Interview with actor David Carradine
by Nicanor Loreti
PROBABLY EVERYONE HAS a favourite David Carradine movie. Some people like the Roger Corman production Death Race 2000 the most, others prefer artsy stuff like Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg, others dig kung fu flicks like Lone Wolf McQuade, but you won’t find anybody who hasn’t seen him on either the big screen or the tv (probably in the classic series Kung fu). David was one of many acting brothers (Keith, Robert), all of whom followed the steps of their father, John Carradine. But it was David who became the true American icon. He worked with some of the world’s most influential directors, directed films himself, and had no regrets. Working for Roger Corman taught him everything he had to know about the business, and after that, there was nothing that could beat him.
David Carradine clearly proved his worth in Kill Bill, the two volume film directed by Quentin Tarantino. In Vol. 1, you only hear his voice and never see his face — yet it’s enough to light up the screen… In Vol. 2, you get to see David in all his glory, and in my humble opinion that alone makes for a much better film. If you’re a fan, I would also recommend the little-seen gem The Monster Hunter (aka Natural Selection), where he played an odd FBI agent who can see demons.
I did this interview just before Kill Bill opened and was happy to hear back from, in his own words, “a fucking legend” — not that I disagree. Sadly, he passed away in 2008, which was shocking news for any cult movie fan. However, personal favourites like Lone Wolf McQuade and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 will live forever and keep the legend alive.
NICANOR LORETI What was it like working with Martin Scorsese and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha?
DAVID CARRADINE Well, Barbara and I were in love, and Marty was the new kid in town: fresh, bright, nervous as hell. It was a wonderful shoot. Marty and I got along like blood brothers. We had a lot of laughs. Marty had a hard time staying in control of the picture. He had to fire a couple of cameramen. He couldn’t get his way. In the end, though, he got what he wanted. The movie we shot was a better one than what was released after Sam Arkoff’s crowd had messed with it. Mean Streets was more quintessentially a Scorsese film, but I only had one day on the picture. We had to use Los Angeles for New York, and I could only work on Sunday, as I had started the Kung Fu series. An interesting sidelight: I gave Marty a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ. Told him if he didn’t make the movie of it, he was shit. He originally cast Barbara and I in the leads, but it took so long to get it made that I had grown too old to play Jesus. Marty made a deal with the studio to direct Casino and in return they would finance The Last Temptation. I think Casino is one of Marty’s least masterful, and The Last Temptation… gives him true stature, even more than Raging Bull and Goodfellas. He comes close with Gangs of New York. I think Marty has yet to show us his best stuff. The Bible doesn’t say how old Mary Magdalene is, so Barbara got to stay in it.
And what about Ingmar Bergman in The Serpent’s Egg?
How different is his style from Scorsese’s? There’s only one Bergman, as there is only one Scorsese. Marty is totally American. Down to earth. Bergman is from another planet. He was very exacting and, of course, brilliant. Deep, dark. Kind and cruel simultaneously. Easy to hate. Mostly I loved him.
You also were in the Roger Corman productions Death Race 2000 and Deathsport. What do you remember about those shootings?
I did nine pictures for the Cormans. All kinds of stories. Action pictures for Roger and character pieces for Julie. Death Race was a tiny action-comedy-message masterpiece, which we shot in three weeks. It rained all the time. You can’t tell, because of my black vinyl costume and the high contrast photography. My relationship with Paul Bartel was an uneasy collaboration. Simon Griffith was the most perfectly formed human being I have ever touched naked. Stallone was, well, Stallone.
Deathsport was a fiasco. Nick Nicifor had written a brilliant script, but he was a madman, quite literally, and didn’t know how to direct. He quit the picture before it was over. After he attacked Claudia Jennings and was thrown down and kicked by me, his heart wasn’t really in it. Some of it, though, is almost great. The final sword fight with Richard Lynch is excellent. Gary Graver’s camerawork is sometimes breathtakingly beautiful. It was Claudia’s last picture. We all loved her. She was a great lady, and afraid of nothing. Roger has become a real friend. He’s a strange man, I guess, but he has an internal set of ethics from which he never deviates. I had a piece of Death Race, and he always paid off, scrupulously, unlike the big studios, which will cheat you all they can. According to Orion, Lone Wolf McQuade is still not in profit. Steve Carver, the director, and Yoram Ben Ami, the producer, both very nice, honest guys, have been in court with Orion for years. They’ve never seen any money. Roger certainly understands his audience, and he has made an enormous contribution in starting out great talents: dozens of them. He rarely visits the set. On each of the films I did with him, he would drop by once to compliment my performance, and over the years he’s given me good advice. I didn’t always take it, as when he offered to let me out of my contract for Deathsport. I was fascinated by the material. He was right, though. I got one review, in the Hollywood Reporter, which read, “Don’t let the fact that David Carradine is terrific in this movie talk you into going to see it, as it’s the one of worst movies ever made.”
You starred in The Warrior and the Sorceress, another Corman production that was shot here in Argentina. What do you remember about the country and Maria Socas, your Argentinean co-star?
This was another troubled production. I broke my hand on the third day — you can’t tell in the movie. I built a black leather gauntlet with studs over the cast. But the director was unable to handle the tough schedule. You don’t go a week over on a Corman picture. Roger was furious. I didn’t see much of Argentina: I was working too hard. Maria was very sweet. She never had any clothes on in the movie. Strange, considering it was pretty much a movie for kids. Roger didn’t want her Argentine accent. He had her entire performance dubbed over in LA. Which was a pity; it was actually very effective.
The Long Riders had a very odd casting, consisting mainly of brothers.
Odd? No. It was the forerunner of the brother movies of the various rat packs — that was the whole idea: the point of it. Brothers playing brothers. James and Stacy Keach thought up the idea, and my brother Bobby delivered the Carradines. I had worked with Randy Quaid in Bound for Glory, and knew he had a little brother. Christopher and Nicolas Guest we found at the last minute.
That movie was directed by Walter Hill. How did you two get along?
Walter and I are buddies. He was my absolute favourite of all the directors I’ve worked with until I met Tarantino. We have always planned to work together again.
You were Chuck Norris’ nemesis in Lone Wolf McQuade. That’s one of Chuck’s best films.
Yes, it is the best of Chuck’s films. I like the picture, and I like my work in it OK. I took on the movie essentially as a favour for Steve Carver, who had directed me in Fast Charlie. . . the Moonbeam Rider. I didn’t expect too much from it. I was pleasantly surprised, and Steve has turned out to be a lifelong friend. I’ve done four pictures with him, and we’re planning another. The final fight in the movie is super, very real; the hits look as though they make serious contact, like a heavyweight prize fight on tv. And the juxtaposition of the two disparate styles is beautiful. It’s also as close as Chuck ever got to giving a real acting performance. I got good reviews for my acting. Pretty much all I did, though, was smoke cigars and kick people.
What do you think about the Kung Fu series making you an icon among martial arts movie fans? Did you ever expect that?
No, I didn’t expect it. I just thought it was a very great part, ideally suited for me. The explosion was a surprise to me. After the small following that my previous series Shane had attracted, I was not about to embrace any extravagant hopes.
Did you ever get to meet Bruce Lee, whom you replaced in the role?
I don’t understand “replaced.” Bruce was never offered the part. No, I never met him.
Are there any movies you wish you had never done?
No regrets, but The Violent Ones, directed by Fernando Lamas, is pretty awful. And out of the 102 that I’ve done so far, there are bound to be a few turkeys, but none that are actually odious, as far as I know. A few of them where I only worked a couple of days I never read or saw. Probably none of them will put you to sleep as fast as Star Wars: Episode One.
You’ve directed some movies yourself. How would you describe your style as a director, and which directors you worked with influenced you the most?
I don’t know if I’m influenced by directors. More so by painters, sculptors, writers, composers and, of course, actors. And life. I think I approach each movie afresh, both as an actor and as a director. As an actor, my main objective is for my work to be invisible. I try to do the same thing as a director. And then, the rules are: don’t cheat, don’t compromise, don’t hurt anybody. Don’t take any shit from anyone, and don’t forget to have fun. Same rules as life. Get it in the can and back to town without dropping any more stitches than you have to. A lot happens during the editing for me. You can pick up the stitches there.
You play the title character in Kill Bill. What was it like working with Tarantino? Have you already seen the movie?
No one has seen it, but it is going to be great. Tarantino has outdone himself. He proved himself to me an absolute master. No one I’ve worked with has taken me so far. He leaves no stone unturned. He has incredible energy and spreads more joy than Santa Clause. I love the guy.
How did you manage to stay in the business for so long?
One foot in front of the other. And I don’t let the ups and downs get me. Well, the ups yes, I enjoy them. The downs no. Skip Sherwood, who was the executive producer of the movies I directed, once said to me “There are no failures in Hollywood, only people who give up too soon.” And then, strangely, he gave up. I took the bitter with the bitter. Filled the empty spots with music and love, family, and, yes, dope and booze. When things were slow I sometimes concentrated on training the rest of the family. I’m working on my youngest daughter, Kansas, right now. She’s coming up fast. You’ll be hearing about her very soon. It’s always seemed to me like a mission. A holy one, like The Blues Brothers. It’s a marathon. You can’t quit, even coming in dead last has honour. Quitting doesn’t. Look, I had absolute faith in my future when I was starving in New York, and no one believed in me besides me and my girlfriend. I’d be stupid to lose that faith after I’ve become a fucking icon. Oh, yes: and I love the work.
Did your father’s profession influence you to become an actor?
Well, of course. I could have done other things, but the pull of theatre was irresistible. And I thought about making him proud, even happy. That was a big factor. I loved him, and life gave him a rough time. I started out with Shakespearean repertory. A great way to cut your teeth. Acting classes came much later, after starring on Broadway twice and doing a series, Shane. I still study sporadically. When I was involved in the ten month commitment to Kill Bill, I called up Milton Katselas, my teacher, and said, “I guess you’re wondering why I haven’t been in class.” He replied, “We’ve all been wondering that for the last twenty eight years.”