Interview: Tony Winner Brian Dennehy on Why He Returns to Theatre, New Film KNIGHT OF CUPS

By: Mar. 13, 2016

Few actors have had a career to rival that of Brian Dennehy, either in terms of success or longevity. With over 150 on-screen credits, the 77-year-old actor has earned a Golden Globe Award and six Emmy nominations. However, it is his decades of experience on the stage that keep his artistic batteries running.

"I work in the theatre a lot, and in the theatre I can call upon the geniuses that may be with us, and may not be; Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill or Beckett or Shakespeare or Chekov," he said. "However dead they may be, their work is not dead. It is possible to breathe new life and new oxygen and new ideas into those wonderful pieces of work. So I don't depend upon Hollywood, or the studios, or movies, or television, although I work in them and certainly won't say no, but I don't depend on them for intellectual stimulus or satisfaction."

Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane in THE ICEMAN COMETH
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

Dennehy won the first of his two TONY AWARDS in 1999 for the iconic role of Willy Loman in Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the role that also earned him his Golden Globe for the television broadcast of the show. Then in 2003, he won again for playing James Tyrone in O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. DEATH OF A SALESMAN was later revived in 2012, with Philip Seymour Hoffman earning a Tony nomination for playing Loman, and another revival of LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT will begin previews in early April, with Gabriel Byrne playing James.

Despite having performed scores of iconic theatre roles, Dennehy says that he doesn't compare himself to other actors that later take them on.

"What I do when I go to the theatre and I see something that I've done in the past, and I've done a lot of stuff, is I just try to enjoy it," he said. "I try not to contrast and compare, because everything's going to be different. You're a different person, it's going to be a different performance. It doesn't bother me that way."

Dennehy said that one of the things that is so special about theatre is that seeing a performance live allows you to discover things about the text and about people that you wouldn't be able to otherwise.

"Every time I go to the theatre I learn something about something or somebody," he said. "So, going to the theatre, regardless of how depressing or hopeless (the show) may be, always has some kind of value."

In between shooting the new film KNIGHT OF CUPS with director Terrence Malick and the TNT crime drama PUBLIC MORALS, Dennehy has been seen regularly on the New York stage over the last few years. First in 2014's Broadway revival of A.R. Gurney's LOVE LETTERS, opposite Mia Farrow and Carol Burnett, and then in the Off-Broadway remounting of Chicago's Goodman Theater's 2012 production of THE ICEMAN COMETH, with Nathan Lane. However, he admits that the demands of the stage can be taxing.

"Theatre is something that I've always enjoyed and that I care about," Dennehy said, "but as you get older, it is harder and harder to do, but it's always worthwhile."

The legendary actor can currently be seen in KNIGHT OF CUPS opposite Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Nick Offerman, and others. The film is playing in select cities and will continue to expand throughout the month. KNIGHT OF CUPS takes an episodic look at the life of a screenwriter, played by Bale, who is losing his way, both personally and professionally. Dennehy plays his father, and believes that the pair's tenuous relationship ties directly back to the filmmaker's life.

Brian Dennehy and Christian Bale
Photo Credit: Broad Green Pictures

"The father was kind of a complicated monster," he said. "Of course, all of this stuff, to some extent at least, resonates back on Terrence's personal situation with his family. The complicated, tortured even, relationship that he had with his father, and his brother who died, apparently in Spain, when he was young. There are resonances or reverberations of (that) in this."

Over the past four decades, Malick has been one of Hollywood's most elusive auteurs. After his early success with films including BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN, he removed himself from public life for 20 years before returning with his Oscar-nominated THE THIN RED LINE in 1998. Dennehy believes that Malick's personal battle with Hollywood is another autobiographical feature of KNIGHT OF CUPS.

"It's a really interesting picture about the possibility of disillusion," he said. "The possibility of losing one's creative reason, and power, and I wonder if that's what happened to Terrence himself, because he went away from the business."

In the 18 years since THE THIN RED LINE's release, Malick has returned to work, writing, directing, or producing 18 films and documentaries, including 2012's THE TREE OF LIFE, which earned him his second Oscar nomination. Dennehy said that the approach Malick takes to his films is extremely unique, and equally as important.

"What he does is something that's so unusual in our art today," Dennehy said, "to expect the audience to have the same kind of intellectual imagination and drive and enthusiasm that he has. He's one of the few directors in Hollywood that insists that the audience come to the table prepared; prepared to think and react and care, and not just about car crashes or fist fights.

"So, we're all volunteers here in this service, service of him and his genius, and I think he's done it again. There are people out there for (Malick's style), and I hope to hell they come, because he's really an interesting, provocative man to work for."

Brian Dennehy. Photo Credit: Broad Green Pictures

Malick's style of filmmaking is very different from what Dennehy normally sees on set. Since the film was constructed in eight separate segments, actors were only given the information that they needed for their specific scenes, but were kept in the dark about the film's larger narrative. While that approach did present a few problems, Dennehy said that the all-star cast embraced the process.

"It's kind of fun," he chuckled. "We all had a good time. Sometimes it was a challenge; sometimes the actors might be on different levels and moving to a different drummer, but life is like that a lot, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be when there's a camera rolling."

One of the major byproducts of this style is that Dennehy wasn't exactly sure what the film would look like as a finished product.

"Terrence records and shoots a lot of stuff, and then the movie shapes itself," he said. "I think the point of it was to give him as many possibilities in the cutting room as he could imagine at the time. The movie is completely different than I thought it was going to be, but why not? We shot five different movies, we shot eight different movies, and he kept the one that he wanted to make, and that's ok by me."

For a complete list of the cities and theatres where KNIGHT OF CUPS is playing, CLICK HERE.

Check out the trailer for KNIGHT OF CUPS:

What has been your favorite role in Brian Dennehy's legendary career? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Banner Image:
Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy. Photo Credit: Broad Green Pictures


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