Keith David is one of Hollywood's most reliable character actors. From his breakthrough role in John Carpenter's The Thing (where he was one of the final two survivors) to his performances in Platoon, They Live (also by Carpenter) and Crash, he always grounds his scenes with his physical presence, intensity and, of course, that deep bass voice. He crops up several times in Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings' adaptation of Cloud Atlas, most memorable as a leather-jacketed Joe Napier, who helps Halle Berry's Luisa Rey crack a conspiracy involving a nuclear reactor in the 1970s. We talked during the Toronto Film Festival the day after the film's world premiere.
What was it like watching the premiere with an audience?
What's not to like? Visually it's stunning. The cast is just wonderful. Rarely do you go to a film and have so many elements come so wonderfully together. You want to see more than once. There's nuance and subtlety. Absolutely everything that made me want to be an actor is in this movie.
I love how the directors drew on 70s paranoia thrillers in the Luisa Rey/Joe Napier scenes.
It was wonderful. I felt like Shaft in San Francisco. Plus, one of the great things about the nuclear reactor story is that it's so resonant today, as we talk about oil, oil companies and their agendas.
How does getting into that 70s gear and and driving those cars affect your performance?
That's another great gift of being an actor - letting the environment be able to "play you."
Did you spend hours in makeup?
I didn't have as many hours as some of the actors. But yes, it took a while. Every day my makeup was built on me. That was another fascinating thing to watch, the makeup team. I remember one time walking into a makeup trailer and there was an actor being worked on. I said hello and didn't realize it was Hugh Grant. I thought: Holy good night, that is phenomenal.
Did the film make you think about things like reincarnation?
Absolutely. Especially the idea of soul evolution - how a soul in one generation can travel through the ages and work things out in another. Certainly it's there with my characters: Kupaka is an indentured slave, Joe Napier is like a corporate slave, and Luisa becomes the catalyst for his liberation. Then he becomes An-kor Apis, a leader.
This year is the 30th anniversary of The Thing. Did you have any idea it would become this classic?
Funny thing is, when I did The Thing, it was my first movie, and although when it came out it didn't get good reviews, in fact it was kind of dogged by the critics, but I had gotten some nice mentions. And I thought: Okay, I'm going to have a life in the movies. Well, I didn't work in the movies again until four years with Platoon.
The Blu-Ray of They Live is coming out. Did you contribute to the extras and did you see the parody of your long fight with Roddy Piper in South Park?
I did an interview for the Blu-Ray. And did I see that parody? Oh yeesssss! It's funny as hell!