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Matthew Broderick: From Here To Infinity

June/July 1996 issue

Matthew Broderick: one of the guys

By Rachelle Unreich, Detour Magazine (p.38-42)

The last time Matthew Broderick was star struck, he was nine years old: visiting his dad, the late actor James Broderick, on the set of the movie Dog Day Afternoon, he found himself face to face with Al Pacino. "I was speechless," he recalls. "I'm not even sure if I'd seen any of his movies, but I know who he was. He was very friendly. He shook my hand-like a man-and he had very intense, dark eyes. He had movie-star eyes, although, looking back, he probably had makeup on..."

Since then, the 34-year-old junior Broderick has worked with Dustin Hoffman, Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer. Marlon Brando, and, more recently, Jim Carrey, in The Cable Guy. He has also romanced a series of actresses, all of whom became more famous after they broke up. "I think i should be a manager," he comtemplates, as we assess the list, which includes Jennifer Grey before Dirty Dancing, and Helen Hunt pre-Mad About You. "Helen Hunt is a huge star now," he says. "Her head is right over Times Square where I go to work every day [in the Boardway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying], just happy. And her beau [Hank Azaria] is fantastic in The Birdcage." I reassure him that he is an even bigger star than Azaria, that Hank probably looks at him and gets jealous of his work. "Yeah, but not enough," Broderick deadpans.

SINCE MOST PEOPLE HAVE NOT witnessed his stage career firsthand--from his debut in Horton Foote's On Valentine's Day to Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy to his Tony-winning turn in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs-- Broderick's live-in beloved, Sarah Jessica Parker, might actually be more of a "name" than he, and he often suspects that fans who approach the couple for a photo want her image more than his. "I find this extremely depressing, but my Norman Maine fantasies are finally getting realized. Have you seen A Star is Born? Do you think I should walk into the Hudson and drown myself so I can just let her go? I don't want to be holding her back..."

This is, more or less, what it is like in Matthew Broderick's head: there is humor, there is self-deprecation, there is a bullshit detector turned up to 11. When I meet Broderick at Madison Avenue's E.A.T. deli ("The only place where a sandwich will cost you, like, 18 bucks," he says, without Hollywood's cavalier attitude towards easy spending), he exudes so little Matthew Broderickness that he is able to sit at a table alone undisturbed until I arrive; he is lacking in shtick and Letterman-y anecdotes, and the belief that he is the most amusing guy on the planet. There are no gushing monologues about himself, nor dose he have the celebrity's annoying habit of acting like my best friend from the start. On the most basic Hollywood level, he fails miserably: he doesn't see many movies, and rejects the thought of moving to Los Angeles because, "I like being able to walk around and buy coffee to-go and not stick it in my little dashboard thing..."

I am used to actors who pepper their conversations with various film references, all of which I am supposed to know, but Broderick's conversation is instead filled with polite questions: Have I heard of that movie? Do I know who so-and-so is? He is accessible, curious, and genial. Halfway through our conversation, when we have run the gamut of everything from Pacino and Parker to the fact that his dentist once sent him a stripper on his birthday, he loses his train of thought and asks, "Am I as boring as I feel? Sometimes when I talk about myself for awhile, I feel very uninteresting. It's fun at first, but then I start to wish I could be someone else for the next 20 minutes."

In other instances, he is not nearly so coy. "I wouldn't say that I know I'm good--that's something that goes up and down. There are times now when I think I'm the best actor in the world, and there are times that I think I really stink." When did the latter occur? "Last night [in How to Succeed]. I saw two people in the front row who looked bored.

"Years ago, when I landed No Small Affair [a film he was released from two weeks into shooting], I thought that was it, I had arrived. I very often think I'm Brilliant, still. But I swing back and forth, sort of like a manic-depressive. Either drunk with power or--" and here, Broderick pauses for emphasis, "--not."

His next two movies may turn him into an alcoholic Stalin all over again. In The Cable Guy, directed by Ben Stiller, he plays a newly single guy who moves into a place of his own and inadvertently becomes the object of obsession for the local cable installer (Jim Carrey) after he bribes him for free movie channels. Shot in dark, shadowy tones, it's a black comedy--Young Frankenstein meets Cape Fear. He decided to do the movie because Stiller took him out for dinner, he had a fun evening, and he couldn't think of a reason to turn it down.

Will he get to stretch his own comedic muscles while playing opposite a scene-stealing talent such as Jim Carrey? "Maybe I won't even be in the movie. We all used to make jokes: 'The Cable Guy, starring Jim Carrey and the voice of Matthew Broderick...' But Jim's a good audience, too--he's not egotistical, and he never treated it like it was his movie. My whole role is reacting to him. They started calling me Reaction Jackson on the set. I tried every tiny expression I could possibly come up with, and there were about 500 of those."

The release of the movie Infinity--which he stars in and directs, base on a script written by his mother Patricia--provides less source for hilarity. The film has had good word of mouth; also featuring Patricia Arquette, it's a love story between the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who helped build the atomic bomb, and his dying wife. The project has proved to be less a creative effort than an economical battle for funds, and Broderick carries a cellular phone with him today specially "because I have hear what the latest disaster with my movie is."

Its tight budget is "a constant thing," he says. "Ninety percent of the job of directing has been, 'Well, maybe if your back is to the camera, we'll loop in a line and then we won't have to pay you 500 dollars for saying, "Would you like sauerkraut?"' But it doesn't look cheap, I will say that for it." Broderick is prepared to shell out around 20 grand of his own to ensure that a Jack Teagarden song can be used in the film. "I said, 'What the hell?' Once it's done, I don't want to look back and say, 'I saved a little money, I wish i had the song in the movie' Why else do you make money, really?"

Broderick began his career in commercial hits such as Wargames, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and later, Project X and Biloxi Blues; he has nearly always chosen quality roles in good movies, which include Family Business, Glory, and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. None of his roles have been wipeouts, although he begs to differ: "Out on a Limb was an unmitigated stinker. I really like the script, but something happened in the making of it that was really hideous. I had no chemistry with that director [Francis Veber]. Every once in a while, somebody will say, 'I loved Out on a Limb' to me, and I will seriously cross to the other side of the street because I will be afraid of that person."

The Road to Wellville, which took place at a spa for aristocrats in the early 1900s, was another misguided choice. "I had hopes that movie," he says. "I liked the book, it was a good group of people--the director, Alan Parker, Anthony Hopkins, John Cusack--but it seemed to have been just basically about shit! The whole movie! It somehow escaped me when we were making it: I didn't realize that the overriding theme was doodie."

It's the first time he's come close to swearing; he's not a man who uses profanity easily. There's something of an old-world formality to Broderick, which shows up unexpectedly at times. Occasionally befuddlely by the real world, he hasn't yet learned how to turn down those special offers that come unsolicited by phone. He cried when he watched Sense and Sensibility. He would rather dine at Le Cirque, say, than at the latest SoHo dive. Sometimes, his old-fashionedness creeps into his characters, too: in How to Succeed..., he dances a jaunty little jig, while he imbibed Ferris Bueller witch a fondness for Wayne Newton songs. Even his appearance follows suit: he has the creamy pallor of one who lounges in ladies' sitting rooms, while his hair, as if revolting against the modern styles, works its way skyward during the course of the interview, until, three hours later, it has somehow positioned itself in wayward tufts upon its owner's head.

Considering his particular guilelessness, one wonders, then, how he dealt with the unwelcome media glare that came his way when he was involved in a car crash in Ireland almost a decade ago. Driving on a rainy road, his car collided with another; two people in other car died, while he was left with a badly broken leg. Although it was a tragic accident--he was driving slowly, he had not been drinking, he was cleared of negligence--the incident had its imprint.

"It's hard to come up with a philosophy that fits it all together," he explains. "When I was a kid, my friend got hit in the eye, and he had a cut right near it. I remember he told me, 'I'm so lucky--the doctors said another inch to the left and I would've lost my eye.' And I thought, And another inch to the right, and it would've missed you entirely. So why are you lucky? I'm very lucky to be alive from that car, and it's very, very unlucky for the woman who died, and their families, so it's hard for me to think positively about it. I am grateful for every minute I have on earth, but so would they have been. Once I saw somebody on television saying this wonderful thing had happened: he was in a helicopter accident, and everybody was killed but him, and now he had this great purpose, and it was this really great thing. Yeah, for you. I mean, did they all die so you would have an epiphany? I'm Jewish, but I've never been attracted to religion, and I don't know what the hell to make of anything."

The accident has certainly offered Broderick perspective, and he tries not to take unimportant things too seriously. He hates reading reviews, or seeing himself on the screen, but he doesn't wallow in angst. At one point, he says cheerfully, "Remember me in Ladyhawke? Now that's a really bad accent. That was really inconsistent and bad." Happily, too, he lists his faults: he's a lazy researcher, he has one leg that's skinnier than the other (a result of the accident), he can't help goofing off sometimes when he shouldn't. For instance, when a faux drill sergeant was hired to train the actors for Glory, he couldn't stop laughing: "We were in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel in Savannah, and there's a big platter of crudities and fruit, and a guy screaming, 'Drop and give me 50!'"

His sense of confidence had been ingrained early on. The youngest son of James Broderick and his wife Patricia, a playwright and director, he was raised in Greenwich Village with his two sisters (now a psychotherapist and Episcopal priest), and grew up on the sets where his father worked. (These days, he is constantly meeting people who knew his dad, but he says, "They're always telling me how incredibly nice he was, how he would sit strangers down and give them long talks about how to get into acting, so I don't think they confuse me with them.") By the time he was ready for high school, he chose Walden for its theater department; a few years after he graduated, New York magazine ran a lengthy story on him entitled, "The Kid With the Million Dollar Smile."

Just as he started scoring roles, however, he received a hefty blow, learning that his father had been stricken with terminal cancer. "He saw Torch Song Trilogy, the play, but he didn't see any of my movies. It was terrible, because he found out he had very bad cancer basically a week before Torch Song opened, so for me it was never like, wow, look at all the work i'm doing. Those two events were completely tied together." His father helped him go through scripts and analyze their merit when he was alive, and Matthew was clearly a good learner. His one regret: "I'm not told that I somehow turned down Platoon, which is awful, but I never even read it..."

His latest movies not only mark a new turn in his career, but they should also end the incessant questions he gets about Sarah Jessica Parker (Will he marry her? Is she pregnant?) as well as those niggling Ferris Bueller comparisons. Of sarah, he says, "We've been going out for four years now, and it's good. I like living together. But there's no room for my clothes anymore...when you live with someone, take this piece of advise from me: make sure you reserve your closet space."

As for Ferris, the character remains close to Broderick's heart, and not necessarily because of the lines he's always quoted from it ("People say, 'Anyone? Anyone?' to me, like, every single day"), either. "I remember there was one scene in it which got cut out, where my girlfriend, Mia Sara, turns to me and says, 'Can we go now?' and I really hostilely say, 'You're not having a good time or something?' and the implication is that I don't like people going against my plan for the day. But they cut it out because they did a study group after a screening, and some teenage girl in the audience said, "I don't like Ferris Bueller.' And they said, 'Why?' And she said, 'I'm afraid he would make me do things I don't want to do.'" With a wicked giggle, Broderick says, "I've always had sympathy for this poor teenage girl someplace who said that Ferris Bueller might make her do things she didn't want to do..."