A Stark Reminder: Charles S Dutton on Least Among Saints and Alien 3

Advocating for better treatment of returning war veterans and revealing why Alien 3 is still one of his favorites.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 

When Least Among Saints begins, you may think Charles S. Dutton is playing a real hardass character. He plays George, a sheriff who has to arrest returning Iraqi War vet Anthony (Martin Papazian, who wrote and directed). Later in the film, George shows a lot of compassion for Anthony after he’s tried to do some good. For the film’s opening this weekend, we got to chat with Dutton by phone, and he was willing to go there about his own reformation from prison. Then we made sure to talk about his classic films too: Alien 3, Rudy and, yes, Surviving the Game.
 

CraveOnline: One of the things that struck me in Least Among Saints is that George really understands veterans and what they’re going through. You’ve had some life experiences, though not necessarily in war. Did you find any similarities between what George is talking about and what you’ve been through?

Charles S. Dutton: Well, I don't know if I could really put my past life experience on a level of what veterans go through in a war zone. Spending time in an institution like a prison, particularly a tough prison, is a war zone in some sense because you never know what’s going to happen day to day. One day it might be an okay prison, everything’s fine and the next day there’s a riot. One day you’re walking beside a guy, you’re talking and having a good time, then the very next day while you’re walking beside the same guy, somebody comes up and cuts his throat right in front of you.

However, in a war zone, I can only imagine, I’ve never served in the military. I would have, if I didn’t choose the life of an outlaw. By the time I was 17 I was ineligible to be placed in the service because of my criminal record, but I’ve had family members go. My father was a veteran, my uncles were veterans, I’ve had cousins that were veterans and a host of friends that were veterans. The stories I heard were far more intense. The only weapon you can get in prison is a knife or a stick or some kind of a blunt instrument, but warfare weapons and constantly being bombarded, I don't think a prison existence can compare to that at all. But in some ways it’s comparable on the level of intensity and not knowing what to expect. In some ways it’s equal insofar as you can be placed where you’re the only black guy in a section of Aryan Brotherhood inmates or you’re the only white guy placed on a section with black militants. How do you handle that?

But in no way do I want to place what I went through with what veterans of today or yesterday went through. I don't think it’s even a slightly debatable comparison at all. In my day you were drafted to fight. You volunteered as well but they had the draft in my day. In this day and age, people voluntarily go in to serve their country so they know they volunteer to go in and they understand the consequences and they understand that it may be a bad ending. You definitely don’t volunteer to prison. You end up in prison on your own accord 99% of the time. That’s not to say that there’s not a small percentage of people who don’t belong in prison, that are really innocent, and I believe that. There are lots of people in prison who were wrongly convicted but I find it an extremely noble endeavor for this day’s armed services, for folks who volunteer to defend the country. When I got asked to do this script, that was my emotional reason for wanting to do it but also another reason for wanting to do it is I do a lot of volunteer work in the veteran hospitals, particularly in my home state of Maryland. I see the conditions that veterans are in and it’s appalling, absolutely appalling. This film is a stark reminder of what the government doesn’t do for returning vets and an example of what it should be doing.
 

So you have met veterans. The line George said about how the nightmares don’t go away, they only get longer in between, is that similar to the things you’ve heard from real vets?

The vets I talked to, it’s not just the returning guys from these wars. There’s Vietnam vets. I still see World War II vets in the veterans hospital who are old men and they’re still trying to get some kind of relief from the government, some kind of medical insurance, some kind of funding. Sometimes in some cases, being fair to the VA, but I guess in some cases these older, older vets may no longer have any family members or at least family members that are going to be by their side, particularly if they’re experiencing some kind of Alzheimer’s or senility or something like that. That’s left up to the hospitals to take care of them, I can understand that. But there’s a slew of Vietnam vets and Korean vets that are sitting in the hospital languishing. For today’s returning vets, for the United States government, it’s just baffling for them not to say, “Look, we’ve got to take care of these folks. These folks have to be a priority.” I look at it this way. I don’t mince my words politically that way. Most of those veterans returning from the Iraqi War went to a war that was a war about profit and not about being a threat to the United States government. Anyone who denies that is living in a Republican stupid head in their ass mentality to not think that that war against Iraq was simply just what it is, an exercise in moneymaking.
 

Still almost 50% of people support that war. It’s a small majority challenging it.

Well, that ain’t good enough. For those men and women returning home and not being taken care of right off the plane, you at least think that for all the limbs lost and the physical capabilities gone and the serious severe injuries and the post traumatic syndromes, that there would be huge programs set aside to take care of these folks who volunteered to serve their country. And it’s not. In the case of the film, when my character says that to him, that they never go away, listen, I have a cousin who served in Vietnam and he came out of Vietnam and he had all kinds of problems. Drug problems, alcohol problems, et cetera. He went up and down with those problems most of his life upon leaving the service and he overdosed off heroin after being clean for maybe 3-4 years. It was one of those, he hooked up with an old army buddy and I guess they were going to get high one last time, for old times. Because his body’s immune system wasn’t as strong in dealing with the drugs, he took some heroin and dropped dead. And he was a medic.

At his funeral, I actually had a newfound respect for him. We were first cousins but we didn’t see each other often because I did all my hell raising as a kid. So by the time I got into my late 20s, early 30s, I was looking to straighten my life out and do something different. By that time, he got out of Vietnam and in his late 20s, early 30s he was into drugs so we didn’t see each other as often as I would have loved to have seen but I’ve had a newfound respect for him because at his funeral, so many of his friends from all over the country, 40-50 men who were either co-medics in his unit or men that he had actually saved. This one gentleman who had one arm, a prosthetic arm, told me that in Vietnam, my cousin being a medic crawled 100 yards to pull him out of a ditch under fire, strapped this wounded guy on his back and crawled back to safety another 100 yards. This guy was telling me this himself. He was saying, “Man, Michael was just a wonderful guy, a wonderful medic.” I never knew that about him until that day at his funeral. Michael for 20 years probably went from vet hospital to vet hospital to vet hospital to vet hospital. Now drugs being a whole other beast in itself, maybe there was nothing he could do for him. He was an addict and sometimes you can’t do nothing for an addict until they’re ready to do it for themselves. Just in a general sense, I find the treatment of returning vets absolutely appalling.
 

Having been a director yourself, could you really relate to Martin, writing, directing and starring in the movie?

Oh, yeah. [Laughs] Oh, absolutely. I’ve done that a couple of times. I know what he was going through and I knew Marty’s dad. I didn’t know Marty Jr. personally but I knew his dad very well and Marty Jr. asked his dad could he reach out to me. When his dad did, I said sure, sure. That’s without even reading the script. Once I read the script I said, “Oh man, this is pretty good.” So I didn’t offer him any advice. We really didn’t talk actor-director or director-actor because in some ways if advice isn’t asked then don’t offer any. He knew the difficulties of writing, directing and starring and he was handling them all extremely well. We talked in general about those kind of tasks and my school of thought about it but I never said, “Why don’t you put the camera here and then you’ll be able to do that or do this.” I never offered that. That was up to him and his director of photography and they were doing a terrific job of it so it was fine. Marty was totally committed to this thing, just absolutely totally committed. There was a fire in his eyes every day on the set and he was a tunnel vision. I knew the thing is when you’re in a situation like that when you’re doing triple duty, the goal is to finish the project. Just to finish it, just to plow your way through it and not having to say, “Oh, I’m so stressed out. We have to take a month and come back.” You just have to somehow find the way to get it done, and he did. I’ve only seen the film once. I saw a screening in D.C. and I was quite pleased with it. Pretty pleased.
 

A few years ago the extended cut of Alien 3 came out. Were you glad that more of your work got put back into the film?

You know, interesting enough I haven’t seen that either. In some ways, Fred, I am not a memorabilia person so your telling me that, this is the first time that I’ve heard that a lot of my stuff went back in, because it’s been so long I can’t even remember what got cut out of the released film. So I have to go out and pick that up because most of my awards are in boxes. Literally, in boxes and some of them I can’t even find anymore. Some of them are on the west coast, some on the east coast. I think about them sometimes, “Where’s my Emmy for this? Where’s my Emmy for that?”

I’m not a big picture person. There are a couple movies that I’ve done that I’ve never seen from beginning to end. If I didn’t attend the screening, I’ve never seen Gothika from beginning to end. I’ve seen it in the middle. I’ve never seen Distinguished Gentleman with Eddie Murphy from beginning to end. I didn’t attend the premieres, not that I didn’t want to, I was just off doing something else, or out of the country and couldn’t get away. There are several more. I don't think I’ve seen Surviving the Game from the beginning to the end. I know I didn’t attend that screening. I have my favorites. I do have my favorites and Alien 3 is one of them. It was a rather tough shoot because it was David Fincher’s first movie and there were all kinds of problems, not necessarily from his point of view but from the studio’s point of view. They didn’t seem to get along is what I can recall. It’s been a while now and then at the time Pinewood was in dire need of rehabbing but they’ve since brought it back to its glory days. In 1990/91 it was a dump. Its 1940s/50s days had long been over so it was a pretty rough studio to shoot in. Thanks for mentioning that. I have to find it and see what they put in.
 

You just mentioned some of my most memorable films of yours. Just throw in Rudy.

Now Rudy I’ve seen. I definitely was at that premiere. I still walk through an airport and people are like, “Rudy! Rudy!” And I’m a big Florida State fan, FSU and I was just down in Tallahassee doing some voter registration work for the state of Florida last week and I stopped by FSU. Everywhere I went on the campus, anywhere around the sports complex was “Rudy! Rudy!” And it takes me a minute to figure out what the heck people are saying. Even when I walk through an airport, then I say, “Oh, they’re doing the Rudy chant.” That’s one of my all time favorites.
 

There’s also a director’s cut of Mimic that just came out last year that reconstitutes Guillermo del Toro’s version.

Mmm, okay, okay. Yeah, there were a lot of interesting clashes on that set as well because I know they brought in Robert Rodriguez to either finish the movie or do some scenes for the movie. I know Guillermo wasn’t happy about it but there was some studio stuff involved in that so that would be interesting to see what the restored Guillermo stuff was like.
 

Was Surviving the Game a fun shoot with all those guys there?

Oh man, that was a gas, yeah, yeah. We were way out in the damn woods. Everybody had a chance to play little boy cops and robbers, bad guys, good guys, cowboys and Indians. We had guns, we had rifles, we had bow and arrows, we had ATVs. [Laughs] It was a wild character. Gary Busey is a wild man. Rutger Hauer is a wild man. Ice-T was a wild man so it was great. It was a lot of fun coming to work every day.
 

Why is Alien 3 one of your favorites despite all the troubles?

I just thought it deviated from the first two so much. I thought the European audience is going to get this. I don't know if an American audience will get it but a European audience will get the themes in this. No doubt about it, it was great to be able to be associated with at that time the trilogy, being involved in the third one I just felt honored, like you arrived as an actor. And it was a great role. Just a really great role. I’d probably say my best part in a film up until that time. I was literally a costar opposite Sigourney. And it was one of those things too that made it special. I remember Sigourney and I were talking, maybe a year before they did it or maybe two years before they did that. She said, “When we do Alien 3 I’m going to tell them to put you in it.” And you know, actors say stuff like that all the time. A year went by and I saw her again and, “When they do Alien 3, Charles, don’t worry.” Another year and then finally the years went by, she got on the phone, and I was doing a show on Broadway, and she said, “Listen, we want you to do Alien 3. Can you get away in two weeks or three weeks, come to London?” It was in December. I’ll never forget, it was in December of 1990 and I was doing The Piano Lesson, the play on Broadway, and I had to leave the play to do the film. So I gave my notice and went to London and did Alien 3.
 

So she knew you before “Roc,” which was the series that really brought you to my attention?

Oh yeah, mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Sigourney’s husband, Jim Simpson and I were at Yale together. He was in the directing department. I was in the acting department.