Culture Corner

An Interview with 2001: A Space Odyssey Star Keir Dullea

Bernie Langs

Keir Dullea with Katharina Kubrick, daughter of Stanley Kubrick, at showing of 2001 at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 (Photo: Wikipedia)
Keir Dullea as astronaut David Bauman in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (Photo: MGM Studios)

 Keir Dullea is a stage and film actor best known for his leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece and genre-changing movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. During an hour-long phone interview from his home in Westport, Connecticut, Mr. Dullea’s voice and his sharp recall of his career did not convey any sense of him slowing down at 83 years old. I could easily recognize the same vitality that his 2001 character, astronaut David Bauman, displayed as he powers down his spacecraft’s infamous computer, HAL, goes rogue. Mr. Dullea is still performing on the stage and he briefly discussed some of his upcoming films. What follows is an edited version of our discussion.

Keir Dullea on why he enjoys the stage:

 I had the theater before I ever did my first film. I would say a lot I had done in those days, they don’t really do this anymore, summer stock at the summer theaters around the country, as resident companies where you would have a group of actors that would do every play for ten weeks, ten plays in ten weeks and you didn’t even have a full week’s rehearsal. I had done my first season in 1957. For four years in the summers I had done probably fifty plays, always an exciting challenge.

The big part of what makes theater for me more exciting than film: it’s working with a live audience. There’s this spirit that makes every performance slightly different because if it’s a five-character play, there’s a sixth character and that’s the character of the audience. And if it’s a serious play, it makes a difference every night.

I’ve done about thirty-five films, but I’ve probably done about sixty or seventy plays in my life. I’m pleased with some of the films I’ve done [such as] 2001 and David and Lisa, but also my first film, which didn’t do a lot for my career, but it got great reviews. David and Lisa is one I’m very proud of. That was my second film and kind of was responsible for my film career.

My first hit on Broadway was Butterflies are Free with Blythe Danner. It was her first Broadway play. The peak Broadway experience for me was the first revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Elizabeth Ashley. She’s done some important films, but her Broadway credits are enormous. She’s a brilliant actress. She was nominated for a Tony and she should have won it. Tennessee Williams said, because he was around while we were rehearsing, she was exactly the character he had in mind when he wrote the play.

Working on [the film] Bunny Lake is Missing was not a pleasant experience because of the director; Otto Preminger’s reputation among actors was pretty bad. He humiliated his cast and screamed at the top of his lungs.  [Co-star] Laurence Olivier was very conscious of it, but he didn’t treat Olivier that way. Olivier was very conscious of the pressure that I was under. I would [mess] up my lines. It wasn’t because I had a lot of lines. Being a stage actor, I’m used to memorizing a lot of lines. The stress of working with that man was such that I would often go off in my lines.  Olivier would run lines with me; we’d off away from the set for hours at a time. He was so kind. He was wonderful. I loved working with him.

On working on The Good Shepherd directed by Robert DeNiro:

…DeNiro, we both grew up in the same part of Manhattan in Greenwich Village. We had met sometime briefly [years before the film]. My role wasn’t that demanding. I loved the opportunity to be working with Angelina Jolie. She was lovely. She wasn’t like, ‘I’m the star.’ She was very natural and easy to work with. As was William Hurt. And DeNiro was lovely to work with. I loved just meeting Matt Damon. I have great admiration for him as an actor.

On getting chosen for the lead and working with director Stanley Kubrick on 2001:

One day after work on Bunny Lake is Missing I came back in the evening after a day of shooting. And my wife said, your agent called, so I called my agent and he said, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “No, why?”. “You better sit down, you’ve just been offered the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s next film.” Out of the blue. I had no idea I was being considered. I don’t know all the films he looked at, but I know he’d probably look at David and Lisa. Although if you’ve seen that, it wouldn’t clue you into it, but Stanley saw me for the character that he wanted.

It was a dream experience. I can’t say it’s the role of my dreams. But I am an important link of many links in one of the greatest films ever made. It all has to do with Stanley Kubrick. He was a genius. The funny thing is the film didn’t start off being successful. It took a couple of months for MGM to stop being worried because there were three major premiers–Washington, New York, and Los Angeles–and people walked out of all of them. Some of the reviews were brilliant, but a lot of them by well-known critics really slammed the film. And then suddenly, there were lines around the block a couple of months later and the makeup of those lines was the younger generation. I think they came out with a new poster because they figured that a lot of these young people were smoking “funny cigarettes.” It said “2001: A Space Odyssey, the Ultimate Trip.”

Arthur C. Clark…we met, we had discussions, and I sort of got to know him. I wasn’t a big science fiction fan by the time I made 2001, but I was as a teenager. My mother would give me every year in those days a book that was the best science fiction of 1950 or whatever. I remembered reading the [2001] script before I arrived in London to begin filming. And I’m thinking it was vaguely familiar. And then it hit me. I had read a short story by Arthur C. Clark called The Sentinel. That was the germ, that was the short story that Kubrick read. To be in the presence of [Kubrick] and the contrast between Otto Preminger and this man was just enormous. Never raised his voice, was always quiet, was open to discussion. You could suggest things.

During the final scenes of the film, we watch Dave Bauman aging and watching himself age. The culmination is a shot of him eating alone, breaking a wine glass, and suddenly stopping to see his final, eldest self in bed breathing his last as the Monolith appears towering over him. On how Dullea influenced that stunning moment:

 It’s not one of the major elements of the film, but yeah, I think it’s a major element in the film. I think it’s immense. Kubrick was always open to [ideas]. He was going to use it, but, then I explained why, the reason I wanted to do it. It was not for some esoteric reason. If you remember the first view of me in that room, I’m still in my space suit yet looking out, I’m still in the pod. And then the next version–I’m still standing in the room, and then there’s another version [of me] where, I look out of the visor of the space suit and see that my spacesuit is gone. And then that version walks into the bathroom and there then is me. Each, a younger version–and what does he see? He sees the older version. You never cut back to the first version. And so he looks and he sees the older version sitting at the table eating. In the scene where I knocked the glass over, I said, let me have a slightly different way of reacting to hearing something. Let me knock the glass over and in mid-gesture, reaching over to get the glass, I’m aware of something. And what I am aware of is the oldest version [of me] on the bed. I wanted a slightly different way of reacting. I didn’t want to just hear something, I wanted a gesture that somehow that was different. The brilliance shines in every scene, but particularly in that scene. That oldest version, thank God, we didn’t have to do that more than one or two takes. It was all done within one day. The makeup for that version took twelve hours.

On some of Dullea’s favorite moments in 2001:

One of my favorite sequences when I first saw the film was, ‘The Dawn of Man.’ Dan Richter who played the leading ape was a mime. He was brilliant. The ‘jump cut’ in the film, from the bone to the space station, that’s the greatest jump cut in the history of film. And my other favorite moment in the ‘Dawn of Man’ is when Dan Richter is fiddling around with some bare bones, just kind of arbitrary, and he’s hitting one bone, hitting the other bone and suddenly a piece flies up in a certain way. He pauses for a minute and is curious, suddenly tilts his head. And it’s the moment when the penny drops. He gets it. It’s brilliant.

It’s amazing that how Stanley got so many things completely right. He absolutely had [predicted] Skyping, he had [predicted] iPads. He contacted something like forty different corporations and asked them to send their best guess as to what their product might be [like] many years later in 2001.

Dullea’s line in 2001, “Open the pod bay doors please, HAL,” is #78 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotes. He noted that since Stanley Kubrick couldn’t decide on a voice for HAL, during filming an assistant with a strong British accent would feed the stand-in lines for HAL’s voice. On the iconic scene where he turns off the computer and about a speech of his that was later cut from the film:

 We had weeks of discussion before we began filming, [and Kubrick] had Gary Lockwood who played the other astronaut and myself there for all kinds of reasons, costume fittings, and makeup tests. But one of the things we talked about was who these characters were, how he imagined they might be chosen in the year 2001 [for the mission]. He said that it’s not mentioned in the film, but I think you both probably have double doctorates in some scientific disciplines of some sort. And more important than that is your psychological profile. One of the reasons there is the least dialogue of the whole film [in our part] other than ‘The Dawn of Man,’ is that the other astronaut and I are the only two astronauts awake. And it’s been months this journey from the Earth to Jupiter, imagined by Stanley, would take months. So by the time we pick up on their trip, they’re talked out, there’s nothing left to talk about. They have their daily routines, which you don’t have to talk about.

In terms of an emotional scene, the closest I had was when I’m taking HAL apart. And for me, you try to find it as an act when you’re playing a role. In order to play it successfully, it doesn’t mean you have to have gone through those experiences exactly the way it is in the script yourself. You’ll have to find parallels. The closest parallel in your own life or even if it’s a book you’ve read, some emotional response that you had and you bring that to those moments. And the closest that worked for me is [the film of] John Steinbeck’s book, Of Mice and Men. He [Lenny] doesn’t shoot him [George] with anger. He shoots him because he cares about him. Don’t forget HAL is a member of the crew.

I had this dialogue, which was the longest piece of dialogue in the whole film. It was very hard to memorize because from my point of view, it was technological gobbledygook. I worked on it for weeks. And, Kubrick ultimately when he was editing the film, cut the scene, deciding it was redundant. But because of the way I had to memorize that, like memorizing phonetically a foreign language that you don’t speak, I can still do the speech. Exactly.  And it went like this: ‘Mission control is there’s extra a elder one at one nine or two zero on board vault prediction center in a nightmare. The zero computers showed up, the echo three, five units as possible. So you within 48 hours request check your in shift system simulator. Also confirm your approval. Our plan to go Eva replace out the echo three, five unit five and failure. Mission control this is X, a Delta one transmission concluded.’  (It’ll go to my grave!)