One tough Aggie: Tom Berenger talks about a Bear of a role
Nov. 29, 2002, Austin American-Statesman
Tom Berenger is waiting. Because he is waiting for me — calmly, at a sun-drenched corner table at Chez Zee — it cannot be reported if he had been talking to himself or grabbing waiters to chat with or leaning over and making friendly with the young couple at the adjacent table. After meeting him, it’s hard to imagine Berenger, an imposing man with ruddy flesh and Michael Keaton lips, not talking. But sitting alone, waiting in public, perhaps he embraces quietude.
Berenger talks storms. He is not a noisy man, just prodigiously garrulous. A dream for a visiting journalist, you might wonder. Yes. And no. He prefers gaseous anecdotes, adores the shaggiest dog stories. He bends even the most banal inquiries to his whims, clipping them to insignificance or mapping their course to places he wants to visit, never mind his passenger’s professional needs.
Yet we go along for the ride, pedestrian and meandering as it may be, because this is lunch on a beautiful autumn Tuesday with a pretty good actor who’s invited us along. Berenger has even worn a blazer (with jeans and brown top-siders) that goes nicely with his pale blue eyes.
Berenger is in Austin visiting his sister, who lives here, and his mother, who lives in a Dripping Springs nursing home. His mother has Alzheimer’s, and Berenger takes time to visit when he’s not at some far-flung destination making movies. He fears most that she will pass on while he’s shooting in, say, New Zealand.
“One of the things about this business is what it does to your personal life,” Berenger grumbles. He grumbles a lot.
Lunch with journalists is arranged because the actor, best known for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of rabidly sociopathic, facially disfigured Sgt. Barnes in “Platoon,” is plumping his latest picture, the made-for-TV biopic “The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team,” in which Berenger plays legendary college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. It premieres Dec. 14 on ESPN.
Based on Jim Dent’s nonfiction book, “Junction Boys” recounts Bryant’s stint as head coach at Texas A&M, specifically the notorious training camp he conducted in Junction in the blistering summer of 1954. There he subjected more than 100 would-be Aggies to drill-sergeant sadism, spurring the teenage players to train without food and water for eight hours a day, for 10 days straight.
One envisions Berenger’s Sgt. Barnes out of the Vietnam jungle and on a football field: slit-eyed, barking, pitiless. Also: rule-breaking, slightly psychotic. (Told he does psycho well, Berenger replies, “Psycho? Yep.”)
“Bryant was tough and mean because he was obsessive,” Berenger says. “He worked as hard as he worked others. He’s not Barnes, but he does have Barnes’ tunnel-vision.”
The movie is set almost wholly during the camp in Junction (though it was shot in Sydney, Australia, for budget reasons), but enlarges from the camp’s grunt and sweat to a human portrait of Bryant, who evolves from his youthful missteps.
“It’s a story about a young man coming of age,” Berenger says, not touching his grilled chicken and spinach salad in order to wholeheartedly express himself, eyes squinting, hands gesturing. “But the thing is is that it’s about Bear Bryant coming of age. He turned the corner at 40. He had a bad temper, was obsessive-compulsive and a workaholic. The next season he admitted he’d made a mistake.”
The movie ends at a reunion in the late ’70s with Bryant, who went on to fame at the University of Alabama, and some of the players who “survived” the Junction camp, an event that actually happened.
“When he went to that reunion at age 64 he apologized,” says Berenger. “Bear Bryant didn’t learn how to apologize until sometime after 40. He learned how to be gracious. So it isn’t just about those kids growing up. It’s this 40-year-old boy learning how to be a human being.”
Almost all of this information about Bryant and the film is dispensed at the beginning of the interview. Berenger has other conceptual places to go. While his companion eats and politely nods, chuckles, asks questions, Berenger confabulates grandly.
“Your salad is wilting,” you want to tell him, but no chance.
As he embarks on another fuzzy digression — about politics (“Was Reagan so bad? I don’t think so”), Hollywood producers (“scumbags”), F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (“How did he get any work done with a fruitcake like her around?”) — Berenger physically expands. He leans back, his chair scooting, inhales deeply through his nostrils, chest puffing, arms spreading, and tells the slowest story in the world.
You lose him midway through it, thinking, “Eat, please. Just a bite. We’re going to be here till dusk.” Dishes are being cleared around him and he’s still chewing on a great wad of anecdote. His mouth is full, though his plate remains piled high.
Berenger’s spoutings are oddly narrow, even petty, for a seasoned actor with more than 50 films to his credit, from “The Big Chill” to “Major League.” Berenger spits and seethes contempt for Hollywood culture, the venality, skulduggery, greed. “What disgusting, vile people on certain ends of the business,” he says, making a sourball face. “It makes your skin crawl sometimes.”
He brooks no chatter of acting as art, acidly mimicking pretentious “Actors Studio” types who seek meaning and epiphany in their craft. “We’re really glorified interior decorators” who decorate the writer’s house, he says of actors. His face grows red.
Once pegged as rugged leading-man material, Berenger, 52, has slipped into the realm of William Hurt and Eric Roberts, where lost promise becomes small parts in big movies or big parts in tiny movies or, better, big roles in TV movies. Like “Junction Boys.”
Despite a whirlwind production — half of the feature’s editing was completed in five days — Berenger says “Junction Boys” is one of his movies he will actually see when it’s done.
“As exhausting as it was it was just a lot of fun, because Bear’s so colorful,” Berenger says. “He’s a funny guy, even when he’s (teed) off. Hysterically funny. Also it was fun to be around football again, actually being on the field watching the drills.” (Berenger played high school football in his native Chicago.)
In some ways, portraying a character from recent history (Bryant died in 1983) was easier than Berenger’s roles as historical figures like Gen. James Longstreet in “Gettysburg” and Teddy Roosevelt in the Emmy-winning miniseries “Rough Riders,” which was shot in Texas. Berenger was able to watch video footage of Bryant and talk to some of the coach’s friends and colleagues.
But this also made the prospect mildly unnerving. Berenger knows that expectations, especially in the South, will be high. “I just do the best I can,” the actor says.
And for a moment, silence.