Music is Just So Fuckin’ Hip: David Carradine
David Carradine came from one of Hollywood’s most legendary families. His father John, his brothers Keith, Robert and Michael Bowen, and his niece Martha Plimpton were all actors, but he was no doubt the best-known – for critically acclaimed performances like his role as Woody Guthrie in Bound for Glory, popular and enduring characters like Kwai Chang Caine in the beloved television series Kung Fu, and in another patented Quentin Tarantino comeback special, the titular assassin in Kill Bill, Vols. 1 & 2. Just before Vol. 2 premiered — and five years prior to his tabloid-ready demise in a Bangkok fuck-hut — I paid a visit at the Four Seasons in Chicago for one of the weirdest interviews of my life. He was wearing specially made Kill Bill tennis shoes and playing the flute, surrounded by personal assistants; before I even started the interview, he serenaded me with crooner renditions of “New York, New York” and “My Kind of Town”. Here’s what he had to say.
Q: How did you first meet Quentin Tarantino?
DAVID CARRADINE: I met him in November of 1996 at the Toronto Film Festival. And the way it happened was, a psychic told me I was supposed to work with him. Well, I tracked him down – I found out what hotel he was staying in and said “We have to meet.” And when we got together, I told him this psychic said we’re supposed to work together. And it took a few years, but somehow or another he finally called me up and left a message on my machine. I was coming back from Spain, and when we got together, he said “You remember when we met in Toronto, you told me about the psychic?” I said, “Oh, yeah, my wife came up with that. I know it must sound funny.” He said “No, it doesn’t. Now’s the time.” And from that moment on, we were working on the movie.
Q: Did he write the part with you in mind?
DAVID CARRADINE: Well, he wrote the part more or less about me. He studied my movies, and the press that had been done on me, and my autobiography, and he was a fan of Kung Fu and of Shane. So what he actually did was write Kill Bill with the idea that the character of Bill was like David Carradine – so when he finally got around to talking to me about it, it was the most natural thing to do.
Q. The relationship between Bill and the Bride is very complex, and Bill is quite different from the typical one-dimensional movie villain. How did you and Uma Thurman approach the two roles?
DAVID CARRADINE: We showed up and we said our lines. It was as simple as that (Laughs.) Everyone’s told me that there’s remarkable chemistry between the two characters, but it all comes from the acting. Uma is sort of an empress, and she’s kind of unapproachable – at least for me. I suppose some people could approach her, but I don’t really talk well to women. Some guy once said to me “The way David Carradine gets chicks is he goes to a party, and he gets a drink, and he sits in a corner, and some woman will walk up to him and say ‘YOU!’. And that’s his old lady for the next couple of years.” I’m mindless when I stand in front of a woman as beautiful as Uma; I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. In between takes, she’d go to this special place they had for her on the set, and she’d knit. But I’d hang out with the crew – we’d joke, we’d laugh at things, and then we’d both come back and we’d work. So the chemistry, I think, is half-and-half – Uma is a consummate actress, and I guess I’m a consummate actor. And Tarantino may be the best director on the planet. He’s like a Svengali – he can make things happen, whether the people involved want them to or not. So, between all these elements, that’s what created that chemistry so that you look at it on screen and think we went off and had an affair together or something. Or at least shot each other in the head.
Q: You have a big speech in the film about Superman. Are you a fan of comic books?
DAVID CARRADINE: Oh, yeah. Big fan. How that happened was, we were in a hotel in Beijing, and Quentin and I were hanging out and smoking cigars, and just rapping about everything. We’re both comic book freaks, and we talked about Superman a lot. Quentin came up with this thing about the super-specialness of Superman, and I’m back-and-forthing him about it. Then, six days later, we get a rewrite of the script, and this whole damn conversation is in it as a monologue I’m supposed to say. Quentin never did stop writing; we had a humongous script when we started, a great script, but he constantly tweaked it up until the last minute.
Q. You come from one of the most famous acting families in the business. When you get together with them, do you talk about work?
DAVID CARRADINE: No. I mean, we did at certain times. The brothers – I’m the oldest of the acting brothers, and they all came down early in my career, when it first started happening in Hollywood. They wanted to get in, so I led them around and pointed them in the right direction, things like that. And at a certain point, I just cut ‘em loose! Keith would ask me these questions all the time, and finally one day I said to him “Look, Keith, when you ask me these questions, I’m making up the answers. I’m just using logic and reason. You can answer the damn things yourself, because the truth is, I don’t know shit.” And then, I didn’t see him for like a year, and the next time I saw him, I said something to him, and he said “You don’t know shit!”. I realized: okay, it worked! He’s on his own now. These days, when we get together, we talk a little about what we’re doing, but certainly we don’t teach each other anything anymore.
Q: You come from a musical background as well – you majored in music when you were in college.
DAVID CARRADINE: Yeah, composition and music theory, actually. I was gonna write operas.
Q: Does your music inform your acting, and vice versa?
DAVID CARRADINE: Well, you know, they do a little bit, and in another sense they don’t. I’m about to release a CD of my music, but composition – I’ve always just been a student of music. I’ve been playing the piano since I was six, I think. I’m always trying to get better at it, to understand more about the structure of music, because the laws of harmonics are second only to the laws of thermodynamics. They’re real, solid things. We didn’t invent the music; we’re just using it. The music is out there, like the music of the planets, the music of the spheres and the stars. And when you examine music, and try to understand what makes it sound happy and makes it sound sad, you’re actually examining the fabric of the universe. Einstein did that inside his head. I can’t do that; I don’t have that big a head. But I can do it with my fingers. And you can do it on many different levels; an auto mechanic does it, he’s figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It’s just on a different level than music. But, you know, music is just so fuckin’ hip, man. I can’t walk away from it.
Q: Are there any scenes from the movie that got cut that you really regret?
DAVID CARRADINE: Oh, yeah. The fight scene with Michael Jai White, particularly, just tore my heart out. Because I really got to show my stuff there, and Michael Jai White was terrific and I’m sure he would have liked the credit. But I think the reason that Quentin took it out is because he wanted to show people that he picked me because of my acting, not because I’m a kung fu artist. Which is okay, I guess.
Q: What’s your opinion about putting deleted scenes on DVDs?
DAVID CARRADINE: Well, by and large, most of the time, you look at it, and you think, well, I’m glad they left it out of the movie. They did it right the first time. And it’s all hype, right? When people buy DVDs, what they like is the extras. So they pull out stuff that shouldn’t have been pulled out. Like, I was so eager to get the Wizard of Oz DVD that has the extra dance with Ray Bolger, and it’s not very good. But in Tarantino’s case, I think it’s a little different, because he actually planned it this way. He said “There’s certain things I must take out of the movie, but they’ll be in the DVD, and that’s where the movie lives permanently.” And that’s the way it should be – like, things that only a Chinese audience would understand will only be in the Chinese version theatrically, but they’ll be in the DVD so that everyone can see it. So I think it’s an okay idea, yeah, but it’s exploited, so half the time you buy the DVD and you get it home and you’re eager to see the deleted scenes, and then you think “This is really fuckin’ boring. They shouldn’t have put this in the picture any way.”
Carradine holds up a silver neck chain, at the end of which is a small sharp blade.
DC: I can’t take this on the plane. I gotta pack it. Somebody told me – you know those plastic knives that they give you now? — that it’s actually a lot easier to slit a throat with one of those than it is with steel knives. And I said, “You know that for sure?” And he said “Oh, yeah.” I thought, who is this guy?
Q: So he’d done a side-by-side comparison, right?
DAVID CARRADINE: Well, yeah. He knows. He was one of those guys that they put on a plane with a license to kill, like James Bond. But the truth is, if you think about it, if you gave everybody in first class one of those steel knives, and someone tries to hijack the plane with a steel knife, then you got everyone sitting there with a steel knife. You know what I believe? I believe that they should require anyone who’s sitting anywhere near the pilot to be carrying a concealed weapon. That’d be the end of it, wouldn’t it?
Q: Laurie Anderson used to say that the best way to be safe on a plane was to always carry a bomb with you. Because the odds of there being a bomb on the plane are very small, but the odds of there being two are astronomical.
DAVID CARRADINE: (Laughs) Yeah, but by doing it deliberately, you’re changing the odds. That’s the problem with that. You know the gun control freaks? I heard this lady who was an aide to a senator in Washington, DC say she’s afraid to walk through the park. “However,” she says, “if it was legal to carry a concealed weapon, muggers would not approach me. They see me now, and they know damn well the way I’m dressed, there’s no way I’d be doing anything illegal.” But if it was legal to carry a concealed weapon, they’d think she might have one in her purse. She’s a pretty girl walking through the park, she’s got to protect herself. And it’s legal for her to do so, so the mugger thinks “I don’t think I’ll do this.” And I know in South Carolina, you can carry a gun any goddamn place, and they don’t have rapes there. In England, where nobody has a gun, the rape rate is twice as high as it is in any city in the United States. I’m not trying to be Charlton Heston or anything, but the fact is that anything we try and solve or fix is for some reason presented with false statistics. You know the thing about kids killing themselves with guns? In 1947, there were like 20 of these kinds of deaths per 100,000 people. And today, when everybody’s got a gun, except in New York, the average is actually lower by like 50 percent. And there’s a lot more guns. There’s millions and millions and millions of guns now. It seems like when there are guns around, kids are less likely to be stupid with them because they know how to use them. I don’t know about these Columbine kind of things; that’s a bit different. But it seems like every one of those incidents is committed by somebody who’s on Prozac. Which is supposed to make you calmer, but it’s come out in the newspapers now that they’ve found that taking Prozac can make you homicidal and suicidal. And they say “We’re going to keep prescribing it anyway, because those are acceptable losses.” What the fuck kind of a world do we live in? What the hell is an “acceptable loss”?