Jerry in Inside Moves

David Morse - Dancer in the Dark

11/3/00 The News Tribune
Tacoma, WA


'Dancer' star hopes Bjork will do encore

Spats on set of movie leave singer saying she'll never try acting again
Soren Andersen

The News Tribune

Bjork says she's through with acting. David Morse hopes she'll reconsider.

Morse shares the screen with the pop star-turned-film star in Dancer in the Dark, the unusual new musical film that opens today at Tacoma's Grand Cinema theater. Bjork plays a forlorn single mother who is slowly going blind. Morse plays her neighbor, a tormented policeman with a kink in his soul.

Morse, 47, a native of Massachusetts, has been a movie actor for 20 years. His first film was Inside Moves, released in 1980. He's been in more than 20 since, including Contact and The Negotiator. A character actor, he's perhaps best-known for his portrayal of Brutus "Brutal" Howell, the tall, compassionate death-row guard in last year's holiday blockbuster, The Green Mile.

Singer Bjork, whose CDs sell in the millions, had never acted before Danish director Lars von Trier selected her for the lead of Dancer in the Dark. Morse, the voice of experience, says von Trier chose well.

"I think she has great instincts as an actress," Morse said recently in a telephone interview. "She's completely fascinating to watch."

The entire weight of the picture rests on Bjork. The 34-year-old native of Iceland is in virtually every scene. And she more than holds her own with the likes of Catherine Deneuve, who plays her best friend; with Fargo star Peter Stormare, who plays an ardent male admirer; and with Morse, whose relationship with her is the most complex in the film.

Her performance won her the best actress prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. (Dancer was awarded the Palm d' Or, the festival's top prize.) Yet she has said in no uncertain terms that she wants no more of moviemaking.

"I made an exception and decided to act once," she told the Associated Press recently. "But I think I should stick to music."

"I'm sure she means what she says," Morse said, but added that it would be a great loss if she didn't have a change of heart somewhere down the line. "I would be disappointed if she didn't get a chance to experience acting in another way" than what she experienced on Dancer in the Dark, he said.

What she experienced was a full-blown donnybrook with von Trier. Originally, the director only wanted her to write the film's music. Then she developed an affinity for the lead character who, like Bjork, is a single mother fiercely devoted to her young son. So she agreed to act in the picture in addition to writing the music. And that's where the trouble started.

She had very definite ideas about how the music should be performed and incorporated into the film. Those ideas differed from von Trier's - significantly. Leading lady and director clashed - repeatedly.

"Music is a world she cares deeply about," Morse said. "It's so personal to her and she has a real command of it. And Lars was so unfamiliar with it. (Von Trier had never directed a musical before.) It was a real struggle all along."

The struggle came to a head in a widely publicized blowup during production. Bjork walked off the set for four days.

According an Associated Press report, she objected to changes von Trier was making in the music. She particularly objected to the fact that he was making those changes without consulting her. She drew up a so-called "manifesto" demanding that she be given final authority in matters musical. Von Trier capitulated and signed it. She returned to set. Production resumed. Eventually the picture was completed. Awards and acclaim followed.

Morse wasn't around for the fireworks. Those happened when the production moved to sound stages in Denmark. His five weeks of work on the film had taken place on location in Sweden.

(Although Dancer is set in Washington state, von Trier, a noted eccentric who refuses to fly, shoots his movies almost exclusively in Scandinavia. He did, however, send Bjork and Deneuve and a film crew headed by a colleague to the United States in the summer of 1999 to shoot exterior scenes in Arlington, Sedro-Woolley and outside the state prison at Walla Walla.)

Morse was aware that the relationship between Bjork and von Trier was uneasy, but he said it was nothing compared to some of the films he's worked on. "I've been on sets where it's been far more tense and far more offensive ... where the director has been just out of control. This was not that kind of experience."

During the weeks he worked with her, he found Bjork very professional and "very helpful." He needed her help because he and all the other principals in the cast - including Deneuve - were expected to do their own singing and dancing in the musical numbers. Morse said he had done some warbling and hoofing onstage early in his acting career but declared, "I don't think anything can prepare you for singing Bjork's music."

After Dancer, Morse starred in the chase comedy Bait, playing a lawman chasing Jamie Foxx. Then he landed a juicy role in the upcoming thriller Proof of Life - and found himself once more involved in a picture made notorious by the off-camera antics of its principal players.

His co-stars in Proof of Life are Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, and this is the picture where Ryan and Crowe began the highly publicized affair that destroyed Ryan's marriage to Dennis Quaid.

Once again, Morse was far away when that particular time bomb blew up in the press this past summer. "That all happened when they were shooting in London," he said. "I was in South America and was not aware of any of that going on."

While Ryan and Crowe were getting hot and heavy in England, Morse was freezing and starving in Ecuador. His role in Proof of Life is an American engineer kidnapped by rebels and held for $6 million ransom. Ryan plays his wife, and Crowe's character is the tough hostage negotiator she hires to try to win her husband's freedom.

To show audiences that being a rebel captive is no picnic, director Taylor Hackford wanted Morse to have a lean and hungry look for his scenes. A nutrition expert hired by the production put Morse on a starvation diet of egg whites, rice cakes and raw vegetables - in tiny quantities. "Pathetic" is how Morse remembers it.

The pounds melted away, 25 of them, he said. "I'm still trying to get it (the weight) back," he said.

So he was hungry all the time. And he was cold.

"We were working in very extreme conditions," he said, 14,000 feet up in the Andes, in "frozen kinds of clouds" with a freezing wind blowing throughout 12-hour shooting days. Miserable.

But it sure did help him to stay in character, Morse said. His character was supposed to be suffering. And sure enough, he suffered. (The shoot also was marred by the accidental death of Morse's stand- in during production.)

Audiences will soon have the chance to judge for themselves whether that suffering paid off in a memorable performance. Proof of Life is scheduled to open Dec. 8.



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