Vincent D’Onofrio never had aspirations to be the leading man. He wanted to be a character actor.
During the last three decades, he has become just that: one of the most durable and versatile character actors working in film and television, playing a serial killer (“The Cell”), an evil space alien (“Men in Black”), a Sherlock Holmesian police detective (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) and a pulp fiction writer (“The Whole Wide World”).
The physically imposing, 6-foot-4 Method actor went so far as to gain 70 pounds for his role as a mentally unbalanced, overweight recruit in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Vietnam War epic, “Full Metal Jacket.”
But D’Onofrio, now 55, acknowledged that he made a lot of mistakes when he was younger.
“I have changed so much as an actor over the years,” D’Onofrio said by phone from Atlanta, where he’s playing an apple picker in James Franco’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel “In Dubious Battle.”
The mistakes, he noted, were not in the projects he chose but in his attitude.
“I so badly wanted to be a character actor,” D’Onofrio said, adding that he would read scripts and imagine what he could do with the role.
“It gave me a lot of experience, but I don’t think about things like that anymore,” he said. “I think about the story. Do I want to be involved in the story? And if I do, how can I help serve the story? It becomes a lot less about yourself and more about serving your story.”
His galvanizing work infuses two current projects: the feature film “Broken Horses” and Marvel’s new Netflix series “Daredevil.”
“Broken Horses,” which is set for release next month, finds him playing Julius Hench, a psychotic crime boss dealing in drugs in the Southwest who transforms a young man with mental issues into a ruthless killer.
In “Daredevil,” he takes on the role of Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin, a larger-than-life, powerful and merciless businessman who resembles a demented Uncle Fester. He is the nemesis of Daredevil (Charlie Cox).
No matter how vile or vicious the character he plays, D’Onofrio manages to find the humanity.
“You kind of have to fall in love with them,” he said.
“The idea is to block out any negative notions or anything negative about the character. You have to have so much respect for them and feel they are so important to be around.”
He said Hench and Fisk don’t understand the concept of good and evil in a “moral sense” because if they did “they wouldn’t do bad things. There is something broken about them. That is the doorway into having empathy for them. I don’t see them as bad guys. I see them as people.”
“Broken Horses” director Vidhu Vinod Chopra said in an email interview that he envisioned the character of Hench as “enigmatic, sinister and fatherly at the same time.”
“I met Vincent at a hotel in New York while I was casting there. As I walked into the lobby of the hotel, I saw this towering man, and I knew in my gut I had found my Hench.”
“Daredevil” executive producer Steven S. DeKnight noted that “Vincent brings such a passion and understanding to the craft.”
Often, he said, people go afoul when they play comic book villains. But D’Onofrio avoided the traps of playing Fisk in big, broad strokes.
“We wanted Wilson Fisk to be a three-dimensional, rounded person,” DeKnight said. “I don’t think there is another person on the planet who could play the role with as much nuance and emotion as Vincent. I love the way he described Wilson Fisk as a child monster. There are some scenes that are absolutely heartbreaking.”
D’Onofrio relished that the scripts gave each character an emotional story.
“They call it an ‘origins story.’ It’s an emotional story that starts from childhood and we end as these iconic Marvel characters,” he said.
The actor knew Kingpin from the Spider-Man comics he read as a kid, he said. “So it’s a very interesting thing to be involved just because it’s part of my childhood too.”
D’Onofrio will be playing “kind of” a bad guy opposite Chris Pratt in “Jurassic World,” this summer’s “Jurassic Park” sequel, and he will reunite with Pratt for the reboot of the 1960 classic western “The Magnificent Seven,” which also stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke.
It’s a career that D’Onofrio credits to Kubrick and “Full Metal Jacket.”
“He truly, truly gave me my first opportunity,” D’Onofrio said. “That’s why we are talking right now. I have been working ever since he put me in that movie. I had never been around anything like that. I had never been on a movie set. It was like going to film school.”
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