Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Facilitating Facilier, As Only Keith David Can

 Keith David and his animated alter ego Dr. Facilier, from "The Princess And The Frog".    Disney Enterprises

By Omar P.L. Moore/
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It's been a great year in film for Keith David.  In February he was on the big screen voicing The Cat in the animated 3D spectacle "Coraline", a masterpiece that has become an instant classic.  To close out 2009 Mr. David can now be heard voicing the nefarious Dr. Facilier, a man not entirely bad, in "The Princess And The Frog", a wonderfully gorgeous film on its way to becoming a Disney classic. 

The film opened across the U.S. and Canada on December 11 and is expected to be nominated for best animated feature on February 2 during the Oscar nominations.  "The Princess And The Frog" breaks new ground for Disney as it has a major African-American character at its center.

Earlier this month Keith David spoke via telephone about his latest onscreen incarnation in the film directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.   

"I'm very happy you got that," Mr. David said to his questioner regarding Facilier's multi-dimensional character who screams bad guy but cries sad guy.

"I had a very wonderful time playing him.  I enjoyed him very much.  It's always a great pleasure to play a character who has dimension."  Facilier is trapped between paying penance and paying the piper as he shepherds an impostor into the guise of Prince Naveen during the latter's visit to New Orleans. 

Mr. David, who spent over a year in the studio doing voice work for Facilier, responded to concerns about how his and other black characters would be depicted in "The Princess And The Frog".  "Over the course of time the piece had evolved as the directors' awareness widened.  If there were any pejorative or less-than-positive things about the characters, they changed things," he said.  Disney "brought a brother along, a black animator", said Mr. David.  The animator drew almost all of the characters. 

The star of such films as "Crash", who has been filming on the East Coast lately, cited that animation was such a joy for him because "you get to use your voice in creative ways."  Mr. David added that his time on "Princess" was made even more enjoyable because he was fueled by Geoffrey Holder's "great inspiration and spirit".

Just as satisfying for Mr. David was that "this movie was wonderfully free of bullshit politics."  Any actor will tell you that politics is a minefield that one has to often endure on a film set.  "There was a minimum of bullshit personally that I had to deal with."  For the charismatic Mr. David, who has a slew of movie projects coming to the big screen in 2010, just getting the job done and moving hearts in the process made the experience on "The Princess And The Frog" all the more worthwhile.

Of all the animation Mr. David has watched over the years, there's only one type he truly loves.  "My favorite is 2D hand-drawn animation.  That's what I grew up watching," said the Harlem-born thespian.  He rattled off a list of favorite Disney films, including "Snow White" and "Bambi".

A scene featuring Tiana, voiced by Anika Noni Rose, from "The Princess And The Frog".   Disney Enterprises

The voice behind the "Spawn" series opined on other animation.  "I like Shrek -- it's the best of the newest CGI that's out there.  'Coraline' was some of the best (3D) that I've seen.  It wasn't imposing, it was inviting.  Some 3D can be very hokey."

Of live-action films the busy Mr. David hasn't been able to see many in 2009 but said that of the few he did see "The Blind Side" was "a really wonderful movie."

"I've heard a lot about 'Precious' and I haven't seen 'Avatar' yet." 

Told by a writer that "Avatar" was a huge disappointment story-wise, Mr. David said that "the problem with these films is that the special effects become the stars of the movie.  Too many times the story is the casualty . . . and will get sacrificed as a result."

"I listen to a lot of the old classic radio programs.  There was very clear writing.  And what you could do in half an hour. . . ", Mr. David said.  "Listen to 'Shadow' or 'Gunsmoke'.  There's no end to the story of the gamut of human expression in half an hour.  It amazes me that in some films today the human element is missing."

With "The Princess And the Frog", Mr. David said he was so happy to work in "something that is thrilling and comforting to the heart."  That of course, is even though Dr. Facilier might scare some very young kids.  Even so, Mr. David said that "Princess" was made to "engage the imagination in children and the child in all of us."

On a broader, everyday scale Mr. David gave advice for people during this holiday season. 

"Don't look outside yourself in order to change yourself.  People want to transform and change themselves with a scalpel.  We should be looking for love within."  With an internal perspective employed, the actor stated that "princes and princesses, kings and queens become so if you allow love to flow through you." 

Asked if Mr. David expected to be on stage in a Shakespeare play again, the award-winning performer expressed desire to do so.  He noted that his good friend Ruben Santiago-Hudson will play Laertes in "The Winter's Tale" next July in New York City at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in the Shakespeare In The Park series. 

For Mr. David next stage appearance he said he'd be playing the legendary singer, actor, athlete and musician Paul Robeson in a new play written by Ron Beverly, although he and the writer are working to find the play a home.

In 2010 Keith David will be appearing in Neil LaBute's American remake of the 2007 film "Death At A Funeral", among other movies.  As the conversation wound down, Mr. David, who is married, talked about where he is both in his life and career. 

"I'm very grateful in my life.  I get to work on all kinds of projects.  Sometimes I even get paid for them."

Both interviewer and interviewee laugh.

"Life has its inherent sense of humor,"  Mr. David said.  "And in this business you've got to have a sense of humor because there's lots of things that aren't very funny."

"The Princess And The Frog" is now playing across the U.S. and Canada.

Read more movie reviews and stories from Omar here.