Q&A: Evanston native James DuMont on 'American Horror Story,' improv with Robin Williams
We talked with actor James DuMont from Evanston about his recent role in FX's "American Horror Story" and got a peek inside the TV/film industry. DuMont, a graduate of Evanston Township High School, has landed roles in many films and television shows including "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Dallas Buyers Club."
Q: So how did you get involved in "American Horror Story?"
Well, the local casting director of HBO's "Treme." Meagan Lewis is also handling the local casting for AHS. When I was in New Orleans working on another project she called me in and was very excited as she had a recurring role she thought I was perfect for.
Q: What was the audition process like?
Well, when I arrived I signed in and was met with an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) to sign before auditioning. I was used to these from four years of being on "Treme" and other shows like "Mad Men." I understand the importance of keeping story lines a surprise and respect that. In fact, in the four years of being on "Treme," I never got a full script, only my scene. The same was true here. Just the character of "Doctor." Meagan is really great in the room. Warm, fun, we laugh and tell a few quick stories back and forth and then we just get right down to business. One take, that's it, no adjustment or direction. I ask "are you happy with that one?" She said "yes" and then I wait, but really I just move on to the next one and let it go. It's out of my hands at that point.
Q: During your audition, did you have to do a Voodoo dance or anything abnormal in comparison to other auditions?
Nope, but seeing that I do 500 auditions a year (no joke) between emailed in voice over auditions, commercials, TV & film auditions either in person or on tape to email off, this IS my normal. Not sure how many people would find doing 500 job interviews a year to be normal, especially when even on a good year, I book maybe 5 or 10. I do do a big arm swinging, Tom Cruise in "Jerry McGuire" "YESSSS!" dance if they go well. This was one such case.
Q: American Horror Story's third season "Coven" is about witches and Voodoo. Did you have to do any research about witchcraft and Voodoo to prepare for your role in the show?
Before I auditioned I did look up the definition of "Coven" to make sure I understood all the various meanings and how that might have some influence into who I was or why I might say or do what I am doing in the scene. I am usually looking for clues as one of my audition coaches, Tim Phillips has taught me. Ask questions first, keep open to who, what, where, why and when based on the material. Once I am booked, then I dig a little deeper, but because I spend so much audition prep time, if I have it, I usually don't have to do much more until I work. But with this job I did, as I did with "Lee Daniels' The Butler." Look into the history of the story, place or time, which for New Orleans is rich in terms of Voodoo and witches, as they did migrate to the south from up north.
Q: What kind of doctor are you in AHS?
I cannot give you a more specific answer without spoiling a storyline, so I will say "A doctor with an advanced medical degree and specialty." How's that for keeping true to my NDA signature?
Q: What was it like to work with Jessica Lange and the rest of the AHS cast?
I only dealt with one actress in particular and another actor (story line) but had the joy of meeting, Gabourey Sidibe on set. We share a love for Lee Daniels' direction. Hers from "Precious" and mine from "The Butler."
Q: What was your on set experience like for "Lee Daniels' The Butler?"
Wow! What an experience it was and is now that the film is out. I was a second choice for a role in "The Paperboy" the year previous and the casting director (and sister to Lee) Leah Daniels-Butler reminded Lee of this when I came into the room to audition for "The Butler."
"I remember you!" he said. I was bold and said, "This time I'll be your first choice, ok?!" He laughed and said "Of course!" and then I got right down to work. Lee gave me tons of nice, simple direction, then I simply waited it out and finally got the call. I flew to New Orleans, checked into my hotel, only to check out 2 days later without ever shooting as production had been shut down due to Hurricane Isaac, then a few months later they were back up and running. When I got on set, I hugged Lee and he said "Now you're my first choice, let's have fun!"
Then I met Forest Whitaker, whom he and I have a mutual friend, Michael Chiklis, who I went to college with. The minute I mentioned Michael's name, we were close and ready to make this historic film and scenes. I then met Robin Williams, whom I was a big fan of and we got along right out of the gate. I had three scenes, which we shot all
in one day, then once we had it from a various angle, Lee said "Ok, we got it. Now let's improv one and see what we like!"
I froze for just a moment and Lee yelled from his director's chair "Yes, James. I am asking you to improv with Robin Williams. Do you have a problem with that?"
I said "Not in the least!"
We shot a few more like this for the last shot of each of my scenes and two of my scenes stayed in, one of which was improvised. It was cut down to only two scenes, but I loved what we created in set. Of over 50 films I have done, so far this is right up at the top of my list.
Q: So with AHS and "Treme," you were filming in New Orleans?
Yes, New Orleans was home to "Treme," which airs on HBO December 1, by the way and is now home to AHS, which will air my first episode October 16. New Orleans has been my second home for the last five years with "Treme" and other film projects. It's the "Hollywood of the South" due to great American tax credits and I consider myself to be "Bayou Coastal," a term I will have to trademark at some point.
Q: What would be your "must-see" New Orleans spots?
The list is far too long to mention here, but here is my short list.
For sites: Jackson Square, French Quarter and river swamp tours. For dinner: Jacques-Imo's Cafe (best meal in New Orleans, in my opinion), then Cochon Butcher. For lunch: Liuzza's By The Track (best shrimp po boy ever!) and their gumbo is off the chain and Mandina's Restaurant's turtle soup and soft shell crab is the bomb. For drinks and music: I skip Bourbon Street and head straight to Frenchmen Street My favorite bar: The Spotted Cat Music Club for Jazz and Swing Dancing and up the same street is The Maison and d.b.a. These are my main stays each and every visit. I also make an effort to try one new restaurant or one new bar each time to expand my list. This is a very short list of many. Love me some New Orleans.
Q: "Dallas Buyers Club" with Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto opens November 1. What was your experience like working on that film?
INCREDIBLE! This movie will do very well. The director, Jean-Marc Vallée is brilliant. He created such an amazing environment to work in (Jazz music was playing on speakers between takes) and Jared Leto was simply put, fantastic. He will get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar Nomination from this film and I think Matthew will finally get an Oscar for Best Actor. I play Jared's father in the movie and our scene is very powerful, heartbreaking and one of many scenes that Jared simply shines with Oscar worthy work. This movie will be the dark horse Oscar film, as well as 12 years a slave, but I think between "The Butler" and "Dallas Buyers Club," I will keep my dry cleaner very busy.
Q: Most memorable audition?
As I mentioned above, I do about 500 a year, so to have one or more be memorable over all these years, that is a tough one, but one recently that stands out is my taped audition for "Django Unchained," which I was cast directly from tape. I went out and rented a period prop gun, raw hide jacket and fur and dirtied my face and went to town on the audition. Quentin wanted to meet me in New Orleans to talk about my role, but I was filming "Little Boy" (another future Oscar prospect for 2015) in Mexico for 6 weeks so I could not meet him, however I was cast and scheduled to work, but a month before he did a rewrite and my character was cut from the film. I had another one for "Fox Catcher," which was a blast as I read the character three totally different ways, which were subtle and very interesting, yet they felt I was too young for this role, but loved what I did and tried to find another role, but at that point those roles were cast already. But it was great to make such clear, yet different choices with the same material.
Q: You have a 12-year-old daughter that is starting to dabble in acting. Future leading lady?
My daughter, Sinclair was in an indie film I produced and did a cameo in called "Statistics," when she was only 4-years-old. My wife and I kept trying to keep her away from the business and only allowed her to do many school and summer plays and all of a sudden an opportunity came up for the "Bonnie & Clyde" miniseries shooting in New Orleans. The role of Nell, which is Clyde's little sister (in real life Nell was older). Clyde is played by Emile Hirsch and Bonnie by Holliday Grainger.
Well, she blew them away. She was cast directly from her tape and Bruce Beresford, the director, simply loved her and her work. It airs on Lifetime, History and A&E all on the same days of December 8 and 9. I too have a role as the bank manager of the first bank B&C take down. But when I went to shoot they were still talking about Sinclair.
"Sinclair's Dad is here! Oh, are you working on the film too?"
Like I was the one starting out and she was the veteran. I did teach her many things on set, which I had to learn the hard way and she simply ran with those words of wisdom. Time will tell if this is what she will do in the future, but in the meantime she is gaining great life skills in the process.
Q: Do you have any pre-performance rituals from when you were on stage that have carried over to your film/television career?
Preparation and research is something I have always loved, like history or walking in that person's shoes, literally. In my New York theater days, I had great teachers who encouraged you to experience things, explore and even walk in someone else's shoes. I would go to a few thrift shops in Manhattan and try to find the perfect shoes for the character and then I would buy them and walk around New York, do what they may have done, eat at a diner they would go to, order food they would eat, but the shoes were always my favorite. I still labor over what shoes to wear to an audition and even an audition taping, even though they may never see my feet, it's for me. Something to help me get into character or really walk in their shoes. I have more shoes than my wife, which is rare, but for good reason. I'm building a character in them.
Q: Nicest actor you've ever worked with?
I am happy to say I have many, all for different reasons, but recently Forest Whitaker takes the top prize. A warm, gentle giant whose heart and soul you can feel even when he speaks to you and his kindness and generous spirit is so welcome in what can at times, be a very tough business. For fun and jokes, Tom Hanks and Colin Farrell. Colin was the first name actor to very quickly see me as an equal when we did "S.W.A.T." together and extend that beyond the set. I have more, but I will leave it at that.