Goran Visnjic helps resuscitate ER
May 5, 2003
By Jacqueline Cutler

As helicopters buzz the Empire State Building and the National Guard patrols on a frigid day in New York, a veteran of a barely understood war remains unfazed about the threat of terrorism.

"I don't give a damn," says Goran Visnjic, easing his muscular 6'4 frame into an easy chair in the lounge of a midtown hotel. "What can you do? If I can do something, I would do something. Life has to go on. It's crazy to think apocalyptic thoughts when you can't do anything about it. My mother used to say, 'A brick can fall off a house and kill you.' It's part of life."

Visnjic takes a drag on a Marlboro Light; his dark green eyes look far off for a moment. There is a gravitas about him, a sense of being far older than his 30 years.

This serious core comes across in his portrayal of Dr. Luka Kovac on NBC's ER, which airs its 200th episode, When Night Meets Day, on Thursday, May 8. A dramatic device for the episode is a split-screen showing the night- and day-shift doctors at work.

The medical drama sometimes veered off course in past seasons, but rebounded this year in part because of Visnjic's character. "This year, it gets more interesting for me and Luka than the previous three years," Visnjic says. This season, Luka has no patience for patients with frivolous cases. He drinks too much, has casual sex with a patient's mother and perpetually infuriates his boss, Dr. Kerry Weaver.

Off screen, however, Innes is not immune to his charms. "I think the thing people don't really know about him from seeing him on the show, where he's so handsome and groovy, is that he's very silly and self-effacing," she says. "And he has this kind of goofy quality in real life that's so incredibly charming."

Luka, however, is less than charming as he struggles with a wretched past that includes his wife and children perishing in the war in Croatia. That is the war Visnjic fought in as an 18-year-old, and which he does not discuss now, saying so few people understand what happened. "What's important is now everything is great," Visnjic says. "It is a great tourist spot."

With the exception of the war, Visnjic talks freely, approaching conversation as an art. Wearing a thick black turtleneck, black jeans and black boots, he easily passes for a brooding Greenwich Village artist. Visnjic, however, is not posing, though he knows a bit about melancholy. After his stint as a paratrooper, he spent six summers playing Hamlet in Croatia.

"When I was shooting Welcome to Sarajevo, I was doing Hamlet at the same time," he says. "We played it in a fortress from the 15th century -- on a hill. It was 250 miles [from the film shoot] and there was no highway. I took a cab."

He smiles as he recalls a struggling actor paying hundreds of dollars for taxis and the craziness of simultaneously playing different men from different centuries. It was all in pursuit of the acting career he began at 9, when he played the wolf in an original rendition of Little Red Riding Hood.

Each summer, his hometown theater hosts a festival for children. Visnjic was so young when he started going that he cannot remember his first time. He does, however, happily recall playing backstage and climbing ropes. "It was a big playground," he says. "It was great fun to be there. And the theater was great. The attic had costumes and swords. And we did Midsummer Night's Dream for kids."

Another passion was kindled as a youngster - driving big vehicles. Visnjic says he drove as soon as he could reach the pedals. At 14, he drove his grandfather's tractor from the farm to town, errands that should have taken a few minutes became excursions.

Today, Visnjic enjoys four-wheel driving. He recently drove his wife, artist Ivana Vrdoljak and his pug, Bugsy, to Colorado, and he has plans to drive cross-country.

Though he enjoys the United States, he visits his family and beloved homeland as often as he can. He is working on a film for his father-in-law, a director, and Visnjic seems resigned to splitting time between Los Angeles and his hometown of Sibenik, a small city on the Adriatic.

Growing up, Visnjic worked a few odd jobs to raise money for a motorcycle. After high school, he was in the military, then spent four years in the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb. "The first two years, you are forbidden to work," Visnjic says. "If you end up with bad direction, it can ruin you."

Considering his strong performances, it seems unlikely any director could lead him astray. Perhaps the only role Visnjic could not play is that of the ugly guy. Even though he is the resident hunk on ER, the camera does not do justice to how extraordinarily handsome he is.

Whenever people label him a hunk, Visnjic develops trouble with English. Pressed on this, he finally says, "Every actor wants to be recognized by accomplishments other than looks. It's just genetics. You have no control."