By Kevin Redding
Since the 1970s, actor Brad Dourif has made a career out of his chameleon-versatility in film, TV, and on the stage, bringing a level of magnetic intensity and strangeness to every role. Whether it be as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play franchise, Doc Cochran in HBO’s Deadwood, Clinton Pell in Mississippi Burning, the Gemini Killer in The Exorcist III, Grima Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Felice in last year’s off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Two-Character Play,” Dourif does it all, and he does it memorably.
Over the course of his career, he’s worked with directors the likes of Miloš Forman, Peter Jackson, and David Lynch, won BAFTA and Saturn awards for his acting, and achieved a reputation for staying in character in between takes.
Never one to chase after safe or ordinary roles, Dourif travels down an offbeat path as an artist. He is more likely to play a psychologically-damaged killer than your favorite sitcom dad, which to some might seem more artistically significant—but don’t let the seemingly desirable edginess of these characters fool you. Dourif will be the first to tell you that he’s been deeply troubled by the dark places he’s had to go for certain roles, and the sides of himself he’s been forced to bring out.
The role of his that made the biggest impact on me growing up was the racist coward Pell in Mississippi Burning. Of all the nastiness of humanity depicted in the film, Dourif’s performance remains the most disturbing and lingering; he’s a follower and relentlessly unkind and yet, there’s a humanity to him, a sincerity, a believability, steering him away from mere “bad guy” status. And therein lies the beauty of watching Dourif act: no matter the character he’s portraying (even when it’s a sadistic killer doll!) there is always a wonderfully rounded realness to him.
I had the great opportunity to speak to Mr. Dourif over the phone about his approach to character acting, going to these aforementioned dark places for roles, then leaving them, using self-loathing as a tool, and the helpfulness of wearing a dress.
I’m proud to say The Taste Basket is piloting that very conversation.
TB: Hey Brad, I was hoping to talk with you about your approach to acting.
BD: Um, yeah, ya know, I guess I should qualify anything I’m gonna say in the future with: first of all, I don’t actually know how to do it [act]. And I think I have to admit that to myself every single time I start a part. It’s like I’m starting brand new, in a way. So the process differs depending on what it is that I’m doing. If the character moves very differently from me…I mean, I’ve always been uncomfortable playing myself. I just have no idea how to do that, and other people do that really well. I’m just very, very bad at it. I mean, I have done it and it looks like a character part, so I guess I’m much more of a character than I thought I was. In Humboldt County, I played a physicist. I’m obviously not one, but I’m very interested in science, especially physics. I didn’t try to do anything for that, for instance. Other things are very, very different. Ya know, I get a lot of parts where I’m a serial killer and things like that, and there’s a lot of physical things that I need to pay attention to.
TB: Starting brand new before every role is interesting.
BD: Incidentally, that’s if I can. A lot of times, there’s no time, so basically I have to memorize the lines, figure out certain things and then go in and have to wing it, but that’s kind of the way these things pan out.
In Lord of the Rings, for instance, I really started with reading the book. There’s not a lot about Wormtongue in there, but to me he was more interesting than anyone else, with the exception of Gollum. Gollum, I find very interesting. But most of the people in there are just fantasy characters; standard fantasy characters. I met with the writers and we kind of figured out really who the guy was, got a basic core of him and was able to kind of figure out what we were gonna draw on ourselves. Also, as far as character goes, a lot of circumstances begin to change you, and you physically kind of feel differently and you move differently. Clothes make a big difference. Boots can make you walk differently and give you a different feeling. And I remember when I was being fitted for a costume, I was talking about a belly. And I looked down and hated that I have a belly, and so they decided to actually give me a belly for Wormtongue. They re-fitted me, got me this little belly to put on, and re-fitted this costume so this belly would stick out. And then, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to walk in a dress…it’s not easy. I tripped over it all the time. I had a belt that held a dagger. So I would lean over and hold up my dress and grab my belt around my dress and that would kind of make me stoop over when I walked and it sort of was creepy and worked for the character. Something kind of open about it, made me much more closed up.
Costumes really, really fed me. Also, everybody had to learn perceived pronunciation. My character was a diplomat and I worked on that, but I did it a little differently than everybody else in that I spoke with a pronunciation the whole time that I was working. Day, morning, noon, night I was constantly in that accent. And eventually that English way of talking and using words and so forth that have a snotty precision really fed me. That was an important kind of character thing. And then it was the work, scene by scene and the makeup and all that. And that’s kind of how that character came together. They shaved my eyebrows and did all that. But that’s how I approached that. I used what I loathed about myself physically to help enhance a sort of self-loathing that was essential to the character. It made it very physical.
And it’s not so much the character, it’s my self-loathing that I’m after. It’s really me, the character comes from my imagination. The more comfortable, the more practiced you are. If you do anything physical, you have to really, really practice it. It has to be very innate and natural if you try to do that.
TB: What do you learn about yourself as an actor with each role?
BD: I learn my own pitfalls and I’m reminded to trust my instincts or I’m reminded to do things. I have a kind of mechanical way of looking at the world. I understand the world kind of mechanically. Even as an actor, I understand things mechanically. I sort of translate things to myself. This happens because this happens because this happens because this happens. I tend to do that, and I didn’t know how much and how easy and how important that was to me until I did a series where I played a doctor [Doc Cochran in Deadwood] and doctors really look at people mechanically. They assess what’s going on. Your body is a machine and when things go wrong, they try to look at it as a machine and they try to fix it as a machine. You’re a machine, it’s not that there’s no compassion there, a machine that happens to be a human being, but the problem is a machine problem where you tend to go to see a doctor. Something’s wrong with your body and you need to be fixed.
TB: I’ve always been in love with your ability to convey such humanity in dark and seemingly inhumane characters. Mississippi Burning stands out for me.
BD: Well, thank you. Of course I have to try to do that. And with Mississippi Burning, I grew up around racism and it was very blatant when I was young. So I was very aware of that and this character was a bit of a coward. And I didn’t have any problem working on that and bringing that aspect out.
I went into a depression after I finished Mississippi Burning. And it lasted about three years. I don’t tend toward depression so my depressions aren’t overt, really. I was just very, very upset because I had walked on set and I saw Frances McDormand all beat up, because my character beat her up, and I just went, ya know, “This is what I do, I play these kinds of people. This is really my life’s work, and that’s really fucking depressing.” ‘Cause that’s not anywhere near who I am. And there’s a whole aspect, an empty part of myself, that allows me to be really buried when I act. I just got really upset about it but I had no idea what I wanted to do. And the depression ended when I saw Wings of Desire and Peter Falk did that speech about a cup of coffee and I suddenly realized that yeah, I wanna express what it’s really like to be alive. Being alive is an extraordinary thing and it’s worth expressing and it changed the way…once I knew what I really wanted to do and other things tend to follow, generally.
When you are cruel as a character, you have to do a lot in terms of acting, unless you’re a sociopath. In a certain way, playing a sociopath is easy because everything’s intellectual. You’re not capable of empathy. So that part of you is just not there. And even if you mean well, it’s not there. I always try to find something human about the character. And I have this deep conviction that there’s no such thing as evil. Evil is an illusion, something we tell ourselves. It’s a cop out. We use it to separate ourselves from what we think we could never be. Or allow us to treat someone inhumanely.
TB: Do you have any horror stories from when you were starting out as an actor?
BD: When I was starting out, I worked at Circle Repertory Theatre Company and we were really an ensemble theater and we trained to work with writers. Writers would come in, write something and they would cast from the core company. There was no exposure to anything commercial at all. If you were auditioning, you’d go in, do a warm up, relaxation according to the way things were done because we were really going for a certain type of specific acting. I did this play “When Ya Coming Back, Red Rider?” that went Off-Broadway and I got some decent reviews and lo and behold, I got an agent. And my agent sent me in to audition for “Equus” and I had never done this before. I had no time to prepare the audition, I was just given the script. I had to go there, and after the audition, I had to run to the theater and do a performance and I usually did a two hour warm up in those days.
So I got there and barely knew my lines, and was gonna have to read it, and I’m sitting in this thing and one classy looking woman comes in and she is smashed out of her mind. Reeling drunk. And this woman goes out, and out she goes, she falls smash off the end of the stage. I go there, I hear this great big crash come off the stage and all these people come around her and pick her up. Of course she was drunk and didn’t get hurt. I go on, I go out and there’s this huge empty stage and a chair and just massive amount of light and beyond the stage is pitch dark and you can’t see anything and you don’t hear anything. And in my head, I feel like I’m in a play and this is completely surreal and not anything to do with anything I’d ever been exposed to at this point. And I kind of go out and I sit down and I kind of say “What am I supposed to do, do I just read this thing or what…?” I hear this voice that says, “Yes. Read it.” And it wasn’t very nice.
And at this point, I was terrified. So I sit down and I just read the thing, looking down at the page. And now, John Dexter walks up. And I think he was really trying to be insulting. At this point, I really didn’t give a fuck. He just looked at me and said, “First of all, the one thing I want to see is what you look like and I couldn’t see that because your face was BURIED in the script. Secondly, I want to hear you but I couldn’t hear you because your face was BURIED in the script. You have done yourself a great disservice. Now, PISS OFF!” And that was my first Broadway audition. I was so delighted to be out of there.