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Q&A: Danny Glover


Introduction and editing by Rob Vaux (Transcript: Debbie Davis)

In the nearly 30 years he's been acting in films, Danny Glover has seen every high or low you can possibly imagine. Starting with a bit part in the 1979 Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz, he's appeared in personal dramas, romances, westerns, horror films, period pieces, action movies, and everything in between. His most famous role is still Roger Murtaugh, Mel Gibson's straight-laced partner in the Lethal Weapon films. But everyone has their own movie -- from Saw to The Color Purple -- for which they remember him best. His latest project has produced one of the strongest roles in his career: a bar owner trying to hold onto his life's work in John Sayles' Honeydripper. He recently sat down to discuss the project with the press.

Danny Glover: (looking at the array of tape recorders in front of him) You know it is funny, it seems every time I go to an interview or something, they have something new that I haven't seen. All this technology... it just keeps changing.

Question: It's that way with everything. I mean, this film is about how music changes over time.

DG: It's fascinating, but you don't think about that in terms of music. Maybe some glimpse of that -- the urbanization of music in Dreamgirls, say, as part of that film's theme. It follows certain migration patterns as well, especially African-Americans. There's a book by Jeremy Rivken, called The End of Work. He talks about how it was the invention of the cotton-picking machine -- not the Emancipation Proclamation -- that freed African-Americans from the land. In 1954, when the machine was invented, 100 percent of the cotton was picked by hand. By 1970, 100 percent of the cotton was picked by machine, displacing more than five million African-Americans... and creating another dynamic in terms of migration, finding jobs, employment, urbanization, things like that. Those are the things you see in Honeydripper. Music itself becomes a kind of a precursor to a lot of other changes that happen in society. What's so interesting about this film is that it is right on the preface and apex of this enormous social change in this country, and in technology as well. Gary Clark's character has been in the Navy during World War II and he becomes an electrician, a radio operator. And his position gives him this idea to make this electronic device, which provides a new form of musical expression. It's very interesting to connect the points like that.

World War II was a watershed for a number of reasons for African-Americans. First of all, Roosevelt signed the Nondiscrimatory Act in 1942, which forbid all companies that received money from the federal government from discriminating in the workplace. For African-American men and African-American women, it was the first opportunity to work alongside whites and have some sort of well-paying job. And you subsequently saw the sort of major expansion in the wake of that, both in rural areas and in the cities, that led to the Civil Rights Movement.

Q: Sounds like you didn't have to do much research for the film.

DG: I was fascinated by the way individual lives and the lives of families have kind of a collective nature to them, and how they express the movement of people or changing dynamics in society. Granted, post-World War II -- the last fifty years or so -- was the most incredible period in human history in terms of both the technology and knowledge that is discovered or developed, and in social terms. You have the women's movement, you have the movement for civil rights, and you have the movements and acceptance of gay people. Basically, all of those things were happening within the framework of this period of time. Certainly, when we look at rock and roll, soul music, and everything else, you can see how the line developed. And energy in music -- in all cultures -- is a reflection of the culture itself.

Q: How about your piano playing in the film? I know you did a little learning...

DG: I did a little learning. I remember one of my best friends used to play piano, and that was a part of it. That was a part of him, no matter where he was. He later became a wonderful singer, but he used to come practice on the piano. My sister and my brother played the violin. I got kicked out of my music class in the 7th grade, and so I never got the chance to really think about it, but one instrument that I always wanted to play was the piano. I was just infatuated with the piano. So I looked at the preparation in this film as an opportunity rather than a chore. I was doing another film at the time, but could still get on the keyboard and run through the scales and everything. I think I did okay. I hope so.

Q: Honeydripper is a small movie compared to some of the blockbusters that are coming out right now. Are you ever concerned about the box office, or are you more concerned about whether or not the artistic elements are handled well?

DG: That's an interesting question: what do we feel about cultural production and the importance of storytelling? If you're concerned about box office, you put your energy into P&A [promotion and advertising]. That's important in some ways, but it's not a part of the storytelling... and thus not a part of human development in some sense. It's some abstract notion that you can put this amount of money in and you will make this amount. It's dangerous when we see a movie because we've been inundated with so much P&A, as opposed to it being a good story. How can we experience what people produce culturally when it's based upon business and modified based on how much money you put into promoting it?

With Honeydripper, we don't have much advertising, which means that this is a movie that people like for the movie. They are our finest audience. But it means finding an audience by other means -- whether that's a church group or word of mouth, or however we can find people who identify with it. And yes there's a concern there, because it does get lost in this massive cinematic onslaught that happens at the end of the year. Films are pumped for this award or that award, and you can get caught up in that. I try not concern myself with it. I just do whatever I can to help people to find a movie I'm involved in: I don't care if it is a 5 million dollar movie or a 100 million dollar movie, I give all the support I can.

Q: So what do you want people to get out of Honeydripper?

DG: I want people to feel good about something that happened in it. I want them to say that they took a part in it in some way and understand a little about these people, who in some sense, were fighting for something... this man who fights for something in the 1950s, who is an entrepreneur, and who wants to hold onto his sense of himself. We see him fighting for that in a period of extreme racism and extreme exclusion. I think you can see the film on many other kinds of levels or just enjoy the music itself. It's driven by the music, but then the beautiful thing about John Sayles' work is his ability to take that music and make it a kind of subtext of the social tension and other dynamics that happened in the country at that time. The music is the preface of change. It's encouraging to look at some of the times and places where music has a strong possibility of adding another voice to positive change. Look at where world music is right now. I mean, world music wasn't even a term in the dictionary twenty years ago. And now people listen to music from somewhere else in the world and gain an appreciation of the people who made it -- not only an appreciation of them individually in their specific cultures and nationalities, but also in understanding the interconnectedness of all music.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about Be Kind, Rewind?

DG: I have had a good opportunity to work with people like Lars von Trier, Michel Gondry [who directed Be Kind, Rewind], Wes Anderson, and John Sayles, of course. Be Kind, Rewind, is a film about collective imagination and collective memory, but my take on it is an homage to Fats Wahler, and the great musicians of his period. I think it's a very funny film... intelligently funny. And I think it crosses some barriers, given Gondry's particular sense of himself as a musician and as someone who comes from another culture.

Article published 01.31.2008.

Also read: Q&A: John Sayles & Maggie Renzi.

Also read: Rob Vaux's review of Honeydripper.

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