May 7, 2013

Brad Dourif, 2002


Actual moment: December 15, 2002. The internet can tell you anything, including the exact day you stood in Los Angeles on the sidelines of a red carpet at the (LA) premiere of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, as one of the last moments of a short Tourism NZ media trip trailing Helen Clark as she promoted an adventure tourism special for the Discovery Channel. We were background noise and the benign audience for the first round of Hobbit tourism hype, but there were jittery currents too. We were in New York first. Some, opportunistically, thought that the war industry and entertainment industry were coinciding – as in, just how fortuitous was that “two towers” subtitle? Could the movie’s threatened humans be an analogy for “us” – Americans? But some read it the other way round. Viggo Mortensen, to me, at that LA red carpet, after greeting with “kia ora”, said: “The people under siege in Helm’s Deep have more in common with those on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Other insights. Andy Serkis said that he played Gollum as a heroin addict, desperate and pitifully needy. Billy Boyd had just done a movie with Russell Crowe: “He was a lovely guy. I don’t know where that stuff comes from.” I represented the Listener and I stood with people representing Netgroupie, E! Online, Tolkien Online, W, Teen People and Network 10 Australia. Are all of those still extant? More important media had already talked to these people in New York and on junkets. We were third division. I was only going through the motions except that I did want to talk to Brad Dourif. The actual Brad Dourif. For whatever reason, I never wrote my Dourif interview up and only found the notes a little while ago, as an attachment in an old email. On that late afternoon that stretched towards evening, no one else seemed to know who Dourif was – no one was asking him to pose for their photos or speak into their microphones. But I wanted to talk to him. His career highlights at that point, for me: Dourif as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood; as one of Dennis Hopper’s gang of perverts in Blue Velvet (there’s always less of him in that movie than you remember); and a really good bit as a serial killer in a genuinely spooky X-Files episode called “Beyond the Sea”. These were sad, eccentric, damaged characters. In person, Dourif had curly hair and a handlebar moustache; he was quiet and polite and probably struck others as intense; he seemed utterly removed or detached from the hyped-up, excitable young actors making the most of their big breaks (he was 52). He was dressed in black (the picture above was taken at that premiere, by Jarrod Felix, for the One Ring site). He gave me a few moments in the lobby of the cinema – somewhere in Hollywood, near Amoeba Records (the internet could probably tell me the name of the cinema) – and I took notes for the piece I never wrote. I had prepared no questions and had nothing to record his answers with.

You are a cult actor, I said. Will this change your profile? “That kind of thing is really impossible for me to say.” It will be seen by more people. “That much is different,” he agreed. Serkis had talked about sympathy for Gollum, but there is none to be had for Dourif’s vile character, Grima Wormtongue, I suggested. “I think there is,” he said, “I disagree. He can’t be a really sympathetic character, but I think that you can identify with him. He can’t have what he wants. He is human, corrupted by Saruman. He’s evil, but Chucky, for instance, just enjoys his work. Chucky is crazy about murder and mayhem, but there’s also a dark and serious side, where he’s frightened by mortality. He’s looking for a way out from death. But this is about trying to move people. Because he’s the only human being who has turned evil, there is a lot that the audience can identify with and feel.” Dourif voiced Chucky in the Child’s Play films, and one suspects he has spent a lot of time thinking about evil and how it is represented. He said that the Tolkien books are about the battle of good and evil, how people are corrupted and tempted by evil. He said that he spent just a couple of months in New Zealand all up, not the long acclimatising stretches of the other actors. “Wormtongue’s a coward, so he stays clear of battles.” Meaning, battles take all the filming time. He knew the books? “I had only read The Hobbit, but not the Lord of the Rings.” Did he? “Oh yeah. Immediately.” He auditioned and didn’t get the part at first and then the other actor pulled out. Also: why the moustache? He said he had grown it for a part in a TV pilot called Deadwood. In 2002, this needed explaining: the show is set in a goldrush town in South Dakota, Indian land, he said, where Wild Bill Hickok was, not far from Little Big Horn. I took all this down but remember a vague sense of, why would anybody be doing television? He hoped it would be picked up as a series. I asked about career highlights. “I’m not a movie star. Brad Dourif is … I don’t put that question to myself. I try not to have a stamp. I want people to get involved in the story and my character as part of a story.” As far being a star goes, though, “there’s nothing wrong with that”. He went on: “Cuckoo’s Nest, I did a good job in that. Grim Prairie Tales.” He gave a lot of thought to the question about whether Two Towers was a war allegory for the US in late 2002. “This is a different idea of evil. This is the classical idea of evil which came about 2000 years ago. It developed into this religious/political idea that the Devil had somehow infused people. It’s a very political notion. It dehumanises the individual – you’re killing a force, not a person. In the book, there is a force of evil which is Sauron. The book is about heroism and good versus evil. The individual makes a difference. It focuses on how we stand up to threat. We are all afraid. We all go through life confronting our fears. Although it has a huge scope, it really focuses on the struggles inside a human being. But I don’t like the political or religious idea of good and evil. I believe in God, but I don’t believe in evil as a force. People just do horrible, horrible things to each other. People give in to fear and behave abominably.” There is a Shakespearean quality to it, he thought: “These people are tragic. It is a history. The books are written as a history.” And his rating of Peter Jackson as a director? “As good as any. As good as John Huston, David Lynch, as good as Milos Forman. They’re all amazing and all bent a certain way.” I think he said “bent” – that’s what I wrote down. In the end, Two Towers didn’t make a great deal of difference to Dourif’s profile but Deadwood did. Who was to know of the cultural impact and new seriousness of television in 2002? Later that decade, too – but not even on the horizon then – there was his bit as Werner Herzog’s paranoid stranded alien in Wild Blue Yonder, and roles in two other American Herzog films (deranged versions of genre crime dramas). Looking back, and from my very peripheral viewpoint, Hollywood then seemed ebullient. Money was being made; only the music business was bothered by piracy; the young actors on the red carpet taking photos of themselves and each other on digital cameras – this was before smart phones – must have thought they had big careers ahead of them. Amidst all that excitement, Dourif’s scepticism about the value of wide exposure seemed a little perverse or even negative, but maybe he was the wise one – it must have been the cautiousness of experience.