"If you were on your deathbed, how would you look at your world and what would you see?" - David Allen Brooks
Amante's Horror Home Page Presents:
". . . if you're serious about this (acting), don't live in LA. You need to move to New York to learn acting."
E.C.McMullen Jr.: What brought you to Hollywood?
David Allen Brooks: Fatigue and accident. I'd been on the road pretty hard after college. For seven years I moved every three months: exploring I guess you'd call it. I worked steel mills, shoveled horse shit, been a waiter...
ECM: Yeah, but we've all been waiters.
DAVID: (Laughs) Yeah. But I've been a cook, a busboy, and I shoed a few horses too. For awhile I taught school on a Navajo Reservation. I even tried bullriding in their amateur Rodeo. I was trying everything, you know?
I'd always thought I was best off alone, living by my own strange code: if you don't do it alone, it doesn't count. I found out years later that I had the nickname of "Lone Wolf" in college. Turns out only the sick and the old run alone outside the pack. I think being alone is important, but not isolated. I found out years later in therapy, that I had made some decisions that weren't in my best interests. So anyway, after seven years I was getting lonely. I hated to admit it, but it was true. So I came back from the road to LA and got a few jobs. One of them was a book company that took me to New York. They were going through "chapter 11". Off the streets of New York City, I started modeling. Eventually, I lived in Paris for a few years. In coming back to LA I was introduced to Bill Richert by Ross Brown. Bill was doing the movie, American Success. He needed a German Playboy; Gunter Sachs. The movie had Jeff Bridges, Belinda Bauer, Ned Beatty, and Bianca Jagger. I had no lines, but I was glad because I was untrained as an actor. It was all looks and body language. I could handle that. We shot my role for three weeks in Munich and while I was there I got a chance to talk with Jeff Bridges. I told him I wanted to be an actor. He asked me if I wanted to be a movie actor or a real actor. "A real actor," I said. Jeff said, "Then if you're serious about this, don't live in LA. You need to move to New York to learn acting." In 1979 I moved to New York City. I started studying acting with Larry Moss and got in a few Soap Operas: The Edge of Night and One Life To Live. Eventually, in 1987, I found out about the Actor's Studio and I started auditions. Like most people I got rejected about 4 times, over the course of three years. Then, in 1989, I finally got in. Lee Strassberg had just died. Ellen Burstyn, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Harvey Keitel, and the rest of the actor's community there, really worked hard to keep it up to the level Strassberg had created in his lifetime.
ECM: That's some school: Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson.
DAVID: I don't know if 'school' would be the right word for it. You never graduate from the Actor's Studio. Its like a gym - and you have to keep going back to experiment and stay sharp.
ECM: Somewhere, in 1985 or 86, you got the tap to play in THE KINDRED. How did it feel working with Rod Stieger and Kim Hunter?
DAVID: Great! Ha. The Kindred was offered at the dead last minute. I auditioned for the role but they passed me over for someone else. During production, however, the guy wasn't working out. So one day I get a call out of the blue. They ask me if I can come into work, to take over the lead role, tomorrow
ECM: You're kidding: The very next day?
ECM: So one day you're scrambling for work and the next you are acting opposite Rod Stieger and Kim Hunter? (laughs)
DAVID: Welcome to Hollywood, man.
ECM: So what was it like, taking over for someone else?
DAVID: An all night of preparation. I walked into a great cast, already shooting. Geez. Rod Stieger, Kim Hunter . . . they were the icons to me. They were part of the first wave of "American Reality Acting", where the actor actually feels the full emotion of the role as he's doing it. It came from Stanislavisky in Russia, to the Group Theater in Actor's Studio. It changed the face of acting forever. So I was a little intimidated by having this scene with Kim Hunter in "The Hospital". I'm supposed to be John Hollins, son of this famous scientist, Amanda Hollins, played by Kim. "Amanda" was in a car accident and has been in a coma for almost a year. Miraculously she comes out of it and we have this scene where, through her fog, she realizes that she left an experiment running unchecked back at her house all this time. At one point she gets really upset and grabs me and tells me that I've got to go to her house, stop the experiment, and destroy anything having to do with it. I should mention that we are filming this in an old abandoned building at the Veterans Memorial Hospital on WiIshire near the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. And of course there are these lights, cameras, and all these big guys from the film crew all around us. With all these distractions, I remember how easy it was to look into Kim's eyes and totally believe her choice. That this was real for her. She was in a powerful condition. That's a place that actors get into emotionally for a scene. I just fell right into her eyes and reacted to her. That's easy acting.
"I think, sometimes, we all have an obligation to share." - David Allen Brooks
ECM: In The Kindred, you also starred with Amanda Pays.
DAVID: Yeah. Wow, Amanda. She did Max Headroom in the '80s and all that. Amanda is a very classy lady. Before The Kindred, I saw her in this British film where she was wearing this school girl's uniform. I kind of gasped. I thought she was stunning. So later when I first saw her on the set, she was just coming around the corner. You see, getting in the movie all happened so fast I didn't know who I was working with beside Mr. Stieger and Kim Hunter. So when I saw Amanda walking toward me, I started laughing and turned left and walked right off the set. 'Whoa! I'm going work with that girl in that movie!' I don't think she saw me, at least I hope not. I didn't want to look like a fool before we were even introduced (laughs). She was great to work with during the movie. The movie itself was a great time. You would think that with having two Directors on the set (Jeff Obrow and Stephen Carpenter), there would be this clash of egos all of the time. But Jeff and Steve were great. They worked amazingly well together. Hell, everyone worked well together. The producers were really nice and we all had fun. It was really enjoyable. That's rare you know?
ECM: Amanda is married to Corbin Bernson of THE DENTIST movies, isn't she?
DAVID: Yeah, I met them both at a get-together a few months ago. They're both nice folks. Unaffected, you know what I mean?
ECM: Cool. I usually read about people having a terrible time when making a movie. Especially a Horror movie with all the make-up that is usually involved.
DAVID: The make-up people are great, but you're right; that special effects make-up can be bad . . . especially if you're claustrophobic. The artists know that its uncomfortable for you and they do their best to make you feel as at ease as possible. During the final shoot of The Kindred, they asked me to come back and try a different ending for one of the final scenes. The scene involves a lot of this slime. I'm completely covered in this foul stuff. So the day is over, I go home and try to shower all of this off of me, right? But "continuity" calls for you putting on the same clothes at four thirty the next morning. Cold slime, yuck! But you get used to it. Sometimes actors spend months in mud and slime and water to shoot a film.
ECM: What do you remember in working with Rod Stieger?
DAVID: When I first met Mr. Stieger, I remember going up to him and gushing like any young actor would. I was telling him how he was "up-levelling" our little Horror movie. "We're just honored to have you working with us, sir." I said. He just listened to me without responding and when I was done he said, "Uh huh." and walked off. What I didn't realize at the time is that Rod had been going through some personal trauma for a number of years. Prior to making this movie, he had been holed up in his house with Chronic Depression. Making The Kindred was like Stieger's fight to come out . . . literally from the depression. He did it.
A bit later, he would invite me to sit down with him and we had a great conversation. He told me these wonderful stories of his life making movies, with a few stories about Brando and some hell raising. Rod is a very funny guy. You wouldn't think that because he usually plays the heavy and he has this real intense presence. He talks with his hands a lot, and he has very strong hands and forearms. You get the feeling that he would just as soon walk through a door than open it. He's like a bull, yet he can be so delicate.
ECM: So what came after The Kindred?
DAVID: After that, I went back to New York for a couple of years. That's when I had just gotten into the Actor's Studio in '89. I'd written this one man show on Lord Byron. I did it as my first performance piece for the Director's Unit and the Actor's Studio. I was terrified. Because it was a period piece and I'd written it myself. I was on the floor in front of everybody. They are sitting on this small riser and there are chairs all around the floor of this little church; a little brick church on 44th street. People don't usually do period stuff - or write it themselves. It came off well, thank God. After it was over, eventually I went downstairs to pick up my stuff and I walked in on a board meeting of the studio, while I was undressing. There was Newman, Keitel and Ellen Burstyn with about five or six others and I was like "Whoa! Sorry!" I grabbed my bag of props and backed out. A couple of days later, my agent called me about a movie called THE DOORS. Oliver Stone was directing it. I got the script, looked at my part, and it was three sentences on the page. But the character was great. It was Jim Morrison's friend. So I figured I had nothing to lose. I wrote a whole monologue for this character and I gave him a rough voice, the same as the one I did in Jack Frost 2 later.
For my audition, I made some crude jokes at Jim's door in a cheap hotel on Sunset where Morrison lived, trying to get him out of bed before a performance. And then I described the dope I had at the theater where we were going. That it was all female buds from Kuaii, Hawaii and how they have a virgin piss on it before they send it out. Stone loved it and said he'd use it. So I got the job and they flew me out for rehearsal with Val Kilmer. He seemed pretty arrogant, but it was part of the character I guess.
ECM: So that's how you get into character and get an audition in Hollywood, eh?
DAVID: Well that's how I did it. Movies are easier in some ways than theater. Theater is really challenging, both physically and mentally. With theater you have to put that hat on eight times a week no matter how you are feeling. Movies are more fun for me, but I get more out of doing theater. So flying out to California, I planned on staying. We shot for a month in about ten locations. It was a huge shoot. We had a thousand extras at the shrine one day. I had two big scenes. Everybody in sixties get-up. At least 3 big cameras were flying all over the stage and out at the audience, automated by crane. It was wild, but everybody had a good time. Before the whole movie started shooting, though, Billy Idol went down on his motorcycle and broke his leg. So they gave him my role and hired another actor to do his. Suddenly my part is down to four seconds. The scenes I shot were mostly cut out with six other guys and four locations. At the time I was going with this long-legged California girl who left me for an Italian guy, almost right after the wrap party. I took a little apartment on the Pacific Coast Highway and couldn't get a job. I was almost broke and I basically hit an emotional wall. I found out later, they call it a nervous breakdown. I went into a panic for about three years. It wasn't subtle. So I'd run in the hills for two hours a day and lost thirty pounds. I always had dry mouth and was worried. I couldn't stand myself much longer. I couldn't get along with myself. I was self-critical and angry. I couldn't get successful, get peaceful; I couldn't get what I wanted. But, like an American male, I covered really well. I went down to Mexico to do a TV- cable series. Some soft-core porn thing. Then I did an episode of Quantum Leap. Look I don't mean to sound glib about this. I was scared. I had always been able to handle things. To dig down deeper and get the job done. But this had me by the balls. You can't know what this is unless you've been there. I was a gutless wonder wandering around in a sunlit nightmare thinking about suicide. The suicide stage lasted about 2 weeks out of the three years. I was a lucky one though, I had the stamina for my own insanity. Many don't. Many die.
On April Fools morning, 1994, I threw my feet over my little coffin bed and - I'd been nauseous for close to a year - and I thought to myself, 'I don't know how much more my body can take of this stress. I'm probably going to get cancer if I don't stop now. I can't explore going any deeper. I've got to fight it and go up, not down.' So I was scared into . . .
ECM: You scared yourself really.
DAVID: Yeah. I scared myself into repeating an affirmation, over and over for about two weeks.
The affirmation was: I'm now feeling peaceful, whether I deserve it or not." You can get the idea of my state of mind where you repeat an affirmation with a negative twist! This is where the Actor's Studio training helped me. Because I could remember in my body what "peaceful" sort of felt like. So I'd say the affirmation and try to go back to that place. About that time my Mother was diagnosed with cancer. She'd had it for five or six years and didn't tell anybody. But because of her Christian Science beliefs, she wouldn't go to a Doctor. That's what really started to help me get out of my own chronic depression.
ECM: Just like Stieger.
DAVID: Yep. I would go down to her house, South of L.A. three or four days a week.
ECM: How did your Mother having cancer get you out of your depression?
DAVID: Because I was serving her needs, not mine. Its not easy when the parent becomes the child, physically anyway. I had to help her to the bathroom. Shakespeare called it the "Muelling, puking, infant" we all become again with age. Horror.
"We're lucky, in this country, to be able to follow our passions. We don't have to look toward the hills everyday, waiting for the approaching army." - David Allen Brooks
My Mother was from Montana. She was tough, physically. She never complained, not once. I had to bear down on myself to stay there and do the loving thing. I part of me wanted to bail but I didn't. I finally got her to a hospital and chemo, but tried to honor all the rest of her beliefs. I'm still not sure whether chemo was the right answer, but we did spend a year where she was feeling all right. I took her back home to Montana where her Father, my Grandfather brought Indian Motorcycles to the state in 1912. We went fishing and had a good time in her last year. She died about six months after that without complaining once. I felt like I helped her die well, or at least as well as she could. Being with my Mother in her last days, helped me move out of the breakdown. Because I had focused on someone else. I started doing volunteer work with people who are making their transition. Not hospice work, this took place through a church that I worked through. They'd send me out to people that had asked for support. It kept me very grounded and humble. I felt like my only job was to "hold a good space" for them to die in, for them, whatever they thought that was, without imposing my ideas on them. I learned it wasn't my concept of they way they should die, but their idea of how they wanted to go, their wish for their environment. Some people wanted to talk. Some wanted to know what I thought was next. Sometimes it was folding socks and putting them in a drawer: keeping it very light.
ECM: Man. This is hard stuff.
DAVID: Is this too hard to read?
ECM: I don't know. I know that, you think you used to be self-critical, but in talking to you I can tell you are still very self effacing. Questioning yourself is still a big part of you.
DAVID: Doubt. The mind killer. I'm pretty insecure in some areas. Acting really opened me up. Its not a comfortable process, but compared to the religion I was brought up with, which turned me into an emotional brick - acting was and is a very therapeutic process. It feels kind of weird, opening up like this. I'm telling you all this because I'm hoping that someone reading this can get something out of it. I think, sometimes, we all have an obligation to . . . share. So I started to move up and out of my breakdown. I was lucky, a lot of people don't survive that kind of depression.
ECM: Especially in your business, where someone's personal trauma is news and subject to everyone else's uninformed opinion about what that person is going through at any given moment.
DAVID: Yeah, anyway . . . I realized I had to go out and start my acting career over! It wasn't just going to come to me. So I did. I didn't like going into offices that hadn't invited me in. I started to see how overwhelmed casting people can get in this business. And, as usual, the doors I was trying to open - didn't - but other doors did. That's when I saw Fern Champion's name, on my agent Tom Howard's desk. It was in the break downs (on job opportunity's of the day), so I went out to see her because I had known her in New York. If she hadn't been so nice, I would have been too discouraged to come back for a second audition. There were all these tall, young, exotic guys reading for the role. Fern said, "Do what you want with it and bring it back." And that's where it all started, the second beginning of my career.
ECM: Which started with Babylon 5: The Crusade.
DAVID: Yeah. It was Joe Straczynkis' writing, it was rich and I really got eccentric with it. The fact that Max was basically a brilliant researcher in alien language and archeology. It appealed to me in a sense that I had an idea of what it might be like to be an intellectual, and I followed it. As soon as somebody is brilliant, they have a hard time fitting into this world. Joe made it so that Max certainly didn't fit in, and didn't mind it. Underneath it all, I think we all want to be accepted. Max's arrogance was in direct proportion to his need to fit in. They are directly proportionate. I filled out, in my imagination, what Joe had started on. He gave me the parameters and I filled in the colors.
For me, Science Fiction has wider parameters than any other literature. You are redefining time and space and there are really no limits. The viewer is asked to take on a bigger possibility of what's real. Plus, Joe makes you feel confident. There was an added element that was really fun. Max's complete arrogance that I don't have . . . uh . . .
ECM: As he arrogantly says how humble he is
DAVID: (Laughs) Ha! Well, I admired his arrogance in a way. His willingness to have people not like him.
Apparently, Joe liked my interpretation of Max. I also had Max very high styled, almost sophisticated, like a Parisian designer. I think that TNT wanted to see a little more bookish version of him, though. That was the beginning of Max Eilerson in my life. There were supposed to be more episodes when we closed shop on the story. I know that Joe had a story arc already written out. There was going to be this "Fall of Max", by the end of the first season. What pissed me off was we were just beginning to develop the colors of our characters and their relationships. I even remember wearing a back brace, because Eilerson's posture was better than mine. His rigidity showed in his body. Our characters were just getting vivid - at least for me.
ECM: Okay so, THE KINDRED, THE DOORS, BABYLON 5, CAST AWAY, where does Jack Frost 2 fit into all of this?
DAVID: There's this crazy English guy with this wonderful English humor, named Michael Cooney, see? And somehow he got over here and started making movies. He and the producers, Jeremy Paige and Vicki Slotnik (MURDER IN MIND, JACK FROST) ran a generous, fun set. Kids really love the movie. Jack Frost 2 is just this bizarre film, but Michael and the producers had done bigger films before, and hadn't had as much fun. So this was a spoof they wanted to do. Michael just wanted to make this really strange movie about a killer snowman.
ECM: Twice. And you wanted to help him.
DAVID: Absolutely. Stephen Mandel played my role of Agent Manners in the first Jack Frost, so I had to reinvent him. I imagined myself as a post-Vietnam distress character. Not in any serious way, but in a comical character way - a spoof on what Hollywood has shown before.
ECM: A borderline psychopath. As if the majority of our soldiers came back like that.
DAVID: Yeah, I tried for that. I think it was Milton Berle who said that Comedy is hard, dying is easy. Its really true though. We all did our best to play it straight. Watching these folks all work together was a treat. The way we interacted and pretended to take, so seriously, a mutant killer snowman. Jeez, what a business. My character of Manners, found nothing funny in anything, and that became funny.
ECM: I hear that even the set of the movie was done on the cheap.
DAVID: Heh, Independent films. We shot most of the movie in an orange grove. The house once belonged to the man who helped preserve the La Brea Tar Pits.
ECM: Let's talk about your private time. You've been an extreme athlete since before they invented the term.
DAVID: My physical life saved me. I've done my share of stupid things, but because I was alone I usually did them very carefully. No back-up you see.
ECM: That solitude you've always chased after.
DAVID: To be honest, I realize I was doing dangerous things to prove to myself I wasn't afraid. When I was afraid of a lot . . . emotionally. Not so much the physical.
Are you going to be on your deathbed and look back on your toys and accolades and feel happy? Or is all that matters at that moment, is how much you were loved and created love?"
ECM: So where are you heading now? In the big sense?
DAVID: In the big sense, hmmm. . . hopefully into something more authentic in myself, less preoccupied in what others think.
ECM: How so?
DAVID: I'm just beginning to get, at this late stage in my career, at just how important the passion is. Passion. Sometimes I use this idea to make decisions: If you were on your deathbed, how would you look at the world and what would you see? That idea helped me to paint!
Its not very practical, but its a passion now. I love doing it. We're lucky, in this country, to be able to follow our passions. We don't have to look toward the hills everyday, waiting for the approaching army. We don't have to worry about our clean water being turned off and our cities being bombed. I said this days before the tradgedy in NYC. Rage, fear, vengeance, compassion are all in play now for most of us. I know I don't want to live in fear and anger. I've read that you're either coming from fear or love. I want to come from love. A tall order when you're dealing with the death of the innocent. One way I get help making decisions like this is using the idea of my death. My deathbed cuts through the crap real fast. All I could come up with when I went there this time is that I want to be a positive influence on those around me. That's how I'll fight my war against terror. What about you? Are you going to be on your deathbed and look back on your toys and accolades and feel happy? Or is all that matters at that moment, is how much you were loved and created love? I'm working on opening my heart more before I die.
Interview courtesy of