Tom Sizemore: The New Tom

Tom Sizemore is good at playing bad men--like the evil private dick in the lurid Strange Days, the demented cop on the trail of serial killers in Natural Born Killers, the professional thief in Heat and the mysterious "fixer" in Devil in a Blue Dress.

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Maybe it's the unsettling combo of his features--jowly cherub's face offset by alarmingly cold, pale eyes--or the sociopathic cackle he can come out with when one of his characters gets the first whiff of fear. One thing's for sure: Tom Sizemore's timing and control are impeccable--his characters slip instantly from back-slapping bonhomie to knife-at-the-neck rage.

I'm expecting at least a trace of macho-actor bluster when I step inside Sizemore's West Hollywood condo. What I get is a big guy, dripping wet in a towel, fresh from the shower, affable running to insecure. "You're early--no, I'm late. Man. I'm so embarrassed," he moans, displaying ample proof of the heft he gained to play his latest rogue, "Dapper Don" John Gotti in the network miniseries Witness to the Mob . Once clothed, Sizemore shows off the stationary bike he's riding to slim down and offers up a Cohiba from a massive humidor. "My last vice," he says.

It is not a casual remark; Sizemore's offscreen excesses of the past led to his rep as a party man on a one-way ticket all the way down. "I thought doing drugs helped me be intense," he tells me. "Living on the 'edge, 'I'm out here man, come out if you can.' But it was bullshit." Sizemore is very clear about who inspired him to leave the bullshit behind. It was the executive producer of Witness to the Mob, who also happens to be the man who inspired him to act in the first place--Robert De Niro. When Sizemore and De Niro worked together on Heat, De Niro convinced him to enter drug rehab, and when he balked, hiding out in a hotel on the beach, De Niro came after him.

"There's a knock on the door, and there's my mom. And I start crying. Then Bob walks in. He said, 'You can walk outta here and I'll have you arrested for heroin possession, or you can go to this place in Arizona and stay there till you get better.' It was one of those--whaddya call 'em?--turning points." Indeed, Sizemore did both Witness to the Mob and Steven Spielberg's World War II epic Saving Private Ryan totally straight, and he noticed how much better everything felt. "It's like Bob told me once: 'Don't you wanna wake up and know what the fuck you're doin'? Don't you wanna know who your friends are, an' what you did last night?'" Sizemore shakes his head. "Sometimes it blows my mind that he and I--we're so close now, I can tell him things I couldn't before. Like, that I saw Taxi Driver 27 times. Before, he woulda been, 'OK, I don't want another John Hinkley on my hands.'" Sizemore puffs contentedly on his Cuban cigar. "I do a good De Niro, huh?"

In Private Ryan, which is loosely based on the true story of a young soldier (Matt Damon) whose three brothers died in battle, Sizemore plays Sgt. Horvath, aide-de-camp to a captain (Tom Hanks) whose mission is to save the last surviving Ryan son. "It's the best role I've ever had," says Sizemore, "and the first movie where I worked every day." Preparation for Ryan included gut-wrenching basic training, under the command of an appropriately sadistic military adviser. "One day we're on this long run with all our gear, and it was hell. I threw up all over my shirt and face. And [the adviser] says, 'Don't stop! Sgt. Horvath, why are you throwing up?' I said, 'I don't know, sir!' 'Well figure it out, turd!' Hanks is running next to me and he starts to laugh. I say, 'What's so funny?' And he says, This is terrible! This is just awful.' But I didn't stop. And the whole thing was key, because it taught us that to be a successful unit, you gotta complete the mission. That, helped the movie, because it bled out a lot of sentimentality."

Sizemore prefers big-gun directors with matching egos, because they tend to know what they're doing. And so: Spielberg and Private Ryan, Michael Mann and Heat, Oliver Stone and Natural Born Killers, and Strange Days' uber-team of director Kathryn Bigelow and cowriter/producer James Cameron. "I like people like that, 'cause I'm like that myself. I'm very directable if the person directing me is on the ball." Stone, for instance, has his own warped vision, but he's open to suggestions, Sizemore says, and that's every actor's dream. The memorable scene in Natural Born Killers wherein his character tries to seduce Juliette Lewis's psycho-bitch Mallory was largely improvised by the two actors, right down to the vicious nipple-twisting foreplay.

"Oliver loved it. He was like, 'I love that nipple thing--cool, do it again, heh, heh, heh!'" Sizemore is a fine mimic. As he does Stone-- the wildly batting eyes, the twisted giggle and reedy voice--I can almost see a gap between his teeth. "Oliver said, 'You're really fuckin' sick, aren't ya, Sizemore?' I said, 'No, Oliver, you are--I'm just your vessel.' That movie was total madness," Sizemore says, laughing giddily. "But I love Oliver and he got a great performance out of me." Sizemore thinks Spielberg has done that, too, only now he feels there's much more at stake: "Horvath is a different role for me--a quiet guy, taciturn and low-key, but high-key too. It's a great part-- you'll see." He's hoping the film lifts him out of the realm of dangerous heavies and into leading-man territory. "If Ryan doesn't do it," he says. "I don't know if it can be done."

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Joshua Mooney



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