‘Jurassic World’ Actor James DuMont Talks Filming ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ and More

by Micah Haley on February 3, 2015

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A veteran stage and screen presence, James DuMont has been in the business since he was a child. In the mid-1960s, his cherubic face earned him a gig as the Gerber baby. It was the first of many to come, as DuMont travelled from Chicago to Boston to New York to Los Angeles and now to Louisiana. His storied career includes roles in Seabiscuit, SWAT, War of the Worlds and Ocean’s Thirteen.

Since coming to Louisiana, DuMont’s career has continued to climb with roles in Treme and American Horror Story, reaching a high point with 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club. DuMont portrayed the father of Rayon, a role that would earn Jared Leto an Oscar. Since then, he’s appeared in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the James Brown biopic Get On Up, When the Game Stands Tall and Ryan Phillipe’s directorial debut Catch Hell. He’s also recently wrapped a movie millions of years in the making: Jurassic World.

Over the course of a few hours, we discussed his long career, his family, his investment in Louisiana and how he still just likes to play on set.

When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?

I was born and raised in Chicago and New York. My dad was in New York and my mom was in Chicago and we switched around back and forth. When I grew up, those were my hometowns. At a certain point, my mom was a fashion model, so I got photographs as a baby. I was the Gerber baby in 1966. So that started off a whole bunch of print stuff, like Sears catalogs and things like that. And then I started doing some commercials. Later, the Chicago film scene started to kick up a bit.

By the time I was in high school, there was this dance audition for Blues Brothers. I was a huge fan of the Blues Brothers from Saturday Night Live, so I did this dance audition. My friends gave me a little bit of a hard time about it because we were baseball players. And I got the gig! I was one of the kids dancing in the streets. I got my SAG card from that movie, and then did a bunch of commercials and stuff and I was able to use that money later on in college.

I got a scholarship to go to Boston University, which is where Michael Chiklis and I connected. I only went for a couple of years, and then the summer between my sophomore year and my junior year, I just decided I didn’t want to go back to college. And they didn’t invite me back! So it worked out pretty good. I was like, “Wait, so I can just go right to working in New York theatre?”

325-DuMont-webI was subletting an apartment from Francis Conroy, who is now in American Horror Story, and I decided to stay. I moved to New York when I was nineteen or twenty. She recommended a theatre company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, which is a forty-five year old theatre company with John Patrick Shandley, David Mamet…all these incredible playwrights, along with younger up and coming playwrights like Alan Ball. There were these writers there, and we could really build experience. I cleaned toilets and I stage-managed and I read every reading I possibly could. A couple of readings led to performances in productions! And a few people in those productions had agents. All of a sudden, my friend David Eigenberg (who was on Sex and the City) was like, “Dude, I’m about to go do a movie! You could be my understudy!” I was literally doing some student film down in Brooklyn.

I worked my way all the way up from deep, deep Brooklyn, with track fires and police action. One time, I ran literally from 57th Street all the way to 65th Street, ran in the door for a role, and it turns out this character is The Hustler. He’s totally naked in the show. The only costume is socks. I had an undressing room rather than a dressing room. And I booked the gig. It was two weeks off-Broadway, making more money than I ever did DJing or catering! And I’m in this off-Broadway play with Swoosie Kurtz and Courtney B. Vance called Six Degrees of Separation. We did that for about two years.

That is a big feather in your cap. Did you think about going to Los Angeles at that point?

New York just seemed to be the thing to do. I was a theatre actor. I went to high school with Cusack and Jeremy Piven. And those guys, all as a group, went to L.A. And I thought L.A. seemed easy. It didn’t seem interesting to me. I needed the theatre experience. And I got it. I probably did five hundred readings. Two or three nights a week, I’m out trying to develop a play or be in some play, somewhere. I’d show up to the opening of an envelope! That’s how desperate I was. But out of that came a lot of great experiences. And a lot of those directors ended up directing Shanghai Knights and Dude, Where’s My Car? and Wedding Crashers. Those were student filmmakers at that time.

Once Six Degrees was over, there was a national tour. And the tour was going to bring me to Los Angeles. I had tested for a couple of pilots before in L.A. and just got blown out of the water. The L.A. folks just seemed so prepared and amped and I didn’t know what I was doing. So, I said, “I’m not interested in L.A.” I said I wouldn’t come back until I got a job. But during the tour, I knew I’d be there for another six months during the show and another six months on the road. So I had a job!

After the tour, I got a new agent and started working my way up in L.A. Luckily, a guy named Mark Saks was the casting director at Warner Bros. And Warner Bros TV in the early 90s was the thing. CheersLois & Clark, The Drew Carey Show, The Simpsons. And Mark was a big fan of Six Degrees – a big fan of me being naked – so he put me on the new George Carlin show and on Lois & Clark. And I just kind of built it, brick by brick.

You were busy in Los Angeles getting steady work. How did you find your way down to Louisiana?

My wife was from Baton Rouge and we had talked many times about simplifying our lives for our kids. My wife was a dancer with the Graham Company in New York. So I followed her, and stalked her, and we have kids now.

Your career becomes about volume. But you also want these roles that come along and pull you apart from everyone else. If I look at Philip Seymour Hoffman, I remember his breakout movie. I remember watching Paul Giamatti in the Howard Stern movie. Each of the guys I consider my contemporaries (and also people that I look up to), each one had a movie that made them stick out. As a guy in the pond, you are looking for that one role that is going to pull you away from everyone else.

Luckily for me, Dallas Buyers Club really does differentiate me from other folks. It’s only one scene, yet it’s chock full of powerful stuff.

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But I’m sure as a theatre actor, there’s a part of you that just wants to work. That’s the downside to screen acting: even when you are working, you are not really working that much.

As a man, though, you are always thinking about employment and being able to provide for your family. That really kicks in. So there is something extra when you are going into auditions where you are responsible for some mouths to feed! That’s something that takes your game to another level.

And your family is actually getting in on the act, too, right?

My daughter actually plays Clyde’s little sister in the Bonnie & Clyde mini-series. Holliday Grainger’s performance was amazing. Her and Emile Hirsch were a great pair. And I ended up playing the bank manager on their first heist. My son recently did Zipper, which they shot up in Baton Rouge. My son played Patrick Wilson and Lena Headey’s son. He went from being Grinch in the school play to being on a movie for three weeks. I’m not really pushing them into it. I just think there are some great life skills in terms of being able to have a good sense of yourself.

Walk me through the decision for you and your family to get a place here.

I went to too many birthday parties where The Business was so overwhelmingly talked about every step of the way. I thought, “I really don’t want my kids growing up in this bubble environment.” And my wife is from a big family. So the goal was to move back. My first year here, I knew we’d lose money, but I wanted to see if there was enough work here. This was 2008. The first few movies for me were in Shreveport. And then I ended up nailing a nice thing on Treme.

You also recently appeared on American Horror Story, which is another great show shot in New Orleans.

Yeah, and it’s great doing a gig when you are already a fan of the show. The first season was crazy! Going in, I new I was going to be a doctor, but that’s it. They give you fake scenes to audition with.

That’s one of the great things about Ryan Murphy’s TV shows. They often take dramatic turns in their subsequent seasons, so you can never be prepared for what direction the shows will go.

And that’s the kind of actor I think I am. I’m a Ryan Murphy actor. The kind you can plug in to various different things. There’s that moniker of “character actor” that gets thrown around, but I really look at Schwarzenegger or Sly Stallone as a character actor. They play one character, pretty much, that everyone knows and loves. My actors are able to be malleable and can change. I look at my buddy Michael Chiklis and he goes from Daddio to The Shield? That’s a big leap!

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What has your strategy in the local film industry been? Do you have a local agent?

I think I have the best local agent in Brenda Netzberger at Open Range Management. She’s awesome. From the minute I met her, she went to work. I met her around Christmas time one year, and by New Year’s, everyone knew who I was. She got me and I got her. And I have the same relationship with my agents in L.A.

For someone who has seen so much in the industry, you have so much energy and enthusiasm.

These last thirty jobs have a lot to do with me taking stock of where I’m at. Knowing that as I’m getting older, the great roles are between now and eighty years old. When am I doing Driving Miss Daisy? I’m ready to do the Hume Cronyn thing. I’m gonna keep doing it until I can’t memorize my lines and they are feeding them to me. But I know that moving forward, it’s going to become more competitive. So, as my buddy Tim Phillips says, “Audition for your career, not the job.” Because there are political ramifications for why you may or may not get a job. I just lost a huge one because they needed a famous person. And that has nothing to do with me. My skills were all there. I’m opposite Oscar winners on TV and Oscar winners in movies. I’m right where I need to be. But at the end of the day, it’s always going to come down to craft.

At a certain point, I knew that if I didn’t re-invest in going back to class and listening and finding out what my Achilles’ Heel might be – that one thing that may be holding you back from all your creative potential – then I’m not gonna get to my goals. I had to dig a little bit, and in that digging, there was a kind of morphic resonance. Everything that I’m bringing to the table comes into play: my age, the kind of characters I’m playing, strengthening my skills, and finally having the overabundance of opportunities that Louisiana has to offer.

The talent pool in Louisiana is immense. I know who they are and I love their work. I’m a fan of theirs, but I also know we’re competing with each other. Chiklis said to me once, “Auditioning is not rejecting. They are not rejecting what you did. It’s selection. It’s not personal. Just look at it like a dinner. You can’t put everything on your plate and sometimes two things just aren’t going to work together.”

What advice do you have for the next generation of actors who are just beginning their careers?

My thing to young actors is, “Do everything.” Read everything. Do every student film. Learn to put yourself on tape. Go to see plays. Go to see movies. Constantly do three things a day that improve your skills and your chances. I say to my kids, “There’s no ‘lost opportunity.’ Someone else just takes it.” I want them to learn some of the life lessons doing this. There are opportunities in front of you, but you have to jump on those! Make the most of those. And enjoy those! I’m trying to pass on to my kids what I think are going to be life skills. Whether or not they decide to become actors doesn’t really matter to me.

If you do all of the homework when you go to the audition, then you don’t have to do much when you get on set. The reality is, I’ve pretty much showed you what I was going to do in the audition or the callback. When I get to set, I can come with a sense of play. I’m in the costume and there’s a sense of wonder and who knows where it’s gonna go?

That happened with Dallas Buyers Club. I made a decision in the makeup trailer to not speak to Jared Leto at all. And I always go up to actors and say, “Hey, I’m James, we’ll be working together.” But I didn’t say a word to Jared because I realize he’s in his own world and we’re an estranged father and son. And perhaps we should never speak to each other.

There’s no warmth there between them at all.

Exactly. Why break the reality of what our circumstance is? And to have an amazing director like Jean-Marc Vallee. It’s true that Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey put in amazing performances. But you need a director with a very fine, astute hand to make that movie. And you’ll see that with the new movie he’s got coming out, Wild, with Reese Witherspoon.

On set, we never said action. He said, “I want you to explore the space. I’m not going to say action. I’m going to push the camera guy in and shoot the scene.” And we did like forty different takes. Millions of different ways. We love each other. We hate each other. But that’s what you do. Come with a sense of play.

You’ve worked professionally in many cities. What does Louisiana remind you of?

This is the New York of the 80s. You can come here and really cut your teeth. I’ve actually encouraged a lot of people to just stay here. Just stay here and build a great life for yourself. There is that big fish, small pond scenario here. The opportunities are here and the quality of life is fantastic. Look at veterans like Spud McConnell. He’s got statues built after him.

And right now, the biggest movies in the world are shooting here. Including Jurassic World, which is one of your upcoming films.

Yeah! We all had dummy scenes. Mine was nowhere near what I ended up doing at all, so it was kind of funnier that way. Y’know, you put it on tape, and you just hope for the best. At the time, I’m also putting myself on tape for Fantastic Four and for Terminator: GenisysFantastic Four actually called and asked, “Would you be up for being a general that only works for like six days, but you would be locked up with us for two months?” Which is exciting. But Lance Nichols ended up getting the role and he was like, “It was good to get paid. I’m laughing all the way to the bank. But there were a lot of jobs I missed out on.”

The director of Jurassic World really loved my audition. He said, “But I must tell you. Your scene with Jared Leto is film gold.” Again, the gift of Dallas Buyers Club. And that’s pretty much all I can say about it right now! But it was a wonderful experience and Colin Trevorrow is absolutely a wonderful director. Everybody on that set was just fantastic.

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You also had a fun role in another awards contender, Get on Up.

I’m the USO liaison. James Brown wants to go to Vietnam and perform for the troops. And of course, we accidentally shoot his plane out of the air. So I welcome him warmly after almost not making it! And James Brown says to me something like, “Do you want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?!” It’s a great line.

There wasn’t much improvisation. It was pretty tight. It was one of those situations similar to Baytown Outlaws, where sometimes I’m called upon to be The Closer. And my job is to come in and be very efficient. There have been hours and hours of setting things up, and you cannot be the reason why we’re going into multiple takes. It might be the camera or something else, but it should not be you. So, just like in baseball, I’m the Closer. I have to come in and be very effective, efficient and get the job done.

That scene is so kinetic because it begins in the plane, which is shot down and essentially crash lands, and then we go right into your scene.

It was supposed to be warm in Mississippi. But it was a freezing cold day. They had buses of sixteen-year-old kids totally shirtless, ice cold in a huge airplane hangar. And even with thermals on and layers, I’m freezing! And we’re supposed to act as if this is seventy or eighty degrees in Vietnam. And it’s all being done in one shot. James Brown comes off the plane, picks me up and follows it all the way to the stage where there are five hundred extras. All in one take. And I have dialogue. It’s a walk and talk. But luckily I can say we kept it to a couple of takes. Chadwick is great. He could get a nomination.

Look for James DuMont in Jurassic World in theaters this summer.