UKHS – First of all, let me just start by saying a huge thank you Desmond for chatting with us at UK Horror Scene. I know you have been very busy so we really appreciate it, thanks!
You began your amazing acting career at just 8 years old and are still going strong at 41, why do you think many child actors fail to make the transition to adulthood actors?
DA – I think there are probably as many reasons for young actors dropping out of the business as there are actors who drop out. With adulthood comes responsibilities that simply weren’t there as a child. Not least, there are bills to pay. I remember reading once that at any given time, only 2% of union actors are actually working in their field. That means that your average actor spends a majority of his or her time preparing and auditioning for free, often facing rejection and possibly doubting themself or being doubted by those around them.
Throughout the first 10 years of my adult career, I had to take numerous part-time jobs between projects just to make ends meet. Without my strong love of the craft, and more importantly the support of my friends and family, it would have been easy to just give up and follow another path. I always believed that acting was like playing a sport professionally: The best ‘job’ in the world – because I enjoy every second of actually performing – but among the most difficult ‘careers’, because of the thousands of hours of hard work that go into getting you where you want to be.
UKHS – Your face became familiar to British audiences when you appeared in a television commercial for Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers but most people will remember you as Richard Hare in the classic BBC TV series ‘Grange Hill’. How did you get the part of Richard and what was your happiest memory of working on the show?
DA – When I was growing up, ‘Grange Hill’ was the coolest show on TV. I think every kid in the country wanted to be in it. The first time I auditioned for it, I was offered a full-time contract, but in a smaller role. I was so excited, but my agent recommended that I decline it because kids in England are restricted in how many days per year they can work, and that one job would have used up all my days for the year.
It felt weird to turn down my dream, but I took her advice and worked on various different projects over the next few years… films, music videos, commercials and theatre productions. It turned out to be very good advice because when I turned 16 I auditioned for the role of Richard and got the part. I think that working on all those other projects had made me a more well-rounded actor.
My favourite memories of being on ‘Grange Hill’ were all the ‘extracurricular activities’ that came along with the job. As well as their own ‘Children in Need’ and ‘Comic Relief’ telethons, the BBC received loads of requests for their actors to appear at charity functions. We tried to do as many as possible when we weren’t working. We always had a great time and raised money for lots of good causes.
UKHS – OK, let’s talk horror. I have got to ask you about your fantastic role as Big Brain in ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ remake in 2006. This movie has a decent amount of gore and scenes designed to shock. How long did it take you to get into character and who applied the prosthetics and was it uncomfortable during the shoot?
DA – Yes, it was very uncomfortable, but that only helped me to get into character more easily. My head was permanently tilted back once I was in the prosthetics, so I had to be led around by production staff all day. Eating lunch and relieving myself were particularly difficult. Feeling so helpless like that was something I wanted to bring to ‘Big Brain’.
The prosthetics were designed and built by KNB effects – the best in the business. There were two of their artists assigned just to “Big Brain’. It would take them 4-5 hours to apply ‘the head rig’ and full-body makeup each day, then another 90 minutes to take it all off. I can’t say enough about how nice and professional the artists were. They made things as comfortable for me as possible. I’d be brought coffee with a straw every morning and we always enjoyed a cold beer and a good laugh during my nightly, head-to-toe scrub-downs!
UKHS – You have worked on a number of horror movies including ‘No Man’s Land: The Rise Of Reeker’, ‘Paradise Lost’ (original title: Turistas) and ‘Jekyll’. What is the attraction of the horror genre and do you find them challenging?
DA – The biggest attraction of doing horror films is the fans. The horror and sci-fi genres have the most passionate fans in all of entertainment and they delve incredibly deeply into the films. I was invited to a ‘Fangoria’ convention in Chicago and I was completely amazed at the sophistication of the questions I was asked by fans. It seemed they knew these characters as well as, if not better than, the writers, directors and actors.
I do find horror films to be challenging, almost by definition, as they are outside the realm of what normally happens in life. They require actors to stretch their imagination to portray feelings and characteristics that they have never – and hopefully will never encounter in reality.
UKHS – You filmed ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ in Morocco and ‘Paradise Lost’ in Brazil. What’s the best part about filming on location and do you enjoy travelling or prefer to work in Los Angeles where you live?
DA – I may be in the minority, but I definitely prefer to be on location. Fewer outside distractions allow everybody involved in the production process to immerse themselves in the project at hand and form closer working relationships than if we all just went our separate ways at the end of each day. Of course, being in an unfamiliar and ‘inescapable’ environment for prolonged periods can also lead to personality clashes, but there is always a common goal – to make the best product you can – and ultimately, I think the good outweighs the bad.
Besides, I have always enjoyed travelling to new places and learning about new cultures. Usually, on location a good portion of the support staff are locals and I feel like I get a much better perspective on their lives from working with them than I ever would as a tourist.
UKHS – What would you consider to be the three main ingredients that you need to make a classic horror flick?
DA – Wow, that’s a tough one! I don’t think you can ever make something truly great by doing it by the numbers. One of my favourite hobbies is cooking, but I never follow a recipe. Sometimes my ‘experiments’ fail miserably, but when they don’t, I get an immensely satisfying feeling that what I did was unique. My advice when doing anything creative is to do what pleases you. If you follow your instinct you’re more likely to produce something honest and sincere, and if those traits show in your product it is more likely to be a success.
That said, I believe that the story is the foundation of all great movies. Dialogue can always be tinkered on set, performances and scene-structure can be edited after the fact, atmosphere can be enhanced by music and sound effects, but if you begin with a bad story it can’t ever be fixed.
A great villain (or villains) seems to be a prerequisite for a classic horror film. Personally, I always prefer a villain who I can identify with… even just a little. It makes it so much creepier if you can draw a line in your mind between a perfectly normal person and somebody who is pure evil and understand, even sympathize, with that journey.
Also, from a purely technical standpoint, ‘coverage’ is very important. By coverage, I mean that the director should always shoot as much footage, from as many angles as possible. A huge part of classic horror films is suspense, and a great editor can build that suspense to a crescendo only if he has enough of the right raw footage to do so.
DA -There’s nothing I consider to be a great achievement. I mean, it’s ‘acting’… none of us are saving lives or discovering new worlds. But there are plenty of little things that make me happy to do what I do. If somebody had a good time watching me in a film or play, laughed or cried for a couple of hours and took a break from their own challenges… that makes me feel good. If I can take a script and bring something deeper to it than anybody else saw on the page… I take pride in that, too.
I’ve been fortunate enough to do what I love for over 30 years while some people paid me to do it and others took an interest in it. Only a very small number of people get to enjoy that privilege, so perhaps that is my greatest achievement… being a lucky bastard!
UKHS – Great Interview Desmond, It was a pleasure talking with you. Keep up the great work and thanks again for your time.
Image courtesy: Desmond Askew and ‘Paradise Lost’ (original title: Turistas)
property of 20th Century Fox.
Movie reel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22X1QkPId3Y