Since I last interviewed the prolific and prodigiously talented Vincent D’Onofrio six months ago, the hardworking actor hasn’t slowed his pace one bit. He has half-a-dozen projects in the pipe and currently two movies in release: The Cell, in which he plays a serial killer, and Steal This Movie!, the Abbie Hoffman biopic starring D’Onofrio as the prankster radical.
When we met for this interview, the La Meridien Hotel in Los Angeles was abuzz with cops and federal agents on call for the Democratic National Convention. The irony was not lost on D’Onofrio who spoke at length about Hoffman, apathy and what’s not funny about sex with baked goods.
When I saw you at Sundance, you said you needed to take a break. It doesn’t seem like you’re taking one.
I wasn’t allowed to. When was that?
This year. It was Happy Accidents.
Yeah, I wasn’t allowed to, I guess. Yeah. I have no answer for that. I wasn’t allowed to.
Are there any actors or actresses you haven’t worked with yet who would be a dream co-stars?
I just worked with Jodie. That was like a dream. Jodie Foster. I’d like to work with her some more. Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys. I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a few. I just can’t think of them. (Zips his lip.)
Okay. You have Steal This Movie! and The Cell in theaters. What else do you have on your plate?
Happy Accidents is coming out. They’re looking for a distributor. Impostor. We’re still finishing. They’re in post. That’ll be done probably by the end of next year. Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys. Salton Sea, which I just wrapped. Can I talk about that? It’s with Val Kilmer. He played the lead in that, and I play a character named Pooh Bear, a methamphetamine dealer. I put on forty pounds for that, and I’m taking it off now. That’s why I’m a bit big. Val’s great. I love Val. He’s very, very good. Yeah. And Deborah Unger. She’s a good actress. There’s one! I like her. She has substance. Thank God I thought of someone.
Is there a role you wouldn’t take?
I’ve never played a racist. I never expect to play one. I was asked by John Singleton to play a racist, but I refused. It’s a difficult question to answer. I can’t forget that what I do for a living is entertainment. So, it has to be a pretty strong issue for me to refuse. And only because I have children and because I grew up a bit in Miami which I considered back then when I grew up part of the South that I have strong opinions when it comes to intolerance. There’s not much that I wouldn’t try to get away with as long as it was written well.
Is the writing what attracted you Steal This Movie!?
I read the script, and I liked it. And I liked it because it didn’t read like a biopic. It read like a drama to me which to me consists of sometimes a love story. It consists of fears and hopes and faith and denials and pain and human tragedy and joy and celebrations and it’s all this stuff that dramas are made out of for me. That’s why I did it. And I always looked at it as well as a kind of story of a man’s emotional life. I mean, sure we depict these events that take place and it does happen in the time that it happened when the air was very thick with this kind of countercultural revolution. But I approached it as a drama. Solely as a drama. A story about a man’s emotional life.
Was there a particular trait or personality quirk of Hoffman’s that you connected with?
He had so much charisma, this guy. He’s like a little rock star. We don’t go around thinking we have a lot of charisma, do we? No, we go around, you know, “I changed my baby’s diaper, I worry about my daughter, and I try to keep excitement in my relationship with my wife.” I don’t walk around thinking, “Boy, I have as much charisma as Abbie Hoffman.” But, I can act, and I have confidence in that. So I had to find what little I had or I felt I had and bring it up to his level. I know one of my tasks as an actor was to bring my own charisma up as high as I could to match Abbie’s. That was an immense task for me because I’m a bit introverted. That’s why I’m not at the political convention. That’s why I’m not doing what Troy Garity and his dad (Tom Hayden) are doing. I’d get up in front of the microphone and I’d feel like a fraud. I’d feel shameful, and I’d feel like a fraud.
What prompted you to attach yourself as executive producer to it as well?
Just to protect. My partner Ken Christmas and I came on as producers in negotiations to be able to be another creative person involved in the decision-making during production in addition to the director. I’m not talking about going up against the director. If the director says walk over there and make sure you’re in the light, then the executive producer walks over there and makes sure he’s in the light because he’s the actor at that point. He listens to everything the director says… unless the director’s an idiot and then you roll the window up on him while he’s talking to you.
I always trusted Robert, but what you do is you become a team. I’m talking about a team effort. Directors have some say in artistic and creative decisions that are made, but in the end, the producers make the decisions. I mean, unless you’re like some kind of like Truffaut or Martin Scorsese or Francis Coppolla or Woody Allen. There’s only like a few names you can throw out there that actually have a say.
Were you instrumental in casting Janeane Garafalo?
There were a lot of names floating around, but there are so few actors her age who have any kind of weight, character, that are kind of heavy, that have substance, you know? You actually believe that Janeane Garofalo could get up and support a man like Abbie, that she could stick up for her rights. You actually believe that. I mean, who else is around that you would really believe it in real-life? Who, really? Come on. Everybody else would be like, you know, you know, who knows, you know? Janeane was the only one. (Director) Robert (Greenwald) brought her name up and I was like, “There we go. That’s the one. That’s the one.”
She did great. She did as much work as I did as far as research. Robert was able to put a camera on Janeane and let the camera roll, and he’d ask her questions, and she’d answer him back improvising in character with factual answers. She was amazing. So he’s got all this footage of Janeane talking as Anita.
How much research did you have to do?
Tons. I had a lot of access to it, though. I had a lot of help from Robert. He had already collected so much information. My hotel room was like a library. I mean it was just full of tapes and film footage audio tapes from radio shows. Of course, I had every book that Abbie wrote. I had every book that was ever written about him, or that he was even mentioned in. I think I had most of them. I had Internet access to newspaper articles and I had a lot of photography, and I had the people, his friends, his loved ones, you know.
Including Anita Hoffman?
I had contact with everybody. It was quite a thing. I had Anita. She was there. Yeah. I had Stew and Judy Albert. Stew was very close to Abbie. I had Jerry Lefcourt, his lawyer, who was very helpful to me. I used to call on him a lot. Jerry was in a lot of the interviews that we actually recreated in the movie. He was also present in a lot of the documentary footage that I was watching of Abbie, so I was able to go through some of that with him and ask, “What are you saying there?” I mean, “What are you guys whispering to each other.” “Are you lying right there. What is that?” All this kind of stuff. And then, Tom Hayden was there.
How did Hayden respond to the recreation of those events in his life?
You should’ve been there the night Hayden came. He had just gotten back from Ireland, dealing with the IRA. He did this impromptu speech on the street in front of all the Canadians about Canadian politics and all the shit back in the ‘60s. I mean, Tom can go on-and-on about fucking anything. You just name it. He always knows exactly what happened and who was to blame. He’s like one of those dudes. And then at the end of it, he did this kind of impromptu sermon about what we were doing and he looked up at Abbie and, ah, he just said all these things and it was just so moving. It was just so moving. I mean, it sounds like it’s a bunch of Hollywood people just being pretentious, but if you were there, man, your eyes would’ve been full of tears. I’m telling you. It was quite something. Really something.
Do you think it affected you so much because you were merely recreating it, while Tom Hayden had lived it?
He’s the confirmation that these things actually did happen. I mean, sure, there’s footage of it and you read about it and people tell you stories about it, but these are the cats that were actually there. These people were there! They did it. They walked up to the soldiers and said, “We’re gonna join hands and scream and chant, and we’re gonna levitate the Pentagon. It’s gonna make all the evil spirits rush out of it.”
Do you know that there were actual soldiers in the Pentagon that were actually nervous and stood by the windows and watched to see what would happen? It’s a true story. We have footage of one of the secretaries, one of the higher ranked military guys there who in the interviews says that he was actually pacing in his room he was so nervous. Staring out the window because they actually thought what would happen if all these people join hands and try to levitate the building. They actually made them nervous! Which is quite funny, but it’s pretty profound considering what happens these days.
You read this stuff, but I think it’s so hard for our generation to understand that you can actually, as a citizen, raise issues and raise them that loud. I mean, sure there are demonstrators at the convention right now -- I mean Troy (Garity) could come in here and tell you all kinds of things they’re doing, and I’m sure they’re doing great stuff. But the only thing that’s going to get kids from all around our country to travel across the country and join up with a few kids who are yelling and screaming about what the government’s doing -- the only thing that could make kids travel across the country these days is like a Britney Spears concert or something. I mean can you imagine that happening today? What they did? “Okay, let’s get together and you know what we’ll do? We’ll levitate the Pentagon.” Can you imagine thousands of kids travelling across the country to levitate the Pentagon? I mean, it’s a fucking joke, you know, it would never happen today.
Do you think it would take the threat of being sent across the world to get killed to galvanize the youth?
But we still do that! We still send kids to fight wars that are about money. I mean, when are we gonna realize that until somebody attacks our shores, it’s only about money? And even then it’s about money but it’s about the other people’s money, not ours. When are we gonna realize that?
Will Steal This Movie! speak to the kids of the Britney Spears’ generation?
I hope so. I hope so. In the end, that’s the only statement I think that we have to say. It’s: “Don’t forget.” Don’t forget that you’re in a country where as a citizen you can get up and say that I love my country, but I hate my government. And these are the things I disagree with. Don’t forget that. That’s the only thing that I think we say in the end in our film. We take you on this kind of dramatic journey of this man’s life, but after that, the only statement is “Don’t forget.” Don’t forget that as a citizen, you can challenge your local government, you can challenge your federal government.
Are they gonna want to see a movie that says something like that or shine it and watch American Pie 2: Pie a la Mode?
I’m forty-one-years-old, and I got kids; I got nephews, and I think I still know what’s funny and what’s not, I don’t think fucking a pie is funny.
Do you prefer Hoffman’s sense-of-humor? More absurdist satire?
I think I like irony. I like messing with the truth. I think that’s funny. I think slapstick has been around for a long time and when I was a kid The Three Stooges used to make me laugh and watching some kid fuck a pie is just reminds me of like The Three Stooges rated-X or something. It’s just not funny to me. But that’s okay, you know. That’s okay. Because that movie made a lot of money, and I’m in the entertainment business just like they are, so I got nothing bad to say about anybody making any kind of silly movies. They’ve been making them since I started my career. When I started, they were making Brat Pack movies. Now they’re making them again, so, I really have nothing to say about them. I made one of them, Mystic Pizza. But you can only hope that the films that you do have something to say and the other ones are just entertainment, you know? I do films that are entertainment all the time.
What makes you laugh?
I’d much rather see time spent on throwing the truth back at society and saying, “See how foolish we are? You wanna laugh? Laugh at this. This is us. This is funny.” That’s what I think is funny. And I think the best comedians, stand-up comics like Janeane, do that kind of humor. We need the truth thrown back at us. It’s the only thing to me that’s funny. To see how ridiculous we are.
Yeah. Like all great satirists, Hoffman and the antics of Yippies held a mirror up to society, themselves included, and said, “Take a good long look at all that ridiculousness.”
That’s what those guys were so good at. Especially Abbie and Rubin. It’s debatable who really did it the best, the West Coast or the East Coast, but let’s talk about the East Coast, since I know a little bit about that. They got in your face with what they didn’t believe, but they would do it in a funny way. They would make a joke out of it. And at the same time as they are laughing at their own joke; the interviewer would be sitting there kind of baffled on how to react because he’d be representing like ABC or something like that. At the same time, Abbie’s saying, “We don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this, we don’t like this…blam!” Right in their face.
It does two things. It makes you as the interviewer not be able to say to me that I do not take myself too seriously, okay? Also, it makes you not be able to say to me that I don’t take myself seriously enough because I’m naming all these issues at the same time. And also, it gives me the right to be happy even though I hate certain things. That hating doesn’t necessarily lead to violence.
It’s like a great attack. It should go down in history as better than Napolean divide-and-conquer shit. It’s enormous. Because it’s like a shield, yet it’s open. It’s like this dual thing. It’s fantastic. It did so much damage to our society in such a good way. That attack that they did. Doing it on the news. Doing it in the public. Being constant, constant, constant with it all the time. Smiling in the face of adversity. Laughing. There’s nothing more annoying to the federal government than somebody that’s trying to spread love and joy and be irritating at the same time, saying, “We hate you, but we love you!” There’s nothing more annoying to the government than that.