It’s strangely fitting that Vincent D’Onofrio chose Men in Black to give his most widely seen performance to date. The 38-year-old New York actor has such a chameleonic streak, you feel like you’ve been flashed with a neuralizer every time you see him in a new role. Zap.
Who starred in last winter’s The Whole Wide World as Conan creator Robert E. Howard? Who was Keanu Reeves’ no-account brother in last year’s Feeling Minnesota? Or the young Orson Welles in 1994’s Ed Wood? The screenwriter haplessly offed by Tim Robbins in 1992’s The Player? Lili Taylor’s fisherman beau in 1988’s Mystic Pizza? How about the 6-foot-4-inch actor’s first big splash, playing the tubby Marine recruit who’s bullied and brutalized until he winds up one jelly doughnut short of a dozen in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket?
JFK, Dying Young, Malcolm X, Mr. Wonderful, Household Saints, Strange Days… In over a decade of screen work, the Brooklyn-born actor has made nearly 30 films. But surely, spending the summer getting under America’s skin as a reanimated corpse was a career-changing role in terms of — ”In terms of nothing,” he says with an easygoing laugh. The studios ”never look at your work as a whole, only the last thing you did, which is why a lot of leading actors are playing the same roles over and over.” He shrugs. ”I’m a character actor. I’ve always gotten lots of scripts for independents. If they’re good and I have the time and it’s not going to” — he laughs again — ”cost me too much money, then I do as many as I can.”
Which makes life ever busy for D’Onofrio, who has a young daughter from a past relationship with Player costar Greta Scacchi. He followed up MiB with projects big and little. In March comes Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys, in which he’ll star with Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke in a true story of bank-robbing brothers; with World director Dan Ireland he’s just finished The Velocity of Gary (Not His Real Name), cast as a bisexual former porn star. ”The man changes himself completely with every part, physically and mentally,” marvels Ireland, noting that D’Onofrio shed 40 pounds and sports waist-length hair for the role. ”Doing The Whole Wide World, there were times I forgot to call ‘cut’ because I was sitting there watching Robert E. Howard.”
Also upcoming are a TV remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three for ABC and a showy role on the Dec. 5 episode of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, in which D’Onofrio and Andre Braugher’s Det. Frank Pembleton share the screen almost exclusively. Will you recognize him? Don’t bet on it.