From "Cuckoo's Nest" to “Deadwood,” actor Brad Dourif brings a unique intensity to the characters he plays
Tesa talks with noted character actor Brad Dourif about his role in the HBO western series "Deadwood," as well as the other roles he's played during his distinguished career.
By Tesa Nauman
Brad Dourif isn't a doctor. He just plays one on TV.
Dourif's doctor isn't your typical prime-time television physician. However, that shouldn't be surprising, because Dourif isn't your typical prime-time actor. The Oscar-nominated actor portrays the character of "Doc" on HBO's Western-theme hit "Deadwood" and received an Emmy nomination for that portrayal.
Dourif, a West Virginia native who received an Oscar nomination for his role in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and critical praise for his portrayal of a racist deputy in "Mississippi Burning," is one of those actors whose name most people don't recognize. However, when they see his face, they realize they've seen him dozens of times over the years, usually as an intense, crazed killer: "Oh, yeah! That guy!"
In the past decade he's gotten the attention of younger fans by playing roles in "The X-Files," "Star Trek: Voyager" and by providing the voice for the homicidal doll "Chucky" in "Child's Play" and the resulting film franchise. He's also added to his fan base aficionados of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy by playing Grima Wormtongue in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and in the extended version of "LotR: The Return of the King."
On this day, Dourif is in Knoxville, Tenn., addressing an audience of his fans who are attending Adventure Con, a convention that features celebrities, comics and collectibles. Dourif is definitely the celebrity most in demand at the convention. He speaks softly into his mic while pacing back and forth across the stage. At first, he seems a bit shy as audience members ask him questions. However, after a couple of minutes, Dourif begins to unwind -- well, maybe "unwind" isn't the right word. Loosen up a bit, is more like it. One gets the feeling that in public, Dourif never truly "unwinds."
On Doc and "Deadwood"
Dourif almost didn't take the role on "Deadwood" because the pay wasn't very good. Neither his agent nor his manager wanted him not to do it. But he changed his mind after his girlfriend read the script. Impressed with the quality of the script, she told him he was crazy if it didn't do it. So, he did.
"I'm no fool," Dourif quips.
Dourif likes the character he plays on the series, partly because he's a nice change from the crazed killers he's been typecast as in Hollywood.
"I like what I'm doing. It's very different. I'm playing a doctor who's very strange, but he's a decent human being. He just won't back down. He doesn't know how."
After Deadwood premiered last year, a lot of discussion in the media was about the fact that the series, particularly the pilot episode, features a lot of swearing. However, once one gets past the obscenities, the richness of the dialogue is as uniquely eloquent and intricate as any Shakespearean dialogue. However, this can make it rather hard to memorize, Dourif says.
"On this show, we get a dialogue at the last minute, a lot of the time. (Executive Producer) David Milch is very famous for this -- delivering dialogue -- and this dialogue is not natural to the way we speak. So it takes a long time to learn it."
"I literally have gotten three-page monologues four hours before we shoot. At that point, you just memorize for everything you have. You sit in a room and you never look up from the page until you walk out on the set.
"Normally, the way I work is I try to learn everything kind of mechanically, without any feeling, and I let that come as it goes along. That's the way I was taught. After a certain amount of time, you get better and better and better and then it just comes. What you can do unconsciously, when it's an accident and you don't mean to do it, is the best stuff. All (acting) technique is based on when it's not working."
What little viewers know of the highly intense but moral doctor who treats the denizens of the roughest town in the West is that he was convicted of robbing graves -- seven times. But that's little reason to doubt the good doctor's integrity, Dourif insists.
"He's a scientist. It was illegal (to study a human body). You had to get somebody who was convicted and hanged. In a lot of states in the U.S. at that time you couldn't get a body, so how could you learn about anatomy? It was a huge problem in the States.
"What we know about medicine has to do with the fact that there were a lot of grave robbers, and it was a big business," Dourif says.
The reason why Doc chose to move to Deadwood -- which, at the time the series is set, was not a U.S. territory and had neither laws nor formal judicial system -- can be found by looking at Doc's past.
"It's been hinted that the character was a surgeon in the Civil War," Dourif says. "A lot of people don't know this, but (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome) was a huge problem among surgeons during the Civil War. Surgery was not really what doctors did, and then suddenly you have these people who are severely wounded by bullets.
"(The doctors) would remove legs, and there were walls of legs. They would pile them up; thousands of legs."
Dourif says the amputations performed on those fields of war caused another lethal condition. Doctors were unaware that using the same surgical scalpel on more than one patient would spread bacteria.
"There would be these patients, and they would all die of gangrene because the doctors thought gangrene came through the air. They had no idea that they were spreading gangrene. "So these people saw a lot of death. Anytime you're exposed to that much death, you get very traumatized."
The fact that the character of Doc was created might be due more to familial circumstances than historical research. Dourif pointed out that Milch's brother is a doctor.
Dourif loves working on the series because of the quality of the writing and the production values. Plus, it's a pretty easy commute to work.
"'Deadwood' is filmed on a ranch outside of Los Angeles, 20 minutes from my house," he says.
On playing Grima
Most of the fans attending this convention have come to see Dourif because of his role as the strangely named Grima Wormtongue. However, Dourif doesn't speak about Grima very much. That's probably because he's not a fan of the filmed "Rings" trilogy, but he was happy to work with "Rings" director Peter Jackson. Jackson's 1994 film, "Heavenly Creatures" starring a young Kate Winslet, is one of Dourif's favorite films.
Playing Grima, however, gave the actor a chance to break out of the mold that Hollywood has cast him in for much of his film career.
"It was very different because I'd never done an English accent before. And also, Grima was at least a coward. At least he had that going for him. I wasn't a homicidal maniac. I was just a coward. That's not the typical (role) I was doing. I was normally just playing these incredibly antisocial parts."
On "The X-Files"
Over the years Dourif has played dozens of killers on the big screen, but one of his most intricate and best performances was on the little screen as serial killer Luther Lee Boggs in the "The X-Files" first-season episode "Beyond the Sea." He played a killer with psychic powers who channels the spirits of others. This called for the actor to portray a multitude of characters; a feat he wasn't sure he was up to accomplishing in a short shooting schedule.
"They sent me the script, and the first thing it did was scare me because it was very difficult. I think there were, like, 17 characters or more, because I'm constantly switching characters. That's very difficult to pull off. I told them there was no way I could do it. I was not capable in the amount of time they had allotted for me to actually create that many characters and have them all flow together and work. So I turned it down. I hate being bad, when you can tell, you know? You sit there, and it really does feel like, literally, you have egg on your face. It's just a horrible feeling.
"So, I didn't want to do it, and they say, ‘OK, tell you what. We're going to move your stuff to the very end of the shoot. You have 10 days.' I barely made it. It literally was the night before the shoot that ... everything flowed. I based this character on this person I knew ... and I fed her into the mix when I was doing about five different characters in a very short amount of time, and somehow everything flowed."
Chris Carter, "X-Files" executive producer, stated once in an interview that he wanted Dourif for the role but Dourif's asking price was too high. Carter went to Fox and convinced them to approve the expense. Pleased with Dourif's performance, Carter said Fox got its money's worth.
On "Seed of Chucky"
Someone asks Dourif if "Seed of Chucky" is the last "Chucky" film. "Seed of Chucky," the latest in the film franchise that features a homicidal doll who also has a sarcastic wit. Dourif explains that the franchise, which is shot in Rumania because it's cheaper than shooting in the US, is likely to go on for some time. "They'll keep making them as long as they keep making money."
Dourif has never been on the set of a Chucky film during production. He records his lines in a studio in L.A. However, he's told the film's producers that he'd like to be on set for the filming of the Chucky film that's made after the next one.
A kid wearing a Star Wars t-shirt asks Dourif if he considers the Chucky films his crowning achievement. Dourif looks at the kid as if he's lost his mind and replies with an incredulous, "No!" The audience laughs. However, Dourif is quick to point out that he's not ashamed of being part of the Chucky franchise, either. He likes playing the homicidal doll because Chucky "really enjoys what he does" and Dourif likes playing someone who loves their job.
On working with directors
Over the years, Dourif has worked with some of the film industry's best directors, including working twice with "Twin Peaks" creator David Lynch in "Blue Velvet" and Lynch's sci-fi epic "Dune."
"He's a sweetheart. He really is. He just does not have a temper, at all. He has this incredible vivid, visual imagination. He's wonderful," Dourif says about Lynch. "He has this wild and crazy sense of humor and is very irreverent. I read the pilot for 'Twin Peaks' and it is still the best piece of pilot writing I've ever read. No one's ever come near it."
Another great director Dourif has had the good fortune to work with is Milos Foreman. Dourif worked with Foreman in the 1981 film "Ragtime."
"It's amazing for what different reasons so many directors are good. Milos Foreman is an incredible director because you know you are not going to leave the scene unless he's ecstatic about what you're doing. He's got to be really happy with it or you don't finish, and that's good. It's a trust thing. Secondly, he knows exactly what to shoot, when it comes to you," Dourif says.
On his intensity, and his greatest fear as an actor
When you meet Dourif in person, you find that the intensity he brings to his performances on-screen is with him, off screen. He can seem ultra serious and quite intense. Having that amount of intensity to draw upon as an actor, one would think that Dourif fears nothing a writer or director could ask him to do. However, there is one thing he always feared as an actor; something he never had to do -- until "Deadwood."
"I couldn't cry. The one thing that terrified me was that somebody was going to write a scene where I'm supposed to burst into tears. And they have. As a matter of fact, David (Milch) did. I was terrified. I was getting all kinds of symptoms. I had to bring a doctor in when we were shooting because I thought my heart was going to stop, because I was supposed to cry in this scene and I couldn't do it.
"Somehow, someway, I kinda get there. I do things that tend to be emotionally demanding but I do try to make every single character that I play, a human."
Dourif insists that the concept of evil being an outside influence doesn't apply to humans. People are people, and everyone is capable of good and bad.
"There's a point where, I don't care who you are or what you've done ... I do not believe in evil. I think evil is a terrible word. I think the idea and concept of evil is basically dehumanizing. It probably is necessary, because it makes it easier for us to kill each other when we need to kill each other. But it never rang true for me, at all.
"Have you ever watched the Iceman get interviewed on (HBO)? This guy has killed, like, 45 people. He was a professional killer; very, very good at it. I feel so much stuff inside this guy. He comes across as so human, and he is really an angry, hateful, cold-blooded killer. But he's not evil.
"People do bad, horrendous things but there are, unfortunately, reasons for them. I'm not saying excuses. I don't excuse any of this behavior at all, but it's not evil. It's just human."
Dourif, who's played dozens of villains throughout the years, says recognizing that everyone is a unique mixture of good and bad is a crucial part of his performances.
"So, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to say that no matter who the person is, I am not apart from them. I am Adolph Hitler (and my girlfriend is Jewish). I am every bigot that ever walked the face of this Earth. I'm every cold-blooded killer. All that, I am capable of."
At this point, Dourif stops pacing back and forth. His tone softens and he smiles as he says to the audience, "I guess you can see I feel strongly about it."
The audience laughs. They're used to his intensity by now.
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