Actor Matthew Modine, born in California in 1959, became famous in the 1980s, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s Full metal jacket (1987). More recently, he is best known for playing Dr. Martin Brenner, the sinister scientist in the Netflix series Stranger Things. Next week, he steps into the role of the crusading Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends an innocent black man accused of rape, in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird in the West End. Married since 1980, has two children and lives in New York.
What made you want to play the role of Atticus Finch?
The content of the story – it is specifically about the history of racism in the United States. The past is not something that is ancient history. As Aaron Sorkin writes in his adaptation, the Civil War is yesterday and it will always be yesterday until we treat the past honestly. In the United States, there is a crack in the foundation of the Constitution because “we the people” did not include people of color when it was drafted. We never honestly dealt with it and when you build a country the foundation is very important. What we see today is what happens when the walls start to come out of alignment, the doors won’t open and the roof starts to leak. We just have to be aware of what happened before so we can fix it and move on. The play is about that. I wanted to be a part of it, because I want to be involved in solving problems.
How is it to be back on the London stage?
Well, the last time I did it, it was a rough ride. [He was one of the stars of Resurrection Blues, a 2006 flop directed by Robert Altman]. I’ve been doing this for four decades now and I’ve never worked on a production where everyone wasn’t excited and excited and not thinking: this is going to be great. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t and I still haven’t figured out why. But it was 100% amazing to work with Robert Altman. He gave me my big break Streamerswhich won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival [the entire cast was named best actor]. We worked on Resurrection Blues at the moment in his life when he knew he was dying. I was not with my father when he died. [But with Altman] I was able to hold his hand on that journey and try to take care of him during the last months of his life.
What did Full metal jacket with Stanley Kubrick as?
I respect him as a filmmaker and then I got to know him as a man, as a father, as a husband. He was probably the most independent independent filmmaker I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He figured out how he could work for 20 months and still be financially viable. What he did was create an environment where he could explore and experiment. He often said how funny it was that people always asked how many takes he did. He said: “Imagine someone going up to Mozart and saying, ‘Wolfgang, how many notes are there in your concerto? Or to Picasso and say how many strokes in that painting? It’s just so rude and who cares? The result is what you should be interested in.”
Is Full metal jacket movie you are most proud of?
I think I love some of the kids that no one has ever seen. I love Birdy, that film by Alan Parker. It was an extraordinary experience for me as an actor. I also worked with Alan Pakula, who was a producer for [the 1962 film version of] To Kill a Mockingbirdon the film of a play called Orphans, opposite Albert Finney. I loved working with him so much that I did it The Browning version, directed by Mike Figgis, purely because I wanted to work with him again. He had a real zest for life and then when it came time to work, he was so focused and so prepared that it was unlike any other actor I’ve ever worked with. The next person I would compare him to would probably be Ian McKellen, who I worked with And the band played on. Another gentleman.
You became famous to a new generation when you played the villainous Dr. Martin Brenner in Stranger Things. What made you take the role?
I didn’t want to do it. The Duffer brothers kept saying, “Oh, he’s going to be really important.” They never told me he kidnapped children. I passed, but they kept calling me and making it very hard for me to say no. I responded to their passion and he became a really interesting, complex character.
Is it true that you came up with the idea for him to have the white hair and smart suits?
When they described my character, he was unshaven, with work boots and a flannel shirt. And he had a lot of expository dialogue, which an actor never wants. When I finally said yes, I said I want to dye my hair white because evil characters in Japanese anime always have white hair and I want a suit like Cary Grant in North to northwest, where if I fall down, when I stand up, it’s clean. And give all that dialogue to the people around me. They said yes to everything. It made his stillness and his stillness that much more convincing.
You built one good relationship with Millie Bobby Brown, who was only 11 years old when you started working with her.
My wish was to protect her. When I was a young actor, if you had a show that was successful in 20 or 30 territories around the world, that would be incredible. Netflix is available in more than 190 territories. What Millie and her generation have been exposed to through streaming is a kind of celebrity and power and reach greater than anything in the entertainment industry before. It’s a roller coaster: there are ups and downs. The adoration and love is not real, it is for something that you have created and it can be devastating.
You were set up as a heartthrob early in your career; could you have gone off the rails?
IN The doors of perception, Aldous Huxley describes walking down a long hall with a bunch of doorways. The beginning is birth and the end is death and you have the opportunity to enter many different rooms. When you open the door, you can say, “Oh, it’s not for me,” or you can go inside. Sometimes you never get out. There were huge opportunities for me to have gone down a path that would have been very destructive or that would have been a different kind of celebrity. I’m known to say no Top Gun, but the truth I was looking for was not in that movie. I want to solve problems with peace and love and conversation and negotiation. I’ve chosen to avoid roles that show me taking a baseball bat and hitting someone’s head to be a winner. For example, I wouldn’t want to play Vladimir Putin.
You have been an environmental activist since the 1980s. How much time do you spend on it?
Every day. All. I try to live by example. It will take all of our participation to fix this, as we are depleting Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate.
How does it feel to watch Cop27?
I feel like Greta [Thunberg]. I feel like it’s blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. If you’re the prime minister of this country, if you’re the president of the United States, and you don’t address it, you’re part of the problem. One of the things that has to stop overnight is motorsport, you know, motorcycles going around the racetrack, cars going around the racetrack, traveling all over the world. It’s a crime, not a sport. There is no place for that in a world where the climate is threatened. It’s something you can start doing today.
Are you at all optimistic about your country?
I want to say yes, I want to give some hope. But it’s scary to think that Trump could lead us, if he runs again, into some sort of civil war. It is quite possible. The people who have all the guns in America support that man. I don’t have a gun.
I must say it has been such a joy to be in London. It is likely that you can hear a dozen different languages, different accents when you go from one place to another. There is still a happiness and optimism to be found here. It’s so refreshing.
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