Doctor, loner, hypnotist. But not a vampire
December 2001
The Independent Sunday
Sheila Johnston

ER's Goran Visnjic is branching out, says Sheila Johnston. But there's one role he turned down flat.

There is one role that Goran Visnjic was surely born to play. With his thick black hair, pale skin and elegantly chiselled features, he projects a sexy, faintly sinister mystery and speaks in a Balkan lilt that months of work with a voice coach fortunately have failed to eradicate. Indeed, he admits, "I was offered the lead in Dracula 2000 for a lot of money. I said no because I knew what to expect if I did it. My accent, playing Dracula - uh-oh!"

Instead Visnjic has been administering blood transfusions for the past two years, since replacing George Clooney as the resident heartthrob on ER. From the moment he strode on to the screen with the words, "Hi, I'm Dr Luka Kovac - it's a funny name, isn't it?", he was anointed Hollywood's new hunk du jour. He is resigned by now to this and has even developed a little joke on the subject: "Hunk? I don't know anything about hunk. When I first started being asked about that two years ago, I played dumb - `Honk, vot does that mean: the thing on the wheel of a car - honk, honk?'."

In the flesh Visnjic does not disappoint the eager female interviewer. Unlike many stars, he's taller than expected (6'4"), charming, funny and apparently devoid of ego. His looks have an interesting, slightly ravaged edge to them; he seems older than his 28 years and his hair reportedly needs a little chemical help to keep its colour.

Could these things be a legacy of the Balkan war, in which Visnjic fought for three months? It's not a subject that he is inclined to dwell on. "Every experience in life changes you a little bit - the conversation we're having here changes you. Negative experiences too. War is one of those. But it's a long time ago for us now and we're trying to move forward."

Still, those tragic events were indirectly responsible for Visnjic's international breakthrough. For Welcome to Sarajevo, Michael Winterbottom's 1997 film about journalists covering the conflict, the director needed a young local actor to play the relatively small role of a driver.

"Sarajevo was still damaged. There was still an 8pm curfew and you could still hear shooting around the city," Visnjic recalls. "It was not difficult to act in that film. You just had to be there and say your lines." But while Welcome to Sarajevo itself got mixed reviews, he instantly attracted attention and praise in The New York Times for his "gently affecting performance".

Visnjic was already a rising star in his own country. He made his bow aged nine, as the wolf in a school production of Little Red Riding Hood. At 21, while still at drama school, he was thrilled to be cast as Laertes in the Dubrovnik National Theatre's annual summer festival production of Hamlet. When the leading actor fell ill, Visnjic had 30 days to learn the role of the gloomy Dane. He returns to Croatia every year to resume it.

But now Hollywood had come calling. He was cast opposite Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic and again in The Peacemaker, on which he briefly met Clooney. Did the latter offer him advice about ER? "He's too nice to do something like that - he'd see it as intruding." Anyway Visnjic is keen to establish Kovac's individuality.

"When I came on the show, everybody was asking, `How do you feel replacing George Clooney?'. I was, like, `Guys, they took five new people on that season, it wasn't just me'. We've talked about bringing in some flashbacks to the war in Croatia. I've been a technical adviser, suggesting which city the story should be set in and doing some translations."

Though ER takes up at least nine months of his year, he has somehow found time to squeeze in a couple of film roles, both offbeat characters which exploit his exotic aura. In The Deep End, he's a seedy loner who starts by blackmailing a lonely Lake Tahoe housewife (Tilda Swinton), but ends up falling for her. It's a delicate relationship, soaked in melancholy and unspoken romantic yearning.

Next is a British film, Doctor Sleep, which Visnjic calls "a supernatural thriller, in which Mr Corin Redgrave is a police inspector trying to catch a serial killer in London. I'm a hypnotist called in to help with the case. In both films my characters have an accent, but it's not important where they come from".

Meanwhile he continues to grapple with the language. The Latin-based medical terms in ER trip easily off his tongue, but, Visnjic admits: "I have problems with phrases like `We visit' - the W and then the V. Things that are very simple to a native speaker are tongue-twisters for me. Probably my English teachers are laughing when they see me on ER because I was the lousiest and laziest student in my class."