Being a person of conscience comes with a cost.
Matthew Modine was offered the starring role of "Maverick" in the 1986 film "Top Gun," but he declined, rejecting the film's militarism and Cold War anti-Russian nationalism. "Top Gun" would make almost 360 million dollars. Tom Cruise's career would be launched to the stratosphere.
Among the other "What ifs?" in Modine's career is turning down the role of "Marty McFly" (which would be played by Michael J. Fox) in "Back to the Future" as well as Charlie Sheen's character in "Wall Street."
Modine would go on to act in smaller more intimate films as well as large Hollywood projects such as the World War 2 film "Memphis Belle," playing Dr. Martin Brenner in the Netflix series "Stranger Things," and of course his very memorable performance as Pvt. Joker in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket."
The actor has not stopped living a life of conscience and principle, where at age 61 he continues with his public commitment to advancing human and civil rights, secular humanism, and the overall struggle to make American society (and the world) more just, equitable, and good.
To that end, Modine has produced documentaries such as "The Brainwashing of My Dad" which highlights the harmful impact of Fox News and the broader right-wing propaganda disinformation machine on its viewers – and American society as a whole.
In this conversation, Modine reflects on his career and what living a life of principle means in the Age of Trump. Modine also shares his thoughts on white privilege, human empathy, dignity, and the dangers of denying the uncomfortable facts of America's origins.
He also ponders the enduring power of "Full Metal Jacket" and why so many men fail to understand that the movie is a matter of fact indictment of violence, militarism, and regressive masculinity and not an endorsement of such values.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Given the state of the world with the Age of Trump, the pandemic, economic misery, and other troubles, how are you feeling? How are you making sense of it for yourself?
You can only be here and now in the moment. Therefore, if you are present and in the moment, it helps prevent you from falling into anxiety. Now that does not mean that you and we are not vulnerable to anxiety given all the social unrest in our country. [With] the death and the illness, it is easy to become anxious.
I have been involved with the struggles for social justice since I was a child. I grew up with the civil rights movement and the efforts to empower women. We felt like we had made so much progress in that regard but now we are in 2020 with the Age of Trump and this tumult. We now clearly see that the struggle for progress was far from complete. We have a tremendous journey in front of us as a country for social equality, for racial justice, and for equal opportunities for all sexes. The fight goes on, the journey continues. What I have chosen in my personal life is to be on the right side of history.
We're in a season of death with the pandemic and Donald Trump and other disasters. There is also the George Floyd protests and people's uprising. You are a man of conscience. How are you locating yourself in this moment?
I am not a person of color, but I do have the experiences shared with me from non-white people in my life – family members and friends – and what I learned from them. An analogy. Horses wear blinders to cover their eyes so they can only see straight forward. Those blinders are a way to understand white privilege.
David Alan Grier is my children's godfather. I remember telling him he could use my car when I was out of town. This was before Rodney King. David said to me, "Are you crazy!" I was confused, and he explained that he, a Black man, would be stopped by the LAPD and they would pull him out of the car and assault him because they would assume he had some type of warrant or other violation and he was driving my BMW.
Then the Rodney King assault happened, and I said to myself, "Oh, that's what David was talking about." Back to the analogy, my horse blinders got opened up a little bit wider. I'm starting to get a little bit more peripheral vision about the inequities and injustice of white privilege. I was in Atlanta talking to a friend who is not white and the police slowed down and shined the spotlight on him. I was indignant and started yelling at the police. My friend did not move, he didn't put his hands in his pocket, he didn't reach for his cell phone. Why? Because he knew that if he made any quick movements, if he put his hands in his pocket, those policemen are going to react to a completely different way than they would to me. Those white privilege blinders on my head got opened even wider in that moment.
You never really understand another person until you see things from their point of view. White Americans will never literally be able to live the life of, be inside the skin of a Black American, but we can take the steps to be more conscious and more empathetic of other people's experiences.
Donald Trump embodies a type of crude, primitive, backwards, violent masculinity. There is public opinion and other research which shows this is part of his appeal to his followers. One would imagine that such people – men in particular – would find "Full Metal Jacket" a very appealing movie. Somehow, they likely think that Kubrick was endorsing war when in fact he was not. Moreover, I have met many people who joined the Marines after watching "Full Metal Jacket." I would ask them, "What damn movie were you watching?"
It is weird to me when I meet people who say they saw "Full Metal Jacket" and then went and joined the military. Yes, the military can provide life-changing opportunities but "Full Metal Jacket" is not an advertisement for joining up. People – young people especially – should not passively watch a commercial for the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, or other branch of the service. Be active watchers. Think about what you are seeing. Watch what the ad is saying, watch what the direction and the language and the excitement of that video. Are you one of the few? Are you one of the proud? Do you have what it takes to be a Marine? The ad is challenging one's sense of manhood. This is very attractive to some people.
What we tried to do with "Full Metal Jacket" is to present what happens in boot camp when there's somebody who doesn't fit in and then we have to collectively beat his ass until he gets his head screwed on straight. In "Full Metal Jacket" we see the horrible outcome.
Trump's fascist appeal is of course tied to guns and nationalism and militant right-wing Christianity. Those themes are omnipresent in "Full Metal Jacket."
Michael Herr wrote the screenplay for "Full Metal Jacket." He also wrote the voiceover for "Apocalypse Now." He is a great writer.
We kept guns away from my son for his entire childhood. And then one day we were out hiking and he picked up a stick and held it like a pistol and went "pow pow." I didn't know where he learned that behavior from. I asked Michael about it, and he said, "It's like a virus. It's in our bloodstream. It's in the American bloodstream, the gun and violence." That's the foundation of our country.
America's foundation is the slaughter of Indigenous people and the enslavement of Black people. That is what America is trying to build its house on.
America has a love affair with guns that is deeply tied to the country's past. As a people we have not properly realized and struggled with the real origins of the United States. We have not educated ourselves about the past. Instead, we have largely tried to gloss over it.
You were offered the Tom Cruise role in "Top Gun." You turned it down because you did not want to endorse militarism. Did you ever regret that choice? Living a life of principle often, as with your choice about "Top Gun," comes with a great financial cost.
Not at all. Not for one second. Cruise said that he felt that "Top Gun" was a movie about individualism and personal strength. I just thought the movie was jingoistic. I had just come back from East Berlin. That was when I learned about the Russians and their losses fighting the Nazis. I was at the Berlin Film Festival, and they asked me would I like to go into East Berlin. I said, "I can't go to East Berlin, I'm American." They said, "No, you can go to East Berlin because you are an American. It's the Berliners who are the ones that can't go." So, I accepted the invitation.
We went across Checkpoint Charlie and saw all the soldiers with machine guns, [and] Russian soldiers touring around. Going to East Berlin from West Berlin was like going from a technicolor life to black and white. It was like a movie.
I went on a tour of sorts, and then they took me to this monument. It was for the millions of Russians who had died fighting in World War 2. In my schooling I was not taught about the Russians involvement in the war and stopping the Nazis.
And then I met these Russian soldiers, and they were just like my oldest brother Mark who had gone to Vietnam. I smoked with them and I gave them some American cigarettes, and they gave me pins from their uniforms. We laughed and joked around. These soldiers were just like young people in America. The Russian people are not evil, horrible monsters. That left quite an impression on me.
You lived during the 1980s and saw the end of the Cold War. How have you negotiated the reality of those years with your role in "Stranger Things" and the heavy nostalgia and grossly distorted view of the Reagan years it depicts?
There is reality, and then there is "Stranger Things." One of the movies from my childhood was "American Graffiti." It was about a small pocket corner of America that George Lucas understood and grew up in. He was romantic and nostalgic about his youth. I think of "Stranger Things" in a similar way. In the end, "Stranger Things" is not about reality or politics.
You produced the documentary "The Brainwashing of My Dad," which is about how Fox News and the broader right-wing echo chamber has damaged so many people. What attracted you to that project?
What we discovered while doing a Kickstarter to fund the documentary was that Jen Senko's experience was not isolated. People donating to fund the movie would share how their parents and grandparents and other relatives were basically brainwashed by Fox News and the right-wing media. Jen Senko's story was a national one. As we developed the documentary we learned from psychologists and historians that Fox News and other parts of the right-wing "news" media are indeed using brainwashing techniques to control their audience and change who they are.
Why does "Full Metal Jacket" still resonate more than three decades after its initial release?
As long as there are boot camps for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine, Coast Guard, fire departments, police departments and the like, anyone who goes through that experience will feel connected to what we portrayed in "Full Metal Jacket." The genius of Stanley Kubrick is that he created a piece of art that is not timestamped. It is as relevant today as it was in 1987.