March 30, 2018 Interview – David Naughton
Following a dream takes a leap of faith, you simply never know where the chips may fall. While there is uncertainty surrounding any hopes of following an artistic muse, one thing is certain, if you believe in yourself and give it your all, chances are you will find success. Growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, David Naughton knew he had a calling for theater, one which would eventually lead him to find success first on a long-running “Be a Pepper” ad campaign for soft drink maker Dr Pepper and later in television and film. Starring in a long list of films, perhaps one of Naughton’s most beloved roles came as David Kessler, the ill-fated American backpacker who gets bit by a werewolf in the English countryside in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. Considered an all-time classic Horror film by fans of the genre, the role opened many doors for the talented Naughton, and to this day, he continues to keep his creativity flowing. Recently we caught up with the astute actor to talk his career in film, the magic behind An American Werewolf in London, his passion for singing, plus much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in theater, film, television, and television commercials for over four decades. Coming from a family that had acting in their blood, what inspired you to pursue a career in acting like you did?
David Naughton – Gosh, I think I was just inspired by our high school choir director. A guy by the name of Mr. Lauer, he just passed away about a year ago or so. Growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, he was an inspiration. We did the high school musical and that was really where I got my taste of theater on stage. I got the lead in a couple of musicals and I went, “This is really fun, this is something I would like to pursue.”
CrypticRock.com – Interesting, so it just snowballed from there?
David Naughton – Yea. My parents were teachers, so I really hadn’t thought about acting as a career. Although my brother, James, who is older than me, it was his calling as well, he has been an actor longer than I have. He was sort of paving the way in terms of getting my parents around the idea of having actors in the family.
CrypticRock.com – Very cool! A lot of your early work was in television and then you took a leading role in the 1981 John Landis classic An American Werewolf in London. How did the role come about for you?
David Naughton – I would have to say John was familiar with my work. I have heard him say it at some panels we have done, where he said, “This guy from the Dr Pepper commercials was so likable. If he could pull it off in 30 seconds, maybe he’s my guy for having that likeability of his character that is needed in the film.” When I got a chance to meet him, I told him I studied acting in London, I was familiar with the whole backpacking idea. I had done it on a bicycle around Ireland primarily, but it was a similar experience… well, obviously not being attack by werewolves! I had certainly had that kind of experience of backpacking and studying in Europe. It seemed like a good fit. Just based on an interview I had with him, he offered me the part.
CrypticRock.com – That is great, it all worked out. An American Werewolf in London is possibly one of the best Werewolf films ever made. Yourself and Jenny Agutter really seemed to have a spark of chemistry on the screen, which helped make the film that much better. What was it like working with her?
David Naughton – Well, I think of all the cast, we really clicked. Certainly one of the essential relationships was myself as David and Jack, played by Griffin Dunne. David and Jack had to be pretty believable as longtime buddies, that was one of the clicks we had on screen as well. Clearly Jenny was a professional, no question about, she is a professional actress. She was really the only girl in the movie, so there was all us young guys and we all had crushes on Jenny Agutter. She couldn’t have been nicer, more professional, and was really fun to work with.
You have to have a sense of humor when you work with John Landis because he was always pulling jokes and pranks on set. You have you be prepared.
CrypticRock.com – Exactly, John comes from a Comedy background with Animal House (1978), etc.
David Naughton – Yes, and he is a practical jokester. He is a very smart guy and likes to keep people on their toes, which you are when you are working with John.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like it was a fun time. One of the clearly strong aspects of An American Werewolf in London is the makeup effects, and the werewolf transformation is hands down one of the best, if not the best ever captured on film. What was that process like for you being behind the makeup?
David Naughton – I generally tell people my very first meeting with Rick Baker, who you know went on to win an Academy Award for this film… in fact, it created the category because of his work and special makeup. My first meeting with him after John said I need you to go over to Rick Baker’s shop, meet him, and he has to start the pelimarly makeup. I walked into this little shop Rick had, and he said, “What role do you have?” I told him, “David.” He said, “I feel sorry for you.” (Laughs) I had no idea what he meant, but I found very soon and quickly it was going to be a tedious process. The pelimarly makeup was something I had never experienced before, because nobody had really had been doing anything like this yet.
We were doing molds of my arms and legs, which he was going to make replicas of and use for his practical effects. It was certainly something I hadn’t prepared for, I was the complete guinea pig, going, “Yea I’m in! Let’s go! What do I have to do?” That was just the pelimarly part. When we got to England, the application of the makeup took hours in the makeup chair. We completed all the principal photography for the film and just had the transformation to shoot, that took about 5 days. It was 10 hours a day in makeup, a very tedious process.
CrypticRock.com – Wow, was it shot in reverse? Sometimes for practical makeup effects they take off layers as they shoot.
David Naughton – No, some of the makeup performed if you will. Once the application was put on me, they did it pretty much in order from the early stages of changing with my arms stretching, which was a mechanical device, right into the elongation of the body, then turning into a 4-legged creature. It was kind of storyboarded and Rick Baker really didn’t know how it was going to look. Even though they had made the pieces, he really didn’t know how it would look on film, none of us did. It was a slow going process. John was very patient with Rick and we got it in the can!
CrypticRock.com – It certainly did work out, it is an iconic scene. You have done a very balanced mix of genres through the years from Horror to Comedy and Drama. What genre do you find to be the biggest challenge to work in, and which do you enjoy the most?
David Naughton – I think, just in general in acting, it is the truth of the actor. You are hoping for a good script, that is the essence, the writing. This was a script, with An American Werewolf in London, that resonated with me. Even though it was a Horror film, it was kind of a classic story in terms of a guy with a tragic flaw. I always thought of him having a terminal illness where turning into a werewolf was his problem. That is how I humanized it and was able to identify it as an actor. I always start with the script and see what he role is and try and find the truth of the character without judging who the character is and what he does. That is how one can become believable in the role, understanding what the character is about.
CrypticRock.com – Right, so each role has a different challenge.
David Naughton – It does indeed. It’s really about truth and trying to see what the perspective of what that character is and bringing it as realistically as possible to either the screen or stage, or where ever.
CrypticRock.com – Exactly. Beyond acting, you also have a talent for singing. Having success in 1979 with the single “Makin’ It.”
David Naughton – I did. I was on a series called Makin’ It which was really loosely based on Saturday Night Fever (1977), which was of course a high hit and phenomenon. This series was an ABC Disco show, so I had an opportunity to go knock down the door to go meet the people who were putting the music together. I told them, “I sing, I have done all these Dr Pepper jingles, I would certainly like the chance to record the title song.” I had to sort of win that role and got a chance to sing the song that was released on RSO Records, with Robert Stigwood, who had the Bee Gees. The song went to number 5 in the Top 40, I had no idea it was going to be a successful song. You just never know, you go in sometimes with an open mind, give your all, and low and behold, things work out.
CrypticRock.com – That is a great story! Is music something you love?
David Naughton – It’s fun, singing has always been an extremely important part of my life. Although I haven’t had a chance to sing a lot recently where I live out in California. Musical theater was my thing, it was a passion of mine. They are so much fun, they are so involving. Just performing in those kind of shows is really a lot of fun! That is where I kind of always like to stay. As for myself, I haven’t really recorded anything new recently, but I always keep open the opportunity of some other kind of musical performance coming my way.
CrypticRock.com – That would be fun, especially since you have done a lot of theater as well.
David Naughton – I have, yes. You never know. As you get older, you don’t retire as an actor, you stay available, keep your body healthy, and see what comes along.
CrypticRock.com – Right, just keep the door open. As you mentioned, your brother James was an actor as well, a successful one. Did he give you any advice early on?
David Naughton – I am trying to think, he didn’t discourage me saying this is really not something you want to do. It is the sort of thing, for my children, I have two children who are grown – my daughter is a singer and my son acting in New York right now. I try and be as realistic to them as possible saying what a difficult business it is to be in terms in trying to make a living, have a life, and have a family, and so on and so forth. It’s a very unpredictable business. As much as you prepare yourself for it, there is no guarantee of being successful at it. That is the sort of thing as a parent you don’t want to have your kids struggle. At the same time, what I have always said to everybody is to follow your passion. If that is really what it is you want to do, I will certainly encourage them to follow their dream.
My brother too, it wasn’t exactly that same sort of advice, but he said, “Hey, it’s not easy.” I was being encouraged by amatuer theater people I was working with at the time coming up in school. I remember a director when I was in college doing a play, saying, “Have you thought about being an actor professionally?” I said, “Really? What do you think.” She told me, “I think you should give it a try.” It takes a little encouragement of course for you to jump it. Once you jump, it is a leap of faith that whatever you pursue is going to be successful.
CrypticRock.com – You have to be realistic, but you also have to be hopeful.
David Naughton – Exactly, I was and I still am. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – You have remained active through the years. What can you tell us about some of your future projects?
David Naughton – There is always a couple of things. It is really about I get scripts sent to me, but it is really about financing. Sometimes I am even approached by directors at conventions about ideas or dreams. I don’t try to discourage them, I just ask them, “Do you have financing.” That is really the difference between dreams and realistic projects. If they have the financing in place, then they can really approach actors, get you on board, and make things really come true.
CrypticRock.com – Right, in order to get a project off the ground, you need the financing.
David Naughton – You really do. Sometimes try and get the people together, and sell them and their names, to get the financing. So I have signed letters of intent, saying, “Yea, if we get to do this, I would very much be interested in this role.” They can present that to financers and say, “Look, these people are interested in being in this project.” Sometimes that gets it off the ground, but it is a long way from writing to the screen, people have to realize that. These dreams do come true though.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, you just have to keep trying and working at it. Last question. We also cover Horror and Sci-Fi films on CrypticRock. If you are a fan of either or both genres, what are some of your favorites and why?
David Naughton – I really like practical makeup. There have been a number of CGI things which really doesn’t seem to work for me. I try to keep an open mind going in, but if a creature is not scary, that is the ultimate test of a really good movie. I also like to keep the monsters hidden, I don’t want to see them. I think just the darkness or the eyes is much more terrifying. That was one of the challenge we had in An American Werewolf in London, how much of the werewolf are you actually going to see? Once we transform, you go out and actually see it going out and committing these atrocities. They talked about it, Rick wanted it as less as possible. I think John honored his request and kept it to a minimum. That is really important to me in Horror, let it be left to the imagination.