Danny DeVito
Photo by Maarten de Boer

Danny DeVito: “You’ve gotta go in all the way”

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Short Profile

Name: Daniel Michael DeVito Jr.
DOB: 17 November 1944
Place of birth: Neptune Township, New Jersey, United States
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Devito, before your career as an actor, you made your living as a hairdresser. Did that help prepare you for the big screen?

The whole idea of acting is that you draw from your life experiences if you can, you try to use the things that you’ve done. In my sister’s beauty parlor where I worked as a hairdresser, I was dealing with people every day in a lot of different ways; so you fall into certain powers, knowing what makes people smile, what makes people comfortable. It’s all about relationships. I think it helped a lot in that I was exposed to a lot of people, every day from morning to night. Those experiences free you, give you a bit more comfort talking to people, especially people you don’t know.

It’s almost like practicing a monologue every day.

Right, I learned to tell stories, but also to listen to stories — a lot of being a hairdresser is listening, and it’s the same with acting. A lot of it is listening to the other person. That makes it real. The best thing for me to do is to get up and go to the set, or go work out with my co-stars or other actors, talk about stuff, put it together — that’s fun, that’s the most fun.

“Once you go in, you’ve gotta go in all the way, you know what I’m saying?”

What else do you do for fun?

Fun? Fun looks like this — going to a film festival with my kids, you can’t have more fun than that.

I heard your kids persuaded you to accept your role as Frank Reynolds on the television show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Are they a big influence on you?

They’re a big influence on me, yeah. When that show started 12 years ago, they sent us the first eight episodes and we watched it together, the whole family. Everybody loved it. They offered me a part in it about six months later, and my kids really encouraged me to take it. I mean, I knew I was going to do it, it wasn’t something that I resisted — it was too good, the writing was too good, the situation was good. So I said, “If the character could be organic and not just tacked into the show, I’ll do it.”

Frank ended up being one of the most offensive characters on television.

(Laughs) I do some crazy shit. I do it all. Once you go in, you’ve gotta go in all the way, you know what I’m saying?

A lot of actors say that but no one seems to take that as literally as you…

We try to keep it from offending too many people but… Not really. We pretty much do everything; find babies in dumpsters, crawl out of couches naked, I’ve been slimed, fallen out of windows, I lose my memory, lose my mind — I don’t know, do drugs, have crazy sex with Artemis, anything. I live vicariously through Frank.

Deep down you want to eat cat food and hijack a boat full of Japanese tourists?

(Laughs)I have a big closeness to Frank because I really want to do stuff. I want to try things, I want to do stuff and Frank is a character that is with a bunch of young people and he wants to explore. He doesn’t want to sit on the couch.

No, evidently he would rather crawl naked out of it.

You get to your seventies, late sixties or whatever it is and… I don’t want to just sit and watch football highlights, you know? I want to do stuff, I want to get out, go, travel, meet people and have adventures.

Does that desire subconsciously influence the roles you choose?

I guess I look for parts that maybe appeal to me more in that sense, sure, but I don’t go looking around for roles like, “Oh I want to be a detective, oh I want to be…” That’s not my style. You do get a lot of the same parts offered to you though. After I did Taxi, I got a lot of the rough around the edges, ruthless people, I-should-kill-my-wife-types, you know? In Tin Men, well in Tin Men I was kind of a good guy, in Matilda I was kind of a rough dad but that’s Roald Dahl, that’s great. I did Matilda because my kids brought me the book — I didn’t even know about it, but we read it and it was so great. I don’t know if I could really play an abusive father in a real way, but in Matilda, I was abusive in a funny way.

A few years before Matilda, you produced one of the greatest films of the modern era, Pulp Fiction. How did that happen?

I’d read a screenplay called Reservoir Dogs that I loved and I wanted to make, but it was already being made. I said to Stacey Sher, a friend of Quentin Tarantino’s and who was working with me at the time, I said, “I’d really like to meet this guy who wrote this Reservoir Dogs.” And she said, “Well he’s editing now but I’ll tell him that you want to meet him.” So I met him and I had a conversation with him. I told him how much I loved his script and I asked him what he was going to do next and he said he didn’t know, and I said, “Well I want to make a deal with you: whatever you do next, I want to produce it because I really love this script.” And at the time he said, “Yep, let’s do it.”

“I got the wherewithal to make a deal with Quentin Tarantino and I’m not gonna do it? You’ve gotta be a nut not to do it!”

That’s a lot of trust to put in someone you’d just met — and who had only done one film so far.

(Laughs) When he approached me about his next project, he said to me, “It’s about these overlapping stories,” and I said, “I don’t care! I loved that other script!” The bottom line with Quentin was that he was so confident and outgoing and he was so exuberant — you know how he is, he’s amazing! I got the wherewithal to make a deal with this guy and I’m not gonna do it? You’ve gotta be a nut not to do it! A year later he delivered the script — 155 pages, it was called Pulp Fiction by Tarantino. And on it, it said, “Final Draft,” which is one of his great traits. But when I brought it to the studio that I had the deal with, they turned it down! So I brought it to Harvey Weinstein.

And he said yes.

He had just done Reservoir Dogs, and he said, “You bet.” But he wanted his own cast and I said, “No, no, no, you’re only getting it if you give Quentin exactly what he wants, because that’s my deal with him.” And we did it. That’s the way it went and we wound up really happy. John Travolta’s movie before that was a talking dog movie, so Quentin had a lot to do with the resurrection of that guy. (Laughs) It worked out really well.