Interview: Brian Dennehy on ‘The Song of Sway Lake’, Acting and One Audition That Changed Everything

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Interview with Actor Brian Dennehy

“I don’t look like an actor, I don’t sound like an actor, I’m just another person. Which really is the whole point of acting, is trying to be just another person.” – Brian Dennehy

Over his 40-year career, Brian Dennehy has pretty much done it all in theater, TV and film. And if he hasn’t, odds are that he soon will because at 80, he still going strong. He’s about to appear at LA’s Geffen Theater in  two one-act plays, Huey and Krapp’s Last Tape, and lends his voice to the The Song of Sway Lake. In that film, he plays Hal Sway, the narrator and the Sway family patriarch, who’s grandson (Rory Culkin) makes his way to the family lake house to steal a valuable record.

In this interview, he talks about the film, his career, the advice that Christopher Plummer gave him and the one audition that changed his life.

I enjoyed the film. You don’t physically appear in it, but your character kind of looms large over the entire deal.

Brian Dennehy: The only thing I do well is loom large. I do that better than anybody.

The voiceovers that you’re doing, they’re very lyrical, kind of haunts the film but in a good way. How did you come about lending your voice to the film?

Brian Dennehy: I don’t know to be honest with you. Harry Gold is a guy I’ve been in touch with over the years for one thing or another and nothing ever kind of worked out and he called me about this and I said ‘sure’. Seeing as how it’s a day or two days work some place. No big deal.

I like the picture. I think the picture has a quality, it has a look and a feel to it that is different to most pictures these days. It has a slow-moving but powerful… it has a certain kind of a power. It’s a tribute to a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Beautiful locations and beautifully shot and that wonderful actress who plays the grandmother (Mary Beth Peil). I just fell in love with her, she was great. It’s a nice picture, a really nice picture. He did a great job.

I’m sure you get tons of offers. How do you decide on what kind of roles you want to take or things you want to do?

Brian Dennehy: Oh, I don’t get tons of offers. Believe me.

No? That is just crazy to hear.

Brian Dennehy: Well no, because there’s only certain things I can do. I’m right for certain some things but I’m not right for a lot of things. I’m now 80 and I’m just another actor and that’s fine with me. I’ve had a hell of a ride. I have a nice house. I haven’t got a palace, a mansion, but a pretty nice, comfortable home. I’ve raised a bunch of kids and sent them all to school, and they’re all doing well. All the people that are close to me are reasonably healthy and happy. Listen, that’s as much as anybody can hope for in life. And this business has kind of given it to me so I have no complaints when it comes to that. I have very few complaints anyway. And I know I’m lucky to be in that position but look, I’ll take it.

I’m an actor too so…

Brian Dennehy: You have all my sympathies, believe me.

Had you always wanted to be an actor? I read that you were, I think, 35 when you were finally able to earn your living?

Brian Dennehy: Yeah, but that’s not unusual for actors. I wanted to be an actor probably, I mean seriously, probably only when I was in my twenties. I went to high school, I had a wonderful teacher in high school, a guy named Chris Sweeney, who started a drama club which I got involved in. I was a football player and he was the football coach also. And one day he said to me on the practice field, “Mr. Dennehy, as a football player, I think you would probably make a great actor.” I was a pretty good football player and we did some theater in high school and I fell in love with it.

I went to Columbia, I didn’t do any acting at all at Columbia I played football there but I didn’t do any acting. They had a very snooty theater club and when they got a look at me they just kind of…  “No, no, no… We’re not interested, my dear boy. Not interested. When you come back with your black turtleneck and your beret, we will consider you at that point.” This was back in the fifties.

But, I was in the Marine Core then for four or five years, four and a half years. And when I came out of the Marine Core, I was married and had a couple of kids and eventually I got around to it again. And it kind of worked out. I don’t really know how or why but it did. And I’m glad. Better then working for a living.

What do you credit your long career to?

Brian Dennehy: I don’t know. Probably, a reasonable explanation would be that I don’t look like an actor and most of the time I don’t sound like an actor. So that what happens is that, on screen or on stage, you want… when I come out on stage or in the film, I just look like another person. My acting skills are such that I can communicate what needs to be communicated to the audiences and kind of bring them along on this story and they go.  Essentially what I do is that, if I do anything… I don’t look like an actor, I don’t sound like an actor, I’m just another person. Which really is the whole point of acting, is trying to be just another person.

I think if I had a 30 inch waist and gray hair, perfect teeth… I probably wouldn’t have any kind of success at all. But the fact of the matter is that I don’t have those things and I’m overweight and kind of beat up now. And I talk to people on screen in front of a camera the same way that I talk to people off-screen. I don’t try to create some kind of a character that removes me from the people that are sitting in the audience. They feel, “Well, that’s somebody like me. The way he talks, the way he moves, the way he looks at people. He’s just one of us.” And somehow it works. I was able to build a career out of that. Just being another person. It’s really the whole point of acting.

When you get a part, what are the first couple of things you do to go about creating that person?

Brian Dennehy: I mean I’ve done a lot of theater. Still do a lot of theater. Getting ready to do some plays in Westwood, California in a couple of weeks. I learned a lesson a long time ago from Chris Plummer actually. He said, ‘Don’t study your lines.’ He said, ‘Read the play. Read the play over and over and over again. You learn the play, learn the environment.” He said, “Read all the stage notes. Read all the descriptions.” He said, “What happens is that you will slowly sink into the environment. You will slowly sink into the character, sink into the language, whether it’s Shakespeare or Chekhov or Arthur Miller. Just read it. Because in reading it again and again and again, you will essentially be taken over by the environment, by the descriptions, where you are and who you are, by the words. And all of a sudden, it’s there.” And I’ve always done that and I’ve always given him credit for that.

Instead of studying lines, you absorb them over time. It just becomes part of you. And that works. The whole point of acting, the problem that has to be solved, is that you have to get the audience to trust you. Just trust you. You come on screen, now of course they know who I am. They know what to expect. I don’t want to disappoint them. But the point is instead of the audience saying, “Wow, this guy…  his acting is really interesting.” What you want the audience to say is, “Okay, this guy just walked into the room, he looks like a normal person and he’s saying his words just like a normal person. I don’t have to worry about this guy giving a performance, he’s just being the person.” That’s what I do. Or that’s what I try to do.

You mentioned that you’re about to do some shows at the Geffen. You’ve done both of those roles twice. Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape.

Brian Dennehy: I did them in different groupings. I think at one time, at some point, maybe it was Chicago where I did them together. I’ve also done them separately or with other plays. I can’t remember any of the details, so I don’t bother trying to anymore. I just try to learn the lines again. But as I’m working on the lines, I realize this sounds very familiar to me because I’ve done the goddamned piece before. Every time I do it, it becomes a different thing.

Are you excited to bring something new to the parts that you’ve played before? Is that what excites you, to revisit a show?

Brian Dennehy: I certainly wouldn’t use the word ‘excitement’.

I guess that was the wrong word, yeah. It’s a huge undertaking though, doing both shows in the same night.

Brian Dennehy: Both plays run for about an hour each, so you’ve got two acts and you have to look at it from that point of view. In between, you’ve got to make some major changes physically in terms of makeup and wardrobe and so on and so forth.

The interesting thing about these two plays is that the characters are so different. Between wardrobe and makeup and voice and character… the way he talks, they way they talk, the environment. You’ve got Krapp, the guy is an intellectual, a professor of some kind and he’s surrounded by books and he speaks in a very different way than Hughie does. He’s a gambler and he plays the horses. A New York guy, a rackish New York guy.

You can’t pretend to be two completely different people, they know that you’re the same person. But what you can do is hang certain decorations off your personality and your voice, and the way you move. And after five or ten minutes, if you do your job right, the audience forgets about what they’ve seen before, what you’ve done before and they just enter into this world of this character. It’s a challenge as an actor. And why not? Hell, I ain’t getting paid that much money for doing it. I’m doing it because it’s what I do.

I’m sure you don’t have to audition anymore but what was either your worst or most embarrassing audition?

Brian Dennehy: How do I count the ways? I don’t know. I’ve had some bad ones but that was pretty much a long time ago. Typically now, I don’t get asked to audition for films anymore, or theater for that matter because they know who the hell I am. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to really seriously audition for something.

Most of the time what happens is that I walk out in an audition, say at some dark Broadway theater. You walk out and you can’t see anything in the audience. I remember one time I was auditioning and I was 100th on the list. There were 200 people literally waiting in the alley of the theater, a Broadway theater, I can’t remember which one. There was a huge, long line. It was an open audition at that point, I couldn’t even get an appointment, it was an open audition.

I went in the morning, read and I’ll never forget… I walked out of the theater, and I was with a friend of mine who also had read. We were walking down the alleyway and all of a sudden ‘bang’ a fire door opens up. It was a hot, hot day as I remember, walking down to get some coffee at the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. And this girl runs out, she says, ‘Mr. Dennehy, Mr. Dennehy.’ And the guy that was with who happened to be an Irishman. We both stopped. And I said, ‘Yeah?’ She said, “Can you come back this afternoon at 2 o’clock?” And I can still remember that moment because that was the day my life changed. That moment was the day my life changed.  And it was because the director I was coming back to see was Mike Nichols.

After my audition, Mike Nichols walks down the center aisle and he looks up at me with that wonderful wry, hugely intelligent smile that he had and he says, “Where did you come from?” And I realized that I had crossed over a doorstep and entered into a different place that day. That day.

And when I walked out, even though my life hadn’t changed, I knew it was the beginning of something that I had been trying to get to for years. All of a sudden I was there. I still remember that day. I haven’t told that story in about 15 years. I should write it down some place. True story.

The Song of Sway Lake is currently in theaters and streaming on most platforms, including Amazon.

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Lance Carter is an actor and the Editor of Daily Actor.

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