David Carl is the writer and star of Gary Busey’s One-Man Hamlet, one of Fringe’s hottest tickets this year! After reviewing/fangirling about the show last week, I was excited to ask for an interview. We talked about how the show got on its feet, what it’s like to get in a Busey mindframe, and geeked out a bunch about Hamlet!
LMezz: How did the Gary Busey obsession start up and how did it get tied into Hamlet?
David Carl: I do different impressions and one of the impressions I do is Nick Nolte. Four years ago, my friend Boris Khaykin heard that his friend Whitney Meers was making a Gary Busey commercial parody called 1-800 GET BUSEY and he recommended me. I think he confused Nick Nolte with Gary Busey, but I like to think he was believing in me. I had three days to learn the Busey impression before shooting for a live show at the UCB. So I just geeked out in front of Youtube like I usually do when learning a new character. My roommate at the time was from Arkansas and he was very critical and a playwright and way too young to be a misanthrope but he is. He hates everything. And he was like, “you got it. You got it. That’s it.”
So I did that and moved on with my life, didn’t think much about it. Then a year and three months ago I see an audition notice in my email that said, “Point Break Live! We’re looking for Gary Busey.” It was amazing because as an actor you never get to audition for something that you already have a well-produced video of that people already enjoy. I got the part and we started rehearsing in May of last year to open in August. And around July I thought to myself, man, wouldn’t it be fun to do my own show? I could tell it was going to be really fun. I had done a one-man show with my director Michole Biancosino called The Power of Me, which was a self-help seminar about being selfish.
So we started thinking, what would Busey do? Shakespeare just popped into my head and the more I thought about it the more it made me laugh. Then, in the summer, I saw the huge poster for Alan Cumming’s Macbeth over and over again and it reminded me of how every time a star does Shakespeare, their face is huge on the poster. FRANK LANGELLA’s King Lear. JOHN LITHGOW’s King Lear. It’s almost more about that person, certainly from a marketing standpoint, than it is about the role. I thought it would be really funny to market GARY BUSEY’s Hamlet. So we thought about different Shakespeare plays but we landed back on Hamlet because it’s the most known. But on a personal level, in the movie Soapdish, when Robert Downey Jr. is trying to persuade Kevin Kline to leave this dinner theater job, Kline says, “Alright, under one condition. I’ve been developing this one-man Hamlet where all the characters are voices in his head.” And Robert Downey Jr.’s just like, “Yeah, we’ll see.” And right around the same time, Kevin Kline directed himself in Hamlet, so I think he was kind of poking fun at himself. I’ve been a Hamlet nerd for a while. This is the play I know most about. I’ve always revisited it and geeked out on it.
The final thing was that when I submitted it to the PIT, my friend Toby Knops was in charge of SoloCom and I was going to submit The Power of Me. But he said, no. You have to do a new show. And because he said no, I submitted Gary Busey’s One-Man Hamlet, which I might not have started working on when I did.
LM: It forced you to try something new.
DC: Yea, someone saying no can actually be good. I like telling that story because I think it’s cool that he did that.
LM: Speaking of geeking out on Hamlet, I love all the little bits of commentary in the show. Like there’s one about how Hamlet and the soldiers swear an oath in the stage directions but no lines are said, or how the ghost of Hamlet’s father says ‘adieu’ three times but Hamlet only says it twice. Is that Gary Busey: literary critic?
DC: It’s a little bit Gary Busey, it’s a little bit me. A big part of it is our desire to go from saying “maybe this is what happened” to “certainly this is what Shakespeare meant!” And really we don’t know. However, for someone to read your scholarly writing, you need to make bold statements. It was fun for me to play with this idea that we think we know. There’s the play itself and then there are the interpretations of the play.
LM: Yeah, in the play you kind of just drop them in there and let them seep in, let us do with it what we will.
DC: The hook for me into Gary Busey is this idea of playfulness, this childlike way of looking at the world. Part of it is the way he was raised. His mother said he was raised with the energy of ten men with a regular job. So he’s always had this big energy, and then he suffers a traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle accident in 1988. To quote him, a quarter-sized piece of brain fell out of his skull. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. Then he has an overdose and near-death experience in 1995 resulting in more brain damage, after which point he decides to go clean and sober and has been since then.
So I take that now and I see a guy who is really doing his best to be positive without the ability to control his impulses. It’s like he’s trying to put himself in a positive mindframe so that if some random-fire things happen, let’s be in that safe circle that’s nice. His new wife is this very sweet, spiritual hypnotherapist who clearly understands him and wants to help him, he has a four year old son now.
I want to focus on the positivity as opposed to just making fun of him. A lot of people like to say, oh crazy crazy Busey and to me, that’s just not as interesting as playing with the childlike aspects: the curiosity, the spontaneity. To me, he’s a bit like Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
LM: Although, you do start it out with this kind of confrontational tone like, “Ha, I’m going to prove to you all that I can do Hamlet!”
DC: Yeah, that’s kind of like Bottom. Is that what you mean?
LM: Well yea that’s true. But I’m talking more about the positivity of it. That opening feels like a…
DC: Like a challenge.
DC: There’s some of that there. I give him a little room to freak out. He freaks out at different points. But the underlying thing that he tries to get back to is being positive. That’s the intent of the play. The intent is not to malign him. I’m a fan. I’m a fan of Busey, not a hater. At all.
LM: There are moments in the play where it seems like he’s actually really trying to act and do it the way a good production of Hamlet would look.
DC: That’s something Michole and I talked about it’s not that much fun if he’s screaming and raving mad the whole time. If you look at his career, and the reason he’s had one and that people hire him even though he’s a risk on set, is because he’s capable of doing some really captivating stuff. It’s just a question, depending on which slice of his career, of whether you’ll be able to get it out of him. He was nominated for the Oscar for The Buddy Holly Story and if you watch it, it’s actually really good work. I mean it’s not like they just gave it to him– he was against Jon Voigt, Robert De Niro, and Laurence Olivier. He has the ability to do some really great acting. To me the evidence if that when you’re watching one of his movies, he’s frequently the most interesting person on screen. And then there’s the question whether it’s acting if you’re just born with a mind that’s difficult to control and you’re just being yourself. Is it acting? However, why single out Gary Busey when so many actors do that. They just take the thing that they roll out of bed with, it just happens to be interesting to watch. They’ve learned how to craft it into a performance. He just happens to be really out there so he gets flack for it.
LM: But then those moments of great acting devolve pretty quickly into a mess again.
DC: Yea. Part of the inspiration for that was a website called The Busey Zone which has these two-minute videos where it’s hard to tell if he’s messing with us, right? Is he in on it? Is he pulling this amazing Andy Kaufman routine? Or is he actually having trouble? He starts on this one topic, like let’s say hobbits, and by the end he’s talking about something totally different like a screwdriver. That’s one of the most recent things he’s done and a sort of indication to me of where he’s at right now. I wanted to play to be like that, like he starts these scenes out and, either he can’t help himself or he intentionally has a very strong interpretative artistic statement that he’s practiced before.
LM: That sounds a bit like the argument I made in my review–
DC: Yea I think you nailed that actually.
LM: Aw yay!
DC: (in Busey voice) yay! It’s so hard to not say ‘yay’ in Gary Busey voice now.
LM: The argument is that the madness, the craziness of Hamlet gives him freedom to basically do whatever the hell he wants.
DC: Right, and there’s evidence in the text that Hamlet’s not really crazy so that he can keep everyone at bay to fulfill his own plot to avenge his father. But again, what’s the definition of insanity? Where’s the line? Is he losing it a little bit? Yea probably. Is he amping it up? Yea probably. If you’ve ever been good friends with someone who is struggling with some sort of mental disorder then you know that sometimes they sound completely “normal” and then (clicks) drop of a hat, they say something that makes absolutely no sense. That’s what can be very heartbreaking about insanity and frustrating, that it looks like they’re okay at first. It’s not like this cartoon madness.
LM: Yea I searched a little bit for theories on Hamlet’s madness–
DC: There’s so many.
LM:Yea, I tend to like a mix between the two, that he starts out pretending to be mad but slowly–
DC: He really becomes crazy?
DC: Yea, there’s evidence of that. Though, at a certain point it becomes subjective, which is what’s great about art. Which is why we keep doing it because people keep having new takes on old stories or come up with new stories. I think that art is dead without point of view. If you don’t have a clear point of view in what you’re doing, it’s just an empty space. It’s like a studio that you haven’t created the art in yet. You have to inject your own point of view or explore someone else’s. That’s something I’ve thought a lot about in the past few years. Whenever I create anything I need to know where I’m approaching it from. What’s my lens? Then the audience knows where you stand.
LM: The plays seems really physically strenuous. You’re juggling a lot of things at the same time and contorting your physicality for an hour and half. I don’t think I even saw you drink any water or anything.
DC: I should have some water. I think that will be added in tonight. I meant to drink some water and I think I forgot to set it, honestly. It was the one thing I forgot to set and I didn’t want to come out with water, which is silly because I could really do whatever I want because it’s Busey Magical Land where he does what he wants. I mean, that’s the fun of Busey. When he gets an idea, he does it and he doesn’t question it. He doesn’t criticize whatever the idea is. The second it hits his brain it’s gold… I should have come out with water. I need to do that.
I eat a lot of pizza and fried chicken… I’m good until that fight (between Laertes and Hamlet) and then I’m genuinely exhausted. I really felt 70 years old when I said, “I’m 70 years old.” That was not a line until opening night because I had never felt the need to say that so much. I would say that 4% of the lines are made-up, if I had to make up a percentage. I try to keep it minimal especially with the Fringe. You have tight timing. If I did more, I’d make it 25% and I wouldn’t be careful. Michole is good about reigning me in.
LM: She gives you signals from the booth and stuff?
DC: No nothing like that. I just feel her presence. I’ve known her for 12 years. We went to Rutgers together. It’s a great relationship.
LM: Do you improvise any of the movie quotations in Polonius’s “to thine own self” speech?
DC: Sometimes I deviate a little. I think one time I said, “Hold onto your butts!” just because it occurred to me on the train that day to say it. So I said it and I was so happy it got a laugh. The worst thing is to improvise and then it doesn’t get a laugh. ‘Great…I went out on a limb and the limb just broke. Now I gotta re-climb the tree.’ Sometimes I’ll do it out of order, but what’s important to me is that it just flies. If I don’t know the next line, I just say one.
LM: It feels a bit like a stream of consciousness moment.
DC: With Busey, the script is important but what’s more important is what’s happening between me and the audience at that very moment. As long as I’m playing the game of the scene, I don’t think anyone will mind if I deviate from the script.
LM: Then, do you feel like those Polonius speeches are planned in Busey’s mind or are they just insanity?
DC: I think that’s a moment where he goes off the rails. I intentionally don’t have slide projections there. That’s a big clue. If there are slides, usually that’s something where he decided this is what this is. It’s really the first time he goes off the rails because everything else up to that point is deliberate. It’s a fun moment.
LM: It’s a good spot to put a crazy moment because anything Polonius is so taxing.
DC: I’ve always really liked Polonius. He’s so funny because he has lines which people take out of context all the time. But what I think is really cool is this ridiculous guy who is like the clown in the play and this doddering old man who says “brevity is the soul of wit” with no self-awareness that he himself doesn’t understand that. And “to thine own self be true” after saying a ton of advice which his own behavior shows that he hasn’t mastered. So I was excited to give a lot of attention to Polonius. I thought Gary Busey would make a really funny Polonius. That’s one role where he would actually shine. I actually do a character voice for that part, but I think if it were just his own voice, it would be fine. Hamlet, Laertes, and the master player will sound like Busey and the others will be him doing a voice. Horatio sounds like a much younger Busey, like from Buddy Holly. (Mimics Horatio voice) He has this really high-pitched voice. A beautiful tenor voice (normal voice), which is how he got that role.
LM: Wow, I didn’t realize how much of Busey’s actual life is embedded in this show.
DC: I really like to research. I’m a little OCD so that’s just naturally the most positive thing I can do. I did a deep dive into this one. And still am.
LM: Was it just for this show?
DC: I was already doing it for Point Break Live! and it occurred to me that I put so much work into this, I should do my own show. I’m 33 years old. I’d like to make a living at acting consistently. It would be nice to just spend a whole year acting and doing a one-man show is not a bad way to do it. Certainly I don’t want to just do it for money. I want it to be a product I really love, which is the case here.
LM: Today I saw someone with a poster that said, “FEAR: False Evidence Against Reality” and it reminded me of the Busey-isms.
DC: That was one of my favorite parts of the research. He’s been doing those for a couple of years.
DC: He makes them and sells them. I got two for my birthday last year. I got “FAITH: Fantastic Adventures In Trusting Him” and “FART: Feeling a Rectal Transmission.” He signs and sells them and they come in the mail. I haven’t figured out who does the artwork. But he sells them to raise money for the Kawasaki disease, which affected his son Luke in his first year of development. He just rattles them off in regular conversation. “FUN” is “Finally Understanding Nothing.” So I did all these Gary Busey Hamlet-isms as part of my funding campaign using the donor’s name. They’re in the program and we’re still selling them.
At first they were just white letters on a black background but around two weeks ago, we decided to paint them to add some color to the stage. So we painted the eight that are in the show. It’s really fun to paint as Gary Busey. Most people have a happy memory of painting when they were younger. It’s a fun part of your brain to go to.
LM: What’s next for the show?
DC: We just know that we wanna do it more. We’d love to tour with it or go to Edinburgh. We want to take it all over, do a New York run. We think we have something that has legs. And my next solo show will be 100 Impressions. I’ve been doing these deep dives recently and I do other impressions, so it will be fun to show them. And finally I started working with Katie Hartman in some musical stuff, a show called “David and Katie Get Re-married” which is like being at a marriage ceremony of a couple who has been divorced. And they’re basically teaching the audience on how to love through song, dance, and other rituals. That will probably be later in the year.