It's Been 35 Years Since Matthew Modine's Breakthrough Military Role in 'Birdy'

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Matthew Modine stars in "Birdy."

It's the 35 anniversary of "Birdy," Matthew Modine's breakthrough 1984 role as a Vietnam veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress. It was a breakthrough movie for Modine and his co-star Nicolas Cage, who played childhood friends who both served during the war. The movie is now available on Blu-ray.

Director Alan Parker tells the story in flashback, so we know about Birdy's psychic injuries and Al Columbato's (Cage) physical wounds as we see their friendship develop before their military service.

"Birdy" was treated as an arthouse movie by its distributors, so it played only in big cities and a few independent houses around the country. It featured the first-ever movie score by legendary rock artist Peter Gabriel, and the music was a big attraction for at least a few of the film's original fans. It later found a following on home video. If you've never seen it or haven't seen it lately, this anniversary year makes it a great time to check out this '80s gem.

It's not one of those "you are there" military films. Based on a novel by World War II veteran William Wharton ("A Midnight Clear"), "Birdy" aims for impressions more than plot. Modine barely speaks for a huge chunk of the movie and yet manages to convey his character's struggles both before and after the war.

Birdy got his nickname because of his obsession with birds, flight and the freedom they represent to him. The flight metaphors are the heart of the movie, and both Modine and Cage fully embrace the weirdness to create a movie that resonates more than a lot of the more "realistic" war movies out there.

As most of us know, Modine went on to portray the iconic Private Joker in Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece "Full Metal Jacket." He's enjoyed a long and successful movie career, with notable roles in "Memphis Belle," "Married to the Mob" and "The Dark Knight Rises." He's become famous for a younger generation with his terrifying performance as Dr. Martin Brenner on Netflix's "Stranger Things."

Modine spoke with us about "Birdy" and what the movie means to him. He brought up "Full Metal Jacket" (and his excellent book about that movie) and shared some thoughts about "Stranger Things" and his current campaign to become president of his trade's union, the Screen Actors Guild.

Nicholas Cage and Matthew Modine star in "Birdy."

A lot of people know you from your military roles in "Full Metal Jacket" and "Memphis Belle," but not as many know that you played this role as a Vietnam veteran before you made those movies. Can you give us some background on "Birdy"?

Well, I [had] just finished a movie called "Vision Quest," and I auditioned in New York City for Alan Parker for the role of Al Columbato, that Nic Cage ended up playing. And then I got a movie called "Mrs. Soffel" with Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson.

I went up to Toronto to make that film, and I got a phone call from Alan Parker, who said, "Congratulations, you're going to be in the film." And I was like, "Oh, great, are you going to change the character's name to a WASPy name or am I going to play an Italian-American? And he said, "What are you talking about? You're going to play Birdy." And I said, "No, no, I can't play Birdy. Birdy is a really sensitive." I had a vision of who this guy Birdy was, and it wasn't me. But Alan Parker really saw me in the role, and the rest is history.

I'm not going to kid you, I'm not a religious person; I'm a spiritual person. There are all kinds of stuff that's wound up in our DNA that defines who we are as a species, as human beings. I got down on my hands and knees, and I begged that all of those veterans … who had ever been misunderstood and beaten up by life that [were] suffering from -- we didn't use the term then, post-traumatic stress, but shellshock because the book that William Wharton wrote took place in the second world war. I hoped that people like my uncle, like my father, who had been injured during the war, that those people might come to my aid and help me to interpret this role.

I felt the rush of these souls of spirits from the beginning of time come rushing into me and help to guide me to interpret that role of Birdy. And it was a pretty spiritual and special experience of playing that role. Does that sound crazy?

Nicolas Cage, Karen Young and Matthew Modine in "Birdy."

No, it didn't sound crazy at all. OK, but this may sound a little crazy. When we're covering movies at Military.com, we often get into a discussion about how authentic movies are, in the sense of how much they literally represent the experience. But "Birdy" seems to be much more of a fable in that it portrays an abstract version of truth rather than a literal one.

Well, that's something that art does. Art and poetry can portray some things [that] are unable to be expressed in a realistic term. The experiences that our veterans have in combat situations are things that are difficult to articulate, and they require the spirituality or sensitivity of an artist to be able to interpret.

When you explain the circumstances of combat, of military training, in literal terms, they may appear to be very dry and too factual. When you enter the realm of art and spirit, you can explain something in a visceral way that anyone who has ever participated in those situations can experience it in a way that they can understand, that they can relate to.

Matthew Modine in "Birdy."

I remember when we went to the moon, they said that ... one of the mistakes that we'd made was not sending an artist to the moon to be able to tell us what that journey was like and what it was like to walk on the moon. We sent scientists and engineers, but we needed Carl Sagan to go to the moon, to come back and tell us what that journey and what that experience was like. What was the texture of the moon, what was it like to walk on that ancient dust? It could have been such a different experience.

In "Birdy," I don't speak that much, but we had the great artist Peter Gabriel to give us music. So much of what Birdy doesn't say is expressed through the emotion of Peter Gabriel's music. That was a stroke of genius when Alan Parker got Peter Gabriel, and it was the first score that he did for a movie.

Matthew Modine and David Alan Grier star in "Streamers."

Did this role create a bond between you and people who had served? Some actors who have a role that's as heavy as this one say it carries through in their life.

Oh, absolutely. I had done another movie before this with Robert Altman called "Streamers," which was set at the beginning of the Vietnam War and tells the story of some guys that had joined the Army for different reasons. One for education, one to keep out of jail, and one to just get out of the neighborhood. Suddenly, the drill instructor in the story, he starts talking about Vietnam and how some of us are gonna die. And the soldiers are going, "What is Vietnam? What is this guy talking about?"

It was written by a man who had served named David Rabe, and he wrote a trilogy of plays about Vietnam: "The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel," "Sticks and Bones" and "Streamers." When I was a boy and the Vietnam War was going on, you'd come home from school and there was an abstraction of war on TV. You didn't really understand it, except that it was on the news all the time. You'd watch Walter Cronkite talking about the war. It sort of felt like baseball scores, that this number of theirs were killed, a number of ours were killed. I was too young to be able to understand it.

Then, my oldest brother, Mark, got a bad draft number and was going to be drafted. He joined the Navy, and then my brother Michael and then my sister Elizabeth and my brother Russell all joined during the time of the Vietnam War. All of them ended up in the United States Navy.

Suddenly, the war came home, and the abstraction was no longer abstract. When they were talking about wounded or killed Americans, there was the great possibility it could be one of my family members. So I was trying to understand the war from that early age and, in particular, the Vietnam War. Why do we use war to solve problems? My efforts to understand military conflict began when I was about 12 or 13 years old, when the war came home for me.

When I became an actor, that was something I was still trying to understand. And so "Streamers," "Birdy" and "Full Metal Jacket" were my trifecta in trying to understand what war was.

A screenshot from the iPad app of Matthew Modine's "Full Metal Jacket Diary."

I kept a diary while I was making "Full Metal Jacket," and it's available for iPad as "Full Metal Jacket Diary." It's also an audiobook or you can try to find the [out-of-print] physical book.

As I say in the afterword of the book, I've made three films trying to understand the Vietnam War, and I come to terms with the fact that I'm never going to understand why it was being fought. I'm not sure that the American people will ever understand why we were in that war and the tremendous costs for so many young Americans who were drafted, who served, who enlisted, and the repercussions for their lives afterward when they came home.

We'll never understand the unceremonious disrespect that so many veterans received upon returning home from Vietnam. People were spat on; people were called baby killers. That is not why anybody joined the military, because they wanted to go kill children. The horrors of war are often not just physical wounds, as most of your readers know, but that there are mental scars that people carry throughout their lives.

Matthew Modine visits the Memphis Belle at the USAF Museum on June 17, 2018. (Museum of the United States Air Force)

That was certainly the case for my Uncle Wilder and my father, Mark. I wore Uncle Wilder's dress uniform in Memphis Belle. He was a B-17 pilot. I was actually playing what he was in real life in that movie. One of the things that he said to me was that movies ... always get one thing wrong. He says, "You guys are always too goddamn old. I was 20 years old when I was flying the B-17 doing combat missions in the European Theatre. And my crew was 17, 18 years old."

When I did "Memphis Belle," I might have been 30. So, he was just saying that we were all too old. Stanley Kubrick tried to make Full Metal Jacket with 18-year-olds. At one point, Anthony Michael Hall was going to play Private Joker. Luckily for me, his father wanted Anthony to be paid a million dollars for being in the film, and Stanley told him to go jump in the river, that there was no way he was gonna pay an 18-year-old kid to be in a movie.

Kubrick said it was also difficult because he couldn't find a lot of the 18-year-old actors that emotionally or intellectually had enough experience under their belts to be able to play the roles. We use an expression in acting school. When you're old enough to play Hamlet, you're not old enough to understand him. And when you're old enough to understand Hamlet, you're too old to play him. So sometimes that happens with roles. You find somebody who is age appropriate, but they're not emotionally or skilled enough to play the roles, so you end up having to use older actors.

Think about those old World War II movies, all those movies, they were all played by actors that were [in their] 30s, 40s, who were all too old to be playing the parts. It's terrifying to imagine that if somebody really successfully made a movie with 17-, 18-year-old, 19-year-old actors going off to combat, our experience of watching those films might be quite different.

Matthew Modine and R. Lee Ermey star in "Full Metal Jacket."

I think the first military film I saw in a theater was "Midway," and there were like 68-year-old men playing 25-year-olds. I'm sure you know "Full Metal Jacket" is one of the military movies that's most popular with people who served. And R. Lee Ermey's performance in that film is one of the most beloved ever. What was it like working with him?

He was the real deal. He was a gunny. There was an authenticity that he brought to the film. Lee was originally hired by Dale Dye, who was technical adviser on the movie, to make sure that we got through the boot camp correctly and that the marching was done appropriately and with precision. And that's what Stanley hired Lee Ermey to provide.

Tim Colceri was the actor who played the door gunner in the film. He was cast as the drill instructor. There was one point where Bruce Willis was really considered to play the drill instructor as well. Stanley shot the Vietnam scenes first, and then we were shooting boot camp. The movie was shot backward. Stanley told Tim to go audition all of the guys who were going to be in the boot camp so Stanley could hand pick them. He thought it would give Tim an opportunity to practice his lines and get in character.

So Tim Colceri would do it for a little while, like 15, 20 minutes of yelling at people. Then he'd say, "Yeah, I'm good. I don't want to do anymore. I'm blowing my voice out." Actors are generally pretty lazy, but there was 30 more people that needed to be auditioned.

Lee Ermey said, "I'll do it; I'll take care of it." Lee would get in front of the video camera for the audition of these background artists, and then Stanley Kubrick started looking at the video playback. He'd see Tim Colceri kind of going half speed through it, and then Lee Ermey coming in and saying that crazy stuff that he does in the film.

R. Lee Ermey works on dialogue with director Stanley Kubrick on the set of "Full Metal Jacket."

As a director in that moment, you realize that you have somebody who is the character and I have another guy who is just playing the character. Now, you always want to go with somebody who is rather than somebody who is playing. That's how Lee Ermey went from being the technical adviser on the film to becoming like one of the best gunnys that you've ever seen in the history of film.

He would have won the Academy Award if Lou Gossett Jr. hadn't won it like a year or two years before for "An Officer and a Gentleman." The way it works in the business is, "Well, we gave the award to a military guy a couple years ago. Let's give it to somebody else." Lee Ermey absolutely 1,000% deserved to be honored for that role.

What's maybe even better is the way that, for the rest of his life, he was honored by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people for his performance. And he continued to give back until his death to his brothers and sisters in the military service.

Matthew Modine as "Papa" in "Stranger Things." (Netflix)

You've played all these iconic roles. You were part of all these cultural phenomena in your life, and then all of a sudden you're part of something huge that introduces you to a new generation too young to know about all this other amazing work you've done. What has the "Stranger Things" phenomenon been like for you?

It's wonderful because it gave me a new generation of fans. What we always struggle with as we get older is remaining relevant and being part of the conversation. So, "Stranger Things" has provided that. It's given me a new generation.

I did "Dark Knight Rises," part of the Batman series that Christopher Nolan directed, and I was working with Michael Caine. I was in the makeup trailer, and I said, "You know I grew up watching your movies." He got angry at me because he felt that I was a contemporary of his and not somebody who was young enough to have grown up watching his movies. He was kind of offended by that.

Matthew Modine in "The Dark Knight Rises." (Warner Bros.)

But it's kind of like that for me now. "The Dark Knight Rises" is kind of in the genre of a "Stranger Things" kind of fantasy and adventure. My character, Dr. Brenner, or as the kids call him, Papa, is kind of like Michael Caine in "The Dark Knight Rises" or the Batman series. The people watching "The Dark Knight Rises" or Batman series don't know about Michael Caine in "Alfie." There are so many Michael Caine movies. "The Man Who Would be King." There are so many amazing performances from him, but there's the whole generation of people that only know him from the Batman series. That's OK. He's still part of the conversation; he's still relevant. I'm really lucky and blessed that I got to be a part of something that is a cultural phenomenon in 162 territories around the world. That's pretty amazing.

Thanks for your time and good luck with your upcoming Screen Actors Guild election.

Well, I'm so grateful. You look back to James Cagney and Patty Duke and Charlton Heston, even Ronald Reagan. They were all presidents of the Screen Actors Guild. You don't get paid for the job. It's a job you do because the purpose of the union is to help people who don't have a voice, for those performers who can't speak truth to power.

They created a guild to represent all performers. I was the beneficiary of what those people fought for, just like we're the beneficiaries of our veterans who fought for our freedom. Their sacrifice provided me with a livelihood. I'm 60 years old now, and it's appropriate for me to have the responsibility of the people that came before me to step up and say, "OK, it's my turn. I'm going to help protect you and give voice to those who have no voice and give voice to those people who are being censored."

I'm doing this for the next generation of actors. Our union is really compromised right now, and residuals are being taken away. Eighty percent of our membership is unemployed, 80% of our members will work one or more times a year as background performers just so they'll be able to contribute to the health and pension plan. There are a lot of things being taken away from the members, and it's my responsibility to try to help them so that they can have a livelihood.

The arts are so important to our culture. Actors entertain us and help us to escape from reality for a few hours while we're watching a movie. They can help us to understand one another like this conversation that we're having about "Birdy." Actors can help us to be better people and to understand the world that we share.

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