When David Morse first read the script for Lars Von Trier's musical feature Dancer in the Dark, the actor could not imagine himself as the character Von Trier had him in mind for. Though Morse definitely has played his share of problematic characters—such as John Booth, a paroled hit-and-run drunk driver in the 1995 film The Crossing Guard, or the incestuous Uncle Bill in the 1996 Off-Broadway production of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, How I Learned to Drive—he was not at all sure he could pull off Dancer in the Dark's Bill, a decent but ultimately weak man who commits an atrocious offense against his friend and neighbor, Selma, played by pop musician Björk (who also wrote all of the film's music).
Though Morse was already a fan of Von Trier's work—which includes Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Europa, and the groundbreaking miniseries The Kingdom—the 47-year-old performer initially turned down the well-regarded Danish filmmaker. Von Trier, however, persisted.
"There's a choice that is so against Bill's nature—it is such a horrible choice that he makes—I couldn't relate to it," recalled Morse, whose many film credits include The Green Mile, Crazy in Alabama, The Negotiator, Contact, The Rock, Extreme Measures, Twelve Monkeys, and The Good Son. "I really didn't have the faith that I could emotionally go to that place, and I said I didn't want to do the film. I told Lars, 'This character is just really weak. He's kind of unredeemable, and I really don't like him.' Lars said, 'Well, this character is really based on myself.'
"Lars convinced me that I should do it and that he would be able to help me in those [difficult] moments because he knew what it was like to live with some of the choices that this character makes, through his own experiences. Talking to Lars, he gave me a way into playing this character. I'm thrilled I did it."
It is difficult, if not impossible, for audience members to like Bill, but they can't help but admire Morse's ability to reveal this character's vulnerability in his darkest moments. Bill, in the end, is no monster. He's a good man fallen from grace, thanks to this actor's sensitivity.
Finding a way to understand this character was not the only challenge for Morse on this film. He also had to adapt to Von Trier's unconventional directing style, which for Dancer in the Dark combined highly orchestrated musical sequences (using 100 cameras at once) with nonmusical scenes that were unrehearsed, largely improvised, and shot in a documentary style.
For those latter scenes, Von Trier would set up the shot with his crew, then excuse the crew and call in the actors to perform the scene, which Von Trier would then shoot by himself. Though there was a script from which the actors would begin, most of the time Von Trier would demand that the actors eventually improvise the scene.
"We would start with the script, but eventually Lars would say, 'My script is crap. Why don't you throw that away and come up with something better?'" said Morse, who essentially had to put aside his preconceptions of how a movie is supposed to be made.
He compared, as an example, Frank Darabonte's approach on The Green Mile to Von Trier's method on Dancer in the Dark. "Frank has got such a tight grip on what you do with his words. He'd seen it so clearly in his mind when he was writing it that you're really fulfilling what he's written. With Lars, it's just the opposite. It's chaos, and it's liberating. But the problem is when you do so many films or do a lot of television, as I have, you have a real technical mind that's operating all the time. With Lars, you really have to let it go."
Morse also had the challenge of performing most of his scenes opposite Björk, a first-time actress, who rumor has it was difficult at times during the shoot. (By some accounts, she was so obsessed with her role that she ate her clothes at one point—a story that has been denied by the actress and her co-stars). Though Björk was unconventional in her approach to the role of Selma, Morse strongly defends Björk's performance in the film, for which she was awarded the jury prize for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival early this year. (Dancer in the Dark also walked off with Cannes' prestigious Palme D'Or prize.)
"She actually approaches acting in a way that you almost wish more actors would," said Morse. "She has great instincts. She's completely devoted to her character. There were people on the set who'd get frustrated with her because she wanted to do her own makeup or do her own hair. From their point of view, they were thinking movie-wise, and she was thinking character-wise. But you can see from her performance that she's just about as open and full of life as people come."
While Morse is one of the busiest actors this fall—he's also appearing in the films Bait (now in theatres) and the upcoming Proof of Life, with Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, and the PBS movie Diary of City Priest—the sought-after actor told Back Stage West it was a struggle to find film work after spending six long years as Dr. Jack Morrison on the popular TV series St. Elsewhere. In 1988, when the show ended its run, it was not as easy as it is today for television actors to make a transition into film. In Morse's case, producers and casting directors had trouble separating the actor from his likeable image on St. Elsewhere.
Morse actually credits fellow actor Sean Penn with rejuvenating his film career. When it came time for Penn to direct his first feature, The Indian Runner, Morse was contacted by Penn, who had long been an admirer of Morse's work, particularly the 1980 film Inside Moves, which was Morse's only feature credit before getting cast on St. Elsewhere.
"He ended up fighting for me to do Indian Runner—a very big fight, which Sean is known for in both good and bad ways," said Morse. "I will forever be grateful to him for it."
Penn again successfully put up a fight to cast Morse in his second directing venture, The Crossing Guard. According to Morse, the producers initially felt that he could not pull his weight against his co-star Jack Nicholson. Penn, however, would not relent, and Morse got the part, earning him a 1996 Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor.
Setting the Stage
Like so many talented film actors, Morse's early roots lie in theatre—a place he has never left behind. As the Massachusetts native tells it, he went from his high school graduation to his first season with the Boston Repertory Theatre. Morse would remain a company member from 1971 to 1977, during which time he worked in more than 30 productions.
"I walked out of my graduation ceremony, stuck out my thumb, and hitchhiked to Hyannisport, where we had our first season. I was living off $20 a week. Then we moved to Boston, where we made $40 a week. We did everything. I did all the graphics and built the sets. It was really hard working 18 hours a day, and I did that for six years. We would do our productions 10 months out of the year, doing four different plays in repertory each week. It was a great way to learn."
In 1977, Morse moved to New York, where he became a member of the Circle Repertory Company. He made his Broadway debut in the role of Father Barry in a revival theatre adaptation of On the Waterfront. Off-Broadway, he appeared in Waiting for Godot, Threads, The Trading Post, Twelfth Night, and A Death in the Family.
Morse was content working as a stage actor in those days, and if he could give his fellow actors, especially those starting out, a piece of advice, it would be, Just concentrate on doing the work, even if it means doing it for nothing. That's, at least, how it worked out.
"When I went to New York, I'd see people going around with their resumés and sticking them under doors that wouldn't open," said Morse, who studied during those years with respected teacher William Esper. "It just seemed humiliating to me, and I didn't want to live my life doing that. I thought, I'm just going to do as many plays as I can, and I'm not going to worry about getting agents or anything like that. If the agents are doing their jobs, they'll come and find you."
Even when he began getting on-camera work and eventually moved to L.A., Morse continued working onstage in such L.A. productions as The Wild Duck, An Almost Holy Picture, Of Mice and Men, and How I Got That Story.
"People have asked me if theatre is my first love, and do I need to go back to theatre? And the idea of going back to theatre is not at all what it feels like for me," said Morse. "Theatre is as much a part of my life as films like [Sean Penn's] or Dancer in the Dark are. They just kind of all weave together and make a whole fabric in the end. I think it just makes a better, stronger, more interesting fabric, the more things you bring into it."
Which is why Morse ultimately agreed to work with Von Trier. Indeed, the actor has added yet another layer to his intricately woven, ever-growing fabric.