The oldest son of actor John Carradine and the half-brother of actors Keith and Robert Carradine, actor-singer-musician-writer-director David Carradine first found fame as the enigmatic wandering hero of television's Kung Fu, a show that earned him a Golden Globe nomination and a permanent place in the pop-culture pantheon. In 1972, the year Kung Fu began its run, Carradine starred in Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha, and in 1976, he scored one of his signature roles as Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's Bound For Glory. Other prominent acting projects included Ingmar Bergman's The Serpent's Egg and the cult favorites Q and Death Race 2000, and in 1981, Carradine co-wrote, directed, and starred in Americana, a drama about a Vietnam veteran. But the '80s and '90s mainly found Carradine working in forgettable direct-to-video movies and periodically reprising his Kung Fu role. His career received a huge jolt when he replaced Warren Beatty as the title character in Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino's eagerly anticipated two-volume revenge saga. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Carradine about his stage-acting career, his Kill Bill character, and his work with the holy triumvirate of Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, Down 'N Dirty director Fred Williamson. (Warning: Kill Bill Vol. 2 spoilers ahead.)
The Onion: What was it like growing up as the son of a legendary character actor?
David Carradine: Well, when I was a little kid, I didn't even know he was an actor. I thought he was a sea captain. He always dressed like that. That's all he talked about, his schooner. He was a master sailor. It seemed to me that that was all he cared about. The show-business people he knew, I suppose I met them all. John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, and all those cats—to me, they were just old guys, and drunk most of the time, too, probably. Then, later on, I lived with my father in New York. He was on Broadway. That's when I became totally aware that he was an actor.
In between, though, I used to get into fights at school. I went to school for a while at a New York City public school. They had a big gang thing going on. One guy stopped me in the hall and said "Your dad killed Jesse James!" [in the 1939 film Jesse James] and threw a punch at me. I started getting really tough, and then I stopped going to school. I had all this acne and I wouldn't talk right. It was always like that. I went to 17 different schools when I was a kid. Every time I went to school, no matter what I talked like, it was always from the wrong place. I never knew anybody, so contact sports were out and the cafeteria was out, so I would go down these back stairs, put a matchbook in the door, and have lunch outside. One day, I was coming back up, and that's when the guy met me at the stairway and threw a punch at me. After that, I actually beat up a couple of these guys that used to beat me up, somehow or another.
Finally, I'd go to school in the morning, and then I'd take my lunch money and go to Broadway to see a first-run movie. In those days, if you got in before 1 o'clock, you could go for 50 cents, and you'd get a first-run movie and an entire act. It could be a band, it could be jugglers, it could be a dog act, and then a headliner from the studios, like Frank Sinatra, Eddie Fisher, or Martin & Lewis, stuff like that. So that's what I did. Fuck school. The truant officer caught me and I went to reform school. That was interesting. I learned how to box, which was the main thing I got out of reform school.
I did get to hang out with my dad for a little while. I went with him to summer stock. I watched him be a real king of the world. He'd ship out as a star in summer stock. He sometimes directed the shows. I learned a lot from him—not just about acting, but about everything, how to handle a woman. Then I went back to live with my mother, and I plunged back into the regular world. This was in Oakland, California, which was about 80 percent black. I really got a whole street education by the time I got out of high school.
I went to college at San Francisco State and supported myself working the graveyard shift at a brewery, and did a little theater. It was great. I'd do Shakespeare and stuff like that. What you'd do is, you'd rehearse in the evening for eight weeks, and then you'd open the play and do the play on the weekends, then start rehearsing the next play. So I would go to college in the daytime, rehearsing on the swing shift and performing and working at the brewery. When was I going to sleep? In college, where else? In fucking class. So I gave up on college. I wasn't going to give up on the theater, and I couldn't quit my job. Then the Shakespearean Repertory came to town, and they were missing a juvenile, so they held an open audition, and eventually I got the part. It felt good to be doing Shakespeare. I remember thinking, "Shit, I could do this for the rest of my life."
Then I got drafted. While I was in the army, I formed a theater company, which was pretty cool. I was an artist in the army. You can't train an artist, you have to find one, because no artist is going to want to join the army. When I got out, I took a job at an art agency, but after the first part I got, I quit my job at the art agency. Then I made it onto Broadway. So things just happen to me. Most of the things that happened to me just seemed to happen. Or was it destiny?
O: Do you believe in destiny?
DC: I think things are going to happen whether you believe in it or not. You can't deny that it's a remarkable coincidence, the way things worked out.
O: How did your father feel about you becoming an actor?
DC: Once it was happening, he was very supportive. He didn't help me out at all. I always wondered why he didn't help me out, but he was having enough trouble getting jobs himself.
O: What did you consider to be your first big role in television or film?
DC: Forget that. The first important role was a Broadway lead I did called The Royal Hunt Of The Sun by Peter Shaffer, the guy who did Equus and Amadeus. Many of the important roles that I got later on were because the guy who was going to hire me was in that audience and had his mind blown. I tend to do that. I blow people's minds with my performances. Sometimes it's a little too subtle for people to face. They're, "Let me think about it. How the hell could this guy deliver being a Shaolin priest or an Oklahoma folksinger?"
O: People see something in you?
DC: Talent, I'd like to think.
O: How did you become involved with Kung Fu?
DC: The guy who hired me to do Kung Fu had been in the audience, and I think the moment he saw the script, which he pulled out of his archives, he thought, "This could work if I could get David Carradine to do it." I came back from doing Boxcar Bertha, which was Martin Scorsese's first Hollywood movie, and there was this thin envelope slid under my door, and it said Kung Fu on it. I didn't even know what that was. I had heard the word twice before. I didn't know if anyone else even knew what it was. I said "Okay, what is it?" and I read it and thought I should do it.
O: Do you see Kill Bill as one film?
DC: Yeah, it's one long film. Back before they split it into two parts, it was one film, and that's how you should think about it. And I don't think it will take very long—you'll be seeing it that way, because there are enough Tarantino fans who want to see it that way, and all you need to do is remove the credits in the middle. It holds together. Wham, it's a three-and-a-half-hour epic fucking masterpiece of exploitation moviemaking. That's what he calls it. He'll never tell you that what he's actually doing is giving himself the ability to be a great director like David Lean or somebody like that. He hides. He's very subversive, right? All the techniques available, moments of great beauty and great terror in this picture, particularly if you see it as one picture, you see that it flows. Everyone says that Part Two is a much different picture. Well, if you look at it together, you'll see that it flows together. It doesn't just jump. That's the way he designed it. He wanted everybody to think that it was just a simple action movie, and be plunged into this tragic love story that has a lot of the feeling of Sergio Leone, but also has the feeling of Shakespeare.
O: It seems like with Tarantino, there's no real delineation between high and low art.
DC: It's like rooting for the underdog or something. I think he says, "Everybody knows that Shakespeare is high art, so fuck it. What they don't know is that this is high art, so I'm going to show people." It's taking him a while. I tell you, this guy's just started. He's a very young guy, and he's younger than his years. He's going to go to the fucking moon, man. He almost reaches escape velocity in this film. There's a surprise every two minutes, especially in the second half. Suddenly strange left turns and hairpins, and I don't think you even notice it while you're watching the film, because you're so absorbed. I wouldn't say that he's trying to make you think, but he definitely makes your brain start working, particularly in the second half. You can't help it. You see all the undercurrents. Because it's really very complicated. Of course, all of his movies are pretty complicated. Pulp Fiction is so complicated that you want to see it six times.
O: How did you feel when you heard that Kill Bill was going to be split into two volumes?
DC: Well, when he told me that I'm not in the first one, that was a shock for about a minute. And then I realized that it's really just one movie. As it is written, Bill dominates the second half of the movie, and as it is, I dominate an entire movie. Everybody seems to notice it; they say, "Wow, David Carradine." [Tarantino] might have had that in mind, because part of his mission in life is to take things that people aren't looking at right now and prove to them that this is high art. He does that with people, as well. Like he invented Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson, and a few other people as well… Robert Rodriguez. Then there are certain people he uses, like Harvey Keitel or Michael Madsen. People who can win a baseball game with a grand slam, and then he turns them loose on the rest of the world, knowing that they're going to fuck with them, guys like John Travolta. He's a dangerous man. He likes to see those people out and working.
O: It seems like he sees things in people that no one else sees.
DC: He sees everything. Quentin is the most aware person I've ever met. I don't think he sleeps. He somehow ingested all the information that's available to him in his brain. He just knows everything. I've just seen a couple of little chinks. He didn't graduate from high school, and there are a couple of little chinks in his education that he's missing. Besides everything you know about him, how about the fact that his favorite place on the planet is the sculpture garden at the Rodin museum in Paris? Which is also my favorite place. I take every chick that I'm in love with there. I remember one time, I took one of my wives there, and this guy sidled up to us in the middle of the hallway, between all these beautiful sculptures, and said to my wife, "You're the best piece of art in this place." That was pretty cool.
Actually, it's the truth. I was an ideal model for almost all of the symbolism. Kung fu? Sure. Samurai? So close it works. Anyway, a samurai is like a gunfighter. The movies Clint Eastwood did for Sergio Leone were ripped off from [Akira] Kurosawa. The Western itself, which I'm a master of, with the fast draw, we had everything but the horses. You know that fast draw that I did [in Kill Bill Vol. 2]? The one that he left in, I actually fired eight rounds, I think, and the first six rounds I did got cut out. The reason I'm doing a left-handed draw is because the right-handed gun is empty. But what he left in was the left-handed draw, because that proves to anybody who wants to know that I must really be into it. It's one thing to be able to draw a gun, but it's another thing to be able to do it with your left hand if you're not left-handed. And it's also a little homage to Billy The Kid there, Paul Newman. [Newman starred in the Billy The Kid biopic The Left Handed Gun. —ed.]
O: The fact that your character isn't seen until Kill Bill Vol. 2 is reminiscent of Death Race 2000, where your face is concealed for something like half the movie.
DC: Actually, it's on page 30. When I read that script, I read up until page 30, where I take off the mask and say "What do you expect, another pretty face?" I closed the script, picked up my phone, called my manager, and said that I'd do it. I didn't even read the rest of the script.
O: Do you think of Bill as a sympathetic character?
DC: Performing is one thing. You never see him kill anyone. That's a rumor. What you see is a personality, is a point in the road, is just me hanging out, talking, or romancing a woman, playing with a kid, making sandwiches. That was a brilliant scene, and it was not in the original script. It was supposed to be a banquet, with tuxedos and servants and everything else, bodyguards all around the room. When we finally get down to it, my only bodyguard was a 5-year-old girl with a plastic gun.
O: In a weird sort of way, your character shooting The Bride is almost a crime of passion. There's an element of tenderness to it.
DC: She's cheating on him with another guy, so he shoots her and the other guy. That's typical, really. He is an internationally known assassin. In the script, it says that he's the guy for whom the term "hit man" was invented.
Once he shoots The Bride, it immediately changes his life. He has to look at his actions, and he realizes for the first time in his life that he has to make a moral decision about something he's already done, but it's too late to change. Destiny miraculously gives him the chance. He just takes care of the child and waits for her to come back to him. I think he knows that she's going to come back pretty fucking pissed off, and she's going to lunge at him. But he can accept that, because of the warrior's code and everything. Though she deserved it, he owes her. I think his hope is that she will come back and take the child away from him and go on to have the happy life that she had hoped to have just before he shot her in the head. But he's not going to give that to her.
There's a thing about the story of Theseus. He and his friend are going around being pirates for a while. Theseus is the guy in the story of the minotaur, who became King of Athens. While he was screwing around with his buddy in his ship, he comes upon the Amazons, and he falls desperately in love with the King of the Amazons. She's a woman, but she's the King of the Amazons. But she can only give herself to a man who bests her in hand-to-hand combat. So he has to fight her and make sure that he doesn't hurt her in order to win, because she's trying to kill him. That's sort of the situation with Bill. He's ready to let her win. In fact, he wants her to, but his ethic, he's the animal and she's the man. It's complicated, but that's Quentin. Quentin is so fucking complicated, it's almost silly.
O: Do you think Bill has come to terms with the idea of being killed?
DC: Yeah. There used to be a line in it about that, but Quentin cut it out. He wants to leave some of the mystery of it. He wants the audience to be talking about why he does this forever. A playwright once told me, "Here's what you do. You take situations and you build a perfect globe with the story. The problem is that nobody gets to see inside it. So you cut it in half and you show half the story, then let them make up the rest of it." Because otherwise, it's opaque. If you tell them everything, they'll have nothing to think about.
O: You've worked with Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
DC: And Fred Williamson.
O: Yes, those three always go together. It seems like there are a lot of similarities between Tarantino and Scorsese.
DC: And Fred Williamson.
O: Yes, and Fred Williamson, as well. How would you compare the three of them?
DC: There's absolutely no bullshit with Fred whatsoever. He just goes straight ahead and makes the movie, in 10 days or something. He manages actually to be able to tell you stuff that's meaningful and productive, but he's in a hell of a hurry. Quentin is like no other director I've ever worked with. He has all the smarts of Fred Williamson and Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese. Excuse me, but you left out Walter Hill and…
O: Hal Ashby.
DC: Hal Ashby, I was in love with. I would have said that he's my favorite director, but then I'd have to say, "Okay, who's my favorite living director?" And that would be Walter Hill, actually. Marty is the greatest, but I didn't have an opportunity to work with Marty at his best. With Boxcar Bertha, he was under the gun of Roger Corman and Sam Arkoff, so he never got to do what he wanted. I became his champion—not just his star, but his champion. I would stand up to these guys and say "Fuck you, man. I'm walking," to get Marty what he wanted. We were like collaborators. With Mean Streets, I only had one day. That's the first time he came into his own and was able to do what he wanted.
Ingmar is an absolute dictator. This is, again, an absolute love affair. Ingmar tells you exactly what to do and how to do it. He might take a hold of you and pull you around and point in your face and slap your hand and say "Don't do that!" Which was hard to take, but it's Ingmar Bergman, so you do it. Quentin, he's a complete master of his fate. He's a dictator, but he's also totally open. He'll change everything right now if he agrees with it, and he always listens. He's also capable of telling you things which will improve what you're doing.
Most good directors don't touch their actors. They hire the right guy and watch him and kind of encourage him, make him feel like he's good. Give him a little tweak once in a while. But Quentin would come up to your ear and whisper "Don't ever do that again" once in a while. He'll whisper it, though. He won't let anyone else know that he's doing that. He'll bring you out of yourself and up and beyond. Some of it's out loud, though. One time, when I was doing a long monologue, we did it for five days, and I said, "You know, this is just like being on Broadway. You go in and do your makeup and wardrobe and come on and you do the same performance, the same thing exactly, another day. It's great. It's like a Broadway play." So he did a few takes, and then he said, "David. This is your last night on Broadway. This is the last time you're ever going to play this part. I want you to give me your Goodbye To Broadway take." And, you know, that just goosed me in the ass. Everything he does brings it up. He's always making you push the envelope, and it's exciting as hell.
O: Hal Ashby made a lot of amazing films, but they were all pretty dissimilar.
DC: Yeah. He made no two movies that were anything like each other. Making Bound For Glory was like heaven. Nobody wanted to stop making that picture. We shot it for 19 weeks—it was five weeks over schedule, but nobody cared. Not even the studio cared. He was just so… How can I explain it? I'll tell you one thing about it. It was kind of like having a mirror, because he'd stand beside one side of the camera, and he'd mirror your expressions, like he was totally lost in your performance. One of the things about Hal was you got a feeling he was awed by your talent. He made you feel like you were great, and therefore you were great.
He didn't tell me much. I can remember two things he told me. At the very beginning of the movie, he said, "I think you need to have an Oklahoma accent," so I went out and got that. And then halfway through the movie, he said, "I think you're doing too much." But that was all. He made me watch all the dailies—all the directors are afraid to see any dailies, but I had to watch them completely, and there were something like three and a half hours of them, because he had six cameras. It was like having a lover or something. It was quite remarkable, in spite of the fact that I had no conversation with him. It was only when the cameras were rolling that I ever saw him. Because he—like me—would go rushing into his trailer, which is the same as mine. And we were both vegetarian. Somebody said, "Hal Ashby is a vegetarian and David Carradine is also a vegetarian, but a hungry one." Because I would eat constantly. Then we'd get the call to come back out because it was time to work, and me and Hal would be walking together like the Bobbsey Twins or something, and he'd get on one side of the camera and I'd get on the other side of the camera, and we boogied. I loved the guy so much.
O: Quentin Tarantino is famous for developing characters along with the actors. Did he do that with you?
DC: He didn't really do that with me. I know he made other people look at movies and stuff like that. He didn't make me look at movies, because he was totally aware that I was as knowledgeable about that stuff as he is. What he does is, when he wants to write a character, he'll take somebody he knows a lot about, and he'll pattern the character after them. He'll say, "This character is a lot like David Carradine," so he'll make the character as much like David Carradine as he can. There wasn't any research for me to do, you know? "I'd like you to study your own movies, David." What's he going to do?
The only thing he did in that direction was the reverse thing. He said, "Could you put together a compilation of David Carradine's greatest fights?" I think that was maybe only for his own library. I did that. I put together a tape with a whole bunch of stuff. The thing was, Quentin and I very much see eye to eye. He's hot for me as a director, for that matter, or as a, I suppose you might say, rebel. But that's not really who I am. I'm not a rebel. I'm just an iconoclast.