Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Considering the sheer number of sociopathic henchmen he’s played over the years, it’s easy to forget that Brad Dourif’s acting career began in complete antithesis with his portrayal of the quiet, dreamy-eyed Billy Bibbit from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. While the role earned Dourif an Academy Award Nomination, Bibbit would be followed by a career-spanning penchant for playing the depraved. As the voice behind everyone’s favorite possessed doll, Dourif’s contribution to the horror genre with the Child’s Play franchise is one of a very few roles that’s found the 66-year-old actor front and center. As adept as he is at playing Chucky (and has been for enough sequels to rival Jason Voorhees), Dourif is at his most formidable when playing the “guy in the shadows right behind the main bad guy.” Not a slight to what’s been a consistent career featuring roles in some of the most successful film franchises (Alien, Halloween, Lord Of The Rings), Dourif’s primary strength comes from his ability to bring his own dynamic to the unnerving. Slated to appear next year in what will be the seventh installment in the Child’s Play series, Dourif recently spoke to The A.V. Club about a few of the more devious characters he’s played.
Brad Dourif: First of all, when I read the part, I said I didn’t want to do it. I felt that Piter was a sociopath, and if I did one, then that’s all I would ever do. That may or may not have been true, but then eventually David [Lynch] called me up and said, “Please do it,” and I said, “Okay.” Then I read everything much more carefully and figured out a way to do it that would keep me interested. Really, instead of making it about what he does, I got more into what a Mentat is. I started to create a lot of little side stories for myself. I created a hand language so that Piter was always talking with his hands, either repeating what he was saying out loud or saying something different.
The A.V. Club: And that was just the beginning of what’s been a long career of playing believable sociopaths or troubled characters.
BD: Of course, that’s all I got after that. I had already done Wise Blood. It got to be really insane. I was playing all these killers, and eventually I was starting to count the number of people that I killed that year. It was like I would go on set, someone would hand me a weapon. I’d check it, shoot a few people, and get on an airplane and leave like I was actually a hired gun.
AVC: Of course, that’s very different from where you started as Billy Bibbit. Given how different a role it was, is it one you revisit often?
BD: First of all, I haven’t seen it in a very long time. After you do something, you should destroy it completely in your head, because no two roles are the same. You really need, in a certain way, to start at square one every time you do a part. A lot of times, you don’t have time. You just have to fly by the seat of your pants, really, but if you have some time to prepare, you can come up with something unique and different and be able to play it different.
I didn’t really approach Billy Bibbit any differently than I approached anything else I’ve done. It’s just that the part itself was so dead on the nose. This was someone who’s bipolar, and that movement from up to down, it’s what just made it natural. I’m not bipolar, by the way. I’ve been depressed, and I’ve been unhappy, certainly, but I’m not in any way genuinely like that. Things pretty much just flow off my back in general, but we’ve all had our highs, and we’ve all had our lows, and when you get to play a low, you play a low, and when you get a high, you play a high, and that adds up to, if it’s in the script, it’s going to look like it is. You just play it naturally and specifically at the moment. It’s just brain chemistry is what bipolar disorder is. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. I just played the scene as far as the insanity goes.
The rest of it, I think Milos [Forman, the director] said to me before I even started to work on the part, he said the thing that he wanted to see is the courage of somebody who stutters. He said, “Because at the moment that they stutter, they’re totally alone.” That made a very deep impression. I found somebody whose career was working with people who stutter, and they were trying to devise a way to cure stuttering. I got an entire textbook on stuttering, how it was broken down and so forth and so on, and I just did the reverse and taught myself how to stutter.
AVC: That earnestness definitely comes across, too.
BD: Anybody can learn how to stutter. It’s not a terribly difficult thing. At that point, there wasn’t that much known about it, and once I found out how to do it, it was easy. When I work, if I’m playing something that has an affect like stuttering, I stutter all the time. So during the shooting, I stuttered throughout the whole time. That’s never changed. If I do an accent, I do that accent all the time. The reason for that is to get as used to it as I can. Obviously, sometimes you get scripts right away, and you have to go bang and shoot.
I have limits because I’m a slow study with lines, and I won’t approach a set unless I know every line in the movie by heart by the time I show up. These are just my disciplines. If I’m not able to do that, then I’ll say no. If there is something in the character that I look and I think, “Well, I need to do this, and I need to do this,” and there’s no time in which to do it, I will say no. People don’t understand really what it takes to do a performance, but I do, so I pretty much stick to my rules. I just can’t imagine walking on set and being absolutely, completely, totally unprepared.
AVC: You were 25 years old when you portrayed Billy. There’s still a lot of vulnerability even at that age. Was that something you saw helping you develop the character?
BD: I might have. I honestly don’t remember. I had a feeling that the film was going to be big. Jack Nicholson, at that point, had never won an Oscar, and he had been nominated four years in a row. I knew that this was going to be the one. They couldn’t not do it. I think for that alone, it was going to be big, and then of course it was. Milos ultimately made the right decision. He simplified the movie and made it very much about the people because everybody was so goddamned good in it, and I was definitely noticing that.
AVC: You yourself were nominated for an Academy Award. Like you said, when you talk about a stellar cast, it doesn’t get much better than that.
BD: Everybody was unknown. Chris Lloyd was unknown. Danny DeVito was unknown. Louise Fletcher was unknown. She had only done one film before that. It was really, really this new cast.
AVC: Going from working with someone like Forman on Cuckoo’s Nest to working with Lynch on Dune and Blue Velvet seems like it would be a pretty jarring experience.
BD: I never, ever, ever looked at it that way, because one thing that’s true about anybody who’s a great director is that they’re unique. Great directors are never, ever, ever alike in any way, shape, or form. They approach it differently. They come from a different place. They are really true to themselves, so you always notice something about the sensibility of the person and what their strengths are and their weaknesses, because they’re all different. With Milos, his idea was that you just be natural. He didn’t understand all of this other stuff people did. Of course, I knew why I had to do it that way, but he never got it. He never understood it, but he was bound, and he instinctively knew when he could get more. He never left a scene until he got what he wanted. Not only that, but he thought that he got everything the best that he could get. He had a serious determination and an unwillingness to compromise.
Lynch was a painter. Everything about him was the shot, the moment, the this, the that. The deeper stuff was all in the discussions. David was great fun to hang around with and talk to, really good with people. He was very, very calm and a really cool guy to be around, very enthusiastic and strange and extremely visual. Every single detail really was the story and fit into the story in a very precise way. He was not at all improvisational. He just wasn’t, but he had such a calm way of doing things and working on things that it was all kind of fun.
When you have a bunch of people there, and you haven’t really written the thing and somebody kills a copperhead, the copperhead will go into the thing if it’s right. So it was, “Play with the corpse of the copperhead,” which I wound up doing. Beyond that, David knows what he intends to do. Obviously, he’s smart and some things will change, but he knows what he’s up to. Blue Velvet was the script. There are no real differences between the script and the movie. The only thing was that the gas that Dennis [Hopper] was sucking on was supposed to be helium, and he was supposed to talk in a squeaky voice the whole time. [Lynch] couldn’t have him do it that way, so what he was going to do was use the vocal and then pitch it up way high, but he looked at it, and he said, “No, it’s a great idea, but it doesn’t work. Too silly.”
AVC: That’s another film that hinges on the versatility of its ensemble.
BD: Well, when somebody is extraordinary, and they’re able to communicate, people fall in. You can’t help it. People adore David Lynch when [they] work with him, just super adore him, so it’s not hard for him to create an ensemble. I was brought up as an ensemble actor. I worked at Circle Rep [Theatre], and the purpose of Circle Rep was to create a company of actors who could work with any director and any writer without letting themselves get fucked up. We relied heavily on one another, so that we really understood the cycle of competition and support. We’d compete, and competing is a very important part of ensemble. The better you get, everybody else realizes they’ve got to show up, too, so everybody makes everybody better, but everybody really likes what the other person’s doing and likes working with them and gets that we make each other better when we depend upon on another. That’s essentially what an ensemble is, a kind of willingness to open yourself up to the differences in the people with whom you’re working and getting off on it.
Mississippi Burning (1988)—“Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell”
Child’s Play (1988)—“Chucky”/”Charles Lee Ray”
AVC: Speaking of differences, you worked on Mississippi Burning and Child’s Play within months of each other.
BD: Well, I got Mississippi Burning when we were at the shooting phase of the movie. I had auditioned, and Peter [Biziou] invited me to come down. He just wanted to see me, which was very strange. I just went down, and I thought, “Well, either I get it or I don’t.” He just walked me around a little bit and said, “Well, do you want to do it?” I said, “Yeah.” I was so scared at that moment. I’ve been around long enough to know never count your chickens, so I said, “That’s a strange thing to want to find out.” Why the fuck did he think I was there? He was really saying, “You have the part.”
With Child’s Play I had worked with the director before, Tom Holland. I worked with him on Fatal Beauty with Whoopi Goldberg. I got along really well with him, though nobody else liked him on that shoot. Then he got ahold of Child’s Play, which was Don Mancini’s script. I think that he made some minor changes in it, but it was pretty much Don’s baby anyway. But Tom immediately cast me. He said he wanted me to do it. I played Charles Lee Ray and did the voice. After that, I did them all. I was contracted for three of them, so they had to use me for three. Then after that, they had to use me because Chucky had become famous, and I’ve done them all ever since. Chucky is the least worked on, in a way, performance that I’ve done, because I just made him up. I gave him a bit of a Chicago accent at the beginning, and it’s evolved since then.
I always say that he’s my generic bad guy, although I’ve had this discussion with [the filmmakers] all along, and I said, “It’s a bad idea to make Chucky too funny because you lose horror when you lose your monster. Your monster is somebody with which you cannot negotiate, who is going to turn a living, breathing human into a piece of meat.” That’s my line on that. That’s the integrity of the part. Beyond that, Chucky loves his job. Those two seem to really be the only two things that I really know about Chucky. That, and he’s terrified of oblivion.
AVC: The franchise is still horror, though now there is that darkly comedic, self-commentary aspect to it. Did that shift happen by accident?
BD: No, that’s quite purposeful. That’s Don Mancini who really wants that, and partly my influence in really just being very aware. What happened is when they did the first Child’s Play, I was doing Mississippi Burning at the time, and they needed me to go to the studio, which, of course, I couldn’t go to because I was on set working, so they got somebody else, and they decided to voice it with somebody else. They just couldn’t wait around. They got this guy, and him and Tom Holland did the whole movie, and they stood up and they laughed their asses off, and apparently it was really funny, and they loved it, and they put it in front of an audience, and the audience hated it. They fucking hated it.
At that point, I’d finished working on Mississippi Burning. I was going to go to Woodstock and spend some time there, and they said, “No, no, no. Please come and do this,” so I went there and did it. I listened to what they did, and I just said, “It’s very clear why this doesn’t work. You can’t really play it comedically. He’s serious, and what’s funny is funny.” The “fuck you” on the elevator, that was just improv. I said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I know what to do here.” It wasn’t like we were against something that’s funny. Everything is about the event, and Chucky’s always had to be a little camp. He’s never not been camp. It’s been a huge part of what’s made him successful. It eventually went into total self-referential, which was Bride and Seed, and now that everybody’s doing remakes, it’s gone back to being scarier.
Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2002); Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003)—“Grima Wormtongue”
BD: I auditioned, god, five times, and then didn’t get it and was going through my thing where I give myself usually about five days to feel bad. Then, all of a sudden, they call me up and say the guy who they cast doesn’t want to do it, obviously because they didn’t pay him enough, so I took it. They didn’t pay me that much, either, though. I arrived on set, and we started working on accents, and then I had a discussion with [screenwriter] Fran [Walsh] and, based on what I read, we came up with who we thought the character was. My take is that he was this guy who was always ugly and was a good target of ridicule when he was young, but had a real strong, innate sense of people, and so he got really good at manipulating and very good at reading what people were going to do, extremely good at it. What better person to advise a king? He became this advisor to this king and probably an exceptional one, almost a part of the family, yet he saw all of this stuff around him—this family, this love, all this stuff that he could never really be a part of—which was the chink in his armor, which is what Saruman took advantage of.
BD: It’s funny, because I don’t think what happened with that character really happened in episode two. [Creator] David [Milch] really saw him more cowardly, but he was racing around trying to save the little girl. Finally, the editor just came up and very bewilderedly said, “You keep saying this guy is a coward and you want him retreating, but if you watch it, it doesn’t look like that at all.” David went there and really looked at it and went, “Oh.” Then he began to see that here was a guy with real decency. He had another character like that, which was the friend of Wild Bill Hickok, Charlie Utter, played by Dayton Callie, who’s a really good actor, but [David] kind of made my character like that, as well. [Doc Cochran’s] real core became something that just gelled in the shooting and in the cutting room, really. David began to really see him that way and write him that way from then on.
The rest of it is just stuff that David saw, I guess, in my audition, which was that Doc Cochran’s really curious. He takes people as they come. He’s very true to his job. He’s a doctor, and his purpose in life is to make people well, no matter who they are, and he has to do that in the environment in which he’s put. If you need a pest tent, if you have a thing and Swearengen [Ian McShane] gets what’s going on, he’s going to ally with Swearengen. It doesn’t mean that he approves of him. It just means that that’s the game you play. If he throws you a body to dissect, which is what Swearengen did, then he takes the body, and he doesn’t ask questions. He’s not there to uphold the law. That’s not his job, and he won’t do it. He doesn’t judge. The real civilizing influence in that thing was just the general greed of everybody there and the need to make things work. That’s what caused it to happen. The fact that there was gold there, and it went from 50 to 8,000 inside of a year or 10,000 inside of a year—sense has to be made out of that.