Interview: Keir Dullea, Star Of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Keir Dullea talks to The Adelaide Review ahead of his one-off Q&A appearance at the Capri cinema.

Keir Dullea (speaking by phone from his home in Hartford, Connecticut) recently took the time to chat with The Adelaide Review about starring in director Stanley Kubrick’s original 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), its lasting fame and influence, and how much he enjoys meeting the legion of fans. And even he remains slightly unsure of all of the deeper philosophical meanings of this legendary classic.   Keir, 2001 is such a famous film, it’s rather hard to know where to start with a first question… Yes, I completely agree! It has really become such an iconic movie. But that was a very gradual journey… When it came out, the film was so different from anything anyone had ever seen. The critics literally didn’t know what to make of it, and at the time I’d say that maybe 50% of the reviews were not good – not good at all! There were some rave reviews, though, but then at the world premiere many people walked out, and it’s taken a long time for it to be recognised as the film it is… And it took a long time for MGM to make its money back too.   Certainly when the film was released in 1968 science fiction wasn’t taken as seriously as it is today. It was seen as juvenile and tacky, with cheesy monsters and alien invasions… Before Space Odyssey science fiction movies were sort of ‘space operas’ and B Movies, for the most part.   And 2001 challenges audiences to draw their own conclusions and ponder their own interpretations… That’s right, and that’s all about who made it… Stanley Kubrick, in all his films, never really tied up any of his plots in a convenient bow. And certainly Space Odyssey, more than any of his other films, leaves a lot of room for interpretation. I remember when it came out there were religious groups who saw great significance in it, and there was a group of nuns who considered it very enlightened, but atheists seemed to get just as much out of it too. It touches people in so many different ways, and yes, it seems that the interpretations are somewhat limitless. I mean, you have to remember that all the great science fiction films, like Gravity [not quite science fiction, but anyway] and Star Wars, happened because of Stanley… But he did that with all his films. Paths Of Glory is one of the great anti-war films… And I’m honoured to have been involved in Space Odyssey. I mean, I’ve made 25 feature films [and done lots of theatre and TV as well], give or take, and while I couldn’t say that it was the most demanding acting role I’ve had, what was most fascinating about it was getting into Kubrick’s mind – or maybe I should say him getting into my mind! And working with a man who, every minute of the day that I was with him, I knew was a true genius. And so it was a very rewarding film to make… And some people will say things like [laughs], ‘Does it bother you that the one movie people know you and recognise you from is 2001?’, and my answer to that is always, ‘I could do a lot worse for being remembered for this movie!’ If I’m remembered for one movie only, then what a film to choose!   If we wind the clock back, when were you cast in the film? 1966, perhaps? Yes, 1966. I was making a film in London with Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley, directed by Otto Preminger, and it was called Bunny Lake Is Missing. And it wasn’t a happy experience, as Otto was a famous bully, but working with Olivier was nice as he was good to me, because he realised that I was really getting it from Otto. And one day I came home and my wife said, ‘Your agent called’, and so I called my agent back in New York and he said, ‘Are you sitting down?’, and I said. ‘No. Why?’, and he said, ‘You’d better sit down!’, and I said, ‘Why?’, and he said, ‘You’ve just been offered the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s next film!’ And I’ve got to tell you that I was already a Kubrick fan: I mean, think of what he’d already achieved at that time. He was clearly a world-class director, and he’d done Spartacus, Lolita, Dr Strangelove, Paths Of Glory and more. And my agent was right to ask if I was sitting down as I had had no idea that I was even being considered! It just literally came out of the blue. And that was, I think, the spring of 1965, and I arrived to do the film in January 1966.   And how long were you involved in the shooting of the film? The principal photography took something like nine months or a year. The section that Gary Lockwood and I were there for took something like three and a half months, and the first sequence to be filmed was actually the second sequence in the film, the one where Dr Floyd, the scientist who’s travelling to the Moon, is told about this mysterious ‘monolith’… The very last thing to be filmed, after I’d finished my role, was ‘The Dawn Of Man’ sequence [which opens the film], but this was only principal photography, as all through this they were working filming models and special effects. But not computer-generated special effects! They didn’t exist then, and it’s amazing that 2001 stands up alongside movies these days that use computer-generated effects… And so there was a lot going on in Elstree Studios at that time, and before I came, and after I left, and separate to the principal photography. And so, if you consider how long the whole thing took, along with Stanley working on the script with Arthur C Clarke and everything else, I think that it took maybe three years, and I’m sure that he was working on it a year before that too… You know, I figured out once that Stanley only made something like two and a half films per decade.   Some outsiders have insisted that Stanley’s working methods were obsessive and bizarre and that he could be cruel, but many who were actually directed by him, like A Clockwork Orange’s Malcolm McDowell, say that he was truly amazing and not at all as intimidating as he was made out to be. So what was your experience? I would be right there with Malcolm and say exactly the same thing. I absolutely loved every minute of it! He was the most prepared director I’ve ever worked with, and you could possibly say that Stanley was a bit anal that way! [laughs] But so what? He was so brilliant, and very, very supportive. He never raised his voice… I mean, he was a very curious man: he was curious about everything. I remember that once someone came in with a camera, a new camera, which was a Pentax at that time, I think, and he just stopped shooting and for half an hour he just devoured this new camera! [laughs] He was so curious… I was privileged to be invited to his home several times on days off and on weekends, along with Gary, and it wasn’t like sitting at a table with movie people: there were famous writers and scientists, and Stanley could hold his own in any discussion that they had there. He was an amazing guy, he really was, a true renaissance man, and I liked him enormously.   You mentioned previously that this wasn’t the most demanding acting role you ever had, but surely it must have had its challenges. Your character Dave Bowman is alone onscreen for long periods, he doesn’t say a lot and he’s completely overwhelmed by events into the final act… There was obviously a lot of discussion with Stanley about these characters that we were playing, and we developed our own bios… But if you think about how long a journey it would be to go to Jupiter, and you think about how long these two guys have been together, then it’s like they really just don’t have a lot to say to each other!… They’re just doing their jobs and it is very passive. It’s like there’s just nothing going on – until things really begin to happen!   You’re coming to Australia, Keir, to meet the fans and be present for Q+As before screenings of the film, so have you been here before? Yes, I have, a few times. The first time was in 1968. The world premiere of the film was in Washington DC, and then it was in New York and in Los Angeles, and then I was asked to attend a round of openings in the Asia Pacific region. And so I was sent to Honolulu and then Tokyo and then, finally, Melbourne and Sydney… And at that time I was going through a period of not flying, so when I was first contacted with the opportunity to travel with the film, initially I turned it down… And then I was called personally and asked by Stanley. And you don’t say no to Stanley… And I do enjoy meeting the fans. The last convention I went to was Comic Con in San Diego, and I do quite a few with Gary, and it was him who got me involved doing them about 14 years ago. And this will be my first time in Adelaide, so it’s going to be great!   Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood will be in attendance for a one night only screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Saturday March 29 at the Capri Cinema, with signings in the foyer at 6.30pm, a Q+A at 8.00pm and the movie at 9.00pm. And everything you need to know can be found at and on Facebook.