Joe in the Indian Runner

David Morse - The Indian Runner

9/24/91 L.A. Daily News L18
1991 WL 7261936

Los Angeles Daily News
Copyright 1991

Tuesday, September 24, 1991


Bob Strauss Daily News Film Writer


Like a solid oak, actor David Morse stands at the center of Sean Penn's movie writing-directing debut, The Indian Runner. The film, which was inspired by the song Highway Patrolman from Bruce Springsteen's 1982 Nebraska album, is a bleak and uncompromising study of an unlucky Midwestern family in its final throes.

Morse, the tall, curly-blond actor best known for playing the benighted Boomer in the St. Elsewhere television series, is Joe Roberts, a small-town sheriff's sergeant with a nice wife (Valeria Golino), two depressed parents (Sandy Dennis and Charles Bronson) and a trouble-prone younger brother, Frank (Viggo Mortensen).

Joe has had his share of hard times. Originally a farmer, he's been through bankruptcy and has lost his beloved land. Although he tries to be a good cop, the violence associated with the job deeply disturbs him; the film opens with Joe's self-defense killing of a fleeing suspect, a young man Frank's age whom he's known all his life.

As things unfold, Joe loses both parents, while Frank, just back from Vietnam, careens between establishing a nurturing family of his own with a naive young woman (Patricia Arquette) and increasingly destructive outbursts. Through it all, however, Joe maintains a steady, empowering faith in simple family values and common decency. These two bedrocks of his philosophy, however, are at constant odds when it comes to dealing with Frank.

"Bruce Springsteen has a line in the song about 'nothing feels better than blood on blood,' " said Morse, who speaks with a quiet, thoughtful strength similar to Joe's. "In a certain sense, unless you experience it, it's hard to relate to, almost an abstract thing. I had to find that brother relationship for myself; I have all sisters, been very influenced by female sensibilities in my own life.

"Essentially, Joe's a man who's lost everything, had to sell everything. So he's not carrying a lot. All he has, really, is his family, and that's what it's all about for him. He does not see himself as a policeman. He's a farmer in his heart, and in some ways that makes him a better cop because he has no ego attached to it. He's simply doing the best job he can and being as decent as he can be. But he compromises his responsibility to the community in not doing with his brother what he would do with other people."

The son of a Massachusetts salesman, Morse - who has one daughter and is expecting twin boys with his wife, actress Susan Wheeler - can relate in some ways to Joe's dilemma.

"My family has to come first, but it's always a struggle," he said. "Particularly in this business, but it's probably a struggle with everybody. Something's always being asked to be compromised. I know that some people have sacrificed themselves to their families and have been very unhappy about it. And their family has suffered for it. The thing is to try and find that balance with a career that works and that I can feel good about, which I can then reflect on my loved ones."

Morse did not seek out the role. Penn came to him. Something about Morse's performance in his first film, the small 1980 drama Inside Moves, impressed Penn so much that he championed Morse, over several higher-profile actors, for The Indian Runner a decade later.

Morse was understandably apprehensive about their first meeting. Penn was one of Hollywood's most notorious bad boys, whose angry public behavior during his stormy marriage to Madonna overshadowed his often critically acclaimed acting work.

In most people's minds, anyway; Morse certainly appreciated Penn
as the formidable star of such films as The Falcon and the Snowman, Colors and Casualties of War. No wonder he was nervous.

"The first meeting with Sean was somewhat intimidating because he's been built into such a figure," Morse said. "But he really was not like that at all. He was very disarming with me and very genuine. I'm really very impressed with him, both as a talent and as a man, if you can separate the two.

"He's truly a director," Morse continued. "He has all of the best qualities of a director. What he doesn't know, he learns fast. He has a good technical sense and a very clear artistic sense of what he's doing, too. And he fights like hell for what he thinks is right, and expects other people to do the same."

The film - which is dedicated to, among others, the late John Cassavetes - displays some of the raw emotional quality associated with the master's work. Morse recalled that Penn, like Cassavetes, made the ensemble feel comfortable enough to take revealing risks with their performances.

"Sean has enough sense as an actor to know when something's working, when it's truthful and when it's not truthful," he said. "There were times when we tried to push certain boundaries and it just wasn't right. I don't mind doing that, I don't mind going any way with a character. That, to me, is part of the fun of doing it. But I'm not sure I trust all directors to know when those moments belong and when they don't, so I'm usually very protective of that stuff. But with Sean, I didn't feel that I needed to protect that work."

For his part, Penn found filmmaking so rewarding that he's been telling the press he plans to remain exclusively behind the camera. Morse hopes that won't be the case.

"I would love to act with Sean," he said. "I really hope, for all of us, that he does act again. But he's got to live his life and make that decision."

As for his own decisions, Morse is hoping to land a role in an upcoming New York play. He's happy with the variety of work he's done in the three years since St. Elsewhere ended, which includes TV movies and miniseries (Cross of Fire, Brotherhood of the Rose) and Michael Cimino's 1990 feature remake of The Desperate Hours.

And having directed a few St. Elsewhere episodes, Morse's own appetite for behind-the-camera work was whetted again watching Penn direct The Indian Runner.

"That's something I'm certainly going to continue doing," he said, although he admitted, with a laugh, that he's yet to hear a song that inspires a movie idea.


Age: 37

Marital status: Married to actress Susan Wheeler. One daughter, twin boys expected.

How he became an actor: "I was undersized in high school. I walked out of basketball trials into a school play audition as a kind of joke. I was a bit of a class clown at the time and found that to be a really great extension for that behavior."

Height: 6 feet 4 inches.



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