Vincent D’Onofrio talks about his new film “In Dubious Battle”

The Marine recruit slowly going mad. The Norse-God looking garage worker. Orson Welles. A farmer inhabited by an alien bug. A New York detective. These and dozens more are characters created by Vincent D’Onofrio. From “Full Metal Jacket” to “Adventures in Baby Sitting.” From “Ed Wood”, “Men In Black” and the long running television series “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” From “Jurassic World” to the current “Daredevil” and “Emerald City” series, D’Onofrio is a true chameleon, adapting his talents for every new challenge. In his most recent work, he stars as London, a man with the ability to inspire and lead others, in the new film “In Dubious Battle,” based on a novel by John Steinbeck and directed by James Franco. Mr. D’Onofrio took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the film, collaborating with Stanley Kubrick and what he’s working on next. Or as much as he can.

Mike Smith: What attracted you to the project?

Vincent D’Onofrio: Well, James is just an awesome dude. There’s that. And it’s something different. To do this kind of movie, out in the fields with a very low budget. No frills. Everybody there is there because of the author of the novel. The novel itself and what it means today. Just wanting to be there and participate. Knowing that it’s going to be a very unique variation of this novel in a style that lends itself to what the novel stands for in the first place. Unity.

MS: Had you read the novel before you were cast? And if not, did you read it to get a sense of Steinbeck’s take on your character, London?

VD: That’s a good question. I’m pretty sure I read it when I was younger because when I did read it a lot of it seemed familiar. Maybe because I’ve read so many other Steinbeck novels it seemed familiar. I can’t say for sure I read it as a youngster but I did read it.

MS: You have also directed in the past (Mr. D’Onofrio directed the 2010 horror film “Don’t Go in the Woods”). Is it easier – or more comfortable – for an actor to work for a director who has a true understanding of the acting process?

VD: No. All directors are different. You have to learn that. As a young actor I think you want a director who understands acting but you actually want to work with different kinds of directors. Some directors want nothing to do with your performance. Stanley Kubrick wanted nothing to do with your performance. He didn’t want to discuss the story other then how you were going to approach a particular scene. But that had to do with the writing of the scene and not the performance of it. Not what the result of it was going to be. He didn’t want to discuss it. Now we did re-write some scenes. Not just me but Matthew Modine and Lee Ermey with Stanley. We would come up with dialogue and Stanley would sit there with a typewriter and write it all. And once he wrote it would stick. There was no improvisation after that. It’s different each time and you actually welcome that as an actor. Different kinds of directors are exciting to work with. I loved that James was an actor and that he was in the film and directing at the same time. It’s really comforting to act with the director.

MS: The film has a great cast of actors. Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?

VD: Oh my God…there are so many. It would be ridiculous of me to even start the list. We could talk about that all day, Mike. All day. There are so many great actors that have since passed away. There are so many young actors today that I love. There are so many actors from my generation that I love that I haven’t worked with. From the generation right before me…it’s a thrilling business to be in and to be the peer of great actors is so interesting and so uplifting.

MS: What do you have coming up next?

VD: My gosh! I think the last thing I did that isn’t out yet – I think it’s still in editing – is the remake of “Death Wish.” Eli Roth directed it. Bruce Willis plays the lead in it and I play his brother. Not much more I CAN tell you. Everything is so hush-hush. I may do a play before the summer. But I Tweeted about it and got in trouble. You can’t talk about anything these days. It’s such a bummer. I’ll just say I have a lot of stuff coming out. A lot of stuff in the can.

Film Review: “In Dubious Battle”

Starring: James Franco, Vincent D’Onofrio and Robert Duvall
Directed by: James Franco
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 50 mins
Momentum Pictures

Our Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Among the many great novels by John Steinbeck are a couple detailing with life during the depression. Most people are aware of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film starring Henry Fonda. The lesser known novel, written in between “Tortilla Flat” and “Of Mice and Men” (Jesus, this guy had some talent) was titled “In Dubious Battle.”

The year is 1934. We find ourselves in the Bolton Apple Orchards of California. Many people have picked up back east and headed west with the promise of available work and great wages. However, the influx of laborers has driven wages down, much to the chagrin of the apple pickers. A burly man named London (D’Onofrio) confronts old man Bolton (Duvall). Having been promised three dollars a day for their work, the workers have only received one dollar a day and are, justifiably, unhappy. They want to fight for what they have owed them. They only need a little nudge.

Some of you reading this may be saying to yourself, “I didn’t know James Franco directed.” I am a fan of his film “SAL,” but I was shocked to learn that, if the Internet Movie Data Base is to be believed, he has no less than SEVEN films coming out this year that he directed. He really is a renaissance man! Franco also stars here as Mac, an organizer for a group that is trying to unionize the apple pickers. He had taken under his wing a young man named Jim (Nat Wolff). His eyes not truly open, Jim is drawn to the movement by the fiery rhetoric of Mac. Together they apply for work at Bolton’s orchards and try to blend in. They begin to make small talk with the other workers, trying to feel out who can be a leader and discover London. They discover that most of the workers have had their spirits crushed. When Jim makes an optimistic comment he is met with a frown. “That sounds like hope,” he’s told. But hope may be all these people need.

Perfectly paced and skillfully cast, “In Dubious Battle” is one of those small films that occasionally see the light of day. With a perfect period background and an accompanying musical score by Volker Bertelmann, whose score for this year’s “Lion” has been nominated for an Academy Award, the film takes you back in time to a period when life seemed easier but surely wasn’t. And Franco seems to be the new Woody Allen in that everyone wants to work with him. He has filled his cast with some of the best (and in my case, favorite) character actors, including Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston and John Savage. As London, D’Onofrio adds another great character to his resume. Wolff begins the film clad in innocence, growing more defiant as the story progresses. Franco’s Mac is almost a step-brother to “The Grapes of Wrath”s Tom Joad, pushing forward and giving the occasional inspirational speech.

I’ll admit here that I am a member of a labor union. My current home-state, Missouri, recently voted to be a “Right to Work” state. I found this film inspirational, both in content and in the commemoration of those that came before us.