The Bit Player

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

I'm not the celebrity type,” says Vincent D'Onofrio, and he does not lie. His is a household name in very few neighborhoods; it appears in film credits buried just beneath those of actors more famous, or just luckier. Rare is the filmgoer who utters the words, “Dude, let's go check out the new D'Onofrio movie.” On the movie-star food chain, Vincent D'Onofrio sits somewhere between Donal Logue and Matthew Modine. He is the quintessential character actor: Onscreen, in a film like Men in Black or Full Metal Jacket or the just-released The Cell, he can fill a theater like air conditioning. He can score from the sidelines, stealing movies from those more famous, men and women who glide by on a smirk and a wink. Off-screen, he is nearly anonymous.

It's quite possible that Vincent D'Onofrio is as endowed an actor as Sean Penn or Robert De Niro or John Malkovich. It's possible, if not likely, the 40-year-old ranks among the most talented actors of his generation. But who can tell? He is handsome but not beautiful, charismatic but not commanding, confident but not cocky, gifted but not flashy.

“I am,” he says simply, “not a showboat.”

Vincent D'Onofrio, an actor somewhere beneath the layers
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

D'Onofrio has had small roles in big films (JFK, Malcolm X), big roles in small films (Claire Dolan, The Whole Wide World), and he disappears into all of them until he becomes the guy you recognize, but only as a half-remembered dream. He has been directed by Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Oliver Stone, and Spike Lee; he has starred alongside Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, Robin Williams, and, now Jennifer Lopez. He is better than all of them, and still, you probably have no idea who he is, which is a shame -- though it couldn't bother D'Onofrio less. After all, once the character actor becomes famous, he is doomed. He becomes complacent, smug, lazy -- in other words, Bruce Willis. For someone like D'Onofrio, it is better to thrive in the shadows than melt in the sun.

“Do you wear a hat?” he asks, by way of explaining himself. “If you go to a hat store, right, and you see a really nice straw Stetson and you put it on, you feel different. That's why I do the things I do.”

He possesses the résumé of a man who likes to work, even if it means appearing in films no one outside his immediate family will ever see: The Blood of Heroes, Signs of Life, Hotel Paradise, Guy, Naked Tango, Fires Within, Crooked Hearts, Salt on Our Skin, Imaginary Crimes. It goes on and on, enough movies to fill Cinemax's schedule for months. He played a dirty cop in Katherine Bigelow's end-of-the-century rave Strange Days; showed up briefly and brilliantly as Orson Welles in Tim Burton's Ed Wood; got to beat the hell out of Keanu Reeves in Feeling Minnesota; and was murdered by movie studio executive Tim Robbins in Altman's The Player. In one movie, 1997's Good Luck, he played a blind ex-NFL star who joins a wheelchair-confined Gregory Hines in a white-water raft race. In another he played the brother of Al Franken's dysfunctional Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley.

The man makes more movies in a single year than most people see in twelve months, and even then, most of D'Onofrio's films languish on the shelf; they're so often released direct to obscurity. Two films due for release last year, Happy Accidents and Spanish Judges, remain nowhere in sight, and since then he's completed work on half a dozen other movies, including the just-released The Cell, the Abbie Hoffman biography Steal This Movie! (he plays the radical organizer like a tornado), the forthcoming sci-fi thriller Impostor, the revenge drama The Salton Sea, and a film version of Chris Fuhrman's novel The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.

He may not be proud of every single film in which he has appeared (“Sorry about that,” he remarks when informed that his interviewer has seen most of the movies on his résumé), but he is not ashamed that every single one defines him.

“I just kind of carry it all with me,” D'Onofrio says, sounding softer over the phone than he ever has onscreen. “It's a character actor's career, and I'm really proud of it. I think I've really maintained an eclectic career, and it's something I just want to keep at the same level and keep doing the same kind of hard work. I think of it as kind of ... no, not kind of. It is my history, so I've been very fortunate, but it helps me to know that I have a history in acting. It's all kind of different kinds of character work, and it helps me along, because I'm not the kind of actor who has to worry about box-office receipts. It's not like the big studios sit around and go, “We've got to put another D'Onofrio movie out.' I'm just a hired gun, and I want it to continue that way.”

If he is known at all, it's for two roles: Marine recruit Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence in Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Full Metal Jacket, and Edgar in Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black a decade later. In his first role, as a Marine suffering through basic training before getting shipped off to Vietnam, he is barely visible beneath layers of fat; his whole body jiggles, even his fleshy nose. Leonard's eyes are dim, a sky devoid of stars, and his mind is empty, especially an hour into the movie, when the mad Marine shoots his drill instructor and then swallows his own rifle. But it's less a performance than it is a photograph brought to whimpering life: D'Onofrio's transformation from man to menace takes place so quickly, so inexplicably, we're shocked by his suicide but hardly moved by it. As Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker in 1987, Leonard is “no more than a comic horror, like a sad, fat crazy in an exploitation film.”

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