Interview with Dennis Haysbert (as President of the Unites States of America)
Okay, ladies and gentlemen. We have Dennis Haysbert, who plays President David Palmer on the show 24. He’s been with the show for the past three years. And, it’s an honor and a pleasure to have him here. First question?
[As she’s saying, you’ve done three years]
DENNIS HAYSBERT: Oh, thank you for all these gifts. Hello, everyone.
Three years is a long time on 24, which has a propensity to kill people off. What do you think the President’s life expectancy is on the show 24?
You know what, I don’t know. That’s the honest truth. I don’t think the writers and producers know. That’s become the beauty of the show, that no one knows who’s going to die when. I really think it really does extend to Kiefer now, as well. I mean, we really don’t know how much more this man can take. So, I don’t know. Pretty long-winded answer for I don’t know, but that’s it.
How significant for you is it for you that they decided to choose an African-American for a President in this series?
I think it’s significant on a number of levels. One, it gives me a sustained job. (laughs) Two, I really believe that it’s changing the way people think around the world. Especially in light of all the things that are happening. Specifically 9/11. It has become important to everyone in the world that it’s not a matter of what color a person’s skin is. What matters is how much integrity that person has, how much dignity that person has. I think it’s going to work out a great deal for our country this year. Not so much in the color of the candidates that are out there right now, but in their points of view. I would love to be able to guarantee that Bush won’t be in there next year. Hopefully that’ll come to pass, and hopefully we’ll have someone in there that has the people’s interests at heart. And I hope that’s true for all the countries that you represent. I don’t know whether you’re happy with your leaders or not. I hope the show is changing the way the people think in your country as well. I just got back from South America, where we have, what, 60 percent of the audience there? Rio de Janeiro. I was really happy to see how I was received on the streets. It’s been a blessing. It really has. I hope I’ve answered your question. I’m in a long-winded mood today.
About two years ago you said you wished Colin Powell had run for President. How do you feel about that now, and how did you feel about Colin Powell being part of the Bush administration?
I have mixed feelings about that. I still feel the same way about Colin Powell, I think he’s making the best of a very bad situation. I believe he’s a man right now who has to do what he’s told. And that’s always tough. I think that has a lot to do with his recent illnesses, if you can relate to that. I’m a very metaphysical person. I think that certain things that you do in life, if they’re not really agreeing with you, it’s going to manifest itself in some way. And that’s the way I think it’s gone for Colin Powell. I could be wrong. I just have so much respect for this man. And I’ve lost so much respect for this administration, the way they’ve handled things. But you know, I would still like to see Colin Powell run. I think things would be a whole lot different.
After three years, do you think the show has to evolve? Because now it’s in a place where the audience needs a little bit more?
Well, I wish I could tell you that it’s going to change. I know it will. I know how the writers think. And they still surprise me. I feel fairly certain that this format-well, not the format so much-but the characters, will change a great deal. Like I said before, I think even Kiefer’s at risk. This is just conjecture, of course. I know I’m at risk. I didn’t even know I was coming back to the third season until a month before we started shooting. So they had me dead and almost buried.
Normally a character prepares his role before shooting begins. And I’m pretty sure that Bush, didn’t, like you, do that for a couple of days. So how did you prepare?
Well, in the first season, if you recall, I was a senator running for president. And the second year, when they told me I was going to be president, I started looking at the people that I most admired. Mostly, started looking within myself. What would Dennis do, if he were President? You know? I think I’m an innately idealistic person. So I probably wouldn’t survive too long if I was the real President. (laughs) I’d probably be more like Howard Dean before he had his little outburst. Even after that outburst, I still admire the man. I think right now he’s set the bar very high for the Democratic candidates that are still in the running. They’ve all adopted his platform. The way I prepared for the role, is that I collected my heroes, took the best parts of them, took the best parts of myself and applied it to the job.
Talking about the nearly dead and buried thing. I remember that your near-death experience was going to change President Palmer substantially, and maybe make him darker or maybe less direct in his approach to his job. You’ve been offered a lot of dark paths this year and you haven’t taken then. Can you talk about where you think that’s going to go?
The dark paths, well, I (laughs) think I did one really bad thing, in bringing Sherry back. (laughs)
At least so far.
Yes, so far. I’m not saying anything. You see, I keep forgetting that [the US] is ahead of you guys. No, he gets progressively darker.
Could you talk at all about the changes in industry then, generally?
No. (laughs) I really can’t, without divulging things that are coming up. Or not coming up. He doesn’t trust very many people. The biggest change is that he has his brother as his Chief of Staff. I know a lot of people are questioning this, saying, “Okay, what’s the brother going to do?” Who knows? We still have six episodes to shoot, and you still have a few episodes to see before that. So you have to make up your mind as to what’s going on with him. But as to anything darker, I can say that David Palmer is always going to have his integrity. He’s always going to have that dignity. I don’t think I’ll ever do anything that will make you think that it was a mistake to put him in office. If you’re looking for that kind of darkness, I don’t think that’s going to ever appear. At least, it wouldn’t be my first choice. I want to keep this man the way people see him. As a kind of a model as to what politicians should be.
Has the role inspired you to seek politics yourself?
Only if it motivates or inspires your kid-in my country, in your country, in any of your countries-to run for office and to put the people first. That’s as far as I want to go, politically. I’m an actor, and I love what I do. And I can’t wait for the next thing.
Most people distrust politicians.
Yeah, well, you know what? My hat goes off to them. I think you’re speaking specifically of Arnold? Arnold’s always wanted to do it. He’s always wanted to run for office, for as long as I’ve been watching his movies and enjoying them. He’s always mentioned that he wanted to be a part of politics. And I think that’s great. I mean, he married into one of the most influential and powerful political families in the United States. So I thought it was pretty clear where he was headed. But for me, politics, no. Maybe. I never say never. But something really special has to come up, for me to throw my hat in the ring. Whichever ring that might be.
You mentioned Sherry before.
This fantastic character. Didn’t President Palmer need the First Lady? It’s very unusual for a President without one.
Well, I’d like a First Lady, yes. Definitely. Do I think he needs one in order to be President and to be an effective president? Not necessarily. I think he was very happy with Ann, and I think he was distressed and disheartened that she couldn’t handle it.
He doesn’t seem to have much luck with the women.
No, he really is kind of a tough luck President, you know. I kind of like that, it engenders a little sympathy for him.
If President Palmer was elected in real time, today, what do you think he would do with the situation in the Middle East?
(laugh) Well, it’s a pretty big mess right now, over there. I don’t have any advisors or anybody telling me what I could or what I couldn’t do. What’s feasible and what’s not. But I would get the soldiers out of there as soon as possible.
What are your feelings toward Colin Powell’s son, who as boss of the FCC, is seeing that it’s the government’s job to clean up network television?
Say that again?
What are your feelings toward Colin Powell’s son, who as boss of the FCC, is seeing that it’s the government’s job to clean up network television? With extra censorship.
I have to read more material on that, in order to give you a really informed answer. Just off the top of my head, I don’t think any kind of government interference in television is warranted or necessary or wanted. I think in some ways, yes, there should be some kinds of censorship, but I’d have to look at what he’s trying to do in order to comment on that effectively.
On a more flippant note, after what happened to President Palmer at the end of season two, have you been more careful with the way you shake hands with fans?
With fans? I’ll put it to you this way, any fan that can come up with the chemical that was introduced to David Palmer will probably end up killing themselves. So, (laugh) I don’t worry about that too much, you know.
In what ways have the roles for black characters changed?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. And, yes, they have changed. I choose roles where it’s clear that they’ve changed. Sadly, a lot of them still stay the same. There are still a lot of stereotypes out there. I think that extends to all races, and to women as well. But it’s getting better. It’s getting better. I’d like to see it get much better. Time will tell.
I have a question about fans.
Nobody expected the kind of audience that the show would get, worldwide. What has been the funniest fan reaction when they see and recognize you now, as opposed to maybe before?
Playing other roles?
Well, what I get now mainly is just a lot of enthusiasm. People really, really love this President. He is written in such a way that he’s an idealist. He does have the people’s interests at heart, first and foremost. That’s something that we just don’t have here. We’re all controlled by special interests and corporate interference. I think that’s true for all of our countries. Every one of us here has to deal with that. That’s why I think so many people were afraid of Howard Dean. Most of his money came from the internet. And young people who got very mobilized. That scared everyone to death, Democrats and Republicans alike. They were out to get him, and they got him. But I hope that answered your question. Did I?
Oh, the fans. Actually, I get asked to run for President a lot. Yeah, I do! And I recently won a poll here in the USA.
What was that?
Between Martin Sheen’s Bartlett, and my Palmer, Palmer won. So that’s a good one for us. Yay.
From a viewer’s point of view, can you explain what’s go good about 24, and can you also imagine some people think it’s very a exhausting show to watch.
Oh, I think it’s a very exhausting show to watch. I watch it. I like to watch it when it airs on Tuesday nights here along with everybody else. I think what people like is the concept. It is an exhausting show to watch, and I’d have to say it’s because this show has a progression. It keeps moving you forward and up, to this crescendo. Whereas most shows go for an hour and wrap up the show in the last five to ten minutes, we don’t let you off the hook. With our show, every episode is different. It keeps moving you forward to the ultimate climax. And that gets everybody racing. I have spoken to friends, I’ve spoken to fans, and they all say to me, “You know, maybe you guys should put it on earlier, because it’s hard for us to get to sleep.” (laughs) You know, “Because we have to go to work in the morning.” And I say, “Well, I sympathize with you.” Enjoy it. What in life gives you that kind of adrenaline rush? That’s a good healthy one. It’s something you can talk about, it gets you out of yourself. I think that’s what entertainment’s supposed to do. Get you out of yourself for just a few minutes a day. At the water cooler, you can stand around and talk about it, “Did you see what happened last night?” If you’re in the UK, you have a talk show right afterwards. Which I think is great.
By playing the President, I wanted to know how your life changed on the daily basis. Did it change regarding your behavior or the way you speak to people?
No, not really. I mean, I’ve always been…
Do you feel any sense of responsibility, for example, now?
Well, the success of it has given me a little bit more responsibility. I’m a little bit more careful about how I answer political questions. Especially when I’m on foreign soil. People ask me some pretty provocative questions about the country, which I have to abstain from. I don’t like to bash my country when I’m on foreign soil. Or bash the President, even though he is (laughs) bashable. Those things I just try to stay away from. I just try to impress upon everyone that it is an entertainment. I am not the President. I’m an actor playing a President, and it’s a role that I relish. I visualized playing roles like this all my career. I just don’t want to do the same old things. I don’t want to be the drug dealer or the dirty cop or the rapist. Those kinds of characters, even though those characters serve a purpose. It’s all part of entertainment, but it has always been my goal and my wish to play roles that, even if they don’t entertain you thoroughly, at least, after you turn off the set or you walk out of the theater, you will have learned something. And that’s still my mantra.
What are the cast like when new scripts come in?
What’s the cast like? Oh, we devour them voraciously. It goes to the department heads first. We usually find a script in the makeup. There are a lot of people that look to the department heads, who get the scripts before we do, and try to get an idea of what’s coming up next. I cannot and will not do that. I seriously believe that it affects the way I work, on a subconscious level. If I have two scripts that I’m working on, I won’t look at another script until I’m finished with the two that I’m working on.
Are you allowed to take them home, or have they got to stay?
Oh, we take them home, absolutely. The fans here and the fans elsewhere, I know you’re very curious about what’s coming up next. If you asked us what was coming next, you’d probably stop me before I got the chance to tell you. “Oh no, no, don’t tell me!” Which is what I get. I get that more now in the second or third season than I got in the first season. People were so enthusiastic in the first season. They wanted to know what was happening next, because they were not used to it. They weren’t used to this kind of format, this kind of show. And so they went: “Hey man, what’s coming up next? I can’t take it.” But after the first season, nobody asked that anymore. If they did ask, they’d stop me just before I open my mouth. Even though I was only opening my mouth to say, “I can’t tell you.” (laughs) You know.
The final episode.
How soon before you start filming that do you actually find out what’s going to happen?
We won’t be filming that for another four weeks, four and a half weeks.
When do you get the scripts for that?
We probably won’t get that until about a day or two before. That’s the script they put on red paper. So you can’t even copy it. Everybody wants to get their hands on that last script.
Can you take that one home?
I can take it home. Sure. But we have to sign releases for it. Those are the only two scripts that we have to sign for.
Has anyone ever lost any of them?
Not that I know of. Certainly not lost them and lived. (laughs)
At the end of last season, when you didn’t know if you were coming back again, were you lobbying people, were you trying to persuade the writers that there was a way of bringing him back? Or were you just sitting back and waiting?
Basically I was sitting back and waiting to see what happened. I did say to them, “You really won’t kill this guy, will you? There are so many people that are going to be offended on so many levels, if you kill this guy.” They explained it to me, saying, “Dennis, we can’t worry about that. This is what this show is about. People that are good, they die. The audience can’t expect them to live or die.” So you have to sit back and wait and see. I think that’s part of the appeal of the show.
I assume you get movie offers coming in at the same time. Is that a problem, trying to balance 24 versus movies? And particularly if you don’t know whether you’re going to be killed off?
No. Coincidentally, last summer I did have to turn down two studio films, because they didn’t know whether they were bringing me back or not. They would have worked the films into the television schedule. I was not very happy about that. Actually when I look back at it in retrospect, they were two movie roles I probably would have turned down anyway. Luckily.
What about now, what about coming offers?
I have some things in the offing. I haven’t signed on the dotted line yet. After doing a movie like FAR FROM HEAVEN and doing a show like 24, you get a little picky. You want to keep moving up. Doing projects of quality. A lot of the projects out there have to answer to a lot.
You grew up in a very political time and place: San Francisco area, the Black Panthers, etc. Were you very politically aware from the very beginning, going up in that environment?
Absolutely. A lot of things happened in the United States in my youth that affected me. Kennedy was shot when I was very young. I was about nine years old, and I remember how quiet and sad and angry people were at that time. Especially growing up in San Francisco, which is a political hotbed, anyway.
Were you afraid of the Black Panthers?
They tried to instill that fear in us. I lived on the other side of the Bay. So I didn’t really have that much contact with Black Panthers. And the media-you have to be very careful about believing what they tell you. They paint dark pictures of people who may not be as dark as they’ve portrayed them. As I’ve learned more about the Black Panthers, I find that to be true. They were, pardon the pun, “blacklisted,” badly. They really didn’t do anything that they weren’t incited to do. The police generally started the fracases, that involved the Black Panthers. There are a lot of misinterpretations about that time. A lot of half-truths surrounding the Black Panthers. They were not necessarily a violent group. They were prepared to do violence, if violence was visited upon them. That’s my take on history.
Is that your own philosophy?
Is that my own philosophy? Or that of the Black Panthers?
Do you think the media is keeping the populace afraid?
Oh, that’s a loaded question. That really is a loaded question. I don’t know quite how to answer that. It depends on what it is. It depends on what’s being done. It depends on the malice behind it. You know, I think we are being bombarded now. I hardly watch the news anymore. Have you watched BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE?
You know, especially when you look at Canada, which is our closest neighbor to the north, they have just as many guns as we do. And they have maybe an eighth of the murders, or less. I still know people up there that don’t lock their doors. We have bars, you know? And then consumerism goes up. So there’s a direct correlation between fear and consumerism here, and the way people treat one another. It’s appalling, but it is the way it is, and I think we can change it.
Talking about the changes in your lifetime, do you think it was ironic you were playing a gardener and a President in 24 at the same time?
No. I think they’re just, you know, I think I just got very fortunate to get these two really beautiful and wonderful roles. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t understand your questions.
In one, the time was ’60s?
Yes, late ’50s, early ’60s, yes.
That was a lovely role. (laughs)
I know it. However, he was a business major, and that was all he could do. You know, I mean, he couldn’t be the executive like Dennis Quaid’s character. Even though I think he was intelligent enough to do it.
Yes. So there’s something a little ironic in that …
Yes. So there are some strong ironies in that. I think that it effectively illustrates the changes in time.
That’s what I’m getting at.
What was working with Julianne Moore like? And how do you go about choosing movie roles to work on?
Well, I’ll tell you something. Pretty much, movie roles choose me. I look forward to the time when I can choose my roles. I have a couple of scripts that I’m working on, trying to produce, and it’s an uphill climb on a very slippery surface. Working with Julianne Moore was nothing short of fantastic. She’s a very lovely lady, and I really don’t say this to be politically correct. She is just as sweet as you feel that she is. She’s an incredible actress, and I can’t wait to work with her again.
You said you sit down yourself to watch 24 on a Tuesday. Does your family watch it? And if so, what do they think of it?
My son watches it and my ex-wife watches it. (laughs} But my daughter doesn’t. My daughter doesn’t like anything that has to do with violence.
How old is your son?
Is he kind of the cool kid in school, because you play the President?
He’s pretty cool anyway. All his classmates, you know, they like David Palmer and they love the show. Yeah.
What are they like when they meet you?
What are they like?
Yeah. Do they get excited?
Well, to an extent. To them I’m just Charles’ dad, Mr. Haysbert. I go in there and I’m just a regular guy, which is the way I like it. They like me for me.
What does your ex-wife think of it?
She likes it. She really does. We’re really close friends. That’s why I mention her. She’s very much in favor of it.
Do your kids have any plans to follow in your footsteps?
My son is already writing and scoring little movies that he does at school.
Do you get roped into acting in them?
I played a little cameo. I asked him a question one day, I said, “Well, Charles, when you start writing and producing movies, you’re going to give your dad a job?” He said, “Well. I’ll let you come in and read.”
I said, “Great, okay. So that’s it for your allowance.”
You mentioned before that President Palmer’s decision to call Sherry was maybe questionable. What role did she fulfill for him? Is she a one-woman CIA?
I think I mentioned this to my brother. I said, “Look, sometimes when someone gets down and dirty in the mud, you have to get someone that can get down in there with them.” So she served a purpose for me there.
When you read that, did you think that’s what he would have done? It seemed a little odd.
Well, he was in a tough place, and you talk about that dark area that David Palmer was going to get into. He has to get a little bit down and dirty this year, because he’s not going to let people threaten things that are good for the people, or stand in the way of him doing that. Ordinarily he’d probably acquiesce and just fire his brother. But he wasn’t going to let anybody dictate any of his policies to him. It’s just like when he got rid of all the guys that were funding his campaign in the first season.
What do you think his feelings are towards her?
Well, you have to watch. I mean, I can’t tell you that, because I will divulge something that you haven’t seen yet. And it’d be a disservice to you for me to do that. Anyone?
You say you pick your roles, and you want to give this positive image.
And obviously you’re a rather idealistic person, in that case. But is it difficult to maintain that idealism in the business you’re working in?
No. No, it’s not. I mean, that’s not to say that I wouldn’t take a different kind of role, I’ve played villains before. One of them in a TV miniseries, and one in ABSOLUTE POWER. But those are guys that had an interest in views. They were bad guys in spite of themselves. They became bad guys because of deeds they had to do. I was a Secret Service agent protecting my president. I killed a girl that should not have been killed. But I had no choice in that matter.
I like to play those roles that make you think about both sides of the question, you know? Why does a guy do a certain thing? I like to make people think. If I can play a role that induces you to think about whether it’s right or wrong, that’s a good thing, as long as you learn something from it.
You were on Sunday, on the SAG awards. It’s a very interesting show because movie actors and TV actors are on the same ceremony.
Have things changed, compared to years before? Do you think now TV actors are more respected than they were in the past?
Oh, there’s definitely more respect. I think the writing in 24 is better than half the movies you see. I think there are still some really great movies out there, and really great movies that are yet to be made. So, there’s not that stigma of going between television and films anymore. No, I think that line has been effectively obliterated, especially with the success of ANGELS IN AMERICA. We’re seeing Meryl Streep and Al Pacino doing HBO. I mean that was unheard of 10 or 15 years ago, but now the writing is so good and the medium has grown so large that people will want more product. And we’re getting it. I think it’s great.
How did you get into acting in the first place?
Well, let’s see. That’s a question that goes to one point and then goes back, and then goes forward again. I first got interested in acting when I was 13 or 14 while in junior high. I saw some of my friends and peers on stage, effectively chewing up the scenery and having a great deal of fun. Then I got into it when I was in high school. I did a lot of the school plays, and it progressed further from there. I got to a certain point and I really started thinking about why I got into it. I thought back to when I was 10. I had never really said, “Well, this is what I want to do.” I liked movies, but there was nobody in my household that really could tell me what movies were good and what movies were bad, what actors were good and what actors were bad. I really had to make that determination on my own. The actors I fell in love with were the best for the time, so I knew I had aptitude for it. You know, Brando, Poitier, Montgomery Clift, Maximilian Schell, Sir Laurence Olivier…I also knew their differences. I knew, on a base level, that Olivier was technical, and Brando was completely organic. Montgomery Clift used emotion so effectively. He could move me by reading the phone book. I just recently saw some of my favorite movies, THE YOUNG LIONS, ON THE WATERFRONT and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. All these movies I saw when I was 10, and I loved them. Who knew what I was looking at? I see that same thing in my son. He’ll see a certain movie and he’s like, “I really didn’t like that”, but then he’ll look at another movie, say, “Wow.” I see him watching THE PATRIOT all the time. He’s very interested in history. I’ll see him on a civilization game on one computer and on another he’s watching the battle scenes in THE PATRIOT. Those are the kinds of things that I grew up loving, and enjoying. I think if anybody was watching me or looking at my development in those days, they would have been able to pinpoint the time and say, “you know, he’s destined to be in entertainment”. And that’s where I went. That’s where I was the happiest. If I went anywhere else, it hurt. I mean, you imagine yourself doing anything other than what you’re doing now, and it probably hurts. I went through my stints of working in grocery stores and things like that to supplementing my income so I could go to school and learn. I said, “God, I hate this.” But you know what? It was a means to an end. Once I started working, boy, I dropped everything. I didn’t care how much I was making. It hasn’t always been about the money. It’s always been about being comfortable and doing the work. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Thank you. (Audience applause)
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