The Best Time I Met Vincent D’Onofrio
by Elmo Keep
I had become, quite recently, very interested in interviewing the actor Vincent D’Onofrio.
This started, innocently enough, when I fell into what could best be described as an internet k-hole. Like all internet k-holes, it began with Wikipedia. Specifically with the Wikipedia entry for the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode “Icarus,” which it had been reported at the time was going star Patti Smith in a guest role. For serious? To the encyclopedia of obscure knowledges of television programs!
This was exactly the sort of detail that would get my boyfriend, finally, to appreciate Criminal Intentfor what it is: the clearly superior flavor of Law & Order of the dozen or so (or how ever many) flavors there were. And why this was so was because of the Detective Goren character, played by Vincent D’Onofrio.
Plus Patti Smith = no contest.
Or so I thought. Up until this point my boyfriend had watched it with me begrudgingly in the way that we all do things for the person we love that we don’t 100% want to, which are usually, sometimes, but not always, sex things. And so: Detective Goren. My boyfriend is of the opinion that Goren is the single stupidest, most unrealistic, offensive character to have ever hulkingly graced a television screen:
“Wait, wait — this the part where Goren floats away on a cloud made of his own cleverness, yes?”
“HEY EVERYONE! I heard that someone needed a deus ex machina to tie up these impossible plots threads in the final two minutes of the episode? I’M HERE. DON’T WORRY.”
“And then Goren just yelled at someone for the length of an amazingly detailed and twitchy monologue until they confessed. The End.”
All of this witty commentary made it hard for me to passively enjoy the brainless predictablilty of Criminal Intent while also enjoying the hard to puzzle sexiness of Vincent D’Onofrio,* as is its unique appeal.
So I was looking up Wikipedia to verify the truthiness of this Patti Smith thing, and that’s when I fell into the k-hole. From there it was just a couple of short hours of reading, following links to extremely detailed fan blogs (why??), while passively watching a CI marathon in the background (Pro Tip: it’s always the second person interviewed by the detectives who did it), before I knew pretty much everything there was to know about Vincent D’Onofrio. And he was very interesting! For example:
– It’s his fault those dick shots of Anthony Weiner got out.
– He’s worked with Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, and Mike Mills, but has never won a major acting award, and seems not to care.
– He turned down a role in The Sopranos.
– He has taken a string of roles over the years in what can only be described as terrible sci-fi movies (please enjoy something called Salute of the Jugger).
– Still, this is a pretty great scene in Men in Black.
– He’s given relatively few long interviews over the years.
I also read that when he was cast in practically perfect film, The Player, by Robert Altman in 1992, Vincent D’Onofrio did not have a phone. So Robert Altman was wondering around his neighborhood, looking for his house so he could deliver the script to him. How could you have a career as an actor and not have a phone? Was it like a Cormac McCarthy/Gil Scott thing? Was it even true? Intrigue! These were pressing questions of our age! Or so I thought, briefly, when my mind drifted at work one slow day to how I might go about asking someone who was like that why they were like that. It’s no fun trying to interview someone if getting to them is easy, right (no phone!)? Well good, because this will be impossible.
I secured a commission for a profile in a magazine. The editor wrote back to my pitch:
Editor: “I too harbor an unnatural love of Vincent D’Onofrio and think this would be an ideal fit.”
Me: “What help could you afford me in securing an interview?”
Editor: “Absolutely none.”
I pulled all the strings that I could at my job in an effort to line this thing up. There were several roadblocks in the way of this, the first being that Criminal Intent had been recently canceled (the pain is too much to go into right now) and so no publicist was interested in pushing for an interview with a reclusive actor in aide of spruiking a show that no longer existed. All the other roadblocks had to do with the fact I wasn’t calling from The Hollywood Reporter. Oh no! I was calling from the other side of the world, from Australia, where if anyone in Los Angeles knew where it was they did not care that the time difference necessitated my calling them bleary-eyed at three in the morning, where I mumbled my pitch.
“So you’re what? You want who, I can’t understand you.”
“VincenndOnofffrio, jus, like [stifled yawn], tennnminutes on the phone…”
“OK, great! Just email me through the details and when you want this to happen and I’ll pass it on for you.”
At the other end of the line I heard the sound of my hastily written email being burned on a pile of hundreds of other emails where the DO NOT PURSUE emails are all destroyed forever.
Still, I tried this with all the avenues I could think of: small production companies about to put out a film starring Vincent D’Onofrio, the people who used to rep him on Law & Order, film festivals he was speaking at, whatever. I know this all sounds creepy, but it’s my job! Admittedly, also, I was just being stubborn about it now. The whole no-phone thing was like a red flag to a bull for me: I will track this shit down. But also I started to wonder about myself a little bit: Had I become a character in Law & Order, only instead of solving fictitious crimes, I was setting myself a series of escalating challenges to solve, just to keep things interesting like I was part of some kind of scavenger hunt only I was playing? If so, what was wrong with me? Where in this episode was some kind of all-knowing psychiatrist/detective character who could diagnose this tendency?
Whatever! I had to fly to New York.
I was in New York because it’s on the way to Miami, which is where I was going to cover a story on board an enormous cruise ship with a couple thousand KISS Army members. But in the meantime, New York.
I will not lie: All the aforementioned had resulted in me adding “Vincent D’Onofrio” to my Google alerts. Which was how I found out he was giving a lecture at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in two days’ time.
I called the press office at the school, emailed through my attendance request and credentials and explained that I was writing about the film festival and this would make for great color and blah blah, and I’ll sit quietly in the back and you won’t even know that I’m there. This is it! This was so simple and it fell in my lap!
I sent polite follow ups in the next two days, and got nothing again. So on the morning of the lecture I got up and went into the city thinking that I would just present myself in the flesh and talk my way in. And yes, for a moment, as I was walking down the street I told myself that Goren would totally do this. Just channel Goren and you’ll charm your way into a place you aren’t meant to be with a tilt of the head. Yes, I actually thought that.
“Oh, are you with press for Vincent D’Onofrio?” a young man at the front desk asked me enthusiastically.
“Yes I am.”
“Okay, great! Someone will be right with you.”
Because no one got back to my email I was pretty sure someone was going to check it, shake their head, and come come out and tell me to leave. Instead, an extremely helpful and friendly woman from administration came out and presented me with a complimentary Lee Strasberg tote bag, a copy of The Definition of Acting, one of A Dream of Passion, and a glossy brochure for the school, from the pages of which stare Alec Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Brando, and Marilyn Monroe, all very intensely.
“We’ll save a seat in here for you, it will start in about 10 minutes.”
“Thank you so much,” I said.
As I flipped though the pages trying to find out how much it would cost to study somewhere like this, I heard an unmistakable voice.
“Hi!” Vincent D’Onofrio said from where he was standing at my feet with his back to me. He was quickly ushered off by someone, and as soon as he was safely out of earshot all the women in the room dissolved into giggles and one of them mimed fainting.
I was working out how to play this in my mind. I’d sit through this acting workshop for an hour, and then I’d just really coolly ask Vincent D’Onofrio — who hates interviews, talking about himself, and journalists — if he has maybe 20 minutes at some point in the next week to meet me somewhere for a totally informal chat that’s not really an interview, more like, ‘Hey, this is fun! Right?’ and I’ll give him my card, he’ll smile and say, “No problem!” and then I’ll get to the bottom of this no-phone thing. Simple.
I took my seat in the second row in the small theatre space. Soon all the students file in and I can safely say that I have never been around so many actors in my life; I was the only one out of the 40 or so people in the room who wasn’t one. There was quite an electric buzz rippling through the room, even if not everyone seemed to know who Vincent D’Onofrio is, because I guess having maybe one of the most well known method actors of the last 25 years visit your school of method acting without knowing who they are is a pretty regular thing?
“Wait, so who is this guy?” one girl asked while looking him up on her laptop.
“Oh my God, my mom loves him,” said her friend. “She is gonna freak.”
A squeal pierced my right ear as Wikipedia delivered a result. “He’s the Law & Order guy??? Oh. My. God. *I* love him!” The grin does not leave this girl’s face for hours.
So Vincent D’Onofrio came onstage and delivered over the next hour what amounted to a master class on Method acting, and not being an actor I of course had no idea what he was talking about a lot of the time, but everyone around me was nodding and making quiet sounds of approval and understanding. I was also beset by the intense feeling that I was in a place I was not supposed to be, like I’d been mistakenly admitted in to a witches’ coven. Or a cult.
The first thing he said was, “I’d rather not talk about myself. I hate talking about myself. I want to talk about acting, so let’s talk about acting.”
Soon he was talking about creating a feeling of intense discomfort, when he played the role of Edgar in Men in Black, a 10-foot-tall alien crunched down into the body of a human being.
“I’m in my trailer with my legs bound up in these braces I bought and I sit there and I put on this football helmet. This football helmet that I really fucking hated wearing when I played high school football.”
It took me a moment to realize that this football helmet was metaphorical. Especially as this story came right after he’d said that when you become an actor, everyone else on the set “Will treat you like a wild animal. Always. Always. Like you are an animal in a cage and don’t stick your hand too far in to the cage.” Why would people think that? Surely not because you are sitting in a trailer with your legs bound, silently, while wearing a football helmet? Just the leg braces were real, not the helmet, so no problem.
Objects of intense emotional significance to you are employed a lot in method acting, I learned. They have to be older than seven years for it to work in eliciting a response. There is a lot of reading I have to do in these books I was given to fully understand it, of course, but it sounds sort of like a cross between Tantric meditation and voodoo.
Vincent D’Onofrio was, for a lot of this time, sitting in a chair on the stage which is very tall because he is kind of a giant. He was wearing scruffy black jeans, old sneakers, and a black collared shirt, which, because of the way he was sitting, was popped open a little in the place that reveals a person’s bellybutton and my mind strayed a minute to wondering about if there is and if so how much lint might be in there, and maybe harvesting it, maybe, I was just sort of thinking that for a pleasant moment and tuning out just for a second when Vincent D’Onofrio stood up and planted himself on the stage two feet away and said, “So I was taught to lead with my dick.”
And, what??? Okay, what? What this about is how important sexuality is to method acting and owning an innate presence on the stage, not a showy kind of sexiness but knowing inside yourself that you are a sexual being and using that to stand your ground on a stage, “Whether you’re a woman or a man, it doesn’t matter, it’s the same.” And then he went into some detail about this, about “owning what was between my hips, what was going on down there — you guys are learning that, right?” and it was so intensely riveting to every person there that it really heightened the feeling in me of not being meant to be there, and also suddenly of being incredibly, incredibly thirsty.
There was a lot of other stuff covered after, including the fact that he’s dyslexic and can’t differentiate between “3”s and “E”s, but still can learn 11 pages of dialogue in an hour after someone told him in acting school, “You can get over that.”
Eventually someone asked about Law & Order, and he said, “You know, one of those silly interrogation scenes?” and how the character was meant to possess this boundless energy and how that was mustered through him annoying the shit out of everyone in the immediate vicinity by either touching them inappropriately or cursing them under his breath, or whatever it was,”Until, BOOM! All that energy was sucked up and put into the scene. But there was sometimes 16 hours a day of this on a show like that, it’s like being on a hurtling train and wanting to get off. But you can’t. It’s your job.”
Things wrapped up after that. The students applauded for a really long time, and then there was a photo session, during which a woman, maybe the head of the school, posed on the stage with Vincent D’Onofrio hanging onto his arm like a vice and smiling to the point where her teeth could have splintered from the pressure, which he totally coolly appeared to tolerate, and then he said goodbye and slipped off backstage.
There is a thing in journalism that’s something of a vital skill, and I’m terrible at it, and it’s the Doorstop Interview. If someone has agreed to speak with me weeks in advance and they know they will be interviewed, then I am fine with that. But otherwise I think that barreling up to someone and asking them something for the record out of the blue is really unfair and kind of rude and ambush-y. That might make me a terrible journalist, I don’t know. But I was thinking to myself, This is the other side of the world from my home, which is a long way, and so I will just wait outside for the length of time it takes me to smoke a cigarette and if in that time Vincent D’Onofrio walks out I’ll give him my card and ask for some time and it will be cool. Don’t worry about it, just do it.
I was out of the street and I checked my email while I waited, and there’s one from The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute that reads, “Sorry, the President is not comfortable with you attending.”
I nearly dropped the cigarette out of my mouth, and I looked around expecting that someone will arrest me, or something, but instead it’s Vincent D’Onofrio getting on his bike.
“Hey Vincent… D’Onofrio?” I stammered.
“Hey!” He smiled and he rode off down East 15th street with a cigarette between his teeth.
*DON’T PRETEND YOU DON’T KNOW.