"Stranger Things" star Matthew Modine has worked with many of the film industry’s most respected directors, including, Oliver Stone, Sir Alan Parker, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Alan J. Pakula, John Schlesinger, Tony Richardson, Robert Falls, Sir Peter Hall, Abel Ferrara, Spike Lee, Tom DiCillo, Mike Figgis, Jonathan Demme, and John Sayles. He’s been nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and is the recipient of one for Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts. Modine is well remembered for the part of "Joker" in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and the title character in Alan Parker’s film Birdy which won the Cannes Film Festival's Gran Prix Award. His work in Alan Rudolph’s Equinox helped earn the film four Independent Spirit Award nominations including Best Film and Best Actor. He is the recipient of a Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup and a Golden Lion Award. Recent films include "47 Meters Down", Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Sicario: Day of the Solado." Boy Scout talked to Modine about faltering news platforms, cultural heritage, and how he would like to be remembered.
Boy Scout: If you arrived in New York City in 2019 filled with great ambition, how might you ascend to your artistic summit?
Matthew Modine: Today, NYC's probably not the first choice or destination for young, ambitious artists. It's too expensive to live and pursue a career here. Most artists come from very humble backgrounds and could never afford to live in the city. It’s certainly not the city it was when I arrived in ’79. I think the fall began when Giuliani Disneyfied Times Square and outlawed dancing in clubs and bars. Laws were passed to help landlords push the working-class out of Manhattan. Then Home Depot and Kmart arrived. All of a sudden Starbucks were on every corner, next door to a Dwane Reade, which was next door to a bank, which was next door to a finger nail salon. You couldn’t tell the upper east side from the upper west. The characters on the streets, the little cafes, the dives, the clubs, the acting classes, the street performers, all those NY, colorful elements have been pushed out. New Yorkers didn’t used to measure you so much by the size of your wallet but more by the content of your character. Your street smarts. That seems to have all vanished.
Boy Scout: In a time of faltering news platforms, transient facts and generations who opt for digital currency over great literature, how will the stories of those that came before us survive?
Matthew Modine: That’s a good question. It’s so easy to create an internet-myth today. George Orwell would be shocked to see that his nightmarish vision of the future has actually become reality. It’s also too easy to destroy a persons reputation today. The speed of the internet can ruin a person's name and character faster than a California wildfire. The stories of those who came before will be told through live music and theatre. Live performances can’t be diluted or rewritten by the witnesses of the performance.
Boy Scout: With the eradication of many of New York City’s cultural landmarks through hyper-gentrification, an act that seems to be eroding the soul of many cultural capitals, will our artistic heritages be confined to yellowing newsprint and the libraries of the past?
Matthew Modine: My wife always reminds me of this; one thing we can be sure of is that tomorrow will be different from today. Hyper-gentrification is part of our present. But it doesn’t have to control the way we think or the way we live our daily lives. And this gentrification is not just happening in NYC. The elimination of culture, as we knew it, is happening in every city in the US and it’s happening in most every major city around the globe. It’s the homogenization of humanity. It’s ironic how we love people that break the rules when in reality, the bulk of humanity is much more comfortable finding warmth in the middle of a herd. It's not a criticism, its just that way. There's safety there. But change rarely happens there. Change happens on the edges of society. Out there with the outliers. Those people like George Bernard Shaw who say, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” I like to keep company with those folks.
Boy Scout: Where do you find your motivating heartbeat? In the quiet of the country or the pulse of the city?
Matthew Modine: I’m much more motivated when I’m in a place where I have to work to understand what’s being said. It forces me to listen more and look for physical clues from those around me. Italy is my preferred quiet place.
Boy Scout: The late Harry Dean Stanton beloved “Everything is predestined. Nothing is important. Life is an illusion. It’s all a movie. Nobody’s in charge” which is lovingly referred to as his Appreciation of Nothing. Do you have a guiding life philosophy that keeps you on the path?
Matthew Modine: I love Harry. Especially his singing. Totally unique. Personally, I don’t think anything is predestined. And life certainly isn’t a movie. An illusion? I don’t think so. If you wrongly perceive the world or misinterpret what’s happening around you, it probably has more to do with a personal desire to reject what’s actually in front of you. I find good counsel from the Stoics. They helped me to live in accord with nature, to understand self-control and fortitude. Why the present is the only thing to worry about because that’s all there really is.
Boy Scout: Was there a moment in your artistic life where you took an out-of-character risk and it transformed you?
Matthew Modine: I started a theatre in Los Angeles, it was called the New Mercury Theatre, in honor of Orson Welles and his company of actors. It was there that I directed Twelve Angry Men with Wallace Shawn, F. Murray Abraham, Kevin J. O'Connor, Seymour Cassel, Jeff Corey, and Leo Penn. Jeff and Leo were actors that had been black listed because they'd refused to give names during the McCarthy hearings. In addition to directing, I was also producing. It was quite and endeavor. Reginald Rose's play is about thinking rationally, rather than emotionally. This entire production had a profound impact on my character and my perspective. I am forever grateful to the actors and all those who worked on, and contributed to, the production.
Boy Scout: The last couple of years has seen a country divided. Has the current political climate inhibited or infused your work?
Matthew Modine: It’s made me more conscious of the power of words. There's so many things this administration has said that has made me hear more deeply. Half a century before Christ was born, Confucius warned us, “When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.” We have to hold people accountable for not just what they do, but for what they say. Confucius is also the author of the Golden Rule, “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself.” Imagine how peaceful the world would be if we could live by that simple rule.
Boy Scout: You have flown the world for work, what have your recent travels taught you?
Matthew Modine: Mostly that people are pretty much the same the world over. While we eat different foods and speak different languages, we all want the same things. A warm bed, food, a place to call home where we can raise a family and provide a better life for our children. Materialism is the greatest obstacle humanity faces. With over 7 billion people consuming the earth's resources, we’d need a whole other earth to satisfy our consumption of her finite resources.
Boy Scout: Does a world of hyper social media intrude on your ability to be your artistic self?
Matthew Modine: I’ve recently taken a hiatus from social media. It’s wonderful to get away from it. The new program on iPhones is really good because it tells you how much time you’re losing responding to comments from people you usually don’t even know.
Boy Scout: Has your bravery grown through the ages?
Matthew Modine: My god, I hope so.
Boy Scout: In a media mad world, can sincerity still be a virtue?
Matthew Modine: I’m not sure sincerity has ever been a virtue. In plays and films sincerity is presented as a virtue. I think when television brought the news into our homes (and it got worse with the 24-hour news cycle) politicians brought their phony sincerity into our lives and we’ve all become hyper-cynical because of it. We've grown suspicious of sincere people. Jesus was sincere. Gandhi was too. Martin Luther King as well. Look what happened to them. Based on the fact that they were murdered, I think its safe to say people are hateful toward sincerity.
Boy Scout: What is your greatest fear?
Matthew Modine: Fear itself. It’s a pretty useless emotion.
Boy Scout: What is your most marked characteristic?
Matthew Modine: I wouldn’t want to look too deeply into that question. Imagine if you never saw a reflection of yourself. What would you look like inside your mind? How would you draw yourself? Probably a lot different than you imagine.
Boy Scout: What do you most value in friendships?
Mathew Modine: Loyalty and honesty.
Boy Scout: Who are your real life heroes?
Matthew Modine: Cari Modine.
Boy Scout: Abraham Lincoln said: “To summon up our better angels.” What are the words you live by?
Matthew Modine: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates said this when he was brought to trial for corrupting the youth of Athens. His prosecutors never imagined he’d say something so defiant. They thought he’d be compliant and go into exile to save his own life. But, not fearing death, he basically said, “Look man, if you want to kill me for educating, go ahead. Otherwise I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing.” He's another example of a sincere person that got poisoned by assholes.
Boy Scout: What is your greatest regret?
Matthew Modine: I’ve said 'no' too much. But that would have made me a different person. So I have no regrets.
Boy Scout: How would you like to be remembered?
Matthew Modine: Memories fade. We all turn to dust. Theres a million-billion atoms in a speck of dust. The fear of death and the unknown is probably the most silly form of materialism. We’re all here because a star exploded. Forget about Jesus. If you want to worship something, worship the stars that exploded and died and turned into a bazillion-gazillion atoms so that they could have the chance to experience life as a human being.
Boy Scout: You are incredibly active on social media and much like your work, unabashedly political. Your point of view alone makes you a national treasure. Can you describe what the commitment of artistic endurance means to you?
Matthew Modine: It’s funny when an actor is attacked or criticized for political opinions. Movies, music and plays are innately political. Always have been. We are the jesters that speak truth and thumb our noses to power. We question everything. I endure because I know there's something coming.
Could be... Who knows? There's something due any day-- I will know right away, Soon as it shows. It may come cannonballing down through the sky, Gleam in its eye, Bright as a rose. Who knows?
It's only just out of reach, Down the block, on a beach, Under a tree. I got a feeling there's a miracle due, Gonna come true, Coming to me!
Could it be? Yes, it could. Something's coming, something good, If I can wait. Something's coming, I don't know what it is, But it is Gonna be great! (Thank you Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Soundheim)
Boy Scout: Anthony Bourdain’s wrenching “Parts Unknown” finale takes place in New York’s lower East Side where a good deal of your history resides. In that episode, Lydia Lunch says: “People were beautiful, doing things because they had to do it—not because of any other grand idea. Happiness was not the goal; satisfaction was the goal, as it still is. . . . We had to do something because we were burning; our blood was on fire.” Lunch made very clear that in the present day, she wastes no time pining for that bygone time—but Bourdain seemed a little more wistful. Are you ever wistful for an older, grittier New York?
Matthew Modine: Yeah. But I don’t want to sound like some old dude saying everything was better back when. I still HAVE to do my thing. No matter how much the city changes, I’ll still be me. If I don’t find inspiration from from the city and the people, I’ll move away from it. Your home should inspire and feed you. If that’s all dried up in NY, then maybe it’s time to find a new home.
Boy Scout: There is no shortage today of hands and mouths in need. With your deep interest in a green planet, Wounded Warriors and Aids charities, how do you give back? Are there other issues near and dear that you support? Are you currently aligned with an organization of charity?
Matthew Modine: I applaud the work of Gods Love We Deliver, and so many organizations that work to protect the oceans and the creatures we share the world with. It’s an uphill battle. Sometimes it feels like a futile battle. But, we should do what we can, whenever we can, to alleviate suffering.
Boy Scout: You’ve been tapped to star in the spy drama Surveillance. Given the current state of affairs, this sounds close to the political bone?
Matthew Modine: Hopefully the show will help illuminate the political situation within the NSA, CIA, and the people that make decisions that effect the lives of so many.
Boy Scout: Please share decadent details of these current endeavors:
Sanctuary This 8 part show could be a pretty good thriller. I run a "Sanctuary" filled with psychopaths. One of them is an identical twin. Her twin comes to visit one day, and the psychopathic twin asks the normal one to switch places. Of course she refuses, so the psychopath drugs her sister and escapes. The normal sister wakes up and discovers what has done to her. She tells my character what has happened, and of course he doesn't believe her, because denying you're a psychopath is what a psychopaths do.
My Love Affair with Marriage This is an animated feature film that my production company, Cinco Dedos Peliculas is producing. It incorporates music, theatre and sculpture techniques. The story, written and directed by Signe Baumane, follows a woman on her personal journey through several marriages, both imagined and real.
Foster Boy I play a lawyer at the center of a trial in which a for-profit foster care agency puts a known sex offender into the same foster home as my young client (Shane Paul McGhie), with catastrophic results.
Miss Virginia This is a story about a struggling mother (Uzo Aduba) who sacrifices everything to give her son an education. Her son’s in a dangerous school where he’s struggling to learn, so she launches a political movement that might save his future - and that of thousands like him.
Chance This is a film based on a tragic, true story. Baseball and teen suicide.
The Martini Shot I play God. He calls himself, Steve. He's dying. His psychiatrist tells him directing a movie might cheer him up, so he does. He casts some of his favorite actors, who happen to be dead, to play the leads. Steve travels all around Ireland making a movie that is kind of like the last film Orson Welles made. It was a great pleasure to work with John Cleese and Derek Jacobi. The writer/ director, Stephen Wallis, is a great pleasure to work with. The film also stars Fiona Glascott (Brooklyn) and Stuart Townsend.
To learn more about Matthew Modine, visit him here Photograph of Matthew Modine by Mackenzie Stroh Photography | Artistically reimagined by Marcel Mutt for Boy Scout Magazine