Who is Goran Visnic and what does he want
March 2002

In this month's cover story, contributing editor Ted Allen writes of Goran Visnjic, the Croatian actor and current leading man on NBC's hit series ER. What attracted Allen to the story wasn't just the actor's resume, which includes three strong seasons as the somber and haunted Dr. Luka Kovac as well as turns opposite Heather Graham and Nicole Kidman, but also Visnjic's extraordinary life outside of acting. In the early nineties, Visnjic joined the Croatian army, defending his country against invading Serb forces. "He volunteered because his home was being threatened," says Allen. "That's more than you find in your average Hollywood jerk. And on top of that, he's a fine actor."

He's America's favorite TV doctor/Balkan War veteran/ off-road-driver-with-an-accent, and he just wants you to stay out of the passing lane.

It's a pitch-dark, pre-dawn, chilled November morning. Empty parking lot at the Good Guys stereo shop, corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon. The Croatian is not an A.M. kind of guy; in fact, it is forbidden to telephone his house before noon. Bur he wants to beat the morning rush, so at 5:30 he emerges from the darkness in a black Jeep Cherokee with tinted windows. He wears a gray cashmere turtleneck, tan drawstring pants, slip-on Nikes. He caffeinates at Starbucks and hits Interstate 10.

The mission: He will drive a couple hours out to the Mojave Desert, whereupon he will go "four-wheeling." (The Croatian genuinely enjoys this four-wheeling business. He owns special off-road tires.) As he threads his way east among the yawning commuters, the rising sun turns the mountains purple, then golden, then the dun color of daytime.

Who is this Croatian? He is called Goran Visnjic. He is almost thirty years old. He is a bus driver's son. He is a trained paratrooper, with thirteen jumps under his belt. He is a star of stage and screen back home. Of course, if you know the Croatian, it is most likely for this: He is not a doctor, but he plays one on TV. Specifically, he plays a Croatian doctor on ER, the highest-rated drama on American television. Also, he makes movies with people like Nicole Kidman, Tilda Swinton, Heather Graham, and Woody Harrelson.

And why does he merit attention? Because it's not every working-class Eastern European paratrooper who ends up defibrillating extras alongside Anthony Edwards. Because he has faced adversity and demonstrated bravery, character, and heart, which is more than you can say for the pampered aromatherapy snufflers in Hollywood on whom we usually dote. Because he loves and misses his beat-up homeland, a sentiment that makes us respect him (and one that we understand better these days). Because he's got a mysterious charisma, a charm that places him somewhere between early Brad Pitt (rakish seducer), Schwarzengger (big shoulders, accent), and Russell Crowe (forelock, curious effect upon women). Because he works hard-most especially to surmount his Eastern European accent and thereby broaden the roles available to him. Because of all these things and the fact that his career's on-track to earn him big prizes, like golden statues and seven-figure movie deals.

And just how, exactly, is one expected to pronounce a collection of consonants like V-I-S-N-J-I-C? Like this: Vish-nyich.

The Croatian, he sings in public. (It's okay, he's from Europe.) Here he comes, in a boisterous group, arms linked and glasses aloft, swaying, splashing, scaring the tourists. His favorite song is a sad song, a song about his countrymen who leave to find their fortunes and who never return. The Croatian, he returns often, as often as he possibly can. And when he returns, there is going to be drinking and singing, see?

This Croatian grew up in Croatia, naturally, specifically in Sibenik, a medieval port town of about forty thousand. As a boy, he prowled the Adriatic shallows with a spear gun (a spear gun!) until he decided that since his family had enough to eat already, shooting fish was a bit sadistic. (Today he likes the Learning Channel and Animal Planet, and he disapproves of fur coats.) He explored the Krka National Park on one side of the city and the Kornati National Park on the other. And at the age of nine, he took to the stage.

Croatia, it turns out, is lousy with live-action theater; it's as big a force in the culture as movies are in the U.S. The young Goran's first public performance came at age ten, in a musical-comedy version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." ("Shakespeare was probably not happy with that," he notes.) Then he got a part in the Peter Shaffer play "Equus," and on opening night he experienced his first standing O. "It's not very often a sight to see in my hometown theater-very strict audience," he recalls. "Even now I have goose bumps." That night, the director had a word with Visnjic's parents. He thought Goran might have the chops to be a professional. The boy was twelve years old.

He continued his studies. But meanwhile, to the east in Belgrade, there was that son of a bitch, rising.

You'll recall that Croatia was then part of what we vaguely knew as Yugoslavia. So were Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia. You'll recall that Yugoslavia was coming apart. And you'll remember the particular tyrant (of the handful who participated in the Balkan wars) who made "ethnic cleansing" a household name, the one who was extradited last year to The Hague. The Croatian was among those ethnicities of which Slobodan Milosevic dreamed of purging the land.

Visnjic had signed on for his year of required military service in the Yugoslav People's Army in 1990, when he was 18. Besides parachuting, he learned anti-terrorism tactics and riot-control techniques: rubber bullets, plastic shields, that sort of thing. He recalls when his unit was yanked out of a survival exercise and told to switch from the yellow-colored practice rounds to the red ammunition-the live stuff-and soon found itself in Slovenia. "It was a little bit tough there" is all he'll say about it. A monthlater, his tour expired, but the Serbs had taken the fight to his turf, which they did their damnedest to ruin. Of Dubrovnik, Visnjic says bitterly, "Not one army bombed that city through the centuries-even Napoleon's army didn't bomb that city. And then the Serbs: just boom boom boom boom boom. Assholes."

So he went home and joined the Croatian army, which was fending off the attack. "I said I would never grab a gun again in my life, and then shit started happening in Croatia," he says. "And I just took a gun again, in my city."

Visnjic has already said more than he wanted to say about the war, which, he reminds emphatically, is over. His little city, which makes it's living from visitors, is again busy with tourists.

He will not get into specifics about what he saw. "I can't talk about those things."

Here's the plan: Sneak into Joshua Tree National Monument through the back side, up an old, washed-out mining trail that winds up the granite foothills. "We're gonna go back on the normal road," Visnjic assures, "and we're gonna pay our ticket like decent citizens." The desert is strewn with beer bottles and burnt sofas and dead refrigerators; the road signs are perforated with bullet holes. "Welcome to the United States!" he cracks.

He fills in some gaps. His wife is a Croatian sculptor, name of Ivana. He forgets their anniversary but says she doesn't mind. He loves David Bowie. On September 11, he watched the news from 7:00 a.m to 3:00 a.m the next morning, leaving only to buy more Marlboro Lights. He loves TV shows about space, aircraft, and science. He picked the Cherokee despite the Range Rover's superior off-road abilities because the Rover is fat, slow, and overpriced. Although to our minds he is a man of style, he's no clotheshorse. "I want people to think about me like, guy who's on ER, like, guy who's on that feature film. I don't want people to think, Oh, he was so beautifully dressed." He adores The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He hates motorists who bumble stubbornly in the passing lane. He and his wife live in the Hollywood Hills, albeit on the Valley side, the unfashionability of which perplexes him: "From my house to Warner Brothers is seven minutes!" Regarding his last name" The Croatian alphabet contains an "n" and a "j," but it also contains a single character "nj," which is pronounced "ny" as in "nyet." (Furthermore, there should be a V-shaped squiggle atop the "s" and a hash mark above the "c"; these would indicate that his "s" is pronounced "sh" and his "s" is "ch." Who says celebrity profiles aren't educational?)

Having made it to nineteen, the Croatian enrolled in the prestigious Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb. His parents had saved to pay the tuition. In 1994, he landed the title roe in a production of Hamlet, which eh would reprise for seven summers and which dramatically increased his profile. It also earned him three national awards for best actor.

Then, a break. Director Michael Winterbottom tapped him to play a translator for war correspondents in 1997 Welcome to Sarajevo, with Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei. The film caused a stir at Cannes, where it was a favorite for the Palme d'Or.

Jack Orman, an executive producer of ER, remembers that when he watched Sarajevo at home, his wife was carrying laundry back and forth through the room-and every time Visnjic appeared on the screen, she would stop in her tracks. Phone calls were made.

The Croatian's first episode as Dr. Luka Kovac aired in the fall of 1999. He spent most of the show comforting a little girl whose mother was in a car accident-a marketing trick to make the dark, hulking Eastern European seem sensitive, more loveable. "You need to sell the character really well," Visnjic says. "Because ten years ago, that kind of accent would only be in American movie in 007 playing the bad guy." Not to mention the challenge of convincingly ordering trachs, intubations, and 100cc's of whatever it is, without a clue as to what you're talking about. Asked about the Heimlich maneuver, he inquires, "Is that the one where somebody's choking?" He's not a doctor, but he plays one, convincingly, on TV.

In his three seasons on the air, he's developed a serious following, for lots of reasons. There is the interesting ambiguity between where Goran ends and Luka begins: Luka Kovac lost his wife and two children when their apartment was bombed in the Balkan conflict; Visnjic fought in that war. There was the romance and fiery breakup between Luka and Maura Tierney's character, Abby Lockhart, which The New York Times called "perhaps the most fascinating relationship on prime-time TV." Then, too, his character is complicated and appealing-the righteous doctor who denies an organ transplant to a dying dope fiend yet who carries a pregnant, passed-out Julianna Margulies in his arms from the el to the hospital. It is for these reasons that women, among other genders, are known to deflate slightly at the mention of his name. (He is not a doctor, but your wife would like to play it with him.)

Beyond his nine-month shifts on ER, he's managed to squeeze in memorable turns on the big screen, as Nicole Kidman's abusive boyfriend in the dark comedy Practical Magic, as a desert rogue in the Heather Graham movie Committed, starring in last year's The Deep End, as a bad-guy extortionist who turns sympathetic to his victim (a sort of Stockholm syndrome in reverse). At this writing, he's filming a Croatian movie back home. His next Western feature, Doctor Sleep, is a British thriller slated for release this year.

How much longer before he's ready to cut the stethoscope, before his Q rating is sufficient, before his English is sharp enough for him to pass as an American leading man and he can devote himself to features full-time? The Croatian makes a prediction: "Three more years."

The enormous, gnarled yucca for which Joshua Tree is named grow branches like broken arms on battered scarecrows. Rabbits forage for plants as coyotes forage for rabbits. Over the boulders and through the gullies and across the ridges Visnjic creeps in the Cherokee, slowly climbing the hills, sometimes stopping to plan his line to avoid bottoming out, and once taking an alfresco leak beneath the great big sky. And then he attains a crest and a field of rocks and sand unfolds before him for miles. In three days, the Croatian leaves for a two-month assignment overseas-six-day weeks, two days for Christmas, max. He shades his eyes with one hand and scans the horizon. "I missed this so much, oh my God," he says. All around him are rocks the size of motor homes, piled like alters and scattered across the sand.