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A Talk with Matthew Modine

Well known to American audiences for his roles in Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam War epic Full Metal Jacket and for his pursuit of Michelle Pfeiffer and Dean Stockwell in Jonathan Demme's mafia spoof Married to the Mob, Matthew Modine has been most recently seen in Any Given Sunday and Notting Hill. He makes his Masterpiece Theatre debut with this American Collection production of The American. Equally comfortable in period drama and online he responded via e-mail to our questions from London, where he's on location for his latest film.


It's been some time now since you shot The American. Looking back from this perspective, what stands out in your mind about this project?

That it was great to work in Ireland and the great pleasure of working with such terrific cast members.


Had you acted in a period film before? How did it feel to do period work? Was it very different from working in films about modern subjects?

Yes, I have worked in period before. Costumes can force you to carry yourself a certain way, but I think people's needs and desires are the same from century to century. No matter the clothes we wear, some things never change.


How did you prepare for this role?

That's secret.


What attracted you to the role and to the story?

It's a love story. I love a good love story.


It's pretty easy to see why Claire de Cintré might fall in love with the American; he offers her an escape to freedom. But why do you think your character, Newman, falls in love with Claire? What do you think he sees in her?

Perhaps he saw something of himself in her. As free as Newman is, he's trapped by something that he doesn't understand. In freeing Claire, he might free himself. In understanding her, he learns how to understand himself.

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So what threat does he pose to her family, to Madame de Bellegarde and Claire's older brother?

He threatens her traditions, her history, their family's whole way of life.


If Claire is trapped by her family's traditions and way of life, what has Newman trapped?

Newman is trapped by ambition. He is an archetype of American ambition. He believes that whatever he wants he can have or buy. The trap is that things don't always work that way in life. Some things don't have a price. Some people can't be bought.


It's often said that James's main interest is his characters' moral sensibilities, the moral choices they are forced to make. Is that what interests you about Newman, or is it something else?

Yes, life is all about choices and the lessons we learn from those choices. Henry James knew that very well.


The film adaptation rearranged some key events in the novel fairly significantly. It also redraws some of the characters. Did you take an active hand in defining your character as written and played for the screen?

Film adaptations are always difficult for people in love with the original literature. Film requires a different language than that of a novelist. It's a different medium. Novels are written by individuals, shaped by their editors or very close friends. Films are made by writers, directors, actors, and producers. Everyone interprets the words of the novel differently. It's a wonderful, magical frustration!


In a way, The American is a like classic fairy tale that gets destroyed. A wandering hero -- Newman -- finds a princess -- that's Claire -- locked away in a tower by an evil witch -- her mother. True to the hero tradition, he tries to rescue her, but the rescue fails and the dark forces win. In James's day many readers and some of his friends were upset about this ending. Even his editor was unhappy. James argued that in the real world, the marriage of Christopher and Claire could never have worked. Do you agree?

Love is an incredibly powerful force. I would hope for the happy ending. But in that time, it would have been very difficult for Newman to infiltrate the Bellegarde family. He would have had to kidnap her and run away to America.

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As you may know, 15 years after he wrote the novel, James himself adapted it for the London stage. In the play, he changed the ending to a happy one. He wanted it to be a popular success, so Claire and Newman marry, and James gives the audience back its fairy tale. Do you think the film could have worked for a modern audience with a happy ending?

Absolutely. Pretty Woman was a very different film on paper than the very romantic film it became.


There have been several recent film adaptations of Henry James's novels. What do you think James offers a contemporary audience?

Henry James's stories are timeless. Although they are set in the not-so-distant past, they speak of the same struggles we deal with today. Because they are "period pieces," they allow us to have a different perspective on our contemporary lives.


If you were offered the chance to bring any other era of history to the screen for modern audiences, any historical character or famous work of literature, what would you choose?

Abraham Lincoln. I find him fascinating. Bold. Brilliant.


Essays + Interviews:
About the Film | A Talk with Screenwriter Michael Hastings
A Talk with Diana Rigg | A Talk with Matthew Modine
The American on the Printed Page



Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | A James Timeline
Teacher's Guide | Genius in the Family | Henry Wants a Hit!
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