It’s a long way from the wealthy New York suburb of Larchmont to the Fiji Islands, but 27-year-old actor Michael O’Keefe seems to be bridging the continental and cultural gap remarkably well. The young star of the movie Split Image is strumming his Takamine guitar on a Wakaya Island beach under a star-sprinkled South Pacific sky. Above the gentle sounds of the lapping of the waves and the crisp crackle of a driftwood fire, O’Keefe’s voice blends with the singing of two dozen Fijian extras, who have virtually adopted the young American and are already teaching him Fijian phrases.
O’Keefe, who was an Oscar nominee for his strong portrayal of the son in 1980’s The Great Santini, is on location in the Fijis to film Savage Islands. He portrays a divinity student in the movie, which is loosely described as a pirate satire. He is, in fact, so taken with the South Pacific that he fantasizes about staying here: “It could sound a bit paranoid to say so, but in the back of my mind is the idea of owning a little place here which would survive nuclear holocaust in the Northern Hemisphere.” He’s serious. And as someone who lived his role in Split Image—that of a naive young man lured into the spiderweb of a religious cult—it would not be too surprising if Michael O’Keefe settled down on a white sand beach under a coconut palm with his guitar to live life as he wants to. O’Keefe, on the surface, maintains an easygoing attitude toward the whole business of his success. Although he was once linked romantically with actress Karen Allen, his Split Image co-star, he’s a bit of a loner who agrees with the description of himself as “enviably self-contained.”
The deceptive intensity that O’Keefe brings to his craft is perhaps doubly intense in Split Image. Twelve years ago Michael, then 15 and the eldest of seven children of a Westchester County lawyer, was an impressionable student at Mamaroneck High School. A fundamentalist Christian group called The Way attracted Michael: “They didn’t go in for wallflowers, outsiders or kids who were not mainstream. The Way went for bright, artistic, talented kids—ones I looked up to.”
He went through The Way’s “Power for Abundant Living” training course and learned glossolalia—speaking in tongues—which he uses in Split Image. “In reality,” he says, “speaking in tongues is an acquired skill. At the time, I thought I was undergoing a spiritual experience. You feel good when you do it. There’s a physical release, like when you take a glass of wine, you get a certain kind of buzz from it.”
Unlike some ex-cult members, O’Keefe was never deprogrammed. Instead, he dropped out of the group: “The Way teaches that people outside the cult are evil—of the Devil. In line with that belief, the members tried to alienate me from my family, to whom I am very close, and from my friends. So I just drifted away. In seeing my three-month involvement as ‘just a phase,’ my parents were lucky rather than wise.
“I hope Split Image educates,” says O’Keefe. “These days it’s an extraordinary American family that provides an environment that enables children to grow up with a real identity so that they could say to a child, ‘Go away and spend a weekend with the Unification Church and come back and tell us what you think.’ I stress that my parents did not fall down in that task, and I was not hooked.”
After high school O’Keefe studied English at New York University for a year before turning to acting. His roles since have diversely ranged from a juggler in off-Broadway’s Molière in Spite of Himself to a caddie in the comedy Caddyshack. O’Keefe doesn’t drink, smoke or own a car and lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side. His only longing, he says, is for peace of mind. “As in acting, you’ve got to put work into it,” says O’Keefe of the search that seems blissfully near completion on South Sea beaches.