting people and agents and those sorts of people started getting to notice me."
So Berenger's career began with a bet and was fueled primarily by a love of the work and a feeling for his audience. Add to that his own unaffected temperament and you have a rare actor who has readily backed away from the more superficial trappings of the business. The professional benefit of this attitude, as Berenger sees it, is the variety of roles he now can play. He's turned down many roles because he saw them as too similar to things he's already done. "I think that's how we should be as actors," he says. "Of course it's real easy in America - and maybe the rest of the world - to get stuck in one kind of slot. It's real comfortable. But it also becomes boring." He pauses to let that sink in, and then he adds the emphasis: "You know. Really boring."
He leaves no doubt that the avoidance of boredom has been a critical factor in the way he's conducted his career, though he quickly goes on to stress that "at the beginning they didn't know where to slot me, so you lose out on parts a lot of the times. They go, 'Well, I can't really picture him in this.' Now they don't care and they go, 'Yeah, he can do that.' So I see a variety of things now."
Sometimes he has to take roles in films that are "not that commercial. Just not that big a commercial sort of thing." Among those films likely to fall into that category is the current Love at Large, directed by Alan Rudolph, who made the brilliant but obscure Choose Me and Welcome to L.A. Berenger plays a truly goofy private eye, an ersatz Sam Spade with slicked hair and a guttural voice, a new persona altogether for him but in the service of a film that retains much of Rudolph's own wonderful sexual fantasy world.
The film Berenger completed late last fall is just as offbeat, an Irish production called The Field, directed by Jim Sheridan. Berenger plays an Irish-American businessman who runs afoul of the locals when he returns to Ireland in 1939, newly wealthy, and tries to buy a plot of land.
It's unlikely that either of these films will be equal to Platoon at the box office. Nor will the film he's presently shooting, about an amnesia victim, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the German who made Das Boot and Enemy Mine. But these roles certainly extend Berenger's already impressive range, which has included portrayals of a transvestite psychopathic killer (his first film, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, in 1977), a Hungarian lothario (In Praise of Older Women), the young Butch Cassidy (Butch and Sundance: The Early Days), a rock songwriter (Eddie and the Cruisers), a television star (The Big Chill), a Queens police detective (Someone To Watch Over Me), a reclusive mountain trail guide (Shoot To Kill), a priest (Last Rites), and a covert white supremacist (Betrayed).
The Big Chill, which he did in 1983, was a particularly fine experience for Berenger because it had the feel of the live theater days that originally excited him as an actor. Lawrence Kasdan brought the cast down on location to Beaufort, South Carolina, several weeks before shooting began. Berenger says, "We worked together as a group. We rehearsed scenes, and we did improvisations - hundreds of them - and it was great. By the time we started shooting we were real familiar with each other. It was like being back in the theater."
The Big Chill drew some very clear notice for Berenger's work as a Tom Selleck-like TV star. Ridley Scott, who later directed him in Someone To Watch Over Me, tells me, "His portrayal of the Hollywood television star was, in a way, the toughest part in the film to pull off. It would have been easy to allow the role to become cliché, and instead he handled it with the appropriate amount of reserve, vulnerability, and honesty. Oddly enough, for me he was one of the most arresting characters in a fairly formidable ensemble."
Remembered fondly, The Big Chill was not, however, a big box-office hit. Only two of Berenger's films were: Platoon, in which he played a ruthless sergeant in Vietnam, and Major League, in which he played an over-the-hill baseball player. In both movies Berenger's performances, fine as they were, more clearly were part of an ensemble than in any of his other films except The Big Chill.
Interestingly, in trying to describe what he saw in Berenger when he cast him in Platoon, Oliver Stone identifies him with the notion of "rural," though with a surprising connotation. Stone says, "He's a layered actor. I'd always seen him playing softer roles. There always seemed to be a bland side to the roles he played, but I sensed a hardness in him, a rural side, something tougher." Stone believes that South Carolina is a good choice for Berenger. "It's probably better that he lives there, if it gives him that edge. He's a very solid actor; he has a very strong future."
Platoon won Berenger a Golden Globe Award and, more importantly, an Oscar nomination. I ask Berenger if he believes the nomination helped his career. He shrugs. "I guess it helped, because I got three jobs out of it - Shoot To Kill, Betrayed, and Last Rites." But after a brief pause he adds, "And now it's meaningless."
Did this surprise him, the quick diminishment of Oscar's influence? "Not really. I don't think the awards ever have a lasting effect. I've seen people win one of those things, and soon after that they still have trouble working. You could win the silver star in Vietnam, and then ten years later the Pentagon doesn't give a shit about you."
It might sound from these words as if Berenger is dismayed by all of this. But his voice remains casual, and when I ask him directly if he was bothered by not yet having a big star-based commercial vehicle, his answer is surprising and convincingly natural. He stubs out one of a long chain of cigarettes and says, "I'm sort of at a stage really where it's like, What are my goals now? What is there for me to do now? Well, you do a different part. But maybe it's time to try a different business."
Berenger does not join me for a nervous laugh at this. He does not even smile. He keeps his face squared with mine and he leans just slightly forward and says, "I don't know what that something else might be, but maybe it's time to get out of acting and try something different."
What I have failed to pick up on is the theme of boredom. A successful actor's life is full of boredom, an aggressive boredom, made up of niggling emotional and physical irritations. It's an aspect of this business that is rarely talked about, but Tom Berenger is eloquent on the subject.
"I did four movies in a row, and there were all those walkie-talkies, those young production assistants just starting out in film. A lot of times it's like their first film, and it's amazing. They're running around with all this fucking energy, bouncing off walls with their walkie-talkies going real loud. You just want to grab them and go, 'Hey, calm down, relax, we've got ninety days of this. Ninety days, and running is not going to make anything go faster.'
"It's like, 'Don't come into the makeup wagon with that thing on. I don't care if you come in here -just turn it off.' They got the blow driers and the noise and shit and it's six in the morning and you hear the whine of the generators and the hum of the walkie-talkies and it's just the same old stuff."
Through the litany of complaint, Berenger keeps that gentle edge to his voice, as if he never even made the mild little reprimands to these young assistants.
Berenger stubs out another cigarette, and then suddenly he regains the vigor in his voice and his chin lifts just a bit and he says, "It's the same old stuff except when you get in front of the camera, right? Then it comes alive."
Alan Rudolph, fresh from working with Berenger, defines the actor's before-the-camera persona in terms of both Tom the talent and Tom the outsider. He says, "I think he's one of the undiscovered, really major talents. I say undiscovered even though he's made a lot of films, because he's not into self-promotion. So you won't see Tom posing for fashion magazines with all the hot clothes on. He doesn't play the game."
But contrary to a corollary expectation for an actor who doesn’t "play the game," Rudolph says that "Berenger was terrific to work with. He's totally unpretentious. And he's one of those guys who doesn't goof around with anyone, but he's a real giving kind of person."
"He's probably one of the most egoless actors I've ever worked with," says Love at Large's Elizabeth Perkins. "it is very refreshing to work with someone where it's all about the work. He does not have an ego on the screen. That allows him to just be - you never see him act."
Rudolph found that what Berenger was giving him in the making of Love at Large was a "sense of reality." As Rudolph explains, "Tom comes in and he's totally reality-based. He did research on private detectives. He probably could be one.
"Once we were walking down the street and we saw an actor walking on the opposite side and this guy was living a role, living a role for a film. He was walking down a city street and living the part of some cowboy or something. And Tom says, 'Oh look at so-and-so there, wasting it on the street corner. Not old Tom. He saves it for the screen.'"
Rudolph pauses to laugh with real affection and adds, "He reminds me very much of Spencer Tracy or Paul Muni, the classic actors. Sort of a no-bullshit attitude, a guy who understands the subtlety but won't celebrate it, doesn't do anything tricky. He understands the essence of things."
These qualities Rudolph perceived in Berenger were made an intimate part of their working relationship, were indeed proved in the director's use of his actor. Rudolph explains, "Tom was my anchor. He didn't impose that, but for me I would always kind of think about what I was doing through Tom. I'm a person who believes that film is evolutionary in its process. I never tell an actor, 'This is your reaction.' None of that. But when I was on a set on a given morning I would always think, 'How would Tom approach this?'"
A director can rely in this very significant way on Berenger because he seems always to have a clear, intuitive view of a character's secret self, the self that cuts against the grain of his surface. Berenger's good films are full of the subtle but telling proof of this.
I ask him how he does it, though I'm prepared for vagueness. "It's the research," he says of what is surprisingly his favorite part of the whole acting process. "That's the best part," he says. "It's quiet. I don't need other people around. You get to meet the people in the profession you're playing. Finally you've got someone talking other than yourself."
Then how does he proceed? "Usually you build the role from the inside out, but to tell you the truth, I'm willing to try anything. And the more difficult the part is, the more evasive it is, it's like, 'What can I do? What can I do? What can I try here to get an angle on it?'"
One of the things that Berenger often does to get into the role is to change some obvious external part of him, his appearance or his voice. The facial scars of Barnes in Platoon are one clear example, but so is the sergeant's Southern drawl. Berenger assumed a strong Queens accent in Someone To Watch Over Me, a clipped Northwest woodsman accent in Shoot To Kill, a flat Midwestern cadence in Betrayed, the croaking voice and brilliantine glint of hair for Love at Large. As Rudolph puts it, "What I like about Tom as a person and as an actor is that he needs to mess up. He needs to cannonball in the mud puddle. He doesn't want to be an eight-by-ten pretty boy. He understands the frailty and the complexity of the characters he plays."
Those complexities have carried over into real life. Berenger has had his share of career difficulties. He had a few very bad years, from 1979 to 1981. The roles stopped coming, and he says, "I was just scraping by financially, and emotionally I was getting really defeated. I got to the point where I could hardly go on auditions anymore."
And there was an incident that he recalls with some bitterness: After he'd starred or been featured in five films, casting people who hired him before placed him in the outer lobby in a cattle call with all the young actors who'd never made a movie. On that occasion, Berenger says he handed the script back to the secretary and told her to tell these men "who'd even broken bread at my house" to put the script "where the sun don't shine."
Subsequently, Berenger fired his representation and moved over to Creative Artists. The Platoon script found its way into his hands, and things opened up once again.
In his actor's world he's also begun to feel the sadness that is unique to his profession, the death of a fellow actor with whom he'd played deeply felt scenes. John Cassavetes played a father-image character for Berenger's street tough turned boxing contender in the television film Flesh and Blood. "He's the first actor I've worked with who's died," Berenger says. "That's going to start happening now. Early in your life you're not really accustomed to death a lot. My dad died, but there's a gap in there and you forget about death. You forget about it. But all of a sudden you're driving down a road in Oregon and you hear that Cassavetes has died. And you get to thinking back to scenes you had. Oh, man. He was a good guy."
There is a sweetness to Tom Berenger. It flows from his conviction that there are things far more important than celebrity and even the work of an actor. "There better be something other than this," he says. "You've got to have another life. You're always learning something or picking something up, either consciously or unconsciously. Because all your arts are really about life. You know?"