THE CELL, directed by Tarsem Singh, written by Mark Protosevich, produced by Julio Caro and Eric McLeod, with Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn and Vincent D'Onofrio. A Caro-McLeod/Radical Media production. An Alliance Atlantis release. 105 minutes. Opens Friday (August 18). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies. Rating: NNNNN
NEW YORK CITY -- When Vincent D'Onofrio talks to you about acting, you wish you had a Geiger counter to pick up his radiating intensity.
For D'Onofrio, acting is a craft he treats with reverence, and a calling he can't refuse. He's an actor's actor, a performer who thoroughly prepares for each role, whether it's a lead in a film or a guest appearance on TV.
Early on in his career, he gained 70 pounds to play Private Gomer Pyle in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. That breakthrough performance paved the way for roles like the murdered writer in Robert Altman's The Player and Orson Welles in Ed Wood.
He was brilliant as pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard in The Whole Wide World and creeped us out as Men In Black's alien farmer.
But he's never had to make such a deep journey into darkness as he did in his latest film. In director Tarsem Singh's visual feast The Cell, D'Onofrio plays serial killer Carl Stargher, whose mind serves as a frightening playground for scientist Jennifer Lopez and FBI agent Vince Vaughn.
It isn't a huge role, but it's juicy. In fact, D'Onofrio, Lopez and Vaughn all signed onto the film for one reason only -- to work with Tarsem (the name the director prefers to be known by).
"I'm so impressed with him," says D'Onofrio. "I thought he was smart when I met him, but after seeing the movie... whoa."
Big man I'm in New York speaking with D'Onofrio in a suite at the Regency Hotel. He's a big man with marine- blue eyes, and he makes you feel that, whatever you do, you have to play your best game. You wouldn't want to disappoint him with a half-baked effort.
D'Onofrio leads the conversation, wanting to talk about his research for the role of Stargher.
"There are certain things I was exposed to in my research that I won't discuss. They're not images you want to have in your head. I did read books about art made by the insane, and collections of their letters, and I found a terrifying documentary about animal killings and the sounds they make."
He hit upon certain psychological case studies of men who were similar to his character, but the filmmakers couldn't include details from them in The Cell -- they were too graphic.
"In the end, all these kinds of movies -- Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, The Silence Of The Lambs, any of the goods ones -- are going to be graphic and a bit gratuitous but nowhere near the truth.
"We have to turn the real stuff into entertainment. That's the tough job of the director, and I think Tarsem did a great job," says D'Onofrio.
I ask if Carl Stargher is a part D'Onofrio took home with him to the Lower East Side digs he shares with his wife, seven-month-old son and eight-year-old daughter.
"When I was younger, 20 years ago," begins D'Onofrio, "I thought I was the consummate actor -- John Garfield, Montgomery Clift, Jimmy Dean and Marlon Brando rolled into one. Then, one day I wake up and realize, jeez, I'm just me and I pretty much suck. I'd better get my shit together, because I'm never going to be anyone but myself, so I gotta figure out what I've got to offer.
"During that period, I believed I had to live my parts. Later on in life you realize none of those guys you admire lived their parts. It's a myth. The only way to truly act is to put yourself in the circumstance of the character. That's the trick to what we do. It's not becoming somebody you're not -- that's what I call pretending, and it'll set you off in the wrong direction."
D'Onofrio's father ran a community theatre in New York, and the younger D'Onofrio began life as a stage techie. At 17 he landed his first role, and by his early 20s he had committed his life to acting. A strong theatre career was interrupted when he landed Full Metal Jacket.
"That was luck," remembers D'Onofrio. "Yes, I studied and trained to be an actor and, yes, I did theatre, but when it came to films, I didn't have the social skills needed to stick my foot in the door or sell myself.
Pure freedom "A friend of mine was cast in the movie and told me about it. On my own, I made a video tape and sent it to Stanley (Kubrick). I had the rare opportunity to make a tape without any pressure. It was pure freedom. You know, I have problems to this day getting jobs I want because of my lack of social grace."
I can see how D'Onofrio's intensity could scare off casting agents used to superficial actors who look good and talk fluff. I wonder if at least the craft of acting has gotten easier for him.
"Actually, it's getting harder. I don't know if it's some kind of mental problem I have, but I've become kind of numb to the audience. But this makes me more free when I'm performing, which in turn opens all these new doors that I have to step through.
"To put it simply, now more than ever I'm in tune with what I do for a living. Before, I was bogged down with anxiety and stressed out about the final results. There used to be all these gaps that were filled with nervousness that now have to be filled with work.
"In a way I feel so free, so uninhibited, which makes it a really playful time for me."
Rating: Rating: NNNN
The Cell is terrifyingly beautiful. It will probably offend some and inspire others. Moving from commercials to film, India-born director Tarsem Singh has made the art-house The Silence Of The Lambs.Jennifer Lopez stars as a therapist who, using a neurological machine and drugs, can enter the minds of autistic patients. Her skill is put to the test when she's asked by FBI agent Vince Vaughn to link up with a serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio) who's fallen into a coma and can't reveal where his latest victim is hidden.
It's another women-in-peril picture, which might have been acceptable if Lopez's character were tougher -- think Jodie Foster in The Silence Of The Lambs. But at some point, you stop thinking of the story and just marvel at the images, which are inspired by Middle Eastern and Indian motifs, the work of Czech photographer Jan Saudek and post-apocalyptic Barbie doll sets.