20 Questions With ... Alan Dale
Date: 10 March 2008
New Zealand-born actor Alan Dale – now making his West End debut playing King Arthur in Spamalot - talks about life after Ugly Betty, the brilliance of Monty Python humour & the holy grail of acting success.
Apart from creating the role of Bradford Meade in Ugly Betty, Alan Dale played Caleb Nichol in The O.C. and Charles Widmore in the cult classic Lost. He became a household name in the mid-1980s when he played Jim Robinson for eight years in the in the Australian soap Neighbours. He has recently completed filming for the BBC’s Torchwood playing the guest lead, and he will be seen shortly as ruthless politician Donald Hagan in new ITV drama Midnight Man starring alongside Catherine McCormack and James Nesbitt. In Australia his new television series Sea Patrol will air later this year.
Other television credits include Mitch Bryce, Secretary of Commerce in The West Wing and Vice President Jim Prescott in 24, as well as roles in NCIS, The X-Files, ER and The Practice. His film credits include Praetor Hiren in Star Trek: Nemesis, Commander Preston in Hollywood Homicide in which he starred alongside Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett and After the Sunset, with Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek. He stars in the new Indiana Jones movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Skull directed by Steven Spielberg, which is to be released later this year.
“Lovingly ripped off” from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot tells the tale of the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Date & place of birth
Dunedin, New Zealand south Island in 1947
Lives now in
Los Angeles, although I also have a places in New Zealand and in Australia.
After working professionally in New Zealand for several years I applied to the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. But they wrote back saying I was a lot older than anybody else on the course. I soon discovered that it was going to be a financial strain supporting myself and then I got into Neighbours, which meant that all thoughts of drama school vanished until about eight years ago when I was offered my first film role in LA, a series about a rock band called Signs of Life. I really wanted to get the acting right, so I started working with a drama coach. The series didn’t actually happen, but I’ve been with the same coach for about eight years now.
If you hadn’t become a performer, what might you have done professionally?
I guess I’d have become a rugby football player. When I left school, for me it was either rugby or theatre. Most people into rugby weren’t into theatre and most people in theatre weren’t into football so I guess I didn’t really fit into either camp.
Do you come from a theatre background?
Not really. You have to remember that television didn’t start in New Zealand until the Sixties so one way my parents amused themselves was by doing amateur dramatics at the local school hall. Then they built a 100-seat theatre called the Little Dalton Theatre, where they put on all the old potboilers, and I remember as a kid working the wind machine and hanging around backstage. When I had a go on stage myself I just got to love the applause.
First big break
Actually it wasn’t Neighbours, but a TV series in New Zealand called Radio Waves, which wouldn’t mean a thing to anyone over here. It was nine months of solid work and great fun. When that ended I went to Australia because there was nothing happening in New Zealand – no theatre, no movies, no real television to speak of – and that led to the next big break, when I got into The Young Doctors and stayed for three and a half years.
What was your first stage role?
The first thing I ever did on stage was an impression of an American stand-up comedian called Shelley Berman who performed these amazing telephone monologues and had toured in New Zealand. My dad copied down his act and I just got up and did it at a school concert. I was only 12, so it was probably quite ridiculous – almost like something out of Monty Python. But my very first professional job was playing one of the Indians in The Royal Hunt of the Sun at the Grafton Theatre in Auckland, where I also did Shakespeare plays.
Do you have any acting heroes?
As a kid I used to fantasize about being Clayton Moore, the masked hero in The Lone Ranger. I’m much too old to play him now – I’d have to be the baddie who he kills – although I do have a horse as King Arthur, well someone clopping along behind me with a pair of coconuts. My big acting hero has always been Gene Hackman – an actor who always gets to the truth.
Best director you ever worked with?
Steven Spielberg. Although what I did in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Skull wasn’t much, you just know the man’s a genius.
Anything by Shakespeare, but Spamalot is my favourite show for the next six months.
What was the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
Emerald City by the Australian playwright David Williamson, which I saw in Melbourne and has a go at the entertainment industry.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I spent years trying to work out the secret of acting. I read all the books by the great teachers and got nowhere. They were so busy making it sound complex. I just couldn’t figure it out. Then one day my acting coach in LA told me to ‘think before you act’. It was so simple - when you are acting don’t just speak the words, but concentrate and think about what you are going to say all the time. It worked for me.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
George Bush, so that I could change everything that he’s done. I wouldn’t mind being Steven Spielberg as well.
I like reading quality novels, but not those big fat ones that come by the pound. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossein is my favourite at the moment.
Favourite holiday destinations
I’m always travelling so it’s great to settle somewhere for a while. Last year we bought a little house north of Auckland, right on a beach where mineral water comes out of the ground. That’s my escape hole. We were having spa baths at Christmas. Sometimes it’s hard to leave, but when you get to my age you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of sitting around forever and doing nothing. When I turned 60, it occurred to me that there really wasn’t any point to it all; you might just as well keep going and enjoy every minute of what’s left.
Why did you originally want to accept the role of King Arthur in Spamalot?
People keep asking me that question and the answer always has to be, ‘what else is their better for me to do?’ Apart from having a yearning for the West End, I’ve always had a passion for the Pythons – most people of my generation have and if they haven’t, well all I can say is they’ve got no taste. I never missed an episode when it was first shown in New Zealand and saw all of the films except for Monty Python and The Holy Grail, on which the show is based, so when King Arthur came up I had to rush out and get a copy. I discovered they’ve added a whole lot of beautiful women for the stage show, including a gorgeous new Lady of The Lake from Sweden, Nina Söderquist. That makes me even happier. I didn’t see Spamalot when I was in the UK last year filming Midnight Man for ITV and the Torchwood for the BBC, but my work took me to Australia where I did get to the Melbourne production, with a Queensland stage actor, Billie Brown, playing Arthur.
What’s the main challenge you faced in rehearsals?
First, singing and dancing at the same time. But it’s not my first experience of musical theatre – I played Bill Sampson in Applause in Australia back in 1984 – and I’m actually quite good at singing in the bath, which I guess is ideal for Spamalot. Finding the comedy was the biggest challenge. Python humour is priceless. Even working on the script at home made me roar with laughter. But on stage, the battle is to find all of the humorous moments and not skip over them. It’s not like when I was working on Neighbours, where you were just padding out between the commercials. There’s an art to Python humour and I’m aiming to try and get every single joke just right.
Is it scary getting the laughs?
Well yes. But then nothing is safe in life. Moving to America in 2000 was just as scary. Both my parents died last year, which was shattering, and I thought then that there are no safe places to hide so I might as well get up and do something scary and exciting and fun. What could be more fun than Monty Python.
Why should people come and see your King Arthur?
Well here’s your big chance to see Bradford Meade make a complete fool of himself.
As an actor, do you have a preference for stage or film?
I haven’t really done enough stage work to be able to answer that one. By the time I got involved as an actor professionally, money became important because I had kids and responsibilities and bills to pay. I never had the luxury of becoming a theatre actor. I always had to watch the dollars. If I had my way I’d be a famous stage actor and an Oscar-winning film actor, but that never happened so I’m happy as I am.
Why did you go to Hollywood later in you career, compared with most actors?
I was in my early fifties when I turned up in LA. Apart from close friends, I didn’t tell anybody I was going. I went quietly just to see if it could work out. I can remember the moment when I finally decided I had to take a chance. I’d done a few American TV shows made in Australia and one day I heard a producer ranting and railing outside my trailer about how much one of the American actors was earning – $70,000 for a week’s work, plus first class air fares. I thought, ‘I’m doing twice as much work for far less money – I’d like to be an American’. So, without any expectations, I went to see what would happen and it seemed to work.
Are you a Monty Python fan?
When I was a kid, I watched Monty Python because my brother loved it. I think it was more of a male-oriented thing. At least that was my experience. My brother loved it so I started watching it and absolutely loved it. We used to sing the Lumberjack song all the time. That was the one we thought was the most hilarious thing. I still think it’s very funny. And the silly walk, oh my god. They have given us some wonderful comedy. I think it’s going to be fun to play the show to a British audience. I’ll be interested to hear the difference in the laughs. I felt differences when I did Kiss Me, Kate in New York and then in London. There are just different sensibilities. Also I think in New York, unfortunately, ticket prices are so high it sometimes tends to bring a certain echelon of an audience that can afford $120 a ticket each. In the West End, it’s a little less expensive so I think you get a mixture of people that just want to go to the theatre.
What are your future plans?
I’m here at the Palace Theatre until June and I’ll just enjoy being in London, a city my wife and I have always loved. Our son Simon is a DJ on Kiss 100, so it’ll be a chance to see more of him too. As for other work, there are quite a few things that haven’t come out yet. I was lucky finishing Ugly Betty a week before the writers’ strike started and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Skull premieres this year. There are also TV shows already filmed, such as Torchwood and the ITV drama Midnight Man.
- Alan Dale was speaking to Roger Foss
Spamalot opened on 30 September 2006 at the West End’s Palace Theatre, where it’s currently booking through to September 2008.