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!”
One of the hallmarks of your work in front of the camera has been the diversity in the roles you’ve tackled, and it’s been that way since the very beginning: you went from working on The Thing to working on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Yeah! [Laughs.] That was my first TV job! I adored Fred Rogers. I mean, I used to want to be a minister, so it’s wonderful how it’s come around now with Greenleaf. But Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, and his ministry was the children between ages three and eight years old, or something like that. His ministry was to young children. And if you understand that from the beginning, then it holds a meaning. He never talked down to the kids, but he did have a way of talking that was very inviting and soothing to children. And I found that fascinating.
At the time, I was in Pittsburgh, and one of the women I was working with had a hyperactive children – or at least that’s what they called it in those days! – and when Mr. Rogers came on, he was riveted. Now, any other time he’d be sort of all over the place, running around, he couldn’t keep still. But for that hour that Mr. Rogers was on, he sat in front of that television, glued, rapt. And if you came in the room making any noise, he would go, “Shhhhhhh! Mr. Rogers!” It was phenomenal. It was a fantastic thing to see. And it really made me appreciate him a lot more, and then as I was consequently doing episodes, I saw him, and it really was a wonderful learning experience.
He would tackle some adult subjects. The one that I remember most vividly was war and peace, and how wars can be started over a silly argument, and how a simple misunderstanding can cause a war. And the way he handed that whole thing, with the puppets and the text… Like I said, they weren’t placating them and they weren’t talking down to them. It was fascinating. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Rogers.
You’ve secured almost as much work just from your voice as you have in front of the camera. Was there a certain point when you realized that you could actually make a living as a voice actor or narrator?
Well, I was always fascinated by voice acting. As a kid, Wild Kingdom was one of my favorite shows, and I listened to a lot of those episodes. And absolutely adored Percy Rodriguez, Ossie Davis, James Earl [Jones], William Conrad, John Forsythe, Lorne Greene… These guys were my heroes, because you ‘d listen to those voices, and the way they would narrate was fascinating. They made you want to listen. They made you interested in what they were talking about, but at the same time, they weren’t talking at you. It wasn’t soliciting you necessarily, but it did woo you into being interested in whatever they were talking about, and it made you want to go find out more on your own. And that’s what I wanted to do.
Do you have a favorite voice acting job? Either in animation or in narration.
Oh, I have a few. Gargoyles and Spawn were two of my favorite animated series. Dr. Facilier [in The Princess and the Frog] is one of my favorite characters. I did a thing called Lions of Darkness for National Geographic. And [Ken Burns’] Jazz remains one of my very, very favorites. You know, all of those documentaries I’ve done for Ken. I really loved doing Mark Twain and Jack Johnson. And the latest one was Jackie Robinson. They’re always so wonderfully, impeccably written, and the visuals… He just does phenomenal things. So it’s more than just a pleasure working for him, because – again – I learn something, and I think ultimately you learn something that you didn’t know. Sometimes in a documentary a danger point is, you don’t really learn anything that you didn’t already know. They just go along without saying anything. With Ken, I think you always find out something that you didn’t know, no matter how well versed you are in the subject.
You’ve played a number of military roles over the years, but the first – and among the most prominent – was in Platoon. How was the experience of working with Oliver Stone.
Rigorous. [Laughs.] Again, it was one of the great experiences of my life. The best thing that Oliver did was put Dale Dye in charge of training us. And today, if Captain Dale Dye were to say, “Hey, man, I need you to be in my league, to be on my team, to be on an assignment,” I would go. He’s a military genius and true leader of men. He knows how to handle them and train them and get them to want to follow him. I didn’t know if I had the mentality or temperament to be in the service, but Dale Dye taught me the importance of pulling your own weight and being a strong link in a very long chain, and the importance of what that meant, to be a team player. And I really appreciate that.
I came away from that whole experience understanding more about the men, the grunts, in Vietnam and what it meant to them and for them. Because prior to that, in high school, I was one of the guys on the picket lines, protesting the war and kind of dogging the guys who went, not understanding that a lot of them didn’t have any choice. Most of them didn’t have any choice, and they didn’t want to be there, either. And they were also lied to and deceived by our own government. So they were not the ones who should’ve been indicted the way we at home were indicting them, as if they had more say in it than they did. It was really a government issue.
To stay on the military theme, I’m sure you – like a number of TV critics, including myself – were disappointed that Enlisted didn’t end up taking off with a mass audience.
Oh, that was a big disappointment, yes. There’s good theater, bad theater, and important theater. Enlisted could go under the “important” listing. You know, because there’s been many shows about the military and the guys on the front lines, but I think Enlisted was unique because it didn’t talk about the guys on the front lines, it talked about the guys at home who look after the families of the guys on the front lines. And we forget that the military is not just fighting men. Somebody’s got to take of the people at home. Somebody’s got to make sure that the guys on the front lines have the equipment and that their equipment is working, that they have what they need in order to carry out their orders to the best of their ability. They also have to make sure that their families are well-tended to, so that their attention is not split wondering, “Is my wife okay? Are my kids okay?” And that’s what Enlisted addressed. I’ve never seen a television program, a movie, or anything else that really addressed that issue. And that’s why it was important.
How was the experience of doing season six of Community, coming into a series that had already been around for so long?
Oh, it was such a joy. You know, I love actors, especially actors who respect themselves enough to put the work first. When Paget [Brewster] and I joined Community, everybody – from Joel [McHale] on down – was so wonderfully welcoming. I mean, there wasn’t a hitch in the giddy-up. They just welcomed us with open arms and were open to our input. It just went off without a hitch. There were no egos involved. There was no bullshit. We just came in to go to work, it was hard work and long hours, but, hey, we were around people with great senses of humor and a great work ethic, so it made the time go. I mean, long hours are still long hours, but if you’re with unpleasant people, it can go a whole lot longer. But my experience with Community was just stellar.
Have you ever worked with anyone who you were intimidated by or who you were so impressed by that you were afraid you were going to make a fool of yourself?
When I worked on The Chronicles of Riddick, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting and working with Judi Dench, and I’ll tell you, I wanted to genuflect. [Laughs.] I just think she’s one of the great artists of our time, and when I met her, I said, “I just love your work.” And she looked back and me, and she said, “Well, I also like yours.” And I was floored. I just had no idea that she had any inkling of who I was! Later on, I did a movie in London, and I was also able to see her perform on stage, and she was wonderful. She was just the epitome of grace and professionalism, and it was a joy to be around her.
Lastly, is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved? I’m sure Enlisted would probably qualify, but beyond that, perhaps?
The Cape. I think Max Malini was one of my very, very favorite characters to play. You know, besides ministry, magic is one of my great fascinations, and it was a phenomenal concept, with the Carnival of Crime, and The Cape being this legendary character who’s threaded throughout history and been around forever. Who is this fellow? I just wish it had gotten the shot it deserved. Maybe it wouldn’t have lasted five years, but it certainly could’ve played out the season, and it certainly should’ve gotten a season two, because it was just beginning to get its legs, to find itself. Sometimes it takes a minute, the same way a new house has to settle. But you know how it goes: that’s show biz! [Laughs.]