ER's replacement hunk doffs the lab coat and dives into The Deep End
Mr Showbiz
By Stephen Schaefer

Is Goran Visnjic proof that Hollywood can finally see beyond the boundaries of ethnic casting or is it just that a tall, dark, and sexy guy can be appreciated anywhere there's a camera? All right, don't answer that.

It's probably the latter, but the 28-year-old Croatian import and ER stud has a knack for making directors rethink roles. For instance, his role in 1998's Practical Magic was originally written for an American. And his part in the thriller The Deep End, in which Visnjic plays a blackmailer with a conscience, was slated to be an Irishman. Says David Siegel, who co-directed the film with partner Scot McGehee, "We'd written it for an Irish guy named Donnelly, but we like the quality of having a foreigner whose history you don't quite know."

If The Deep End hits, Visnjic may follow in the footsteps of former ER doc George Clooney, whom he was hired to replace (though he won't admit it). Meeting with Mr. Showbiz in a quiet corner of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France, Visnjic, elegant in a casual Ermengildo Zegna teal gray suit, tried hard to be nonchalant about his promising future.

Aren't you, like, a national hero in Croatia?

No, I'm not a national hero. [Laughs]

I heard that you're bigger than Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic?

No way. Winning Wimbledon, I mean, I was watching that game and I was eating my fingernails. I know Goran personally, and it was one of the biggest things for me in my life! I suddenly felt like I would rather him win Wimbledon than me be on ER for the next couple of years, really. It's crazy for people over there.

Was it difficult for you to start a career in the U.S. after leaving Croatia?

Not so rough. Because I've been in and out of the States the last three or four years. The first time I spent there five days, then 15 days, and then I shot four months with Practical Magic. So each time I came to the U.S., it was gradual. I never stayed there all the time. Even now, I'm there for nine and a half months for ER and when that time is done, I go back to Croatia.

You do go back there then?

Oh, yeah, I've been going back to Dubrovnik every summer for the last seven years to play Hamlet at the National Theater in the summer festival. This is the first summer I'm not doing it. … When I get my first big break [from work], I'm going to go back home and do something in the theater.

Do people look at you differently now that ER is broadcast in Croatia?

They're now on episode 15 of this last season. Maybe they look at me a little differently. But they knew me before from projects I did in Croatia in TV, movies, and theater - but it is a little different, a bigger deal than it used to be. [Smiles] The good thing is my friends didn't change a bit.

They'll still give you a hard time?

Oh, yeah, especially if I speak one word of English!

How did you go from Hamlet in Croatia to ER?

I came here to be in Committed and do the premiere of Practical Magic. Then, I was about to start packing my things and go back to Croatia and my agent called me and said, "The guys on ER asked if you want to be on the show for a year." I was like, "Are we talking about the same ER?" I was like, "Yeah, tell them I'm going to think about it. For three seconds." After about the first or second episode, they decided that they wanted to extend the contract. That's how it is.

Were you married to your wife, Ivana Vrdoljak, then?

I married Ivana, let's see, we've been together since I came to the States for the first time for Welcome to Sarajevo. We married some time after Practical Magic and before Committed. I'm very bad with dates; it's been about two years.

Was she willing to move?

Oh, yeah, we actually moved to the States two years ago when I started shooting ER … I said, "I'm going to be here for three or four months, would you like to come?" We had been together for a year already. We decided that she was going to go with me and then we'd go back. We actually never even felt it. We'd been discussing going to the States for about, literally, three minutes. It was simple. She was like, "Do you have to go?" When I said, "Yeah," she said, "OK, I'm going with you." "Good, great, perfect."

Where'd you get married? Las Vegas?

We actually got married here in the US, yeah. We got married two and a half years ago, two years ago. Not Vegas, Santa Barbara [Calif.]. I saw a couple of places on the streets of Vegas, but I was like, "Nah, that's not my type."

Are you thinking about having kids and starting a family with your wife?

It's too crazy now. So, it's still not something I'm really thinking about.

Why did you decide to play the sleazy blackmailer role in The Deep End?

Because you have a chance of playing a bad guy who is becoming a good guy. In the course of four or five days, you have to make that switch and turn 180 degrees from a bad, sleazy guy, asshole, whatever you want to call him, into a really good guy who is almost like a romantic hero. I was on auditions for this and really wanted it pretty bad.

You have an ER moment in Deep End when you administer CPR. Do you think that will take the audience out of the film?

We actually discussed it. … It's completely different than anything you see on television. That scene is a minute and a half and in television you can't do anything like that, it's too much time. It killed any, like, sort of "bad" recognition. To have this comic relief in the film, it's not such a bad thing. It's better the audience relaxes for a minute, even if it's outside the film and is a personal joke to somebody. You're switched back pretty fast into the film, I believe.

Are you mapping out your Hollywood career or are you taking a more casual approach?

One of the major principles of my career was and is [that] basically every job you can get, do it like it's the first and the last in your life. Of course, making the decision what to do and which part to take is important, especially for a foreigner coming to Hollywood with a Croatian accent, which for an American audience seems like Russian. They still have the idea in the head that the bad guy in a 007 movie has the Russian accent. I refuse parts like that because I don't want to be typecast. ER helped that and the accent changed, which is hard work also. One of the steps you take to become a star: Learn to speak American. [Laughs] It's basically not thinking about becoming a star and just thinking about doing a great job every time. If not, it's not my fault - I did everything I could.

Do you get a lot of movie offers?

Not so much. It's not stuff that I would be crazy for, but then again, I'm just thinking of good scripts. I'm not a fan of any particular genre. I personally like to watch science fiction but when we're talking about choosing a part, the only importance is the good script.

What would you consider your ultimate L.A experience so far?

I would say that the biggest impression was going to a studio and seeing how big everything was. Warner Bros. had a swimming pool on one of the stages. I couldn't believe that such a big stage existed and why couldn't they just shoot on a lake or something? [Laughs]

Did you feel a lot of pressure when you replaced George Clooney as ER's resident hunk?

It wasn't pressure because they brought on so many new people that year. Ming-Na, Michael Michele, Erik Palladino, me, Maura Tierney. So we all felt like a replacement for George. It wasn't like it was just me, then it would have been a bigger pressure. There were a lot of questions, but I was always saying, "I hadn't noticed that George had an accent." I'm a different character, a different person. The show is still rolling.

What's the hardest job you ever had with ER?

A tough job would be talking about how long you stay on the set. ER has a lot of regular actors and you can't be in the show all the time. And it's a great show to be on, the crew has been there seven years, they're so comfortable and they are so knowing. It's like a bunch of big kids going on like one big, crazy family. I felt really comfortable from the beginning being there. You learn every day. If nothing else, your language becomes better.

That's been a major goal, I imagine.

For two years I've worked every day with the dialogue coach. I want to become so comfortable with English that I'm as comfortable [as] with my own language.

Are you surprised at the acclaim your ER role has gotten?

To be honest with you, in Los Angeles, you can't see a lot of that because people are probably used to seeing actors on the streets. You know, it's really rare. Sometimes, people here and there will come up and say, "I enjoy the show, can I take a picture with you?" But it's really rare. It's not like a big change, I would say.

Why not?

I don't know. I mean, I had that feeling of being recognized even before I went to the States because I'd been acting in my country since I was 9. Of course, after ER, it becomes a little bit bigger. Every place that you show up, someone is going to recognize you, but people are still polite and proud of what you're doing. So it's, like, sort of OK. It's not like you feel attacked or something.

Were you criticized at all back home for playing a Bosnian in Welcome to Sarajevo?

No, no, absolutely not. Why?

Because of the civil war.

That film, in my point of view, was, like, real and strong criticism of what really happened - and people saw it that way. People were supporting that film.

What's different about your life now?

Well, some good things, some not so good things. I don't have as much free time as I used to have. I can't do theater like I used to do. But the good things are that now I'm here on a really good show and I can, every summer, afford to do a film that I really want to do.

Rather than for the money?

Yeah, because you've got pretty good security from ER and you're able to help a lot more people than you used to. You know, you can do some things just because you have more money than you used to have. So those kinds of things change, but fortunately, everything else stays the same.

You're obviously happy to stick with ER rather than go off to do your own thing.

You know, everything that I did in my life was step by step. I think that this is the case with ER. I think that you can actually establish a much stronger background doing a feature film once a year together with ER. If there is an opportunity in the middle of the show that you're going to get really a great part in a film, you can always work it out. In the summertime, you have three months to shoot a film. … So, if I'm not on a show, I don't know what I would do if I had one or two projects a year. Then, I would have three or four months doing nothing.

Do you ever wonder how a guy from Croatia got to be an American movie star?

You have to have a good agent. [Laughs]