Film Scouts Interviews

Gary Sinise on "Snake Eyes"

by Henri Béhar

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Tuesday, July 28, 1998

The first word that comes to mind when you meet Gary Sinise is "Reserve". He does not walk into a room like gang-busters, he's not all over you with any kind of false intimacy. Looking fresh and cool despite the sweltering New York day, he's... just there. But very much there. Typical, they say, of a man who, barely 19, created a theater company in Chicago (Steppenwolf) and more often than not directed its productions with such unknowns (at the time) as John Malkovich, "Oz" 's Terry Kinney and "Roseanne" 's Laurie Metcalf. Typical, they say, of a film director who says "Miles From Home" and "Of Mice and Men" were "good and strong stories, I didn't want the directing to get in the way. I chose to do them very simply and let the acting speak." Typical, they say, of a man who, even when he plays music with a small band (which he did with a band during the Montreal shoot of Brian de Palma's "Snake Eyes") does not propel himself to the forefront of the stage. "I like to play the base back there with the drummer and keep this steady thing going. In fact, quite often, I don't look at anybody, just the drummer."

Typical, but not compatible with, er, Stardom. If Gary Sinise is not a star that "opens" a movie to the tune of a kazillion dollars on the first week end, a) he's been in films that did (Mel Gibson's "Ransom", Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump", Ron Howard's "Apollo 13"; b) his presence now above the title is tantamount to a badge of quality. A film with Gary Sinise in the cast is not going to be a brain-dead kind of flick.

Something about Gary Sinise's voice. The tone, the pace may be neutral (and he can be a delightfully dead-on impersonator), but it's nasal and twangy just enough to give anything he says an edge of dead-pan irony that can border on the sarcastic. Then you look into the eyes: behind the light-blue-gray innocence, yes, the double-, triple-, quadruple entendres are definitely there.


GARY SINISE: I was aware that they were making the film; I knew they were talking to one or two other actors about playing this role. Then I started hearing sort-of-positive noises about it - "It looks like it might not work out with those other guys, you might get a call on this one." Three weeks before they started shooting, they called me, asked me to read the script and... voilà.

I never asked Brian, "Why me?" When I did "George Wallace" (for Turner Television), it was the other way around. John Frankenheimer was adamant about me. I didn't want to play George Wallace, but he was so persuasive and aggressive in his communication as to why I should do it and why he couldn't deal with it if I didn't do it. I mean, he wouldn't take no for an answer on that one.

Different directors, different approaches. When I auditioned for "Forrest Gump", I didn't hear anything for quite a while. My agent would say, "Yeah, they liked you, they thought you did good, but they're talking to so-and-so, they might want to go for a movie star..." I thought it was over, I'd just plain forgotten about "Forrest Gump". And all of a sudden, three weeks later, it came back and I got the part.

At which point, of course, everybody would say, "As soon as you walked in the door, we knew it was you, YOU were the guy as soon as you walked in the door!" And I thought, "Well, why did it take you three weeks to tell me?"


GARY SINISE: He IS a good Navy guy! In that respect, he is completely different from the out-and-out villain I played in "Ransom". There was certainly nothing redeeming about that one; he was simply selfish, self-absorbed, didn't care about anybody but himself, it was all about greed, and he'd step on anything to get what he wanted. But different characters have a different logic, different reasons for what they do. Kevin, my character in "Snake Eyes" is driven by personal regard and personal loss... His back story is kind of revealed in the movie, but I can't quite get into that; the audience gradually gets to discover it throughout the movie.

Do I, as an actor, completely reconstitute his past? No. I go to the extent that I think is necessary for the film and for the character. I just spent time with the writer and with Brian to develop the logic of what happens, to give Kevin real reasons for doing what he's doing. The important thing to me was to understand the logic of what he is doing. He's not one-dimensional, he's not the guy on a rampage and you never understand why. In certain films, when you have a villain, you can very easily legitimize everything that he is doing by making him a psychopath. "Oh, he's crazy! That's why he does what he does." Whatever he does, "Yes, but he's nuts!"

Well, this guy Kevin isn't nuts. He's obsessed with personal loss and he cannot exorcise himself of that. He owes something to the men that he's served with, and he feels betrayed by the government.


GARY SINISE: The same man, Dale Dye, who trained the guys in "Private Ryan" trained us on "Forrest Gump". Only we got to do it in warm weather, they go to freeze. But I don't see how you could do a war movie, or a movie about soldiers, and not do that. You could, but it wouldn't be as good. It's like doing a baseball movie and never picking up a bat. That's what the preparation is about, that's your rehearsal time. In the theater, you get to live in the skin of the character, absorb it and piece it together bit by bit. You rarely get that in the movies; but when you do, it's really helpful.

But things were different on "Forrest Gump". Most of the guys in MY platoon were extras, a few had perhaps a line or two. Besides, it was not a "war movie" per se. In "Private Ryan", you have ten actors that are used to their capuccinos and their trailers and what have you - and they all had to go out there. MY guys, some of them, at least, actually were in the military. So they were used to it all. But for me, it was essential for me to gain a relationship with them to where they could look at me and be convinced that I was a lieutenant.

I'll give Dale Dye some credit for that: he was essential in helping me understand the leadership role and the military aspect of what I was doing - and that informed everything in that whole character. I had to understand how possessed he was by the idea of being a leader and a military hero to be able to play the loss of it all with any conviction.

At the end of our training, Dale Dye actually gave me a map and a mission: "Tomorrow you gotta get to here and take out THIS installation, THESE guys." - which were HIS guys! He had his own squad of terrorists that would harass us at night at 3 AM; bombs would be going off in the middle of a rain storm and it was pitch black and it really gave us a sense of just how scary it would be out in the middle of the jungle, knowing that there was an enemy just out there ready to come in.

I have not seen "Private Ryan". Well, not entirely. I attended a screening in Boston and the projector broke down half way through. I called Tom Hanks the next day to tell him. And he goes (Sinise imitates Hanks): "Well, here is what happens! The WHOLE Squad is wiped out and I am left standing with a bayonet! Nothing but a bayonet! And I single-handedly wipe out those tanks!" I can't wait to see the end of it; but I loved what I saw.


GARY SINISE: It was like a wake up call! That's one long shot; but as you know, it was broken up into sections, and I'm at the end of one section. So by the time I came in, they were all up to speed, everything was coming up so fast, Nick Cage was rapid-fire with his dialogue, didn't even breathe! Brian just said to me, "Welcome to 'Snake Eyes' " So I really had to get my tongue moving and get on with it. And when you see the movie it's one flowing 26-page shot. And when you consider that there are about 125 pages in the script, that's one-fifth of the movie done in one shot! Pretty good!

... CO-STARS...

GARY SINISE: I've worked with a lot of really fine actors, both on stage and on screen. The level of their game lifts me up and brings the level of my game up to theirs. Always. It's like a constant upgrade.


GARY SINISE: We both are intuitive actors, we're both self-trained actors. He started differently than I did: he learned his craft from doing movies, I started my own theater company, but we both are intuitive actors, we're both self-trained actors and this self-taught attitude toward it all kind of brought us together. We automatically had some respect for each other, we were both interested in what the other had done in the past, work that we'd seen each other do, so we were ready to go and work together.

He was a little more prepared because he had been living with the idea of doing the movie for a while, he'd worked longer with Brian, he knew what kind of character it was. We were still trying to round up my character when I came in. But once we got on the set together, it was, "Let's go!"

You know what I like about Nick? He WILL make the odd choices, in kind of a fearless way. Sometimes it's worked against him, sometimes it's worked for him. But anybody who's got that kind of courage and is not afraid to take those kinds of risks will sometimes fail and sometimes succeed. And Nick has certainly succeeded more often than he's failed.

But he can be out there and you'd better be ready for it! For instance, at one point in "Snake Eye", he's talking to me about the red-headed girl. I am angry because I let her distract me from my duty. So he said (imitating Nicholas Cage): "Don't you see? That's what she was there for! She was there to give you a boner! And you got a boner!" Next take, he decides he's going to SING it: "Kevin got a boner! Kevin got a boner!" (laughs) And I'm like, "Where is this coming from?" I looked at Brian and said, "Do you want me to react? Do you want to have any kind of reaction to that?" But that's Nick, and that's just ONE of the things that he did.

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