AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead focuses on a diverse group of people, trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. Even though, the bucket-hat wearing, RV-driving Dale Horvath isn’t the “main character,” he anchors the group, providing them with wisdom, reason, and sanity. Jeffrey DeMunn, a Shakespearean trained “character actor,” plays Dale, and he does it seemingly without effort. He spoke to Fieldingonfilm about how hard work and “dumb luck” have helped him to become one of today’s most memorable faces on the big and small screen.
When asked what made him consider a career in acting, at first he said, he wasn’t sure, but upon some reflection singled out two events: “In high school, I had a one-line part in the play, The Egg and I. The lead had to be absent, and because I was the least used actor, I was asked to step in. I read the part, and I enjoyed it.” After performing in the play, he said that he felt that “something was there.” And yet, when he went to Union College, he chose a career path that didn’t reflect that interest. “I was going to get a double major in engineering and pre-law. I was going to become a corporate attorney,” he said. DeMunn admits that he had high expectations of university life. He thought it would be a place where young minds would be excited to learn from older minds. What he found were, more often than not, students who didn’t want to be in university, and professors who weren’t the best “teachers.” “I was a bit naïve,” he said. “During my freshman year, I don’t know why, I stormed into the theater. I walked into the office and said ‘I want to act.’” The instructor, who was busy with another student, laughed and told DeMunn that he would have to audition first. “I never stopped after that,” he said.
Since his aspirations had been to become a corporate lawyer, were his parents upset by this shift from pre-law and engineering to English? “I had a pretty soft landing,” he said. “My mother – she passed away before I finished college – and my father had a passion for acting. My mom had gone through speech school in Boston in anticipation of acting. And my father did some acting in church. My dad was ultimately quite pleased and proud (of my acting). We had a rocky relationship, and because of our love for the theater, we had some marvelous interactions.”
After he graduated from university, DeMunn decided that he wanted to attend the “best” acting school, and for him that was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London, U.K. He arranged an audition with the academy, and he got there by hopping on a flight with the Philadelphia Football Club. On his second day in the city, he went to his audition, and it proved to be a disaster. While “thumbing his way through the country” he made the acquaintance of a classical guitarist who suggested that the young wannabe actor go to the theater school “up the road” and see if he could get in. He took the guitarist’s advice, and after knocking on the door learned that he was at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. After a 30-minute conversation, he was told to return to New York, where he could audition. And that’s what DeMunn did. But by this time, he was “fed up with auditioning.” “I thought, ‘Oh, to hell with it,’ and I just went in and did my audition piece.” His selection was a “very dark piece” about a mad king and his jester. “I still remember it to this day,” he said. “I worked an awful lot of physicality into it. The response was ‘You’re obviously a dancer.’ But I’m not.” Whatever he did worked, because only he and one other American were selected out of the 800 that showed up.
His schooling at the Old Vic was rigorous. The program lasted for two years, and he was in classes six days a week. “It was hard, hard work,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in anyone telling me how to feel. I wanted to know how to sit, stand, and how to fence; how to read a poem. You get a real toolkit of craft there. It was important, too, because it taught me humility.” During the summer, he did some street theater, he said. “It was an extraordinary experience.” When the program finished, he returned to the United States. He auditioned to become a member of the National Shakespeare Company, but was told they didn’t have any spots. Then two days later he got a call, telling him that that had changed. One of their actors had broken his collar bone. More dumb luck. “Those next two years were the second part of my training period,” he said. “We performed two Shakespearean plays and one other play. We took them on the road to colleges. It was a trial by fire, and a wonderful way to sort out what was useful and what wasn’t. It also gave me a craft and a set of tools.”
Despite the fact that he’s become a staple of TV and film, he said that he still tries to do one play every years. “It’s the source,” he said. He has appeared on and off Broadway, and has been in such plays as K2, for which he received a Tony nomination; Our Town; A Prayer for My Daughter, for which he received a Drama Desk nomination; The Price, Ashley Montana Goes Ashore in the Caicos … Or What Am I Doing Here?, and Stuff Happens. He laments the fact that fewer and fewer film actors come from the theater. “People ask where are the great actors of today? All have been nurtured in the same soup without the added benefit of a theater background,” he said.
DeMunn got his break in television in 1978, playing “Vinnie” in The Last Tenant. Since then, he has been in a variety of made-for-TV movies and has had roles on popular TV series, such as Hill Street Blues, Moonlighting, The Outer Limits, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, ER, The West Wing, Law & Order, on which he played the reoccurring character of Professor Norman Rothenberg; and, of course, his latest, The Walking Dead. He’s played Harry Houdini, twice; Abraham Lincoln, J. Robert Oppenheimer; Eugene O’Neill, Doc Holliday, and more professors, officers of the law, and doctors than you can shake a stick at. He was nominated for an Emmy for his supporting role in the HBO mini-series Citizen X (1995).
When asked about his experience of playing Houdini in Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981), he recalled filming the stunt during which he was suspended upside down and trying to get out of a straight jacket. “I saw the stunt and said ‘I can do that,’” he said. When he got to the set, he was asked if he had eaten anything, because it was likely that he could vomit. (He had.) Blacking out was another possibility. Despite these precautions, he proceeded. A rope was wrapped around his ankles, and he was hoisted up by rope and pulley. “I was spinning a little bit,” he said. Even though DeMunn has a fear of heights, because he was upside down, he explained that it didn’t bother him as much. Once he was 60 feet in the air, he heard a voice, and saw stunt coordinator The Amazing Randy talking to him out of a window. “He was terribly soothing.” Once he was at the proper height – about 100 stories or so – DeMunn said that he tried his best to imitate what Houdini had done. “I shook around like I was in my first battle. I got my arms free and then started on the buckle on my legs. After I got loose, they lowered me down. It was so exciting. Everybody in the crew was watching. It was very thrilling.” Sadly, very little of the scene made it into the film.
Most people know that DeMunn has had a long-time working relationship and friendship with director Frank Darabont. On paper, the first time that the actor “worked with” Darabont was when he was cast as Sheriff Herb Geller in The Blob (1988) remake. (This is another instance of “dumb luck,” because the person originally cast dropped out.) But Darabont only co-wrote the screenplay with director Chuck Russell. On paper, again, DeMunn “worked with” Darabont on the Darabont-scripted, made-for-TV film Black Cat Run (1998.) The two of them didn’t actually meet until The Shawshank Redemption (1994), in which DeMunn plays a district attorney. Over the last16 years, they have collaborated on The Green Mile (1999), The Majestic (2001), The Mist (2007), and The Walking Dead. The actor explained that since he lives in New York and Darabont lives in L.A., they don’t “hang out,” but when the director gets a new project, he calls DeMunn up and asks him if he would be interested. The answer is always “yes.” “When you do something with Frank, you know you are going to be surrounded by wonderfully talented people. He’s a brilliant filmmaker with such enthusiasm. People are willing to step up and do anything for him. Working on the set of The Majestic were 17 people who had gone to high school with Frank. We called them the Hollywood High Mafia.”
DeMunn was asked to play Dale Horvath while he was onstage in Dallas, acting in Death of a Salesman. “(Darabont) said, ‘How would you like to come to Atlanta and kill zombies?’ I said ‘Sure.’ I didn’t know anything about it. I read some of the comic books, but I’m not good at reading comic books. I’ve also learned not to go too much to the source material.” How would DeMunn describe his character? “Basically, he’s someone who has lost everything. He was so happy with his wife, and (when she died from cancer), it wiped the slate clean.” As he began helping others – most notably Andrea and her younger sister Amy – he “came back to life.” He’s a man who has nothing to lose, DeMunn said: “He has no fear of death or threats.”
Darabont’s surprise “departure” from the hit TV show after season one came as a surprise to fans, and no one was more deeply affected than his closest friends. “It has been more unfortunate than I can tell you,” DeMunn said. “It was an enormously stupid thing to have happen. It took the heart out of the middle of (the series).” He said that during the first season, when everyone received a script, it “was thrilling.” Now, things are different. “We’ll just have to see how it goes,” he added.
Thumbnail Photo: Matthew Welch/AMC