…is the best actor on television (TRUE) …is now known as “the new Law & Order guy” (TRUE) …gets paid millions of dollars (FALSE) …is a total babe magnet (SO CLAIMS OUR WRITER) …is a star (HMMM…)
By Jeanne Marie Laskas | Jun 1, 2003 | 3816 words
HE’S AN ACTOR. He’s an actor on the TV who has also been in a lot of movies, which people are often surprised to learn that they already sort of knew. On film, he has disappeared into more than forty weird and wondrous roles. But let’s start with the TV. Because that’s where most everyone starts now, with Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the third series in the Dick Wolf franchise. D’Onofrio plays Detective Bobby Goren, a guy who outthinks badass criminals and nails them with a brand of interrogation that is one part psychotherapy, one part smug smarts, one part bulldog. This is not really a crime show. This is not really a normal TV show at all. This is long speeches and portentous silences and close-ups of a face that speaks its own odd language. D’Onofrio brings something to the role that is, well, poetic. He puts commas in with a tilt of his chin. He adds line breaks with a bend at the waist. He gets a cadence going with a double beat of silence followed by a triple.
He does this all so subtly, I believe I am the only one noticing. It feels personal. It is something he and I share at 9:00 on Sunday nights, when we meet privately and he dances for me. It is very intense. It is not something I tell people. Who would understand? Whop He’s not even handsome. Or he might not be. He’s beefy. He’s beige. His nose is short. He’s just this guy who shows up on the TV and dances poetry for me while no one else is noticing.
HERE’S WHAT PEOPLE SAY when they hear about his movies: “He was that guy?” This is what they keep saying as you keep talking about his work. For instance, in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, he was the chunky grunt who murders his drill sergeant. A year later, he was seventy pounds slimmer, a fisherman swearing off sex with Lili Taylor in Mystic Pizza. He was the screenwriter killed by Tim Robbins in 1992’s The Player. He was the young Orson Welles in 1994’s Ed Wood. He not only inhabited each of these roles, but each time he reappeared onscreen, he weirdly and convincingly changed the way he looked, so that as an actor, he scarcely existed at all. He was Keanu Reeves’s loser brother in Feeling Minnesota. He was the giant, horrible bug-alien guy in Men in Black. JFK, Dying Young, Malcolm X–he’s amassed two decades of screen work, and before now just a little TV, but the kind of TV that haunts you forever and makes you want to sob quietly under a shade tree. Remember that Homicide episode with the guy stuck under the subway? Yeah, that guy.
IN HIS DRESSING ROOM on the Criminal Intent set at Chelsea Piers in New York, he is smoking Camels and talking about story. He is telling me this is his thing. Story. His voice is soft and makes you lean forward. He could be a beatnik. Then again, he’s six four and from Brooklyn. The kind of acting he discovered as a young man was Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness acting. He discovered guys who invented, guys who actually made new people exist, magicians who seemed to pull characters out of thin air. For a while, he made some money doing magic shows. But mostly he studied acting. He studied with Sonia Moore at the American Stanislavsky Theater and Sharon Chatten of the Actors Studio. He did little parts in big movies and big parts in indie movies. He loved the anonymity. It’s the only way a character actor can do his art, can disappear into his characters. He became an actor’s actor, and he loved what he had become.
But, really, three or four or five films a year just to make a living?
When Dick Wolf came to him a few years ago and offered him a five-year contract to be on TV, he signed. He signed the way a middle-aged man with a wife and a new baby signs. But did that mean he was done with the whole art thing? What exactly did that mean?
“It means it was a hell of a pitch,” he says now, at forty-three.
“It was more money than I could ever make as a character actor. I’m not a superstar. People get paid millions and millions of dollars. I don’t get paid millions and millions of dollars.”
He puts out his cigarette, waves away that last stinky part or waves away this money talk. Art, commerce. It’s every artist’s dilemma: how to make a living at art.
“It was story,” he insists. “The word intent is what caught my interest.” He could be channeling Brando now, his voice all raspy, his gaze distant. He seems to ponder each word before he allows it the freedom to roam around his own head. “You know, it’s called Criminal Intent. Not Criminal Justice. You know, it’s intent. Intent means why.”
“Right,” I say.
“A why-done-it is much more interesting to me than a who-or a how-done-it. You know? So I was intrigued. Plus the fact that Dick promised it would never get too soapy.” By soapy he means lovey-dovey, domestic. You can’t pull off that stuff on TV, he thinks. “We’ll throw out hints of Goren’s background, we’ll make him just fucked-up enough to keep people interested, but you’ll never meet his mom.”
“Exactly,” I say.
“Now, having said that, what that does for me as an actor, it gives me license to approach any given scene however I feel like it at the time. If Goren is depressed, he can be depressed; if he’s on an upswing, then he’s going to be overly obsessed or overly excited. It gives me license to go in any direction I want. Do you see? Do you know what I mean? Do you see how perfect that is?”
“I see,” I say, because I think I do. This is so intense. All this passion for a TV show. Earlier, I watched him do take after take of an eight-page scene including an interminably long speech, which he delivered over and over again flawlessly, gliding around the interrogation room with an ease that was as mesmerizing as it must have been maddening to the actors who couldn’t get their own small parts quite right. “You had a crisis ten years ago, you ran off to Europe, you kept it secret while you applied your wounded intellect to the problem, and this is what you came up with. And this!” It was like watching a seagull in the sky above or a dolphin in the deep blue sea; it was like watching the most natural act above or below the earth.
Which must have been quite something for Christopher Evan Welch, the young actor playing the lunatic, murderous eye surgeon Goren was quietly terrorizing. Welch had to repeatedly say things like “posterior subcapsular cataract” and “extracapsular cataract extraction,” none of which was rolling off the tongue, and so he was starting to sweat, his face beginning to droop in embarrassment. “It’s okay,” D’Onofrio told him, putting his hand on his shoulder, as he often puts his hands on people’s shoulders. He’s got that Italian touchy thing, that way of invading your personal space that feels aggressive and, well, glorious. “It’s why we have a lot of film,” he said to Welch. “It’s all right. I do it all the time. We all do it all the time.”
D’Onofrio runs this place. He coaches. He invents. This is his universe. In the morning he comes in and you see walkie-talkies go up: “He’s here. He’s in the building.” The other actors credit him for keeping the place sane, keeping the focus on the work, the days as short as possible, Monday through Friday, five days a week, for nine months. D’Onofrio is in virtually every scene of the show, so each night there are dozens of pages of dialogue to memorize. And so he’s got a commitment, mostly a commitment to keeping himself from going crazy–keeping the show running, keeping it running like a clock that just has to run. He insists on it. He’s a big guy everyone wants to keep happy.
Unlike the other shows in the Law & Order trilogy–the original series has a rotating door of featured actors–this one really is about D’Onofrio’s acting, and D’Onofrio’s acting is D’Onofrio’s vision. “I think in order to make this show work for him as an actor, he had to make it interesting for himself,” an executive producer says. “He totally created Goren. Totally. Now people come up to him on the street and they’re like, `The way you fuck with people’s minds–I love that! I love the way you get in there!’ But, you know, he brought that to the role. That was all him.”
He makes decisions. Like, he brought in that idea Wednesday, that idea he dreamed up the night before when he was reading through the scene, sitting at home in his cozy Greenwich Village apartment with his wife, Carin, and his three-year-old son. In the scene, he was supposed to be interrogating a schizophrenic guy. He got the idea to turn and see the guy in the mirror, and then to have the whole scene shot through the mirror, backward. He’s explaining this to me at great length. “Does this make sense?”
“Um,” I’m saying, because this is starting to make its own kind of sense.
“Because most of the things schizophrenics fixate on are oral, eyes, ears, nostrils, holes in walls, anything that breaks solid patterns,” he says, sounding so nonsensical yet so encyclopedic. This makes so much sense! He is so Bobby Goren, I could cry. Or if Bobby Goren went to acting school, this is who he’d be. He’d be Vincent D’Onofrio. Okay, this is starting to confuse me.
“So suddenly,” he says, “by shooting it like that, this gives the scene a very strong structure. Do you see? It has a transition from me trying to psychologically chase my guy’s train of thought around the room to me nailing how I can nail him. So I brought the idea in, and of course the director loved it, and then they decided how to shoot it, because I don’t get mixed up in that. I mean, sometimes I get mixed up in camera angles, but that’s only if we’re doing really conceptual stuff.”
Conceptual stuff. He exudes conceptual stuff, as does his character on TV. I wonder if this is why so many of the men I know don’t go gaga over his show the way women do. He’s got that poet/beatnik thing. That brooding intensity. Guys who don’t have that tend to get stomachaches watching guys who do, or at least watching women get so easily sucked in by it. But this is what he has. And now he’s on TV. And now he’s getting famous. I wonder if he is aware of any of this.
HERE IS WHAT REALLY HURTS:
My temp is rising just thinking about how seductive VDO can be, with just “A Look.” … I would love it if VDO would walk in to the store I manage, to, I don’t know, ask for directions, or to buy something lovely for his wife, Blech! Anyway, where was I, He comes in and realizes he can’t live without me … he gives me “The Look” … and carries me off into the sunset. Now, if that isn’t true Vincent Lust … I don’t know what is. VDO + The Look = Lust Baby!!!! –Jacqueline
I thought I was all alone…. I was captivated by his micro movements, for such a wonderfully big guy he has the gentlest movement and as the other ladies was saying his eyes and mouth are so eatable … He makes you want to crawl all over that big beautiful frame of his and enjoy, lol. He is the most perfect male I have seen in years. –Sadie
I know you hard core VDO fans know the look I’m talking about. Most superficially, it’s this eyes-just-barely-downcast thing, usually in fairly close proximity to whoever the leading lady is, and he’s just totally, breathtakingly transfixed by her mouth … Typically, when that occurs–that is when I become a puddle on the floor. –Tessie
I also dream of VDO at work imagining that he would stop by and I would say hello and he would look up with a shy awkward smile! jagged teeth and all, he is a gentle giant! Lust Lust Lust yup yup yup! he can bring that out in me any time! –Ruby
You could spend three days of your life reading messages like this in Internet chat rooms devoted to Vincent D’Onofrio and still not get through them all. I know this because I did it. These were three very horrible days. Sometimes when you read things, you realize you are a rookie so lowly, you may as well go home and soak your head. I concluded this when I got to the thread devoted to Vincent D’Onofrio’s dental health and his apparent recent decision to go with caps.
So, let me see if I can sum up … We fell in love with Vincent when his teeth were less than perfect … we yearned to be kissed, whispered to, licked, whatever by a mouth with a crooked imperfection here and there, a mouth we could identify as a possible lover … and now that the mouth is not what it used to be, we are disappointed … and … we admire a man who knows the f word, and isn’t afraid to use it especially when applying it to demands on changing who he is and what he finds important … the thought of him selling out makes us uneasy … but … we love him (and his little f word too) and want him to be healthy and happy and feel confident about that mouth we find so sensuous in any carnation … so, perhaps as we adjust to the new look and seeit used for something Other than a passage way for hypergenius spoutings we will learn to rethink the new mouth, find pleasure in the lips and danger in the bite. –Maigenn
I WONDER, SITTING HERE listening to Vincent D’Onofrio speak about his craft, if I should tell him that when I was ten years old, I wanted to marry Ruddy McDowall. That was my only other time falling so hard, so deeply, for a person who existed solely onscreen. Ruddy McDowall–a man most famous for his role in Planet of the Apes.
No, there is no reason he needs to know any of this.
I ask him if he knows that the character he plays on Criminal Intent is amassing a following.
“That’s nice to hear,” he whispers.
I ask him about celebrity. He has spent his whole career thus far avoiding celebrity. In fact, it was avoiding it that enabled him to become the actor that he became: a magician who could create characters out of thin air. You can’t do that if you’re famous. “You’ll be known as the Law & Order guy,” I say.
“I am known as the Law & Order guy.”
“Actually, right now I’m the Law & Order guy who people are now starting to realize has done twenty years of movies.”
“And when my contract is up, I’ll be the Law & Order guy who did all these films before and is now doing films again.”
But that’s crazy, I tell him. How can you disappear into a character if you’re famous? Doesn’t celebrity change something? At a minimum, something inside? “What’s the role of ego in this?” I ask.
“Ego?” he says. “Ego? No. The answer is no. I mean, the answer to that is no!”
Now I don’t understand my own question.
“There’s nothing to be egotistical about,” he goes on. “I mean, if my work is good, yes, it fills my ego. If I’m praised for my work and applauded for my work, then, yes, it gives me a momentary wow. You know, it’s nice when people clap. You take a bow, and you wish they’d just keep on clapping. It’s a really good feeling. But it’s not something … I can’t. Look, I can’t be a person other than the one I am. Because I’ll be stopped in my tracks. My wife will stop me. My sister will stop me. My mom will stop me. My best friends will stop me. They’ll stop me in my tracks.”
“If I start believing that I’m a really great actor, then I’m dead. Then I’m done. I don’t mean going down. I mean dead. Done.”
I nod, if only to let him know I believe him, which I do. I believe the words. I believe the intent. Here he is, becoming famous because this is just what TV does to even the most innocent souls. Becoming famous means becoming an image, a picture on the wall people can kiss or paint mustaches on. The thing is, you’re up for grabs. Art, commerce, fame, celebrity. This isn’t a circle that just automatically goes back to art again. So far, in the history of American celebrity, only Andy Warhol knew how to work the mess to his artistic advantage.
“That whole celebrity thing is nothing I ever have to worry about,” he says. “I think I’m okay. I’m okay. But–what are you getting at? Because I want to answer your question correctly.”
I repeat my point about his show amassing fans.
“I don’t get to talk to fans of the show very much,” he says, softly again. “Tell me some nice things.”
“Women,” I say. “Women seem to like your character because he’s … um.” See, I am having some trouble with the articulation.
“Tell me,” he says.
“Well, you’re kind of, you grow on us.”
“Because the first time you see him, it’s, um …”
“Kind of hard to take?” he says.
“Oh, no, no,” I say. “Not hard to take, it’s just that we feel sorry for you at first.”
See, that didn’t come out right.
“I mean, it’s not you,” I say. “It’s your character. He’s just not like …”
“Like, macho and stuff?”
“Oh, God, he’s totally not macho. Oh, God no, no, no, not even close to macho.”
See, that didn’t come out right, either. He looks profoundly disappointed. He’s got his gaze locked on his shoes, his hands interlocked as if he’s doing here’s-the-church-and-+here’s-the-steeple-open-the-doors-and-see-all-the-people. He could be disappointed, but then again he could be acting.
“There’s something very connectable,” I offer.
“That’s nice,” he says. And see, now he’s really doing it. He’s doing the bashful-schoolboy thing. It is an expression every female knows how to read. It is: Please, honey, give me more.
“Maybe because we feel sorry for you a little bit,” I say timidly, “so we’re rooting for you.”
“And that’s really, really alluring.”
“Women,” I say, offering the full dose of this slop that he really does seem to be drinking. “Women are wild for you. Are you aware of this?”
He looks at me, tilts his chin in that way he tilts his chin. He sits in silence. I sit in the silence. This is so intense. This is so intense. This is so intense. I get the sense I’ve made him uncomfortable and that perhaps we should go back to talking about story. He could be embarrassed, but then again he is a very, very good actor.
Finally he says, “Who?”
“I mean, how do you know this? How many women can you possibly know?” he says. “I mean, really. Do you know ten girls?”
“It’s more than ten,” I say.
“It’s twenty-five? I mean, how many could it possibly be?”
“More than twenty-five,” I say. “It’s just–a lot of women are wild for you. I know this for a fact.”
He considers this. He reaches behind his neck, rubs. “You know, there’s nothing inside me that minds that,” he says. “When we talk about it right now, there’s nothing inside me–like, there’s not a negative feeling that grows inside me.”
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