Keith David is an extraordinarily prolific actor in both onscreen and animated roles, as well as having a singing and stage career. People know him variously for his work in PLATOON, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, PITCH BLACK, CLOUD ATLAS and NBC’s series THE CAPE (to name just a few) and for his vocal performances in GARGOYLES, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG and CORALINE.
David currently stars as U.S. Army Sergeant Major Donald Cody on Fox’s Friday night half-hour comedy ENLISTED. Cody rides herd over an unruly Stateside squad that includes the three Hill brothers, Pete (Geoff Stults), Derrick (Chris Lowell) and Randy (Parker Young). Pete is a war hero who has been demoted for insubordination – he feels the noncombatant status is beneath him, which makes for conflict with his C.O.
At Fox’s ENLISTED event for the Television Critics Association, David makes himself available to talk about his latest gig.
AX: Do you feel there’s any difference in the way you approach doing voiceover and live action? Do you have a preference for one over the other?
KEITH DAVID: No, I like working. And it doesn’t matter what the genre is. I like the activity. I was talking to somebody earlier about the importance of training. One of the fringe [benefits] you get from training is, you get to have some practice in different genres. So you get a bit of a comfort zone. When I’m acting, doing a voiceover in a game or an animated [project], I don’t take it any less seriously than if I were acting in live action. I’m still acting. I still have to bring that sense of reality, that sense of relationship – you just don’t see my physical person. But what you don’t see is us in the booth doing all kinds of things, as if [mimes crazed action, laughs] – sometimes, I have actually cracked myself up in the booth, going, “I’m actually getting paid to do this.” If my daughter were watching me, going, “This is a grown man …” any performance is a matter of collaboration both with the producers and the director. Several things can work, so we discuss, “Is it okay to do it like this?” I like to work. That’s the bottom line.
AX: You went to boot camp for ENLISTED. Have you done that kind of physical preparation before?
DAVID: I went in mainly PLATOON. We spent two weeks in boot camp. [For THE CAPE, in which David played a circus performer] I lost thirty pounds between the pilot and actually starting the series. I did it mostly eating raw food and doing tai chi and yoga, which I still continue to do on a daily basis.
AX: Would you describe your character in ENLISTED as pretty unflappable?
DAVID: I love this guy, because he’s got a great, dry sense of humor, but he’s a no-nonsense guy. We take what we do here very seriously. I love busting Geoff’s [character’s] balls, because he thinks that this is for punks, he thinks this is for guys who can’t cut the mustard. “Well, for guys like you, who think you are the mustard, this is exactly what you should be doing – you should understand that this job is as important here, on this line, as what you guys do on the front lines.”
AX: You remain very deadpan, even when some strange things happen – for example, standing nearby when a motorcycle unexpectedly drops out of a tree in the pilot, or being able to take off your leg as the character and go, “Here’s my leg.”
DAVID: [laughs] I have an absolute ball. Sometimes you do have to take it again, because I love a good joke, and when it’s funny, it’s funny.
AX: Was there any concern about that motorcycle landing in the wrong place, like on top of somebody?
DAVID: No. One of the things that I love about the movies [and TV] is the quality of skill of the guys that do this. I mean, they’re like magicians. They’re engineers, actually, because they have to know – you do some experimenting, but they have to know exactly what that thing is going to do, how far it’s going to bounce. They’re very, very careful about safety, so we don’t go anywhere near it until they know that this is the farthest it could ever bounce; it’s never going to be past a certain parameter. So that’s one of the great joys and fringe benefits.
AX: The sergeant major has a prosthetic leg. Did you have to practice walking differently?
DAVID: With this particular prosthetic, it’s not a whole lot of difference. Unless you knew [he had a prosthetic], you wouldn’t know. I know some cats with a prosthetic leg, and it’s not the same [in the present] as when I played in DEAD PRESIDENTS [in 1995] – he had a wooden leg, but he also had a limp. The sergeant major doesn’t.
AX: Did you have military experience in real life?
DAVID: I did not. I’mViet Nam era, but the year the draft stopped would have been the year I would have been drafted.
AX: Your voice is one of your trademarks. Do you remember the first time you got work because of your voice?
DAVID: Oh, absolutely. As far as voiceover is concerned, I was playing Oberon in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. And I got a call from an ad agency – that was my first commercial. They wanted somebody who was versed in Shakespeare to do an ad for a place called Bellefonte Markets, and it was an exotic place like Gelson’s, where you go in and it’s, “Ah, I smell something from ancient Samarkand. You may think a market in ancient Samarkand, but actually, you’re going through Bellefonte Markets. Taste this, taste that. It’s wonderful.” It was kind of great. So that was my first real voiceover job. Bellefonte Markets in Pittsburgh.
AX: Is there a particular project or character that people recognize you for more than others?
DAVID: It all depends. A lot of people recognize THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. I’m always amazed at the ARMAGEDDON fans. Surprisingly, I get – and I get more youngish women who will say, “REQUIEM [FOR A DREAM] was my favorite movie,” and I’m, “Well, you’re a little weird.” [laughs] But I get, for GARGOYLES, a lot of guys between fifteen and forty-five, especially the military stuff. I have so many young fans. I have two daughters, nine and twelve, I don’t think they’re as much fans as some of my younger friends – my wife has friends with young babies and they’ll ask, “Do you know who this guy is?” [imitates child gasping] “Yes!”
AX: Do you have an overall philosophy about your work?
DAVID: Praise God for work. I have learned you never complain about work. I didn’t always know that early in my career – I could always [growls]. Now I don’t complain about anything. I could be digging ditches inSan Bernardino. That’s how it moves. There’s any number of things I could be doing to make money and not like it and spending long hours either doing it or in the shrink’s office. When you’re working on a project that you absolutely love, which I am, it’s not work. It’s my pleasure, it’s my honor to go to work every day.
AX: Is there anything else you’d like to say right now?
DAVID: Just watch ENLISTED. It’s a great show.
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Article: Interview with ENLISTED star Keith David on the Fox new Sitcom