An interview with multi-award nominee Tom Berenger

I recently met Mr. Tom Berenger on the red-carpet at the San Diego Film Festival before a screening of Bad Country. It was an intimate red-carpet, made up of a small handful of press and an eager Tom Berenger ready to answer questions that would give us plenty of material for our articles.

by Paul Booth

For each generation, the name Tom Berenger has a different meaning. Some film buffs will recognize him from Training Day as one of the crooked LAPD higher up’s that help seal Denzel Washington’s fate. One generation back has vivid memories of the classic comedy Major League with Charlie Sheen or they relate to the mid-life crisis film The Big Chill.

However, there is one Berenger performance that changed my cinematic consciousness.  In the 1986 Best Picture winner Platoon, the images of him as the diabolic Sgt. Barnes are unshakeable. There are no bad Tom Berenger performances, there are only good ones and Sgt. Barnes garnered him an Oscar-nomination (Best Actor in a Supporting Role) along with co-Star Willem Dafoe (nominated in the same category).

Platoon held scenes movie-goers will never forget, including Berenger’s murder of Dafoe (Elias). This set the stage for my interest in Bad Country, because it pitted Berenger (a Mob Boss) vs. Dafoe (a Cop).

There are far too many questions one could ask Tom Berenger. He has worked with the best actors, actresses, writers and directors in both film and television (he has an Emmy nod for the Cheers finale and Emmy win for Hatfield & McCoy’s).

Prior to seeing his latest film Bad Country, on the red-carpet, I asked Tom Berenger how do you go from being kind and normal to as crazy as you had to be in Platoon? Berenger said “Well, there is a cold side of me. There is this side of me that can change. It is like, how you do not piss off the Irish kid. There is a side few people know or a side I can turn off.” As Berenger explains this he gradually begins changing his demeanor. There was a feel like he was tired of the interview or did not like the question. He continued “and so when I get there, I am done. There is no more talking to me or anything.” At this point, the interview felt uncomfortable. Berenger concluded “see what I mean. I can go to that place in a few seconds.” After an internal sigh of relief, the thought “did Tom Berenger just act out his answer?” floored me.

Mr. Tom Berenger was kind enough to extend a second interview to us!

On Platoon

Paul Booth: 28 years later, what is your hope for the future? What can you say about Platoon?

Tom Berenger:  I knew it was a Classic that will last way past our lives. When we finished jungle training, I was able to talk to the men (other actors) right before a two-day hump, I wanted to say this whole project and our reading with Oliver, that we are making a classic. That in mind, let’s go out. It was special, all the characters were playing real people with names changed.

PB: Outside being the first Vietnam combat film (written by real-life Vietnam Veteran/film director Oliver Stone) How do you feel it compares to other great War Films?

TB: Oliver (Stone) told us that this film is based on 13 months. Oliver combined three different Platoons. Barnes and Elias. It is different when you are honoring someone’s real life. To do a War film, this showed how afraid the men are in battle. The fear….you do not need horror films to be scary.

PB: Do you have a war film you would like to do?

TB: Not specifically, I was lucky to do Gettysburg. I was landed that opportunity through a radio interview I did, where I mentioned I read The Killer Angels.


PB: Did Platoon give you training for ensembles? Although Platoon and The Big Chill are different films. The characters are all together, all need each other, music is a part of both films and both deal with personal change and death.

TB: Well, The Big Chill was before Platoon. Each project is about Craft: Fun, and that only extends when you are not carrying (the film). You learn from everyone, each ensemble is different.


PB: First scene with [Matt] Dillon, you feel menacing — was it on the page vs. you vs. age?

TB: I saw Matt Dillon in 1980 — last time I saw him until this film. We had nothing but a few days of private time together.

On Working with Willem Dafoe

PB: Was it your first time working with Willem since 1986?

TB: I went to Cannes for a Platoon event in France in 2006 (20-year anniversary), so I have seen Willem. But we have never worked together since (1986, Platoon).

PB: Was the Goatee, hair color, size on the page or did you build character?

TB: Based looks on a hard-timer. The handle bar mustahce was Chris Brinker’s idea. I had the ideas of shirts and french-cuffs. The costume lady loved it and actually ordered extra from Savannah Georgia store, that had also had baptist minister get up, for weddings, special events.

TB (cont.) : Another nice part of [Bad Country] was to see people you do not always see. To check in and enjoy the special moments, after awhile you have a short-hand.

Miscellaneous Debris …

PB: Your journalism background has lent to you being able to play a veteran, mob boss, baseball player. Have you ever played a journalist?

TB: I have never played a journalist, maybe an entertainment journalist. I played coach Bear Bryant. About 80% of the interviews I did were with sports writers. Not just entertainment people. There work speed is very fast and the way they shoot from the hip “live” in the studio is amazing.

PB: Having worked with a young Oliver Stone, Lawrence Kasdan, Antoine Fuqua and Christopher Nolan, through style and technology, what is the constant of a great film director?

TB: All things are tools, a director is not just a technician. You have to care about characters and people. It is o.k. to be intellectual, but it makes a difference when the story is your life.

From the writer: Special thanks to The San Diego Film Festival, Sandy Young, Brear Cannarsa, The Chris Brinker Film Foundation and Mrs. M.

First ran on 9th January 2015