Vincent D'Onofrio, Screen Chameleon

When William Hurt dropped out of "Naked Tango" last year, it left the plum role of Cholo--a dangerous, seductive Argentine gangster/Tango dancer, circa 1924--waiting to be plucked by the right actor.

At the time, Hurt's agent, Gene Parseghian, suggested the producers consider Vincent D'Onofrio, who was not a Parseghian client. Until then, the New York actor had been seen prominently on film only in the 1987 "Full Metal Jacket" as an obese, incompetent Marine recruit named Pyle, who ultimately murders his drill sergeant and then kills himself.

Unaware that for the "Full Metal" role D'Onofrio had added 80 pounds to his athletic, 6-3 frame, both Weisman and Schrader thought Parseghian was joking. It was only when they met D'Onofrio 10 months later--trimmed down to his customary 200 pounds--that they realized how chameleon-like had been his performance. They hired him on the spot to play Cholo.

His turn as Pyle fooled lots of people, D'Onofrio says. For a year after "Full Metal Jacket" was released, no one would hire him. He was asked if he had any misgivings about taking the role.

"I regretted it when I couldn't get work, but I certainly don't regret it now," he says, slouched in a baseball cap and windbreaker, his penetrating dark eyes the only reminder of the memorable Pyle character. "I did exactly what I wanted in that movie."

Eventually, he reappeared on the screen, in trim form, as a likable, marriage-minded fisherman in last year's "Mystic Pizza." Now, at age 29, he has just wrapped work on "Naked Tango," after an arduous, 101-day shoot. Was it exhausting?

"It's always exhausting to do a film," he replies. "Because of the character I'm playing--it's a very intricate character. I haven't played a character so intricate since 'Full Metal Jacket.' And if you're not that social a person who likes to be around so many people every day, yes, it's exhausting. But what saves you is the art."

According to "Naked Tango" director Leonard Schrader, D'Onofrio is the consummate thinking actor, who plans, rehearses and lives with his character before the camera rolls. "Vincent prepares intensely; he's calm, steady, intense," Schrader says. "When you're ready to shoot, he has so much emotion welling up inside him, he can let out just a little bit."

D'Onofrio has now taken his skills to "Distant Shores" (formerly "Little Havana"), from Pathe Entertainment and Nicita-Lloyd Prod., a romantic drama now shooting. D'Onofrio portrays an American fisherman who rescues Greta Scacchi at sea as she flees Cuba, where the Castro government has imprisoned her journalist husband (Jimmy Smits) for life. When Smits' character escapes, he finds his wife in Miami's Little Havana--in love with D'Onofrio.

D'Onofrio promises the character will again be something different.

"I don't ever want people to say 'Vincent D'Onofrio type,' " he says emphatically. "I always want to throw people for a loop."

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