What Makes An Actor Great? by Bill Duke

Watch the video interview on Youtube here


Film Courage: Is the director always the first one on set? Would you ever see other crew members, actors show up before you? If so, what did that say about them?

Bill Duke: Some actors (I won’t mention their names) but they are so involved in the legitimacy of what they do. They are there before the crew and me. They just sit on the set and sit in the seat and they know they’re…if it’s supposed to be their bedroom, they’ll go in the bedroom and touch the props, they’ll become familiar with the pictures on the wall. What’s in the closet? What kind of bed sheets are there? What color are they? How soft are the pillows and why those pillows are that soft or why are they harder? Is the blind closed? Is it open? Are there curtains on the wall? And why was that color chosen for the sheet? “Aaahh, okay…” And they’re comfortable because it’s their bedroom for the last 15 years.

So sometimes they come to set two days before and they just sit there and they become organically ingrained. Some of the great actors have their own way of becoming the truth of what they are supposed to be. And I get there and they are like “Hey, Bill.” “What you doing here?” “You know what I’m doing?” “You know what I’m doing…working.” “I see and thank you, because I respect that.”


Bill Duke: My 40-Year Career on Screen and behind the Camera by Bill Duke


They don’t just wait for you to tell them what to do…they have their own, because I’m an actor, too. As you start surrendering to a character that the author has written, it’s going to sound crazy, but the character tries to live through you if you accept him or her.

I was playing a character once in a movie (I forgot which one it was) and a week before I was supposed to film, I started doing this [makes noises with his mouth]. Never done that in my life.

My girlfriend at the time said “What are you doing?” I said “What are you?” She said “You’re going…[makes noises with mouth].” I said “No, I’m not.” She said okay. Five minutes later I’m going…[makes noises with his mouth]. And that was the character coming through me and so I put that in part of the film because I knew something that was being expressed through that person.

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And it’s trust. Trusting your instincts, yourself and your talent.

Film Courage: So if an actor wants to do all of those things, bring little idiosyncrasies, ticks or show up three hours early, is this something they feel they need permission to do? Because I could see a new actor wanting to do those things, but being scared because they don’t want to offend anybody or whatever.

Bill Duke: If you’re a new actor and you know what acting is and you have a good director, he’ll give you the permission that you need, to be the best you can.

Good directors…their ego…if I’m shooting a scene with the star of the movie in a car and we shot half this scene before lunch and we shoot half the scene after lunch. And an intern, an assistant or a caterer comes up to me and says “Hey, Bill, Bill…” And I say “What?” “The license plate before you went to lunch was straight, but now it’s crooked.” I don’t say “You’re the caterer. You’re an assistant. Mind your own business.” That’s stupid! I say “Thank you very much because I didn’t see that.” And I have my assistant go and straighten up the license plate. You know why? Because I still get directing credit. That person is no less than me. That person helped me out. But some people throw phones at….I don’t understand these idiots. Throwing phones in people’s faces and this royalty wave like they are superior to human beings and an attitude of superiority like people are…it’s annoying. Because they are all going to die. They all bleed. And I do believe (I have no proof of course. I don’t want it) that when they all go to the bathroom and do Number 2, they stink. And if they don’t…if they can prove they don’t stink when they go to the bathroom, I will worship them.

Bill Duke directing Lou Diamond Phillips in CREATED EQUAL

But until that moment occurs, don’t come to me with that crap. You understand? You stink, I stink, we both stink. Cool. Do your damn job. Simple.

Film Courage: We’re going to assume that they stink.

Bill Duke: If you’re asking me if I’m going to the bathroom, I’m not.

Film Courage: We will air on the side of caution.

Bill Duke: Great caution!

Film Courage: Nice pun, too. Air.

Bill Duke: Air. See I like that what she said. Air…Air.


Question for the Viewers: How often are you the first person

on set?

Watch the video interview on Youtube here


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