From Nowhere to Here

Interview with Nowhere Man James Duval

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

James Duval is the coolest superstar you haven't seen yet... at least, not as much as you'd like to. The 24-year-old star of Gregg Araki's gender-smashing Los Angeles teen trilogy (Totally F***ked Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere) is the linchpin that holds Araki's unique vision together, an achingly handsome naïf with a James Dean-on-'ludes delivery and raven locks. Araki's disconcerting vision -- an arresting amalgam of unexpected ultraviolence and crazed sex lensed in eye-popping, super-saturated primary colors and cut together with a style of editing best described as controlled chaos -- more often than not divides his viewers into distinct love 'em/hate 'em camps, but most all will agree that Duval's poignant, sometimes rude performances are at the heart of the films. Whether playing Andy, Jordan, or Dark in the respective films, the one thing all of Duval's characters have at the core of their motivations is their unending search for True Love in a world gone utterly mad.

The same could be said for Miguel, the character played by Duval in last summer's sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day, the actor's first foray into the world of big-budget Hollywood that brought him to the attention of a wider range of filmgoers (and numerous critics who singled out his performance as among the most memorable in an already talent-crowded film.)

Duval is currently in Austin to begin work on Stamp and Deliver, the new movie by Omaha (the movie) filmmaker Dan Mirvish. Stamp and Deliver is a modern-day postal Western featuring a young recruit who gets blamed for a post office massacre and has to hightail it out of the city. [As we go to press, the film, which was scheduled to start shooting last week, is on a temporary shut-down while the filmmakers and producers hammer out some differences.]

I caught up with Duval during a Nowhere screening at the Dobie Theatre and found him to be a tad more lucid than his Araki characters, but with double the heart and three times the laconic charisma. Here's what he had to say.

Austin Chronicle: You're best known for your work in the Araki films, but had you done anything before that?

James Duval: No, nothing. I did a play in seventh grade, but that was it. Before I met Gregg, someone had told me about this acting class, so I just kind of went in and audited it to see what it was like. I had previously thought about being an actor, but nothing much ever came of it, so I went to this acting class, audited as much as I could, but then they asked me for money and I never went back.

I met Gregg six months later while I was working at a cafe and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. He came up to me and just said, "Hey, I'm this low-budget independent filmmaker and I've got this film that I think you'd be great in. Are you an actor?" And I said, "Sure, you know? If you want me to be."

AC: Had you seen any of his films before he approached you?

JD: No. The only movies he'd done before I met him were Three Bewildered People in the Night and The Long Weekend of Despair. The Living End was still on the shelf -- he was in post, editing it -- and he wanted to shoot Totally F***ked Up so he would have something to work on until The Living End was released. I did end up seeing both of those films before I started shooting Totally F***ked Up, but it was a few months after I met him and before we actually shot that I actually caught up on his early work.

The first one that I saw was The Long Weekend of Despair and there was so much in that film, being made for $5,000, you know? It's a good movie -- you really see the potential of Gregg's filmmaking abilities, his writing, the sort of message he gives or tries to put across. In a lot of ways, I see his earlier films -- and the new ones, too -- as not really being a straight storyline as much as an examination of teenagers or kids in their twenties.

AC: As far as your relationship with Gregg, does he contact you whenever he needs you for a role, or do you talk to him... how does that work?

JD: He just sort of calls me up and says "I've got something for you." Sometimes it's a record or a tape, and a few times it's been a script. He's written a new one but he hasn't yet asked me to be a part of it. I completely support him, and if he did, I would love to be a part of it. Until the end of time, I would love to work with Gregg.

AC: How much like the characters you play in Gregg's films are you in real life?

JD: All of them. I'm like all of them. The first one, especially, for me -- Andy, from Totally F***ked Up. I'd read the script and I'd never actually read a script before and so at first I was kind of shocked that I was seeing this stuff in the script, but at the same time it completely took me over, the sort of struggle and conflict that these characters are going through. In a lot of ways, it was very reflective of the state that I was in at the time. I was 18 and the character was 18, he saw the world as this sort of place that maybe didn't offer him that much and I felt the same way.

The Doom Generation was written a year after that movie, and the character was based on me, kind of how I saw the world. I remember asking Gregg these questions like, "Why can't I just be in love, why can't I just find one person, why does everybody have to be so jaded in this town, why can't people just be good to each other?" And he'd say, "Those are eternal questions you're never gonna find the answer too, don't worry, you're only 19, you'll fall in love, the world's not ending, everything's okay."

AC: Do you ever have trouble keeping a straight face when you're reading some of Gregg's more, um, "witty" dialogue? I mean, some of that L.A. teenspeak he comes up with is pretty fucking unsublime in a very cool way...

JD: Oh yeah. I love that though. There's so many sayings that Gregg comes up with, and some of them are real sayings and I guess some of them are just mixtures that he uses to create this sort of hyper-L.A. lingo. I love the line "Excuse me for saving your ass twice in the same night, you fucking furry tuna-taco" that Xavier says [in The Doom Generation].

If you don't understand what you're saying it's not going to come out right, and very few people who auditioned for the movie were able to do it. Everyone was a good actor, but I think certain people carry the essence of these characters and that's really how Gregg casts his films. It's all about whether these people have that essence of the character in them. Sometimes he doesn't care how great an actor someone is, if they don't have that as sort of a personal trait it sort of turns him off, I think.

AC: Tell me about how you became involved in Independence Day.

JD: I was really shocked that they asked me to do it. For me, it was the first time that I felt that I was really going to be an actor, you know. They were going to pay me a lot of money, I was going to be a part of this big movie that a lot of people were going to see and all that. I had heard, indirectly from other people, horror stories about working on big studio films, but working with Roland [Emmerich, the director] was nothing like that. I actually enjoyed the script, and in a lot of ways it was very Star Wars-esque to me. Not that I could compare it to Star Wars, or anything else, but it sort of had this message -- to me -- that if aliens come, we're going to have to sort out our differences, or it's going to kill us all. ID4 just happens to use aliens as the metaphor about bringing people together. And that's something I very much believed in.

AC: So does that mean audiences can expect to see you in more big-budget studio films?

JD: I'm very picky. If I'm going to do a big film, I'm very choosy about what I do, because I think I want to continue -- in fact I'm sure I want to continue -- to stay in the realm of independent films with directors and writers who are just emerging with new ideas and a different vision that hasn't really been expressed yet. Pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable -- to me, that's something I'm definitely interested in and want to pursue. On that note, I believe that's where you're making a film that does have some sort of impact on society, you are being a part of something other than, you know, making a quick buck so someone can mind their numb... or, uh, I mean, numb their mind. [laughing] But hey, I have nothing against either. I'm definitely much more interested in things that challenge the stability of society, moral issues, taking things a little bit further.

AC: You seem like a pretty happy guy for such a deep game plan. Glad to be out of L.A.?

JD: It's great to be out of L.A. As soon as I got off the plane, all I could think of was "Yeah! This is Austin!" I can't believe it -- it feels great just to be here. I've always wanted to come, and I've got a lot of friends from Austin and Houston, and I've heard so much about it, but this town is even better than what I've heard. No explanation can describe how great I think this city is.

The film Nowhere, featuring James Duval, is currently playing at the Dobie Theatre.

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