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Courtney B. Vance on Narrating ‘Isle of Dogs,’ the Power of Failure, and Clint Eastwood’s Filmmaking Philosophy

Written by on March 30, 2018 

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I didn’t know what to expect before interviewing Courtney B. Vance. He sat in front of me earlier this year at a Black Panther screening and jumped for joy every time he saw wife Angela Bassett on screen. Vance’s team was just as energetic at the Isle of Dogs press day in Midtown Manhattan. They were taking photos of Courtney and cast throughout the press conference, then Courtney would take pictures of the cast and press.

One-on-one, he’s quiet but loquacious. Vance chooses every word carefully but not in a contrived, political way. He talks about meeting Wes Anderson at Sundance in 1993, not knowing Isle of Dog’s story until seeing the film, and the project’s mysterious political parallels. We close out the conversation discussing transparency in failure, his thoughts about God’s use of human failure, and Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking philosophy.

How did you link up with Wes and his crew?

You know, Josh Encinias, I didn’t really see any of those guys. I just saw Wes. And we worked together years ago when we were young whippersnappers at Sundance and someone suggested it, so why not? He jumped in and called me and I said of course. Does voiceover narration work with you? Oh yeah. And so we really had a great time, but it took us minute just to find the rhythm of the narration and what kind of narration he wanted. I mean you have the narrator voice kind of thing. The typical narrator voice. This was not that, so, but I didn’t know… is it my rhythm or if it’s not my rhythm, there’s another rhythm, what is the rhythm that you want? So it took us quite a while to figure that out. Once we did then we started to really click.

When you were talking about working together, were you always going to be the narrator?

Oh, I hope. I hope for my ego, I hope I was always in the forefront of his mind. It’s a good question. We’ll have to ask him.

When did you record your part?

They’ve been making this movie forever. I recorded it in the middle to end of 2015. That’s why when people ask me, what do you remember? I don’t remember much about our time together because it was so long ago. And then there were two or three or four sessions after that, maybe like four or five lines he just wanted to grab. So you know his projects go on for a while.

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Most of the cast recorded separately, so what’s it like to be with this massive ensemble for the first time at the film’s premiere?

It’s kind of fun, just like a little homecoming of sorts. There’s some voiceover work where they recorded everyone sitting around in their high chairs together. This is not that. So I have a feeling that everyone did their own little solo thing themselves in their respective towns and then sent it in and then maybe Wes got on the phone with them threeway and gave them some direction.

What drew you to the story?

I don’t think there was a script when we started talking. I saw my dialogue just to get a sense of how long it was going to take me, but I don’t think there was a script because when I saw the film I was shocked. I didn’t know what I was seeing. I didn’t know what it was about and even if you try to describe it you really can visually see… some of those images were just in his head.

If you recorded in late 2015, they couldn’t have anticipated the way politics would be in 2018, but there’s so many parallels.

I think that Wes has his finger on the pulse and sometimes you fall into it, sometimes you don’t. I did a project sitcom the year before last, just when Trump was coming, the election happening. We thought ‘this project is so perfect, we just know that ABC is going to pick it up because it’s good.’ It’s the perfect sitcom to talk about all these huge issues and get people to laugh and still be able to deal with stuff. So we know what’s going to happen. ABC did not go for it. All of us were just in shock. You just don’t know that you’ll be given the opportunity to.

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When you look at this character Mayor Kobayashi, he’s a guy who’s really fearful. He’s afraid of being seen having any kind of failures or having any doubts. It made me think of this interview where you talk about your vulnerabilities being the place where you sow seeds, where God does his thing.

I did a clown workshop years ago and for an exercise we all sat in a circle on the floor was and there was an opening, so one by one, you get up and go into the circle. You couldn’t leave the circle until you made everybody laugh, made everybody cry. We all failed. You couldn’t use profanity, you couldn’t use gentlemanly humor. We tried red noses, fat suits and nothing worked. After a week the teacher said that’s it, let me tell you what the secret is: going into circle one by one, you have to try to do something and you fail and you have to acknowledge the failure and after you’ve acknowledged failure in front of everyone, that you’re a failure, and you have to acknowledge it. You have to do something and try to do it and fail big time. And then, at that point, you can make people laugh and make people cry. You can do whatever you want to do. It will go wherever you want to go. And it’s that fine line that as a performer, as in life, if you want to lead somebody, people have to have to be behind you. They have to say we want him for our leader because we know that they stand for something. They have gone through it. I mean, from a biblical standpoint, I’m a Christian man. We follow Jesus because he did everything that we would have gone through. So you follow somebody who acknowledges what you’re going through. If somebody doesn’t know what you’ve gone through, you’re not going to follow them. Who are you? Larry Bird said it best. He said they pass me the ball at the end of the game because I’m the first one in the gym, two hours in the gym before anybody comes in. I’m here two hours after everyone goes home. So everybody knows the play when it’s two seconds left in the game. Some people don’t want the ball when it’s two seconds to go. They don’t want the pressure because if you don’t make the shot then you failed. But I’d rather have the ball in my hands. That’s a special kind of person. Some people can’t handle the truth, Jack Nicholson said.

What’s Wes like as a leader?

We were talking last night. I sat with him and Harvey Keitel and I haven’t sat with Wes a lot. I barely remember our time back in 1993 at the Sundance lab. I was sitting with him last night and he was telling me about a prominent actor he had a really difficult time directing and I just listened. Harvey told a story about a prominent actor-director he worked with and the abuse the actors received from this director. I said people are just clamoring to be in this business and do what we do. But people get in the business for many different reasons and some people, based on how they were raised, they’re trying to work out stuff as a director with other other actors or a leading actor trying to impose their will. It’s just… you come in. I think Clint Eastwood said we’re going to come to, going to say some lines, we’re going to hit some marks. That’s what it is. And you get paid a great deal of money to say some lines and hit some marks. Don’t make it complicated. And if we do it that, we do it right, we change people’s lives. When people feel they’re so, so special because they can say some lines and hit some marks, they started messing with people. Don’t mess with people. Just do your thing and go home. That’s what I try to do. I do my thing and go home.

Isle of Dogs is now in theaters.


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