2001's Keir Dullea on Kubrick, being 'Dave' & 50th anniversary screenings
As Stanley Kubrick's seminal sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey returns to cinemas in Northern Ireland for 50th anniversary screenings courtesy of the Foyle Film Festival, David Roy spoke to star Keir Dullea about the Oscar-winning classic and its legacy
IN 1968, the posters for 2001: A Space Odyssey proclaimed it to be 'the ultimate trip', a studio cash-in on the film's burgeoning popularity with young audiences who began flocking to it while under the influence of psychedelics.
Infamously, director Stanley Kubrick's deployment of the revolutionary Academy Award-winning special effects created by Doug Trumbull caused one audience member in San Fransico to exclaim "It's God!" before getting up and running right through the screen during the eye-popping climactic scenes of this slow-burn space thriller.
Co-written with Arthur C Clarke, whose short story The Sentinel inspired the film, Kubrick's seminal sci-fi epic remains just as potent 50 years later even for viewers popping popcorn rather than pills during Discovery One's ill-fated mission to Jupiter – especially when enjoyed as originally intended, on the silver screen.
For 2001's upcoming 50th birthday screenings at Brunswick Moviebowl, Derry (September 26) or Belfast's Odyssey Cinema (September 27), star Keir Dullea – AKA lone Discovery survivor Dr David 'Dave' Bowman – will be attending both events and participating in post-screening Q&As, making them unmissable for any Kubrick nut and/or 2001 fanatic.
Cleveland-born Dullea (82), who lives in Connecticut with his wife Mia Dillon, was just 29 when he landed the most iconic role of his acting career.
"I'm pretty sure I celebrated my 30th birthday when we were filming," he recalls when The Irish News calls to talk all things 2001.
You might think that Dullea (pronounced 'doo-lay') would be sick of talking about working with Stanley Kubrick, his character's on-screen battle of wits with rogue supercomputer HAL, those mysterious 'monoliths' and 'that' ending, in which (spoilers) Dave encounters multiple versions of himself in a mysterious room in the wake of a transcendent interstellar voyage – the film's famous 'star gate' sequence which proved so popular with the LSD set in 1968.
However, if that's the case, the veteran actor hides it well.
"I've been doing Comic-Con shows for about 20 years, but things have really ramped up for the 50th anniversary," he enthuses.
"It's been extraordinary. We were invited to the Cannes Film Festival where they were honouring the film at a red carpet event with a brand new print that [Oscar-winning director] Christopher Nolan has been responsible for – and, in fact, in a couple of months they are flying us to Australia for screenings there."
However, despite being a regular on the sci-fi convention scene where it's de rigueur for attendees to 'cosplay' as their favourite fictional characters, Dullea reveals that he's still yet to bump into 'himself'.
"You see people dressed up from every film you can think of – except 2001!," he tells me, sounding only mildly disappointed.
"But, you know, I do shows that aren't just limited to science fiction, because people now consider 2001 to be up there with Citizen Kane."
He's not wrong: 2001 currently sits at number six in international film bible Sight & Sound's respected Critics' Top 100 list, just four places behind the 1941 Orson Welles masterpiece which is bested only by Hitchcock's Vertigo.
However, Dullea is the first to admit that neither he nor co-star Gary Lockwood (who played doomed Discovery astronaut Dr Frank Poole) had any idea they were involved in an all-time classic when shooting began in England in late 1965.
"Who could have ever known?" he marvels.
"People often ask, 'Did you have a feeling it would become iconic?' No! I knew were in a very important film for that year, because Stanley Kubrick had already done Dr Strangelove and Spartacus and Lolita.
"I knew we were going to get a lot of attention – but no, never in a million years. How could any of the actors in Citizen Kane have guessed they would be studied in film schools 75 years later?"
This life-changing job with one of cinema's most celebrated mild-mannered movie-making geniuses could not have come at a better time for the actor, who was already in England making Bunny Lake Is Missing with Lawrence Olivier and infamously tyrannical director Otto Preminger when he found out he'd been cast in 2001.
"It was out of the blue – I had no idea I was even being considered for the film, so I was thrilled," Dullea recalls, "especially because [Bunny Lake] was not a pleasant experience.
"Preminger was a horrendous man. I don't know if you ever saw him playing the commandant of a German prisoner of war camp in [classic Second World War comedy] Stalag 17, but all I can tell you is – that was Otto on a very nice day!
"So being offered 2001 was an extraordinary experience because I was a Kubrick fan from long before. I saw Paths of Glory when I was in drama school in about 1957 and thought it was brilliant.
"I loved every minute of working with Stanley, you knew you were in the presence of genius. But I was in such awe of him that just after we started shooting he took me aside. Very quietly – he never raised his voice and was always calm and approachable – he told me 'Keir, I just want you to know that I've chosen you for this role because you're one of the best actors around, so just take it easy, you're doing a fabulous job.'
"He put me at ease completely and from there on in it was just like working with another wonderful artist. He was open to suggestions – it didn't mean he would use them – but you never felt you had to hesitate, and sometimes he would say 'yeah, that sounds interesting, let's try it'."
And of course, the incredible brain-bending set design of the Discovery One itself with its iconic rotating 'ferris wheel' main deck helped Dullea and Lockwood get into character as cool-under-pressure space explorers on a long-range mission.
"The first time I saw those sets, I couldn't believe it – they made Disneyland look sad," enthuses Dullea, who would return to Discovery One 16 years later for a cameo in 2001's underwhelming sequel 2010, starring the late great Roy Scheider.
"That was a good film, but I don't think people will be celebrating it 50 years later," he comments.
As for the much pondered 'true meaning' behind 2001, the star is happy to leave the explanations to the Kubrick himself.
"Recently, I read an answer to that question that Stanley gave, and I think it's a good one," says Dullea.
"He said: 'If you listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, you can't write down its meaning in words. Every human being who listens to that music is going to have a different response because of the unique history they bring to it.'
"Then he said, '2001 is a visual symphony'."
Indeed, the actor believes this reading chimes nicely with Kubrick's celebrated use of Strauss in the film's score.
"If someone hears The Blue Danube and they've never seen 2001, they might think of a river, or Vienna. But a person who has seen 2001 is likely going to think of space.
"Which one of those two people is correct?"
Interesting question, Dave.