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Dolphin interview with actor James Dumont at the New Orleans Film Festival

 

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By Jeff Boudreaux

I had the pleasure of interviewing actor James DuMont at the New Orleans Film Festival screening of director Matt Zettell’s “Cellar Door” at Chalmette  Movies. Mr. DuMont has over 100 acting credits and has recently been featured in such popular films as “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” “The  Butler,” “Get on Up,” and “When the Game Stands Tall.”

 JB: Well sir, first of all, how did you first get into movies?

JD: I was a kid actor in Chicago. In ’66 I was actually the Gerber baby. So my mom got me into it doing print work in Chicago. That’s  what was going on there, prints and commercials. So, as a kid, I did a whole bunch of McDonald’s commercials and stuff like that, so  that was my first enclave in. At that time, Chicago was just starting to be a film town. “Thief” and “My Bodyguard” were some of the  early movies being shot there and then I got my S.A.G card on “Blues Brothers,” I was one of the kids dancing in the street, so that was really my first professional film gig. But I had done print work and commercials and stuff as a kid, and then I just stopped to play baseball ‘till I was in my teens. So that’s how I got started.

JB: And your uncle, I believe, started the DuMont television network?

JD: Yeah, you’ve done your homework. Alan B. DuMont was my great-uncle. He was one of the first independent pioneers of television. He took a lot of stuff from radio, but he was really big on taking plays and people from musical theater and putting them on television for the first time. And more recently, ironically enough, I ran into a guy named Alan Rich, he’s an old character actor, who says he was blacklisted and my great-uncle got him back on television which changed the course of his life. I sat next to him at a charity event and he said “Oh my God, are you any relation to Alan DuMont? He saved my marriage and career!” Its great little stories like this that are always fun.

JB: That’s awesome. And what was it like working on “The Cellar Door” since it was your first leading role and you helped produce it?

JD: It was a great experience. You know Chris Nelson, he wrote the script, and he’ll be here along with Michelle Tomlinson, who’s the lead actress on this film. Ironically, they just got married, so now they’re a couple. They were kind of dating at the time. But, the script sort of came my way when my manager and I were running a soundstage in Los Angeles where we had a screenplay reading series. One of the screenplays that came across was “Cellar Door” and the woman that was running the space was interested in playing the lead female role. And she said “Why don’t we get James to read the leading role” because Herman isn’t supposed to be a leading man, he’s kind of a quiet little mama’s boy who lives at home. So she thought I would be perfect. When I read for it I thought “man, this is really good” because the writing is more like a play, it’s more of a relationship between the two people. In that regard, I was really interested in that as opposed to the “catch and trap” typical stuff. There’s something about the relationship with her in the script that I knew would be a great opportunity. The characters are really rich.

 

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JB: You know, it really is dialogue-driven and I’ve seen this movie before, so I’m anxious to see this director’s cut. Which leads me to something I want to ask you, why did you make the character of Herman so personable, because you really can’t hate him?

JD: Well, that’s the thing. That’s what I think is most troubling and scary about serial killers. You hear about it all the time on the news from people who say “he was a great guy, he kept a good lawn.” Or he was part of the scouts or something. So when I was working with a coach of mine out in L.A., a guy by the name of Tim Phillips, and when we were in class some women were saying “Oh, he’s just misunderstood.” And we were like, “No, this guy’s a sociopath!” And then I thought, I may be on to something, because people are having compassion for this character. Instead of writing him off like a single thing they feel he’s lost or he’s hurt. They want to give him a hug. And I think “That’s good!” I always try to find what I call the Achilles heel or weakness. Try to find a window into the character, and once I realized that the women were responding that they could fix him like a bad boyfriend. I figured I was onto something. And then I worked more with my coach to develop that. So he’s likeable, or he’s justifiable to an extent. So, for the character the way you date someone; just trap them in the cellar until they tell you they love you! (Laughs)

JB: It may work. (Laughs)

JD: It could work. I’m not suggesting that to anyone, but it worked for this particular character.

JB: How exciting is it to see it working the film festival nearly seven years after its initial release?

JD: I know, the thing for us is that…I had a short film in the New Orleans film festival called “The Confession.” It’s from a local writer named Stephen Roaf (sp?) from New Orleans. It played in 30 festivals, won in 25 out of 30. But New Orleans was my favorite, so for the longest time I kept trying to find something to become a part of the festival. We were in a legal dispute with our original distributor about how it was done in terms of cuts. I said “Matt (director), why don’t we cut it the way you want to do it?” So we went about doing that and of course, I had conversations with Ellis (Fortinberry, Chalmette Movies). Ellis said “I’m looking for something to do for the festival. Is there anything you want? I always liked that “Cellar Door.” I said “Well, we have a new director’s cut out of it.” There are certain scenes that we cut a certain way that I think they didn’t like. So, I said “We’re going to get back to the way we want to do it.” So, that’s how it came about and ironically I’m here working on another film, so it worked out pretty good.

JB: You’re working on the sequel I understand. How’s that going?

JD: Yeah, we’re early in the process of it. We had the script kind of going for a while. But then I kind of went on this tear in the last 5 years, you know like 35 movies and TV shows. So, I never had time to devote to it. Now I’ve kind of slowed things down. It’s pretty much since “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” I’m not going after volume of jobs, I’m going after quality. There are a couple of movies and I’m not un-proud of them, but the quality’s really not that good.

JB: You mentioned “Dallas Buyer’s Club” and obviously that was a really powerful scene with you and Jared Leto. How has that affected your career?

JD: It’s almost like I’m starting from scratch, but at a much higher level. Because there are very few people in the industry who have not seen that film and that scene is a very powerful scene. I’ve had a lot of response from people on Facebook and Twitter. People who are buying the dvd in order to have a conversation with their parents, who they’ve never spoken to since they came out. So beyond being in a scene with Jared, there are so many things about that scene that evoke a response. But, in terms of industry, everybody and their mother saw that. So between “The Butler” that came out in August and “Dallas Buyer’s Club” in November last year, that really kind of put me in a really great position. And I have 49 other movies, but that’s the one that people are going to remember me for.

JB: You mentioned “The Butler” and you have some scenes with the late, great Robin Williams. How was that?

JD: All my scenes were with Robin Williams and it was just “the joy of joys”. There was no indication whatsoever of his inner-life of what’s happening. He seemed so joyful and fun, he made some great jokes. Lee Daniels would direct while he was in pajamas, there were sometimes when things got slow, so to move things along he would go “Precious! Precious!” He would channel Monique’s voice which would snap everybody into line…and at a certain point we would improv some scenes, so I had stopped for a moment. Lee said “James, is there a problem?” You know, because he’s behind the monitor and I said No. He said “Yes, I’m asking you to improv with Robin Williams, do you have a problem with that?” “No sir.” …in a comedy I would have been intimidated. But because it was a drama and I had done so much homework on Sherman Adams, the character, I was just totally ready so it was exciting.

JB: So going from the big budget films to maybe something smaller…I’m a wrestling fan and you did a couple of movies with Triple H for WWE films?

JD: I did three total. I did “Knucklehead” with The Big Show and then I did “The Chaperone” and then “Inside Out.” And working with Triple H was just the joy of joys man because he’s a real actor, he cares. I think all of them care because I think that they uphold their image for their fans, so they have sort of an added responsibility. But, I did three of them and “Chaperone” was my favorite because it was a good character. “Inside Out” I had a great time because Michael Rappaport and I are great friends.

JB: And Bruce Dern was in it. I’m a big Bruce Dern fan.

JD: Me too! And what’s great about that is that I’m originally from Chicago and I went to school in Evanston and he went to school in Wilmette, so they were sort of like competing schools. After it was all said and done, he said “Not bad for a kid from Evanston.” So to get that kind of love from an Oscar-nominated actor like Dern and to work with him was just a joy even though my face was planted into the ground. Because it’s Dern, it’s Bruce Dern! And when “Nebraska” came out, “Dallas Buyers” was out and we connected on carpets and I got to say hi. His daughter Laura and I became close because I did “When the Game Stand Tall” with her…

JB: And that was shot here in Chalmette.

JD: It was shot in Chalmette and Armando Leduc is going to be here tonight, he was in the film, and we shot that in New Orleans and Chalmette.

JB: What’s it like working in such popular TV shows that are filmed in New Orleans, such as “American Horror Story” and “Treme?”

JD: Well “Treme” has always been one of my favorites, just because my wife is originally from Baton Rouge and I have brother and sister-in-laws that are “yats” from New Orleans and I picked up their dialect. So, one of the things that I prided myself on when “Treme” came out is that some people thought that I was a real sheriff, even when I was on the set. So they thought I was a real ‘yat” from the west bank. So “Treme” is really one of my favorites and now “American Horror,” my first episode aired last Wednesday and in two weeks I come up again, they just called so you know hopefully I get in a few more before it’s all said and done. So we’re shooting in New Orleans, and this season is “Freak Show” and you know it is a freak show, man. Ryan Murphy (producer) is an amazing person…

JB: It’s amazing how they raise the bar every year on that show.

JD: Absolutely, and for us actors like in “Treme” and “American Horror” is exactly the same in the sense that I don’t know the whole story. I know ‘my’ scene and what I’m doing, I don’t know whether I’m lying or telling the truth or whether I’m part of a big conspiracy or a bigger storyline. It’s a great exercise for an actor to play things for face value as opposed to “this is the scene where I’m supposed to lie about what I did” with episodic television where I get the whole story. That’s not the case here, which is great. It’s also fun for me when I get to watch. I’m watching these shows for the first time, I don’t know what’s going on unless I’m part of it…so I get to watch it with fresh eyes and that’s just a joy. If you do episodic and you know the whole script, then I read the whole thing. This I just know what my piece of the story is and I find that an interesting way to work. And now when they called recently, I may not be working with my partner. I may be in another scene independently so boom, what’s going to happen? Am I going to get killed off? I never know. It’s that unknowing that keeps it interesting and exciting for me. He’s going to do another season and there’s also a spin-off called “American Crime,” so I like to be in Ryan Murphy’s encampment. It keeps me busy.

JB: So you actually share a lot of time between L.A. and New Orleans. What’s that like in terms of commuting and stuff?

JD: My wife, as I said, is originally from Baton Rouge and we moved back to L.A. after Katrina and we were trying to work our way back and where I’m at now is I’m trying to set up something because I want to be here. I just want to be in New Orleans. There’s just something about it here…almost like in a past life…and I’ve been coming down here since ’88, when I lived in New York I would come down. I just felt like there’s something that draws me here. So for me I feel like Chicago is the place of my birth, but I feel New Orleans is the place of my re-birth. And I’m sure John Goodman feels the same way, he’s a Midwestern boy like me, but he loves New Orleans. He considers that his hometown, even though he’s from Missouri. I feel similar in that regard, if you look at the body of work that I’ve done…that happened in Louisiana. It didn’t happen in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York. My career was rebuilt and brought back to life because it was kind of stagnant. Pre-Writer’s guild strike and SAG was holding out…Honestly, I was just worried about if I could provide insurance for my family. It’s that middle-class actor thing, whatever I earn goes toward my pension and health, but it also goes toward medical and dental for my kids. So I have to earn a certain amount in order to do it. If I’m doing movies I’m able to do that with one union. TV there’s two unions now. It’s a complicated story; I’m no different from any other worker in any other company in that regard. But it’s turned into so much more than that, hitting those minimums.

JB: What projects are you working on now?

JD: I would love to tell you as much as I can but I can’t tell you much! There’s one big project that I can’t talk about because I’m not allowed to. I’m doing “American Horror Story” as we talked about and now in the trades there’s a movie called “I Saw the Light” which is the Hank Williams Story. So I’ll be shooting that in Shreveport in the middle of November. And Ryan Phillipe’s movie just came out and you can download it on ITunes, it’s called “Catch Hell” that’s pretty fun; it’s a kind of a “trap” thriller.

JB: I believe that’s from the producer of “Saw?”

JD: Exactly and Ryan does a great job. It’s his first time directing, he’s also the star of it as well. It’s a pretty cool piece.

JB: And finally, what advice might you have for any young actors trying to make their way into movies?

JD: I think the main thing is that you really have to study and train. Because I think what happens is that if you’ve really got a good look or if you’ve got natural talent, talent is not enough, particularly in this day and age. So you may have a particular look but that look may go out of style at some point. Training and skills are the things that will sustain you over time. Because now actually for me it gets more competitive, I’m competing with name actors. They’re thinking I can just get “that guy.” Just try and train and do as many things as you can. Try and have as many experiences as possible, because at the end of the day that’s the kind of thing that will keep you in the game. You can be given an opportunity but if you can’t capitalize on it that’s where the difficult part comes in.

JB: Well I appreciate this sir; it’s definitely been a pleasure.

JD: Absolutely. Same here.

 

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