Brad Dourif: How weird is Brad?

He may not be a household name, but once seen, his face is scarily unforgettable. With trepidation, Ryan Gilbey meets the cult actor Brad Dourif

Friday 20 December 2002 01:00 GMT
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The abiding concern before meeting Brad Dourif, one of America's most complex and creepy character actors, is that he will turn out to be well-adjusted, perhaps even plain. But from the moment he strides across the lobby in that stooped manner that makes him seem shorter than his 5ft4in, I suspect that this will not be the case. What's more, he knows it. "My girlfriend sat me down recently," he tells me, as we settle at a corner table in the bar. "And she said, 'Look, I love you like crazy. You're a great guy and everything. But you're an odd duck, pal'."

It must have struck him, I suggest, that he's not quite like everyone else. "Yeah, it has," he says, in his gently nasal West Virginia whine. "I know I'm not normal. I think as a kid I must have had some kind of attention-deficit disorder. Sometimes people are afraid of me, and I think, What? How can they be afraid of me?" But you know what's on the inside, I say. A devilish smile. "Yes. And they don't."

Even though Dourif has spent over half his life acting, the feeling persists that he has not yet exhausted his capacity for unearthing new species of strangled, volatile weirdness. At 52, his baby-face shows no signs of ageing, despite a straggly little goatee that he is growing for a role. But then, there has always been a whiff of corruption about that face. Like the young Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock, the likelihood that there are cruel thoughts festering in Dourif's mind renders his apparent innocence chilling without ever quite undermining it.

Those hints of callousness were absent from his 1975 breakthrough performance as the tragic, stuttering Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where he was tiny and fragile, a delicate vase caught between those bulls-in-a-china-shop, Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, before being spectacularly shattered in the final reel. "I tried to make Billy wide open. He wanted to be part of everything, and that made him scarier and more vulnerable. It was a fantastic set. Nicholson was at the top of his game, improvising, so fast on his feet. He galvanised all of us." He stops himself short. "I never talk about Cuckoo's Nest, you know. But somehow, you've segued me into it." He playfully wags a finger. "Good for you."

One of the reasons why he consigned that experience to the past is that its success was a source of terror to him. He insists that it's a myth that he felt ambivalent about the acclaim (he won a Golden Globe and a Bafta, and was nominated for an Oscar), but his words suggest otherwise. "I don't think I used my success well. I wasn't ready for it. I became too serious. I agonised over everything." It's easy to see how his subsequent workaholic tendencies (try searching the horror shelves at video stores for a film that Dourif isn't in) might have been a response to this initial paralysis.

Four years after Cuckoo's Nest, in John Huston's Wise Blood, Dourif landed the richest of his roles to date, as an emotionally damaged preacher who sets about establishing The Church Without Jesus Christ. There was still a frailty about him but now it was shaded with self-absorption, panic, dementia. When he widened his startled eyes and delivered that unforgettable line, "I'm gonna do some things I ain't never done before", you could see actor and role melting into one.

Since then, Dourif has specialised in playing the kind of creeps who would have tortured Billy Bibbit for kicks. It's not so peculiar that he has remained on the margins while grandstanding psychos like Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken have been putting bombs on buses and taking over the world. Dourif's is a more insidious breed of menace. He's the guy on the edge, in both senses – not the fist that comes at you out of the darkness, but the face you see smiling approvingly as you hit the pavement. He was one of Hopper's band of merrily debauched men in Blue Velvet, and now in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers he is Grima Wormtongue, another snivelling sidekick urging his master on to acts of increasing depravity. His eyebrow-less, crimp-haired, scuttling Wormtongue suggests a post-exhumation Michael Bolton, and represents an oily stain on the movie's vista of Aryan beauty. As ever with Dourif, it's the trace of vulnerability that makes you flinch.

"I found facets in Wormtongue that were my sort of thing," he explains. "Remember, he's the only human character in the film who turns to evil. So I wanted to make you aware that he was human, however terrible he became." Do you always like your characters? "I think you have to. What artist could paint a painting that they hate? Even if you're playing a coward, there's something wonderfully honest about that. Who wants to stand up and face death? Sounds like hard work to me."

There have, he concedes, been borderline cases – characters he wasn't certain he could crack. "But I like that. That's what gets me off." Wise Blood was one. "That was a whole lot of problem," he remembers. "I made an entire book of notes just to guide myself in and out of each scene. That character had such a weird internal life." What help could Huston give you? "Not much. I was on my own there. I think Huston was baffled by the script, which was very Catholic, whereas he was a devout atheist."

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Dourif's abiding memory of the great director is of Huston leaning in after each take and saying, in his throaty rumble, "Even more". Was he intimidating? "No. And I do get intimidated by directors." It would, says Dourif, be unfair to name names out of those many film-makers for whom he has worked, including Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning) and Michael Cimino (Heaven's Gate). I'm with him on that. Best to be discreet.

I suppose the great unutterable question for Brad Dourif is: What happened after Wise Blood? For the past two decades, he has worked mostly in horror, science-fiction and fantasy. He has his own explanations for why he has been drawn to the dark side. "My real father, who died when I was three, had a thing about the macabre. My sisters told me that they were scared to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night because they had to walk past all these skeletons and freaky drawings. That must have had an effect on me. I know I always started making my Hallowe'en costume in the summer."

It's easy to be snooty, but Dourif has had a more exotic and varied career than most. One moment, he will be in some straight-to-video horror cheapie called Spontaneous Combustion, the next, he'll turn up in Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda and fit right in. ("It was so lovely to be with a Commie," he says of Loach.) Then it's back to Prophecy 3, Critters 4 or Babylon 5, before working for peanuts with Spike Lee or Hanif Kureishi. Meanwhile, an entire generation weaned on horror videos knows him as the taunting voice of Chucky the killer-doll in the controversial Child's Play series.

"I'm a total whore," he happily admits. "Give me a camera and a pay cheque and I'm there." He is also honest about the calibre of many of his movies. "You start out reading the script and you say, 'I dunno'. Then, as you're making it, you think, 'No! This is really cool! I was wrong!'. Then you see the movie and you're like, 'Oh, forget it. You were totally right at the start'."

That candour isn't restricted to his more transparently ropy enterprises. When I mention Isabelle Huppert's view that Heaven's Gate failed commercially because it touched a raw nerve in the American psyche, he looks at me as though I just vomited in his lap. "No," he says firmly. "That film was fucking boring."

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