Saturday, 12 April 2014

interview: Billy Dee Williams

In October 1995 a bunch of Star Wars cast were flown over to the UK for a press junket. Must have been yet another VHS re-release I suppose. I was given Billy Dee Williams to interview, who didn’t really want to talk about the Star Wars films. This is what I did manage to get out of him.

You came into the Star Wars sequence with The Empire Strikes Back. What do you remember of Star Wars when you went to see it?
"I thought it was a very good movie. The first movie I ever saw that George did was THX-1138. I realised then that there was something going on."

When did you first hear there was going to be a major part going in the sequel to Star Wars?
"Well, all the people who work for me, like agents and managers, tell me these things. At that time I was under contract to Berry Gordy who owned Motown. I was under a seven-year contract to them and they were always looking for projects for me to do, so they came up with this one. I was asked to participate, so I had a meeting with Irving Kirshner. There was a real sympatico there, a real good connection between the two of us. He came to my house and sat and talked about a lot of things: what he was aiming for, what he was trying to do, what he was interested in."

Did you have to audition for the role?
"No. I never audition for roles. I gave that up a long, long time ago."

How did you start in acting?
"I started when I was about six, seven years old in Broadway musicals by Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. My mother got me into this ridiculous business, but I didn't really pursue it until after I left high school. I was studying painting; I spent two years on a scholarship to a school called the National Academy for Design for the Fine Arts, and won a Gugenheim at the age of 19. While I was there, I was looking for little jobs to buy canvases and paints, and started doing extra work on television. I was studying acting and doing plays."

What was your break into films?
"The first film I ever did was with a great actor called Paul Muni. I was about 20 years old. That was for Columbia Pictures, it was called The Last Angry Man."

When you were making The Empire Strikes Back, was there a lot of pressure to make sure it was as good as Star Wars?
"There's always pressure to make a better movie than you did prior. I guess George's aim was to introduce a lot of interesting new technologies to create a greater impact for this kind of a movie."

Was there a confidence on the set that this one's going to be better?
"I guess. I don't know. I was just an actor. I was hired just to be an actor, so I didn't really think about all those things. However, when I saw what was going on I was pretty amazed at what they had put together. I spent many moments when I wasn't working for the cameras, talking to a lot of the young people who were employed to come up with all of these incredible ideas, and I found that to be a really interesting experience."

Were the main cast from the first film already established as a unit?
"Well, if you're a new person it's like entering a family that's been established, but if you're a fairly civil human being, I guess you're accepted."

What sort of difficulties, if any, were there in acting with the non-human characters?
"No drawbacks, you just make the adjustment. If you're an actor that's what you're employed to do. It's the responsibility of the actor and if you're trained to do those things, you do it."

Did you see Empire and Jedi as just a couple more jobs?
"Yes, I was pretty much established through other films I had been doing. And this was just one more job; a job I really wanted to do because it was science fiction, and I always saw myself doing a science fiction movie. So I got lucky and did this particular thing which was really a goldmine and was a fore-runner of all the other things which happened in science fiction. as far as the technology's concerned."

The character of Lando is a very vague character in terms of relationships. Was it tricky playing a character that complex?
"No. If you're a professional then you do it. You do the job. Very exciting, it was all very interesting. You try to do the best job you can possibly do. Not only the best job, but you try to bring something unique to it that's your own, and I think I succeeded with Lando."

Return of the Jedi was made under heavy security, with fake titles and things.
"Yes, it was called Blue Harvest, but it was not really a secret. Those who follow all that kind of stuff knew a lot more than I even realised they would know about what was going on. In fact I was pretty amazed because there was so much secrecy going on, but the fans were all out there. They were even flying around in airplanes, watching the filming. It was pretty amusing."

How have you found the reaction of the fans? Is it difficult to cope with people who think of you as Lando?
"No, because they think of the other characters I've done, like in Lady Sings the Blues. That character created a big impact. People when they see me, they always want me to quote lines from that particular movie - same thing with this - which means that obviously I did my job well. I was successful in what I set out to do. But that's true of most of the characters I do, so I guess I must be pretty good."

What are your favourite characters?
"Well, Lando's one of them. The Lady Sings the Blues character. I was nominated for an Emmy for one character I did for television. A lot of movies: The Bingo Long-Travelling All-Stars and Movie Kings, about baseball, I played a good character in that. A lot of stuff I've done has had interesting characters."

Do you prefer film or TV acting?
"Everything. I prefer everything."

What were you doing for Motown?
"Berry Gordy produced Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany. Berry Gordy was very closely involved; he wanted to be a film person. He signed me to a contract."

Do you remember at what stage Revenge of the Jedi was renamed Return of the Jedi?
"I remember it. I don't know specifically when it happened, but I remember it happening because I had some collectables - Revenge of the Jedi T-shirts and posters - and then they changed it."

They're very collectable nowadays.
"Oh I've got a lot of stuff from the films. I even have an Ewok."

Do you try and collect stuff from your various roles?
"Certain movies I do."

The careers of the leading players of the Star Wars trilogy seem to have gone in wildly differing directions. Do you think these films have been a help or a hindrance to your career?
"Oh, it's been a help. I've done a lot of movies - some successful, some not - but certainly these were good box office movies so that helped me."

Do you watch your own films when they come up on TV?
"Not really."

Was there a feeling on the set that after Jedi you would quickly roll over into the next Star Wars movie?
"I was signed to do Empire and Jedi, so I knew that those two were going to be done. What he was going to do after that I was not really privy to. Although I think he had decided that Jedi would be the last one of this particular trilogy. And what he was going to do after that I think was a question of what else he wanted to do before he continued to pursue this Star Wars thing. But certainly he had so much success with it, it's like a goldmine. I'm sure that whenever he decides he wants to do something with it, he'll do it. But I think he had other things he wanted to do."

If you were offered the role of Mr Calrissian Snr, would you take it?
"I don't know. We'll have to find out. I have no idea. I don't know how pertinent the character is to the whole story. He comes into the situation, not really being an integral part of the whole saga, so I can't see any reason why you would have his father. It was really the relationship between Han Solo and Lando that brought Lando into the situation."

The other role that our readers most associate you with is Harvey Dent in Batman.
"I really wanted to do Two-Face, that's the reason I took the role, but as things turned out, it didn't work out. There was a couple of times a change of hands, so things changed. I was not signed to do more than that one movie, but I was hoping that I would."

Are you a Batman fan?
"Yes, as a kid growing up I used to read the comic books. But I don't pay much attention to a lot of this stuff. I'm too busy doing other things."

What did you think of Tommy Lee Jones' performance?
"I have not seen it, but he's a very fine actor, so I would imagine that he brought something interesting to it."

What was Tim Burton like to work with?
"He was nice to work with, a very nice man. He's unique in his approach. He seems to like the dark side of things and seems to be very good at it."

What are you up to at the moment?
"As soon as I leave here I've got to go back and do a small, independent movie called The Prince, based on Machiavelli's The Prince. My character is the Prince character. The guy who is writing and directing it, he made a movie some years ago called Gabby, a very interesting little film. He's had this around for a long time, he's been asking me to do it for a long time, so finally he raised some money and I agreed to do it."

Any significance to the Lone Ranger badge you’re wearing?
"No, I like all these characters, I grew up with all these characters. Mickey Mouse is my favourite. But also I paint. I have an exhibition of my paintings in Washington DC. I also work with the Thelonious Monk Jazz Festival. It's an international competition that they have every year."

Do you play jazz?
"No, but I've spent all my life listening to jazz. I'm not an aficionado but I know it pretty well. I played a jazz musician once in a movie, a movie in Canada called Giant Steps that nobody will ever see. It just didn't work as a feature, but I think it's on video."

Would you have been happy to go into music or painting if you hadn't gone into acting?
“Well yeah. Painting is something I've been doing all my life. It's been a very important part of my life. But I never look at things that way, I never say if I didn't do this would I have done that. I just do everything I think I want to do. I have no problems with it. I have no hobbies. People say, 'Is painting your hobby?' No, I never bother about having a hobby, it's just what I do with my life I try to make the most of it, to see where it takes me."

Do you have any ambitions?
"Well, I'm going to be an author. A book of my paintings is being published. That was going to come out for the holiday season, but now it's been postponed to next Spring."

What sort of paintings do you do?
"I call it 'abstract reality'. In other words, there's realist things in there and abstracts. It gives me a lot of opportunities to play with various levels. I work in oils and acrylic. A lot of different themes, a lot that have to do with what I call my journey themes which depicts my experiences as I've gone through my life at various levels, various situations. Having to do with romance, having to do with music, having to do with politics, having to do with social statements."

Star Wars was a long time in the past, and you're still being called on to do these festivals and so on.
"Well, I never do them. But I was asked to take a trip to England, and I said why not? I'll go to England. I have a little time before I go to work. Earlier on, before the movies were released, I used to do a few conventions with everybody. I just narrated for the Sci-Fi Channel in the States the promotion of this new technology."

Have you seen the new versions?
"No, but I know that George spends a great deal of his time working with this stuff, enhancing it, making it better. He seems pretty much preoccupied with that, so I'm curious to see it myself."

The trilogy is going to be re-released. Do you think that will help?
"Yeah, I hope it helps. It's going to be good for everybody I guess, if it has the success."

Are you surprised at the longevity of the films?
"I'm not surprised about anything. I think it certainly has all the honours for longevity.”

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