When the stage is Yale, even Oscar-nominated actors can get stage fright.
Actor Brad Dourif, best known for his portrayal of Grima Wormtongue in “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and for his Academy Award-nominated turn as Billy Bibbit in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” admitted his nervousness to a full room of students at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea on Tuesday afternoon.
“I flunked the third grade, so I’m a little intimidated of speaking in front of students at Yale,” Dourif said to a chuckling crowd.
Dourif, who also provided the voice for the character Chucky in the popular thriller “Child’s Play,” overcame his nerves, going on to speak about the childhood experiences that inspired him to pursue the acting profession, offered advice to aspiring performers and even gave some audience members chills by speaking in the voice of Chucky.
Dourif said he was a “terrible” student who spent his time staring out the window. Nevertheless, Dourif discovered a penchant for one field — acting — at an early age.
Dourif said his mother often read aloud to him and his sisters in a way that brought books to life. Inspired by his mother’s readings and performances, he and his sisters created plays that brought about his interest in acting. Dourif traced his desire to become an actor to a specific performance his mother gave in a play about Anastasia.
“She gave a speech about butterflies and I could almost see [one] on stage. That was my inspiration,” he said. “I wanted to make other people feel alive.”
Dourif tried to participate in any theater production he could while growing up, he said. After performing in Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” during his senior year of high school, he moved to New York and joined the Circle Repertory Company. After performing with that troupe, he landed the part of Billy Bibbit, a stuttering mental hospital patient in Milos Forman’s adaptation of the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“I was very, very, very lucky,” Dourif said of his being cast.
But Dourif also discussed the tribulations of the acting profession. After his breakthrough performance gained critical success, he was “scared to death” and thought he could not live up to the expectations set by his first big role.
After the film, Dourif said he was often typecast as mentally disturbed characters. He said he even began to keep a body count of people whom his fictional roles had murdered. After a role in which he played a racist Southerner who physically abused his wife, he said he became depressed at his career direction.
“I just thought, this is what my life is about and I wonder if people really think this about me,” Dourif said. “I have children and look at what I’m doing.”
But the actor overcame his depression and championed a new outlook on his profession. He resolved himself to be “a little wise” rather than “grumpy” and offered advice to future actors among the Yale undergraduate population.
“It’s a wide open and beautiful world, and it’s your oyster,” Dourif said. “But it takes a lot of determination. You get rejected a lot, but you take it in stride; you just deal with it.”
He also advised students in the audience to participate in as many acting workshops as possible. And for those taking on roles like Grima Wormtongue that require more physical transformation to get into character, Dourif offered consolation.
“My eyebrows haven’t grown back all the way, but at least I’ve trained them.”
Two students in attendance said they were moved by Dourif’s story.
Rick Caraballo ’13 said he found it interesting to hear someone so passionate about his profession. Nathaniel Meyer ’13 said he empathized with Dourif.
“As a musician, I really sympathize with what he was going through, being constantly disappointed and rejected,” Meyer said.