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The Good Fight

For 30 years, Tom Berenger has navigated Hollywood with a keen eye for history and a solid sense of what's important.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007

(continued from page 2)

Actor Tom Berenger will casually mention that he's a bit of a history buff, but there's little about military history—ours or just about anyone else's—that he can't recite off the top of his head. His knowledge of military strategy, whether learned through books or through the movie roles that he's played over the last 30 years, is a bit overwhelming, as is his opinion on which battles were worth fighting, which were questionable and whether the final outcome was worth the engagement. This includes Hollywood.

In The Art of War, the classic treatise on military strategy by Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and warrior offers that "if you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles."

Tom Berenger has a pretty good handle on who he is and what he's made of, and after three decades of being on the stage, on the set and on the tube, he's got a pretty good feel for who and what Hollywood is. Berenger may never have served in an actual war between countries, and his résumé surely lists "actor" as his profession, but it might as well read "veteran"—maybe even "warrior."

UNDER THE RADAR
The average reader won't see a whole lot in print on Tom Berenger outside of the traditional movie review, the announcement of a new DVD release or, as is currently the case, some general news about his ongoing role in the ABC television drama "October Road."

There are no screaming headlines about Tom Berenger leaving questionable telephone voice mails for any of his six children, no public divorce battles with ex-spouses (he's happily married, thanks, and is on pretty good terms with his two ex-wives) and nothing in the industry tabs about Berenger walking off sets, demanding bigger trailers or calling fellow actors racial or sexually charged slurs.

In a day and age when even C-list—especially C-list—performers hire the most expensive publicists their wallets can stand in the hope of generating mega print and television exposure, Berenger can't be bothered. He hasn't had a publicist in years, he admits, and, at 58, doesn't see the need for one now, in spite of having a television series and his having just finished wrapping three movies—the Christmas-themed Jonathan Toomey, the life-in-flashback drama Order of Redemption and the violent thriller Stiletto—scheduled for 2007 and 2008 releases.

Of the few articles on Berenger from the last decade or so, the only thing in common is references to his eyes. More often than not, they're referred to as "icy blue" or "light blue" and, frankly, they're not. Oh sure, there's no question that the guy can freeze you in your tracks with a simple narrowing of those eyes, but it's more about the laser intensity of the gaze rather than the color. There's nothing cool or light about Berenger's eyes; a vivid, intense blue-green indoors, a brighter, clearer blue outside, and reflect the kind of color a jeweler would call aquamarine and that companies like Sherwin-Williams and Crayola hire marketing specialists to package with names like "Cerulean" or "Caribbean."

Ask Berenger what color his eyes are and he mumbles something like, "Uh, blue-green," before getting uncomfortable. On a two-month hiatus from filming "October Road," he's spent the last 10 days filming the crime thriller Stiletto. For his role as a Greek thug, Berenger is sporting a ruddy tan that still doesn't hide the extra wash of color that comes when discussing his looks.

What becomes clear very quickly after meeting Berenger is that looks are just not all that important to the guy. On the first day of the interview he shows up in an old faded T-shirt, even older sweatpants and a pair of deck shoes. It's eleven o'clock in the morning when he arrives and, having come from a shoot that went until midnight, there are deep circles under those eyes. Although he's taken the time and care to shave, it's equally obvious that, given an option, he'd rather be lying prone with a pillow over his head than at the Beverly Hilton Hotel preparing for a photo shoot.

It is, Berenger explains, the old catch-22; when you don't have work, you want it desperately. When you've got lots of it at one particular time, as he does right at this moment, it's a little more complicated.

"You know, on shoots like this one [Stiletto] we're six days on, one day off, with no room for play," explains Berenger, "and we might be shooting 14-, 16-hour days. Sometimes they're day shoots, sometimes they're night shoots. It's just brutal. When you manage to get to the seventh day, that one day off, you want to sleep, but chances are you'll wake too early because you're trained for it, you'll wind up getting up and then there are chores. Chores, chores, chores," he says, wearily. "And with chores, man, you know you'll never get them all done in one day."

When quizzed on whether that list of chores might include checking things off like, say, getting his nails buffed or scheduling his personal trainer, Berenger just rolls his eyes before muttering, "Yeah, right." For the down-to-earth Berenger, the list is a tad more everyday, a tad more mundane.

"Chores. You know, chores! Doing your laundry, getting your groceries, picking up the dry cleaning. Cleaning the toilets, cleaning the sinks and changing the sheets. You know, the stuff you do when you look around you and go, "'Man, this place is beginning to look like a pit.'"

If this doesn't sound like the to-do list you'd expect from a movie and television star, much less one with Academy Award and Emmy nominations and Golden Globe wins to his name, think again. Berenger may have relocated to Los Angeles last fall for "October Road," but he's the anti-Angeleno and definitely different from the clichés that typically accompany a Hollywood actor. There's no bling on the guy short of a gold wedding ring, and he's not feeling any particular pressure to swing a Hummer, Escalade or Mercedes convertible into valet parking. He's quite content, thanks, with his Honda minivan.

"I'm pragmatic," he says, simply. "I'm not that big into cars, I guess. I like room and I use it to haul things around, people around. For me, a car is to get from point A to point B. What's the big deal about cars here?"

He and his wife, Patricia Alvaran, were equally pragmatic when they made the decision for Berenger to relocate from their home in Beaufort, South Carolina, to Los Angeles last fall for "October Road." Because the couple also owns a home in Vancouver, British Columbia, they decided that Alvaran and their 8-year-old daughter, Scout, would live in Vancouver. Berenger would relocate to Los Angeles, find a place to settle in, and the family would reconvene after the school year ended. They also decided, ambivalently, to put the South Carolina house that they loved up for sale, but which wasn't practical for an actor working steadily anywhere but near South Carolina.

As Berenger tells the story, there's a gradual buildup that takes place, not unlike someone building up to the punch line of a bar joke, and as his lip starts to curl, you realize that whatever the joke winds up being, it's apparently on him.

"So, we make all these decisions, tough decisions for a family, and I pack up my things. I box my things, I rent a moving truck, I load the truck and I drive across the country. Now, I drive across the country," Berenger continues, enunciating every word to set up the punch line, "to move to L.A. for a job that, after I've been in town all of about four or five days, they tell me that they want to film in Atlanta. Atlanta! Whoa. I've just moved from the East Coast to the West Coast in order to go live in a hotel and film on the East Coast. Hell, with the South Carolina house I could at least have driven home on the weekends from Atlanta, but nooo. My wife and daughter are living full-time in Vancouver, which is on the West Coast, albeit way up the coast; I'm now in an apartment in L.A. and I'm going to be back filming on the other coast again. Whoa."

If there's a happy ending to this story, it's that Berenger is given a heads-up during the interview that "October Road" has been picked up for the fall season and that the network decided to film the majority of the upcoming season in and around L.A., with flashes of other scenery to lend an air of the East Coast. The hour-long drama, set in the fictional town of Knights Ridge, Massachusetts, focuses on the twenty-something author of a best-selling novel who, when he hits a serious case of writer's block in the big city, returns home to his birthplace, moves back in with his widowed father (Berenger) and his slacker brother, and tries to reconnect with the friends and family he abandoned 10 years ago. What complicates matters is that he didn't just leave on a six-week trip to Europe and never return; he used those same friends and family—sometimes unflatteringly—as the characters in his best-seller.

When it's pointed out to Berenger that Atlanta really doesn't qualify as the East Coast—the Southeast maybe—and that it's an odd choice for filming a show that's supposed to be taking place in Massachusetts, he just rolls his eyes again.

"It's cheaper there," he explains, "and the leaves were turning while we were there, which was beautiful, and had a New England feel to it. It's cheaper...the crews are cheaper, and we didn't use a studio or soundstage, we used a warehouse. Then again, they only wanted five episodes, not an entire season. Only five episodes because [Berenger lapses into a falsetto voice] 'we're not sure. We're just not sure. We don't know. Only five episodes because we're not sure what we want.'"

"I'm telling you," Berenger shakes his head in disgust and goes back to speaking in his own deep voice, "studio heads? Network heads? You do not want these people leading your armies. No. No Hollywood executive should ever, ever be in the military. They would be shot for cowardice. Or treason. Whatever. Shoot 'em for cowardice."

As Berenger growls out the last few words, it's impossible to miss the similarities that exist between his words, tone and delivery and some of the roles the Chicago-born actor's taken on in the last three decades. Maybe there's a little Lt. Gen. James Longstreet in there, the real-life military leader Berenger played in Gettysburg, or a bit of another real-life American icon, Theodore Roosevelt whom he played in the TV movie Rough Riders.

Maybe there's a little Thomas Beckett, the soldier he played in the trilogy of Sniper films, a flavoring of Sergeant Hayes, the Marine recruiter he played in Born on the Fourth of July and a pinch of Capt. John Riley, the Mexican War officer he played in One Man's Hero.

There may be all of those characters in the impatience Berenger can exhibit when discussing Hollywood, but the one you listen for—the one you half fear and half desire—is Sergeant Barnes from Platoon.

WAR IS HELL
There are only a few movie roles that you simply can't imagine another actor playing, but Berenger's indelible portrayal of the damaged sergeant in Oliver Stone's epic war drama, Platoon, is certainly one of them.

Based on his own experiences as a grunt soldier in Vietnam, Stone's screenplay, written in the mid-1970s, was bounced around for more than 10 years before it finally found a studio willing to take a risk on a story that, like the war itself, had no happy ending.

With a budget of only $6 million—a lot of money in 1986 for a simple film being shot on a studio lot, but a pittance for a war movie filmed overseas featuring all the real-life accoutrements of battle—the film only boasted two fairly well-known names at the box office: Berenger and Willem Dafoe. With an incredible eye for up-and-coming (or underutilized) talent, Stone also cast Charlie Sheen (who played the character based on Stone himself), Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker and John C. McGinley.

Berenger's portayal of Sgt. Bob Barnes, a battle-scarred—literally and figuratively—and somewhat brutal soldier who's seen too many tours of duty but can't bring himself to go home even after being horribly injured, was a pivotal role in the film. Berenger himself was certain he could bring Barnes to life on the screen, but there were some initial doubts by others.

In a foreward that he wrote for the book edition of the screenplay, Stone refers to the real-life Barnes, whom he knew and served with in Vietnam, as "Achilles, a warrior king in his own time," and Berenger as "a quiet actor with the moral stamina and possible longevity of a Frederic March or Spencer Tracy, another Irishman. He buries his natural personality so well in his parts that even in films like The Big Chill, people don't see the original stamp and overlook him."

As the Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and his Golden Globe win for the same category can attest to, nobody who's ever seen Platoon could have overlooked Berenger's portrayal of the wounded warrior. Aside from the horrific scar that starts at the man's scalp and curls all the way down one side of his face—a physical attribute that required Berenger to spend three hours in makeup every day—Berenger managed on screen to define the notion of walking wounded, the kind of dull and incessant emotional pain that renders a man inhuman, to an extraordinary and chilling degree.

"I remember reading the script and thinking 'whoa,'" says Berenger, "and I never doubted I could do it. I had a handle on it. I knew that Oliver had doubts and I knew that Dale [Dye] had doubts, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do with [the role]. I could see them being worried, but I wasn't."

Stone had, like the rest of the world, seen Berenger take on a dark, sinister role, earlier in his career in Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977), but Dale Dye, the technical adviser on Platoon, let Berenger know up front that he had some concerns about the casting.

Asked about those concerns today, decades after working with both Stone and Berenger on a number of films in the interim, Dye admits that part of the doubt he expressed to the actor at the time was a touch of reverse psychology. Dye, a former Marine who earned three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star in Vietnam for valor before retiring as a captain, has spent the last 20 years working as a military consultant and part-time actor in the movie industry. He says he has nothing but immense respect for Berenger as an actor and now, years later, as a friend.

"Early on, when I first started in the movie business," says Dye. "I barely knew one actor from another and certainly had no clue about things like heart, emotion, insight and talent that an actor needs to bring a role to life. So in my infinite wisdom at the time, I took a look at Tom's head shot—a handsome, soulful, sensitive photo—and said, 'There's no damn way this weenie can play Sgt. Barnes.'


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