by K. W. Woods
New York – “I like playing flawed characters, people who aren’t perfect,” declares Tom Berenger. Indeed, the characters that helped make the 40-year-old actor into a household name have been anything but perfect – from the murderous transvestite who hacks Diane Keaton to death in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, his 1977 debut, to the ruthless, murderous Sgt. Barnes in Platoon, his biggest hit, for which he won an Oscar nomination. He went on to top himself in Betrayed, as a racist farmer who helps execute a black man for no reason other than the colour of his skin.
If Berenger can be affecting in roles that are less than sympathetic, it’s because he plays them honestly – not as villainous caricatures, but as people. Flawed people.
And now comes another flawed (although sympathetic) character for the actor: that of a handsome and successful property developer who’s beset by amnesia following a terrible car accident in Wolfgang Petersen’s Shattered. Unlike Harrison Ford’s sometimes comic journey toward self-discovery in the recent Regarding Henry, Dan Merrick (Berenger) has to delve into the dark recesses of his soul to discover truths that are anything but pleasant. This is, after all, a psychological thriller.
“After he goes through the windshield, his face gets ripped to pieces and his bones are broken,” says Berenger. “He almost dies, and must remain in intensive care for a long time. When he finally comes out of it, he can’t remember his name, his wife (Greta Scacchi), his business partner (Corbin Bernsen), his friends... You don't forget everything with amnesia -- you still remember the rules of baseball, you still know how to drive a car. But you might not remember where you live or be able to find your way home. You have to relearn all that. That’s his problem.
“I hate to use Hitchcock’s name,” he continues, “but this is a Hitchcockian thriller, in the style of Rear Window and Vertigo. It’s written in a way that evokes him, and even Wolfgang admits that. Hitchcock’s name came up five times in our conversations about the project.”
Merrick, whose amnesia is “alleviated” only intermittently by terrifying flashes of memory, is nourished by his wife, Judith, but he can’t assemble a picture of who he is from her descriptions. Nor is Merrick helped by his friend and partner Jeb or his enigmatic wife, Jenny (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), as they paint contrasting pictures of his past. After Merrick’s faith in his wife is shaken as a result of an accidental discovery, he hires a private detective, Gus Klein (Bob Hoskins) to lend a helping hand with his difficult quest. “He becomes kind of a surrogate father,” adds the actor.
Shattered, which is Petersen’s first American film to actually be shot in Hollywood – after debuting with the German Das Boot, he made The Neverending Story and Enemy Mine. Petersen also scripted the film, which has been a pet project since the late 1970s.
And Berenger, who credits the director with assisting him to tackle his character – “He used to be an actor and a stage director, which helps” – admits that playing the role was no mere feat.
“I was a little intimidated by the part,” he recalls. “I didn’t snap to it right away. I didn’t know how to go about preparing for the part of someone who can’t remember who he is. I was concerned about what approach to take, what technique to use. You know, the frustration angle is written in – Merrick is lost and frustrated – but there’s also this incredible passive state that somebody is in after that: I talked to doctors who told me that someone like that is likely to accept what people tell him. But I knew I couldn’t play him like that throughout the movie, because he’s the guy who motivates the action in the film. He serves more or less as his own detective, so by making him passive you’re actually eliminating the plot.”
With intense blue eyes peering from his well-tanned face, Berenger has changed little from the time he was considered handsome enough to play a “a young Paul Newman” in Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. His dramatic role in Shattered shares little with the slick macho TV idol he played in The Big Chill or his romantic working-class cop in Someone to Watch over Me.
But versatile as he is, Berenger admits that he hasn’t been all that comfortable playing a romantic lead and engaging in love-making in front of the camera. Not that he’s a novice in that area: he was the eager womanizer of In Praise of Older Women, where he had steamy love scenes with Karen Black, and Susan Strasberg, not to mention the charming swindler a’ la Cary Grant he played in the TV mini-series, If Tomorrow Comes.
Ill tell you the truth, the actor confides, for some reason, I dont feel comfortable doing romance any more. I prefer doing Gene Hackman or Spencer Tracy type of things. My life has changed, he adds, my personality too
When youre younger, you naivete and idealism make it easier to play romance. Not that Im jaded, but Im not that romantic a person any more. You grow up
thanks to Leigh and Jean