An Actor Who’s Going Somewhere Fast
James Duval Sizzles Up the Screen in Gregg Araki’s new "Nowhere"
Since discovering his calling as a Drano-drinking gay teen in independent auteur Gregg Araki's 1992 film "Totally Fucked Up," James Duval has been seduced and dismembered in Araki's "The Doom Generation," invaded and orphaned in "Independence Day," and bought and paid for by Richard Chamberlain in the upcoming "A River Made to Drown In." Through it all, the Los Angeles-based actor has managed to stay in touch with the more endearing facets of his inner adolescent. This month sees Duval in "Nowhere," the finale of Araki's "Teen Apocalypse" trilogy, in which his bisexual everyteen Dark Smith endures twenty-four hours in SoCal hell arriving, natch, at the high school party to end all high school parties. It's been called "90210 on acid"--and the homages to "Clueless" and "Less Than Zero" are obvious--but "Nowhere"'s nearest comparison may be to John Hughes' "Sixteen Candles." True, Molly Ringwald never suffered from the unrequited love of both Rachel True and Nathan Bexton, and no Hughes film had a body count, but Duval delivers the unbearable lightness of being underage about as well as Miss Molly ever did. --Jil Derryberry
Jil: In regard to James Duval, what questions should be retired?
James: "So, are you really gay?" It doesn't bother me when people ask, but--God, isn't there anything else? And I don't have any gossip. Even if I did have it, I wouldn't tell because then I'd be just like everybody else who is being gossiped about. So, I don't have any gossip. I do have a girlfriend [Sarah Lassez, who also co-stars in "Nowhere"]. Sorry.
Jil: First things first: How did Gregg Araki discover you?
James: I was hanging out at this place on Melrose called the Double Rainbow Cafe. It's more of an ice cream bar....
Jil: Waiting tables?
James: No, I was loitering. [Laughs] I was eighteen and flat-broke, but I knew people who worked there and they'd give me coffee and biscotti. I always used to see Gregg Araki there, who I thought was a student. It's unbelievable how young that guy looks. [Lowers voice] He's thirty-seven. Born in '59, but he looks younger than me. So, I'd drink my coffee, get my caffeine buzz, smoke cigarettes and think to myself, "That's really great. He comes here to do his homework"--he was actually writing the script to "Totally Fucked Up"--"and I'm here doing nothing, and we can both hang out here and do what we want to do." Eventually, about six months later, towards the beginning of '91, he approached me and said, "I make low-budget independent films--kind of like John Hughes flicks about teenagers--and I was wondering if you're an actor." And I was like, "Well, yeah. Sure."
James: But that is how it all started for me. Gregg gave me the role of Andy in "Totally Fucked Up," this teenager who drinks Drano and kills himself, and it seemed like a dream come true. Then he wrote the characters of Jordan White in "The Doom Generation" and Dark Smith in "Nowhere" for me.
Jil: Two nakedly, naively romantic characters. What about those critics who think Araki's a nihilist?
James: Well, sometimes Gregg's film do make people shift in their seats; they're not always easy to watch. But life isn't always easy to watch. [Laughs] And as much as people say, "His movies are in your face; they're really wild and crazy; he has a negative view of the world," Gregg is still a very romantic, idealistic person.
Jil: As you are, too.
James: That's what he related to; that was definitely something I always used to talk to him about. "Gregg, I'm gonna die. I'm gonna die, because I can't be what I want to be. Nobody wants to see love, or let it be what it can be. Everybody has to shoot it down, or be jaded, or think that it doesn't exist, when all you have to do is open yourself up to it. Why can't people do that?" And in a way it was killing me--not physically, but mentally. I was definitely a tortured kid: "I just want to be loved!" [Laughs] "Why can't I get what I want to give?"
Jil: And what did Araki tell you?
James: [Staccato] "Ah, Jimmy, you're eighteen--it's not the end of the world." But it did feel like the end of the world, and he understands that. You know, we were both searching for the same thing--that one magical person, that one magical moment when what you want to give is given back.
Jil: What's "Nowhere" about for you, for your character?
James: Dark Smith's search is the ideal search for love. For him, it's not about the party or the drugs--though some of his friends are very sexually active or doing a lot of drugs and that's O.K. with him--it's about love. And he will go wherever he has to go to find that or to keep that.
Jil: Which is pretty far. How realistic do you think "Nowhere"'s depiction of teen life is?
James: In a way, it's exactly the way I remember seeing everything. When you're a teenager and your hormones and emotions are raging out of control, you do develop this sense of hyper-reality about the world you live in. It's like, you are born, you fall in love, and you die, three or four times a day. Your world is the whole world, and if that falls apart, the world is over. And in that sense, I'm surprised at how accurately that Araki has it portrayed it.
Jil: You played a gay teen in "Totally Fucked Up," a young man experimenting with his bisexuality in "The Doom Generation," and now a character that's best described as sexually ambiguous. Why do you choose to go so far from the leading man route? I mean, a Christian Slater or a Tom Cruise wouldn't dream of taking the roles you've taken on.
James: That's exactly why I do it. I don't think that you have to worry about those things, especially in this day in age. And even though the characters in "Nowhere" are gay and lesbian and bisexual and straight, it's less about sexuality and the labels we put on sexuality and more about the everyday trials and tribulations of a teenager--you know, "God, do they love me? Am I going to have sex? I want to run away from this, I want to go the big party tonight, I want to get high. What are you doing with him, what are you doing with her, don't you love me?" You put those labels aside, and it becomes nothing more than the struggle of the human condition. Or the teenage condition, I should say.
Jil: What about your condition, coming from a culturally mixed background? And what, exactly, is your background?
James: My mother is French-Vietnamese from Saigon, and my father is American-Indian and Irish. And when I was going to elementary school in Redondo Beach, California, in the mid-'70s, at the time of the Tet Offensive, looking the way I looked...You know, everyone else was blond and I was considered a "dog eater," or a nip, or a chink. And if I wasn't that I was "Tonto" or "Bruce Lee." Coming from that, I always felt strange and disconnected. Even in junior high, when I was living more towards downtown L.A. and meeting African-American, Latino, Hispanic, and Asian kids, I still knew that I would never be full-blooded anything; my parents aren't full-blooded anything. I had this anger and resentment towards people, and towards my parents, until I began to understand the human condition, which is the herd instinct. In the herd, if an animal breaks their leg or gets sick, they kill it. You think, "Well, we're human beings, we have thoughts and reason and we can think and feel on a much higher level." Or, we are supposed to. But I think that will always be a struggle for people, that fight against the animal instinct, that rush of emotion that comes so easy.
Jil: Step back a second. Enquiring minds have to know: What is it like to kiss Johnathon Schaech, your co-star in "The Doom Generation"?
James: "You can only imagine. [Laughs] Johnathon's a wonderful person. We were born on the same day, September 10th.
Jil: And your other Doom co-star, Miss Rose McGowan?
James: I wouldn't know how to explain that. Actually, it was like kissing my sister. Sarah [Lassez], however, is an amazing kisser. I live for her kisses. They touch me like no other.
Jil: Having taken the risks that you've taken in your career, how did you come to be cast in the wholesome, all-American phenomenon that is "Independence Day"?
James: Roland Emmerich, the director, came into a restaurant I was waiting tables in and said, "I thought you were great in 'Totally Fucked Up'." I was floored. "You did 'Stargate,' and you liked that? You're a pretty cool guy!" I had a great time doing "Independence Day." Some people think it's cheesy, but that movie has a real message, about how people have to pull together to survive.
Jil: Is that a message that you think more people need to hear?
James: I think our society is much more associated with power and greed. Just today I was telling Sarah--I heard this story about a woman who put quarters in parking meters to prevent other people from getting parking tickets. She was arrested, taken to court, and charged with obstructing justice. Now, how anyone could sit there and let that go is beyond me. If this woman wants to put $2 in quarters in these eight meters to prevent these eight people from getting a ticket, I don't think she's obstructing justice. In fact, I think she's preventing a violation from happening. But that's not the way it is. It's fascism running rampant.
Jil: You're such an idealist.
James: When I was kid I had faith and believed in certain things, and have become so disillusioned by them. But yeah, I haven't lost my ideals in life or in people. I'd take the shirt off my back for someone; I don't have to know them. But you get to the point when you see so many people who need your shirt and you don't have enough shirts for them. That eats at me. Hold on a second. [Takes call waiting]
Jil: Who was on call-waiting?
James: Nathan Bexton, my roommate, who plays Montgomery in "Nowhere." He's a genius, that little kid. I say "little" because I'm going to be twenty-five and he just turned nineteen. I keep telling him, "Believe me, Nathan, there's a huge difference between twenty-five and nineteen. Trust me." You know, it's that point when you realize that you don't know everything, but you're glad that you don't.
Jil: For an actor, you're surprisingly grounded.
James: My feet, whether I want 'em to be or not, are nailed to the ground. I recently drove on a suspended license, and ended up doing two months of community service for that. I had to scrub the brass stars--you know, the walk of Hollywood stars--with a metal toothbrush. It was that or twenty-five more days in jail--I'd already done five days in jail general population with 500 inmates. I had to close my ears so I didn't learn how to commit crimes.
Jil: I take it Hollywood holds little allure for you.
James: I think it's best to just stay away from it, although I do live here. One thing I've learned from both Gregg and Roland [Emmerich] is that you have to surround yourself with people who mean something to you and who believe in what they believe in. That brings their energy around to you. If you surround yourself with people who only worry about this movie or that movie, who they work with and how much money they're making, then that's what you're going to become.
Jil: Last question, true or false: "James Duval is the love child of Keanu Reeves and James Dean."
James: [Laughs] I didn't even know who Keanu Reeves was until a few years ago. I just saw "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" about a month ago, although I had lived near San Dimas [Bill & Ted's hometown] for six months in high school. I do have a lot of respect for Keanu now, though, for the simple fact that he gives it his all no matter what anybody says. I've been told that Keanu knows he's not the greatest actor, but he tries--and that is so hard with all the criticism you get in a town like this where people like to rip you apart. And James Dean--wow! I'm flattered to be even in the same sentence with him.
Jil: If he were alive, he'd probably be doing Gregg Araki films.
James: I'd love for him to play my dad or something.