His Name is Spartacus
May 2004
Film Stew
By Annlee Ellingson

Resident ER heartthrob Goran Visnjic looks to expand upon his first English-language lead film role with a TV miniseries and big budget action sequel.

Goran Visnjic is not a doctor, but he plays one on TV and in a 2002 British movie that recently made it to U.S. theaters in limited release. The Croatian actor, best-known stateside as Dr. Luka Kovac on the hit television show ER, once again dons the title for the supernatural thriller Close Your Eyes, his first lead in an English-language film after a string of supporting roles in Practical Magic, Committed and The Deep End.

It’s a final and perhaps quiet prelude to the next phase of Visjnic’s emerging English-language career, which includes the lead role in USA Networks May 7th four-hour miniseries Spartacus and a part opposite Jennifer Garner this summer for the upcoming 2005 sequel Elektra. The actor will also return to his filmmaking roots with another project this summer, The Filthy War, a real-life story about a platoon of international volunteers defending a wartorn Yugoslavian village threatened by ethnic cleansing.

That Close Your Eyes provided a new challenge far removed from his role on ER is precisely what attracted Visnjic to the role a few years ago. “It was the first time in my life I had the opportunity to play the lead in a supernatural thriller,” he recalls. “I’m on ER for five years, and every summer I’m trying to do something differently.”

“So I did The Deep End a couple of years ago, which was like drama and sort of film noir,” he adds. “I did Spartacus last summer, which was quite different than ER. And the supernatural thriller, it was a great script, and so I was like, ‘Oh, okay. That will be fun, definitely.’”

Perhaps unfortunately for Visnjic, whose enlistment on ER in 1999 was accompanied by many a magazine profile in which he described the difficulty of rattling off medical terminology in his thick Eastern European accent, his experience playing an emergency room attending doctor on the television show did little to prepare him for the alternate branch of the medical field focused upon in Close Your Eyes.

Visnjic plays Dr. Michael Strother, a hypnotist who is reluctantly drawn into a kidnapping investigation after a young girl who has escaped is struck dumb by the trauma she has experienced. When one of his clients, a cop seeking treatment for smoking, realizes that he is able to see flashes of visions from his patients’ minds while they are under his spell, she effectively extorts him into extracting the information necessary to catch the perp from the victim’s tortured psyche.

“Hypnotism is something Luka Kovac would not have any idea about, and Michael’s character would not have any idea about what Luka does at his work because the medical field is just huge,” Visnjic says.

“You just can’t put all those things in one head. No, unfortunately, there was no help from there.”

Visnjic (pronunciations vary, but the consensus seems to be “vish-ny-ich”) was born in Sibenik, a port town of 40,000 along the picturesque Adriatic coast, in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Croatia. His father, Zeljko, was a bus driver and his mother, Milka, works as a salesperson in a local shop.

The younger of two sons became interested in acting at a very young age, launching his career at age nine in a school production of Little Red Riding Hood and making his public debut a year later with a local theater troupe in a musical-comedy version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After that, he appeared in the Peter Shaffer play Equus and got a standing ovation on opening night. He has been hooked on the craft ever since.

After high school, Visnjic served a requisite year of military service with the Yugoslavian army in 1990. He trained as a paratrooper, making 13 jumps. It was just as his tour of duty was drawing to a close, however, when the Balkans war broke out.

Visnjic and his fellow Croatians were among the groups Slobodan Milosevic aimed to expunge in his bid for the ethnic cleansing of Yugoslavia. Visnjic felt compelled to stay on with the military for another three months.

His combat experience is not something Visnjic likes to talk about, though he’s been repeatedly asked about it since his rise to fame in the U.S. All he has offered by way of explanation for the additional time in the line of fire is, “My grandfather’s farm was burned to the ground, and I just grew tired of sitting in my basement and not doing any fighting.”

After a month, however, Visnjic was accepted into the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and his older brother gladly took his place on the front line so that he could attend. Croatians discourage siblings from serving at the same time. His parents had saved their money to pay for his tuition.

A year later, at age 21, Visnjic was cast as Laertes in the Dubrovnic Summer Festival’s production of Hamlet. When the actor playing the lead fell ill, however, Visnjic stepped into the title role. It was the beginning of a six-year association with the Dutch prince that dramatically increased his profile and earned him three national awards for best actor.

In 1997, he was cast in Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo. At the premiere, he met actor-director Griffin Dunne, who asked him to audition for Practical Magic as Nicole Kidman’s abusive redneck boyfriend.

In the first of many hoops jumped through because of his accent, the role was rewritten as an Eastern European who idolizes American cowboys.

In 1999, Visjnic joined the cast of ER on the heels of George Clooney’s departure, uttering the first-ever words spoken by a Croatian on American primetime: “My name is Luka. It’s a funny name, isn’t it?” During his first season with NBC, the actor helped make ER was the most popular foreign program in Croatia, pulling in more than a quarter of the country’s population.

“I worked a lot in my country, so people knew who I was,” he remembers. “But of course, [it’s different] once you end up on the TV show which is [the] number one foreign TV show in the country.”

“Croatia is a small country, like five million people live there,” Visnjic continues. “We’re a proud bunch of people. When Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon a couple of years ago, half a million people greeted him in his own town. So we take certain pride and, like every small country, you know, love each other. People are proud, and I’m glad.”

More movie roles followed: Committed, co-starring Heather Graham; the aforementioned The Deep End with Tilda Swinton; and voiceover work on the animated feature Ice Age.

With the $20 million four-hour miniseries Spartacus about to follow in the footsteps of the Stanley Kubrick/Kirk Douglas 1960 classic, one might be tempted to ask Visnjic whether he tapped into his own wartime experience for the intense battle scenes. But, characteristically, he is tight-lipped about his time in uniform.

“It’s something I like to keep locked someplace,” he says. “I don’t like going to deal with that. [But] it’s there. You can see it. If the words are right, if the script is good, you don’t have to work on it to bring it, it’s just there. You can see it.

“Experiences you have, they just stay with you. You can play to hide them, but if you want them to surface, they’re there.”

To prepare for his role in Close Your Eyes, Visnjic underwent hypnosis a couple of times himself and participated in a session as a third-party observer.

“Our second AD volunteered to be the subject of hypnosis,” he says. “In normal hypnosis, it’s completely unethical to have a third party standing there watching the session, but if somebody volunteers, it’s absolutely fine. That was quite helpful to see both people at the same time.”

But, when asked about his own reported attempts to quit smoking through hypnosis, Visnjic clams up. “Let’s not talk about that,” he says, rolling his eyes and mumbling out of the side of his mouth.

“Let’s not talk about that,” he says, rolling his eyes and mumbling out of the side of his mouth. “I’m just a lousy quitter. I have a tough time with that.”

The irony of playing a hypnotist who treats patients for smoking is not lost on him. “That was a tough part,” he admits. “I was telling all those people, ‘You’ve got to quit smoking,’ and I’m like [mimes chain-smoking]. But I’m working on it. I’m not smoking reds anymore. I’m on lights, and I’m cutting down.”

Close Your Eyes (also known as Doctor Sleep and Hypnotic) starts out as what Visnjic calls a “normal thriller” before tipping full-scale into the supernatural in the third act, with a 16th-century religious fanatic purporting to have devised a way to achieve eternal life by transferring his own soul into another’s body.

“Our screenwriters did research on certain things actually happening a couple hundred years ago, certain alchemists actually trying to do those things,” Visjnic says. “Hopefully I don’t think they succeeded in it, but some things you see in the movie are actually based upon research being done.”

The film’s paranormal elements, Visnjic suggests, are part of its appeal to audiences. “It’s in human nature to think that life after death exists, and it would be really fun if you could sometimes see what other people think [and that] they can’t lie to you.”

By rooting the plot of Close Your Eyes in historical research and being generous with its depiction of tools and hypnotic procedures, Visnjic hopes the audience will be able to suspend its disbelief. “It’s like when you watch a good sci-fi film or it’s like some cover-up likeThe X-Files or something,” the 31-year-old actor concludes. “You ask yourself, ‘Is this really happening, and we’re just not seeing it?’”