An Hour with Brad Dourif
Brad Dourif gave an hour-long talk at Dragon*Con 2003. Shadow and Marea transcribed the question and answer session.
This IS Lord of the Rings Right? (laughter)
Okay so, I guess I’m supposed to say something up front. How many of you were here two years ago? (show of hands)
So you’ve heard this story so bear with me there’ll be more later.
I had only read “The Hobbit” when all of this was mentioned as a possibility. So I went and auditioned. And I was told I had to do an English accent, and I went, hired a coach, worked on an English accent and went in and did it, and then I got a call back and I did it for Peter and Fran and then I got another call back. And then kind of did it for them again, with additional notes. And then I was told that it looked good. And then I didn’t get it. I did not get the part. They gave the part to somebody else who somewhere during the summer completely backed out. I think they weren’t getting paid enough. And um what a fool! (audience applause and laughter)
And so they called me up, and I went from Very Sad to Very Happy. And I got it and then was told that I could come a couple of weeks early, because the accent needed a little work. And I was really glad that I did, because Sir Ian’s were thicker than flies on the set and I was just Brad from West Virginia, ya know? So I really felt and there was Christopher Lee who scared the hell out of me my entire childhood. (laughter). I was so scared to death of him , and so I went to New Zealand and we altered the accent, my girlfriend, her daughter and myself. I worked very hard. And then finally on the day day I showed up and put on my stuff and away we went.
The really cool thing that I think they did that was really nice was that all of us had a writer’s meeting anybody who spoke one word had a writers meeting, and they would rewrite and I think they were really trying to rewrite the characters or to fine tune the characters to the actor. Rather than having an idea of what Wormtongue should be they wanted MY Wormtongue. This was really true of everybody. And I think that’s one of the things that really brings the film to life is that they really cared so much about what we as actors could bring to it.
The other thing that I should say is that when you went on the set you were given a tour. And the thing that was extraordinary about the tour was how finely detailed every little thing was. I mean, it didn’t matter if there was any possibility that it would appear in the film, it was really, really done well someone put their heart in it. I mean, the guy who did the armor was putting little rings together, first groups of five, and then more and more and he had been doing that for years. Literally. I mean I thought he might be Enlightened. (laughter!). It’s an extraordinary job but all the chain mail armor was made of a brand new material that could really take a sword full swing but was super light.
My dagger um I’ve killed quite a few people [in my movie career], but never with such a fine dagger! (laughter) Really, really a work of art. And of course my costume was pretty remarkable.
One more story. They called me back at one point to do Edoras. An actors’ life is not all it’s cracked up to be.. my call was 3:00 a.m. So I’m standing out there thinking I wish I could remember what food was like waiting for the van to arrive and we go and it’s paved roads for a while.. and then it’s dirt roads… about an hour and a half of dirt roads. And I’m really starting to wish it was over and we’re going up, and it’s just starting to get light. And we’re going up this hill, and down below is this valley, and it’s maybe 35 – 50 square miles, huge valley surrounded by snow peaked mountains. Flat marsh over here, grasslands all around. But in the center is this weird Middle Earth. That’s the only way I can describe it.
you know.. like it’s not quite straight.. kind of turns over this way, kind of goes up
and you can see there’s something really teeny tiny built on the top. It’s Edoras. And I go down this windy road that we built.. and which we had to completely destroy when we left.
And there’s nothing else there and I go up and there on the top of this mountain and I’m in costume and everything and there on the top of this mountain there’s this town and its thatched roofs, and everywhere you turn it’s totally medieval, and with its stone, solid stone staircase that was real stone and all around these marshes, grasslands, people walking with robes, with swords and I thought I was in heaven. The human eye when it looks at something it looks at a lot of things I mean you only really focus this much and everything else is given to you by the brain.
There is no way you can experience that it is possible for you who have seen the movie to experience how beautiful it was and it’s gone. No one else will ever have that experience again. That was a piece of magic in my life that I will never forget. (loud clapping).
Do you all have any questions?
Question: Whose idea was the “eyebrow”? (i.e. that Wormtongue should have shaved eyebrows).
The eyebrows? That idea was Peter’s. My girlfriend REALLY loves him! Cause you see these used to be kind of bushy over here well and they didn’t grow back. I remember that I would go, I would work, I would come home, I would look terrible and my eyebrows would grow back and then she’d kind of remember that I was Brad. And then I’d go away again and come back .no eyebrows. And this happened three times. And then they called us back a year later and she’d forgotten about that. So I suddenly remembered “Uh oh eyebrows I better prepare her”. And I had to do the call.. darling I kinda forgot about something. Eyebrows. Huge silence .Aaargh I HATE them!” It was a really good idea it was odd and nobody noticed them.. And I kinda knew they wouldn’t.
Questioner: You looked so creepy.
You don’t notice what it is that’s doing it but it subliminally really, really works on you. But my girlfriend noticed it.
A question was asked which had no relationship to LOTR a member in the audience had a small role in the movie “Sunny Boy” 16 years ago and reminded Brad Dourif of the fact.
More questions about other movies
Question: There’s been a lot a speculation among fans about the significance of “the tear”. Would you care to explain?
Well, Fran’s a genius, ya know? I think it was something that really came organically out the direction that we were going. I kind of hooked into that probably when he was young he was picked on, and that he really was perfect bait for Saruman the White. And was someone who could really never have the things he needed the most.
So I think the idea was that this was somebody who fell into a dark hole and kind of wakes up in the middle looking at the “Triumph of the Will”. Which is really what he goes out and really looks at what Hitler saw when they did “Triumph of the Will”. This incredibly awesome horde that was about to be unleashed. Have you ever seen “Triumph of the Will”?
For those of you who didn’t.. you guys should see this this is a movie of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party, that did this festival every year in Nuremburg. This movie is a documentary, but it really gives you the power of this whole nation being consumed by this weird strength in each other’s numbers that was to unleash in this horrible war, and you can feel it in this movie. And the arrangement of the troops in “The Two Towers” was a purposeful rip off of this… because it was a defining moment just before WWII. And the documentary is called “Triumph of the Will” because it is the triumph of Adolph Hitler’s will.
Question: Could you tell us your favorite line or scene from TTT and could you say it in Wormtongue‘s voice?
In Wormtongue? (laughter) My favorite scene was with Eowyn, just because it was so poetic and because she’s a brilliant actress. When I first saw her coming in when they introduced me and this was before I did anything, I took one look at the fire in that girl’s eyes and I knew that she was going to show up for work. And she sure did. First of all, when we shot that scene we were in a corrugated metal shed that had been converted into a studio and the wind was howling through there and it lifts that corrugated metal up and shakes it, you know, like the metal that they use when you’re playing King Lear (laughter). Really.. it’s like thunder it’s really, really loud. I can’t underplay that.
And I was talking about that to her like a year later and she looked at me and said. “What are you talking about? I don’t remember that!” I said, “I had to stop the scene three times because I couldn’t even hear you!” That’s the level of cognitive and at one point I was talking to her, and she just burst into tears. And then she was okay. And I felt really like maybe I said the wrong thing! (laughter). And I was really feeling pretty bad and I kind of waited for five minutes for her to let me have it really or something and I said to her, “I don’t know what I said, but I hope I didn’t make you cry there!” And she said, “What are you talking about?” (laughter).
But that’s the level of concentration it was pretty strong. You don’t often get to work with people that into it. It was like she was this river, and I danced on it.
Question: Can you give us any hint on the demise of Saruman?
Oh I wouldn’t do that that would be MEAN!
Questioner: But you are mean!
Oh she asked me if I could give a hint on the demise of Saruman. (big laughter). You might not make it out of here alive!
Question: I just wanted to ask you you are such a well respected character actor, and you melt so much into every character that you play, but I think that everybody noticed that you seem to be in so many sci fi, horror, fantasy you’re in a lot of this genre. Are you actively looking for those roles, or are you trying out for other types of parts and what would be your dream role?
Well I’m a whore. (laughter). A cheque and a script and I’m there, babe! You know I’ve just been lucky. I’ve been really lucky. Right now I’m doing a series for HBO I’m doing it with David Milch who did “NYPD Blue”. He’s a genius, and all that I can tell you is that I am lucky. The series is going to be called “Deadwood” and it’s a western . about that town of Deadwood, and that’s where Wild Bill Hickok drew aces and eights. It’s a full out, for real western.
But to answer your questions about the sci fi that’s just something that kind of happened. But I was like any other kid though I loved Halloween when I was growing up probably more than anything. And I like the idea of scary things.
Question: Will there be a fight between Saruman and Grima?
I’m really not going to answer. It would RUIN it! Really
.really (applause) Because I could be totally wrong with what I’m going to tell you
who knows what they could really come up with.
Some questions related to an incident at a con Dourif attended in New York where someone pulled a fire alarm at the hotel and Dourif did NOT run out instead he watched the cops pull up, looking bored, and felt that he was not in trouble.
Question: What was it like working with Christopher Lee?
Okay let’s DO Christopher Lee, shall we? (applause).
When you meet Christopher Lee, he’s NOT shy, at all! (affecting a “veddy British” accent). And he’s a very ‘proper Englishman’ you know. He is talking about how he was in “the War” and how he is the best swordsman”, and he really tells a lot of stories and after a while you’re going “Can all of this be true?” (laughter)
And the best story of that actually didn’t happen to me, it happened to a friend of mine, David Carradine actually. And David you know is a martial artist and a stunt guy and Christopher was following him around talking about stuff like how he was the pre-eminent swordsman and , you know, that he was secret service and all this stuff. And David … he had to throw a knife, so he was practicing throwing the knife, and Christopher walks up to him and says “You know, I can hit anything with a sharp object.” (laughter).
And David’s had it, you know.. and says, “okay, fine show me.” [And Christopher Lee says] “Yes of course.” He walks back.. and he’s got a rusty ten-penny nail he’s found on the ground. There’s this dartboard, okay. He goes up to the dartboard, turns around and walks like twenty paces. Now, nobody can hit the bullseye of the dartboard, right? Pffftt .. bullseye! (laughter and applause). And David goes “Oh! He DID win World War II!” (laughter)
So that’s Christopher. You know, I spent one day with him. We were doing foreign press. And you know he’s read Tolkien and knew Tolkien and read the books once every year of his life. And he has a PhD in comparative religion and mythology. And languages and that every single person who comes into the room, no matter what language they speak, he speaks that language! Um, excuse me, . I have an opinion on this too!
Well that’s what it’s like working with Christopher Lee. (laughter and applause)
Question: I’d like to know your best memory of filming Lord of the Rings and a memory you’d just as soon forget.
Well I already did the best memory the best memory is the set at Edoras. And then I guess the other would be the scene with Eowyn.
I don’t know the worst memory? Getting my eyebrows shaved!
Question: Okay may I just ask you then. You’ve described your favorite scene in the movie. Could you just bring it down to one line. Something that particularly resonates with you?
You know I can’t really and I’ll tell you why. When you’re doing it you don’t pay attention to yourself. I pay attention to her. And the better she got the better I got. And I guess there was some stuff that was particularly good that she did around the transition. [the scene described was the one at Theodred’s bedside]
She allowed me to kind of suck her in, and she got very soft and very vulnerable and then she turned around on me, and that was pretty much a cool thing for me to watch her do that. It really got to me. I felt like we really you know you connect in a way sometimes when you act and that felt really right on and good.
Dourif then asked what a particular noise in the room was and was answered by shouts of “Rain!” Amid laughter he explained “We don’t have that in LA!”
Question: I think you’re incredible, and you’re my favorite character in LOTR. My first question: who are your influences? That’s one question, and this is a weird question, when they threw you down those stone steps, and that wasn’t you, wasn’t that the hardest thing to watch a stuntman do?
Naa I went to sleep man! I mean . I was exhausted. I was up since 3 o’clock and I was in there saying ‘I’m sure he’s going to be GREAT! You know I’ll watch it when you show it to me on the monitor.” And he was spectacular.
Question: So who were your influences?
I think for relationships it was the two killers in “In Cold Blood”, they had a very, very powerful effect on me. The kid in “400 Blows” by Truffaut had a powerful effect on me, and Gena Rowlands in, what’s that where she goes crazy? [Woman Under the Influence]
Well, that performance, ok. It was incredibly raw, and it’s just somebody going really crazy. I think that were the things that really and my mom. I saw her do a rehearsal of Anastasia when I was young and Anastasia has this scene where she is talking about how she’s this actress, she’s not really Anastasia and she can make anybody believe anything that she does and she starts talking about this butterfly, and I don’t even remember what she said, but I saw the butterfly. Her imagination was that vivid and it was that real, and I went, “Ooo, I wanna do that”. I never DID, but
Paraphrase: How do you approach your craft?
There’s always something in the center of everyone that says who they are. In most evil people it’s generally fear. That’s really what runs us, and if I can figure out what I’m supposed to be afraid of, now I have something real to fall back on, and then it’s just trying to stay as honest as I can, but I guess I sometimes creep over the top.
Paraphrase: What would your fear be?
That I could never have what I needed, and wanted that I could never have it.
Question: Have you ever done any stage work? And what is the difference between stage and film for an actor?
The answer is yes I did a tremendous amount of theater when I was young. I worked with really incredible people. A director by the name of Marshall Mason and a playwright by the name of Lanford Wilson who were the big influences in my life. I had a great acting coach as well. The differences are that when you’re doing a play, you have what happened before feeding you into the next thing, and you understand rhythm really well.
You understand that this is thrown away, and this you hit. This you go fast, this you slow down, here you can stop. When you’re doing film, you’re only doing something there that day. Your tendency is to want to perform it all, but you can’t. You’ve got to throw it away, a lot of it. The film has to have rhythm and your performance has to have rhythm, and you better hope that the director understand that and you’re right about that as well. And beyond that they really are pretty identical.
Question: What was it like as a young actor to have so much attention early on in your career from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“?
Pretty overwhelming. I actually had a little bit of difficulty handling that.
Paraphrase: What’s it like to move from B movies to A movies?
I have been moving in and out of A and B movies, and C and D (laughter) a lot of F’s (more laughter) pretty much my whole life and like I said I’m a whore, I’m just not gonna be snot about it. David Lynch, who I think is a genius, would hire me, but he would only hire me in these little roles, and I finally-basically I want to do it, I want to get up and I want to act and that’s really
I have a lot of fun and I finally told him, I said, “Look man, if you want to hire me, you better give me a bigger part because I’m just not gonna sit around and watch other people act.” I won’t do that for anybody, you know? Maybe once or twice, sure, but I’m not going to do a career of that. I try not to think of that and somehow it’s worked. I know good directors every once in a while will still hire me, even though the studios hate it.
Paraphrase: How long did it take you to get your first big break in acting?
I started when I was 16 professionally, and I was 24, so it was 8 years.
Question: What souvenir did you take away from LOTR?
Teeth I didn’t use. I had these horrible teeth that they put in but I couldn’t I was having enough trouble (imitates talking with teeth). So they gave those to me and I kept them.
Also I have a collection of mockups of the toys, which incidentally I mean I could have 6 Oscars sitting up on my thing and they wouldn’t get anywhere near the amount of attention people coming into my house give to the action figures. (laughter) That is the pinnacle of my career, actually having an action figure.
Paraphrase: What roles are you proudest of that you’ve portrayed?
You know one of them has to be Billy Bibbit. (applause) That just became larger than life and it’s just too hard for me to back away from. I did this thing in the desert where I told stories with James Earl Jones and it was called “Grim Prairie Tales” and I don’t know why but I just loved that. Just because I guess I was sort of normal in it. I didn’t think that was possible. Brad shared a story from Cuckoo’s nest.
Paraphrase: Is ROTK gonna be the one? Is it going to win an Oscar? What’s the feeling? That’s what we all want to see. What’s your feeling? What’s the word?
What’s my feeling about it? First of all, I do not understand the Oscars at all. (applause) If you’re asking me if I have any kind of insight, they never nominate the people I vote for and the people who win I don’t even understand. Like everybody else I get really furious.
I had a junkie wife and I know what’s it’s like to be, to watch somebody really, really go crazy and I know what it feels like to be in that situation with children and so forth. But, ” A Beautiful Mind” there’s nothing wrong with the actress’ performance but it infuriated me that she was nominated because that had nothing to do with anything of what it’s like to go through that kind of situation.
You don’t look pretty and you don’t feel pretty and that was just crap. (applause) How that happened what this was about what they were thinking I just don’t get it.
Dustin Hoffman said this, and it’s always held true for me, no one really remembers who won the Oscar. It’s a shame we care. What you remember is the film. I think we’re gonna remember the extended versions of these, to tell you the truth. I think Viggo called that. (applause) Those are the real works of art. This one’s gonna come out, and maybe in a couple of years there’ll be theaters where you go and see the whole thing in all the extended versions on a big screen. Then we’ll get to see the Lord of the Rings. (applause)
And you know what, that’s what I care about. Forgive my French, but @#$# the Oscars! (cheers)
Question: Are you content?
Am I content? Never.
Several non-LOTR questions skipped.