Accent on Talent
April 2004
By Jenelle Riley

When Goran Visnjic joined the cast of the TV series ER in September 1999, he was one of several new faces designed to help fill the gap left by resident hunk George Clooney's departure earlier that year. Visnjic's Dr. Luka Kovac was cut from a cloth similar to Clooney's Dr. Doug Ross--both were sensitive, frequently misunderstood, willing to bend the rules for their patients, and broodingly gorgeous--and comparisons between the two were inevitable. But a mere Clooney clone wouldn't have lasted as long as Visnjic, who is now in his fifth year on the program. Indeed, Visnjic has outlasted most of the actors with whom he joined the show, and Dr. Kovac has lately enjoyed some of his best storylines ever.

In person, Visnjic is even more handsome, if possible, than the camera lets on. He also appears far more relaxed and amused than the tortured characters he usually plays seem, which would suggest a range of characters he has yet to tackle. While many ER stars have left the show to pursue other projects, with varying degrees of success, Visnjic is very content where he is right now. "I'm definitely staying for one more year," he says. "And then we'll see what happens." But his TV obligation hasn't kept him from taking on other roles during his yearly hiatus. This month alone, the actor has two very different projects hitting screens large and small: as the title role in the ambitious USA Network miniseries Spartacus, which recently aired, and as a hypnotist in the supernatural thriller Close Your Eyes, opening this week. All this and he's due on the ER set, known for its grueling schedule, on the night of this interview. Which begs the question: Isn't he ready to just take a vacation? "Actually, no," he responds quickly. "It's weird because when you work so much on a show for five years playing the same character over nine and a half months out of the year, I sort of like to do something different. Just for brain food. You actually feel better after doing a different character, then coming back to ER." According to Visnjic, visiting other roles makes him appreciate playing doctor all the more. "I just feel fresher about playing Luka again than if I were to take time off and enjoy myself," he says. "I would come back, and it would be like I didn't even leave. With this, I have memories that are pretty fresh from different characters. So when I come back, it makes it new again. Especially when they're writing good stuff on the show."

Indeed some of ER's most recent stories have been Visnjic's favorites so far. "The second episode of this season was actually the most interesting of all the five years I've been on the show," he says, referring to episodes that found Kovac and Dr. Carter (ER vet Noah Wyle) in Africa. "They put our characters in such extreme situations, it was definitely the best episode for my character, with the most things to do. And that was in my fifth year. So it's really good, they really keep you interested. And as long as I can do a movie in the summertime, I'm fine with being on the show."

Sword Plays

Visnjic says he's been "lucky" with his summer hiatuses, having done a wide variety of projects, including Spartacus, Close Your Eyes, and The Deep End, the acclaimed drama with Tilda Swinton. "I'm trying to keep things different and try different genres," he notes. With such limited time, however, he admits to being picky about his projects. Spartacus appealed greatly to the actor largely because of its genre. "Braveheart is one of my favorite movies of all time," says Visnjic. "That's my genre. My wife jokes, 'Give him a sword and a horse, he's going to do it for free.' It comes from those childhood memories when we were kids and everybody liked to play the knight on a white horse, saving the princess."

Several factors attracted Visnjic to Close Your Eyes, including being a fan of director Nick Willing and his film Photographing Faeries. "He's a really great director," remarks Visnjic. "Also, the script--I had never played in a supernatural thriller before. And it was an opportunity for me to be the lead in an English-speaking movie, which I'd never done before." Based on a book by Madison Smartt Bell, Close Your Eyes stars Visnjic as Michael Strother, a hypnotist who also happens to receive psychic flashes he uses to help his patients. He finds himself drawn into the case of a young girl who managed to escape after being kidnapped by a serial killer. While trying to help the young girl and uncover the secrets she holds, Strother finds himself uncovering a world of magic and occult he never knew existed. The script, by Willing and William Brookfield, is a combination of drama, thriller, and horror film, a challenge Visnjic appreciated. "Sometimes when you see movies that mix the genres, it doesn't really work," admits Visnjic. "But in this one, it's such a subtle change and they give you tips all the time about what's going to happen, you're being teased into what's next as things get bigger and more out of control. It was too interesting a project to pass on."

In doing research for the role, Visnjic not only sat in on hypnosis sessions, he agreed to go under the procedure himself. "I had just come from work, I was hungry, it was the middle of the day, and I was like, 'No way, I can't go under,' " recalls Visnjic. "It was so hot in the room, I asked the guy in the middle of the session to please turn on the AC. He said, 'No problem.' After a couple of minutes, he asked if it was better, if it was colder. I said, 'Yes, thank you very much.' And at the end of the session he said, 'You know, just for the record, we don't have an AC unit in this room.' So your brain is a very powerful tool; it can play tricks on you and can really affect people."

Another factor that drew Visnjic to the role was the supernatural storyline, although he's not sure on where he stands on his beliefs in the otherworldly. "For some things, I would like to believe," he muses. "It's in human nature to believe in life after death, and I like to believe that something exists, but you're always unsure." But, ultimately, there is only one criterion Visnjic uses when choosing a role. "Basically, whatever is a good script is a good project," he says.

Visnjic was drawn to acting at an early age, becoming involved with theatre at age 9 in his hometown in Croatia. "I just started there as a kid; there was no money involved, no fame. It was just like a big playground," he notes. "We had so much fun in that theatre, it was like a huge circus. That's how I got drawn into it. And when I was a teenager I figured out, 'Hold on, I can actually do this for a living? That would be cool!'"

Visnjic was sidelined for a couple of years by the warfare in Croatia. A trained paratrooper, Visnjic served in the Yugoslav Army. At 18 he enlisted in the Croatian Army to fight the war in the Balkans. He once said of his choice to enlist, "When somebody is attacking your hometown, and you're just sitting in the basement, you feel really useless. I felt I had to do it to defend my country. That's normal."

After finishing his service at 20, he returned to acting and attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts in the capital of Zagreb. "It's the school you have to finish in order to become an actor in my country," says Visnjic. "You had two performances a year that you worked on throughout the season with your professor and cast. And twice a year you'd do a performance onstage inside the school and all directors, film and theatre, come there to see new actors. So it's a very good system of basically promoting yourself and going to the school at the same time."

A performance in his sword class led to Visnjic's first big break, after his swordmaster fell ill and couldn't be present for the final exam. "He asked his friend if he could do him a favor, to just come in and give us our final marks," remembers Visnjic. "It happened that this guy was doing Hamlet in about four months at the National Theatre in Croatia and was looking for Laertes. Me and my friend were doing our 250 moves in 10 minutes and he saw I was good with a sword." The director checked with Visnjic's professors, who gave him high compliments. "The next day he said, 'Would you like to play Laertes at the National Theatre? I was 21. I was like, 'Uh ...yeah....'

"To make it even crazier," Visnjic continues, "like, 35 days before the opening night, the guy who was playing Hamlet got sick. He just couldn't do it, and they asked me if I'd like to play Hamlet." Visnjic takes a moment to laugh, as if he still can't believe it after all these years. "It was quite shocking, my first big job at the National Theatre with all these big Croatian stars, and I'm playing Hamlet at 21."

The English Patience

Visnjic starred as Hamlet off-and-on for seven years. Indeed he never intended to come to America to work; it was an opportunity that simply presented itself to him. Visnjic had appeared in the 1997 film Welcome to Sarajevo, the true story of a reporter caught in the Bosnian War. His performance as driver Risto Bavic caught the eye of Endeavor agent Elyse Scherz at the Cannes Film Festival, who contacted Visnjic back in Croatia. "She called me and said, 'I really liked your performance. Would you like to come work in the States?' I thought, Why not?" says Visnjic. "She came to Croatia to see me perform in Hamlet, and when I came to the States to do publicity for Welcome to Sarajevo, she hooked me up with [director] Griffin Dunne to audition for Practical Magic. I went back to Croatia, she told me I got the part, so I flew back." Soon, Visnjic was racking up frequent flier miles between working in the United States and Croatia. "Before ER, I was basically flying in and out. I'd go do a job, go back, come back for the premiere, go back, come back and do another job, go back. Then when I got ER, I decided to move here since I spend nine and a half months here."

The ER job was a dream come true, perhaps even more so because Visnjic didn't have to audition for it. "It was actually a meeting," he says. "They had seen Welcome to Sarajevo and Practical Magic and had my reviews from Hamlet or God knows what. So I met with them, and probably 20 days later my agent called and said, 'They're offering you a part on ER.' And I said, 'We're talking about the same show, right?'" Soon, Visnjic was filling Clooney's shoes as the resident hunk and familiarizing himself with an enormous worldwide audience.

Visnjic met Clooney once--though not on the set of The Peacemaker, the 1997 film in which they both appeared. Indeed, suggest that they worked together, and Visnjic gets a knowing smile. "It's so funny when people say I worked with George Clooney and Nicole Kidman in that movie," he says. "We didn't even see each other. I had one day of filming, literally, three lines, and I got shot." Instead, Visnjic ran into Clooney on his first day of work on ER. "He walked by and introduced himself and was really nice," Visnjic recalls. "He said, 'Don't worry, it's going to be great. It's a great group of people, it's a great show. Just relax and do your job.' It was quite a big deal for me to be on the show; he'd just left, I was one of five new cast members, and it was my second language on a big medical show. So he actually made me feel much better after that."

In his five years being on the show and living in America, Visnjic has gotten far more comfortable with his second language, to the point where his accent is barely noticeable. So, in his current projects, he was able to develop a specific accent for each. "On ER, it's supposed to be this way," Visnjic demonstrates. "On Spartacus, we did a different accent because it was a period piece but the slaves and gladiators come from all over the world. In Close Your Eyes, it's coming close to being American but still not quite because the guy came from Europe to the States and then to England. So it all depends on the project."

Visnjic describes working on his English as "a long process," and he thinks he's becoming more comfortable with the language. He says, "Five years ago, I couldn't talk to you like now. And now I don't think in Croatian anymore. I used to call my mother and ask her to send me new books. I would need to wait until it came out in Croatian and she could ship it over. Now, I just go to Borders and buy my book. It's much easier."