Matthew Modine: Robert Altman’s Understated Direction

Matthew Modine recounts how director Robert Altman placed his trust in young actors

Director Robert Altman (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images for the Sarasota Film Festival).

Director Robert Altman (Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images for the Sarasota Film Festival).

I was very young and cast in Streamers. There was this big monologue and I wanted to talk to Bob about it, and I said, “Bob, can I talk to you about that monologue?”And he said, “Jesus! Are we shooting that today?”

I said, “No, no we’re shooting Friday.”

And he said, “Oh, you’re going to give me a heart attack. Don’t do that! We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

Tuesday comes. “Bob can I talk to you?”

“We’re shooting it Friday, right? We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

And each night, I’m going home and poring over this monologue.

Wednesday, Thursday: “Bob can I talk to you?”

“We’re shooting it Friday, right? We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

Friday, he comes on the set, “Modine, what are you going to do?”

The character’s name is Billy, and he’s talking with Richie, played by Mitchell Lichtenstein, about how he used to go to gay bars and let gay men buy them drinks and they would get drinks for free and the moment that they got their buzz on, they hightailed it. And one time, they were leaving [a bar] and one of his friends says, “I’m going to stay.”

“What are you talking about?”

“No, I’m going to stay; I like this guy.”

“What are you talking about?”

Actor Matthew Modine (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images).

Actor Matthew Modine (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images).

And so, there were questions: Was Billy talking about himself? Did Billy go home with this guy? Or was Billy talking about a friend? It’s vague. I think Bob thought Billy was talking about himself and I thought Billy was telling a story about his friend, so that’s why I wanted to talk to Bob. And I said, “Bob! Can I talk to you?”

And he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I just have to make a phone call.”

As he’s going out the door he says, “We’re shooting Modine first!”

He comes back and says, “O.K., let’s shoot,” and I was gutted, ready to start crying.

I was pouring my guts out in the monologue trying to do it. We did only a couple takes of the monologue and Bob said we got it and then sat down beside me. He patted my knee and said, “Ya see kid, if I was interested in my interpretation of the role, I’d have played the part. I hired you because I think you’re a good actor and I was interested in how you would interpret the role.”

It was a wonderful thing to learn.

***

Matthew Modine will co-star with Winona Ryder in Netflix’s Stranger Things.

As told to David Wallis

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Matthew Modine: Robert Altman’s Understated Direction