The Bit Player

Vincent D'Onofrio may be the best actor of his generation, but who would notice?

In Men in Black, D'Onofrio disappears beneath an entirely different suit, this one made of rotting flesh and insects that live up his sleeves. As Edgar, D'Onofrio was barely decipherable--he spoke as though his mouth were full of marbles and cockroaches--and hardly recognizable. (He explains that Edgar's accent is a combination of John Huston and George C. Scott.) A year earlier, D'Onofrio had given a remarkable performance as Conan the Barbarian's creator, Texan Robert Howard--a man tormented by his inability to fall in love with the one woman who could love him back. But in Men in Black, he was an actor cast as a special effect, a man in a monster suit.

“It sounds silly, but no matter what kind of character you're playing, you never pretend to be anything that you're not,” he says of playing a giant bug trapped in a human's skin. “What I did was as soon as I got the idea--this guy's frustrated and uncomfortable--I wondered how I could do that. I watched documentaries on bugs and animals and I'm thinking, “Oh, my God, how am I gonna do this?' I was walking by a sporting-goods store, and in the window they had these basketball knee braces, and I bought two of them. I put them on my knees, and I bent each knee slightly and taped them off so they couldn't bend back straight. Then I took all this duct tape, and I wrapped my ankles and my feet so I couldn't rotate my ankles in either direction. Then I just stood there with my knees slightly bent and my feet slightly bent and tried to walk, and that's how I came up with Edgar's walk. It's ridiculous work, but it works.”

His role as The Cell's serial killer Carl Stargher--a man who kidnaps women, drowns them in a holding tank, then bleaches their skin until they resemble a child's doll--similarly forces the actor to peer at the audience from behind a mask of makeup. He appears as both demon and snake, clad in horns and scales, and as the fey, frightening king of a demented land that exists only in his demented mind. It's sometimes hard to tell if he's any good in the role, because director Tarsem Singh has fabricated a movie in which visuals overwhelm actor and audience. Plot and performance are rendered meaningless in Singh's surreal dream world.

Vincent D'Onofrio,  an actor somewhere beneath the layers
L. Sebastian
Vincent D'Onofrio, an actor somewhere beneath the layers
"Do you wear a hat?" D'Onofrio, in last year's The Thirteenth Floor
"Do you wear a hat?" D'Onofrio, in last year's The Thirteenth Floor

Still, D'Onofrio takes nothing for granted, struggling to reveal a little humanity beneath the body paint and nipple rings; he finds the man, if not the tortured child, beneath the freak show. It's clear he prefers making films such as The Whole Wide World and Steal This Movie!, but he doesn't cheat even when acting against a blue screen. He speaks often of the work that goes into a role--the hours of research involved, the need to devour writings about and drawings by the criminally insane before shooting commenced on The Cell--the way an architect might before designing a skyscraper. D'Onofrio is a craftsman.

“Some of the roles I've played are more heartfelt, and some of them are just plain old hard work,” he says. “The Cell was just plain old hard work. I needed things to make sense for me. I needed to define the difference between me and these people who commit these horrible acts. I needed to know what defines us--where is the defining line between us and them--and to acquire that, I had to do this extensive nightmarish work and expose myself to the most horrific things. It was terrible.

“But when you do a story like The Whole Wide World, that's a love story. It's kind of like Steal This Movie!--it's about somebody that's real. Steal This Movie! is a drama, and The Whole Wide World was an unconsummated love story, yet they're about people who really lived, and those parts are very moving parts to play. There's so much inhuman stuff in The Cell, and to perform that is a task in itself. But to do these kinds of human stories, that's what I love most, because it has hope and faith and love and denial and joy and pain--all the things a good drama is going to have. I like that stuff the best.”

His finest performance can be found on the small screen: On December 5, 1997, he appeared on an episode of NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street as a man trapped between a subway car and the platform--a man who knows that in a few minutes, he will be pried loose and literally cut in half. It was an eloquent, grand performance writ small-scale: D'Onofrio could barely move, could barely breathe, yet he held his own against Homicide star Andre Braugher, one of the few American actors with D'Onofrio's range and rage. Watching them spar, two actors trading bruising barbs, was like watching a pay-per-view heavyweight fight; the only thing missing was Jim Gray, reporting from ringside. They pounded each other into submission, until they both lay battered and broken on the platform's canvas. “It was perfect,” D'Onofrio says of the experience.

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