John Carpenter has earned his unofficial title of “master of horror” thanks to terrifying classics such as Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing. Yet his most prescient film is unquestionably 1988’s They Live, the story of a working-class nomad (late WWF wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who acquires a pair of sunglasses specifically designed to reveal the truth about America’s ruling class. That revelation involves disguised alien conquerors, who are using subliminal messages — through advertising, TV, and print media — to lull mankind into a docile OBEY-CONSUME-SLEEP stupor, and it serves as the basis for one of Carpenter’s most exciting and incisive efforts. A sci-fi thriller that exploits its they-are-among-us premise for sharp sociopolitical commentary, it’s a Reagan-era takedown of the powers-that-be marked by the director’s typically gorgeous widescreen imagery, as well as a back-alley fight that remains, three decades after its debut on Nov. 4, 1988, the most epic brawl in movie history.
The film’s central skirmish pits Piper’s nameless protagonist against fellow construction worker Frank, played by the legendary Keith David, whose commanding screen presence and distinctively deep voice have made him one of cinema’s most accomplished (and recognizable) actors. Bringing a gravity and weight to his co-leading role as a man who has left his family behind in Detroit and traveled to California in the hopes of finding employment (while living in a makeshift homeless community), David is the magnetic heart and soul of They Live, which was his second collaboration with Carpenter (following his debut turn in The Thing). In honor of the cult gem’s 30th anniversary, we spoke with the star about shooting that epic battle with Piper, collaborating with Carpenter, and the story’s continuing political relevance — as well as his own amazingly prolific big-screen career.
Yahoo Entertainment: It has been 30 years since They Live. Are you surprised that it’s developed the sort of cult following that it has — and that it has remained so immensely timely?
Keith David: Well, you know, when we did it, DVDs hadn’t even come out yet. And when it opened, it was No. 1 for two weeks. Then all of a sudden it vanished. You couldn’t find it — it was in no theaters, nowhere. I called Sandy [King, the film’s associate producer], and I said, “What happened? We’re a hit film!” She said, “Well, you must have pissed somebody off” [laughs].
Like you said, today I think it’s more significant than it was then. It’s like 1984. George Orwell was onto something in the 1950s. It’s fiction, but, you know, the truth is stranger than fiction.
You’d worked with Carpenter before, on The Thing. Is that what initially attracted you to They Live?
The Thing was actually my first movie role. For They Live, John called me up and said, “I wrote this part with you in mind. Would you be interested?” And I was like, “Hell, yeah!” I really dug what it was about because at the time I had just finished doing some work at the lumberyard in New York, and I was learning a lot about homelessness. There was a woman who was a recent divorcée, and everything was in her husband’s name, and he was a professor at a university, and she had to sleep in her car for a couple of months until she was able to get some things together. So I was really fascinated by the fact that Frank was a guy who had to go out of state to work a job, and he just wants to take care of his family. By himself, in this state that he had moved to where he had to work, he couldn’t afford housing, and had to take care of his family.
That’s some very real s***, and it’s even more real today! So the resonance of the movie is deep and wide.
What was it like to work with Carpenter?
I found John to be very, very visually strong, but also deeply concerned. And I love working with a director who knows what he wants. He was good on The Thing, but by the time we got to They Live, his communication skills had grown a lot. He was really able to help Roddy navigate brand-new territory. Roddy and I had lots of talks about acting, and he was hungry for any help that I could offer. And John was just magnificent. I really respect John a lot.
Did you have any hesitation about starring opposite a screen novice like Roddy Piper, who was most famous for his work in the WWF?
No. We all gotta start somewhere. He was a beautiful man, and like I said, he was hungry to learn. And I was also hungry to learn from him, because we had that fight. I’ve never felt safer in my life having a fight scene with anybody. He was magnificent. He knew exactly how to make me feel safe, he helped me to sell it, and I felt we had a great fight scene. And there was a great story within the fight scene. Jeff Imada, who was the choreographer, between the two of them and John’s direction, it was just one of the great experiences of my life.
That fight scene is still one of cinema’s greatest. At what point did John let you know you were going to be engaging in this historically extended skirmish?
It was part of the story. I think he later told us that it was sort of based on that fight between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man. Kind of fashioned after that. And that’s a great scene. It was a wonderful experience, because again, it was really germane to the story. It wasn’t gratuitous, and it just made sense.
How involved was the choreography, and did you have to do any fight preparation for it?
Of course. We rehearsed for two weeks. I think any fight you see in any movie is choreographed. Accidents happen, but you try not to have any accidents, because they’re all choreographed. And I happened to be a certified stage fighter from back when I graduated from school, so it was something that I also sought to do. Screen combat is very different than stage combat, but they’re related. So I was still learning things about angles and things like that. But like I said, it was just some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.
How long did it take to shoot that sequence?
We shot that over three days.
Given how sympathetic Frank is, were you surprised that — SPOILER ALERT — he dies at the end of the film?
Like anybody, I want to live a long life. But I did last throughout the movie — I mean, I didn’t die midstream [laughs]. I died right at the end. And it was a great surprise, because who would have thunk that Meg Foster would have been the one to get taken over, and be the one to take me out? It was a great surprise and shock, and I think people felt for Frank, and they were really left stunned and devastated that this guy who had finally come around to understanding what’s going on, and wants to be part of the solution, gets knocked off.
Given the film’s enduring timeliness, any chance you can convince Carpenter to reunite for a sequel? It seems like it’d be apt in Trump’s 2018 America.
I would work with John anytime. Anytime. I really had a great time working with him. I think he’s a wonderful director, and I’d love to work with him again.
They Live is one of your 297 acting credits on the Internet Movie Database, which puts you in the all-time top 10 in that regard. What’s the key to your longevity?
For me, the key is just preparedness. It’s no surprise that everybody and his brother wants to be an actor. But why do you want to stay an actor? That comes from a burning desire to initially want to be one. But I think acting is a calling. It’s not just a profession — I think you need to have a burning desire. That’s how we express ourselves. And if that is what you want to do, and that’s what you’re born to do, then you prepare yourself. I think there’s no substitute for studying. You have to study the craft. That holds you in good stead when opportunity knocks.
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