“Follow your bliss,” said Joseph Campbell famously, “and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.”
For Dennis Christopher it’s always been about the love – and for Christopher, following his bliss was a one-way ticket to England. “I was under the spell of a woman who would weave these incredible tales about Europe,” Christopher recalls, “The only thing I ever wanted to be, besides an actor, was a hippie, and I thought I could chase it down in Europe. So I followed her.”
Luckily for filmgoers, Christopher’s hippie aspirations didn’t pan out quite the way he imagined. After stints in England and France, he eventually found himself in Rome. On his first night in the city he chased after a beautiful barefoot girl and wound up walking onto legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini’s set – and interrupting a take. After being escorted off set, he turned the chance meeting with the director into a six week job on Fellini’s Roma in which he played, yes, a hippie.
Christopher soon began working steadily as an actor, adding two Robert Altman films to his resume before landing his career-defining role in Breaking Away for which he won a BAFTA and was nominated for a Golden Globe. “Breaking Away was a great experience,” he says. “It’s the kind of movie that engenders a lot of goodwill from people. It’s a movie that they cherish and I feel very welcomed and accepted by people because of that. Nowadays people bring it up a lot because of Django Unchained; they seem particularly glad to see me (in such a high-profile project) again.”
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained does seem to be on everyone’s mind this holiday season. Equal parts spaghetti western, road movie, revenge story, buddy comedy, and fairy-tale love story, Django mixes them all up and then seasons the pot with a dash of violence – okay, a little more than a dash (this is Tarantino after all). The result is a star-studded movie of epic proportions that took a year just to film. What actor wouldn’t want to be involved?
Christopher remembers when he first saw the script. “My agent sent me the script and the title page was hand-written, just scrawled across with ‘Django Unchained – written and directed by Quentin Tarantino’. You could tell it was something special. I devoured it…” As excited as Christopher was, though, there was one small problem. “The character (Leonide Moguy) was supposed to be the same age as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. I called my agent and he said, ‘Well, I also received a note from Quentin saying, ‘Tell Dennis not to be concerned with the age of the character because I’ve rewritten it for him’. So, after I picked the phone up off the floor, I said, ‘He rewrote it… for me?’ And he said: ‘That’s the message that I got, so just don’t blow it!’”
Their first meeting was like two old friends coming together. “I turned my phone off for the meeting,” Christopher remembers, “and afterwards realized over three hours had gone by. We just sat there talking the whole time like two Jabberwockies. It was amazing. The powers that be told me not to expect to hear anything for a few months. I told them, ‘I don’t care, I want this, I don’t care whatever jobs come up, do not book me out!’”
But Tarantino isn’t one to wait. “The next week I was called in, and nobody was in the office but him. We spoke for another hour and then he said, ‘Oh by the way, will you be in my movie?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And we just went right back to talking, and then 10 minutes later I said, ‘Wait, did you just ask me to be in Django?’ He said, ‘Yeah!’ I was dumbstruck. He said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘It’s just hitting me, I need a second. I think I need to hug it out.’ He said, ‘Sure!’ We both stood up and gave each other bear hugs and then sat back down and just went right back into talking again. Then at the end of the meeting he walked me to the elevator and said, ‘Phew, I’ve got my plantation cast. I’ve got my people now.’ And I said (laughs), ‘Quentin, I’m so happy to be one of them.’”
It wasn’t long before Christopher found himself outside of New Orleans, working on the set of film’s plantation, ‘Candyland’. Christopher recalls, “It’s just a place that you wanted to be. The reality that he creates on set is the reality of the time of the movie he’s shooting. So, cast and crew are living in that reality… and we bond, it’s where the family feeling comes from.”
Living in that reality also means no modern technology is allowed on the set. Tarantino had very strict rules in place. “All technology is barred,” Christopher explained. “There’s nothing allowed on the set, and that goes for everyone, even Harvey Weinstein. There’s a place where everyone, no matter who you are, has to turn in their devices before coming onto set. It’s total immersion, stimulating, exhausting, exciting, but always worth it.”
And Christopher isn’t the only actor who thinks it would be worth it, he says: “I saw Helen Mirren last week and she said, ‘Oh my god, will you give Quentin a message for me? I want to be on a Quentin Tarantino set, will you please tell him that I will do anything. I don’t have to say a line, I can just be an extra, somebody standing in the background, I’ll carry a tray.’ And I said, ‘Really? Really, Helen? The person who played the Queen of England is going to carry a tray for Quentin Tarantino?’ And she said, ‘You betcha. Just to be on his set.’”
Listening to Christopher, you can’t help but get swept up in his enthusiasm and love of filmmaking, something he obviously shares with Tarantino. Christopher adds, “He’d get a perfect take and then say, ‘Let’s get a twin sister’ and he’d say, ‘Why?’ And everyone shouted out at the top of their lungs, ‘Because we love making movies!’ With Quentin bellowing the loudest. It would remind us all why we were there. It never escapes you and he quite literally reminds you of it – cast and crew join together screaming the mantra at the top of their lungs – We love making movies.”
And when it comes to Dennis Christopher’s movies – audiences love watching them.
You can follow Dennis Christopher on Twitter: @DennisChristo4