October 3, 1988
by Dan Yakir
In 1977 Tom Berenger made a memorable appearance as the homicidal maniac who slashed Diane Keaton in Looking For Mr. Goodbar. That jarring performance might have been a little too convincing; it took the movie industry a decade to realize that behind the classically handsome features lurked a versatile performer. Although Berenger did win acclaim for his amusing spoof of a macho TV idol in The Big Chill, it wasn't until he played the scar-faced miscreant Sergeant Barnes in Platoon that his career really took off: the role won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And if Platoon didn't prove his acting mettle, his lead as a white-supremacist farmer in director Costa-Gavras' controversial Betrayed, costarring Debra Winger, should settle any doubts.
Berenger doesn't always have to play the antagonist--his romantic lead in Someone to Watch Over Me was followed by his backwoods warrior in the adventure movie Shoot To Kill. Next month he appears as a priest in Last Rites, and further down the road he plays a baseball player in Major League, with Charlie Sheen and Corbin Bernsen.
"He's an incredibly powerful actor," says Costa-Gavras. "What I like about him is that there's a desperate look in his eye, but also a tremendous sweetness. And he's capable of extreme violence. For a filmmaker, this combination is a gold mine."
Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Berenger sips at a beer. "I'm going to be the most hated guy in America after Platoon and this one!" he says with a chuckle.
It seems you've had your greatest successes playing tough or outright
I enjoy playing them. I find something human in them, with the exception of Mr. Goodbar. It was such a slimy character with no redeeming qualities. To me it was like playing Charles Manson. I had nightmares after I finished shooting it. I felt dirty. (Bad guys) are interesting, even if you don't like them.
In Betrayed you play a racist, a less-than-likeable character.
You can't think that you're playing a villain or you'll end up with a cartoon. You have to think about him as a person and he's also a hero. He won the Silver Star. He's incredibly nostalgic about the way things were when he was a kid. He feels like the whole country has gone totally out of control. (Gary is) a seemingly very happy guy with a nice family. I tried to (understand him), but it was hard for me. The hardest thing we had to play was rationalizing all this: (racism) is there; that's the way it is, so you had to either do it or not do the part. It was so much more difficult than doing Sergeant Barnes in Platoon--I actually liked him and, at times, felt sorry for him. I was much more confused about Gary. If people say to me, "It's great! I hate you!" that would be fine.
Do you think people prefer to see you in such roles?
It's not that they prefer tough to sweet. It's just doing the right thing at the right time. There are people like that who are important but go unnoticed and they have to be portrayed, too. Take characters that Nicholson or De Niro play: they're not always tough. As I get older, I could see myself doing washed-out drunks or jaded and bitter has-beens. They can be great fun. The reason I became an actor was that I found all these people interesting.
In your upcoming film, Last Rites, you play a priest.
He's a priest related to a Mafia family in Brooklyn. He suffers from a mid-life crisis. He has doubts that what he's doing isn't quite helping people. His loneliness and lack of children begin to get to him. In the beginning, two of his pals get killed. His own father is facing prison. He's caught up in a murder case, and he has to maintain a seal of privacy. It's a thriller with plenty of plot twists. I was a bit intimidated by the part because I hadn't (played a priest) before--but I liked that. It was nice doing the good guy for a change.
What about romantic parts?
To tell you the truth, I don't feel comfortable with romantic parts anymore. I don't really have any image of being a lover or anything like that. I've been doing Gene Hackman or Spencer Tracy type things. The last time I did that kind of part before Someone To Watch Over Me was years ago. My life has changed since. I'm not that romantic a person anymore.
Does it have to do with idealism?
Yeah, probably, naivete, idealism and just being younger. After a while you get to know more things, which is interesting, but a lot of things just aren't romantic anymore. How can I put it? It's not all bad; it's just what it is. So I feel more comfortable doing films with groups of guys. It's a lot easier for me.
There's a difference with women: you can't take them to dinner every night and go crazy. An actress is doing a real balancing act--trying to be married and have children, so you don't go out drinking with a bunch of guys till 2 a.m. Women are a little more tender.
How, then, did you get along with Debra Winger? Is she a tough cookie?
She's tough and strong-willed, but I didn't find her difficult. She has her priorities right: first comes her family and right behind it is her performance. The rest is inconsequential. Debra doesn't let anything interfere with her performance, which is the way it should be.
What about Kirstie Alley in Shoot to Kill?
We didn't have any scenes together even though we were always on the same location. We became great friends, and she and my wife (Lisa, a real estate saleswoman) became super friends. Sidney (Poitier) said that Kirstie is the funniest girl he's ever met and I think she is. When Kirstie gets the least bit bored, she starts joking and making cracks. And Debra does the same thing. After Debra and I did a scene in the farmhouse, I don't know what she was talking about--we were both so tired--and she gets more and more slaphappy when she gets tired. She was saying something and I fell down on the rocks in the driveway laughing, and she was jumping on top of me, screaming...A hysterical, tired sense of humor that comes after working 14 hours a day, six days a week. I like those things because they take the pressure off the constant stress.
You live in South Carolina, near where you filmed The Big Chill.
It seems to be a kind of statement.
Yes, I would say it's a statement. I don't sit around cerebrally thinking about it that way, but I'm real glad to get there. Sometimes I get off the plane in Savannah and then I drive 40 miles through the country and by the time I get there it's aaahhh! Great! My fantasy is just staying at home. That's where I go on my vacation.
Do you like being married?
Yeah, yeah. I have family obligations and all that stuff and I try to do it as (best I can). I get my kids (from a previous marriage) six weeks in the summer, which is a real intense period of time. I'm with them every minute of the day. My daughter Chelsea is two years old. (Daughter Chloe was born three months ago.) Even if you're tired, it's a joy being with children. You have to give all the time, but you can't complain. It has it's rewards.
How do you feel about your recent stardom?
I don't care about being a star. I can do a supporting role; I don't have to be a lead.
Ego-wise, isn't it a temptation to fall for the hoopla?
I'm sure it is, for young actors and probably for actors who are terribly insecure.
What do you think of today's brand of new actors?
I think the actors are great--they may be better than they ever were. Charlie Sheen is a real gentleman. After we finished shooting Platoon, I said to him, "Your parents must have raised you right." Tom Cruise was a real prince. I met him when I was doing Someone To Watch Over Me with Mimi Rogers. I'm really knocked out about how disciplined these guys are--they're not as wild as our group used to be. No booze, no drugs--these guys are athletes.
What made you choose acting in the first place?
It was just a lark. I tried (out for) a play and got the part and got into it. I was 19 or 20. At the time I thought I would be a journalist, but I never got there. While I was doing these plays in the beginning--it was amateur stuff--I wasn't getting paid for it. I really thought of it more as a hobby than a profession. Then I realized how seriously a lot of these people took what they were doing and thankfully some of them made me serious about it.
Do you feel you've found yourself?
I don't know. Sometimes I think I'm real predictable to myself and other times I go, "There's a definite weirdness in what you're doing, the way you're living." You always wonder, "Is this really what I wanted to do? Did I make a mistake? Should I be doing something else?" Everybody does that; it's not just me. And I'm still interested in other things. For example, writing. I wrote a script and I surprised myself that I actually enjoyed writing it more than acting. It's about the Irish rebellion of 1920, which is a fascinating period and place for me. I guess if I weren't an actor, I'd be a history professor. I wrote a role in it for myself--the bad guy. Or, at least, the insensitive one.