Interview Date: 04/30/2010
Run Date: 05/17/2010
Robert Davi’s resume on IMDb stretches back to the mid-1970s, including appearances in films ranging from “The Goonies” and “Die Hard” to “The Hot Chick” and “Showgirls,” along with a lengthy stint as Agent Bailey Malone on NBC’s “Profiler.” In addition to acting, however, Davi also has a background in singing, and he was able to utilize both of those abilities in “The Dukes,” a film which also provided him with the opportunity to make his directorial debut. Bullz-Eye had the chance to chat with Davi in conjunction with the release of “The Dukes” on DVD, and in addition to asking about the film’s origins, its cast, and the process of making and promoting an independent movie, we also got him talking about some of his other projects, including how he came to re-team with his former “Profiler” co-star, Julian McMahon, for an episode of “Nip/Tuck.”
Robert Davi: Hello, Will, it’s Robert Davi.
Bullz-Eye: Hello! How are you, sir?
RD: I’m good! Are we good to talk?
BE: Absolutely. Well, I actually just finished watching “The Dukes” this morning, and I thought it was great.
RD: Did you enjoy it?
BE: I did. I mean, I was a music critic before I became the site’s go-to guy for interviews, so it was kind of like shooting fish in a barrel for me.
RD: You’re kidding! Well, I’m going to E-mail you something later on in connection with my new project, then. Are you in New York?
BE: No, I’m in Virginia. But I get up to New York once in awhile.
RD: Well, I’m doing a thing in New York at Hofstra, to start it off, and it’s called “Davi Sings Sinatra.” It’s a tribute to Sinatra and the greatest songbook in America, and I’ve got a record deal with a major label. I went and I did a demo, and…I think you’ll be surprised. Beyond from what I sang in “The Dukes,” I’ve been studying for the last two years with the best guy in town, so it’s pretty terrific.
BE: I’d love to hear that.
RD: So you liked “The Dukes,” huh?
BE: I did, absolutely. I was interested from the get-go, because I’m an easy sell when it comes to any story about a musical artist or group, but it turned out to be surprisingly multifaceted. How did the idea for the film come about?
RD: Well, years ago, in the mid-1970s, when I was a kid studying with Stella Adler in New York, there was an article in the New York Times that talked about steel workers getting laid off, and people who’d had jobs for 20 years all of a sudden no longer had those jobs. And I wondered, “How do they do redefine themselves?” And that started to percolate in my mind. You’re a young guy, you don’t understand the problems of life, and… (Laughs) …everything is kind of rose-colored, not realizing that you’ve got a family to support and the pressure that puts on you. A couple of years later, I do my first film with Frank Sinatra, “Contract on Cherry Street,” and the guy who plays my brother in it is Jay Black, from the singing group Jay and the Americans. And, basically, Jay was telling me stories about how he sold out Madison Square Garden, and now he couldn’t even get a run at Jolly Rogers, y’know what I mean? And that percolated. Then, finally, my friend Jimmy Andronica, I told him that I’d come up with this story, and I asked him to collaborate on it with me. And then…my own father got laid off! So that hit home, too. And I wanted to tell a story about people who’ve done something and how they redefine their lives, and the moral choices they might be faced with, i.e. pulling a heist. But we wanted to tell it in a fun way, and…well, here we go today. The week we came out in theaters, I think, was the week that the big crash happened.
BE: It’s unfortunate, but I guess you could argue that it’s good timing…sort of. It made it more relevant, anyway.
RD: Well, it underlines the whole idea of gold not being worth what it used to be anymore.
BE: My father worked for the railroad for 30 years, but it took him forever to finally get the last of those years in. They kept putting him on hiatus, shifting him from full-time to part-time to a “call in every day, and we’ll use you if we need you” situation.
RD: Wow. But he finally got to retirement, huh?
BE: Yes, thankfully. But, anyway, yeah, this is definitely the kind of film that would hit home for a lot of people.
RD: I feel like your dad would approve. (Laughs)
BE: So what was your background as a singer prior to doing the movie?
RD: Well, as a kid, in high school, I won first place in the New York State School Music Association solo competition. I sang Vincent Youman’s “Without a Song.” I then studied opera in Florence with Tito Gobi, then with Dan Farrow at Juilliard, Roland Wyatt at the Manhattan School of Music, and with Samuel Margolis, who was Robert Merrill’s voice teacher. And this was while I was studying acting with Adler and of that stuff. But I just didn’t want to…for some reason, I wanted to stay with film. I loved film, and I loved acting, so I concentrated on that. But I’d gotten into some vocal infusion at a certain point. I was a baritone with the heart of a tenor. (Laughs) So, anyway, yeah, one of my early loves was singing!
BE: What did you have to do to get your pipes back into shape for your performance in “The Dukes”?
RD: Well, I didn’t really…I mean, I just started to get coached by some local person, just vocalizing or whatever. But since then, I’ve really gotten serious over the last year and a half – after “The Dukes” – and working with a vocal teacher who works with some major, major people, Gary Catona.
BE: “The Dukes” is your directorial debut. My first question, therefore, is…what took you so long? (Laughs)
RD: Well, you know, you’ve just got that moment. You’ve got a moment where you feel like you’re ready to do it, you want to do it, and you pull the trigger on it. And that’s what this was.
BE: I’ve learned over the years that actors tend to enjoy directors who are also actors.
RD: Yeah, there’s a commonality in approaching the material, with the language and…it’s a shortcut, being able to speak the language and to help an actor instead of crippling them. Because as an actor yourself, you know what would cripple you or help you as an actor. So you take those skills and try to apply them.
BE: You had a great ensemble to work with in the film, a lot of experienced hands.
RD: Well, as John Huston said, the first aspect of it all is to cast it right. (Laughs) I think he said it. And a few other great directors would say something similar. And, plus, when you’re writing it, you’re visualizing who you’d want to play the characters, you’ve heard their voices, and there’s a certain essence that they have that you want brought out of the characters.
BE: I think the person I most enjoyed seeing in the cast was Joseph Campanella.
RD: Wasn’t that great? Yeah, I initially had talked to an Italian actor called Leopoldo Trieste. He was in a lot of Fellini’s films, and he was in “Cinema Paradiso” as well, but he was a staple of Italian cinema. He was in his 80s, though, and he passed away, so I had the dilemma of figuring out who was going to play the character of Zorro. Who was going to play this guy? Because I wanted this very specific thing, and I was in a quandary who would play it. But then Valerie McCaffrey, the casting director, came in and…I had known Joseph Campanella, of course, but the way he aged, with his face and his look, he’s almost like a piece of sculpture, you know? (Laughs) And to play an Italian…he came in, and he was just thrilled to do the part because he’d never played an Italian in all of his years. So he loved it. And he did a terrific job.
BE: Now that you’ve made that reference to Fellini, you must be quite an aficionado of his work, since I know you wanted the score of “The Dukes” to resemble the work of Nino Rota.
RD: Yes, I did. I love the Italian cinema. It’s my roots. I love Fellini, Monicelli, Antonioni, Visconti, Ettore Scola…who, by the way, is absolutely one of the giants of Italian cinema. At the Monte Carlo Festival of Comedy, he awarded us a special jury prize for Best First Time Director and Best Screenplay…and he’s, like, a guy who’s won the Golden Palms several times, the Cesar, the David, and been nominated for Oscars. I love Italian and French cinema, so I have good reference points there. I’d wanted that kind of reference to a modern film that could make you feel like it had a certain kind of foreign…you know, those early neo-realism films and comedies. The neo-realists also did these social comedies. I wanted to do some kind of homage to that.
BE: I have to admit that one of my personal favorite touches was the decision to speed up the film right at the end of the heist.
RD: (Laughs) Oh, really?
BE: Hey, it was good, wacky fun. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the classics.
RD: That’s funny.
BE: Was that a spontaneous decision in the editing process?
RD: Oh, no, it was scripted. Not spontaneous at all. I wanted that fun image, y’know, not only of finally getting out of there, but getting the hell out of there. (Laughs) There was something more that I wanted to do there, but with the street being what it was, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. But, still, it gets the point, I think.
BE: Tell me a little about the process of making an independent film and then shopping it. Because you made “The Dukes” in 2007, and now here it is 2010 and you’re promoting the DVD release. It must be a long, laborious process to get out there and promote it.
RD: That was the most excruciating part of it. And I think what happened was that…I mean, we had the world economy and the change in business, where it became a different paradigm for films and stuff. I shouldn’t have… (Hesitates) Like, I produced it, and I had a couple of co-producers, but they were not equipped in terms of the physical aspect of production. It was not a partnership in terms of being able to sell the picture and get the picture to the right people. This was totally independent. A lot of times, a film is called independent, but the horse is already in the race: they’ve got a distribution deal, they’ve got people involved, and all that. What I didn’t know…but what I learned!...is that you must ally yourself with an entity prior to the shooting, so they feel part of the birth and there’s an emotional connection to your picture. Because, y’know, they’re dealing with all of the other things that they do have a connection to, and here you are, coming in cold and asking, “Will you adopt this child?” And they’re, like, “Why? I didn’t conceive it!” And that’s where, if I learned one thing, it’s that at the conception point, you want to involve entities that have a horse in the race.
BE: Now, since then, you’ve directed another film: “Magic.”
RD: Yeah, well, I took it over. I didn’t…yeah, it was already there, somebody had seen “The Dukes,” and the producer asked me if I would take over the helm of this film that’d already been started. They had a cut, but they had some differences with the previous director, I guess, who’s a really nice guy. So I took it over, re-cut it, brought it down to 60 minutes, and then reshot a bunch of stuff, new scenes. It’s cute. It’s a very cute film. But it’s not an auteur kind of thing, which is what I’d rather do. It was more of an exercise for myself, taking something and going, “Can I now take someone else’s thing and create my own vision within that?” And it was fun to do that, and it turned out very well.
BE: Do you have another film on the horizon where you do get to be the auteur?
RD: I do. It’s a script that I wrote, and I’ll be doing that after I launch this music thing that I’m going to be doing. It’s also a music-based piece, but it’s more extensive than what “The Dukes” was, and it’s a piece I’m very proud of. I think it’ll be very interesting. It’s larger in scope, but it has the same kind of heart in it.
BE: Well, I wanted to ask you about a couple of other projects that you’ve worked on over the years, if you don’t mind.
RD: Of course, Will.
BE: First off, on the topic of “The Goonies,” I don’t know if you’re aware that there’s a band called the Fratellis…
RD: You know, I just recently saw that! (Laughs) I forget when I saw it, but, yeah, that’s funny! I didn’t know where the genesis of the name was, but I guess it’s from the film, huh?
BE: It is. Was “The Goonies” something that you would’ve expected to turn into such a cult movie?
RD: Well, Dick Donner said when we were shooting it that it was going to be a classic. They said that when we were shooting it. So they knew it was going to be something that would last. Now, you never really know these things, but it turned out that way. It’s just amazing the far-reaching fanbase that’s been affected by the film.
BE: How was it working with such a young cast?
RD: Oh, you know, those kids were all great. They were all terrific, they were enthusiastic, and they were sweet as hell. Of course, I had to be the bad guy, and…I wanted to make the character someone who they’d be intimidated by, but I also wanted him to be likeable. Thereby, when Chunk’s being tortured, I kind of…I think you kind of start to like him. But they were a great group of young actors.
BE: The first time you really came onto my radar in a big way was through “Profiler.”
RD: Oh, really?
BE: I was certainly aware of you before that, but that’s when I was watching you on a weekly basis. How did you fall into that role?
RD: I got a phone call, the agent says, “Hey, they want to see you for this show.” I went in, I met the executive producers, Ian Sander and Kim Moses, then I met with the network and, bingo, I wound up playing Bailey Malone for four and a half years.
BE: Did you enjoy the experience?
RD: I did. Very much so. I went to Quantico after I got cast, and…I knew the show would be successful because it was a time when the O.J. Simpson trial had happened, and people had come off the whole media thing on it, where they were talking about forensic evidence and timelines and blood spatters. This show was talking about handling criminal investigations in a unique way at that point, so “Profiler” became a success. But I went to Quantico. I called a friend of mine who knew one of the heads of Quantico…my friend Jim Greenleaf, who used to be the head of Quantico at one point and the #3 guy in the FBI…and I met with Bill Hagmire, who was the head of the Behavioral Science unit and the head profiler. I spent time with him and did some research at Quantico, and then we subsequently got a technical advisor signed to our show because of that.
BE: Well, by being a fan of you on that show, I definitely enjoyed the in-joke of you turning up on “Nip/Tuck” a few years later.
RD: (Laughs) Right, where I was playing Julian McMahon’s dad! Yeah, we’re still very close friends.
BE: Was that a case where someone who was in on that connection asked you to come on the show?
RD: Oh, yeah. They’d talked about his father so often, and had the show gone on, there was going to be more development of that character and the relationship between the two of them. But, you know, things work out the way they work out. But it was fun. Right now, I’m doing the season finale of “Criminal Minds.”
BE: There you go. Another “Profiler” in-joke of sorts.
RD: Yes. (Laughs) I’m doing the season finale and the season premiere, playing an LAPD detective.
BE: This past summer, I interviewed Carl Weathers, which in turn led me to pick up a copy of “Action Jackson” on DVD…
RD: Right. That was a Joel Silver favor. (Laughs)
BE: Oh, is that was it was. (Laughs) Do you enjoy doing action movies?
RD: Well, you know…I mean, look, I’m an actor. I’ve done comedies, I’ve done dramas, I’ve done a variety of characters. If you look at the body of work, it’s interesting, I think. I’ve done a period drama: “Columbus,” with Marlon Brando. Me and Benicio del Toro. He also played my younger brother in the Bond film, “License to Kill.” I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that.
BE: Absolutely. I was going to say that it must be nice to have a Bond villain credit on your resume.
RD: Yeah! So, you know, there’s a few things. I enjoy mixing it up. A lot of people say, “Oh, you always play the Italian mobster.” That’s not true. I played a Palestinian…and you should rent this, if you can find it…in “Terrorist on Trial.” It was made in 1988, and I think it was another groundbreaking picture that was ahead of its time. So, yeah, I like mixing it up.
BE: And, like you said, you’ve done the occasional comedy. You did “Son of the Pink Panther.”
RD: With Roberto Begnini! I did “Cops and Robberson” with Chevy Chase, Jack Palance, and Diane Wiest. I did “The Fourth Tenor” with Rodney Dangerfield.
BE: And, lest we forget, “The Hot Chick,” with Rob Schneider.
RD: Yes! Rob, who’s a good friend of mine, asked me to do that film. So, yeah, I kind of like playing those roles. And “The Dukes” has comedic elements to it as well.
BE: Absolutely. In fact, I touched on this earlier, but I was very impressed with the way it blended the different genres. You’ve got the music subplot, the caper, the family drama…
RD: Yeah, it was a slice of life, you know? I’m proud of it. I accomplished what I wanted with the picture.
BE: It seems to have gotten a decent amount of critical love. Peter Travers certainly enjoyed it.
RD: Yeah, Peter liked it, and Variety did, too. Quite a few guys. We got a few clinkers, and that’s for whatever reason, but it does piss you off, because you don’t think they really watched the picture. You figure they must’ve been fast-forwarding it. Because, I mean, I’ve shown this movie around the world, at the French Festival of Comedy, which is the third largest festival in France, and “Juno” and “The Dukes” were the only two films from America to enter that. All the major stars of France go there. It’s a big festival. You’ve got Cannes, Deuville, and then this festival…and we won the Coup de Coeur from that, the Prize of the Heart. In Rome, when I was in the premiere section with Coppolla, Sean Penn, Redford, Sidney Lumet, Gavin Hood, and Julie Trainor, all of the Italian critics love “The Dukes,” basically. They gave us rave reviews, and 1,800 people stood up. And that’s how it’s been around the country when I’ve screened it for 300, 400, 500, 600 people. People liked the film. A critic or two can get whatever they want, but I really think they’re not letting the film live for what it is.
BE: Well, as a critic, I’m the first to tell people that it doesn’t matter what a critic thinks, anyway. It’s what the audience thinks.
RD: Yeah, and that’s what I’m saying. But you know what? There are some films that a critic can help and some that they can’t help. But that’s just the sensibility of things. Some people catch something you’re doing, and some don’t. That’s just life.
BE: Last one: setting aside “The Dukes” for this question, what’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
RD: (Long pause) You know, if it didn’t get love, it probably shouldn’t have. Really. It’s something that…you know, that’s one of those James Lipton questions. (Laughs)
BE: I know, I know. (Laughs) But sometimes people have a pet project sitting on the tip of their tongue.RD: Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. But I don’t know offhand that there’s anything that I’d say they should go see. You know what it is? I’m too into the future. I’m too into the now and the future to even think about it. “The Dukes” would really be the only thing, and that’s because it’s all me. It’s something that’s really the closest to what I am, as opposed to, say, a film that I loved being a part of but that doesn’t let me express the totality of what I want to express. So that’s why it’s hard for me to look at it that way. If you’re looking for performances that people may not have seen…well, it’s more of a body of work that I wish they had seen. As opposed to being stereotyped as one particular thing, if they open the book a little bit, they’ll see a whole lot more inside.