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Matthew Modine Goes for the Save!

The film and stage star discusses starring in the new satiric comedy Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas and returning to Broadway in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Matthew Modine
While plenty of movie stars would love to see their name in the title of a new play, few would be truly excited if that play was a humorous if devastating attack on the fatuousness of Hollywood fame, and fewer still would probably end up agreeing to play that title role. But Matthew Modine, who strides onstage this week in the Geffen Playhouse's production of Blair Singer's Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas, is not your ordinary celebrity.

Like the real Modine, the show's main character is an actor who shot to fame in the 1980s in such films as Vision Quest and Birdy and whose "recognizability" has waned somewhat in the intervening decades. Unlike the real Modine, though, the play's "Matthew Modine" goes to extraordinary lengths to regain his spot on A-List -- in this case hooking up with an unscrupulous press agent (played by former Frasier star Peri Gilpin) and her sycophantic assistant (played by French Stewart), who convince the desperate "Matthew" to fly down to Ecuador and save a dying tribe of native people and their beloved alpacas.

Modine is quick to point out that the play was not his idea. "Blair was one of the writers on Weeds, in which I co-starred in 2007, and he said to me one day that he was passionate about theater and wanted to write a play for me," recalls Modine. "That had been said to me before about two or three times, but this is the first time someone delivered on their promise. He started to write out something more serious about the perils of fame in Hollywood, but the more he wrote, the sillier the show became -- because you can only do justice o the subject by satire. It's come a long way from the beginning, The Geffen has been so supportive, which is so important with a new play and a constantly evolving script, since it takes time to find out what works."

The actor knows that some people will take the script more seriously than is intended. "My 23-year-old son was the first one to read it, and he said to me, 'This guy who wrote it really hates you,' and I had to tell him was a joke," says Modine. "For a minute, we thought about changing the name of the play to 'Joe Schmo Saves the Alpacas,' but it's not just as funny. And sure, I was nervous about doing this kind of play in LA. But I think that people here are willing to recognize some of the silliness about the industry. and I also believe people will think it's cool to laugh at themselves. And at the end of the day, anyone who knows me will get the joke that this 'Matthew Modine' is not really me. I just hope audiences will have a really great time and a good laugh, because we can use that right now."

Indeed, one big difference is that the fictional Modine engages in an affair with his publicist, while the actor has been happily married to former model Cari Modine for 28 years. "Cari is just one of the most beautiful people in the world, in every sense, and we've grown together over the years," he says. "We were together before I even worked as an actor, and it's her encouragement and her believing in me that has allowed me to have this career. And she continues to believe in me every day. And yes, she has a good sense of humor."

Modine points out that while the play does take potshots at the charitable work of some Hollywood celebrities, it is by no means a wholesale indictment of actors who try to use their fame to do good. "Of course, I've been involved charitable causes over the years. But take someone like Paul Newman, who probably raised like a billion dollars with his charity -- to diminish his accomplishment would be inappropriate. Or it's easy to make fun of Jerry Lewis, but he has raised so much money for people with muscular dystrophy. It's when people do it for own personal gain, that it becomes suspicious. You can tell when being charitable is just a sad attempt for notoriety."

Meanwhile, Modine is thrilled to be working with this cast, notably Gilpin. "It was so hard to find the right actress to play the part, that at one point I thought about asking Martin Short to do it," he says. "But both Peri and French have turned out to be fantastic."

Olivia Scott and Matthew Modine in To Kill a Mockingbird
(© T. Charles Erickson)
If the real Modine's Hollywood career has lessened, like his fictional alter-ego, it's because he's devoted most of the last few years to theater work, including productions of Arthur Miller's Finishing the Picture in Chicago, Miller's Resurrection Blues in London, and most notably, the stage version of To Kill A Mockingbird, penned by Horton Foote, that played Hartford Stage earlier this year. "Financially, these have been the least productive two years in my career, but they've been the most productive emotionally; you can't pay for this kind of satisfaction," he notes, adding that there is now a "98 percent chance" that Mockingbird will transfer to Broadway.

Did he have any misgivings about taking on the iconic role of attorney Atticus Finch, played so memorably on film by Gregory Peck? "I refused to have anything to do with the film." he says. "While I was preparing, Horton was there working on The Orphans' Cycle, and, one night, Michael Wilson [the theater's artistic director] had this public talk with Horton and I drove up to listen to them. Afterwards, I told Horton: 'I need look no further than you for inspiration for Atticus.' He was funny, strong, stoic, and always on high moral ground. After we opened, he told me it was a triumph -- and then he passed away a week later. I'm definitely ready to give it another go, and it would be fantastic to be able to go Broadway."

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