Exclusive: Keith David Talks 'They Live,' Fighting Roddy Piper, and Always Working


John Carpenter’s They Live has been in need of a quality Blu-ray release for ages now and it looks like fans finally have one in the form of Shout! Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray that hit stores this past Tuesday. One of the director’s finest films, They Live gets the royal treatment with an audio commentary, a new interview with Carpenter, and a fantastic transfer that helps the film look better than it ever has before. Starring “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David, Carpenter’s social satire and thriller is a perfectly timed release hot on the heels of the recent presidential election here in the US.

With Shout! Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of They Live hitting stores this week, FEARnet sat down with actor Keith David to discuss working with John Carpenter, buffing up to fight Roddy Piper, and the desire to keep working.

What is it like to see so much continued adoration for this film that you’ve made so long ago?

Of course it’s thrilling. You do something and you hope people see it. You hope people like it. And then what do you do with it? It’s not in my immediate consciousness that it’s going to resonate in your life years later, but when that does happen (if that does happen) that’s a wonderful thing. It’s a gift! I’m very grateful for that.

You’ve worked with John Carpenter a number of times on The Thing and They Live. How was it working with him on this film in particular?

It was particularly great working on They Live because he called me up and said, “I wrote this part for you and if you like it, it’s yours.” And I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times someone has said that to me. So that was a wonderful thing. Again, it was a gift.

What was your relationship like with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper?

Roddy and I have become good friends. The thing about good friendship is – and especially when you have a nice bond when you’re working – that it’s like going to school with somebody; you may not seem them for years at a time, but once you see each other it’s like no time has elapsed. You just pick up where you left off and that’s how it is with Roddy and I.

So you guys are still friends to this day even.

Yes we are. Every once in a while we get to sign autographs together.

Did it feel like you were working with this “pro wrestler” or did he have the acting thing down from day one?

I don’t know what you mean by “that acting thing,” but we worked well together. He’s pound-for-pound one of the strongest men I’ve ever been around. When we had to fight a few times he had to lift me up and I was like a feather in his hands. He guided me very well and helped me through that. I thought that he made a very nice transition into acting. He handed the job as an actor and I appreciated that. He was hungry to do that and he did it.

You were really well built for this role. Did they ask you to buff up and make you get in shape for this or was that your “fighting weight” so to speak?

No, I mean, I knew it was coming so I worked out and did what I had to do. Plus, I was going to be working with Roddy Piper, man! (Laughs)

Did you have to do any specific training for that fight scene or was it something more organic since it was a street fight?

No fight that you ever see in any movie is just organic. We make it look organic because that’s what we do. That’s what we’re supposed to do. And especially when it’s a spontaneous fight, such as it was. But that’s just good acting. I mean, that’s what we do. When you see something like that on stage or on film, it’s very well choreographed, and it’s up to us to fill in the blanks of it so that it doesn’t look like a dance.

You have this amazing badass persona in this film, and in many of your other films, but you also have this really infectious smile and iconic voice. How do you tend to walk that line between badass and totally likable character?

Nobody is just one thing. I mean, John Gotti had to smile every once in a while. Tony Soprano, in between killings, was a nice guy. You try to flesh out a full human being so we have all those different qualities. It depends on the story how much of those qualities come out.

What do you feel this voice has done for you over your career? You’ve obviously gotten some great voice acting with it, but is this just something that you’re born with or do you really need to nurture it into being?

What do you think? (Laughs) I mean, I have the voice that God gave me and I’ve worked on my voice every year of my life. I continue working on my voice. I’m also a singer so I’m always studying and trying to improve. I went to school. I’m a classically trained actor and I’m also a speech teacher. Those are the things you do as actors. I am blessed to have the voice that I have, but I’ve also worked years of my life trying to use it and improve it.

Did you ever imagine when you started out acting that you’d become this action hero or is that just kind of how the chips fell?

That’s just how the chips fell. I knew I wanted to be an actor my whole life and wherever the chips would fall, I’ve been lucky.

I have to mention your role as Big Tim in Requiem for a Dream as well. It’s a small moment in the film, but it’s a hugely important role. How did you prepare to do something so dark?

KD: I read some of the book and kind of scoped him out like that. I just got my clues from the author.

You’ve been in so many films and so many TV shows, most recently in Cloud Atlas. You seem to always be working. What’s it like to stay so busy for all these years? Was that your goal all along, to just keep working all the time?

I just like to work. It’s funny though because I ran into somebody the other day and they said, “Oh, are you still acting?” (Laughs) It’s great that you think I’m working all the time, but I am working all the time. We do have downtimes in between projects but, you know, God is good every day and it seems, most weeks, I have some work in some capacity in some genre.

Speaking of working all the time, what do you have coming up?

I have a movie opening on November 9 called Christmas in Compton. I play Big Earl who is the owner of a Christmas tree lot during the Christmas season. I’m like the nurturer of the neighborhood who looks after the kids and encourages them. It’s a story about tough love between a father and a son, which we both have to learn about sometimes. Sometimes you can love too hard. You have to lighten up a little bit to let your children grow. I also have another movie coming out called The Last Fall so check that out as well.

You can see Keith David as “Frank” in They Live on the brand new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray & DVD in stores now. Christmas in Compton hit theaters on November 9.