Doctor of Love
September 2001
Telegraph



There aren't many actors who could step into George Clooney's ER shoes and carry it off, but Croatian Goran Visnjic has done just that. As Christa D'Souza discovers, Visnjic's smouldering sexiness can stop women in their tracks.

If you are female and not instantly, uncontrollably attracted to the man on the cover of this magazine, let me know. I might be able to get you into The Guinness Book of World Records. For everyone, I mean everyone, has fallen for Goran Visnjic, 28, aka Dr Luka Kovac, from ER, who stepped into George Clooney's surgical wellies just under two years ago. From Madonna, who dubbed him "the sexiest male working today" after featuring him in her video The Power of Goodbye, to American Vogue, which called him "Croatia's answer to Tom Cruise", to all the girls at Daniel Hersheson (the London beauty salon where he had his hair blackened for his latest film, Dr Sleep) to my child's nanny's sister, for goodness sake, who - upon hearing the news that I was going to interview the object of her affections - wondered whether I might take with me a pair of her knickers for him to autograph.

It is a grey and drizzly afternoon in London when I finally get to see Visnjic (pronounced to rhyme with fish stick) in the flesh, on the east London set of Dr Sleep. Directed by Nick Willing and co-starring Miranda Otto and Corin Redgrave, it tells the tale of Michael Strothers, a hypnotherapist caught up in the pursuit of a ritualistic killer who thinks he has found the secret of immortality. Having read the script, I can tell you it is pretty frightening. One particularly disturbing scene involves a victim being strapped down and having blood drawn from his eye.

I am met at the gate by the film's publicist, a nice woman called Linda, who informs me that I might want to look in the mirror before I meet Goran. Apparently, I have a slight cappuccino moustache. "Trust me," she says, patting my hand in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of way. "When you meet him, you'll be very glad I told you!" Then she wonders, since this is the last day of filming, whether I'd mind taking the team picture so the whole crew can be in it. "Just think," she murmurs adoringly, "you'll be able to tell all your friends you've taken a picture of Goran Visnjic!"

The crew are all lined up, and the on-set cameraman sends me and a Polaroid camera up on to a teeteringly high platform in order to get a good aerial view of everyone. The person I cannot help honing in on, of course, is Visnjic, who is actually far more attractive in the flesh than he is on screen, his pitch-black hair falling seductively over his forehead and an unlit cigarette casually slotted between his fingers. After I have taken a few pictures, everyone heads for the food tent. I, meanwhile, just stand there dithering about how I am going to get down. But before I know it, the tousled-headed figure of Visnjic is there by my ankles, and looking up at me from below he wordlessly grabs hold of me and lifts me down to safety. It is one of the most embarrassing, yet romantic, things that has ever happened to me. Thank God I got rid of that cappuccino moustache.

When I meet Visnjic it isn't hard to see why everyone raves about him. He is exactly the right combination of tough-guy edginess and new-man sensitivity, which most American actors find hard to achieve. And there is something rather beguiling, rather endearing about the fact that he cannot speak the language fluently; that he is such a foreigner to the slick, cynical world of Hollywood. It still amazes him, for example, how big the cars are over there, how everything is available at the snap of a finger, how surreal it is being in a town which is so populated with stars. People recognise him, of course - how couldn't they when the US viewership of ER is something like 25 million per episode, but it doesn't particularly shock them, because everyone is famous there.

When I ask him, meanwhile, how his stay here has been (for three months, while filming, he has been living in a rented flat above a pub off Trafalgar Square), whether, for example, he has been to The Ivy, he looks at me in bafflement. No, he has never been there in his life. He does, however, know exactly where Sega World is in the Trocadero and he would love to do some sightseeing if he had more time (one of his favourite places in the world is the Uffizi in Florence, but he has not yet had a chance to visit any galleries in London). When I ask whether he has seen Madonna or Nicole Kidman while filming here, he visibly winces. No, no, of course not!

One also gets the sense that, above everything, he takes his craft very seriously indeed. As Nick Willing, the director of Dr Sleep, puts it, "I've put him through some terrible loops in this film. The torture scenes, for example, were psychologically very tough indeed. He's at the stage in his career where he doesn't mind doing weird things. But he makes a great leading man."

Dr Sleep, due to come out next year, is just one of three feature films the Croatian-born actor has somehow fitted into his gruelling ER schedule ("Every episode of ER," as Visnjic once good-naturedly grumbled, "is like making a small film"). There is also Committed, in which he plays a desert-dwelling piñata-maker opposite Heather Graham. Scott McGhee's psychological drama The Deep End, in which Visnjic plays a sinister blackmailer opposite Tilda Swinton has been hailed by the New Yorker magazine as one of 2001's best films.

We are now sitting in Visnjic's college-dorm-like dressing room, which is strewn with clothes, several pairs of brand-new trainers, and half-empty cans of Coke. He offers me something to drink from a fridge and waves away a plate of fish and vegetables which his assistant, Emma, has just brought in, explaining that he had a huge breakfast this morning. Up close, his skin is so dramatically white and his eyes so dark that one can't help thinking of Rudolph Valentino. Of course, this may all be fatigue. Visnjic, who has been working flat-out for 18 months, says he cannot wait until the weekend when he will be flying back home to Croatia, a place, he fervently insists, that isn't the shell-littered wasteland one might imagine.

"The coast, where I grew up, is far from those places Macedonia and Kosovo," he explains, folding his 6'4 in frame into a dinky sofa. "On the coast, you never had war. For example, on the northern part of Croatia, where I am from, no bullet was exchanged. It was completely pristine and all those people who knew about it would come there and sleep in hotels for $5 a night. But the best way to see Croatia is to rent a good boat. It's one of the clearest seas in the Mediterranean, I'm not bullshitting!"

Visnjic was born in 1972 in the tiny village of Sibenik, son of a saleswoman and a bus driver. Handsome from the start, and the best in his class at reading stories, Visnjic won a place at his local amateur theatre when he was just nine years old. His first role was as the wolf in a Slavic version of Little Red Riding Hood. Through school he continued to act, fuelled by a diet of American movies, but at 18 he had to do his compulsory national service for the army. In 1991, just as his 10 months were coming up, war broke out and Visnjic volunteered to extend his service to fight for his country. But when I attempt to ask him what this was like, I am politely rebuffed. "You know I don't wanna even talk about that," he says in his lazy, half-American, half-Slavic accent, "It's past, it's behind, we just want to move forward and think about good things. It's six years since the war."

As it happens, he fought in the war for only three months. As soon as he was accepted at Zagreb's prestigious Academy of Dramatic Arts, he was given permission to leave the army and was replaced by his eager brother. Within six years Goran became one of Croatia's most popular actors, winning several national awards for his performance as Hamlet, a role he played seven times at the annual Dubrovnik summer festival. In 1996 he came to the attention of British director Michael Winterbottom, who was in the area, casting for his film Welcome To Sarajevo. Upon meeting Visnjic, he immediately gave him the role of Risto, the local taxi driver ("There were only 15 actors to choose from by then," as Winterbottom drily put it at the time). When the film won an award at Cannes, Hollywood suddenly wanted to know all about Goran Visnjic.

The director Griffin Dunne immediately offered him the role of Nicole Kidman's sadistic boyfriend Jimmy Angelo in Practical Magic. He and Kidman (who describes Visnjic as "a talented and handsome actor who is going places") appeared together again in The Peacemaker. It was a small but important part for him, not least because it gave him the chance to meet George Clooney, who at the time was playing Dr Ross on ER. It is partly thanks to Clooney that Visnjic ended up accepting the offer from the producers of ER. "George made ER sound like it was all energy and I thought I would like to try that. He was working round the clock on ER and then came to finish scenes on The Peacemaker. It seemed to be a very busy but enjoyable life."

The ER producers knew they were taking a gamble when they hired Visnjic - ratings had already started to dip after Clooney's departure. They were looking for someone to inject the show with the sexual tension it had lacked since Clooney's departure. From the moment viewers watched Visnjic amble into Cook County's A&E department with an injured child in his arms, then perform an emergency caesarean, the pain of Dr Ross's departure was swiftly forgotten. Back home, where he was a household name anyway, Visnjic became a national hero, and his first lines on the show - "Hi, I'm Dr Luka Kovac, it's a funny name, isn't it?" - became part of the Croatian vernacular.

Indeed, he had become such a star that when he decided to marry his teenage sweetheart, Ivana, the couple decided it would be better, from a privacy point of view, to get married in Santa Barbara rather than at home. Ivana, 27, is a beautiful woman who used to work as a sculptress in Zagreb, where the couple met. Visnjic is touchingly proud of her. "Some people from Zagreb say she's not a sculptress because she didn't finish her academy, but she makes these things, I don't know how to explain, figures from dirt, no, not dirt, what do you call it? Clay! And she does all these wood carvings of African people with long necks, that sort of thing."

Ivana, who is in Croatia at the moment, is used to not seeing her husband for long periods of time, and was very homesick when they both had to move to California 18 months ago. But now she has a place to call home, a sprawling ranch-style house in San Fernando Valley, and since they bought a dog (a pug called Bugsy) she is, according Visnjic, settling in pretty well.

But living away from Croatia, with only new friends to depend on, is obviously hard. Ivana misses her friends and the language (she and her husband never speak English to each other, using it only in the company of others because "it's polite"), and Goran cannot bear the way conversation centres solely around the movie industry, the fact that you have to drive everywhere, and that you can't smoke, either. But, as he philosophically puts it, there are loads of upsides. For a start there's the money, which is estimated at something like £3 million a year (he has already bought his parents a new summerhouse and his father a new car with his earnings), and then there is all that desert.

"We don't have any deserts in Europe - well, I've never seen one, but here you have Arizona, New Mexico, the Mojave Desert. That's why I have a Grand Cherokee, so I can go four-wheeling in the desert." Visnjic has a small group of male muckers (a mixture including a Croatian, an Australian Croatian, an actor, a producer and a car mechanic) with whom he likes to indulge this pursuit, but he tends to leave Ivana behind when it gets too bumpy. Instead the pair of them will sometimes go out in the car à deux (and with Bugsy, who played best man at their wedding), listening to David Bowie CDs and spending the night camping.

Not that there's much of a window for downtime, what with his burgeoning film career to fit in, too. ER's schedule is relentless, particularly for Visnjic because of the language ("He knows what pericardiocentesis is and how to pronounce it correctly," as one of the show's technical advisers once put it, "but the other day he asked what perky meant"). What kills him even more though, is the fact that he has to get up at 6am (part of the reason why they live in Brady Bunch land and not the far trendier Santa Monica is that it is only 10 minutes from Burbank Studios, where ER is filmed). "Don't ask me how I do it," he says, shaking his big shaggy head and rubbing his eyes with his knuckles as if the memory of it makes him even more tired, "because I like to sleep a lot."

There is a loud knock at the door. It is his PA, warning us there are only 10 minutes until they start shooting. What a disappointment. I could sit on the sofa next to this man for hours. The following day, I dial the cellphone number he had assiduously read out to me from his diary, to ask a few follow-up questions. I leave a message, but after about four goes, I'm beginning to wonder. On the fifth I get a slightly tetchy response from his PA, Emma. "I don't know why he gave you this number," she says.

The following day, just as Visnjic is about to leave for Zagreb, he calls me, apologising profusely. What a shame. It might have been fun doing some sightseeing with the man who is easily the sexiest male actor working today.


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