This interview was conducted before the current SAG-AFTRA strike. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Although Matthew Modine has been making his way through the Hollywood ranks since the early ‘80s, the actor has found himself in a new position of prominence thanks to Stranger Things. Since portraying the complicated and devious Dr. Brenner in the first season of the Netflix series in 2016, Modine has become even more of a household name. The role earned him a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series and his character’s return last year made waves amongst fans. But Modine has a lot more on his plate. Recently he’s produced and filmed several movies, narrated a documentary (Accidental Truth, about UFOs), and performed onstage in London’s West End. He’s also part of the star-studded cast of Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster about the origin of the atomic bomb.
In Oppenheimer, Modine plays Vannevar Bush, a real-life historical figure who headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. Bush was involved in many of the discussions about the atomic bomb, including which Japanese cities to target. Modine describes filming the scenes where some guys decide the fate of the world as almost absurd.
“The idea that there was this small group of men sitting in a room, old white men, who arbitrarily make a decision in that moment of going from one bomb to two bombs is incredible,” the actor tells Observer. “That a decision as powerful and as dangerous and as deadly as that could be made in a room—it’s beyond my comprehension and my belief that that’s how decisions are made. But it’s historically correct of what would happen in that room.”
Oppenheimer, which marks Modine’s second collaboration with Nolan, is one of two projects Modine is involved with which reflect on humanity’s obsession with nuclear weapons. His recent documentary Downwind, which Modine executive produced, examines the real-world impact of the nuclear tests in America. The actor made both films in between shooting the upcoming thriller Retribution with Liam Neeson and true life drama Hard Miles, as well as writing and directing a short film, I Am What You Imagine, which will premiere in film festivals this fall.
Here Modine speaks to Observer about making Oppenheimer, why humanity is in dire straits, and how Stranger Things has changed Hollywood.
What drew you to this project?
Film, for good and bad, is a powerful tool of influence. You can make films that glorify combat and war and make it romantic—what I call war pornography. Or you can make a film like All Quiet on the Western Front that shows you how ugly and horrible it is. That there’s nothing that’s sexy or romantic about it. It’s an ugly, horrible solution to people who hold different views. So with Oppenheimer I said yes right away. There’s a scene where [Vannevar] Bush is speaking during Oppenheimer’s trial and he says he’s expressed an opinion that was unpopular and that if we’re going to destroy people’s lives because they express an opinion that is unpopular, then you should start with me because I’ve expressed an unpopular opinion.
In the time we’re living in, especially with social media and the way that people are so quickly crucified for expressing an opinion that somebody might find contrary, that doesn’t bode well or speak well of humanity and civilization. We have to be able to discuss our differences and, more importantly, to hold a different opinion. That’s how we evolve. We’re living in a really, really volatile time with these really, really powerful weapons of war.
The massive cast was probably also a draw.
Just to get a sense of Christopher Nolan, when I asked him about participating, he said, “We’re casting a bunch of unknowns. The only person that you know is Cillian [Murphy], who’s playing Oppenheimer.” I knew Cillian and hadn’t worked with him, but we were in the same movie, The Dark Knight Rises. He’s a wonderful actor. And then you get closer to going to work and all of the unknowns are people that you’ve known or worked with or people you admire, from Kenneth Branagh to Robert Downey Jr. to Matt Damon. I mean, it was ridiculous. But that’s a testament to Emma [Thomas], Christopher’s wife, and Christopher. They’re such lovely people. They’re so kind and smart and obviously great filmmakers that these are folks people want to work with.
So were you cast because you had worked with Christopher previously?
I hope so! He’s like an orchestra conductor. Christopher is always on the set, he’s always standing beside the camera. He’s there in the scene with you when you’re doing it. What generally happens today is the director’s in another room watching on a television monitor, but because he’s in the room you can feel his encouragement. The same way that a conductor stands in front of an orchestra and raises his hand and opens his palm and says, “A little bit softer, a little bit louder.” Christopher conducts when on his set and it’s something that I really appreciate.
And as a cellist or a violin player or percussionist, it’s your responsibility to learn the song. You have to learn the role and show with all of your knowledge of how to play that piece because you’re part of a big orchestra. It’s not Christopher Nolan’s responsibility or job to teach you to do your part. That’s why he hires you. It’s why those actors come to work because they do all of their homework and their research. They show up and Christopher conducts them.
How long ago did you shoot Oppenheimer?
I’m very bad with dates. I saw a five-year calendar on someone’s wall once and it was just a bunch of boxes. And in the boxes, he had ticked off what he was going to do in six months time and a year and two years and three years. What was astonishing to me was how few boxes five years represented. What it looked like. From that point, I took my watch off and I tossed the calendar and I said, “I just don’t want to measure my life by a calendar or clock.” But I want to say it was about a year ago—it was pretty fast.
In general, why does it feel important for you to be part of the conversation about nuclear weapons?
Nuclear bombs and nuclear energy are a temporary solution to a permanent problem. As long as human beings use violence and war to solve our problems we are the stupidest primate. There are eight billion people on the planet consuming the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable pace. We are about to experience the largest migration of climate refugees in the history of the planet. I picked up a book in England, which I encourage you to read, called The Long View. The problem with the world is the political systems and the economic systems are all designed for the short view. To address the environmental problems that we have, it demands a long view. You can’t look at it in four year cycles, you can’t look at it in quarterly cycles. It demands that we look at the systems where the tree that you and I plant today, we will never enjoy the shade of that tree. You plant that tree for your grandchildren. And that’s what’s missing from the human race today is that ability to see the long view.
The film Downwind, which is also about nuclear bombs, reflects on that. I grew up in Utah. My family—my father, my uncle and my grandfather and my grandmother—they all lived out in the desert in a place called China Ranch in Death Valley. They all died with cancer. They were all downwind of the almost one thousand bombs that were tested in the Nevada desert. They were downwind of the radiation that was falling depending on which way the wind was blowing. I was watching the news once and I saw my brother Maury being arrested and he said what I consider one of most significant things about atomic bomb testing: We know they work, so why did we have to test almost one thousand bombs on American soil?
Did you film Retribution before or after Oppenheimer?
Right before. Liam Neeson and I have been friends for almost three decades and we’ve always wanted to work together. There’s been some plays that we were going to try to do on Broadway.
The director of Retribution, Nimród [Antal], was directing two episodes of Stranger Things. One day, he said, “Come on, they’re ready for us on the set. So we’re going to walk through it together.” I said, “I’ll walk with you if you give me a job in the Liam Neeson movie you’re directing.” He laughed and I laughed. About an hour later, he showed me his phone and had a text message from his producer saying, “We think it’s a great idea.”
It’s a good lesson in asking for what you want.
I would have never done it before because it sounds like such an ass-holic thing to do. That’s a word I learned from Christopher Nolan—I have to give credit where credit’s due.
How has Stranger Things impacted your career?
I think it’s changed the entire entertainment industry. When I began, one of the most famous films I was in was Full Metal Jacket, a very powerful anti-war film. If Full Metal Jacket was successful in 60 territories around the world that was an unbelievable success. Netflix is in over 190 territories around the world, bringing entertainment right into people’s homes. So the kind of success that you can experience today from a streaming service like Netflix or Hulu is something that’s never existed in the history of the entertainment industry.
Have we seen the last of Dr. Brenner?
I hope not! It has been announced now they’re doing the origin story on stage. The producer of a play that I did, To Kill a Mockingbird, in London, Sonia Friedman Productions, is doing an origin story of Stranger Things. I think the whole scenario is about the origin of Dr. Brenner and the children.