Part of the Solution: Matthew Modine on Acting, Empathy, and Hard Miles

Matthew Modine has been acting in movies for over 40 years. He started out in the ’80s and ’90s in a string of memorable films, including “Vision Quest,” Alan Parker’s “Birdy” (opposite another talented unknown named Nicolas Cage), Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” and two Robert Altman ensemble dramas, “Streamers” and “Short Cuts.” At 65, after a solid quarter-century of character work in TV and movies (including “Oppenheimer”), he has gravitas, entering every project with a relaxed air of authority. Modine brings all of his experience to bear in “Hard Miles,” a sports drama based on the true story of Greg Townsend, an employee of a juvenile detention facility who turned his passion for cycling into a way to connect with the troubled teenagers under his care, by leading them on a 762-mile bike ride from the facility in Colorado to the Grand Canyon. 

“Hard Miles” is an independent film through-and-through, of a type that Modine is known for getting involved in. He’s the only name in the cast, the rest of which is filled out with talented newcomers and reliable character actors. He’s also credited as an executive producer and helped shape the project with director R.J. Daniel Hanna and his cowriter and producer Christian Sander (who also cast Modine as a senator in the 2018 political drama “Miss Virginia”).

Like a lot of the projects Modine says yes to, this one is a passion project. Not only is Modine a believer in prison reform to make rehabilitation as important as punishment, his own family endured a devastating incident of gun violence in the 1960s that shaped his perceptions of life, and eventually landed his traumatized brother, one of the survivors, in a facility similar to the one shown in the film.

Did you know the real-life story behind the screenplay before you read it?

No, I didn’t. But my brother Russell was in a reform school—I guess that’s what you call it. In the old days, they called it a juvenile delinquent center, but I think the language has changed now, and they call them “homes for troubled youth.” I visited him a lot when he was in that reform school. It’s only from about 15 to 17 years old, maybe 18, that young (particularly) boys get in a lot of trouble. For whatever reason, if they’re from a troubled home, they get attracted to a gang. It’s about three years of extreme immaturity and bad choices young boys make that have an impact, oftentimes a negative effect, on their whole lives. 

Did your brother ever talk to you about his experience with the juvenile system?

Yeah, my brother’s story could have easily been like the one the film tells. I’m sure that one of the thousands of people that Greg Townsend has helped to successfully [rehabilitate] is like my brother. 

My brother Russell and my sister Elizabeth are actually my cousins. Gun violence is something that we know about all across the U.S.A. Gun violence is something that came into my family’s life. My mother’s sister, her husband, came home and shot her, and then shot himself in front of the two children, in front of Elizabeth and Russell, when they were only about 4 and 7 years old.

Oh my god. 

Yeah. The trouble that Russell was having as he entered his teens was obviously a repercussion of something that happened with his mother and father. Being witness to that was something that he struggled with for many years until he got into his 30s and really got into…being able to speak with a therapist to exorcise the demons from his psyche. It’s a story that I understand.  

Greg Townsend has taken thousands of troubled kids on bike rides and had, I think, over a 90% success rate in turning them into productive, good citizens. I thought it was so exciting to be able to make a film that sets an example for our greater community across the U.S. to understand those young people and their difficulties, and not to give up on them, but to help to rehabilitate. 

They used to call prisons “penitentiaries” and the root of that word is “penance.” It’s so important that if you do a crime, you serve the time and you get rehabilitated when you’re in the system, whether it’s a reform school or a prison, and come out and get on with your life. You shouldn’t be continually punished for your life for having made a mistake. We have to go back to that idea rather than creating lifetime criminals. We need a system that helps to rehabilitate and educate and gives people working skills while they’re in prison, so that when they come out they can get on with their lives.  

I’m so, so sorry about what happened to Russell and Elizabeth. That’s unimaginable to me.

He’s a good man, Russell. He lives in Utah. He’s got a whole bunch of grandchildren now. He married someone who has children, so he now has his and hers and theirs that they have together. He’s a good man. 

What were the factors that led you to get so deeply involved with this movie?

Well, first, it was Daniel Hanna. We worked together on a film called “Miss Virginia,” and I really enjoyed it. He’s a bright young new talent coming into the entertainment industry, and he was just really smart when we were making “Miss Virginia.” And when he had the opportunity to present this project to me, he said that I would win the Academy Award if I said “yes,” so that was a good place to start! [Laughs] And then I read it, thought it was a terrific script, and we went to work doing a polish on it with his co-writer Christian Sander. Then I met the young kids who would act with me, and it was an easy “yes.” I was just finishing “Oppenheimer,” and I was in Pasadena, so when I wasn’t working on “Oppenheimer,” we were doing the polish on the script. 

And then began the bike training, just to get the kids in shape and have an understanding of how to do something as seemingly simple as clicking your foot into a clip. I guess that’s what they’re called? “Clips,” right?

They are called clips, but I’m surprised to hear you asking me that because I’m not a bike guy, and from the film, I assumed you were a bike guy!

Yeah, but I’m not a lycra bike guy. I live in New York City and I use the bicycle as a form of transportation, not as a vehicle for exercise and the kind of punishment that that class of bicyclists put themselves through! That’s a different level, those long-range touring bikes or rides that people do. The longest ride I ever do is go from Greenwich Village up to the Bronx to watch a Yankee game and then ride home! 

That sounds nice.

After a game, getting on the bicycle and pedaling, you go through the Bronx, and then you go through Harlem, and then you enter Central Park, and you have the long, long ride through Central Park at nighttime. On a hot summer night, it’s just magical. It’s really quite something.

Were there any parts of your character’s struggle with his own experience of violence as a child—in particular his relationship with his abusive and now-elderly father, and his struggle to control his own temper—that you connected to personally? 

Well, we all go through periods of difficulty in our lives. I’m grateful for the difficulties that I had, because I feel like – and this is another challenge that teachers are faced with today – is that in addition to being educators, they sometimes have to be disciplinarians. The teachers that I had when I was going to school, the ones that were quite strong, I remember them by name. The people that you could sort of coast through their classes, I can’t remember what they looked like! I really do think that the ones that were pushing me were educators that saw that there was goodness in me, and that with a little bit of nudging, they could get more out of me, and help me to become a better person. 

How does all that relate to filmmaking?

On a film set, the director is often a teacher and an educator and a disciplinarian. What you’re faced with when you’re directing a film is that the enemy is time. You have a limited amount of time in order to be able to accomplish a goal, to get everything you need on that day of shooting in the can, as the expression goes, so that you have the raw materials when you sit down to edit the film to be able to tell the story. 

I began in the business when I was quite young; all these directors in the ’80s, whether it was Alan Parker who did Birdy, or Harold Becker who did Vision Quest, or Stanley Kubrick, or Robert Altman, were faced with a young actor who they believed in and had given an opportunity to act, and they know that they only had a limited amount of time in order to be able to get what’s best in me out of me. Sometimes they were quite strong and [used] what today might be considered inappropriate language to use on a film set, to tell an actor to be better. Greg Townsend, in the course of this film, is quite strong with the boys, and pushes them. But in pushing them, he is able to get the best out of them. 

If you could be a Greg Townsend of acting for a second, what would you tell young people about how to do the job, and get better at it? Do you have any simple words of advice?

There is no greater educator than the theater. I think that’s very important. When kids are in acting classes, they shouldn’t be doing scenes from TV shows or movies, they should be doing scenes from plays, working on plays, because there are bigger ideas in plays. There’s more to explore and investigate and more to learn about how to be a storyteller.

That journey really begins with the memorization of the dialogue. If you get a role, you have to be learning those lines and understanding why the writer chose to tell this story. What is it about this story that made somebody want to sit down and write it? And why did they choose these words? That exploration into why takes you on a journey of understanding and of why you’re going to stand on a stage and say those words. It’s a process. And the thing that’s great about my job being an actor–and I think writers also–is that it’s the exploration into the other, of trying to understand other human beings. 


I’ll quote Harper Lee in her book To Kill a Mockingbird: “We never really understand another person until we get inside their skin and walk around in it.” That’s what actors do by definition. I think that most people in the arts have a wonderful sense of our responsibility to one another — how important it is to have a shared humanity. Not to demonize other people that we don’t understand, but to try to understand them. 

You could have looked at my brother, for instance, when he was 16 years old and just thought he was a rebellious, stubborn, shitty teenager. But if you were going to play him in a movie, you’d look at the circumstances of his life and what led him to that point, and you’d go, “Oh my god, when he was a little boy, his mother was shot in front of him and his father then killed himself, and he was in the house for hours before the police came.” You think about how traumatizing that must have been for him as a child. When you realize that, by the time he’s 16 years old in the 1960s in the United States, there was rampant drug use and a sexual revolution, you start to understand why that person may have behaved the way they did. When we understand the why, we become a little bit more empathetic to people that we might otherwise just say, “Oh, look at this stupid teenager hanging out in the corner smoking weed. What a waste of life.” 

Who do you think are some directors that you’ve worked with who really understood that idea of empathy? 

Robert Altman, a thousand percent. I worked with Bob three times. I did a play with him in London called Resurrection Blues, “Short Cuts,” and the first lead I had in a film was with him, in a movie called “Streamers,” about some soldiers in the army, which we filmed in Las Colinas Studios outside of Dallas. It was a big deal for me, working with Robert Altman. 

Stanley Kubrick, in his own way. He was very different from any other human being I’ve ever met, and I can’t compare the experience of working with Stanley Kubrick with other filmmakers, because we were together for almost two years over the course of filming. 

Who else? I think Daniel Hanna is a very compassionate filmmaker.

This is slightly off the beaten track, but there was a movie you were in called “Orphans,” starring you and Kevin Anderson as delinquents who get taken under the wing of an aging gangster played by Albert Finney. 

I love “Orphans.”

Incredible film. It’s not talked about now, which is a shame. Does it have any kind of afterlife? Do people ask you about it? What was your experience of shooting it?

We thought we were going to win every Academy Award ever made. You had Alan Pakula directing, who’d done “Sophie’s Choice,” “All the President’s Men,” and “Klute” and was a producer of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with Gregory Peck. He was an extraordinary filmmaker. Then I had Albert Finney, who had won the Olivier Award for doing the play in the West End of London, and Kevin Anderson, who had been with the play for a long time. I think he started in Chicago and New York, and then did it in London. He’s a wonderful actor. It was extraordinary.

What were some other movies that you’re really fond of that you feel didn’t get a chance for one reason or another?

There’s a fantastic film that I directed called “If… Dog… Rabbit.” I keep trying to find some way to meet Quentin Tarantino and get him to re-release the film. I would love to do a screening there. We just had a retrospective screening in NYC at the Roxy Theater. It was the favorite of all the movies that they played. And they played “Equinox,” which is another movie I really love that Alan Rudolph directed.

Wonderful, underappreciated director.

A protégé of Robert Altman. So, “Equinox,” “Orphans.” “Birdy” has its fans. Outside of the U.S. it was a gigantic hit. In Germany, France, England, Japan, Italy, “Birdy” was a big, big success. It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. But they tried to market it in the U.S. as two wacky kids from Philadelphia, and that’s not what it is. It’s a dark story about post-traumatic stress. 

I’ll bet you’re pleased by how much attention “Married to the Mob” has gotten in recent years.  

That’s wonderful, yeah. That was Jonathan Demme. A great filmmaker. A very empathetic human being with a great sense of humor and irony, and obviously something dark as well. I don’t even know how to put it all into words.

Is it true that you were going to be Maverick in ‘Top Gun’ and turned it down?

Yeah. First of all, I probably wouldn’t fit in the cockpit. You can’t be taller than 5’6, 5’7 to be in the cockpit of the plane! But yeah, I did “Full Metal Jacket.” That was more my speed. “Top Gun” was just kind of what I call war pornography.

You have been very actively anti-war and anti-gun violence throughout your adult life. Is that mainly because of what happened to Russell and Elizabeth? Or were there other factors?

My father was a drive-in theater manager, and watching hundreds of movies during my youth, I always wanted to be a person who helped solve problems, not create them. I don’t think that war is the answer to conflict. It’s terrible when wars happen and when Hamas goes in and kills babies. It’s a horrible situation. But the response to what they did is kind of like our response to 9/11, trumping up words about how there were Weapons of Mass Destruction, which we now know wasn’t the case. 

Israel’s response now is…We don’t want to go into all the politics of this, but I don’t think that war is the solution to our problems. We still behave like the early men in “2001,” like the solution to a problem is beating someone’s head in with a bone. Now we can do it with drones, we can do it with guns, or like the Russians have done in Ukraine. I don’t know if you saw 60 Minutes this weekend. When they talk about the millions of mines that the Russians have planted across Ukraine, I was imagining the ones that look the size of a frisbee because that’s what my exposure was from seeing the war in WWII movies, so I imagined millions of those frisbees everywhere. You know what they’re called? They’re called petal mines. Do you know about this?

No, I don’t.

They’re like flower petals. I think they only weigh four ounces. They fly over, and they drop them from airplanes, and they flutter down to the ground, and they look like leaves. So when you’re walking through the fields, it looks like a green leaf. And there’s just enough explosive in them to blow your leg off.

Good lord.

Yes. If ever there was a crime of war, a crime against humanity, that’s it for me. Dropping a million of these little four-ounce petal mines is just horrible. But yeah, I want to be part of solutions. I don’t want to be an actor who creates problems, but I’ve played those characters who create problems! 

You’ve been very consistent over time about having a certain moral or political compass that guides your choices. But surely you must have said yes to things that, in retrospect, you should’ve said no to.

[Laughs] Yeah, there’s a couple that I wish I could have said “no” to! But in every journey there’s a lesson to be learned, even if it was something like “next time, I’ll avoid making that choice.” For the most part, I’m not filled with regret. I’m pretty thrilled and happy with the choices that I’ve made.