Matthew Modine is talking to Yahoo from a top secret location. Is it the Upside Down? Is it a galaxy far, far away? He’s unwilling to say. But wherever it is, he doesn’t want us to find out.
“I’m in a secret place, in a secret world, in a state I can’t tell you,” he says cryptically when we catch up with him ahead of the 26 February release of his new horror movie Wrong Turn.
“Imagine if people started talking about Full Metal Jacket before it ever came out? It would’ve spoiled the surprise of what Stanley Kubrick was doing,” he suggests, mentioning the 1987 war epic that helped establish him as a leading man. “There’s cameras, microphones, hair and make-up... that’s all I can tell you.”
This isn’t the first time Modine has found himself somewhere hard to describe. Just a few years ago he was tampering with sinister forces as Dr Martin Brenner, the silver-haired suit responsible for kidnapping Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven in Netflix nostalgia hit Stranger Things. Before that, he cemented his place in cinema history as Pvt. Joker in Kubrick’s aforementioned classic, chronicling the harrowing reality of the Vietnam war and its ongoing impact on America.
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Throughout his three decade career, this fiercely liberal star has worked with a wide array of influential directors - from Robert Altman and John Sayles, to Oliver Stone and Christopher Nolan. However his latest turn as a concerned father searching for his missing daughter in director Mike P. Nelson’s Wrong Turn marks the 61-year-old’s first foray into the horror genre.
“I hadn’t done a film in this genre before and I give credit to my son and daughter for encouraging me to do it, because they knew the Wrong Turn franchise,” Modine tells us, detailing his route into the project.
Based on screenwriter Alan B. McElroy’s eponymous 2003 feature, this new instalment follows a group of young hikers who run into a brutal mountain clan known as The Foundation whilst exploring the Appalachian Trail. It doesn’t take long for things to turn sour - and when hiker Jen (Charlotte Vega) fails to return home, her father Scott (Modine) sets out to find her, whatever the cost. “I felt like I understood the character,” admits Modine. “I’ve got a son and a daughter and if anybody did something to harm them, you’d do everything you could to help them.”
If the idea of a father stopping at nothing to save his missing daughter rings a few bells – you’re not alone. In fact, it was one of the main reasons why Modine was attracted to the role in the first place: “Liam Neeson is my mate and he changed the course of his career with the lines ‘I will find you and I will kill you’ in Taken,” he smiles.
“My Dad was a drive-in theatre manager and I loved those kinds of movies. I can quote you almost all of Clint Eastwood’s lines from Dirty Harry,” adds Modine before reeling off a chunk of dialogue, verbatim.
“You hear lines like ‘Go ahead, make my day’ and ‘Hasta La Vista baby’ — we live for those moments in movies. We want to see good triumph over evil and it’s so satisfying when the bag guy gets punched in the face.”
Modine’s love for movies and the timeless icons they create is deep rooted. Born in California in 1959, as a child he regularly caught sneak peeks of the big releases of the day at one of the many drive-in cinemas managed by his father. It was an experience that introduced him to a wealth of genres at an early age - whether he was ready for them or not.
“The first truly scary horror movie I saw was George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead,” he says, sharing his first encounter with the horror genre. “I snuck into the projection booth because I wasn’t allowed to go into the theatre to watch it and it was terrifying. It really destroyed me. That movie messed me up for at least five years,” he reveals. “Then, just as I was getting over having seen Night of the Living Dead, I saw William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and that messed me up for another five years.”
Soon afterwards, Modine found himself face-to-face with yet another iconic nail-biter that quickly became one of his all time favourites. It also introduced him to the work of a director that would play a huge role in his career.
“Kubrick’s The Shining was kind of dismissed when it first came out and heavily criticised,” he recalls. “Now it’s considered one of the top five horror films ever made.” While it was Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket that’d ultimately catalyse Modine’s career, he briefly crossed paths with another iconic role which, had he taken, would’ve heavily skewed his future.
“Eric Stoltz was a friend of mine and was he cast first,” says the actor, discussing his close call with Back To The Future’s Marty McFly — a role that was famously briefly occupied by Stolz before Michael J. Fox took over. In the interim however, it landed on Modine’s desk: “He wasn’t a good fit and they wanted to replace him. They said I had 24 hours to make a decision.”
As Stoltz’s friend, the then 26-year-old was apprehensive about jumping into the role - especially when his seat in the DeLorean was still warm: “I wanted to know what he did, because maybe I was going to make the same mistake,” continues Modine, explaining his concerns.
“I often think a good way to think about actors is like brands of cereal — somebody’s cornflakes, or they’re Rice Krispies or granola. They’re all good, they’re just different. Eric and I are similar cereals.” However with Fox, Director Robert Zemeckis secured a whole new flavour for his timeless time-travel trilogy.
“If Eric and I are cornflakes, Michael J. Fox is Froot Loops. I love Michael — he’s a wonderful person and an amazing actor and I can’t imagine anybody else playing that part but him.”
Thankfully, the fates have a way of working things out. Had Modine stepped into Marty McFly’s Nikes, he would’ve missed his chance to work with one of cinema’s most revered filmmakers.
“He was the most collaborative film director I’ve ever worked with, which is shocking to people because they all think he was some kind of tyrant,” says Modine of his time working with Kubrick, a director infamous for his meticulous precision, singular vision and often time-consuming dedication to securing the right shots.
“If something wasn’t working we’d stop, go into the trailer, have a cup of coffee and talk about what to do. His point-of-view was that of a kid growing up in The Bronx in New York City and mine came from growing up on the other side of the Mississippi, so our perspectives were quite different,” he explains.
“He was always shocked or interested in how I saw the world and would infuse the film, and my character, with those personal experiences. He was probably the most independent of independent filmmakers that I’ve ever worked with.”
Together, Kubrick and Modine — alongside Vincent D’Onofrio’s troubled Pvt. Pyle, R. Lee Ermey’s quintessential drill sergeant and countless other ill-fated on-screen marines — created a war movie that’s just as sobering today as it was thirty-four years ago.
“It’s always surprising when I meet somebody and they say ‘I saw Full Metal Jacket and joined the marines’,” says Modine, recalling modern audience reaction to the movie. “I’m like ‘Why? What were you thinking?’ Kubrick never said ‘this is an anti-war film’ - all he did was hold the mirror up to reflect the reality of what marine core training is, what it does and how ill-prepared we were to go and fight the Vietnamese.”
Its powerful message is encapsulated in one of the film’s most harrowing scenes: “The irony is it’s just a young girl with an AK47 who’s able to destroy the whole squad of marines. Despite all their fire power and machines of war - a young girl is almost able to take them all out.”
If Full Metal Jacket has a lasting message for younger generations, Modine is confident that this is it: “America lost the Vietnam war — and it won’t be talked about in school.”
From Kubrick’s battle-weary Vietnam to the feral folk inhabiting the Appalachian Trail in McElroy’s Wrong Turn, Modine is keen to add more exciting directors to his enviable IMDB resume.
“There’s a whole bunch I’d love to work with; Sam Mendes who made 1917. Spike Jonze is just brilliant. I’d love to work with Nolan again because I think he’s a terrific filmmaker,” he says, referencing his brief turn as Commissioner Gordon’s replacement in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.
As for a return to the Stranger Things universe? He wouldn’t turn that down either: “I’d love to be invited back. I really enjoyed working with [the show’s creators] Matt and Ross Duffer and the crew they assembled. It’s extraordinary how it took off and the heights it’s flown to. It’s a global phenomenon,” he says from his still-undisclosed secret location.
Read more: Matthew Modine teases Stranger Things future
"If they choose to bring me back, I’ll jump in head first.”
Signature Entertainment presents Wrong Turn (2021) on Digital Platforms 26 February and DVD 3 May.