Living Green

UPDATED: July 18, 2012
PUBLISHED: July 18, 2012

For Matthew Modine, it all began with a hot bike—as in, one that was probably stolen.

On an August day in early ’80s New York City, the then-unknown (and broke) actor decided to try his hand at entrepreneurship by selling homemade lemonade to commuters streaming into Grand Central. As he was standing there, a man raced up on an orange Raleigh beach cruiser, dashed it to the ground and ran into the train station. “I thought, ‘He’s clearly stolen it,’ ” Modine recalls. “ ‘And if he doesn’t come back by the time I finish, that bike is mine.’ ”

Sitting at a corner table at Manhattan’s Soho House restaurant decades later, casual and boyishly handsome in a blue sweater and jeans, Modine still looks pretty satisfied at having scored the free wheels. It’s not coincidental, he says, that not long after the bike’s liberation came his breakthrough role as a disturbed Vietnam vet in 1984’s Birdy, which spurred a 30-year career that’s included Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a Golden Globe and various Emmy nominations.

“In some ways, that bicycle was responsible for me having a career,” says 53-year-old Modine. “It kept me in shape, saved me subway tokens, and I was able to fit in an extra one or two auditions a day because I could get places really quickly.”

The orange bike’s legacy has continued. Modine has stayed busy, playing Merrill Lynch’s John Thain in HBO’s Emmy-nominated film about the 2008 financial crisis, Too Big to Fail, last year, and appearing in The Dark Knight Rises, the latest installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga, this summer. He supports myriad philanthropies, from the Make-A-Wish Foundation to the Wounded Warrior Project. And in the last few years, he’s devoted increasingly more time to environmental causes—especially by encouraging bike riding. His “Bicycle for a Day” initiative, founded in 2008, partners with Dr. Mehmet Oz’s nonprofit, HealthCorps, to bring bikes, plus bike safety and repair classes, into schools across the country.

Bicycling, Modine says, remains his main mode of in-town transportation. “We are all sharing this little world, and there’s nowhere else to escape to. Bicycling is just one thing you can do to make things better. But it’s a start.”

Modine’s awakening as an environmentalist goes back to the early ’70s, when he was a tween growing up near drive-in theaters his father managed across California and Utah. Inevitably these were set far from town amid fields, orchards and gardens. He recalls walking to school in the fall, fruit ripening on the trees and leaves falling to the ground. “It made such an impact on my senses.”

Every few years, his father would get a new assignment, and the family of nine—including seven kids—would move. When Modine was about 11, roughly a year after the family had left Orem, Utah, he begged to be allowed to visit friends in his old neighborhood. “You’re not going to like it,” his father warned. He went anyway. “When I got off the bus, I couldn’t recognize a thing,” he remembers. “My dad’s drive-in, the fields of apples and pear trees, our old house—they were all gone. It was a subdivision now. Even the place where I’d buried my dog. That really had an emotional effect.”

Another early influence was oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, whose TV specials even prompted Modine to briefly consider a career in oceanography. “What I loved is that he’d terrify the hell out of you by showing you the environmental challenges we were facing, but he was all about solutions: here’s people you can contact, simple things you can do,” Modine recalls. “So when I decided to become an actor instead, it helped me realize I didn’t have to abandon my activism.”

Moving to New York City, Modine took classes at Stella Adler and began auditioning. He also started dating a woman named Caridad, a New York-raised TV commercials producer who bought him a copy of Cousteau’s almanac as one of her first gifts to him. They’ve been married more than 32 years now and have two kids.

From the beginning, the couple were interested in limiting their carbon footprint. But they weren’t hardcore about it. A turning point came when they went to London in the mid-1980s so Modine could film the role he’s still best known for—Joker, the narrator of Full Metal Jacket. The shoot was by all accounts grueling; Kubrick demanded take after take, stretching filming to two years instead of the usual few months. (Toward the end, says Modine, “There was absolute anger and bitterness and aggression.”)

But the experience was also toxic in other ways, he says. In 1986, during the course of filming, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in Ukraine, sending a plume of radioactive contaminants drifting over parts of the Soviet Union and Europe. The Modines were closer to the disaster than most Americans, and had a newborn by this time.

Also of concern to them was the filming location, at Beckton Gas Works, a former chemical manufacturer. “The earth was dyed a kind of cobalt blue, and when you’d go home and take a bath, the tub would turn blue,” says Modine. During filming “we were blowing buildings up and seeing big chunks of asbestos. We’d joke about it because we were young and we were stupid. But I’m sure that everyone’s health was compromised. I’d never do that today. I’d refuse.”

Over time, as Modine’s stature grew in the film industry, he leveraged that to try to bring about change. In 1994, shortly after his success starring in the AIDS-epidemic mini-series, And the Band Played On, he went to see the head of the film division at his agency, William Morris. His mission: getting the agency to switch from single-sided scripts to double-sided.

“It was because of my wife, actually,” Modine says now. “We’d receive sometimes three or four scripts a week, 120 pages of paper, and she’d want to get it recycled. But white paper is a really difficult paper to get rid of. It’s full of dioxin, it’s full of bleach, it doesn’t pulp the way a newspaper does or cardboard does. So she had to take the scripts to a special place several blocks away to recycle them. Even in the wintertime in New York City, my wife would go. Initially, I just wanted to make that easier.”

The executive was not enthusiastic. “He said—no joke—‘How will people read them?’ ” Modine recalls. “And kind of dismissed me. I was so insulted that I went down to the mail room and started asking, ‘OK, how many boxes of paper do you go through a day?’ ‘How much does it cost to mail a script that weighs two pounds versus one pound?’ ” He wrote up a budget and, this time, took it to the head of accounting. Almost overnight, double-sided printing became the agency—and then the industry—standard. According to Modine’s calculations, it’s resulted in saving several billion pieces of paper since then.

And the opportunities kept coming. In 1995, while filming the Bible-based TV movie Jacob in Ouarzazate, Morocco, Modine helped the local government create a deposit and recycling program for the plastic water bottles he saw crew members tossing away. “People would drink, and then they’d throw the bottle on the ground. I said, ‘This is insane!’ ” Turner Productions was behind the filming, so Modine had Turner officials connect him with Coca-Cola, their corporate neighbor in Atlanta, to provide expertise in implementing the program. “It was actual change and it was fantastic,” Modine says. “About a year later, the king [of Morocco] wrote me a letter inviting me to play golf.”

This also led indirectly to the founding of “Bicycle for a Day.” A friend who had heard about the Morocco program and was involved with the World Economic Summit at Davos, Switzerland, asked Modine to address the meeting’s 500 Young Global Leaders in 2007. The topic was reducing humanity’s carbon footprint. “I told them, ‘If each of you got 1,000 people in each of your countries to ride a bike on the same day, that’s a half a million people, and it’d be a global initiative,’ ” Modine says. “And everybody said, ‘Yeah!’ then went back to making money. But when I got back to New York, others said, ‘Why don’t you do it here?’ A year later, 14,000 people came to our first event. Bobby Kennedy Jr. spoke. It was great.”

Since then, Modine’s helped raise money for a program that sent bicycles to girls in rural regions of Afghanistan, and he’s working on a project to send huge shipping containers full of bikes to distant parts of the world. “Once they get there, the container itself can be turned into a bike repair shop, since being able to keep the bikes going is key,” he says.

Modine also has high hopes for his partnership with Oz’s HealthCorps. The idea, he says, is to combat today’s epidemic of childhood obesity and attendant health conditions by reintroducing bike culture. “When I was a child, 50 percent of the kids walked or biked to school,” he says. “Now it’s less than 13 percent and the obesity rate has skyrocketed.” Oz says Modine has set a positive example—“whether as an activist, a filmmaker… or as an actor in some movie about a guy in a bat suit.”

Modine is aware that his do-good activities provide ample fodder for caricature—in fact, he tweaked himself a couple of years ago by starring in a satiric play titled Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas. And he’s not afraid to continue. His latest idea: a reality show titled OTG, for “off the grid.”

“I want to go into a subdivision and take the fences down, create a common back yard for a dozen houses. We’d show people that you don’t need 12 lawn mowers; let’s share one,” he says. “Executives that I’ve spoken to, they’ve said, ‘Well, what’s the conflict?’ I think there would be conflict. ‘I don’t want the chickens in my back yard!’ But I also say, ‘Where’s the conflict in This Old House? Bob Vila was empowering people!’ That’s what I’m trying to do. Let’s get to know each other, you know?”