Jon Voight: An Action Hero at Last

Movies Features Jon Voight
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Jon Voight  isn’t just an Oscar winner. He’s a father working through issues with his children under the microscope of public scrutiny, an actively engaged citizen not afraid to take on controversial political stances, and an active and outspoken Catholic. And much more besides. Most of all, though, he’s an actor’s actor, passionately devoted to his craft and committed to interesting roles wherever they might come. So when he was offered the chance to play Van Helsing in a well-written Dracula project filming on location, he jumped at the chance, and jumped on a plane.

“I went to Romania,” he explains, “and it was kind of a quick decision; I didn’t know what to expect there. Usually I would create a character over a period of time and do sketches of the character. When I was a little kid, I was very much into art, and I’ve kept that going. So I usually do a little sketch. And in this case, I did a sketch and played around with it a little.”

When he arrived on the set of Dracula: The Dark Prince (which was released on DVD on Oct. 15), he found an inspiring collaborator in his preparation for the part. When he asked about one notable aspect of his appearance, prominently visible in the accompanying photo, he shifts the praise. “The costume woman was really spectacular,” he raves. “She was the wife of the owner of the studio, Castel Studios, which seemed appropriate for a Dracula movie. And she is a bit of a genius; she’s as brilliant a costumer as I’ve come across. She had all these costumes, and a short time to do them. She’s the one that really designed the character. We had a makeup person come in, we found a wig in this spot with this guy with a limp that looked like he was right out of Dracula’s castle, and barely spoke English. So we found all the things we need just in time.”

And as for that one particular aspect of the look? “You’re right,” he laughs, “the mustache really makes it work.”

It’s strange and rarified place to be, playing an action hero in his ’70s. For Voight, the roots of that type of character run deep. “When I was a kid,” he remembers, “the action heroes were all Western heroes. So we would play in the park across the street from my house, and I’d invent a character, and a name, and the horse I was riding, and the hat I was wearing. And after playing with my friends a certain number of days, they’d say, ‘Jon, you’re always the hero. You’ve gotta be the bad guy sometime.’ And I’d reluctantly say, ‘Okay,’ and play the villain. But that’s part of our DNA as Americans.”

So when one of his first real breakthroughs as an actor came on a famous television Western in the ’60s, it was special. “Yeah, it was a dream come true, actually, to be in Gunsmoke,” he says.” The idea that a kid from Yonkers, New York, would grow up and be useful in a Western story was a nice thing. Coming out of acting school in New York and being a serious actor, but then also being able to play the thing you’d watched all your life. It’s a very interesting thing, being an actor.”

Another dream come true, especially for a dedicated Catholic with deep concerns of justice and courage, was playing John Paul II, a true-life action hero of sorts. “You got it,” Voight says forcefully. “He was a great man, John Paul II. I had a connection with him as well, because there was a piece he had written, a story form his life that he had written down about being a priest in Poland. They decided to make a film about that story, and they were looking for actors to play John Paul II, and they passed it by him out of respect, to ask who would be appropriate to play him. And he approved me.”

That particular film ran into some financial difficulties and never got made. But the foundation was laid in Voight’s heart to play the role. “Much later,” he remembers, “after he had passed, the people that were making a new film about John Paul II came to me. I was doing something else at the time, and my agents turned it down. But I work with a Jewish family who are my advisers and managers, and my manager said, ‘Wait, Jon needs to do this piece. He’s supposed to do this piece.’ Can you imagine that? And so we worked with the director of the other piece, and they carved out room in the schedule for me to do the John Paul II film. Because John Paul had actually marked me to play him.”

It was one of the most meaningful roles in Voight’s remarkable career. “You look at a guy like that that you admire so much,” he muses, “and you know a little bit about his life. Then you start to do some digging. The more you look at this guy, the more impressed you are by him. And just like him. The world was not wrong; they understood his grace and his righteousness and his care for people, and his humility. And his playfulness and sense of humor. And when people say you captured his essence, isn’t that wonderful?”

Of course, among all Voight’s landmark roles—in Midnight Cowboy, Catch-22, Deliverance, Conrack, Runaway Train, Heat and so many others—one other role is especially meaningful. That would be the one that won him his Best Actor Oscar, as returning veteran Luke Martin in Coming Home. It’s a role that, for younger viewers who know him as a political conservative, may seem ironic. But Voight sees it differently. “I must say that at that time, I was just coming out of being a part of the left, in a kind of blind way. And I was learning things. And because of my connection with the troops, frankly, I was regretting our pulling away from Vietnam, and I was very aware of all the problems that were caused by our pulling out, when millions were slaughtered in Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam itself. I still hadn’t completely pulled out of all the hysteria of the ’60s to get an objective view of all the destruction. But I was on my way. And when we came to that film, I was very happy to work on it and represent the veterans of that war. It could’ve been a polemic, but wasn’t. I feel it was a human story, and I feel I was influential in some way in making it a love story. It could’ve gone in the other direction quite easily. But it was a very human tale, and heart-wrenching. I would make a different kind of film today, but I do feel there was value in that film too.”

Political resonances are unavoidable in a 1970s movie about a Vietnam veteran, but although politics are part of Coming Home, they’re not really the heart of it. “That opening scene,” Voight says, “when we’re all sitting around the pool table, all saying what we felt. And I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t know what was going on. It was an improvisational thing with these other guys, who were all so terrific. And they all had their own points of view. Some of them were very bitter. But this one guy said, ‘We went there to protect those people. To give them an opportunity for freedom.’ He says it right in the opening scene. And it’s an argument, but my character had very little to say, because at this point my character was so isolated and angry. And it’s eventually because of this woman that he’s brought back to life, to some degree, even though it’s the wrong thing to do, this relationship. But it still gave him hope and life.”

And now, 35 years later, long after the time when many actors of his generation have ridden of into the sunset, as it were, Voight is still there, plugging away. He’s finding interesting roles, sometimes in surprising places, and expertly plying his craft to mine the gold out of them. Why? “I love stories,” he says simply, “and I love art of acting. And I think stories are capable of making a difference. I still believe that. I think you can say a thing or two. And I don’t mean a message movie; I mean just in the telling of a proper story. You’re putting things together, putting things in focus. I think we need good stories. So I still have a great love of what I do.”

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