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: Timothy Dalton got his start in the theater while he was still a teenager, but life moved at high speed for the young actor, with his work on the stage quickly providing opportunities on television, which in turn led to his big-screen debut in the 1968 film The Lion In Winter. While the 1970s may have been a bit of a mixed bag for Dalton—one word: Sextette—the ’80s proved to be a decidedly more high-profile decade as a result of him taking over for Roger Moore as James Bond. Although his stint as 007 lasted only two films, Dalton has continued to work steadily throughout the intervening years, both on TV and in film, and he can currently be seen as part of the cast of Showtime’s new supernatural drama, Penny Dreadful.
Penny Dreadful (2014-present)—“Sir Malcolm”
The A.V. Club: How did you find yourself involved in this project in the first place?
Timothy Dalton: Simple: I was just called up and asked to do it.
AVC: Well, that’s easy enough. It should always be that easy.
TD: Well, generally it is! [Laughs.] That’s what happens: they call me up and ask me to do it. That doesn’t mean to say that I’m their first choice, of course. Sometimes, happily, I am their first choice, and I’m very flattered, but sometimes I might be their 79th choice!
AVC: So who is Sir Malcolm?
TD: Well, this isn’t an original answer or quote, but I love the fact that, in one of the later episodes, the character of Vanessa—played by Eva [Green]—says, “You weak, foul, lustful, vainglorious man!” [Laughs.] To which I would add obsessive, determined, ruthless, and manipulative… and as you can see, I’m one of the good guys!
AVC: Based solely on the pilot, Malcolm seems to have a bit of Captain Ahab to him, as far as his obsession.
TD: Gosh, what made you say that? You weren’t talking to [series creator] John Logan, were you? [Laughs.] Well, it’s difficult to judge from just the first hour because we’re introducing a lot of characters who’ve got to be given some kind of foundation off which to progress, so that we can get to know them and get a little bit interested in them. You can’t tell a great deal from a first episode, but the story does become quite a sprawling, complicated, interesting world and a beautifully written show.
I find it very difficult to sum up what the story’s about, and I always think about Captain Ahab. I think of Moby Dick. If anyone asks you, “What’s Moby Dick about?” and you said it’s about a captain hunting a whale, you’d be right, but you’d be terribly wrong. If you said it’s about a depressive seaman who goes out to try and find himself on a whaler, you’d be right, but you’d also be wrong. It’s not an almanac about whaling, either, you know? It’s hard to sum up anything that’s complex and good and interesting in a simple, easily available way. But if you get complicated about it, if you get serious about it, you just become boring! [Laughs.] Anyway, I often thought of Moby Dick, and you’ve mentioned Ahab… or do you think it’s the beard?
AVC: Well, that certainly didn’t hurt. But it just struck me in general because of his obsession over the white whale, as it were, responsible for his daughter’s fate.
TD: Well, I think you’ve hit on something there, yeah. I think John Logan… Once I got my beard on, I think he thought, “My God…” I mean, that was an image that came to his mind as well. [Sir Malcolm] is definitely obsessive. And a manipulator. And determined. And possibly quite mad.
AVC: How much of an overview of the series did you receive from Logan when you signed on?
TD: Very little. As we got to know each other, I got to know more and more, but when we didn’t know each other, he was very cagey about the whole thing. Even on set, the people in the unit didn’t know what would happen! [Laughs.] Which I thought might be going a bit too far, but it is a strange thing, doing a series. For all I know, he might not have known. He might not have written episodes six, seven, and eight, for example. I think he had, but he’s God, you know? He can create that story however he wants it to be. Whatever he says today, he could change his mind tomorrow and write something else completely different if he wanted to.
Yet, as an actor, when you are looking at a role in its entirety, as you do in a film or play, you know you have a canvas on which you can work. You can, in fact, play against something here because it’ll pay dividends further down the road. You can decide how to bring subtlety and texture and generally feel that you might be right in what you’re doing. But if you don’t know what happens, it makes it very difficult. It almost forces performances that are more maybe direct and obvious. I don’t know. I would imagine so. You’ve got to have some kind of inkling, or you just chance you’re wrong. I much prefer to go for subtlety and for texture and for contradiction. But it is difficult not knowing the whole thing.
Troilus And Cressida (1966)—“Diomedes”
AVC: In trying to find your first on-camera appearance, it appears it was in a filmed production of Troilus And Cressida, where you played Diomedes.
TD: It rings a bell. That might have been at the National Youth Theater in Britain, when I was 17 or 18, but… it couldn’t have been in ’66, because I would’ve been working as a professional by then. Let me tell you something: If you look up anything about me online, it’s wonderful, it’s beautiful, and it’s all wrong. [Laughs.] They even get my name wrong online! I absolutely love that: The truth is concealed behind a barrier, a wall of lies! So I think that was a production of Troilus And Cressida by Britain’s National Youth Theater, but I don’t remember anything about it!
AVC: Presuming anything about this information is accurate, it says the leads were Andrew Murray and—
TD: Then that’d be it. He was in National Youth Theater as well, yeah.
AVC: Maybe it was something that was filmed and broadcast.
TD: No, it was just a play. I don’t think it was ever filmed. [Hesitates.] I don’t believe so, anyway. It could have just been one of those archive things that they tend to do, where they put a stationary camera [up], just as an archival recording. But it was never properly filmed.
Sat’day While Sunday (1967)—“Peter”
TD: Was the character called Peter? I’m beginning to love this interview. [Laughs.] I’m discovering things about my life that have been forgotten! Sat’day While Sunday was a multi-part… I don’t know what you’d call it. A serial? A series? It was for British television, and it was my first TV. I don’t remember the character being called Peter. I don’t even remember who or what he was or what he did. But I remember being in it! And Malcolm McDowell was also in it, and it was his first television. And a lovely British poet called Roger McGough was in it. It was a strange sort of thing, one of those shows that tries to break down conformity. You had poetry, you had a bit of music, you had this, that, and the other, but I can’t really remember much about it. The only thing of note about it was that it was Malcolm McDowell’s first TV as well as my own.
AVC: To jump back to the very beginning, how did you first find your way into acting?
TD: That sounds like a set-up for a joke doesn’t it? “How did you first find your way into acting?” “Well, I turned left at the stage door…” [Laughs.] It was kind of clichéd and traditional, but I used to go as a kid, like most kids did, to Saturday morning movies, where we saw pirate films and the Lone Ranger and the old Flash Gordon, with the Mud Men coming out of the walls, and we all had a great, great time. Then I started to go see popular movies, and I was transported to a world elsewhere… and I wanted to be a part of it! That was a dream that was nurtured—or harbored, let’s say—from the age of about 6 or 7.
AVC: When did you decide to actually pursue a career in acting?
TD: When I had to decide what to do for a living. [Laughs.] The options were to go to university for biochemistry or join the Royal Air Force and become an astronaut, which, of course, would not have been a very productive career line! Britain’s rocket never got off the ground. Well, it got off the ground, but it didn’t get very far off the ground before it blew up on every occasion. But I’d always wanted to be an actor, so I had joined in my last years of school this organization called the National Youth Theater, a fabulous organization in Britain in those days… and still is! That’s where I got my first experiences, and then I went to drama school. I went to the Royal Academy, which I didn’t particularly enjoy. And then I got offered a job by a very robust and interesting theater director called Peter Hughes at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. And that thrilled me enormously as a 20-year-old, because that’s where Laurence Olivier had started, and it’s where Albert Finney had started.
AVC: You worked predominantly in theater at first. Was it always a plan for you to transition from the stage to in front of the camera, or was it incidental?
TD: Well, I don’t like that word “incidental.” One would think of one’s work as encompassing. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was on-camera work something that you’d actively pursued, or was it an opportunity that just happened to come about?
TD: Well, I had the most fantastic first year that you could ever have. I went to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, this famous British repertory theater. Then one of the productions that I was in came down to London’s West End for a limited season. Then I was offered that show you asked me about a moment ago, Sat’day While Sunday. And in that same year, I was offered the part in The Lion In Winter, with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. So that was a cracking first year!
AVC: That’s not bad.
TD: That, I suppose, really kick-started things, pushed me, and gave me my career, in a way. Although, no, nothing gives you your career. But it sort of projected it forward.
The Lion In Winter (1968)—“Philip II”
TD: Wasn’t that well-written? I mean, to come back to Penny Dreadful, Penny Dreadful is superbly written by John Logan. He’s a really fine dramatist. But these days, it gets rarer and rarer to find something that’s not simply well-written in itself but has been well-written by a superb dramatist, who understands drama and storytelling.
AVC: It’s interesting that you and Malcolm McDowell shared the same first TV experience, and then you went on to share your first film experience with Anthony Hopkins. It was his first film as well.
TD: Yep. And John Castle’s and Nigel Terry’s. I think Jane Merrow was the only one of us sort of younger kids, as it were, who’d ever done a movie before. So it was a great experience. I mean, she was fabulous, Katharine Hepburn. Just such a wonderful woman, so generous and kind and all-embracing and sort of… exciting, you know? And [Peter O’Toole] was great, too! I mean, he gave me… [Hesitates.] It didn’t work quite as well on film, but there’s a wonderful dénouement scene after I’ve sort of betrayed the whole lot of them, all his sons, when he stands there and gives a speech.
I can’t remember it, but he starts, and he’s just so shocked, so hurt, that he just starts talking about himself. And I think it starts something like, “I, Henry, Count of blah blah blah blah blah, Earl of this, Lord of that, King of…” You know, he builds this pillar of who he is: “He married out of love, a woman out of legend. She bore him many children… but no sons.” [Goes silent for several moments before laughing.] I’ll tell you, when he got to that, the air shook. The air trembled. I trembled! Every pore, every hair, every follicle across one’s entire body just went… [Gasps.] I had never heard or seen anything so powerful in my entire life as an actor. And it was great on the set. It was just brilliant. The air crackled. No, let’s say the air cracked. It was very powerful on film, but it was not quite the same, because you’re not actually in the room with him. But that was a fantastic moment, and I’ve never forgotten it. Well, you can see! I mean, years and years later—shit, 50 years later!—I’ve not forgotten that. I’ve never looked at the script since, and I can still remember bits of it!
[John Castle had appeared in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up two years prior. But The Lion In Winter was still only his second film. —Ed.]
Charlie’s Angels (1979)—“Damien Roth”
TD: Oh, well, that was a terrific thing to do! I’m very pleased I did that. I’d gone back to London to do Flash Gordon. That was my next job, and I was back in England maybe three weeks, maybe a month before it started. The day I got off the plane, I got a telephone call from my agent saying, “You know Charlie Angels, don’t you?” Well, of course I did: That was one of the, if not the, most successful and most famous series there was in the world! And they said, “Well, Farrah Fawcett has broken her contract and left or something, and part of the settlement is that she has to do these special episodes. They want you to play the part of...” well, whatever he was called. You know more than me! But he was sort of a cool European cat burglar, probably modeled after someone like Cary Grant, or the idea came from something like that. And she falls in love with him. Of course, she has to turn him in at the end. [Laughs.] And I thought, “Yes! Definitely! I’m on the next plane back out!” I thought, “I’ve got to do this! I’ve never done anything like this before!” I mean, the thought of doing an hour in seven days… You’d rehearse a scene for seven days in some movies, let alone actually shoot an hour in seven days!
I remember one gorgeous dawn. I’d come out onto the beach near Malibu somewhere, where we were filming, and I’d got there in darkness, and… well, I’m a guy: We don’t bother much with makeup or stuff like that. We just get our clothes on, they put maybe a bit of base on, and you’re done! [Laughs.] You’re in and out of makeup in less than five minutes! And I just went for a stroll down the beach. It’s dawn, the sun was just coming up over the horizon, and I sat down on the sand with the water just lapping towards my feet, waiting to start. And I was taken by this beautiful dawn, as the sun rose up over the horizon.
Then I sensed someone coming behind me, so I looked around and it was the director! He said, “Do you mind if I sit down?” and I said, “No, of course not! It’s fabulous, isn’t it?” And he sat down, and we chatted and we had a wonderful conversation. I mean, it was idyllic, you know? Then I suddenly looked at my watch, and we should’ve started about an hour ago! And I said, “Look at the time! Aren’t we supposed to be doing stuff here?” He said, “Oh, yeah. But don’t worry about it: The girls are all getting their hair done, and none of them wants to come out of their trailers before the other!” [Laughs.]
So we carried on chatting, and then we went to work, and I learned… I’d never been thrust into work under such pressure. It doesn’t sound like such pressure, given the story I’ve just told, but it’s very difficult to get an hour’s worth in seven days. I suppose an hour in those days was 45 minutes, given commercials and stuff, but it’s very hard! You don’t get to sit and chat. You do. And once you’ve got the take, you move on. So I learned a lot on that. More than anything, though, I learned trust, trust, trust yourself. Just do it. Be brave. Trust yourself. It was a great lesson.
Flash Gordon (1980)—“Prince Barin”
TD: I think it’s wonderful. Now it’s huge. Everybody loves Flash Gordon. [Hesitates.] I mean, hope you like it!
AVC: I watched it immediately before screening the Penny Dreadful pilot.
TD: I’m astonished by what a huge cult film it is. But I have to say that the Americans didn’t get it at all at the time. It’s taken maybe 30 or 40 years to realize it’s a joke! I was astonished reading the horror with which the American press vilified the movie. “How can they have a space ship that looks like a ’50s motorcar? I mean, spaceships don’t look like that! And the Wingmen—or the Birdmen or Eaglemen or whatever they are—you can tell that their wings are papier-mâché! This is an awful film!” And it wasn’t just one, you know. It was a whole bunch of them who didn’t realize that it was kind of a marvelously funny and imaginative way of depicting a cartoon that in itself is rather silly. “Come on, Flash! We’ve got 10 minutes to save the universe!” [Laughs.] The dialogue is awful!
AVC: Yet it’s so quotable as a result.
TD: Yes! So the world laughed… but not a lot of American movie critics did! But I was Prince Barin, the sort of wooden… oh, I’m trying to think of a word. Pompous? Self-important? Arrogant? Narcissistic? [Laughs.] Really, it was a lovely role to play!
AVC: You and Brian Blessed had some great back-and-forth moments in the film.
TD: Ah, he’s great fun. And Max Von Sydow, he’s just sensational. And then you’ve got Topol and Ornella Muti and Mariangela Melato as well. I have to say, I’m beginning to hear myself keep repeating this phrase, but I loved being in that movie! I try and love being in every movie I do. It’s such a waste of time if you’re not in love with the movies you do. Not only is it a waste of time, it’s a waste of effort if you’re not in love with the movies you do. I’ve only got one or two that I’ve not been particularly enamored with once I’ve started. But in general, you’ve got to love what you do. And you’ve got to communicate that you love it. But Flash Gordon I just thought was a fabulous film, and as I say, I was disappointed, but now I laugh about the fact that it was, I think, the second highest-grossing film in the world that year… and it bombed in the United States!
AVC: Just as a bit of forewarning, this next one might be one of those that you mentioned not being entirely enamored with.
TD: Well, now, you’re not going to go through my entire biography, are you? [Laughs.] We’ll be here ’til next week!
AVC: No, there’s really not that many more. But this next one was actually a specific request.
Sextette (1978)—“Sir Michael Barrington”
TD: Ah. Well. Well, well, well. Now, then. Let’s see how we can dance around this one…
AVC: You can dance while “Love Will Keep Us Together” plays in the background, if you like.
TD: Yesssssss. I tried singing that, you know.
AVC: Oh, I know. The clip is on YouTube.
TD: Well then, you know I’m not a good singer. [Laughs.] But I don’t think that’s me doing the singing! I don’t think it is, anyway. Anyway, as you can imagine, it was one of the remarkable, interesting, and extraordinary pieces of work that I have ever been in. Well, for me, it’s more notable for meeting Mae West and getting to know her. She was… well, nobody really knew how old she was then. I think they lied to the insurance company—maybe they didn’t—and said that she was 84. But other sources said, “No, no, she can’t be 84. She’s got to be at least 87!” And one very reputable source said, “All wrong: She’s 91!” I mean, this woman was one of the great comedic film stars of, what, the ’20s? The ’30s? How long did her career go? Into the ’40s? Probably! But she was one of the great stars.
So I found myself talking to a woman who… [Hesitates.] Well, she couldn’t remember very much about now. That was hard. But she was pin sharp and crystal clear about life in New York in the 1890s! Now, when you’re talking to somebody who’s got that kind of experience and memory and can communicate it, it’s fascinating! I mean, this is a woman who, basically, lived at a time when the fastest a human being could travel wasn’t much faster than a horse could pull a wheel! Yes, they had steam engines, and maybe even the beginning of motorcars. I can’t remember when the motorcar was invented! Essentially, though, it was at a time when few people could go faster than a horse could pull a wheel, and by the time I was working with her, men had landed on the moon! In the movie, we even have a reference to “a small step for man.” She hadn’t a clue what that was about. [Laughs.] She had no idea what it was referencing. But her life had spanned the greatest technological upheaval in the history of human beings ever.
Anyway, she was fascinating in that sense to talk with, and she was fascinating to talk to about theater in New York. And, of course, beyond that, George Raft turned up for a line! I mean, it was an amazing, odd bunch of people as the cast. It was, again, a great experience. But not a good film, of course.
AVC: How much interaction, if any, did you have with the rock-star contingent of the cast?
TD: Oh, do you mean Keith Moon? [Laughs.] He was great! Again I’m going to say it, but they were good people. He was terrific. But most people are, particularly if you’re having fun!
Jane Eyre (1983)—“Edward Fairfax Rochester”
TD: That was a wonderful thing, and I’m quite gratified to see [people] even today voting it the best Jane Eyre ever. It was good, and one of the reasons was, obviously, it’s got to be adapted from the novel to the screenplay, and any writer wants to impose their own mark on it. But it’s very difficult to try and impose your mark on Chekhov or Tolstoy... or Charlotte Brontë! I mean, they kind of imposed their own mark already, and what people want to watch is that. So what we actually did was, we sat down with the novel and actually—is the word “extrapolated”?—her dialogue into our movie. So most of it—a lot of it—is actually what she wrote, and it is five hours long, so you can actually get a good grasp on the story, which is very hard if you’re just making a two-hour movie. But as ours was five, it was broken up into episodes. But, yes, I loved doing that, and I think we did very well.
Tales From The Crypt (1992)—“Lokai”
TD: Forgot it. Move on.
AVC: Really? Okay.
TD: [Laughs.] No, I haven’t forgotten exactly! I mean, it was, I guess, an interesting experience. But not a very fulfilling one.
Doctor Who (2009 & 2010)—“Rassilon, Lord President of the Time Lords”
TD: Great! I mean, when you’ve watched Doctor Who since you’ve been a kid… [Laughs.] You could go and ask Meryl Streep or almost anybody else, and they will have a childhood fantasy, in a sense, from either before they actually became an actor or when they’d just started acting, about the things they’d want to be in. This is going on the lighter-hearted side, obviously. You want to do great work, challenging work, and do all those things really well and have people like the work, to make it worthwhile.
Having been a kid watching that, when someone rings you up in later life and says, “We want you to come and play a Time Lord…” Well, Doctor Who’s a Time Lord! Time Lords are it! So the answer is yes! I had great fun doing it. It was wonderful people to work with.
AVC: And how did you enjoy your costume?
TD: I liked it a lot! Well, we struggled to find what to wear, and I saw on a rack this sort of leather thing. I don’t know where it’d come from, but it looked like it’d come out of Antony And Cleopatra! Or, you know, some 300 movie! And I thought, “That, actually, is gonna go great with the robe. What about that? Can we use that?” And they said, “Oh, yeah, that’s a terrific idea! We’ll just put a badge on it or something.” [Laughs.] I mean, they don’t make things for you with Doctor Who. You’ve got to find stuff on racks!
Hot Fuzz (2007)—“Simon Skinner”
TD: Wonderful! Loved working with Edgar Wright, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. And I discovered that I was working with a whole crowd of actors that I’d known as some point in my history. Generally speaking, you never work with anybody you know. But I was working with people I’d known from the ages of 20, 21, and 22. And it was one of the most happy, joyous experiences I’ve had in movies, first of all because it’s a comedy, and it’s funny, which made it great to do. I love comedy, and I love working with people who are funny. But it was also the actors themselves. We all loved each other, in a way. We all had history together. So it was great. As well as, I think, being a terrific film.
The Beautician And The Beast (1997)—“Boris Pochenko”
TD: I liked that! That was fun. That was really nice. [Hesitates.] Yes. I liked that.
AVC: You’ve obviously established that you enjoy working in comedy, but that film was definitely a bit lighter than most people had ever seen you.
TD: Well, I’m not responsible for what people see. [Laughs.] If they see me do something serious and make their mind up that that’s what I do, it’s not my fault!
AVC: How did you enjoy working alongside Fran Drescher?
TD: Very much. I mean, she’s a wonderful comedian. She’s really got a superb sense of timing. It’s the old clichéd joke, isn’t it? The secret of comedy: timing. But she’s fabulous. Rock solid and always funny.
Sins (1986)—“Edmund Junot”
TD: I worked with Joan Collins and Giancarlo Giannini on that. If you’ve ever seen him in those Italian movies directed by Lina Wertmüller, he’s fabulous. You meet a lot of great people in my profession, a lot of wonderful people. I mean, there’s quite a few assholes as well. [Laughs.] But there are good people.
The Executioner a.k.a. Permission To Kill (1975)—“Charles Lord”
TD: It was called Permission To Kill when I made it. That’s the only name I remember. I might have an early script with The Executioner on it, but it was Permission To Kill when I made it… with Ava Gardner! A magnificent woman. See, I love everybody I…well, forget what I was about to say, because I’ve obviously just made it clear that I don’t love everybody I work with. There are one or two people I’ve worked with that I would quite happily throttle. [Laughs.] But so many of the people I’ve worked with have been fabulous people, as well as wonderful actors and actresses, and Ava Gardner was magnificent. What a woman. [Takes a deep breath, then exhales.] Gosh. I mean, there’s nothing much more I can tell you about her than that. She was just… oh, you know, she was just big and warm and wonderful and… fun. She was simply magnificent.
Brenda Starr (1989)—“Basil St. John”
TD: Brenda Starr. [Clears throat.]
AVC: Before you say anything further, this one comes up not for purposes of ridicule but because you will be the third person from the film who’s done an interview for this feature, the others being Brooke Shields and John Rhys-Davies.
TD: Well, I liked Robert Ellis Miller, who directed it. He and I did a movie together called Hawks, which is probably the movie I’ve had more fan letters… [Hesitates.] No, let me retract that; they’re not fan letters, and it would be wrong to say they were. Hawks is a story about two young cancer victims who decide to… well, they’re young, foolish, they’re full of braggadocio and balls, and they’re gonna die, and they just do what they wanna do. Rather than lie about and die in hospital and do chemotherapy or whatever, they decide to just get out and do a little bit of living. The studio changed it around a bit, unfortunately, but it was a sad, tragic comedy, and at the time I was overwhelmed with letters by cancer victims and the husbands, wives, and children of cancer victims who were just saying, “Thank you so much.” And because of that movie, Robert Ellis Miller asked me to do… No, was it the other way around? It was the other way around! I think I hadn’t met him when I did Brenda Starr, and then after that he asked me to do Hawks.
AVC: That’s right. Hawks had the earlier release date, but Brenda Starr sat on the shelf for a while before it was released.
TD: Well, I mean, that was… It was going for that film that I had decided to do the James Bond movie [The Living Daylights]. I’d taken the Concorde from London to Miami to catch and make a connection to go up to Jacksonville to start Brenda Starr… and the Concorde was late! [Laughs.] Or something went wrong, anyway, and I was stuck in the Miami airport. There was a hotel there in the airport, and I took a room there. Without anything to do, I decided to start thinking about whether I really, really should or should not do James Bond. Although obviously we’d moved some way along in that process, I just wasn’t set on whether I should do it or shan’t I do it. But the moment of truth was fast approaching as to whether I’d say yes or no. And that’s where I said yes. I picked up the phone from the hotel room in the Miami airport and called them and said, “Yep, you’re on: I’ll do it.”
As for the film itself, Brenda Starr… I mean, again, not a particularly memorable movie. I thought it was amusing and charming. I can’t really remember it, though! I can’t remember anything, to tell you the truth. [Laughs.] It’s interesting: You spend so much time, muscle, and bone into… Every movie you do is part of your life, part of your blood, part of your being. But once you’ve done them, their lessons and the experience remain with you, but the day-to-day details I leave behind. I will say that, of the two, Hawks has certainly continued to resonate more!
The Living Daylights (1987) / License To Kill (1989)—“James Bond”
AVC: The story from several sources has been that you were actually pitched the role of James Bond many years before you eventually accepted it.
TD: I was. After Sean Connery left.
AVC: And you just didn’t feel you were up to it?
TD: Oh, it just seemed like a ridiculous notion! I mean, I was very flattered that someone should even think that I should, but I don’t know, I was in my early 20s, I think, and… hey, look, on an intelligent level, it just seemed idiotic to take over from Sean Connery. I mean, if I was perfect for it, if I thought I’d be brilliant in it, if I’d loved the idea of taking over, I would’ve still said “no.” It is idiotic to take over from Sean Connery at the time when those movies were… I can remember as a kid going to see them. Not a child, but I was a teenager. I mean, you can’t take over for Sean Connery in that series at its height! After Dr. No, after From Russia With Love, after Goldfinger… I don’t know how many more he did, but to me, those were always the three great ones. You don’t take over. So of course I said no.
So now the corollary of that statement is to ask, “Then why did you say yes later?” [Laughs.] Well, because it was later, you know? There’d been Connery, there’d been [George] Lazenby, there’d been Roger Moore. I think now everybody was now used to the idea that this series was gonna last. No one was trying to cheaply exploit the success, which is a path that’s doomed to failure. This was a series where the producers were honestly trying to make each one better than the one before, a series that the producers took pride in and wanted to maintain. And interestingly enough, I’m sure that’s because it was still controlled by a family, the Broccolis. And [Harry] Saltzman with him in the first place, but then Saltzman went. If it would’ve been a studio, it might’ve been an entirely different trajectory for the film series, but because it was Mr. Broccoli and his family… You know, it was their life. They took pride in it and were trying to make good. So that’s a plus. And now that three people had already played it and I was lots older—I must’ve been 10, 12, 15 years older—I thought it was worth a shot. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you came in, you did so with a profound desire to hew as close to the original Ian Fleming version of the character as possible.
TD: Well, I came in under certain circumstances. The prevailing wisdom at the time—which I would say I shared—was that the series, whilst very entertaining, had become rather spoof-like. It was one-liners and raised eyebrows and it had become, let’s say, too lighthearted. And the producer, Mr. Broccoli, felt that, and he wanted to try and bring it back to something more like its original roots with those Sean Connery films. I had loved them all, and I had loved the books. But I think ultimately for anything to be successful, an audience must empathize. They must also get involved, but they must be given enough to suspend disbelief so that they’re truly able to become involved with the story. That’s not to say that there can’t be any comedy. There should always be comedy. Comedy is a great thing.
So that was the loose framework that we sort of embarked on, but then you find that nobody else wants to change it all! [Laughs.] The studio doesn’t want to change it, the people that work on it don’t want to change it… Everyone’s happy with what they know. And everyone intellectually says, “Well, yes, we should, it was getting a bit stale, it was getting a bit this, that, and the other,” but nobody actually wants to. So it wasn’t as easy as one would hope. I mean, now they have. I think now, with Daniel [Craig], they have. But that was, what, almost 20 years later that they actually embarked on something more believable?
AVC: So how do you look back on The Living Daylights and License To Kill, then?
TD: Well, it’s… it’s strange, and I should be careful what I say, because, of course, everyone is interested in Bond. It’s almost like a bracket or a bubble in one’s life. Everybody treats the idea of a Bond film different to anything else. I mean, journalists come knowing the story they want to write, whereas on a normal piece of work we’re all discovering what to write about. We’re discovering what we’re acting. It’s part of the creative process. But in a Bond movie? No. People know what they want to write about. And they know, really, what they want. Everyone’s got an opinion, from the top of the studio down to the guy in the street. But you’re sort of… outside.
No one, no matter how well someone can communicate, can tell you—and I certainly can’t really communicate accurately—what it is like to be the actor playing James Bond. The only actors who can are the other actors who’ve played the part. It’s kind of astonishing, really. You are in kind of a bubble. It’s real, it’s valuable, it’s exciting, and it can give great pleasure. And yet it’s somehow unreal. No, forget the “unreal” bit. But it’s somehow outside the normal course of what we all share in.
AVC: But what an experience.
TD: What an experience, indeed. A fantastic experience.
Chuck (2010-2011)—“Alexei Volkoff” / “Hartley Winterbottom” / “Gregory Tuttle”
TD: I’m thrilled to talk about that. I had such a good time. I had no idea, really, what to expect, because although I’d done Charlie’s Angels, it was the first time in a long time where I’d had to do an hour—which by then was more like 40 minutes—in about seven days or eight days, generally seven. If you left 4 a.m. on a Friday, then we’d probably finish in seven days. [Laughs.]
Oh, but they were great. It was so funny, so alive. I mean, they were under such pressure, and so adrenalized. You’d go in the writers’ room, with its pizzas all over the place and all the cups of coffee, and the walls would have scribbled ideas on whiteboards and blackboards, and you’d bang around ideas and thoughts, and you’d have to learn stuff immediately. Immediately!
Zach [Levi] was great, and Yvonne [Strahovski]. They were fabulous to work with. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a crew who could work so fast and so well and without any kind of sweat, with lots of pressure but no tension, if you understand the distinction. It was just a delight to do that. And I was given some space, which I loved, because I could take it on in a certain way. And people seemed to enjoy it, and I enjoyed it, and there we are! I was exhausted, but I was thrilled.
AVC: It seems like a show where the cast and crew would be geeking out at your mere presence.
TD: Oh, don’t be silly. I wouldn’t say so. I mean, you’re not telling me that others have said so, are you?
AVC: I am not.
TD: I would hate that, in a way, because… well, we’ve all got to join in together when we work, haven’t we?
The Rocketeer (1991)—“Neville Sinclair”
TD: Ah, well, now… that was a comedy, or at least it was the way I played it! [Laughs.] I enjoyed it hugely, and I loved working with Joe [Johnston]. It’s not every day that you get to do a big Hollywood studio movie. I mean, most movies are made out of Hollywood, away somewhere. And that was made in Hollywood. It was a great experience to do that and be part of it, and I thought it was a terrific film.
But the one odd experience—I was having as much fun as I could squeeze out of this Errol Flynn-type character and hoping to make audiences smile and, at best, make them laugh from time to time. The problem is, it turns out your man is a Nazi at the end! You know, we don’t want to make the idea of Nazis in any way appealing or in any way fun. I was kind at a bit of a loss as to what to do. I was like, “How am I going to reconcile this?” If you’re going to play a bad guy in this kind of movie, you’ve got to make your audience enjoy him, which I think I did, but how to finally put a nail in the coffin? And I just thought, out of interest, I’d go and find out what people thought about Nazis. So every time I was in the street or in a bar or restaurant, I’d lean over and say to somebody, “What do you know about the Nazis? I’m just conducting my own informal poll.” [Laughs.] I tried to do it with relatively young people—people up to, say, 30 years old or whatever—and it was really disappointing that the most common answer I got was, “Weren’t they the bad guys in movies?”
AVC: That is a bit depressing.
TD: Some people didn’t know! Mind you, I have to say that… I don’t know if you read it here, but I read a few weeks ago that in an American poll—conducted by, I think, two or three universities—asking people in the United States where the Ukraine and the Crimea were, I think about 23 percent said, “Isn’t that in the Midwest?” [Laughs.] So, anyway, I thought, “Well, people don’t seem to get this Nazi thing, do they?” I mean, some people knew, of course, and some people said, “Isn’t it a political party?” But I was shocked by how few people really had any grasp of what Nazism was and how it had grown and what actually happened only, what, 50 years ago?
So anyway, I thought I’d try to make him go a little bit mad at the end, make it seem he’d gone crazy—because that is a craziness, and not an appealing craziness—and then, of course, he gets his comeuppance by blowing the end of the “Hollywoodland” sign off and crashes! [Laughs.] But, no, that was a lovely experience. I think Joe was a terrific director, and I liked him very much. He went on to make one of my favorite films, October Sky. It’s a lovely film, a wonderful film.
AVC: When I talked to Billy Campbell about The Rocketeer, he had some very strongly worded comments about the way the publicity for the film was handled.
TD: Well, I think that’s true. I mean, they fell in love so much with this beautiful, elegant, kind of art nouveau poster that they thought that would do. And that was a mistake. I mean, you could’ve gone in thinking it was a cartoon! It didn’t give you a sense of story or what it was. So, yeah, he’s right. Nobody wants to fail, and nobody wants to develop an advertising campaign that isn’t successful, but unfortunately in this business, they often do. For the best reasons, they often completely misguide audiences and either build up expectations that aren’t there or completely mislead them into not even going to the cinema. I don’t think The Rocketeer benefited from its advertising campaign, but it’s a lovely film. And I really enjoyed it. [Laughs.] You know, I’m going to be really depressed when I put the phone down now. I feel as though I’ve had you take me through my entire life!
AVC: And to think there were others yet to be asked about. But you’ve endured this long enough.
TD: [Hesitates.] Do you want to try one more? How long have we been going?
AVC: Almost an hour.
TD: [Bursts out laughing.] You know, I generally limit all my interviews to 20 minutes. We’ve done three times that!
Toy Story 3 (2010)—“Mr. Pricklepants”
TD: Isn’t that lovely? [Laughs.] Well, I’m not going to take credit for Mr. Pricklepants. I’m going to give credit entirely to Lee Unkrich, who directed it, and the entire team of people, those astonishingly talented people, at Pixar. They are brilliant, and their perfectionism under John Lasseter… They work so hard, and it’s a great lesson that they don’t let anything go through unless they think it can’t be improved. Even if it’s only a tiny bit of improvement, they are perfectionists, and they will go for that improvement. And they created a wonderful character for me to voice, but they did all the work. I just came and did the voice… I’m thrilled! I’m very, very happy to be part of such of a lovely film.
AVC: Plus, who doesn’t want to be credited as having played “Mr. Pricklepants”?
TD: Yeah! I have a picture of Mr. Pricklepants on my wall! [Laughs.]
AVC: You may have closed by providing the best mental picture of the interview.
TD: [Laughs.] Yep. There he is: just a hedgehog in lederhosen.