By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Tom Berenger dials his own telephone for an interview, the first hint that he isn't a typical movie star. Also, he never lived in L.A. and doesn't feel good when he visits, preferring the bucolic South Carolina home purchased after making The Big Chill nearby.
Living outside the Hollywood loop has cost Berenger a few jobs, he'll admit. Yet the 61-year-old actor's scores of film and TV credits — including an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe for Platoon — deserve this year's Gasparilla International Film Festival's career achievement award.
Not that Berenger's career is complete. A role in last year's blockbuster Inception was encouraging, and three films are in the can. Rumors of a Major League sequel are intriguing, although it's Charlie Sheen spreading the rumors. Life is good. Steering clear of Hollywood as much as possible is a choice Berenger won't regret.
"I wanted to do the work, but I didn't want to be so much in the ooh-la, you know?" Berenger says. "I understand you have to do a certain amount of that. Maybe I didn't do enough. Maybe I should've lived out there. I certainly could've networked more.
"But it's just the way it all turned out. You try to stay true to yourself, but it's not always easy. After a while you don't even know how to prostitute yourself anymore."
Berenger's discomfort level with So-Cal culture rises the minute his plane lands.
"When I hit LAX airport and go to get my luggage, physically I notice my knees kind of bend, my head goes down, my whole physical demeanor shrinks a couple of inches," he says. "Give me about 36 hours and I start calling people: 'Hey, I'm here.' "
Visiting Tampa Bay isn't as nerve-racking. Berenger's daughter, Shiloh, lives in St. Pete Beach, and the Gasparilla festival checked out impressively in his research. Getting any award is appreciated. And Berenger joins a 25th anniversary retrospective of his most acclaimed performance, as battle-hardened Sgt. Barnes in Oliver Stone's Vietnam War classic Platoon.
To this day, Berenger marvels at Stone's attention to jungle warfare detail, culled from the director's Vietnam experiences in infantry and air cavalry. Barnes and his antagonist, the compassionate Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), are drawn from Stone's platoon leaders, although those soldiers never met, much less confronted each other like in the film's shattering climax.
Berenger enjoys retelling Stone's anecdotes about the real "Barnes," as an actor gladly revealing the source of his performance.
"Oliver told me he was glad to be in Barnes' unit because he didn't think he was going to get killed," Berenger says. "As scary as he was — and Oliver said he was terrified of him — he also was protective. He knew his stuff.
"One time they were moving through the bush and all of a sudden ('Barnes') stops the unit with a hand signal. He signals to the left and to the right, which means circle around a position that's dead ahead. They close in from the circle and find three (Viet Cong soldiers) eating fish and rice in a small clearing with their AK-47s laying on the ground.
"(Stone) said they just opened fire on them, rice bowls flying in the air. I asked Oliver: How did he know? He said that's the point. 'Barnes' smelled them, smelled the fish, didn't hear any birds and thinks: 'Wait a minute, something's wrong.' Little things that your instincts pick up."
Then there's the time that Stone was driving "Barnes" in a jeep, fell asleep and ran into a ditch. The private jerked awake and his usually loud sergeant was just staring at him. An actor can appreciate understatement.
"He didn't have to say anything to say 'You idiot,' " Berenger laughs. "That's economy."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.