Any print interview with Keith David should automatically begin with an apology for the fact that it’s not an audio interview with Keith David, as there’s simply no way that the written word can possibly serve as an adequate substitute for actually hearing David’s deep, booming voice intoning the responses to the questions that have been posed to him.
That said, given how many times you’ve heard David’s voice over the years — be it on animated series like Gargoyles and Spawn, in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, or as a narrator within any number of Ken Burns documentaries — and taking into consideration the myriad of films and TV series in which he’s appeared, it’s very likely that you’ll be able to hear his voice in your head even as you read his remarks. If you should happen to need a refresher, however, you can easily find one by checking out Greenleaf, which airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on OWN. David spoke to us about the series, reflected on what it’s like to have Oprah Winfrey as an executive producer, mourned the loss of The Cape and Enlisted, and reminisced about working with everyone from Mr. Rogers to Judi Dench.
How did you find your way into Greenleaf in the first place? Did they come looking for you specifically?
David: Yes, I got a call from Craig [Wright, creator and executive producer of Greenleaf], and he asked me to read the script. I read the script and I loved it, and they invited me to the party!
So how would you describe Bishop James Greenleaf in a nutshell?
In a nutshell, I believe Bishop Greenleaf is a man who started out very much a man of faith, a man of God, but as the business has built up… Well, I think he’s a perfect example of how money and power can begin to corrupt even the most humble man. There’s something that happens with all that money and power coming into play, and I think he’s seeing that firsthand. But I do believe that he also understands that that has consequences, so when his daughter Grace comes back, he’s ready to pay the piper if he has to. He’s ready to face whatever demons he needs to face. If they get called out, he’s not going to run away from whatever responsibility that his life has led to.
As a concept, it’s one that could potentially have people up in arms. Was that a matter of contemplation when you took on the role?
Well, of course, that’s been talked about and bounced around. I never thought that there was any grave danger of that, because first of all I believe that God has a great sense of humor and is not afraid to look in the mirror. I believe that people who really believe in God also are not afraid to question. And that’s not necessarily to question God, but to question the men, the humanity, around people of God. Because the bottom line is that the bishop is just a man. A flawed man, and given to all the frailties that men are given to. And anyone who has any relationship with church or any religious or spiritual organization or entity knows that the bottom line is that these are human beings we’re talking about…and if you allow the man to become more important than God or the religion itself, then we’re all in trouble!
You and Oprah Winfrey worked together years ago on There Are No Children Here, playing husband and wife.
How interactive is Winfrey with Greenleaf? Obviously it’s on her network and she’s in the series, but is she going to be an integral part of it for the duration?
You know, one of the things I have come to adore most about Oprah Winfrey is how wonderfully and positively hands-on she is with this project. I have rarely in my career had a producer who really is what they say they’re about and goes all out to protect that and support that. People just aren’t as supportive as she has been. I mean, that’s my experience. And there are a lot of wonderful people in the world, but she is so wonderfully supportive. Yeah, I think she believes in the project and the subject matter and, really, in the whole concept of bringing quality stories to television about African-Americans and the African-American way of life, about seeing ourselves truly reflected. I love that. It’s really something to be admired. People say a lot of things, but she actually walks the walk that she talks.
I wanted to hit on some other highlights of your career, so I figured I might as well start at the beginning. You’ve worked with John Carpenter a few times, but how was the experience of working on The Thing?
Well, as you say, it was my first movie, so of course it was exciting just because I’d gotten a movie job! I was very young and I was used to working in the theater, sometimes making good money, most of the time making a living. But that was my first movie job, and what I got paid seemed to me at that time to be a lot of money! [Laughs.] And my contract was for 20 weeks. It was fantastic! I got to work with John Carpenter, who was a wonderful director. I’d seen The Fog, and I was excited to know that I’d be working with this guy. One of the most exciting aspects of the thing, though, was that most of the actors were actors who’d come from the theater, so I felt really at home.
Although I will say this: that same summer, I had completed my speech teacher training. I wasn’t a guy who could wait tables between jobs. I just didn’t have the temperament for that. So I studied massage, and then I became a speech teacher. And I was coming right off of that – in fact, I left my training about a week early, so that I could go start rehearsing the movie – and I was a little bit afraid that I might be a little pedantic or something in my speech. Because the name of my course that I teach is “Good American Speech for the Theater.” [Laughs.] So I was a little concerned. “Oh, boy! Am I gonna sound out of place?”
But when I got there, we started rehearsals, and I had never been on a sound stage before, and of course I’m used to the theater, and I wanted my intention to be clear and wanted to make sure you could hear me. Because there were some actors who weren’t in the theater, and sometimes when they talked even around the table, I could barely hear them! I just wanted to make sure that I could be heard. And there were times when I only had, like, a two-word response, so in this whole soundstage of people, you could hear me ringing out, “HELL, NO!” [Laughs.] So we all had kind of a good laugh about that. A bunch of the fellas, Richard Masur chief among them, took me for lunch, and they said, “Uh, listen, you don’t have to project that much. We get it. You’re doing fine. Relax!”