10/22/00 Chicago Tribune
Arts & Entertainment
A CHAMPION CHARACTER
ACTOR DAVID MORSE KEEPS GETTING AWARD-WORTHY ROLES WITHOUT A CATEGORY
Gary Dretzka, Tribune Staff Writer
If, as it should, the Motion Picture Academy ever gets around to honoring character actors with an Oscar, David Morse easily could be one of the first so honored.
Last year, in a hotly contested race for Best Supporting Actor nominations, Morse -- still best known for his portrayal of the unfortunate Dr. Jack "Boomer" Morrison in St. Elsewhere -- was aced out by one of his co-stars in The Green Mile, newcomer Michael Clarke Duncan. His sensitive take on guard Brutus "Brutal" Howell was a gem of a role, which both supported and enhanced the flashier performances of Tom Hanks and Duncan.
If Morse carries any lingering unhappiness that he lost out on a nomination, it's difficult to determine. At the moment, it seems, the last thing he wants to discuss is the possibility that he might be nominated for his emotionally charged portrayal of a duplicitous cop in Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark.
"When people start talking about awards, it's hard not to pay attention ... even when you know it won't have any meaning for you," Morse said. "It's flattering, yes. But it takes on an importance in the business that's out of proportion and unrealistic."
For the 47-year-old Massachusetts native, who so often plays men who carry weapons and/or heavy hearts, these lessons in frustration began in 1980 with his breakout performance in Inside Moves. In the film, which was directed by Richard Donner and co-written by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin, a young suicide survivor (John Savage) falls in with a group of oddballs who frequent a neighborhood bar, tended by Morse.
"That was a movie a lot of people loved and people had a lot of expectations for ... and, early on, we started hearing a lot of talk about Academy Awards," recalled the 6-foot-4, reserved actor. "People told us that our lives were going to be so much different in the future. Then, as soon as the film opened, the distribution company went bankrupt and no one saw it.
"I wasn't offered another film after that, so I went into television," he said. "Then, every year, people would tell me I was a sure thing for an Emmy, for St. Elsewhere, but I was never nominated."
He would be touted as a leading candidate for other nominations, specifically for standout performances in two somber dramas directed by Sean Penn, The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard. Again, however, he failed to make the cut.
"Sean really fought to have me in those movies, even though the studios wanted stars in those roles," Morse said. Morse was surprised when he got the call from Von Trier, who asked him to consider the role of Bill, a cop who cheats a hard-working, nearly blind Czech immigrant Selma (Bjork) out of her savings. The money was to be used to pay for a medical procedure to keep Selma's son from going blind, as well, but Bill, who is being sucked dry by his spendthrift wife, has other plans for it.
"Apparently, I was one of the people who was being talked about for Lars Breaking the Waves, which I never knew," said Morse, who just finished work, in Ecuador, on a thriller starring Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe. "Then a producer and writer brought my name up again for Dancer, and Lars got it into his head that I should do it. Actually, I wanted the part Peter Stomare had, which was far more sympathetic, but Lars didn't want me to do it.
"My character was basically a decent guy who just flipped ... and he became very ugly. He chose the wrong path."
That's putting it mildly.
One could hardly blame Morse for not wanting to play yet another flipped-out cop. Or, with the memory of his undeservedly ravaged St. Elsewhere character so firmly engrained in most viewers' minds, a flipped-out anything.
"I've tried so hard to separate myself from the character on St. Elsewhere, but, for a long time, I was known as this nice guy who got a really raw deal," he said. "You can get so identified with one character that it works against the others you do, and I try to guard against that.
"At the same time, I was being offered TV series. But, essentially, I would have to play the same character. I didn't want to keep going down that road."
Like many actors, Morse said he was curious about Von Trier's Dogma 95 approach to filmmaking, which, among other things, employs hand-held video cameras and shuns artificial lighting and non-organic sounds. Although Dancer in the Dark breaks several key Dogma rules, it's at least spiritually related to such stripped-to- the-bone films as The Celebration, The Idiots and Mifune.
"It's a thrilling way to work," Morse said. "Except for during the musical numbers, it was all hand-held cameras, and Lars was the one doing the shooting. Essentially, he was a part of the scene and would improvise along with us.
"I've done a lot of movies and a lot of television, and you tend to rely on directors who seemingly are there to protect you ... sitting back there watching. Perhaps it's a defense mechanism on our part, but you have to let that go with Lars."
Under Dogma rules, a scene can begin with a cozy group of actors quietly sitting around a kitchen table and end somewhere in the backyard with the same people throwing rocks at each other. All the while, the camera -- and, by extension, the audience -- hasn't lost direct contact with the performers.
"The thing with the video is that Lars could just shoot and shoot and shoot," said Morse. "In the key scene I did with Bjork, normally we would have done a close-up and then we'd go into our trailers while the cameras were moved. It might take a half day to do that scene.
"With Lars, it took 2 1/2 hours to do that same scene, but it was non-stop. I loved it, although I wouldn't want to do it on every movie."
A few years back, Morse spent some time in Chicago working on The Negotiator, with Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson. Other recent credits include Bait, Contact, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Rock, Twelve Monkeys and The Getaway, as well as some made-for-TV fare and theater.
"It seems as if I've held a gun in every movie that I've done," he said, wistfully. "If you're not the lead guy, you don't have much choice."
Morse and his wife, Susan, an actress-turned-book-editor, have twin sons and a daughter.
The kids "just saw the first film I ever did, Inside Moves," he said. "They're now old enough to watch it, even though I still find it difficult. It's among a lot of people's favorite films, but it's still too painful for me.
"They've never seen St. Elsewhere, because we don't have cable."
Better his children should imagine daddy standing on some faraway podium with a trophy in his hands.
It could happen.