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Matthew Modine saves the alpacas after entering an alternate reality

He lends his name, as well as his performance, to an actor looking to reboot his career via 'humanitarian' campaign. The Hollywood-skewering comedy at the Geffen is all in good fun.

September 13, 2009|Irene Lacher

Matthew Modine is a brave guy.

On Wednesday, he opens in a comedy at the Geffen Playhouse as a has-been actor and opportunist who goes to South America to create a photo op as a celebrity "humanitarian" so he can get back on the A-list. By saving an endangered herd of alpacas, he figures he'll save his career. The character's name?

Matthew Modine.

And so the curtain rises on the world premiere of "Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas." Only that Matthew Modine and this Matthew Modine aren't really the same guy -- they just look the same.

When the actor first read playwright Blair Singer's Hollywood satire, he howled with laughter. "It was so funny and weird, and I let my son read it because he saw me laughing," the actor recalled recently, perched on a chair in a Geffen staff lounge before a rehearsal. "He put it down and said, 'This guy really hates you.' And I said, 'It's not about me. It's a person who happens to have the same name as me.' "

Confused? Don't be. Modine does have a few causes, but he's so low-key about them that Singer didn't even know he'd taken up his planet-friendly Bicycle for a Day campaign only months before the playwright wrote the script for him.

(Modine's 30-year custom of riding his bike in New York, ever since he was a struggling actor there, has helped keep him miraculously recognizable for a Hollywood actor well into middle age. Still earnest, boyish and hirsute at 50, he resembles the wiry wrestler he played in his 1985 film "Vision Quest," just a more weathered version.)

For six months during the play's development, Singer gave Modine's character a made-up name so audiences wouldn't mistake him for the play's hypocrite. But it didn't quite work. "I don't think people believe false celebrity," Singer says. "You name a guy Caleb Moore, and nobody buys it. Matthew is 180 degrees away from this character. This character has nothing to do with him, and that's the only reason why I knew I could write the play."

Still, it's hard not to marvel at Modine the actor's moxie in taking on Modine the character. He's certainly not the desperate Modine of the play who has spent the past 20 years slumming in a Winnebago. Indeed, after a dozen years as an all-American leading man, starring in '80s films like "Married to the Mob" and Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," he has continued to work steadily in smaller films, television and theater. In his latest film, "Opa!," which opens Oct. 16, he plays an American archaeologist who finds romance amid the ruins in Greece.

But Hollywood is inescapably ground zero for America's youth obsession, and most actors of a certain age move into a different category if they're not Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep. Modine too is in the army of older actors relegated to the "Memba Him?" category on the fame barometer TMZ.com.

"The only line in the play that's really truthful to me was, 'Back in the '80s, my fame came and went so fast, it was gone before I knew I had it,' " Modine says. " 'But I'm not going to make the same mistakes I made when I was 20. This time, when I rise to the zenith, I'm going to stay there. I'm going to plant my flag.'

"I've had that discussion with my wife -- when it came, we were so flabbergasted by the ease of access we had to anything we wanted. The doors that were open to us because of some films I made astonished us. We never took it for granted until it kind of went away, and we thought, things are not as easy as they were. But it was OK, because there are phases. I think if you work hard and hold true to the things you believe in, if you're lucky, it does come around. It is cyclical."

Wrestling ideas into shape

Singer has been "a huge fan" of Modine's ever since the mid-1980s, when Singer was on Calabasas High School's wrestling team. That's when most young people are fine-tuning the all-important definition of what's cool, and Modine's performance as an earnest high-school wrestler in "Vision Quest" supported an incipient theory of the young Singer -- he was, or could be. "That was the cool wrestling movie," the writer says, "and he was really cool in it."

Cut to 2007 and the third-season set of the quirky Showtime dramedy "Weeds," when the grown-up Singer, then writing for the series, was about to meet the object of his man crush. By now, Singer was a Juilliard grad, a recovering actor and an accomplished writer who'd had plays produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and other stages of note. (His most recent L.A. production was "Placement," a 2006 drama about adoption at the Black Dahlia Theater, which was nominated for four LA Weekly Awards.)

His plays are an eclectic assortment of dramas -- "Matthew Modine" is his first comedy -- about subjects as diverse as being a white person with no African American friends in the age of Obama and the aftermath of witnessing a death.

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