Respected theatre actor Brad Dourif came to Hollywood’s attention as the unhinged Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. His career has often been characterised by emotionally-intense roles in work such as Blue Velvet, Dune, Mississippi Burning, The Exorcist III and as the voice of killer-doll ‘Chucky’ in the Childs Play films – which he will soon be reprising for a reboot of the franchise. Though his work is far more varied than many of his ‘genre’ fans know, Dourif has continued to be a firm favourite in fantasy, sci-fi and horror over the last decade or so, in such work as Alien Resurrection (1997), the second two Lord Of The Rings films (where he played Grima Wormtongue) and Pulse (2006).With a cameo role upcoming in the remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 1969 The Wizard Of Gore – soon to be released on DVD – Brad was kind enough to have a chat with us…
Were you familiar with the works of Herschell Lewis before Wizard Of Gore?
No, I wasn’t.
He had a very bold and over the top style of horror that the new version seems to be going for as well – is that a tone you enjoy playing?
Well, I came into Wizard Of Gore without really knowing what I was getting into, to tell you the truth. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it happened. I was doing a series and it was kind of like ‘Could you come and do this for a couple of days?’. And I did, but I barely had time to read the script. I read it in a flash and then I had to spend time getting ready to shoot. That was basically a day learning lines, and then I went in and shot.
So it was really pressed upon me very quickly, and it’s not a way I like to work. But it’s kind of the way I did work. It happened so fast and it was over so fast. I went in for ADR on it, and I couldn’t figure out what the fuck The Wizard Of Gore was, couldn’t remember it. I was sitting there going ‘What the fuck is this…?’. I was really embarrassed, because the director was there, everybody was there, and I couldn’t remember doing it. It was in such a flash…it went into my consciousness and right back out.
You’ve mentioned before that the fun of a part is often in the rehearsal period, so how do you cope in a situation like that, when you’re ‘straight in’?
Well, you really you then just go by the seat of your pants, by your gut and with your instincts. A lot of times our instincts are much smarter than we are anyway. So I just went with it, talked to people and tried to figure out what I was doing…and just made it work!
You’ve said before that you love situations like that where you have to create under pressure, as well as rehearsal periods where you get to work the character out. Don’t those two ways of working contradict each other?
Yes, and also it depends upon the part. If you have time before a shoot to get ready and learn all your lines…I don’t think you should show up to a shoot unless the entire movie is memorised. Some say you should never memorise, but I don’t, because even in the memorisation of the lines you’re going to get some kind of feeling for the rhythm of the whole piece. So I always memorise everything at once.
The best thing to do is go in and get a lot of work done, and a lot of options, and still be open. Then shooting is like a rehearsal that you’re well-prepared for. You’re really inventing the scene as you go, but you’re very prepared.
Are gruesome scenes like those in Wizard the kind of thing that you’re immune to now as an actor on set, and as a viewer?
Yeah, I’ve had blood thrown on me ‘til the cows come home – I’ve done all those things. So yeah, though I’m getting a little old for doing a lot of stunts, but I’ve certainly done my share. Not particularly dangerous ones, but I’ve done a lot of falls on concrete, runs and other stuff that I really can’t do any more, because if I fall, I’ll break something. You don’t bounce like you used to at 58, you know? [laughs]
At some point you went from being a character actor in films to a cult actor in your own right, like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing – how do you feel about that?
I’m not really aware that I am a ‘cult actor’ – I don’t think of myself that way. I’ve always thought of myself as just a little misunderstood [laughs]. I don’t think of myself in any particular way…I mean what does it mean to be a ‘cult actor’ anyway…?
I guess that you’ve got a following independent of the movies you do. I’m a fan, and some of your other fans have made notable websites about you…and that people are really keen on you and your work…?
To the extent that people know my work and really like it, I’m absolutely flattered by that, of course. But the mantle of being a cult actor…I did a TV series that was way outside cult, and I’m certainly capable of doing things way outside of that genre, and I do them.
As a family-man who’s worked hard all his life, I guess there’s a fund of life-experience you have to offer that horror films are never really going to tap…?
Exactly. And fortunately I have been able to tap them, and I work hard on finding things. A lot of villains don’t, at this point, have tremendous appeal for me, ‘Chucky’ being an obvious exception.
When you’re a father and you have children, really you’re kind of like a servant, you know? [laughs] You really are! You’re constantly making little meals for your kids…then they grow up – my daughter’s an actress; I get calls from her for brainstorming something or breaking a scene down or that kind of thing. That’s really where I consider myself to be who I am.
Those things are important to me. But I did the Deadwood TV series, where I played a doctor who is probably the most decent person in Deadwood, except for the priest in the first season. I did a film that’s coming out about a pot-grower. He’s very much of a family man – a physics teacher and professor and very much not a scary person.
Are you developing projects for yourself as well?
No, it really would be very difficult for me to produce a movie. I don’t write. My girlfriend is a poet, the lady I live with, and I really have a great deal of respect for good writing. Since I don’t write, it would be very hard for me to develop or produce or anything like that. You would really need to be a writer and come in bringing something to the table, and I just don’t bring enough to the table to do that.
So you don’t have any dream projects?
I had them when I was younger, and there were certainly some things that I really wanted to do, but, you know, they never got done. There’s tons of things that I still want to act in, but as far as me developing, I’ll say that I don’t think it’s going to happen, but then it could turn around and happen tomorrow.
Does your own capacity for self-criticism ever work against you?
I suppose, at times. But at this point, once I get on a set, nothing gets too much on my way, including myself. Once my glands salivate, I’m off to the races. So in that respect, I trust myself as an actor most of the time.
I don’t want to be full of myself. I really have fun when I’m working, and I don’t want to not have fun when I’m working, because I’m trying to convince myself that I’m ‘somebody’. I don’t like it, and I don’t enjoy other people who are like that. And that’s one of the reasons why doing smaller-budget stuff is really good. You don’t run into that so much…
Is there any common strand between the good directors out of the many that you’ve worked with?
I remember Milos Forman telling me that his problem was that ‘I can’t imagine’. And that’s what great directors do – you can’t imagine what they’re going to do. They come up with something that is unique, and very very different.
I did a film with John Huston called Wise Blood. It didn’t look like a Huston film; it looked like a young film-maker made this film, but it was a really good little film. I don’t know how great it was, but it was certainly very different from what he normally did, and it was a unique movie.
Have you ever been disappointed in a film you made and re-appraised it more favourably later?
I think the first time you see a film, it really doesn’t look good, because you experience [making the film] in a much richer way. I’ll give you an example: Lord Of The Rings. When we went and shot the day that we were outside in Rohan…when Gandalf first comes in and they chase me out of town. That whole part of the exterior stuff…
That place was probably the most beautiful place I was ever in in my life. It was such an extraordinary world. The view was unbelievable, when you’re looking out over all of this stuff, and it looked beautiful in the movie, but it didn’t look anywhere near as beautiful as it looked in real life. It was paled by comparison.
Part of that is just the physics of the human eye, because what we do is that your eye moves around and takes a million little pictures, and just keeps putting them together into this big picture, and you get the whole feeling of something in a way that you could otherwise never get. You could probably do it in a painting, a little bit. But you don’t ever see an exact replica of how beautiful something is.
As someone who has played an above-average number of dark and emotionally-disturbed roles, have you found it easier or harder to leave a role at the studio and not take it home?
I’ve gone through periods where I have gotten very, very depressed. The biggest time was when I was doing Mississippi Burning. Frances McDormand was sitting at a table and she had all her beat-up make-up on. We made jokes about it and so forth, but I really walked away feeling horrible. I really had this feeling that I’d done it. And that that’s really what my life was about, and that’s not who I am…it just hit me really hard in a way that I wasn’t prepared for.
It stayed with me for a very long time, and finally I saw…the first ‘angel’ movie, it had Peter Falk in it…?
Wings Of Desire?
Yeah! And Peter Falk does this speech about a cup of coffee, and that kind of woke me up a bit. I said ‘That’s what I want to do!’. [laughs
Are your family a big help – do you come home and find that maybe they see what you can’t see – that a role has followed you home
My girlfriend is a real artist, she’s the real artist of the family as far as I’m concerned, and her opinion is one that I very much trust. Her bar is quite high, and she really tells me the truth
My feeling is that when you finish a movie, you’re starting all over again, and you’re looking for something that you can really really do a good job in. And a lot of things, you can’t – they happen so fast. I’ve worked with people who don’t understand what it is to direct. They don’t really even understand what the job is, and you can’t really make a good movie that way
I’ve wound up blocking scenes – figuring out what the director wants and then trying to block it so that it can be shot. Instead of the director getting up and saying ‘No, do this shot or this shot’ which…you know, is a fucking horror [laughs]. You just can’t work like that.
Brad Dourif, thank you very much!