Where: his dressing room (Booth Theatre). 4:15 pm.
When I first met David Dukes six years ago, little did I know then that it would be the beginning of one of my closest and most treasured friendships. Dave is just one of the greatest human beings I know, and I hope you can catch some of that in this interview. It is deliberately set up in a Q&A format for that reason. We did this interview while he was getting a haircut in his dressing room, so I left all of that banter in the article too.
This was definitely a comfortable and candid interview to do, but it was peculiar to do because usually our conversations are about our families, current events, personal stuff, etc. In fact, this was the very first time that we had ever discussed acting and his work in any great length. Hope you enjoy it.
David is currently starring on Broadway in Arthur Miller's Broken Glass.
TH: This feels weird.
TH: Because I'm used to doing this with guys I barely know or just met. Having the tape recorder in front of you doesn't look right. And these questions... I have to ask you stuff I already know the answers to.
DD: Ask them anyway. I might surprise you.
TH: Honey, you're not surprising.
DD: (looks shocked) I'm not!
TH: Well, not to me.
DD: Oh, really? This is not a good way to start an interview, kiddo.
TH: (laughs) That's the beauty of it. I know I can say anything to you... But seriously, I don't know how I'm going to be able to write this article and be objective about you. I may make it the first and only one that I write out as a question/answer thing.
DD: Oh, sure.
TH: Because I know if I start rambling on about you, I'm just going to go overboard. But I'm never entirely objective anyway when I write these things.
DD: Well, no. You can't be. But no writer is. You try for objectivity.
TH: Oh, I know. What I mean is I always pour a little powdered sugar on top on purpose, but with you I'm afraid I might cause cavities.
DD: (laughs so hard that the stylist has to stop cutting his hair)
TH: Some of those new movies that you've done I've never heard of them coming out.
DD: Which ones? It used to be you'd do a bad movie, and then it would just go away. But that's not true anymore. They're all out there. The Wild Party is--
TH: Don't talk to me about that movie.
TH: Somebody got me a copy, and I was like, "Oh, God!" So I edited your scenes onto another tape. Now I have this movie I don't even need. Or want!
TH: If you want it--
DD: Oh, no! I've got a copy. It was always going to be an art movie, but we just had such problems in the production of it. It never really quite recovered.
TH: So it's not like a trend with you or anything? Because I've noticed that with a couple of things.
DD: Oh, no. (chuckles) You go in thinking maybe you'll make this work. But these are the movies I can get, and I have these support roles in them. I haven't done a lot of feature films in the last few years, and the ones I've done haven't come to be. So I end up working in television because there's more work, and I can pay the rent that way. But waiting around for the great film part, personally, I can't do that.
DD: I just can't play tennis most of the year, and then do one big project. I wouldn't make enough money doing that because I wouldn't get paid that kind of salary. But I don't think you get better at this by waiting. You must do it constantly. Actors who do wait for the right one, I just don't get it. But there is something about that. That if you only do a few jobs a year, they are more important to you because you have more invested in them.
TH: So do you think you should be more selective?
DD: I'm as selective as I can be. I've got to make a living at this. When you've got a wife and child and a house and all the rest of it--
DD: But some scripts I won't go for, of course. They'll come to me, and I’ll say, "This is just too stupid or offensive or whatever." But I have to keep doing things. That's why I joined the theater groups in L.A. that I belong to.
TH: Those spoken word novels. Are they fun to do? What's it like?
DD: They're great fun. I've recorded a lot of them now. It's just basic storytelling. I've had two kids, so I've read a lot of stories at bedtime, and it's just that. But it's all done with the voice, so there's no acting like you're used to. The thing that's amazing about them is they take a lot of homework. Because you get in the recording studio, and there's not the time to go back and forth and do a number of takes. There's a tremendous amount of verbiage to get out, so you really have to prepare way ahead of time.
TH: It's really hard to listen to those things. I've got one of those Foundation ones--I forget which--and I listened to it in spells because I just couldn't deal with all that mumbo-jumbo. And apparently you were supposed to already know who these characters were.
DD: Oh, yeah. If you got one of the later ones, you don't know the series at all.
TH: I just found myself studying your voice and not paying attention to the story at all.
DD: (chuckles) Oh, well.
The hairstylist interrupts to show David her progress.
DH: I think you might just take a touch off?
H: More? Okay.
DD: Yeah. Thank you.
TH: See, Dave? You're itching for a Mohawk, but you just can't go all the way.
DD: (snickers) Yeah, right.
TH: You had said once that you were willing to work anywhere there was an audience, even if it was only a few people.
DD: Mm-hm. Oh, yeah.
TH: That's kind of opposite to what most people in your position would say.
DD: Oh, no. I'll work, and the work has to be interesting. There are four rules for taking a job: It's a fascinating part and a challenge to do; there's a lot of money involved; it would be a ball to do if you are filming in Bali or someplace like that--and the fourth reason is there are career advantages. It's an important film or play. Like I thought it was important to be a part of And The Band Played On. If a job has only one of those reasons, do not do it. If it has two, it's to be considered. If it has three, leap at it. But almost no job has all four. So yes, I would work anywhere, but under those circumstances in terms of me. Because I certainly do jobs that have nothing to do with money. Like here. In my mind, it's an important thing for me to do and to say about me as an actor. That I go back to New York and do plays regularly. That's my identity. I don't stay and do television all the time.
TH: And you're respected for that.
DD: Not by agents! (laughs) And my accountant doesn't like the figures that come in.
TH: (laughs) But I know for sure because people have said to me, "That's a good thing about him. He definitely comes back." You are not one of these guys that whine, "Oh, I wish I could get back, but it's just too difficult. The critics don't give you a chance. My goldfish can't handle the move from L.A."
DD: (laughing) Right.
TH: All these excuses! If you want to do it, come back. Just get in there and do it.
DD: It's hard back here, but this is where I started. I’ll always come back.
TH: About replacing another actor in a play, which you've done quite often--
TH: Some people have said--not about you—that replacing somebody who's been doing a show for six months already is like taking the easy way out.
DD: "Easy way out?"
TH: That's the way someone phrased it. Or they have said, "It's easy to rip somebody off and just copy what the other actor did."
DD: I'm sorry, but there are only so many things you're allowed to do in life. Let's just take M. Butterfly. I knew that script long before, and I was on the list. The producers chose to go with John Lithgow. He is a much bigger name, and commercially it made sense for them. But my only chance to do that part was as a replacement. So I should turn down Amadeus because I'm going to be a replacement? No, I don't think so!
TH: (chuckles) Right. At least you got to do them.
DD: And yes, you do it in someone else's production, but there are adaptations you make just because of the fact that you're doing it. I don't change the play or the intention of the production, but I take what I can learn from the other actor and steal it--without regret--and add to it. And I can do better quite often than the creating actor because they were never able to sit out front and see the production. So it's easier in the sense that you don't face the pressures of creating it, but it's the only way I’ll get to do some of those parts. So whoever said that, tell them to go fuck off!
TH: (laughs) Calm down, sweetheart. They did not say it about you.
DD: Yes, I know. But it's just a silly thing to say because actors don't have ultimate choice.
The hairstylist interrupts again to let David know she's finished.
H: I'm just concerned because it's drying kind of goofy.
DD: Yeah, exactly. I’ll wet it again and brush it, and then it stays back. Unless you want to spritz it?
H: Okay. You want it short like that in front, right?
DD: Yeah, this is good... Theresa, this will be so interesting on your tape.
TH: (laughs) I might include all of this. It will be fun... So now you've gotten all huffy about the "ripping people off" thing.
DD: (chuckles) Yes, yes.
TH: But you say "steal," and I have to disagree with you because I don't see--
DD: Well, in something highly theatrical like M. Butterfly, there are certain things I did different at the very end that-- (spots the hairstylist starting to pick up the newspaper he had placed on the carpet) No, it's okay. I’ll get all this.
They say their "thank yous" and "goodbyes," and she exits.
TH: (looking at David's hair) It looks the same.
DD: (checking in the mirror) It's shorter.
TH: I guess so. (indicates the mess of clipped hair that fell on the carpet) You put the paper down wrong. Do you want me to help you?
DD: No, no. That's all right.
TH: Are you sure?
DD: Yeah, I got it. (rolls up the newspaper and tosses it out) Let's move over here.
DD: No. Maybe... let me try and get some of that up. (starts tearing off some paper towels)
TH: Oh, all right. When I read some really old stuff from interviews with you-- (notices the door was left open) Can I shut this?
TH: I don't know if anybody's around or not, but I hate that "listening in" stuff. (shuts the door)
DD: Mm-hmm. Sure. (finishes cleaning up the carpet )
About ten minutes into the rest of our conversation, I realize that not only have we switched seats for no apparent reason, but we are also sitting in exactly the same position--foot up in the chair, arm resting on the knee--like a mirror image of each other.
TH: You had said that you had no intention of ever wanting to be a movie star and-
DD: Well, what I—
TH: Wait a minute! I'm not done.
TH: I have to ask a question first!
DD: (still laughing) Okay, okay, okay!
TH: (laughs) And that you just wanted to work with good people. Then about a decade later, you said that you did want to be a movie star. And recently you’ve gone back to what you said twenty years ago.
DD: The one thing I said was that I wanted the advantages of stardom because to be able to do any of the great parts and get those initial offers and work with the best people, you need some kind of notoriety. That's the only reason why I ever desire for any of that career aspect stuff. That's why I decided I had to take a series on because I was losing good parts in movies of the week to people who were in series.
TH: So how do you see yourself now? Are you satisfied?
DD: Well, no. I've reached an age now where the roles are changing for me in a way that I don’t necessarily understand at the moment, so I've got to reconsider a lot of stuff here. My life is changing, and I do not really know quite how.
TH: You don't know how it's changing? Or--
DD: I just know that roles are not available to me that were about two or three years ago. The parts that are coming my way are fathers and supporting parts. I don't think my work has changed, but the business has changed tremendously. So we'll see. I just do the best work I can, and I go on.
TH: The way you approach playing a character it seems opposite--that's probably not the right word--to what these kids are being taught in acting schools right now, which is that they're supposed to provoke a certain reaction from the other characters and that they're just supposed to react to whatever is being given to them. Whereas you've said that you should already know the reactions that all the characters have to your character and play from that.
DD: So often acting teachers try to make it much more mysterious than it is.
TH: Yep. With all of their pretentious theories.
DD: Basically, it's what the story is, and what is your job in the story? What do you do to the other characters? How do they respond to you? There are a number of readings of the play or the script before you ever open your mouth and try the line. (pointedly) You don't just jump into the scene without thinking it all through... then all that Method work and all your spontaneity and bouncing off of the other performers and everything else comes into be, so that the scene seems to just happen in front of you. But all that work means nothing if you've made the wrong choices initially. You have to sit in a room with the director and the other actors and figure out what must go on in this scene for it all to work. And that's where I differ from most acting teachers because most of them don't help you define the scene. They all want you to feel it, and it's not important what I feel. It's important what the character feels. It's a work of imagination. This is all storytelling. It has to do with the plot line and the structure and the tension between the characters, and most acting teachers don't even want to deal with this. Because doing that takes away all the technique and choices that an actor has. It makes you absolutely rely on the director, and I've worked with too many bad directors to do that. I have great working relationships with directors all the time, but it's not their job to get a performance out of me.
TH: I hate that expression.
DD: What's that?
TH: "The director is supposed to get a performance out of an actor." That's ridiculous. There's no reason on God's green earth why I should be reaching into you and pulling something out of you.
DD: No. You shouldn't.
TH: Any actor who's worth their weight has the ability to take it out of him or herself. Then you hand it to me and say, "Here, this is what I've got. You figure out how it's going to work with everything that everybody else is handing you." So one of the best things that a director should be is adaptable. I should be able to work with you and every other actor in the way that is ideal for each of you. I shouldn't come barreling in like these bozos with their "Hey! This is what I'm doing and everybody's got to follow me!" attitude. Yes, it takes more effort and compassion and preparation to deal with everyone individually instead of just directing with your ego, but the respect is there all around and you can keep the piece on track.
DD: Yeah, because you've got to make sure that all the actors are on the same wavelength, and that one or more of the actors is not off on a tangent with the scene. If they are doing this, it may look wonderful, it may be personal and very real, but it's not causing anything to happen in the scene.
TH: Don't name any names, but what's a bad director to you? Doing what?
DD: Bad directors give you line readings and don't go through it to figure out what makes it work. (goes into a long example from a Chekhov play and loses his train of thought) I'm forgetting what I started this for. What did I--
TH: (laughs) I have no idea!
DD: (remembers) Oh! Well, if I'm directing a scene with two actors, I will quite often say, "This one moment, let's try it this way." But it's always with the idea that we're going to make this scene very interesting and how these two actors that I have that day are going to do it. There are all kinds of things that come into play.
TH: Like, “What are they capable of?"
DD: Yeah. So you work it out, but it's not about what you feel. Sometimes actors say, "It doesn't feel right," and what they really mean is they haven't thought it out. And I can do this too, but it's because I'm making the wrong choices. Until you make the right choices, then it will feel right. It has to do with absolute, intellectual choice.
TH: Right. Because the point is to get to what it is that the scene is supposed to be about.
DD: Yes, exactly.
TH: But it seems like a lot of directors don't even know what to say to their actors.
DD: No. They don't.
TH: Something as simple as building their vocabularies could be a tremendous help. I mean a director should never just say to you, "Okay, in this scene you've got to be mad." Well, what does "mad” mean? Are you supposed to be enraged or just perturbed? What kind of anger is going on here.
DD: Exactly. It's got to get very specific.
TH: And a lot of these people think "specific" means saying, "Pick up the cup on this word.”
DD: Yeah. The problem I have with most directors is that they don't understand that the audience doesn't see them. When you get into film, you're talking about something different. But on stage, if as a director you're not trying to create great performances, you shouldn't be in the business because that's all the audience is going to see. So if you're thing is to make your statement with your concept and your design and your directorial style of the piece, and you're so intent on that that you're going to destroy what is unique about each performer, then--
TH: Do a puppet show! (chuckles) Don't put live people up on that stage.
DD: Yeah, 'cause it's just silly and those are the directors that drive me crazy.
TH: Now everybody knows what drives you crazy. (smiles)
DD: (giggles) Yes.
TH: A lot of times you say to me that you're not happy with your work in whatever project, and you seem almost a bit too self-critical.
DD: Oh, yeah. Constantly. Almost all actors are insecure in some way because if you weren't, this business would make you insecure. But then the older you get, the more you do, and the more you know you're capable of.
TH: Mm-hm. "Knowing what you're capable of." I'm a firm believer in that.
DD: So each time out, you know. If I've done a performance, and people come back here wide-eyed and crying or laughing or whatever, that's one time it's great. Then the next time they come back and say, (puts on a smirking, patronizing tone) "That was really good, David."
DD: You know? Yes, you were really good, but you've done a craftsman-like job. It is not IT! So you're constantly at yourself. But I think that's a part of being alive too, so that doesn't bother me at all. People who say, "Oh, it’s perfect." are either really dumb and incapable of seeing that it's much more complex, or they're just so caught up in their own feelings that they're not really looking at it.
TH: Right. Now I know that what I'm about to say, people are going to think that I'm just saying it to you because you're my friend, but I don’t care what certain people think.
DD: (smiles) You don't.
TH: I just think that a lot of the reason why you get these parts so right and exact all the time is because you're one of the most physically precise actors around. I don't care what name you throw at me. Some of the stuff I've seen you do, I know other guys couldn't pull off in a million years. And I'd like to know where you got that from?
DD: The fact is it comes from self-consciousness. When you're beaten as a child, you are going to be insecure. You're going to be that way all your life, and--
TH: Wait. Do you want this on the tape?
DD: (looks at the recorder) It's all right.
TH: Are you sure?
DD: (shakes his head) That's a fact. I was not beaten brutally. I mean we're talking about a belt. That goddamn clear plastic belt that my father had that was--
TH: You told me. I remember.
DD: Well, it was an ugly belt, so the only reason for it was for us four boys. But because you're insecure, you're never going to be a big bossy thing. Or you can be if you try and compensate for it, and I've certainly done that too. But it causes you to look at things on both its sides, and I've always been able to see two sides of every question. I don't really take strong positions often on things initially.
TH: And you're completely non-judgmental. That's one of the things I love about you the most. I know that whatever I tell you, or what-- (looks at the recorder) Well, you know. You really listen and stuff. So you were little when you were a kid?
DD: Yeah, I was the original 99-pound weakling in school. They would beat me up in gym--
TH: I still want to know who broke your nose.
TH: You keep thinking I'm kidding, but--
DD: Well, there was always somebody beating up on me. But I also wanted to play football, so I was small around the guys I hung out with. Then when I got into this business I took classes--fencing lessons, dancing lessons, mime classes, every class I could get my hands on--so that I knew how to control all this. Once you've trained that way--because all my early work was Shakespeare and the classics--then you do have ability with your body. You can do anything with it. Now, I also can't talk without moving my hands.
TH: I've noticed this. (laughs)
DD: You have noticed this, too. (laughs) It is a big problem with me.
TH: I call them your Ginsu knives. (imitates that rapid, choppy forearm movement that he does)
DD: (laughs hard) That's the thing! But consequently I have to hone each moment. How you deal with your body is very important. You can tell all kinds of things with your body. With a little timing and focus, you could do something very small with your hand and tell a great deal.
TH: Exactly. Which is what you do so well. It's very precise.
DD: And when you work with actors who really understand focus and how to give it and take it and share it, it's golden.
TH: Yeah, but the thing with your hands though, you don't do it just to do it. It is your crutch. That's what all good actors use when the scene itself is just one of those droning, expository, "Let's explain why this is all happening.” scenes.
TH: Like you mentioned Lithgow before. He’s got that thing with his eyebrows. Your eyes are drawn to that knot on his left brow when he starts knitting them. Or Richard Jordan--God rest him--he had that thing with his eyes. His face would stay still, but his eyes would just roll around like roller coasters!
DD: Yeah. We all have our favorite shticks. You feel you have to add something to the scene to give it life or tension or drama. But some of it has to do with your own thinking. If it's muddy in a certain section of a play or screenplay, you overact. You know you have to set up tension, so you have to find what's natural, but not overdone.
TH: Well, you have to make sure you use it where it should be used, otherwise it can seem overdone. But it's a crutch after all. It's something to fall back on.
TH: If you do it during scenes where it's unnecessary, it's going to be obvious because you see it from movie to movie.
DD: Mm-hm. Yeah, if you see their work often.
TH: This is my usual ending question: What do you love about your life?
DD: (laughs) "What do I love about my life?"
TH: Besides me, of course! (smiles)
DD: Besides you? (smiles) Umm... (laughs) Well, just in terms of the business side of my life, I love the fact that I'm still working. I remember when I started out; I would watch the 50 and 60-year-old actors going in to audition with all their nervousness and what not. And it's the same stuff that 20-year-old actors go through, but they're 60 now. And I kept thinking, "Do I really want to be in this business?" So I'm very happy that that's not happened to me. I've made a living at it, and I have some reputation at it. There are parts I may want desperately, but getting a job is not desperate for me. I also have, as you know, a wonderful daughter and a wife and a great life, and--
TH: Don't forget Shawn [David's son].
DD: Oh, and Shawn! (points to a picture of him on the mirror) Yes, of course. But this business has been very good to me. You look around at what a lot of actors have in this business, and I'm way ahead of them. I mean there are lots of people who are making millions of dollars, and who are getting the parts that I want!
DD: (laughing) There are lots of actors out there who are getting my parts! But there are things that I still want out of this business, so in some ways it's wonderful. I have a lot, and there's a lot I want. If life is a process, I'm in the middle of a big process. So I can't really ask for a whole lot more. (thinks for a moment) Except for those parts that Kevin Kline gets! (chuckles)
TH: Don't worry, you’ll get them. AAA
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I must thank you for this great interview with David Dukes. I found out recently that he had passed away in October 2000 and it's such a surprise to read this fine talk back in 1994.
So much fun, and I can get an idea how honest he was.
God rest him.