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Carl Lumbly GALACTICA.TV interview
Written by Marcel Damen   
Friday, 31 October 2008

Some time ago Marcel Damen caught up with Carl Lumbly, better known as Lt. Daniel "Bulldog" Novacek on the Battlestar Galactica 2003 seires. He talks to him about meeting his wife on Cagney & Lacey and other fond memories of working on that show, his role in MANTIS and of course Battlestar Galactica. He also talks about why he thinks he never returned in later episodes.

First of all I would like to thank you taking the time to do the interview. We are honored to have you.

It's my pleasure.

You attended Macalester College where you considered pursuing medicine or law after guidance of your father, but ultimately decided to pursue a major in English. Were you supported by your parents when you later decided to partly become an actor?

I was definitely supported by my mother, who as many mothers are, was more concerned with my happiness as a person than anything. My father was quite disappointed. As an immigrant coming to America, he had a certain set of dreams. He had already, I think, in his mind composed a number of letters that he was going to write back to the relatives about my grand achievements as his only son. But he didn't quite understand what performing arts and theater and acting was all about. In fact, he had a fairly negative view of it. So that took a while. Eventually, he came to understand not only that I turned out to be all right at it but more important for him that I was not a dilettante. That this was not a phase that I was going through.

When I discovered acting, it fit any number of things for me in terms of being able to express ideas that even though they might not have been written by me, I certain could understand them by putting my energy into characters [and] help make them clearer for an audience. That was very powerful. And I think as with many actors, it helped me, I guess, develop traits in my life that were very important. I think, brought me out of my shell a whole bunch. Also it helped me to see other people's stories and other people's possibilities. It helped me to be a little less judgmental about the way I viewed behavior in other people and look more to what the causative elements might have been that led them where they were. It's been a joy for me to do. I love it at every level. I loved it when I was doing Community Theater. I loved improvisational comedy. I love theater. Probably, I would have to put theater itself at the top and acting for camera just behind that.

 

actor Carl Lumbly

actor Carl Lumbly

 

Any regrets for not becoming a journalist or writer?

Some, yes. There are times when I feel - and I haven't lost it completely - but I feel a bit of loss of the facility I used to have. I think it helped me a lot in thinking. I love words and I very much enjoyed writing. I don't have the kind of time that I used to have. I no longer keep a journal except a character journal when I'm working. So I miss it a bit. Every once in a while I regret - I think about petty things like not having to shower and shave all the time when you're working, wear suits, and silly things like that. But I don't think I would trade at all. Even knowing what I know about the difficulties of pursuing an acting career. I think overall it was too rewarding. I ended up meeting my wife. No, I wouldn't say I have regrets. I may still write again, if things move in that direction. I try to keep a hand in it. No, I don't have regrets.

I read that you met your wife (Vonetta McGee) on Cagney & Lacey. You started out as a couple on the show. It's funny you actually ended up together. Was that your fondest memory of the show and do you have other fond memories of Cagney & Lacey?

I do have other fond memories of Cagney & Lacey, but that is my favorite moment. I think overall, being my first experience in episodic television, in doing a series, Cagney & Lacey was wonderful; because it was really a company of actors. The leadership of Tyne Daly in particular, who is just an exceptional actress, was really valuable; because it set a tone of seriousness about the work. Especially in television, sometimes there is a bit of tedium involved and people are making a fuss over you. You're recognized out in public. And I think if you're not careful, you can lose sight of just exactly what your job is whenever you take on a role as an actor. And that is to, in fact, step as far out of yourself as you can and be concerned with the needs of your character. Sometimes the demands/lures of celebrity are very tricky to navigate. So on that series, I learned that you put the work first. And Tyne Daly's admonition to all of us was whenever you did anything, and you asked Tyne what she thought of it; she would say, "Richer, deeper, fuller, better" which is what she would also say if anybody asked her what she thought of something she had just done.

Things you do can always be done richer, deeper, fuller, and better. So even though you can be happy with that one snapshot, that particular take that ends up making it into the film, you still want to make certain that you're aware of the fact that you can always do better. So I think it keeps you proactive and moving forward to become a better artist every time you go out. So that was a joy. It was a real joy to go to work every day, because I felt like I was in sort of a professional academy. We were very, very tight as a group of actors. And we rehearsed things, and we tried different things. We had a sense of freedom, and it's a tricky thing to get sometimes in the confines of television and film. Everybody has needs. And you can't indulge yourself in twenty minute rehearsals when you're on a tight schedule; and you have to make eight, ten, twelve pages of work in the day. So, it sharpens your skills. And it makes you more economical, and I think more honest.

 

Carl Lumbly as MANTIS

Carl Lumbly as MANTIS

 

I took a look at your career and I have seen that you played several strong African-American parts. Very early in your career, you played MANTIS, the first African-American superhero which is definitely a role model - an intelligent scientist, a superhero - for African-American children.

I think it was a quite wonderful opportunity. It might have been just a couple of years ahead of its time in terms of the willingness of certain people in the leadership of the studio to fully get behind [the show].  But, for the year that we were on, it was tremendous to feel that it did indeed have an effect on young kids. I ended up, of course you know, the superhero powers. Actually, the fact he didn't have superhero powers, the fact that he literally had used science to bring about his own improvement in his situation, because he was dedicated to doing good in the world. And I think that particular aspect of it did indeed resonate with a lot of young kids, and a lot of people watched. We had a lot of adults who watched our show as well. And so, I think it was a great example of how sometimes people underestimate what audiences want. It was gratifying to see that though we had a very small audience, we had a very loyal audience. And, they understood what we were trying to do.

You also played the father of the first black American diver in the navy in Men of Honor. You played a former football player affected by the segregated South in Everybody's All-American. You played Sam Nujoma [in Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation]. Are you particularly choosing those roles for a political point of view?

It's probably easier or it's more tempting for me when I see that a role has some political substance or context that I find acceptable from my sensibilities. I'm very eager to do it. But I can't really say that I have shaped my career to that degree. I know that the one power that I feel I have as an actor is my ability to say no. So there are things that crossed the line for me personally - roles that I didn't particularly want to give my energy to. One, because I think there are certain things that if I don't feel good about doing them or if I don't feel good about the character or project, I worry that I'm not going to do my best work, that somehow I'm going to sabotage my own work. Even though if you take a role and commit to it, which I've done sometimes, roles that I wasn't madly in love with; but I thought the point of the project was a good one. So sometimes that's a little uncomfortable, because you really are trying to do the best you can with something that you think is maybe heinous or reprehensible. But, that's, I guess, what I'm saying about the judgements you can make about characters; because sometimes despite the fact that you might not like the person that your character is, your job as an actor is to love the person. So, you have to find a way to make peace with those areas of a character with which you might have conflict and do the character justice.

 

Carl Lumbly as Daniel 'Bulldog' Novacek on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Carl Lumbly as Daniel "Bulldog" Novacek on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

So coming to Battlestar Galactica, did you know Michael Rymer had Dennis Haysbert in mind for the role of Novacek before you got it?

No. No, I didn't.

So, how were you approached for the role?

It was just a call I received from my agent as to possibility of availability and interest. As it happens, David Eick also worked on MANTIS; and I had a wonderful time with him. I think a lot of him personally as well as professionally, so that was fun to do. And, I went up and saw the role and had an enjoyable time - very enjoyable time. Albeit soaked in goo and crammed into these little tiny spaceships that they work in. But, again, Eddie and Mary and the cast were so good. Michael was so much fun to be working with. And I was a fan of the show, so it was a great thrill to be there.

In earlier drafts of the "Hero" script, the first name of your character changed a lot. It changed from Seamus to Eugene were both considered. Even in one scene when Doc Cottle is checking Novacek, you see Eugene on the screen. Any idea why the name changed and why it was so important?

I'm not certain. Sometimes I know when they go through standards and practices, the network has to do a check; so that if a name shows up, it's not the name of someone that's recognizable or in the public domain or copyright infringement. I'm not even certain, but I know that names can be a very big deal. I was aware that the name changed - once, twice in the draft that I had before I started working. Gene, I think, was the one that they finally settled on, but I don't remember.

 

Carl Lumbly as Daniel 'Bulldog' Novacek on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Carl Lumbly as Daniel "Bulldog" Novacek on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

No, they settled on Daniel.

Oh, they did settle on Daniel. Oh, my, okay. Well. (laughs). You have to be willing to let these things go.

In David Eick's Videoblog "Introducing Bulldog" it's said that after agreeing upon the role you wanted to keep your dreadlocks much to the bemusement of director Michael Rymer. Why was this important to you?

Well, it had been the way I had been wearing my hair since Namibia. When I saw the role I thought that it had a natural flow to it. If I were to be incarcerated for any length of time, my hair with locks. There was a certain freedom that I thought it represented from the Novecek who probably went in as a young cadet to the battle-weary Novacek who was flying patrol and then endured who knows what. I guess I personally feel a lot freer when I'm not paying any particular attention to what my hair looks like.

 

Carl Lumbly as Daniel 'Bulldog' Novacek on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Carl Lumbly as Daniel "Bulldog" Novacek on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

There is a pretty violent scene especially at the end of Bulldog trying to kill Bill Adama. Did you guys rehearse that so that you did not really get hurt?

Yes, we were rehearsing it. I think it's an interesting thing; because I know the script, and it probably does indeed look like his intention is to kill him. I myself felt that this was an individual who felt hurt and betrayed and obviously had gone through a tremendous amount of mental anguish as well as a physical ordeal. Given an opportunity, he really just wanted answers and answers that would make sense to him. Adama was not only his commander, but he was also his friend. In my idea, in playing Bulldog, accountability was very, very important to him, especially from his friend. He needed to know. I want to believe that Novacek would have backed off on killing him. I think the thing I felt was the most important about the character was you can't put individuals into battle, into war situations and predict to any degree how they will come out. The individual who goes in may come out unscathed and may come out intact, or they may have to make moral negotiations inside themselves to be able to perform their function. Those negotiations may have consequences when they return to the world. I liked the idea that a character in that situation... So often our battle heroes seem to just weather the storm, and make whatever mental adjustments they need to make, and then move on easily through life. Because we know that this is not the case, I thought it was a great opportunity to show an individual for whom no, it didn't go smoothly. It didn't go well. And he turned out to be not superhuman. He broke, and Bulldog was sent away to get some care. It all worked out.

Because at the end of the episode "Hero", we see Novacek boarding a Raptor, presumably to start a new life on a civilian ship. Also, in David Eick's Videoblog "Introducing Bulldog," it even suggests you will become a new, regular character on the series. So, what happened?

Well, my guess would have to be that they changed their mind. It may also have been a little bit because I live in Berkeley, not Los Angeles or Vancouver. And it would have probably meant that I might have had to relocate which I'm not sure if that was in their minds or not. Having done this for as long as I have, that's the one thing I'm absolutely certain is that you really never know. So I was never given any indication that it was going to be more than the guest situation that it was. I heard some talk that there might be other roles, but I'm not sure. The story direction might have changed or anything.

 

Carl Lumbly as Daniel 'Bulldog' Novacek on Battlestar Galactica 2003

Carl Lumbly as Daniel "Bulldog" Novacek on Battlestar Galactica 2003

 

Because I was kind of hoping you would return in the last leg of the fourth season.

Yeah, at any point, it would have been a real joy to go back; but I certainly had a wonderful time there.

I would like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview.

My pleasure, Marcel. I hope I haven't pushed you too much, but I appreciate you expediting me here.

 
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