EXCLUSIVE: Acting Legend Brian Dennehy Talks New Terrence Malick Film, 'Knight of Cups'
An interview is a complicated, intoxicating beast. You rarely ever know who will be presented in front of you. Sure, you know their name, seen their film, read their book or listened to their CD, but these are flesh and blood human beings we are talking about. They are only predictable in their unpredictability. I knew deep down in my bones my newest interviewee, Brian Dennehy, would, well, be Brian Dennehy. Star of stage and screen, Mr. Dennehy could be anyway he wants to be, and who could blame him? He's Brian Dennehy. He has chased Rambo, wandered through a Peter Greenaway film, found the fountain of youth in Cocoon and its sequel.
I could go on for days. Mr. Dennehy has a new picture out called Knight of Cups in which he plays the father of mega-star Christian Bale. The film was written and directed by Terrence Malick. Mr. Dennehy stopped by Classicalite to talk about the work of art Terrence Malick has created. It is a highlight of my career that I got to chat with Brian and talk cinema, as Mr.Dennehy is a warm and gracious man.
He is very Brian Dennehy.
Classicalite - Reading your biography, I was surprised to find out you started out as a stockbroker. Why did you decide to become an actor?
Brian Dennehy - (laughs) Well, I was a stockbroker for all of six months and I don't think I even sold one stock. As for acting, like most people in this business, it's always something I wanted to do. I came from a very different environment. My father was a hard-working Irish Catholic and I was always kind of expected to go to law school. When I got out of the Marine Corp, I decided I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do this and eventually, in maybe 3 or 4 years, I began to get cast in things and, eventually everything worked out.
Classicalite - What are the biggest do's and don'ts you would give to a young person who approached you for advice?
Brian Dennehy - Take every job that is offered to you. Do something different. Make something special out of it. Don't just expect that they are going to come to you with the right part at the right time and the right place. Do as much as you can and do it wherever you have to do it, even if it is in some craphole theater in the middle of nowhere. Do you much as you can, because you always learn something, even if it's a terrible movie. Maybe, somebody will see you and give you something a little bit better. That's the way it worked out for me. I never turned anything down. I really don't turn anything down today.
Classicalite - Practice makes perfect.
Brian Dennehy - You want to be seen. You have to learn how to do it. You can't be taught how to do it, but you can learn how, by doing.
Classicalite - What goes into your decision-making process when accepting a role? Do you just take everything?
Brian Dennehy - Yeah, not everything. There are some things I won't do. If the timing is right and price is right, then I am game for most things. These days, at my advanced age, I never turn anything down, that's because I don't get offered as much as I used to. When you get old, there aren't that many parts because there aren't that many people who are alive at that age. So, who the hell wants to see you?
Classicalite - Hey, everyone wants to see Brian Dennehy I would hope.
Brian Dennehy - Not everyone. Enough to pay the bills.
Classicalite - Talk about Knight of Cups and how you became involved in it?
Brian Dennehy - I heard from Terrence (Director and Writer Terrence Malick). He wanted me to be a part of the cast and I was delighted to be asked. Amazing actors, the whole bunch of them. I had a great time. I didn't know it at the time, but we embarked on this very creative, collaborative effort. Terrence will essentially turn the camera on and tell the actor, "You know the scene. Say what you want, make it happen." Doing this, he shot a lot of film, did a lot of sound and he has a lot of material at the end where he can cut together the kind of film he wants to make. He's a real interesting guy, real intellectual, genuine intellectual. He knows what he's doing and that's not true for a whole helluva lot of people in Hollywood, that's for sure.
Classicalite - You were quoted in the press release that Terrence Malick is one of the last of the truly poetic directors. Is that a detriment of Hollywood that they aren't producing ones like him anymore?
Brian Dennehy - Well, i think it depends on the director. Spielberg can make any picture he wants. He just has to announce it. To his credit, one of the last pictures he made was Lincoln, which was a brilliant film with a great script and a tremendous central performance. Terrence, in his own way, can do the same. He has people who will fund him. The way he makes pictures is a very different kind of way. He always brings his vision to bear on the screen. Terrence makes his own movies, the way he wants to make them and that's very satisfying for an actor to be working with someone who is doing the film he is wants to make and wants you to help him achieve that.
Classicalite - Was it difficult adjusting to his style of, as you call it, "start the camera and go"?
Brian Dennehy - No, god knows I've been in several improv classes over the years. It is very similar to that, except there is a very unobtrusive camera there recording it and he's either going to use it or get rid of it. It is all part of the process, to see what you can do, what you can come up with. It's a very interesting way of working. It's time consuming. it's not expensive, hardly any money. Some basic locations that I'm sure weren't very expensive to make available, hardly any lighting and one camera. He makes pictures for not a lot of money and, what makes them interesting is the intellectual content and demands to the viewer to try to understand the points he is trying to make. He shoots a lot of film, takes a lot of sound and laboriously puts them together.
Classicalite - Talk about the two actors who played your sons, Wes Bentley and Christian Bale.
Brian Dennehy - We did a couple of days of a lot of improv. Christian is a huge star and deserves to be. Already won an Oscar. Probably going to win a lot more. Very hard working and very serious about it and Wes is the same way. The three of us felt really lucky to be there. We very quickly picked up on the technique involved and the characters involved and were able to improv around those techniques and characters very successfully. For people who are good and talented like this cast was, top to bottom, it's not that complicated. It certainly helps having done a lot of theater. The people i worked with had no problem picking up the style of the picture and making it work.
Classicalite - if you had to sell this picture to an audience, what would you say?
BrIan Dennehy - Answer the question, how intelligent are you? How demanding are you of intelligence on screen? Do you demand a lot, expect a lot? If you go to the movies to have fun, you want to see something blown up or somebody get laid, you won't like this movie. If, on the other hand, you want your brain stimulated or provoked in a way you've probably never had it done before, then go see this picture, you'll like it.
Thank you, Brian Dennehy. And my dearest Little Fische. She rocks as much as Brian Dennehy.