Dean Stockwell is one of those generational actors, the kind who’s known for a different project for every decade that he’s been in the business…and since he was playing against the likes of Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly by the time he was ten years old, that’s a lot of projects. Maybe you know him from “The Boy with the Green Hair” or “Gentleman’s Agreement,” or perhaps from his work as Al on “Quantum Leap,” or as Ben in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” In short, the guy gets around. As of late, he’s been picking up raves for his portrayal of the Cavil model of Cylon in “Battlestar Galactica,” a role which he has reprised for the new film, “Battlestar Galactica: The Plan.” We chatted with him about just how evil Cavil is, of course, but we also learned about his connection to Neil Young, his longtime friendship with Dennis Hopper, and that, once upon a time, there was actually a chance that a film entitled “Werewolf of Washington” could’ve been a classic.
Join us now for…
Dean Stockwell: Hi, Will.
Premium Hollywood: Hi, Dean, it’s a pleasure to speak with you.
DS: It’s a pleasure to speak with you, too.
PH: You first turned up on “Battlestar Galactica” back in the second season, how much did you know about your character, Cavil, and were you given any forewarning that you’d be coming back?
DS: I had not seen the show before I did that episode, and I was very impressed with the script and the whole idea as I shot it. I had no idea that I…well, I had an idea that I would come back for another episode, yeah, or else why would they put me in it? But I had no idea that I’d come out so strongly.
PH: I presume that you were pleasantly surprised.
DS: Pleasantly surprised is right. (Laughs)
PH: So when you were playing Cavil, were you given any inkling toward the end of the series that you’d be playing a part in “The Plan”?
DS: No. I didn’t know they were going to do “The Plan,” and I certainly had no idea what my character’s role would be in it.
PH: How close to filming the movie did you find out how important Cavil was going to be to the proceedings?
DS: No one really told me. The minute I read it was when I found out, which was probably about two weeks before we shot.
PH: I didn’t know how close to the vest they played it.
DS: Well, they’re a little paranoid. They sent me a copy…I was telling Jennifer (the Universal publicist) here that they sent me a copy of the movie, and I put it on, and because they’re so paranoid and don’t want it shown anywhere, they put my name at the bottom middle of the screen for the whole damned thing, and I’m… (Starts to laugh) …I’m going, “Come on, I need to get one I can actually watch!”
Publicist: Sorry about that!
PH: Well, you’re ahead of me, anyway. This was kind of a last minute bit of scheduling, so I haven’t seen it at all yet.
DS: Oh, you haven’t seen “The Plan”?
PH: No, not as of yet, though I suspect a copy is on its way to me as we speak. I read online, though, that it’s being described as a “side story” to the series proper. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
DS: Uh, no, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. It’s the origins of the whole series and my role in that, which is very, very heavy.
PH: Sorry about that. I’d just gotten the impression that some of the events that take place in the film are happening simultaneous to events that took place in the series.
DS: Well, pieces of scenes from the series are used in the film, but the film pre-dates the series. It starts at the very beginning and explains what happened to all of humanity, where they’re left with just these souls on Battlestar Galactica itself and just a few on Caprica. Well, there were 12 planets in the whole deal, at the beginning, and I’m the one who decided that he was going to nuke them all. And I do. And for the whole rest of the series, I’m trying to stamp out the ones that are left alive. See, I didn’t intend for anyone to be alive! (Laughs) I wanted to get rid of the rest of them! Whereas Cavil Two, which is of course me as well, he spends quite a bit of time on Caprica with the humans who’ve survived, and he got an insight into their souls, as it were, and develops some sympathy for them. So Cavil One, who’s totally negative, “Kill ‘em all,” and Cavil Two are separated by that, and that becomes kind of interesting. But you’ll have to see it… (Laughs) …because it’s kind of complex!
PH: I plan to, I promise. So how is it to play someone who’s as morally dark as Cavil is? I mean, he’s definitely not what you’d call a nice guy.
DS: No, not a nice guy. Well, I’ve played some very negative characters, and some of them were pretty good performances, and some of them were for, uh, stupid shows. (Laughs) But what made this so unique is that the character is a machine, right? So then I feel that, as an actor, I’ve got all kinds of freedom as far as how I want to play a machine. The thing that’s interesting about Cavil Two, who lives on Caprica, is that he develops a little bit…just a little… (Laughs) …of a conscience. Or a little bit of sympathy – we’ll put it that way – for the humans.
PH: One of my colleagues described Cavil as a combination of Cain, Oedipus, and a reverse Pinocchio. How’s that for a comparison?
DS: (Bursts out laughing) That’s pretty funny!
PH: Is there any other character that strikes you as a point of reference for Cavil?
DS: Not really, because the idea that he’s a machine makes him unique, and then he goes ahead and…there’s a line of dialogue where Cavil One says to Cavil Two, “I have a yen to witness a nuclear holocaust.” So it’s a yen for him. And he goes ahead and does it, and…you’re talking about billions and billions of people on all of these planets. He kills them all. I have never heard of a character in any TV show or movie or even in a book that’s that completely evil. (Laughs) Or negative, shall we say.
PH: And, yet, you still manage to get some funny lines.
DS: Well, I’ll leave that up to you. I like to include dimensions to my characters.
PH: Have there been any lines that struck you as funny, that made you laugh?
DS: Well, not one that made me laugh, but a line like the one I just mentioned to you…that quite titillated me.
PH: Did you enjoy your death scene? I should…
DS: Well, I’ve had a couple of them. (Laughs)
PH: (Laughs) Right, I was going to clarify that I was talking about your sudden “Frak!”
DS: Oh, yeah. “Frak!” Bam! (Laughs) Actually, that was funny to me.
PH: Well, there you go. I wanted to also ask you about a couple of other projects that you’ve worked on over the years…
PH: …and, of course, I’ve got to start with “Quantum Leap.” I’m a big fan.
DS: Oh, good!
PH: Did you ever anticipate that the show would come back in any capacity, perhaps as a film, or were you just resigned to it being over?
DS: Well, immediately after it closed down, there was talk about it, certainly by Scott and myself and Don (Belisario), but the guys at the studio never got off the dime and did it.
PH: Do you think that ship has sailed forever at this point?
DS: Well, I keep hearing little spasms and twits about it. (Laughs) But in my mind, it’s sailed, yes.
PH: How did you and Neil Young first cross paths?
DS: (Long pause) You know, I can’t remember first meeting him. But I moved to Topanga Canyon in 1965, and then he got in there shortly thereafter, and there was just an amazing amount of wonderful creative activity in that canyon for several years. And I had written a screenplay that Dennis Hopper encouraged me write, and it never got produced, but somehow someone got a copy of it to Neil, and…he had been going through writer’s block for the better part of a year, and his record company was pissed off at him, and someone handed him this screenplay, he read it, and it just opened him up and inspired the album After the Gold Rush, which was the title of the screenplay. And even though I had Dennis behind me and I had Neil and all of this incredible music from that album…do you know that album?
PH: Yes, absolutely.
DS: I had all of that music, and the fucking guys at Universal still wouldn’t make the movie. (Laughs) Pardon my French. But it’s just as well. Now, I look back over at a lot of years, and I don’t know if I was really ready to do a movie that, uh, people could follow. (Laughs) I think I would’ve stepped out a little too far.
PH: Well, on a possibly related note, what was the experience of working on “Human Highway” like?
DS: Oh, that was fabulous! That was great. That came up after that, and…I love Neil. I love him as much as anyone I love or have ever loved. He’s an absolutely great guy. Not only a super great artist, but also as a human being, he’s just beautiful. So we have a lot of fun, and so “Human Highway” was a lot of fun. It was…the concept was Neil’s, and it had some silly-ass things to it, but I just went with that… (Laughs) …and there you have it: “Human Highway.”
PH: Do you remember how Devo first got involved?
DS: I got them involved. I cast a lot of the people in it: Russ Tamblyn, Dennis, Devo, and several others. And not that it matters, but my favorite scene in the whole damned movie is Booji Boy in the crib singing, “Hey Hey My My.” (Laughs) That’s just fabulous.
PH: So the Canyon must’ve built some strong, long-lasting friendships.
DS: Oh, it did, yeah.
PH: Was that where you first met Dennis Hopper as well?
DS: No, I met Dennis in Hollywood, prior to that. I met Dennis around 1956 or ’57, and that’s a great, deep friendship there as well.
PH: I know you guys have appeared together in “The Last Movie,” “Tracks,” “Blue Velvet”…
DS: Yeah, but beyond what we’ve appeared in together…well, we’re the same age – I’m three months older than him – and we’re the same height, the same weight. He’s got different color eyes, but we’re both actors and we have been for a long time, and we’re both artists and we have been for a long time. I make art, too, and Dennis makes art…on a very, very heavy scale. I don’t know if you know it, but he’s the first living American artist to have an exhibition in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
PH: I did not know that.
DS: Yes. Ever. Yeah, and he has a show on in New York now, a big one. He makes these big canvases, and there are also photographs, but he had 12 canvasses, and right after the start, he sold eight of them. And out of 140 photographs, he sold 100. He’s one of the hottest artists in the world, forget about him as an actor. Seriously, in the world.
PH: At the time that you made “Gentleman’s Agreement,” were you aware that it was going to ruffle some feathers?
DS: I was aware that it was a controversial thing. I was aware from the content of the scenes that there was something wrong in the world when people had prejudices against one race or another. So, yes, I was aware of it, and I took it seriously, just as I took “The Boy with the Green Hair” seriously: because it had a meaning. It was an anti-war film.
PH: What’s your favorite film you’ve made that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
DS: Hmmm. (Long pause) I can’t come up with one for you there.
PH: It’s not “Werewolf of Washington,” is it?
DS: (Bursts out laughing) That was a real heartbreaker, because the screenplay was really funny. Really funny. And the fellow that directed it, Milton Moses Ginsberg, he had made one film prior to that, which was called…I can’t think of it, but it was all about a psychiatric looking through a two-way mirror at his patients.
PH: Wait, I’m on IMDb right now: it’s called “Coming Apart.”
DS: That’s right. And was it Rip Torn…?
PH: It was.
DS: Anyway, that film did well, because the guy had a lot of wonderful ideas, but none of them…none of them…had to do with the camera. Because the whole film was shot with a locked-off camera. Okay, so here we go, we’re going to start this “Werewolf of Washington,” which, like I said, had a wonderful script. But the guy doesn’t know camera right or left! He just doesn’t know it, and he can’t figure it out. Even the D.P. tried to help him, but he couldn’t do it. So it became impossible to edit the thing! (Laughs) It was really a heartbreaker, because I had great high hopes for it, and I think I have some pretty funny scenes in it.
PH: Well, I finally saw it courtesy of “Elvira’s Midnight Movies.”
DS: Oh, did you? Do you remember when I start to turn into the werewolf and my hand gets stuck on the ball…? (Laughs) I thought that was pretty funny.
PH: Just a couple more quick ones, because I know we have to go. Between working with David Lynch (“Dune,” “Blue Velvet”) and Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas”), you were one of the kings of the alternative film scene for a few years. How was it working with them versus a “mainstream” director?
DS: Well, I think they have an artistic vision, and I think that both of them have much more of a capacity to improvise and create on the spot than other well-established directors. And…well, say, in the case of…is it David? One of them, I can’t remember which one… (Laughs) …doesn’t like to know how the film’s going to end until he’s well into it, and you wouldn’t find any major studio director starting into a film without knowing how it’s going to end. I always thought that was kind of funny. But I love both of them, and if they came and asked me to come to Asia and film a screenplay for nothing, I’d do it. They’re really great guys.
PH: And, lastly, you were in the film “Psych Out.” What are your thoughts on how it’s aged, and did you enjoy it at the time?
DS: I haven’t seen it since it was released. (Laughs) It was just…it was a money job. Even at the time. I’ve got categories of jobs, and one of the categories is “money jobs.” If one of those comes along and I have to make a living, even if I don’t like the script that much, I’ll do it and just try to stay above water, which I’m able to do most of the time. I try not to sink with the ship. (Laughs) So I can’t answer how it’s aged. Have you seen it? What do you think?
PH: I think it’s an artifact of its time, but an enjoyable one. But it’s no “Anchors Aweigh.”
DS: (Laughs) Yeah, that was a nice film. But if I had to pick a favorite, it’d be “The Boy with the Green Hair.” That’s got such an underlying meaning to it. And the main players on that film…the director and two of the producers were blacklisted by the Hollywood Blacklisting. The director, Joseph Losey, never made another film in the United States. He said, “Fuck you,” and he left. He went to England and made his career there. Because they thought this was an anti-war movie, which of course means that they were Communists. (Laughs) Totally crazy. Totally crazy. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I was still on a list somewhere.
PH: And with a title like that, it seems like it would be so innocuous. But it’s actually quite serious at its heart.
DS: Oh, absolutely.
(Writer’s note: Not that you probably have the time to veg out in front of your computer and watch the whole thing, but the entire film – this is Part 1 of 12 – is up on YouTube.)
PH: Well, Dean, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.
DS: Thank you, Will. I’ve had a good time!
PH: And I hope to see “The Plan” in the very near future.
DS: Cool. I hope you enjoy it!