New phase for Goran Visnjic
June 2003
by Sandra Njavro

He has been known for his ER role, a good-looker, a friendly, spontaneous dude from a distant country is now facing a turning point in his life, an american actor set out on the road to stardom.

Goran Visnjic, the most successful Croatian actor in Hollywood, has already built an enviable career playing in ER, the American hit series, as well as in several films (The Peacemaker, Practical Magic, Committed, The Deep End, Hypnotic/Doctor Sleep and the animated Ice Age). Incredibly good-looking, wearing a disarming smile on his face, natural, spontaneous, but also enigmatic, Visnjic will simply win you over with his charm, and leave no one indifferent. Lisa Krueger, who directed Committed, admired his penetrating gaze, amazing voice, and bold and direct sexuality; Griffin Dune, director of Practical Magic (with the Oscar-winning Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock) once dubbed Visnjic the Croatian Gary Cooper; Robert Dornhelm, an American director of Romanian origin, has recently decided to cast him to play Spartacus in his new version of a historic spectacle for television. The shooting of this film about a famous revolt of Roman slaves who were led by the legendary gladiator is expected to begin in Bulgaria by the end of May.

Goran is a well-organized Virgo. And punctual above all. This interview was carried out in his house in Sherman Oaks, an exclusive area of Los Angeles, two hours before his trip to Hawaii, where new episodes of ER were to be shot. After that, he will move to Bulgaria for the ten-week filming of Spartacus.

Goran and his wife Ivana live in truly idyllic surroundings. The house they bought two years ago is surrounded by a beautiful garden with eighty-year-old palm trees and a small atelier for Ivana's burnt clay sculptures. The fact that ER's studio is in close vicinity was among the deciding factors in the choice of the house's location.

Sandra Njavro: How does the new Hollywood see the character of Spartacus, whom you are about to play in Robert Dornhelm's TV film?

Goran Visnjic: We can only guess at what Spartacus looked like. Hollywood sees him as a "bodybuilder Spartacus," although that is not what he should look like. He was in his twenties, and he lived the life of a slave. He was taken to a gladiator school from a stone mine, which is why it is reasonable to assume that he was skinny and malnourished at first. It was only during his gladiator period that he was getting normal meals, and then his price as a slave went up. Gladiator training was, in general, a huge investment. They were given regular massages, and the opportunity to enjoy the company of women several times a week. They were the true stars of their time. That's why gladiators in the Roman Empire didn't get killed that easily. Gladiators in arenas didn't get thumbs turned down on them that often as an order for their death, and historians are still not sure whether that is the correct interpretation of the gesture, because there is no proof for it. That's another assumption that we got from Hollywood movies.

SN: Have you seen the 1960 "Spartacus," the cult classic by Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas?

GV: It's a great film, very objective about historical facts. It successfully depicted the Roman Empire's greatest slave rebellion, which brought into question the Empire's whole existence. They presented it well, documenting all the battles... The cast was also outstanding: Laurence Olivier was excellent; Peter Ustinov won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor; Kirk Douglas was among the most prominent actors of the time, and he also produced the film.

SN: How much will your interpretation of the "new" Spartacus differ?

GV: I'll be playing the Hollywood version of Spartacus, just as Kubrick's portrayal of the character was the Hollywood version of its time. Along with the script came a note that it was only a draft version, which means that there will be more work on the dialogue.

SN: You once said that you find gyms terribly boring, and that you occasionally play tennis and swim to keep fit. In order to play a rebel gladiator, you have to be in very good shape. What do your physical preparations consist of?

GV: Most people think that gyms are very boring -- you get there, lift some weights, run around... I'm still not bored by it, because I have a good motivation. The thing is, once you're motivated, as I am now, because I'm doing it for my work, you're willing to do anything: gain weight, lose weight, build up muscles... If you're really into the work you do, and you want to get it done properly, nothing is too difficult. Because of the film, I got a personal trainer, who works with me, encourages me, pushes me, and knows exactly how and what to doin order to get results. I started exercising on April 1, and sometimes I spend more than three hours in the gym. The shooting of "Spartacus" begins at the end of May, and I think I'll be ready by that time.

SN: Did you have to change your diet because of the workout?

GV: I'm on a moderate diet. I've stopped eating bread and pasta. The purpose isn't to lose weight, but to increase muscle mass.

SN: Getting ready for a role in a film usually means a change in personal life. When do you learn best: by day or at night?

GV: When there's not much time left, I'll find the time to study whenever I can. Even by day. But nighttime is the ideal time for me to learn. My concentration and ability to memorize work best then. There are no telephones ringing, no faxes coming, no airplanes flying over my house, no workers making noise in the garden... Studying at night is a habit I've had since high school.

SN: Do you still find it difficult to learn a text by heart in English?

GV: I've been living in Los Angeles for four years now, and it's a lot easier for me to learn in English. At first, it was really exhausting, and my brain would get tired very soon. Nowadays, however, I can easily read the whole script in two or three hours, and not get tired, and the same goes for books. Earlier, whenever there was a new book in English that I wanted to read, I had to ask my parents to send it to me, so I could read it translated into Croatian. Reading in English isn't a problem anymore, but it's still easier to read something in Croatian, since I've used its phrases millions of times. Even now, I occasionally come across something I've never heard before, but this rarely happens.

SN: What was the last book you've read in English?

GV: Steven Begster's "Voyager", science fiction.

SN: What kind of roles do you like to play, and what kind do you wish for?

GV: Just as I like science fiction books, I like science fiction films, and I'd like to see myself in that kind of film. But there aren't many good SF films, only one in ten. Do I see myself in a comedy? Well, I'm not into comedies much. I don't see myself as a comedian. But then, it all depends on the script. There are no rules when it comes to that. And what would I really, really, really like? To play a character similar to the hero of my favorite film, "Braveheart." The nearest I've got to this dream was this year, when I was cast to play Spartacus.

SN: Is acting more business or pleasure for you today?

GV: To tell you the truth, after accepting the "ER" role, I was a little afraid of what it would be like to play the same character for four years. This has been the best season for me so far, and I've never been so happy about it, because now I'm getting the best parts in "ER." That's work, too. For example, I don't speak French, but in Hawaii, I'm going to act in French in about a dozen scenes. Sometimes, the smaller the part I get in an episode, the less I feel like working. I don't find it interesting. One time, I had to stitch somebody up, and say two sentences. I did it carelessly, and after seeing myself on television a month later, I said to myself: "You'll never do that again, you idiot! You were bad!" But the mind is always in turmoil, and playing a small part is most difficult. It's easiest to play a big part. Then it's all about pleasure!

SN: Would you like to be a director some day?

GV: I don't know. It's too early to talk about that. There's still a lot of work for me to do. I don't really think about making my own movie, but I'd like to take part in a film as a producer. I'd like to work with someone on the script, come up with my own stories, and develop them with a writer.

SN: You've been living in America for four years now. What is it here that makes your life easier, and what do you not like?

GV: Ivana and I have fully adjusted to living here. We're now used to the fact that it's impossible to do anything without a car. We have to take the car out of the garage even if we only want to take our Bagonja for a walk. That's funny, but we've gotten used to it and accepted it. Most of my colleagues, however, have an assistant. I used to have one, too, but I don't anymore. Ivana does his work now. I simply don't like having people working for me. You always have to watch them. That's something I haven't accepted yet. There are all kinds of services here which make life simpler. The drawback is socializing: life here goes on too fast. Some people who work on the set have to travel for two hours to get to work, then they work for twelve hours, and finally they come back home two hours later. It makes sense that they want to spend their weekends at home with their families. Just like me. I want to be with my wife, watch some TV... People distance themselves here. In addition, it's hard to make friends when you're thirty. Real friendships start in high school, during education, before people start working. My best childhood friend lives in Sibenik, and I've met my buddies at the Academy. I have a good friend in Los Angeles, too, but the time we've spent together in all these years would equal the time I spent with Sasa Buneta in six months.

SN: What do you miss when you come to Croatia?

GV: I spend so little time at home that I just don't have the time to mi ss something I have in the States, except for my house. I still don't have a house of my own in Croatia. I guess it's exactly because I don't have time to live in it. I recently bought a new computer with a huge monitor, and I have a crazy video game. After an exhausting all-day shoot, I like to get on the Internet and play the game with people from all over the world. Half an hour of that game is all I need to rest from my work. Now that's something I would miss in Croatia, so I plan to buy it and install it at my brother's. I would miss more than that if I were to spend at least three months in Croatia.

SN: Where does you fascination with altitude and the universe come from? You once even flew in an American fighter plane.

GV: There's an anecdote I've never told the press about. You know how many kids want to be pilots or astronauts when they grow up? Some stick to this dream longer, some shorter, but I stick to it even today. Even as a kid, I was crazy about the universe, science fiction, airplanes... I spent many summers at Kasteli, with my aunt Danka and uncle Franjo. Whenever I was there, I bugged my uncle to take me to the airport. I enjoyed watching those huge Russian planes that made the whole airport shake. I was just a little boy then, and that fascinated me. At the same time, I was attending a music school, trying to learn how to play the guitar, but I wasn't very good at it, and because of that, my brother and uncle used to call me "Goran the extraterrestrial, the failed musician." I have a guitar here in L.A. I sometimes play it for pleasure, just for myself. I know some songs by David Bowie and Miso Kovac.

SN: You also enjoy driving fast...

GV: I once participated in a car race for charity. We had real training and instructors for five days before the race. It was interesting when I once took a curve too fast and went into a wall -- that is, tires that were piled up in front of it. Although I was driving at some 100 km/h, I was unharmed. But the feeling was incredible; time seemed to have slowed down, and one second seemed like five.

SN: What are you like in temperament? What makes you angry?

GV: I get upset when people are late. If for some reason I'm the one who has to be late, I get a stomachache. What really makes me angry is gossip about me or my family. I don't think I'll ever understand why stories have to be made up. Especially when it's something about Ivana, who's only interesting to them as the daughter of famous parents and as my wife. A friend once told me that he heard a rumor that the only reason I was with Ivana was because of her father. I had a nervous breakdown, because the story has nothing to do with the truth. Everybody knows that the first time I saw her, I had no idea who she was. How could I? Her photo first appeared in the newspapers after we had started dating, and I didn't know her family name until a friend of mine, who had introduced us, told me. I have to admit, we were both worried about the stupidity we would have to face once everyone knew we were dating. Finally, we both came to see that there was no point in worrying about it, that newspapers can't dictate our lives or whom we would fall in love with. When it comes to "Vrdoljak's connections," I already had an agent in America at the time, so Tonci could've had more benefit from knowing me than the other way around. After all, would I have married her just because of her dad? Stories like that can really make me angry. Fortunately, there haven't been many lately, or we simply stopped paying attention.

SN: What is the principal support in your life?

GV: If my wife weren't with me now, I don't know what I would've done. I, a person who eats one kilo of bread a day (which I'm not allowed at the moment, because of "Spartacus"), would be having a very difficult time if Ivana weren't here for me. She makes two meals for me a day, which make me forget I've stopped eating bread and pasta. I haven't had many film offers this year, and before I was cast in "Spartacus," I thought there would be no work for me this summer. I would go crazy with nothing to do for three months. It's not how people imagine it: Sime shows up for the audition, and everything is okay. That was a very stressful period. I used to come home all stressed out, and Ivana patiently put up with me. Then "Spartacus" happened, and now I'm back to normal. We celebrated over champagne. We invited some friends, and I grilled fish.

SN: This month, you're celebrating your fourth wedding anniversary. How do you plan to celebrate?

GV: Ivana will come for a visit in Hawaii. Although I generally don't like to buy gifts for birthdays or some other celebrations, I buy them. I'm awful about gifts, but Ivana doesn't mind. Besides, such dates remind me of the passing of life, no matter how pathetic that may sound. Whenever I sleep for more than five hours, I get the feeling that I've missed something, and I don't like that. I much prefer giving gifts when they are least expected. Now that is something I really enjoy. I like to surprise people by showing up on some irrelevant date with a gift for them, and when they ask me what it is for, I simply tell them: "Because I love you."