Tom Sizemore's Breakout Role In Natural Born Killers Left A Lasting Impact

The late Tom Sizemore was one of the great character actors of the 1990s. His spectacular run during this decade begins with Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," an ultra-violent media satire with frenzied editing and a polarized reputation. The film's leads are Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) and his bride Mallory (Juliette Lewis). To quote "Bonnie and Clyde" — "They're young, they're in love, and they kill people."

As the Knoxes carve carnage across America, hot on their trail is Detective Jack Scagnetti. In another movie, a man like Scagnetti would be the hero — but not here. The detective is obsessed with spree killers because his mother was killed by Charles Whitman, "The Texas Tower Sniper." However, Scagnetti is not just out to catch killers, but to emulate them. In one scene, he strangles a young prostitute.

In 1998, Sizemore spoke about playing Scagnetti to the Independent. The actor described the experience as a challenge, one that shaped how he performed onscreen — not just in "Natural Born Killers," but in other projects beyond it, and his attitude off-screen as well.

"I stayed in. I got into Jack very heavily. Because he was hard for me to find. In the beginning, I couldn't identify with him, really, with his viciousness, his pettiness. I had to steep myself in serial murder. I read Bundy interviews. I met John Wayne Casey. I made myself sick. I felt sick, like there was a tumor in me... [but] It made me a better actor."

To see the scars of Scagnetti, just look at Sizemore's remaining performances that decade.

Two-faced characters

In the aforementioned interview, Sizemore spoke about the two-faced nature of Scagnetti and how that reflected his own life:

"Well, in Hollywood, in my whole life, I had to pretend that everything was okay. When it wasn't. Now I've learnt to say, I'm not fine, I don't feel good. This is bulls**t. I don't like this. I don't like what I'm hearing, I don't like these people, I'm leaving. Whereas before I might say, just get higher. F*** it. The hypocrisy, not just of Hollywood, but of life in general. It could drive me to distraction."

Sizemore's later characters also have the same two sides to them. In "Heat," he plays Michael Cheritto, a vicious bank robber who is also a suburban family man. Cheritto actually gets the life of "barbecues and ball games" that his boss Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) lambasts. In "Devil in a Blue Dress," Sizemore plays private investigator DeWitt Albright. He's the one who hires Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) to investigate the typical Noir mystery of a disappeared woman. However, as the story unfolds, Albright is revealed to be Rawlins' enemy, not his ally.

Sizemore's role in "Saving Private Ryan" as Sergeant Mike Horvath is a less sinister example of this two-sidedness. Soldiers need to keep their cool in battle, which means burying their true emotions. In a 1998 interview, Sizemore echoed his comments about "Natural Born Killers." Explaining that they often shot six days a week on "Saving Private Ryan," he said that "because I worked every day I really couldn't let go of the part." Though Sizemore found this exhausting, he also noted that the war film was "the greatest experience of my life as an actor" because "metaphorically speaking, I got to play the whole piano and not just half of it."

Violence offscreen

Loathe as I am to speak ill of the dead, Sizemore's reputation offscreen wasn't one to be proud of. He was arrested more than once on charges of domestic violence, first in 2003 for battery committed against his ex-girlfriend Heidi Fleiss and again in 2016 for striking another partner. He was convicted of the first charge and pleaded no contest to the second charge.

In 2017, it emerged that Sizemore had been accused of molesting an 11-year-old actress on the shoot of "Born Killers" in 2003. Sizemore was ordered to leave the set after the incident. "Born Killers" cast-mate Robyn Adamson and casting director Catrine McGregor corroborated the story in support of the anonymous actress to the Hollywood Reporter.

Though Sizemore said that playing Scagnetti had a lasting impact on him offscreen, it would be a mistake to treat this as an excuse, or even an explanation, for his real-life crimes. Plenty of actors play violent characters and don't commit the crimes Sizemore did. Sizemore is also well-known to have struggled with addiction throughout his life, abusing everything from heroin to crystal meth. Sadly, his attempts at rehabilitation never took, including one after the "Heat" shoot spurned by a talk with De Niro.

Sizemore's pattern of behavior off-screen was indicative of complex and deep-seated issues, which ultimately brought harm both to himself and to others. Those kinds of problems cannot be pinned on a single acting performance — not even one as intense and grueling as Jack Scagnetti.