Where: his dressing room (Walter Kerr Theatre). 5:30 pm.
When I first went to meet Charles S. Dutton, I was sent up to his dressing room, and the door was open. He had his back turned, so I just stood there waiting for him to turn around. When he did, he had a towel up to his face and still didn't see me. I said his name, and he looked at me and said hello. There was an awkward moment while he stared at me in silence, trying to figure out where he was supposed to know me from. I introduced myself, and we talked for a few minutes about me and why I wanted to interview him.
I had a tough time transcribing the interview because his voice is so low that even the hum of his dressing room's air conditioner was more audible on the tape. It was fascinating though because when you see him act, “quiet" and “soft” are the last words that would ever pop into your head! Between sips from a soda bottle, Dutton tells the story of how in childhood he even got a tough guy nickname.
"Instead of snowball battles in my neighborhood, we used to have rock fights. We'd make little forts out of cardboard and trash cans, and throw rocks at each other on the other side of the street. Once your fort was knocked down, you had to go out and charge the other guys with a handful of rocks. I used to lead the charge, and I'd get hit badly. At least twice a month I'd get my head busted and they started calling me 'Rockhead.' Then I used to box for a while, and they took the ‘head’ off, and just called me 'Roc.' People still call me 'Roc.'"
Although his nickname has remained constant, Dutton's middle initial seems to consistently disappear and reappear.
"They never print it for movies. I don't know why. But I always sign ‘Charles S. Dutton’ on my contracts, and for some reason it’s never given an 'S.' on the film. Then I always forget to tell them that I want it until the movie is out, and I see it on the credits. But it stands for Stanley-- a name I've always hated. It always sounded wimpy.”
While filmmakers may be making a mistake by not getting his name right, theatergoers know Charles S. Dutton very well from his Tony Award nominated performance in the current Broadway smash The Piano Lesson and other standout roles in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, all plays written by August Wilson. Dutton and Wilson have built a successful, continued collaboration that has become the envy of everyone who scoffs at this "tailor-made" approach to a writer/actor partnership.
"With a writer like August Wilson, there's no such thing as just being yourself. August Wilson is writing roles for me because of my style of acting, not necessarily because I can act.
"Just because you're a black actor, and you walk and talk and speak and breathe, doesn't necessarily mean you can do an August Wilson play. He writes very physical characters, and my style is very visceral. There are inherent rhythms in his work, and it's exhausting stuff to bring his characters to life where they're dignified because Wilson writes with a very fine line between the validity of one's character and the buffoonery. In The Piano Lesson, for instance, you have a play where if put in the wrong hands, you'll have every character as a stereotype.
"There's a level of sacredness one has to have in dealing with August Wilson's work, in any work if you're going to call yourself an artist. There could be a danger in someone writing something for you, but I don't think where August writes for me there is. August will always write to try to stretch me further. But it's an honor to have things written for you. It's an absolute honor."
Most of the accolades that Charles S. Dutton receives are specifically directed towards his ability to bring to life theatrical characters such as The Piano Lesson's Boy Willie with a properly balanced energy that is crucial for the stage. His performances are never underplayed or overblown.
"My view of the theatre is very physical and bigger than life, regardless of the play. Because it's the theatre, Boy Willie can charge in the house, and dash from one end of the stage to the next, and kick his leg up as high as he can, and have such a zest for life. It's the theatre and not the street. Passions can be larger and emotions can be larger.
"I think it would be very boring if I just walked onto the stage, started talking, and so on. If I want something from another character, and they're on the other side of the stage, and I really want something bad enough from them, then why walk to them? Why not dash over to them? I approach characters from where they are bodily. What is it that makes them walk a certain way, or gesture a certain way? Where is the center of their body? Is it in their chest? The legs? The feet? The hands? The head? The neck?
“I could do the cerebral, nice, slow, soft stuff but if you give me a big, sprawling character, I don't have to do the norm. Once I make it physical, I can slow it down, and have him do other things, or be quiet. But then the physical character is established. Now if it's a part that calls for slow moving and quietness, then I will do that." Dutton chuckles to himself. "But within the range of being slow moving and quiet physically! That's also an acting hurdle for yourself because you place those blinders on your eyes, and you know you can't move, but you want to. So it gives it a nice kind of tension."
Enough has been said about Charles S. Dutton's manslaughter conviction when he was a teenager and his subsequent jail sentence. But instead of discussing his acting work, the media is still persistent in dragging the story out over and over.
"I have mixed feelings about all of it. On the first level, I sometimes resent it and say, 'Yeah. Let's talk about something else. It's been said and done.' On the other level, I think the press generally feels in awe about the whole thing because it's not everyday there's a guy who's seven and a half years in a penitentiary, goes to Yale, and goes to Broadway. And not just goes to Broadway, but becomes an acclaimed actor.
"I think it's genuine in their approach to it. Whether it's overkill is the point, and surely, maybe it is. And the third thought is that if it takes me another five years to come back and do a Broadway show, it'll probably be needed to be talked about again just to inspire some kid or somebody. I haven't purposefully thought it out that way, to keep it out there, but it is the hook. That’s the first thing they go after, and I think they may continue to do that until I finally say, 'I don't want to talk about that anymore.' But right now, it doesn't bother me. I think people want to know, and are fascinated to some degree. 'How did he survive seven and a half years in prison, and being nearly killed?' And I'm only scratching the surface with these interviews. I'm only telling a tiny, tiny tip of the iceberg."
Reporters and Broadway audiences are not the only ones to notice the man who has learned from his mistakes. Film and television studio executives have wanted Dutton in their projects since his first Tony nomination.
"The Hollywood door only opens a crack at a time, and sometimes you have to step in when it does. If you don't, it takes a while to open again. My own mistake when I was doing Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, it opened wide, and I didn't step in. I stayed with the play. I was offered a lot of stuff. They basically went, 'You're going to Hollywood! Here you go!' and I didn't go.
"Not to say that it's bad or good, but it's just that this is a very, very fickle business. You're employed one year, and you're unemployed the next. So, you've got to take your chances when they're there. I want to do more films because it's lucrative, but I know I have no control over it. If I get a part in a movie, I get a part in a movie. A lot of the scripts that I get I don't like, and I don't like auditioning, but I know I have to in some cases. All the big things I've gotten, I didn't have to audition for like The Murder Of Mary Phagan and “Crocodile” Dundee II.
"I go up for a lot of stuff. I haven't mastered the art of auditioning (if there is such an art) for films and television. I don't know if it comes in acting, or how you present yourself or carry yourself when you're talking with the studio people. But I'm usually me, and sometimes I come in and say, 'Look. Why don't you just offer me this, man? I could do this on a sickbed.'
"But I don't try to rush anything, because with film and television work I always feel that if nothing else works out, I can always come back and do a play. And vehicles are started from plays, and all the notoriety starts again. I used to think, 'Well, I'm getting older. I have to hurry up, and make it,' but not anymore. I just want to be able to etch out a comfortable living, and do some of the great characters that I want to do on stage. Make a movie here and there, and make some money to be able to do a play. That's all I'm asking, basically. I am who I am, and I've come up the way I've came. I don't have any illusions about this particular business, but my training has been in the stage. So I like making money like anybody else, but to feed my spirit, I'll always go back on the stage."
With such an admirable sense of confidence in his stage work, it is surprising to find out that Charles S. Dutton is usually rather uncomfortable when the play is over.
"I've just learned to smile during the curtain call. I would always frown because I felt I didn't want to be up there,” he laughs. “After three hours of exhausting work, I just kind of bow 'Thank you.' Some actors revel in it, but I've never been like that. I prefer the lights just go down, and we just walk off the stage because you know if they enjoyed it.
"The most embarrassing time for me is that moment because you can't do the bow in character, and then it's like you're sort of naked. ‘Oh, God. What can I do now? They're looking at me.' I don't know how much of a reward forty seconds of applause is sometimes. It's nice, but as a stage actor, you can always count on your work being appreciated." AAA