Joe in the Indian Runner

David Morse - The Indian Runner

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The Force Of Morse: An Actor's Actor Builds A Name In Hollywood

By Cindy Pearlman

"I'm happy when people on the streets look at me quizzically,'' David Morse says, "because they're not quite sure who I am.''

If you aren't quite sure yourself, think of the brutal prison guard who locked up Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile (1999). Or the guy who got raped on television's St. Elsewhere. Or the guy not dating Meg Ryan on the set of the upcoming film Proof of Life

      In person, Morse looks almost ashamed to be at Manhattan's Regency Hotel on a cool fall morning. Standing 6-foot-4-inches tall, soft-spoken, rugged, blond-haired and clad in blue pants and a matching sweater, he looks more like a resident of rural Pennsylvania - which he is - then a Hollywood star with several big films coming up.

      "I have so many films that I'm turning into the Steve Guttenberg of my generation,'' Morse says, chuckling. "By the way, this will be the only joke of this interview.''

      Among those films are the current action movie Bait, in which he plays a hard-nosed federal agent, and Lars Von Trier's acclaimed musical Dancer in the Dark, set to open nationwide on Oct. 6. But it's Proof of Life which is most on his mind. The Russell Crowe/Meg Ryan drama was a difficult shoot, and not solely because of the relationship between the two stars that bloomed during it.

      "I never saw anything happen,'' Morse says of the romance. "I read about it like everyone else.''

      On a more serious note, Morse's stand-in was killed during a stunt in which he slid off a road and into a ravine.

      "I wasn't there when it happened,'' Morse says soberly, "and I was supposed to be there. I was supposed to be doing the scene. But at the last minute, I was called to New York to do Bait reshoots.

      "When I heard the news, I was completely devastated,'' the actor says. "I immediately flew back to the set in South America where we were filming. And I can say that part of what got me through that whole tragic time was the family of the man who died. The family couldn't have been more gracious or faithful or caring. They allowed us to have a service. They helped us grieve.

      "But it was a difficult and devastating time in my life, because I will always think, `What if I had been there? Would something different have happened?'''

      As for the highly touted Dancer in the Dark, Morse admits he initially didn't find it appealing, even with the presence of Von Trier, who directed the 1996 art-house hit Breaking the Waves.

      "To be honest, I didn't get the script when I first read it,'' he says. "I said, 'I really don't want to do it.' I didn't like the character. I didn't have any empathy for him.

      "Thank God my manager said, 'Talk to Lars.' So I called him and we talked,'' he recalls. "But I still wasn't sure. Then I turned on the television that night, and this film came on. I sat there thinking, 'Man, this is so cool.' It was Breaking the Waves.

      "That's when it hit me that Dancer would be like something I had never done in my life.''

      Beyond the bizarre plot - the film is about a Czech immigrant and single mother, played by the Icelandic singer Bjork, whose dreary existence at a middle-American factory is plagued by impending blindness and eased only by her passion for classic Hollywood musicals - the movie was shot by digital camera at a remote studio in Sweden.

     "It was so strange because these digital cameras were everywhere,'' Morse says. "And it was tricky when we did the numbers that involved music - Lars used 100 cameras on each musical number.

     "But during the other scenes, you're really just working with Lars,'' he says. "He sends everyone else away. He's even the camera operator. And essentially he's a member of that scene. He's improvising, and you're improvising right back.''

      Von Trier's method is defiantly unstructured, Morse reports.

      "Lars would start with a script,'' he says, "and eventually he would say, 'This script is sh-t. Why don't you just say what the subtext means to you? Say what's in your heart.'

     "The movie was about the unexpected,'' he concludes. "It was exciting because there was a danger to it.''

      Proof of Life, due out in December, is a more conventional film. Morse plays Ryan's businessman husband, who is kidnapped while working in South America. She hires a top hostage negotiator (Crowe) to rescue him, but things get murkier when the wife and the negotiator fall in love.

     "It was one of the most difficult films I've ever made in my life,'' Morse says with a grimace. "We worked in the Andes at 14,000 feet. Every single day, people would drop - they would faint and then have to be carried down in stretchers, because of the altitude. But I never passed out.''

      The film is based on the real-life kidnapping of an American business executive, whose captors forced him to march through the Andes for weeks as they fled pursuing army units.

      "I got a really good workout,'' Morse says. "I'm going through volcanoes. I'm climbing mountains.''

      Other forces of nature included director Taylor Hackford and the notoriously hotheaded Crowe.

      "Someone asked me if Russell's a perfectionist,'' Morse says, "and I wouldn't describe him that way. I would say there is a real integrity to his acting. To me that integrity is associated with being concerned with the details of a character, down to the type of knife he will use to slit a throat.''

      Hackford is also known as a demanding director.

      "Taylor has a really big personality,'' Morse concedes. "`When he goes off, he goes big. You either get used to it or you don't.

      "I loved working with him,'' he says, "because Taylor is very insightful. I would come in and tell him I had a feeling about what should be happening in the scene, and Taylor would come over and whisper something in my ear - it would be exactly what I was working on in my mind.

      "We were very much on the same wavelength.''

      The 47-year-old Morse grew up in Hamilton, Mass. After acting in local productions, he made his Broadway debut as Father Barry in On the Waterfront. His first film was Richard Donner's Inside Moves (1980), but his big break came as Dr. Jack "Boomer'' Morrison in the ensemble hospital drama St. Elsewhere, which ran from 1982 to 1988.

      After the show ended, Morse moved onto the big screen, co-starring in two Sean Penn-directed dramas, The Indian Runner (1991) and The Crossing Guard (1995), as well as taking roles in Twelve Monkeys (1995), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Contact (1997) and The Negotiator (1998).

      He has also continued to act on stage, most recently starring as Mary Louise-Parker's lecherous uncle in Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama How I Learned to Drive (1997), which won him a Drama League Award, a Drama Desk Award and an Obie Award.

      When he's not working, Morse heads for a small Pennsylvania town which he won't name in an effort to preserve the privacy of his wife, Susan Wheeler, and their three children.

      "It's nice to be close to New York,'' he says, "but I can live a very regular life. It doesn't matter to my neighbors what I do for a living.''

      Not that he has yet had to worry about the clamor of stardom.

      "A lot of people can't place me,'' Morse admits. "The interesting thing to me is that no one ever mentions the same movie if they do know it's me.''

      Still, Morse would have to be less than human if he didn't occasionally dream of his name over a title or a swarm of fans at his doorstep.

      "I think to myself, `Some magazine voted me Most Promising Future Movie Star in 1980,'' he says, laughing. "What happened?'''

c.2000 Cindy Pearlman

(Cindy Pearlman is a Chicago-based free-lance writer.)



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Last modified Tuesday, November 4, 2003