XVR27's Improv Interviews - Don S. Davis - Acting Professionally

Whose Improv Is It Anyway? : Original On-The-Spot Satire

An Interview With Don S. Davis

Acting Professionally

ChivalRuss: How many years have you been acting professionally?

Don S. Davis: Well, in film since 1982. Before that, I either was at some level of academia as a professor or a student and acting on the side in amateur productions.

ChivalRuss: Television series ...

Don S. Davis: I've done a bunch of them.

ChivalRuss: I'd probably say that two of the most well-known series you've acted in, at least from my perspective, would have to be "The X-Files" and "Stargate SG-1" for repeating characters.

Don S. Davis: In this genre [science fiction/fantasy], yes.

ChivalRuss: You've also done a few others.

Don S. Davis: I did L.A. Law, Knots Landing and things, y'know, but again, just as guest stars.

ChivalRuss: What're some of the differences between acting in a series and acting in a motion picture as far as the everyday work, the stresses, etc.?

Don S. Davis: Well, you shoot a lot less pages per day and you have a lot more time to explore the mi-nu'-te of your character.

ChivalRuss: Obviously, you do it for a lot longer in a series.

Don S. Davis: Well, in a series, you're filming quicker and you're giving glances at your character in bites if you're a character. Now, if you're the lead character, that's different. But if you're one of the supporting players, the scene is never really about you. Discoveries are made about you by the way you interact with the main characters. The scripts don't say a lot about your off-scene life. They'll make some indications and, in TV especially, you may do twenty-two episodes and the audience will get a general impression of you because of your relationship to the main characters in the first episode and then, as other episodes evolve, as an addendum to the exploration of the main characters' personalities, aspects of your personality will be brought out. Y'know, you're really a prism that reflects things that cause the main characters' personalities to be brought out.

ChivalRuss: What about differences between an average episode and an episode that would focus specifically on one supporting character?

Don S. Davis: Well, then in that episode, they will reveal more things about his off-camera life in order to enlarge him so that there's enough to carry the episode. Y'know, you'll discover that he left this town, or she left this town, because of something the audience probably doesn't know at that point. And then that will reveal relationships from his or her past and dreams and goals for the future and things that enlarge their character in the view of the audience. But again, it would be very rare that you would go into any great depth because, even if it's their episode, it's still the lead's show and so much screen time has to be devoted to exploring, yet, the next aspect of the lead's character. That's the way television's geared up. That's why you can have a character like Dr. Fraiser on Stargate SG-1, played by Teryl Rothery, who is a tremendous actress and she has a complete life of her character that she's developed that is what causes her to react as she does on camera.

ChivalRuss: She'll use things that aren't even explored in the series.

Don S. Davis: No, right, and may never be, because she has to have the character fully rounded in order to give the audience a realized portrayal.

ChivalRuss: Do you often participate in script discussions, be able to add?

Don S. Davis: It depends on your relationship with the writers and producers or directors. Yeah, I'm very fortunate in that I've been around a long time and I work for the same people over and over again and they trust me and they ask for my input. But I wouldn't have the audacity if I was a day player or somebody new to a show to try to put forth any information that would change their perception of the character. My job is to play the character the way they see it.

ChivalRuss: You mentioned you've done some directing.

Don S. Davis: I directed theater; I would never direct film or television because in my experience, film is a director's medium. No one would argue that because one man, the director, reads the script, is involved in the rewriting of the script. The producer's very often involved also in the rewriting of the script, and if you've got a major star involved in the project, they're involved in the rewriting of the script, usually because of things they want the script to reflect that match their own life attitudes, but the director looks at the script and decides how to tell the story. That's all the script does - tell a story. To do that, he creates a spine, based on the spine of the story, that his filming will follow. He creates a storyboard, which is his vision of how the scene looks at any moment in the production. I've seen storyboards that are basically cartoon panels that are one hundred and fifty pages thick on a script that's only ninety pages thick. And he'll create a shot list that will give him that storyboard. And then he will be looking for the vision in his head. And that's why some directors will use someone like Cooper, who might do ninety takes, because he's not sure exactly what he wants that vision to be until he sees it. But he knows generally what he wants it to be. He's always guiding them in some way in the take, they just haven't quite made it click for him until he gets to ninety. Other directors will get it in five takes, they'll do it in one take - they're famous for the one take. I did a film with Penny Marshall called "A League Of Their Own". A film runs something like sixty thousand feet or six thousand feet of film per hour. And so, if you've got a two and a half hour film, I don't remember what it is - either twelve or fifteen thousand feet of film or at most a hundred and fifty thousand feet of film. She shot over a million feet of film for "A League Of Their Own"; she shot the same amount of film for "Awakenings".

ChivalRuss: Alternate takes, etc.

Don S. Davis: Yeah, because she wanted to be able to get exactly what she wanted. The moment that the actors finally gave her something, that made the story reveal itself to her. And no one would be stupid enough to think she didn't know what she was looking for. So, it all has to do with the director.

[Follow-up the following Sunday, still at the convention.]

ChivalRuss: Some people that heard about the interview were interested in the blue screen/green screen acting experience - special effects where you don't have in front of you what'll be on screen. How do you react when you don't know exactly how menacing something will look or if something changes its size...

Don S. Davis: Well, the size you know because they set up a mark on the screen for you to refer to for whatever it is, and they've got little stands with "X"s that you're looking at and in ADR, they can get rid of the mark. As far as the menacing look or anything, you really talked with the director and you know about how menacing it is. And he'll pretty well know and off camera, he's telling you what's happening. He'll say "Right now it's lashing out at you" or "Right now it's doing this" or "Right now it's about to bite". And so that's how you handle that. The problem on green screen is that, more than anything, your movement and your relation to the camera to the background because the camera has to be locked off on the green screen. So they can't follow you. So you're dealing within a tighter parameter.

Don S. Davis: Teryl, on one of our episodes, actually on several of the episodes, when the Asgards appear, which are little gray people, they dress her up in total black - face covered and everything. On her costume, they'll tape the little guy and they'll also put these little light references so that, as she moves, she moves like the thing. And then we've got real puppets that are electronically operated. Hers is really difficult because she has to act like the little alien - they use her voice as the alien - and she has to do movements that they can mimic with the puppets and then with computers, they eventually put it all together.

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