Slight spoiler warning: Some of the plot points of Kill Bill Volume 2 are revealed and discussed in this interview.
At 68 years young, David Carradine - the man who was Woody Guthrie, Death Race 2000's Frankenstein, and wandering Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine - is getting a career revival men half his age would kill Bill for. When Warren Beatty bowed out of Quentin Tarantino's long-gestating revenge epic Kill Bill, Tarantino brought in Carradine and completely rewrote the role for his new star.
The son of John Carradine and elder half-brother to Keith and Robert, David's career began in the early 1960s, mostly playing heavies and punks, though he also took on the role of Shane in the short-lived TV series spin-off of the film. His career took off when, in 1972, he starred in Martin Scorsese's Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha, and created the role of half-caste Chinese-American Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk wandering the 19th century American West in search of his American relatives, in the hit TV series Kung Fu. His subsequent career bounced between prestigious projects with Hal Ashby (Bound For Glory), Ingmar Bergman (The Serpent's Egg), and Walter Hill (The Long Riders), TV roles and dozens of B-movies, and he can count such cult classics as Death Race 2000, Sonny Boy (where he plays a woman!) and Q (directed by old Army buddy Larry Cohen) to his credit. In between he's helmed his own personal projects, among them the films You and Me and Americana. Carradine got his star on the Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame in 1997.
No April Fool's joke, Carradine came to Seattle on April 1, 2004, his second stop in a two-month publicity junket for Kill Bill, Vol. 2. His weather-beaten face showed his age, and his long salt-and-pepper gray hair, hanging loose down about his shoulders, and his serene smile and easy-going willingness to talk about any subject showed a man comfortable with his age. Dressed casually in a brown leather jacket and a loose-fitting white shirt, open to his chest to reveal a small silver dagger hanging from a chain, and running shoes with no socks, he calmly chain-smoked one cigarette after another while he weighed questions and offered insights with a nonchalant confidence and modesty.
Carradine and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Volume 2.
Let's talk about Kill Bill.
You got it.
There's an almost Zen-like quality to Bill. He's so confident and self-assured. Where did that character come from? Is it all there in the script? Did you bring that sense of calm and assuredness to the character?
I guess it's a little of both. In the first place, Quentin wrote the script with me in mind, so maybe that's how he thinks I am. All I did was learn the words and do what he told me, so you can blame most of it on Quentin. I am good at this, I guess, so I pulled it off.
It didn't look like you were just reading the words. The character on screen is very sure of himself, sure of who he is.
Yeah, the character is. I feel pretty confident as an actor after 40 years of doing it, but I gotta hand it to Quentin. He's a master. You look at the movie: where's the bad performance? You have to say that the director must have had something to do with it. Part of it is his choices of actors. Giving that Mexican pimp to Michael Parks, who has never been seen doing any kind of a character, he's always just been Michael Parks. Maybe he acts a little western sometimes, but I think most people, even people who know his work, if they don't see the credits, will never figure out that that is Michael Parks because the performance is so bulletproof. And I don't think Quentin had anything to do with that; Michael brought it all in and just gave his all.
But, on the other hand, I think that Quentin's treatment of Michael Madsen... he saw the greatness in this guy as an actor. He's worked with him before, he knows the guy. And they talk a lot, they really get on together. Quentin was really pulling stuff out of Michael. I think it's the most complete character that I've ever seen Michael do, where you feel the humanity. There's a guy in there and you can see all of him, and it's a kind of tragic character, almost of Shakespearean proportions. And then there's this crazy guy and you would think he'd be totally unlikable, but you kind of love him and you don't like to see him get killed. And I think it would have taken eight bites from a Black Momba; I don't think one would have done it. I've read the script and I almost expected him not to go down. And the way that he let Michael resist dying. He didn't just lay down and die - he was at his most active then, just pissed off. But everybody in that movie is so good and Uma is just beyond belief. Of course we've all been in love with Daryl Hannah ever since Blade Runner. That chick is something else. Everybody in the movie is so good. And that's Quentin.
You made your big splash with Martin Scorsese in Boxcar Bertha and you've worked with Ingmar Bergman and Hal Ashby. How does Quentin Tarantino compare as a director working with an actor to create a character?
Quentin is one of the very few directors who can give you direction, tell you what to do, and have it work. Most of the time when directors do that, it won't work. It lessens your performance. Bergman is a dictator. He tells you exactly what to do: how to move, where to look, everything. The result of that was that I really have no idea what kind of performance I was going to give, because I wasn't giving my performance. I was giving Ingmar's performance. And that works, maybe. I don't really care for my performance in that movie as much as I do in, say, Bound For Glory, where Hal Ashby, all he did was just stare at me, as if I was the greatest actor in the world and he was just fascinated by my work. It made me feel great and I just kept growing in the part.
With Marty, we were kind of collaborators on Boxcar Bertha. Not so much in Mean Streets [Carradine had a small but memorable role as a drunk who is shot in a bar toilet], because there he was really in control, but in Boxcar Bertha we had production problems. Sam Arkoff was sticking his nose into it all the time and we had to collaborate. It was us against the world. I think Marty went through three cameramen on that picture because they wouldn't do what he told them to do. Who was he? Nobody, as far as they were concerned. Nobody had any conception that he was going to become the most important director on the planet.
You left out Walter Hill. Until I met Quentin, I think Walter was my favorite director, and part of it is the fun of it. Walter is a lot of fun and it was really clear to me that Walter really loved me and loved my work. And that's really helpful; it makes me feel awfully good. Walter is a great technician and he's got a lot of heart and he's funny. He's got this dry humor. Quentin's humor is not the least bit dry; it's dripping and there's a lot of it. And Quentin and I can really rap, we can talk, buddy-like. Not too many directors are like that. They're not as loose or as hip or as open or as young as Quentin. Quentin will always be a big kid, I think, and so am I, so we got along very well. And we'll probably be friends. I have to wait until all of this is over to before we can find a space to actually see that, because right now it's all part of the work. But I think we'll be hanging out together for a long time.
Boxcar Bertha remains a surprisingly socially and politically ambitious film considering its exploitation origins, and it marked the beginning of a long association with Roger Corman, who encouraged his filmmakers to express their own visions within the conventions of exploitation moviemaking.
I remember Roger telling Marty, "When you talk to the press, don't say anything about unions and revolution. Just keep talking about train robberies and we'll sneak it through." Roger is a very interesting guy. If he wasn't so determined to do this system, I think Roger would have been a really important director. He's important enough as it is, but he had this attitude that it had to be as cheap as possible and you couldn't make a movie that didn't make money, and the result is [that] he took no risks. The movies look risky, but that was all calculated.