Posted in: Actors, Interviews

Interview – David Carradine

David Carradine died Wednesday in Bangkok at the age of 72. I had the pleasure of interviewing him in 2004, while he was promoting Kill Bill Vol. 2. This interview was originally published on GreenCine in April 2004.

David Carradine as Bill
David Carradine

The son of John Carradine and elder half-brother to Keith and Robert, David’s career began in the early 1960s, mostly playing heavies and punks, though he also took on the role of Shane in the short-lived TV series spin-off of the film. His career took off when, in 1972, he starred in Martin Scorsese’s Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha, and created the role of half-caste Chinese-American Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk wandering the 19th century American West in search of his American relatives, in the hit TV series Kung Fu. His subsequent career bounced between prestigious projects with Hal Ashby (Bound For Glory), Ingmar Bergman (The Serpent’s Egg), and Walter Hill (The Long Riders), TV-roles, and dozens of B-movies, and he can count such cult classics as Death Race 2000, Sonny Boy (where he plays a woman!) and Q (directed by old Army buddy Larry Cohen) to his credit. In between he’s helmed his own personal projects, among them the films You and Me and Americana. Carradine got his star on the Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame in 1997.

When Warren Beatty bowed out of Quentin Tarantino’s long-gestating revenge epic Kill Bill, Tarantino brought in the then 66-year-old Carradine and completely rewrote the role for his new star and the man who was Woody Guthrie, Death Race 2000’s Frankenstein, and wandering Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine received a career revival men half his age would kill Bill for.

No April Fool’s joke, Carradine came to Seattle on April 1, 2004, his second stop in a two month publicity junket for Kill Bill, Vol. 2. His weatherbeaten face showed his age, and his long salt-and-pepper gray hair, hanging loose down about his shoulders, and his serene smile and easy-going willingness to talk about any subject showed a man comfortable with his year. Dressed casually in a brown leather jacket and a loose-fitting white shirt, open to his chest to reveal a small silver dagger hanging from a chain, and running shoes with no socks, he calmly chain-smoked one cigarette after another while he weighed questions and offered insights with a nonchalant confidence and modesty.

Let’s talk about Kill Bill.

You got it.

There’s an almost Zen-like quality to Bill. He’s so confident and self assured. Where did that character come from? Is it all there in the script? Did you bring that sense of calm and assuredness to the character?

I guess it’s a little of both. In the first place, Quentin wrote the script with me in mind, so maybe that’s how he thinks I am. All I did was learn the words and do what he told me, so you can blame most of it on Quentin. I am good at this, I guess, so I pulled it of.

It didn’t look like you were just reading the words. The character on screen is very sure of himself, sure of who he is.

Carradine as Bill
Carradine as Bill: calm and confidence

Yeah, the character is. I feel pretty confident as an actor after 40 years of doing it, but I gotta hand it to Quentin. He’s a master. You look at the movie: where’s the bad performance? You have to say that the director must have had something to do with it. Part of it is his choices of actors. Giving that Mexican pimp to Michael Parks, who has never been seen doing any kind of a character, he’s always just been Michael Parks. Maybe he acts a little western sometimes, but I think most people, even people who know Michael Parks’ work, if they don’t see the credits will never figure out that that is Michael Parks because the performance is so bulletproof. And I don’t think Quentin had anything to do with that, Michael brought it all in and just gave his all. But, on the other hand, I think that Quentin’s treatment of Michael Madsen… he saw the greatness in this guy as an actor. He’s worked with him before, he knows the guy. And they talk a lot, they really get on together. Quentin was really pulling stuff out of Michael. I think it’s the most complete character that I’ve ever seen Michael do, where you feel the humanity. There’s a guy in there and you can see all of him, and it’s a kind of tragic character, almost of Shakespearean proportions. And then there’s this crazy guy and you would think he’d be totally unlikable, but you kind of love him and you don’t like to see him get killed. And I think it would have taken eight bites from a Black Momba, I don’t think one would have done it. I’ve read the script and I almost expected him not to go down. And the way that he let Michael resist dying. He didn’t just lay down and die, he was at his most active then, just pissed off. But everybody in that movie is so good and Uma is just beyond belief. Of course we’ve all been in love with Daryl Hannah ever since Blade Runner. That chick is something else. Everybody in the movie is so good. And that’s Quentin.

You made your big splash with Martin Scorsese in Boxcar Bertha and you’ve worked with Ingmar Bergman and Hal Ashby. How does Quentin Tarantino compare as a director working with an actor to create a character?

Quentin is one of the very few directors who can give you direction, tell you what to do, and have it work. Most of the time when directors do that, it won’t work, it lessens your performance. Bergman is a dictator. He tells you exactly what to do: how to move, where to look, everything. The result of that was that I really have no idea what kind of performance I was going to give, because I wasn’t giving my performance. I was giving Ingmar’s performance. And that works, maybe. I don’t really care for my performance in that movie as much as I do in, say, Bound For Glory, where Hal Ashby, all he did was just stare at me, as if I was the greatest actor in the world and he was just fascinated by my work. It made me feel great and I just kept growing in the part. With Marty, we were kind of collaborators on Boxcar Bertha. Not so much in Mean Streets [Carradine had a small but memorable role as a drunk who is shot in a bar toilet], because there he was really in control, but in Boxcar Bertha we had production problems. Sam Arkoff was sticking his nose into it all the time and we had to collaborate. It was us against the world. I think Marty went through three cameramen on that picture because they wouldn’t do what he told them to do. Who was he? Nobody, as far as they were concerned. Nobody had any conception that he was going to become the most important director on the planet.

You left out Walter Hill. Until I met Quentin, I think Walter was my favorite director, and part of it is the fun of it. Walter is a lot of fun and it was really clear to me that Walter really loved me and loved my work. And that’s really helpful, it makes me feel awfully good. Walter is a great technician and he’s got a lot of heart and he’s funny, he’s got this dry humor. Quentin’s humor is not the least bit dry, it’s dripping and there’s a lot of it. And Quentin and I can really rap, we can talk, buddy-like. Not too many director’s are like that. They’re not as loose or as hip or as open or as young as Quentin. Quentin will always be a big kid, I think, and so am I, so we got along very well. And we’ll probably be friends. I have to wait until all of this is over to before we can find a space to actually see that, because right now it’s all part of the work, but I think we’ll be hanging out together for a long time.

Boxcar Bertha remains a surprisingly socially and politically ambitious film considering its exploitation origins, and it marked the beginning of a long association with Roger Corman, who encouraged his filmmakers to express their own visions within the conventions of exploitation moviemaking.

I remember Roger telling Marty “When you talk to the press, don’t say anything about unions and revolution. Just keep talking about train robberies and we’ll sneak it through.” Roger is a very interesting guy. If he wasn’t so determined to do this system, I think Roger would have been a really important director. He’s important enough as it is, but he had this attitude that it had to be as cheap as possible and you couldn’t make a movie that didn’t make money, and the result is he took no risks. The movies look risky, but that was all calculated.

The Long Riders was a real family affair, the most famous of many. You’ve worked with your brothers, your father, even your nieces and nephews and children on productions all through your career. I gather that family is very important to you.

I think that, for me, it’s an Irish thing. I’m probably the cohesive force in this family that hold it together. I wanted the family. I think otherwise we would not all be hanging around together. There was a time when I was doing Shane, which would be 1966, and my brothers, who were living in San Mateo, started coming down to visit me and wanted to get into the business. I found them agents, took them around with me, and Bobby, I actually brought him up. From the time he was about 14 he lived in my guest house. I sent him to high school, I wrote the excuses for him, all that kind of thing. Most of my best friends are members of my family. I don’t have a lot of friends outside of my family.

The first season of Kung Fu just came out DVD and it watched for the first time since the early seventies. I was not only surprised to see how well it held up, how strong the shows were, but I was charmed to see Keith play you as a young man in the temple — he’s in the credits of every episode because of that — and an episode where your father John played a drunk preacher and Robert was his mute sidekick.

Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu
Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu

I wasn’t really in control of that. Jerry Thorpe was the master of Kung Fu. He thought up these ideas on his own. I don’t remember how it was that we brought Keith in but it wasn’t clear whether or not I could actually play a 15 year old boy. And then after a few segments, Keith said he didn’t want to do it anymore. He said “Nobody thinks well of me doing it.” They know he got the part because I’ve got the other part and it wasn’t helping his career. And he hated the bald cap. So I took over and it turned out I was handling it okay. I think I probably did introduce Bobby to Jerry, to bring him in to play that mute. And then in the second incarnation of the show (Kung Fu: The Legend Continues), which I did up in Canada, I got my daughter in, Calista, as a regular. I always try to get my friends and my family in the movies with me.

As a matter of fact, I put Kung Fu: The Legend Continues together. I talked Warner Brothers into doing it. It took me 2, maybe 3 years to get it going. I bought a ranch that was 10 minutes away from Warner Brothers, put my horses there, got all ready to do this thing where all my friends would work and it would be a great big wonderful family thing, and then they tell me they’ve got to shoot it Canada because it’s cheaper. So I never really lived at that ranch and it was very difficult to get any of my family or my friends into the show. You had to import them, and then you had the Canadian content restrictions. I never directed any of them. I thought I’d direct a bunch of them but part of the Canadian content was that if I directed then someone else from the US had to be fired, because you have to have a certain number of Canadians on every episode. If I’m the star and the director, that’s too many number one positions. The one episode that I wrote for the series up there [Special Forces], I got everybody in. I wrote all my friends in. That was fun and it was one of our really good segments.

Did you practice martial arts before you started Kung Fu?

Not Asian martial arts, no. I had done a tiny little bit of middleweight boxing and I had done a lot of western movies where you throw punches and stuff. I was a gymnast, almost an acrobat, and a dancer, and I’m a marksman and a fencer, I’ve done 11 Shakespeare plays and you’ve got to be able to fence to do that, and those are all martial arts. But when I took the part, that really wasn’t an issue. They asked me what I was going to do about that and I said “Whatever happened to stunt men?” Then, as I was walking out, I threw a kick to the top of the door. I left a bare foot print over the top of the door which stayed there for the whole series. I think that’s what got me the part, the fact that without any martial arts training I could definitely pull this off, I could do the choreography. And then I got serious about it. I started studying it and I’m still into it. I train and I write books on the subject. The other DVDs of mine that are being released right now are instructional videos in Tai Chi and Chi Kung. And I do a seminar once in a while. I’m still in it very deeply.

I haven’t really had a career of doing martial arts films. I’ve done a couple of them and I’ve done a certain amount of martial arts in other action films, but I haven’t really had a career like that, at all. I could have, but I’m an actor. Martial arts is something that has fascinated me and I can’t seem to walk away from it, but it’s not my main thing. I’m probably the only actor martial artist. All the rest of them are martial artist actors. They all became martial artists and then decided they could use that to become actors, and I’m probably the only one of all those people that came to it as an actor.

You didn’t really play the Hollywood game the way a lot of stars did. Looking back over your career, having gotten a certain cache in a big film, you used that to make one of your own films as a director. Do you regret any of those decisions?

I don’t know. I can regret a lot of things — something maybe I never told my father — more than some kind of career decision. Some things that I turned down I would regret. I had a chance once to do a picture with John Huston and I was busy with other things and I turned it down. There was a play I was all set to do with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, and at that time one of the pictures I was directing was going to open the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival and I had to do that. I turned the part over to Keith and it was really good for him, so I can’t regret it. But a lot of my life has been very arbitrary, most of it, maybe all of it. I do something because it presents itself in front of me and I say “Yes.” I don’t think about it before I make a decision, I think about it a lot while I’m actually stuck with it.

But no, I wasn’t playing the Hollywood game. I was telling people to go fuck themselves a lot, as a matter of fact. I walked off the series whenever I felt like it. I didn’t do what you were supposed to do, which was stick around until you own the studio and you get rich doing it. I don’t need to get rich. A hungry fighter is a good fighter. I wanted to leave the series before it got old and nobody could understand that. I don’t think Warner Brothers has ever forgiven me for that, in spite of the fact that I went ahead and did it again for them for another 4 years and I’ve made them hundreds of millions of dollars, but they still hold a grudge about that. Because they can’t control me, and I think that frightens them for some reason. You can’t dangle a big enough carrot in front of me to get me to do something that I really don’t want to do. Though I gotta say, of the 102 features that I’ve done, an awful lot of them were done just to pay the rent. Or to finance my own personal projects, I did some of that. I’d run out of money while I was making one of these pictures and I’d say “Well, I’ve got to go get some money,” and I’d go out and do some quickie and bring it back and dump all the money on the post-production outfit. But I don’t want to regret. I’m sure if I really thought about it I could do that, but I don’t how it would benefit me to do so, so I’m not going to.

Tarantino crafted the role of Bill for you and you can see echoes of many of your previous characters in Bill. The obvious is Caine, but I think you can see some of your villains as well, perhaps a little of Rawley Wilkes from Lone Wolf McQuade.

There’s a little bit of that, but there’s also a little bit of the guy from Americana, who is no kind of a villain. The guy’s charming, you know, there’s a little bit of a Cary Grant thing about him. And that’s one of the things that Quentin did for me. He didn’t just write a single kind of character, he wrote something so broad that I could get most of me into it. There’s the gunslinger and the executive and the playboy and there’s a little bit of a monster, yet you never really see that monster. You know that he is a monster, but he doesn’t ever act like a monster. And he’s in love and he’s a doting father. He just threw everything in there and it’s pretty remarkable.

We never see you at all in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, but you’re a commanding presence and there is a huge anticipation to see the scariest human being on Earth. And when we finally see him, he defies everything you expect.

He’s a sweetheart. I remember when we were shooting that opening scene of the second film, the wedding rehearsal. Just before we started shooting, I had a conversation with Lawrence Bender about playing these really bad guys. How is it, in Quentin’s pictures, that these guys are so beloved? It has something to do with nobility, and the fact that they’re not chicken. If you think about it, in Quentin Tarantino’s movies there is no such thing as somebody who has any kind of fear of anything. Well, Quentin is not afraid of anything and that’s what he writes: people who have no fear. The last line that a guy has before he’s about to get snuffed is likely to be: “Oh yeah? Well fuck you!” And he gets people around him that have that same fearlessness. I have a lot of that, I can’t think of anything I’m really afraid of. Everybody in the picture, all of those actors, and even the prop man and the make-up people and the hair people, they’re all just really mensches. That infects everything that I’m doing. It’s an incredible support to know that I’m surrounded by absolutely fearless people.

Quentin, like me, didn’t play the Hollywood game. He played a game of his own, and it happens to be in Hollywood, and he’s a big gamer, but it’s not the Hollywood game. He won’t join the Directors Guild, he does whatever the hell he wants to do, and if you won’t let him do it, he won’t have anything to do with you. I remember John Travolta telling me that the reason he got that part [in Pulp Fiction] was because Quentin insisted. They told him, “No, you can’t have John Travolta,” and he said “Fine, forget it, I’m not doing the movie.” They chickened out. A guy as big as Harvey Weinstein said “Well, okay, I’ll go with it then.” And that was the time when Quentin was not the darling of the industry. He had made one little tiny movie that had a cult following and that was it. He wasn’t a big time director, and yet he was ready to just walk away. And that’s courage. I’ve been lucky throughout my career that there have been some very courageous people who have been willing to take a chance with me, because I’m kind of a loose cannon myself. Even with this picture, I’m sure that somewhere up in the studio there were people saying “Quentin, are you sure you want to do this?” I know there were for Kung Fu. All the way down the line it’s been like that. United Artists had a very hard time accepting me as Woody Guthrie [in Bound For Glory] and Hal just kept hitting them with me and finally they gave up.

Do you have a favorite role of your career?

Probably Bill. It’s a fresh thing, doing stuff that I’ve never done before. It’s kind of an awakening for me and it’s given me a whole other place to go. Look, I’m on social security and yet I’m getting a beginning here. That’s pretty exciting.

Visit the Official David Carradine Website to leave messages for the family.

David Carradine with his wife Annie Bierman and son Max in 2008
David Carradine with his wife Annie Bierman and son Max in 2008