Ted Arroway in Contact

David Morse - Dancer in the Dark

10/27/00 Orlando Sentinel



Roger Moore of The Sentinel Staff

Here's what it's like being David Morse, the know-the-face-if-not- the-name character actor Entertainment Weekly just named the "go-to journeyman actor" in its recent Hollywood "It" list.

"I was having lunch today, and this lady came up to me and said, 'Oh, I have such a warm spot in my heart for you because of Contact and St. Elsewhere, " he said from New York. "And then, a waiter came over and said, 'I really hate those guys you play. You're such a bad guy!'

"He's one of those actors you instantly empathize with; he's so natural in whatever role he plays," said Jamie Portman, who writes about film for The Ottawa Citizen.

For an actor who spent much of his career wearing the adjective "baby-faced" and playing sensitive, sympathetic and put-upon characters such as Dr. Jack Morrison on St. Elsewhere, having the chance to play widely varied roles is its own reward. Morse, now 47, can be the sweet father of an astronomer's memory in Contact or the heartless, hyper-ventilating hit-man in The Getaway.

"And every now and then, I get to do guys like Brutal [a prison guard in The Green Mile] who embodies both ends of the spectrum."

Just this fall, he has played an obsessed federal agent trying to catch a cyber-killer in Bait and a seemingly sweet cop in Dancer in the Dark, which opens today.

"Even saying those two titles in the same sentence seems wrong, doesn't it?" Morse said.

Bait earned bad notices and audience apathy and dropped out of sight. But Dancer in the Dark is a dark musical tragedy that won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has earned both lavish praise and spirited bile from critics. Morse often has small but significant character roles in big budget Hollywood films (Twelve Monkeys, The Negotiator). It's in independent and foreign films (Dancer in the Dark was filmed in Scandinavia) that Morse really gets to shine.

"[Dancer in the Dark director Lars Von Trier] was free to tell that story in a unique way, his way, and it was very energizing because everyone participates in the process," Morse said. "You don't know what's going to happen. In something like Bait, there's always that Hollywood struggle with money and producers and the studio."

Dancer in the Dark is a movie designed to make movie actors question the whole system which employs them. Von Trier was one of the founders of a whole alternative cinema movement, Dogma 95, in which a group of filmmakers derided the artifice of most moviemaking and sought to find a more realistic way to tell stories. They take a 10-step "Vow of Chastity," swearing that each would shoot his or her movie on location, that the camera must be hand-held, that artificial action or devices (murders, for instance) would not be used.

None of the films of this movement -- Celebration and the recent Mifune were the most famous -- have been totally faithful to the Dogma, and Dancer in the Dark breaks more rules than it keeps, but it has been an interesting exercise to watch.

"While we were making this film, Harmony Korine was making his Dogma film [Julien Donkey-Boy]," Morse said. "He was calling and confessing [Dogma directors must confess their rule-breaking] and that was pretty entertaining, let me tell you. Lars hangs up at the end of these calls and says, 'You know, rules are there to be broken.' When he makes a film himself, he breaks those rules."

That's what drew Morse to Dancer in the Dark. He hadn't seen much of Von Trier's work (Breaking the Waves and Xentropa are the best- known). What's more, Morse's character wasn't appealing.

"I can play bad guys, sure. But I had no sympathy for this guy at all . . . I didn't want to play him."

"But I got the feeling that Lars could at least give me what I needed to get close to this character. I never felt any empathy for him at all.

"Sometimes, characters are just written to be one-dimensional bad- guys. In films like The Negotiator, the character was almost offensive on the page . . . But I don't believe people are like that."

He got to share the screen with a seriously offbeat pop singer making her Deneuve about going off the deep end to achieve her performance. Morse takes issue with that.

"Lars has said that she had to live it too much to consider herself an actress . . . I've acted with a lot of people, and I think I have a sense of their ability to bring a character to life and be alive with you in the scene. She did that as well as anybody I've ever worked with."

Though he can express disappointment any time "I look on screen and see myself and not the character I'm playing," there's one club missing from his bag.

"I can't laugh, not on camera, anyway." he said with a chuckle. "It's a hard thing to fake. I'm so self-conscious about it. I did a film with Sean [Penn] where he came to me and said, 'It's really important for you to be laughing at the end of this scene,' and I had to say, 'I can't do it.' I hate saying that to a director . . . But if you ask me to do it, I cannot manage that."



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