Busy Goran Visnjic talks about war, Spartacus and ER
April 2004
Scripps Howard News Service
By Dave Mason

Goran Visnjic knows about war and the toll it takes. Like the character he plays on "ER," he is Croatian, a native of a country that experienced a brutal civil war.

Visnjic said he drew from that experience to portray the sadness felt by his character, Dr. Luka Kovac, as he recalls losing his family in the conflict. Visnjic didn't lose relatives, but he has seen what the war did to his country.

"Unfortunately, it comes quite easy for me," Visnjic said. "I was in Croatia during the conflict. It's not very difficult to go inside Luka's head."

He also drew from the experience to play the title character in "Spartacus," a USA network remake of the 1960 Kirk Douglas movie about a gladiator who leads fellow slaves to freedom. The two-part miniseries airs at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday and Monday.

Visnjic, who's in his fifth season on "ER," also can be seen playing a hypnotist in "Close Your Eyes," a psychological thriller.

Like the first "Spartacus," the USA remake is based on a novel by Howard Fast, about a slave uprising in Rome in 72 B.C.

Visnjic said he was drawn to the project because the story of "Spartacus" was "one of the biggest events in the world; it was one of the biggest events in human history."

Visnjic and director Robert Dornhelm ("Anne Frank'') agreed Spartacus should be depicted as a reluctant leader, someone who didn't seek the spotlight.

"When he's taken to the gladiator school, he doesn't plan to become the leader of a huge slave rebellion," the 31-year-old actor said.

On "ER," Visnjic plays a doctor treating wounds. On "Spartacus," he suffered real cuts and bruises during swordfights.

"Basically, I could have lost my finger a couple times," he said.

His "ER" character, meanwhile, could be losing his heart. The doctor had a romance with nurse/medical student Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney) and is now in love with new nurse Samantha Taggart ("Freaks and Geeks" star Linda Cardellini).

"She's great," Visnjic said of Cardellini, who joined the cast last year. "We always have great actors. Linda just jumped in like she had been on the show a couple years. She's very professional and very nice."

Luka's latest romance seems to be going well. But remember, this is "ER," where love seems to be cursed.

"Toward the end of the season, they put us into much more trouble," Visnjic said.

Visnjic said his favorite episodes of "ER" were the ones set in the Congo, which ran from last season into part of this season. Visnjic's Kovac and Noah Wyle's Dr. John Carter went there to treat victims of malnutrition, AIDS and war.

"For every actor and for me, it's easier to portray a character when they're put in an external situation," Visnjic said.

Visnjic has been on "ER" longer than he expected.

"My agent called me and said, 'They'd like you to stay one year on the show.' I signed for one year; they weren't sure how I would work out," Visnjic said. "My English was not good, and it's quite a complicated show. Then they asked for an extension of my contract."

Visnjic paused. "I've been there for five years; my God."

Visnjic said he plans to stay on "ER" for at least one more season.

Growing up on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Visnjic said his love of acting emerged at age 9, when he performed with other kids in amateur theater.

"There was no money involved, but it was like a huge playground," he said. "As a teenager, I figured out I could actually do this for a living."

He attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb.

Luck was on his side when he was acting in "Hamlet" at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival and another actor couldn't continue to play the title character. The director gave the part to Visnjic.

"Crazy things can happen," Visnjic said.

Crazier than expected: Visnjic won the Orlando, the Croatian equivalent of a Tony, for his portrayal.

He came to the United States and got his big Hollywood break in the 1997 movie "Welcome to Sarajevo."

His other movies include "The Deep End," "Committed," "Practical Magic" and the animated feature "Ice Age." He starred with George Clooney _ whose footsteps he followed onto "ER" _ in "The Peacemaker."