Thursday, May 29, 2008
The Drunken Severed Head talks with David Patrick Kelly
Here is actor David Patrick Kelly after my wife Jane has pushed me across the table.
And here he is preparing to toss me back.
A year ago this month, the Voodoo Queen and I sat down to lunch with actor David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, Dreamscape, Commando, 48 Hours, The Crow), who had been in Pittsburgh since the previous March rehearsing with the musical The Glorious Ones, which was premiering here. (It's based on a novel by Francine Prose.) The show subsequently moved to the Lincoln Center in New York; a picture of the cast, which remained the same but for the male lead, can be seen here.
HOW I MET DAVID PATRICK KELLY; or, The Amazing Good Fortune of a Clipped-Off Cranium
At the supermarket where I work (yes I work-- they have a wonderful training program there for living severed heads with sobriety issues), I had been waiting on Mr. Kelly when he would come to shop. (He loved our fried fish cakes.) He was always very pleasant and friendly. So I worked up the nerve to ask him for an interview for my new blog, and he said he'd be happy to once the rehearsal process was over. (After seeing him in such films as The Warriors, Dreamscape, The Crow, and K-Pax, I was impressed with him as one of our top character actors working in films of the latter part of the 20th century and today.)
Jane and I went to see the show -- about a 16th century troupe of comedia dell'arte players-- and it was bawdy, engrossing and funny. Mr. Kelly was delightful as the old miserly tailor who becomes the "Pantalone" of the players. (Another actor noted for his genre work, John Kassir of tv's Tales From the Crypt fame, sometimes stole the show as the quack "Dottore".) Mr. Kelly had a solo number "Pantalone Alone", and he showed that he was a fine singer. I had only seen Mr. Kelly in the sort of evil or eccentric roles that actors such Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Dwight Frye used to play in movies, so it was a thrill seeing him handle comedy and sing and dance so expertly.
DPK as "Howie" in K-PAX.
As "Unger" in THE LONGEST YARD (2005).
We met Mr. Kelly late on a Sunday morning at a nice restaurant near the theater. He'd said he had maybe an hour before having to get back for preparation for that afternoon's matinee; but we wound up having over an hour of good conversation and laughs. He impressed us with his charm and warmth: he was relaxed and open, he smiled and laughed easily, and often; and he asked us about our lives. He was also amazingly generous-- not only did he graciously share his time; he'd even prearranged for all the meals to be paid for on his credit card! I only discovered this when I snuck away to pay the tab for the three of us! (I could not persuade him to let me pay.) And he was very forbearing: he waited patiently and with good humor as I struggled with my old tape recorder that had to be messed with a couple of times to work, and also as I asked a waitress to turn down the volume of the background music, which had gone up --even though we were the only customers most of the time-- after we began recording. To top it all off, halfway through his meal Mr. Kelly insisted on not finishing because -- as he stated-- he wanted to have as much time as possible to answer my questions! The man was kind beyond belief.
When we sat down, I happily offered him a couple of items as gifts, which I told him he was free to decline if they were not things he was into. The first was a three disk set of Boris Karloff's only Shakespearean performance, a multi-performer recording of the Bard's Cymbeline; the second was recordings of the New York monologist Brother Theodore. He hadn't heard of Brother Theodore before (Theodore's not much remembered these days, alas), and so I described the sardonic, dark and cynical humor that Brother Theodore was expert in. Mr. Kelly gladly accepted the Cymbeline set-- he seemed surprised and pleased with them-- but he politely declined the Theodore recordings, saying that he liked to keep negativity out of his home. He explained that as an actor, he had a "duty" to do dark material, but in his life outside performing, he kept his personal surroundings "on the positive tip". However, he acknowledged enjoying classic horror films, and mentioned that he got a big kick out of speaking with Goth kids for whom films like The Crow were "sustenance," and talking to them was "sustenance" for him too.
Talking to Mr. Kelly was more than sustenance for me, it was a feast of interesting stories, and good feeling. I am still deeply grateful for his friendliness and kindness.
So why did I wait a year to post this interview? Well, I had never transcribed a recorded conversation before; it was full of extraneous noise. So that meant listening only to several seconds at a time on uncomfortable headphones, then writing down what I heard. Often I had to listen two or three times or have Jane listen to be sure of every word. This was very frequently tedious, time-consuming, and annoying. And I faithfully wrote down every "um" and "you know" and half-word begun and revised, etc.-- I mean every frickin' sound and syllable. I thought I was obligated to! There were many extraneous bits and false starts, and I had not even been consciously aware of them! (But the interview reads more smoothly, and includes everything that was said, rather than everything that was spoken.)
Another reason was that I didn't want to "let go" of the experience by publishing it; I was so surprised and pleased by my time spent with David Patrick Kelly that it seemed something too good to share. And finally, I think it was because I was -- and am-- still very doubtful that I'll ever have another post this good here-- it's the peak!
David Patrick Kelly, a prince of a guy.
But to not run it would be disrespectful to David Patrick Kelly and to you, so below is the full interview, prefaced by an introduction, as taken from my notes and transcription. Forgive me for the delay. I hope you enjoy it.
Prior to recording questions and answers, we talked while waiting for our food to arrive. Mr. Kelly and Jane and I discussed his love for martial arts (he holds a second degree black belt in Seido Karate), his love of music, and the power of horror films. I mentioned several stars of classic horror films, and Mr. Kelly said he liked Boris Karloff. We talked briefly about what made horror films an enduring genre; he mentioned, as I recall, Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and its ideas. I realized the talk we were having before the formal interview was worth recording, and with his permission, recorded our meal conversation. Below is Mr. Kelly’s response to something said about the popularity of the horror/fantasy/science-fiction genre film.
DPK: It’s based on great ideas about human nature. And that comes from Aristotle-- Aristotle called it “the fable”. You know, you have to be true to the fable; you have to tell the fable. But Aristotle also said, in the Poetics, what people want is to see dead bodies, and learn something. That’s what he said. You want to figure something out, y’know.
Jane: Some of our “spooky” friends are some of the most well adjusted people that I know, really.
DPK: I think it’s because one of my favorite authors, very interesting guy, is a guy named Ambrose Bierce.
Max: You’ve read Bierce?
DPK: Yeah, he kept a skull on his head. [Laughs] On his head!! On his desk. This is from medieval philosophy, you know. You have to keep in mind your end. You have to keep in mind– I mean not to get morbid, you don’t want to get morbid, you don’t want to get depressed– you want to find out, but people who deal– you know, who keep a realistic aspect about what life is, which is the total picture– it’s the beginning, the end, the afterlife, the other world, the things like that– this is part of the mystic science, you know. And there’s all different paths to that.
Max: Do you get impatient with actors who don’t place emphasis on the story but more on their role?
DPK: Y’know, we’re all crazy in our own way, and I judge actors that I want to work with again about how they are “in the moment,” as we say. On stage, or in a film scene, when you’re with people and you’re lookin’ in their eyes, you can really tell what they’re about; you can tell everything about ‘em, y’ know. And you can tell how generous they are or how selfish. And a lot of that gets confused because of the roles they’re playing. But you cut a wide allowance for how people are offstage, because everybody has their own disciplines, and their own ways, and their own philosophies. But when you’re doin’ the thing, you know, you can tell how people really are. You can tell if they’re selfish, or if they’re generous; you can tell what kind of an artist they are, and that’s how you judge. You know, in the world everybody’s crazy in their own way. So you just hafta...find a way to tolerate and allow people to be what they are.
But then there’s certain times where you get to see what people really are. And that’s how you deal with who you keep connecting up with, and who you wanna work with again. But, impatience, you gotta let that go. Martial arts taught me a lot about patience. I only started martial arts when I was 35. And it was very meaningful, because it shakes off-- I mean, once again, it goes back to looking in people’s eyes. For me, martial arts, you know, with men and women, into my karate school-- you really get to see how people are. And you know, we’re animals, kind of animals, you know, with big brains, so we have the...perfectability that’s possible. But we’re really animals. And the real nature of people when they’re fightin’ each other, comes out, you know. And once again you see how they really are. So it was a different way to get...more... truth, you know. It was kind of a goal for me; I wanted to play Shakespearean generals, so I wanted to have martial arts. And I’ve been there twenty years now.
And it’s, once again, a spiritual discipline. I call myself a Zen-Taoist-Christian is what I am. So meditation is a part of it, tai chi, and martial arts. And these things give me structure, and some way to stay fit as I get into my creaking years here now. But larger than that, it’s a spiritual discipline as well. And that teaches you a lot about patience again, about your patience with other people. Because it’s like an army experience almost – people talk about “the army” being “the best time of their life”, y’know, they didn’t want to go in, but, “Ah! My buddies!” and all that stuff. Because you’re with people you wouldn’t normally be with. So I’ll be in a locker room, and people saying [in a comical mocking voice] “Hey! Ain’t cha gonna do no more movies, man?” or, “Whattsa matter wit cher career?”, or something like that. They don’t know anything, y’ know, but still...you get to learn something about them; you ask about them and they say, “Well, I got five kids, and three wives, and, you know, I’m strugglin’ through, but my martial arts keeps me together.” And it’s true– for an actor it’s a gold mine. You’re doin’ all this research, you’ve got different people that ya get to meet, y’know, ‘stead of hanging out with actors all the time....So that’s way more than you wanted to know about martial arts, but--
Jane: No, that’s cool--
DPK: Thanks a lot. That’s really--
Max: I was gonna ask you about it anyway; I knew you were into it, uh--
DPK: The first time I met Brandon Lee, I said to him, “You know your father was a big influence on me!”
Max: Really? Ah--
DPK: Brandon said, “He was on me, too”. And he was, he was. Bruce Lee was a great genius. Brandon was too.. He was...It was just a horrible tragedy--
Jane: It is tragic.
DPK Yeah --
Jane: He had a presence, you could tell in the film–
Jane: – you know. He really did.
DPK: And a passion, and respect. He was such a nice kid; he was so respectful. Of the process...he worked so hard; it was such a hard film for him to do. And I think...I want him to be here, rather than the film, but we finished the film for him, y’ know. And I think he would have been proud. ......And also that it was such a-- it was kind of a “Rebel Without a Cause” for the Goth kids, you know, it really was. I didn’t even realize it until years later; I wouldn’t even look at it for years, you know.
[Brief damage to the tape here. Mr. Kelly plays mandolin and guitar very well – he accompanies himself singing in Spike Lee's “Crooklyn”, and can also be heard playing on the CDs for two Broadway shows, “Twelfth Night”, and “Working”. I asked him about his love of music and past experiences playing rock.]
DPK: Max’s Kansas City had 150 seats with little tables that were lined up in rows. Saw everybody from Bruce Springsteen with his first record out Greetings from Asbury Park, and the Wailers, the original Wailers, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Robby Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar.
Jane: Wow, I’m jealous of that.
DPK: It was great. They had just put Burnin’ out, that record. Patti Smith made her first appearances there when she was just her and Lenny Kaye on guitar. Charles Mingus Quartet, and [others], so once in a while it’d be so packed with people we’d have to help ‘em down the stairs. Then I did a play there. And that moved into what they called a punk -- we didn’t call it punk rock, but it was the punk rock era, y’know. And I’d read about Patti and the band Television playing at CBGB’s, and so I went there too, with my band. Very good band, still got some live tapes, gonna bring them out. But I was always acting at the same time. And so I had to dissolve my band, and then...
Max: You played guitar?
DPK: I played guitar, and played all the cabarets in rock. It was a wonderful scene, actors and songwriters in the 70's in New York, and that new music, or punk, if you wanna call it that, that thing was going on. And it was very creative. It was a wonderful time, in theater too. There were a lot more theaters then. And I did a play at Max’s. Then my first New York job, big job, was Sergeant Pepper on stage. I played Sgt. Pepper himself and sang “Get Back” and “Saved the Day” at the end of the show. It was by the people who did Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. John Lennon and Paul McCartney came to the opening. It was really fantastic.
Jane: VERY nice.
DPK: London was great. It was like a dream. Did you ever see that book Rock Dreams? By a guy named Guy Peellaert? David Bowie has an album called Diamond Dogs --
DPK: And we covered that, where he’s half dog and half human. It [the record cover] was done by an artist called Guy Peellaertt. And he had a book called Rock Dreams where it was just fantasies like Dylan sittin’ at a diner with Elvis and stuff like that. And so, bein’ with John Lennon at this opening party was a little bit like one of those rock dreams, y’know. There he was, talkin’ to me, taking me around, introducing me to people. Because-- it’s a long story– but I had gone on in place of somebody, and I knew all the words, and he said [imitating Lennon], “Here’s Dave, he knows all the words – I don’t know all the words to my songs”. [Max laughs, DPK laughs.] And he was being hounded by Nixon during that time, you know, because he was in protest at the big convention that was comin’ up, and he’d done an interview with himself – “Dr. Winston O’Boogie Interviews John Lennon.” And so I told him, “John, you did a good interview with yourself”. He says, “Yeah, I asked myself some very pertinent questions”. [Max, Jane, and DPK laugh again.] He was a wonderful guy. It was just another horrible tragedy, you know?.
Max: I was so...
Max: Sad about that.
DPK: I’d seen the Beatles. I’d seen them in Detroit, at the Olympic Stadium. [Smiles.] Yeah, it was me, Larry Francis, and 12,000 screaming 12 year old girls. That was it.
Max: I saw them on Sullivan. I was a kid.
[Time was running out at this point, so I began to ask my prepared interview questions.]
Max: My first question would be, basically, “How did you become interested in acting? What were the circumstances?"
DPK: I think it was the Catholic Church. And my parents. And a happy upbringing. I was an altar boy in the ‘50s, and saw all that ritual, and the costumes, and – it wasn’t costumes, you know, all the vestments and everything else. There was something about it that was mysterious and great. But I think-- you know, my father was a painter, [smiles] and so we always had painting going on in our basement. There were big scenes. He painted the furnace to look like a tree, and the walls were always covered with paintings. So I think it was just an environment. And then, my mother taught me music. And it was a combination of these twin things in my family, were art and music. So I think that combination made it obvious.
You know, it just combined to make that all interesting for me. And then literature too– my family was always bookish and so the combination of all those things made it happen. And the first thing that I was interested in was Samuel Beckett and things like that. And Dostoevsky in high school. And these were great characters, y’know. I’ll always remember a kid saying to me once, “You’re an actor.” Just out of the blue! I was just playin’ in bands in high school, and things like that. And he said “You’re an actor”, and it sort of stuck; it was sort of prophetic. And so the biggest influences on me growing up in Detroit were in MUSIC, really! ‘Cause I’d seen these great acts. My high school friends and I, we had the MC5 – I don’t know if you know them – and Iggy [Pop], they were around, in Detroit, and the MC5 played at our junior high school dance. You know, this theatrical, amazing group of people with this powerful thing. But then we would journey around. I saw Jimi Hendrix. And the Beatles, I told you about. I saw The Doors at Cobo Hall in Detroit.
And this was a very theatrical time. And all my friends and I, we wanted to go to circus school. For some reason, the circus was a big influence. Going down to Ringling Bros./ Barnum and Bailey. But then, just reading the literature, got involved with Shakespeare in college– at the University of Detroit, where I graduated.
My first show in Detroit was a combination of music and theater: Hair. I was 19, I did “Hair” in Detroit., I got my Equity card with Hair, played the lead at nineteen. I could only do it during my summer vacation because I was draftable; it was the Vietnam War in 1970. And so I was a freshman in college and could do it for four months, and then I traveled to Paris and studied mime with Marcel Marceau. I came back and finished my scholarship at the University of Detroit, and then came to New York. And that’s the quick evolution of it all. There’s a lot of inside stories there, but mostly it was music and art. And the philosophy of religion and literature, and all that combined to make me interested in doing this.
But it was also the artist’s lifestyle-- y’know, wanting to be an artist. I’ve always taken a lot of ideas from painters, and this idea of workin’ on something, where you could express yourself, was somethin'– maybe it was comin’ from a big family, so it was hard to get a word in edgewise –
DPK: – so you wanted to express yourself so much, or somethin’ like that. And bein’ one of the younger ones, with my sisters, we became artistic, y’know, so we could find a way to express what we couldn’t , maybe...There’s some of it.
Max: Okay, great!
Jane: I’ve been reading a John Barrymore biography, and he actually wanted to be a painter, not an actor.
DPK: Geez – do you have the one with all his drawings on the front? On the cover?
DPK: Oooh. It’s a bio. ‘Cause he has his auto-bio, called, Goodnight Sweet Prince, maybe? Or something like that. And my auntie gave me that, years ago, and inside, there’s all his drawings. ‘Cause he’d always draw pictures of all his characters, before he did ‘em. And I’d do that. Inspired by Barrymore, as a matter of fact. And my father was a great cartoonist, y’ know... I’d draw a picture of my characters, from time to time. When you’re shapin’ it, it’s good if you can get a picture if it, an objective picture of your character and sketch it out.
Max: I have a collection of [John's brother] Lionel’s drawings.
DPK: Was he good?
Max: Yeah! Talented... Um, you play mandolin and guitar. What kind of music do you like?
DPK: I like a whole range if it. I’m an old rocker from the ‘60s. My high school band, y’ know. So– I picked up the mandolin because it was different. And played that like a rhythm guitar, but– I like to say I’m one of the originators of psychobilly, because we played Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Motown, but I used a mandolin to play it. There’s a lot of bands now that do psychobilly. Great virtuosos, y’know. So my dream come true was to do Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on Broadway, and there’s a great recording I did of that. [Chuckles.] That you can get on Amazon dot com, Twelfth Night. [Click here to order CDs that DPK plays on.]
DPK: I play the mandolin in that, and sing Shakespeare’s lyrics, and they’re great lyrics. You know Twelfth Night very well?
Max: Not very well.
Jane: I saw it some years ago in New Orleans.
DPK: “O Mistress Mine” and “Come Away Death” and all these amazing lyrics by Shakespeare. And then this wonderful composer, Janine Tassori, did this music. SO.. I really love the new bluegrass people, a lot. I love Alison Crowe; I love– there’s a guy, Edgar Meyer, who’s a classical bassist, but he does all of these collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, and the great bluegrass player Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, Bela Fleck - and I really love that. It’s like music to your dreams. Like pure American music, which is this amazing hybrid of everything from around the world, and– and then I like the acoustic aspect of it. But then I like it to rock a little bit as well. Y’know, from my rocking days, so...yeah. Music got me into my first professional jobs– I told you a little bit about that. I was a cabaret rock player during the ‘70s, so I would play there, and because I did that, James Taylor and Stephen Schwartz hired me for my first Broadway musical, which was Working, based in Studs Terkel’s book. Because we had to play and sing in that. So I played James Taylor’s songs in that. And so music has always helped me get my biggest breaks in show biz. And to this day. Walter Hill for The Warriors and 48 Hours, Last Man Standing– [he] had seen me first in that musical on Broadway, where I played and sang any song – Working. So it’s just a big river with many branches to it. But music– I play every day, practice every day, and...it’s great.
Jane: I love The Warriors, by the way. I first saw it at a slumber party, of all things! [Everyone laughs] “You gotta see this movie Jane, it’s really great!” “Okay!”.
DPK: That was really a blast, y’know. Nobody got paid much; we all got dressed in one big trailer. I’d walk home every day, from that big thing where [the character] Cyrus is speaking. We’d shoot that all night, then I’d walk from Riverside Park down to my little apartment in Soho, at the time, in the ‘70s. Yeah, it wasn’t fancy. But it came out good.
Max: You and I talked a little bit about the fact that we both like Ray Harryhausen movies.
Max: The people who will read this interview like horror and science fiction and fantasy and suspense and action pictures. What are some of your favorites in those genres?
DPK: Well, Ray Harryhausen, I believe– I hope I get the – I think it’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad where he fights the skeletons. It’s a really primal moment for me. And when I did Dreamscape, I was really proud of the fact that it wasn’t CGI. It was handcrafted, Harryhausen technique. And I had to sit for hours in a cast to make the snake-man. There were different stages of the snake-man, so, you had a full body suit, you know, and then you had this one– my favorite moment where Dennis Quaid does me in and my father appears to me, there– it’s kind of a Hamlet moment there, at that stage of the snake-man where he’s half human and half man. So I really like the fact that you could still see some craft in there, y’know. There’s a Japanese woman and Craig Reardon and the other makeup guy did that make up, and they sculpted it. It [the animated model] was like sculpture - little, y’know, I don’t know how many countless sculptures that they had to make of the snake-man becoming the snake-man. So that aspect is really great. And CGI is great, I really love some of the movies that they make with that, but it’s a different deal when you’re doing it yourself, and Harryhausen was great.
Jane: CGI doesn’t look right, a lot of times.
Jane: Like it’s lit weird.
DPK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Something that’s cold about it, y’know. Some of the Asian films are great that they do.
Jane: I love Asian horror!
DPK: Yeah --
Jane: A lot of recent Asian horror’s super freaky stuff. Great.
DPK: Really gets a mood going.
[Time was almost out. I had to momentarily stop the tape recorder. I asked Mr. Kelly about his playing the role of “Howie” in the film “K-PAX”.]
DPK: K-PAX. Howie was based on Henry Darger, who was a janitor his whole life and his landlord found his paintings after he died. And he was an obsessive-compulsive collector of garbage. And he used all of these wonderful paintings of the things that he had found. So that was great. He was a great character. And he has a dark aspect to it as well– his solution for curing his friend was, uh, a little extreme. But it was a wonderful time. I really enjoyed that film.
Max: Any roles you haven’t played that you really want to, still?
DPK: Oh yeah! But if I reveal ‘em now... I’m too scared yet. I’m working on two film scripts myself. And things are going very well.
Max: Any classical roles you still want to play?
DPK: Yes, Brutus in Julius Caesar. Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. Of course they’d have to be avant garde things, but the Romans were short, and at 5'’6'’ y’know, with all my martial arts training, if there’s an avant garde director out there that wants to do “Antony and Cleopatra”, I’m your man!!! [Laughs.] Let’s see– classical...
Jane: We’re both Irish elves too!
DPK: [Laughs, then speaks in an Irish accent) So there’s a boatload of ‘em! [Resumes his own voice.] Let’s see, what else? That’s what I’ll reveal at this time. We’ve got a slate of ‘em. You ain’t seen nothing yet!
Max: You’re married to an actress. Is it easier to be in a relationship with somebody who knows the sacrifices of being an actor?
DPK: She’s my dreamy dream. That’s what I’ll tell ya. It’s beyond the beyond. She’s a great artist and really understands the process...So we’re havin’ a blast and I couldn’t be happier.
Max: Understanding the process, though, does that help, you think?
DPK: Yeah, because essentially you’re living with your partner and then all the characters, too. So if you don’t understand what the material is doing to you, because every material of every kind has an emotional cost. So you have to understand what you’re both going through. And your double lives that you’re leading. Because suddenly these people appear – your characters that you’re living with! Y’know, for that time period. And if you don’t understand that, and if you can’t deal with that...it doesn’t work.
Max: Did your family support your decision to be an actor?
DPK: Always have. Fantastic, and uh, yeah, it’s been great. Big family, so you know, they’ve come to everything I’ve done, and they’ll see this play, The Glorious Ones, when it gets to New York, hopefully. But yeah, yeah, they’ve seen all the little teeny-little theaters that I’ve played in, and all the places around the world. So, it’s a great thing. [The waitress began clearing away.] I think I gotta bolt. I’m sorry, my pals. It’s been delightful, delightful.
And it was delightful-- and memorable-- for Jane and I, too.
Text copyright 2007 Max Cheney. All photos are the property of their respective copyright holders and will be removed by request of same.
Colossal jumbo super-thanks to Jane for typing services, to Richard Olson for support, and to Tom Weaver, Ted Newsom and Pierre Fournier for editorial assistance.