154 Minutes With Matthew Modine

Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

On a gorgeous late-spring morning, a really cool orange Puma bike was locked outside the Empire Diner on Tenth Avenue. Inside, its owner, Matthew Modine, was sitting by a window, waiting for his scramble of eggs, onions, and lox. The earnest, pretty-boy hero of movies like Birdy and Full Metal Jacket recently turned 50. A father of two, he has some fine lines around his eyes, which are couldn’t-tell-a-lie blue, and his honey-colored hair swoops around his ears. “I use the bike as someone uses a car—to get around,” Modine says. He’s been biking as his primary transportation since he moved to the city from Utah in 1980, and runs a pro-cycling organization called Bicycle for a Day. But he never wears Lycra. His sneakers are made from recycled tires. As for the bike, which folds in half, he doesn’t know how much it costs because it was a gift from Puma. (A similar one on Puma’s website costs $1,400.)

These days he’s known as much for his activism as his acting—he’s had a recurring role on Weeds, and he does a lot of stage work, including starring in a self-parodying play in L.A. this fall called Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas. But after all, he famously turned down the Tom Cruise role in Top Gun because he didn’t agree with the film’s politics. On June 2, Modine was honored for his activism at Solar 1, a sun-powered environmental arts and education center on the East River, as part of a fund-raiser to build a bigger version, Solar 2. Two days later, back at Solar 1, the beat-boxer Rahzel, formerly of the Roots, performed at a benefit for Bicycle for a Day.

There is just one problem with Modine as cycling poster boy: He doesn’t wear a helmet. “I get shit for that a lot of times,” he says—not least from the League of American Bicyclists. Modine says they wouldn’t link to a short film he had made for his Bicycle for a Day website because he’s not helmeted. (In the film, he zooms around Manhattan amid traffic shouting things like “This is my bicycle! There are many like it, but this one is mine!”) So why doesn’t he wear one? “Because I don’t assume that I’m going to get hurt.” Then he seems defensive: “Should we wear helmets when we walk down the sidewalk?” Then his logic gets really shaky: “I think that people that wear helmets, cars are a little more aggressive with them.” He mentions the late Natasha Richardson, who died in March after a skiing accident: “She was a great friend of mine. She barely banged her head and it cost her her life.” Yes, and she wasn’t wearing a helmet. Doesn’t that give him pause? “I think it gave us all pause. Think how many times you’ve banged your head in your lifetime.”

So wasn’t that enough to make him wear a helmet? He admits that his wife, Cari—they live in a West Chelsea condo—just bought him a helmet. Will he wear it? “I think I’ll go back and see what other models they have.” Hmmm. “I think that biking is the closest we come to flying,” he says. “And to have that thing on my head—”

The wind in our hair, we cycle east on 22nd Street, then turn south into the bike lane on Ninth Avenue, then across on 14th Street. Two young Latino guys in a meat truck chat with him at a light. “They were trying to think of the movie where I was in love with Linda Fiorentino,” he says after they pull off. “Vision Quest. That was the movie that introduced Madonna to the world.” Near Abingdon Square, biking past a film shoot, he points out a trailer, its generator booming. “That’s one of my pet peeves, when they leave that running all day when nobody’s in it. And I don’t think one actor should be given a bigger trailer than another. I’m a bit of a communist.”

Then we’re at the gloriously refurbished Washington Square Park. “Look at the lavender!” he exclaims. He moves under the shade of the arch and checks his iPhone (the case has a Paul Frank monkey on it). Someone takes his picture without asking, which he comments on, but not peevishly. He’s recounting how the curtains all fell down in his house this morning when he realizes he has only 25 minutes to bike up to a meeting for a children’s charity called Garden of Dreams. But before he leaves, he returns to the lesson of the falling curtain: gravity. “That’s what I believe in. It makes your ass fall. That’s why we have to ride a bike, to keep our butts firm.” As he pedals off, it’s clear it’s worked.

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154 Minutes With Matthew Modine