Starting with his first appearances in the Gregg Araki Teenage Apocalypse film trilogy and Independence Day, James Duval has created a memorable career in so many films. I was honored that he spent so much time speaking with me not just about movies, but about inspiration, art and his real life.
B&S About Movies: You were born in Detroit, right? So how did you make it to LA?
James Duval: When I was young, my father got a job and took him out of Detroit to Tucson. We went to Tucson for six months, then LA. I still have family in Michigan and up until 1981, I used to go there for the summers to spend time with them and give my parents a break.
B&S: You started off as a musician…
James: I grew up playing classical piano and used to do recitals and stuff when I was nine or ten. I did theater for a couple of years then and when I got to high school, the drama club was like, “Oh, we don’t let the freshman do plays.” And I found that really standoffish. It kind of turned me off to acting.
I was playing music and ended up meeting Gregg Araki in a cafe, record shopping in Hollywood. He approached me and asked if I was an actor and if I’d be interested in being in a movie.
So here’s where I was: I had turned 18, moved to Hollywood, took an acting class for three months and couldn’t afford it. Had to stop. Met Gregg Araki and auditioned. Got hired and that set the stage for the rest of my career.
It helped that I had such a great working relationship with him that even when I wasn’t really working that much with other people, I was always working.
B&S: You always had someone who could find a role for you.
James: Yeah. For me, it was just trying to break out from working just with Greg to see if I could work with other people, which is sort of how I built my career over the years.
B&S: What’s it like to go from an independent movie to Independence Day?
James: That was wild. I was doing both at the same time, so that was like a dream for me. I get to make Nowhere and then I get to make Independence Day and I get to shoot them at the same time. Wow, this is going to be insane.
But I took the challenge. I got to say it was not as difficult as I thought. Because when you walk onto a set, the actors that you’re working with and the crew that’s on set — the director, the size of the budget, all those things — it kind of lends itself to this sort of environment.
I’m literally walking from a $1.5 million budget kids in Hollywood sort of making fun of Melrose Place parody and all of a sudden I land a multi-million dollar movie about the end of the world. Those environments completely lent themselves to the performance so it was very easy for me to shift from one character to the other.
I had a blast because they were so different.
B&S: Were you used to independent budgets and then saw the waste on a big budget film?
James: I gotta say, I became pretty good friends with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. Since I got to know a little bit of the workings of the movie, it was budgeted $70 million actually. They brought it in at around $76 million and only went over three days — which by today’s standards is kind of insane because today, you couldn’t make Independence Day for less than $150 or $200 million.
It was really a testament to those two Roland and Dean who had come in so hot off of Stargate. To see how they kind of were easily able to manage this.
But you know, it was also quite incredible to witness Gregg Araki’s ascension. Actually, the ascension of both of these unique filmmakers to the next levels of their careers and being involved with that to some degree. You don’t think of that when you’re a young actor, but you look back on it later. I guess it was kind of like one step to the other with those filmmakers.
B&S: They’re such wildly divergent paths…
James: An such wildly different filmmakers! And they both love each other, but they do not make movies that are remotely anything like each other.
B&S: That’s why your career is so interesting. It crosses into so many different fandoms and so many different films.
James: I think I’ve been really lucky. That’s kind of my taste — all over the map. In the beginning of my career, it was kind of frustrating because it was like, “Am I the geek? Was I that weirdo? Am I that alternative guy?” They were trying to pigeonhole me.
in some ways, you know, I took roles refusing to be pigeonholed. Not necessarily an unconscious matter, but as an artist or an actor — if I can call myself an artist — I have to challenge myself. I needed to challenge myself.
B&S: Did you avoid genre films?
James: You’re gonna be mindblown by this, but in the 90s I did not want to do horror.
And I love horror! I love it. But we were kind of talking about being pigeonholed. And to some degree after a while. I was like, I don’t want to be thought of as this or that. Which in some ways held me back in the sense that Hollywood wants to rely on a certain time of actor.
So what kind of actor is Jim? I hadn’t decided that yet. Maybe I still haven’t established that I’m this kind of act or have gotten across the idea that I can play a range of characters.
B&S: But wasn’t that the time in the 90s when every horror movie was more about the gorgeous faces on the poster, the teen stars, than the monsters?
James: I wasn’t a fan. I found that stuff to be quite unwatchable for me.
It may have been great to see horror grow and change, but you know — I grew up with Halloween and Friday the 13th and The Exorcist.
I was so possessive of the genre that when they start to change it or when it starts to grow, well I was very opinionated. I wasn’t afraid to say I don’t like this.
So it’s been an interesting journey for me. Because the whole time I’m saying no to horror, I’m saying that because I love it so much. I don’t want to be involved with something that might turn me off because I’m so desperately attached to the idea that everything has to be good.
That was holding me back artistically. Because I was saying no to jobs and saying no to opportunities. And when I say I was saying no, it wasn’t like I was doing something else.
Instead of being a little bit more worried about how people perceive me — or being concerned with my ego or what my resume was — I had to really push that all aside and start focusing on learning and growing as an actor. The only way that I was going to do that was to constantly push myself.
After that, there was this weird transition where I did start saying yes to all these things.
I think one of the first ones I said yes to — and I love the movie to this day — was May. I said, I gotta get on this somehow!
I consider Lucky McKee to be such a great filmmaker and writer. I admire him on so many levels. One of my favorite things to do is to make him laugh. He’s got the greatest laugh in the world.
B&S: Wild Horses has one of the wildest casts! Angelyne is in it!
James: When I first moved to Hollywood, she used to live a couple blocks down the street. When I would get my coffee, she would walk in and I thought, “This must be where she lives.”
In the late 80s and early 90s, my friends and I had a saying. “If you see Angelyne, you’re going to have good luck.”
B&S: She was ahead of the reality show curve. She was selling nothing as if it was something. And there’s still some level of mystery about her, even in a world with no mystery left.
James: I don’t correspond on Facebook at all. When I first got off Facebook, it was because I decided that I didn’t need people I didn’t know knowing things about me. Where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m eating — is it anyone’s business?
It’s a generational thing. I started acting when I was 18 in 1991. And I feel like, as I learned about my career and made a transition, you have to fight these things that poisoned your ego which is so easy in this town and in this business. So it’s this constant fight.
I don’t want to talk about myself. I don’t want to promote myself. I don’t want to do any of that. How are you? What are you up to today? Tell me something interesting. What are we doing to get attention? And then when social media came in…well it’s like everything that you have to fight against as an artist, not as a celebrity but as an artist.
You’re fighting as an artist and trying to become an artist and work as a true artist. All of a sudden this social media comes in where everyone’s self-promoting and everyone’s talking about themselves and you’re not going to work if you don’t…
Look, I’m not going to knock you on that level. But I have to say that that’s just not a river that I want to go down.
B&S: It’s strange because when I was young, bands were important and mysterious because they fought doing press.
James: That was a wild thing when I was growing up. Of course, things evolve and change but a big thing was like, “Don’t ever be a sell-out.”
That’s changed. I mean, if you’re super rich, and then you’re doing things just for the money, that’s selling out. But if you’re struggling to eat and pay rent for a few months, even though it’s for a commercial, I have no issue with that.
It’s when people already have proved that they’re resilient and have power and influence and maybe don’t need to make money that way and still do? When they don’t care — when they say they’re not responsible for what that company supports or does…
That’s just it’s kind of freaky to me.
So I love the idea that Angelyne still has that air of mystery. I mean, she still has it!
B&S: For decades!
James: I remember seeing her in the late 70s on Merv Griffin! She was the most famous person for not doing anything. Just because her husband started putting the billboards up. No reality show, no television, nothing. But she was in Earth Girls Are Easy!
B&S: Speaking of cultural impact, you’re Frank the Bunny.
James: That’s something I feel very fortunate about. It’s beyond flattering because Donnie Darko is one of my favorite movies I’ve ever done. Even without the following because from the moment I read that script, I was taken the same way everybody else is when they’re watching that movie.
I just knew something special because I could feel it.
It’s incredible to me to have that movie be part of my life, to play that character.
The fact that I got to be in Donnie Darko and see Jake’s performance, everyone’s performance. I really love it because the actors are all so incredible. The love between Jake and Jena is the center of that movie and the relationship with his parents even if it’s broken down…it’s like all of these people truly love each other. But it’s missed connections on all these relationships and we all get that. We’ve all lived that!
Then it moves into this other realm, this Twilight Zone!
That was my initial impression when I read the script. Like wow, this is like a modern-day Twilight Zone. The remakes and the comove come close, but they don’t have that magic that Rod Serling wrote, there’s something missing.
The script made me feel the way the Twilight Zone made me feel. Watching those original Twilight Zone episodes, there’s this dark moral compass happening that comes from this unimaginable place. Is it a twist of fate or is something being controlled or manipulated? Somewhere in between daytime and somewhere in that Twilight Zone, like darkness exists.
That said everything to me about the movie. I really like that kind of feeling. It’s kind of exactly how I approached it.
How I feel today…so for me, it’s so flattering to be recognized for that because I know people who are not happy about the work they’ve done and being recognized for it.
Maybe I would feel that way if they recognized me for some ridiculous role I did. “I really love that homeless guy you played in Now Apocalypse that gets raped by space aliens.”
That’s pretty funny actually.
B&S: Every character could be someone’s favorite.
James: If I did a character and it made you laugh and it made an impression, it could be any size role. Like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I love everybody. Even the smallest characters get a chance to shine, like Richard Edson as the garage attendant! He had the best day after he took that car. Bronson Pinchot in Beverly Hills Cop!
B&S: You’re in Sushi Girl with one of my favorite actors, Tony Todd.
James: I’m happy you brought that up because it’s one of my favorite movies that I’ve done. And Tony is one of my favorite people. I first met him back in 2007 and we constantly tried to find a picture to work together. We had a couple of fell apart and it finally culminated in Sushi Girl. Wow, what a movie for it to all work out.
Tony has always been such a gentleman to me. He’s the most absolutely incredible actor I’ve ever seen. When I met him, I said, you know it would be such an honor to work with. I felt like, I have to work with this actor before I die.
We also got to work with Mark Hamill, Noah Hathaway, Andy Mackenzie and even day players like Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn who came in. Everybody on that was so awesome and it was such a special movie for us. It was one of the most fun movies I’ve ever made. I wish more people would see it.
B&S: Is there another movie you’re proud of that you wish more people would check out?
James: I think Sushi Girl would be one. There’s a movie I did that played at Sundance called The Doe Boy and I don’t think many people saw it. I’m really proud of it. It’s kind of like a dramatic coming of age and someone was brave enough to cast me in that.
B&S: I thought Beast Mode was fun.
James: That was really fun. Thank you for reminding me of that. You know, I don’t remember so many movies! I remember when you bring them up, but I’m fortunate enough to work so much and sometimes I’ll do like six or seven projects in a row, so I don’t remember him right off the bat. That comes from years of training in that sense to be quite honest. As actors, we get so attached to what we make. We get so attached to everything we perform, even auditions. So I felt this tremendous weight in the 90s when I did an audition and would worry. What do they think? What is the feedback? Yeah, it took so many years to get past that.
So the moment that I wrap, it’s kind of like, the moment I come out of an audition. Like if it comes out and it’s great, awesome. If it doesn’t come out, well, I went and did my best. And I kind of don’t think about it.
So the downside to that is there are some movies that I have done recently that I’m very proud of that I think that people haven’t seen. There’s a movie called I Challenger that’s playing now and it’s about an older stoner guy who sells weed to underage kids. He’s looking for direction in his life and he finds these Russian videos on burying yourself underground and decides he’s going to bury himself for 24 hours on a livestream. I’m very proud of that movie.
There’s also Without Ward and that stars Michael Gladis from Mad Men who absolutely delivers one of the best performances. It’s in the future and Martin Landau plays Ward, this guy who has created a drug that gives you whatever you want and keeps you asleep in these dreams and fantasies.
Twenty years later, they run out of the drug and everyone who was on it wakes up and the other part of the world that didn’t do the drug puts them under house arrest. Billions of people are quarantined for years and you can’t leave your house under penalty of death.
Now, the movie is about how a family and how have they been faring together? How is your future living locked in your house under the penalty of death? How was this twenty years of time and what distance has passed between them? That’s our movie and it starts wild and weird. All I can say to some degree — without spoiling it — is Michael Gladis’ character is watching a neighbor. (laughs) He’s kind of being a peeping tom and masturbating to her, but it’s funny — they fall in love without touching. And maybe that masturbation leads to saving the world.
I also loved this movie called The Runner that I did with a band called Boy Harsher. I’m super jazzed about this. I’m such a fan and it’d be crazy not to talk about it. It’s really, really great.
I’m really quite proud of a series of movies — they’re not available yet — with my roommate where we got frustrated for sitting around and ended up making six movies over three years in between other jobs. We have Harry Dean Stanton and got him just before he passed away. We have so many of our friends we met over making movies over the last few years. Some really great people, but I’m really proud of those movies.
We’ve got to try to make them available at some point but that’s what I started producing a little bit. It wasn’t a lot of money, but a lot of resources to get them together. The script got written by Brian McGuire — who also directed — in three days! 78 pages or 17 scenes and we shot it in nine days for almost no money.
It’s very much in the vein of sort of early John Cassavetes.
There’s one called The Block, another is On Holiday which takes place over a three-year holiday in Los Angeles and another is called Prevertere, which is the Latin base for pervert. It’s a pretty interesting movie and totally off the radar.
B&S: I love Cassavetes. Have you seen Love Streams?
James: The end of that is such Cassavetes with the dog. In some ways, his movies are real life with a sort of surrealism. There’s ridiculousness in real life that always comes into play. You find yourself in the middle of the most kind of depressing situation and the most absurd thing happens. They’re both happening at the same time. It’s so bizarre and inexplicable.
I was in The Weekend with Gena Rowlands. I lived in a bed and breakfast with her, Brooke Shields and D.B. Sweeney for three months and the other house was Jared Harris, Gary Dourdan and Deborah Kara Unger.
So of course, all I did was say, You know tell me everything! I need to know!”
She and her boyfriend Bob were so wonderful and so gracious to me. And she was such a joy to work with. I have to say she was such a pro and so open. She was welcoming in every sense of the word. One of my favorite people that I’ve ever worked with. I was inspired by her then and I’m still inspired by her now. I was going through a bad breakup and she was so supportive. And it was a tough shoot at one point because we spent four or five 12-hour days on a dinner scene, all jammed together.
She didn’t get frustrated. She handled herself with grace. We all split a 20-year-old bottle of whiskey at the wrap party.
B&S: It reminds me of when I spoke with Courtney Gains about Robert Duvall. He said they did a scene on Colors and there was an hour delay. He was ready to see this great actor get mad and instead, he had humility. He said, “Now I have an hour to think about this scene.”
James: I can attest to that. When I worked on Gone In Sixty Seconds, we had those scenes where we were all in the garage and stacked up. And I was so nervous, I kept calling him Mr. Duvall and he’s like, “Call me Bob, kid.”
There we are and there’s Nicolas Cage, Scott Caan, Vinnie Jones, T.J. Cross, William Lee Scott, Angelina Jolie and we’re stacked up in that shot and you’re trying to figure out how to stand with those lenses. And everyone is watching playback but Robert Duvall and I asked, “Don’t you want to see how it looks?” He said, “That’s fine if they want to watch the scenes, but we could be doing another take right now.” And he was still looking at his scenes for the day! I took that with me. He was the only actor that never watched playback!
So many actors, so little room.
B&S: How much has yoga helped your career?
James: Yoga is not just a physical thing. It starts off as a physical thing, but the actual definition of yoga is to be joined together. The idea is you’re joining your physical attributes, mental attributes, and metaphysical or spiritual if you believe in that.
To give you an example, if you’re doing stretching yoga and you’re going well, my balance is more on the left than I am on my right. And I’m overextending my down in degrees, but not beyond that. You’re just moving physically and you’re thinking about that and checking in with your body. You are now mentally and physically linking those two aspects. So there’s a mental focus that comes with the physical practice.
Some poses are pretty difficult. You want to pop out of it mentally. When you start thinking about things like a bad relationship, instead you focus on the pose, you focus on being in the moment, which is everyone’s biggest challenge. I’m not in that relationship, I’m not worried about my rent, I’m just focused on my breathing. And by learning that, you’re literally learning how to mentally control your thoughts.
Most of our worries come from future events that haven’t happened or things that have already happened that we’ve moved beyond but that we’re still carrying with us. That doesn’t allow you to be in the moment. You have to get past that and say, “You’re okay. You have your vision, your hearing and you’re healthy. You can walk, you have a house, I’m okay.” And you know, for so many people, that’s a very difficult thing to do.
If you’re focused in the moment, then you can do pretty much anything.
I use yoga and there’s a side effect that you just get really strong and healthy. So if you’re practicing to get stronger, you’re gonna get the mental stuff, even if you’re not really trying to, because it’s part of the practice and vice versa.
As my yoga teacher says, It has increased my potential as a human being. To become a stronger person, to have more potential — in that sense, it helps me. It definitely helps.
B&S: Tell me about Tales from the Other Side.
James: I’m very flattered to be talking about it and to be a part of this movie. To be honest, it was a pleasant surprise to be talking about the movie because it was just shot last August.
I’m really, really jazzed about it and to be a part of this anthology series.
Without spoilers, my character may or may not be insane. The audience has to figure that out and we take them down that road, but it’s one of the things that attracted me to that project. The perception of who is my character? Is he who he says he is? How does he appear to you? Is he the same person at the end? We live in an insane world. Is he insane? I love that dichotomy.
B&S: Anthology horror is so great.
James: Yeah, I got to be part of Tales of Halloween and American Nightmares too.
B&S: Rusty Cundieff!
James: Yeah! He actually reached out to me because he liked my work. And that’s the biggest thrill. I also did another fun movie called ColdWater (Sam note: It was released as It Watches) and I play a really weird character. This guy is trapped and these escaped convicts are loose in the hills and there may or may not be some cold waters. And that movie, Rusty saw that and that’s how I got cast in American Nightmares.
B&S: You’re in Amityville Karen too.
James: (laughs) OK, Shawn C. Phillips. That script — I thought it was genius. It’s really funny. And super ridiculous. Just the ridiculous crap that we see daily on the news happening. Real life is now like a bad movie. You can’t believe people really behave that way.
B&S: It’s hard to stay centered with the news.
James: You know, one of the biggest lessons I always hear, you can’t love someone else. If you don’t love yourself — if you don’t like yourself — you’re the only person who knows you best, and you have to like yourself. How the hell could you ever accept anyone else? It’s not gonna happen. To learn to create a relationship with yourself — as crazy as that might sound — where you love yourself, where you treat yourself kindly and do things that are healthy for you.
That’s how you’ll thrive and then you can play with other people and they can thrive.
B&S: It only took me like forty-plus years to learn that.
James: I’m still working it out. Check back on me next week.
To see James Duvall in Tales from the Other Side, grab it now on DVD and on digital from Uncork’d Entertainment.