I caught up with the incomparable Bill Duke for a chat on film, acting, his 40+ year career, words of wisdom for young creative and much more as it relates to one of the best films of the year: Panos Cosmatos’s epic and surreal horror story Mandy, available on VOD now.

Nic Cage's Red Miller in the film is really the part he was born to play: frenetic, incredible, zen-like focused on his bloody revenge over the cultists who brutally murdered then burnt the titular love of his life right in front of him (played by Andrea Riseborough).  

Mandy really is a modernized Greek tragedy told with a very healthy dose of surrealism and '80s horror nostalgia in Cosmatos's slow, subtle, and dreamlike camera work, which transitions in a beautifully horrific way to the most horrible nightmare for Red in the film’s second half. It is really a film you owe it to yourself to see, and although it won’t make an appearance on the award shows, it is this year's unsung best movie.

The scene most emblematic of Mandy's surrealism was undoubtedly when the cult has abducted and drugged Mandy as she is being interrogated by the Manson-esque leader Jeremiah Sand (a perfectly deranged Linus Roache) as we simultaneously get an insight into his psychosis, what makes him tick. Cosmatos slowly and purposefully focuses the visuals accompanying the dialogue on alternating closeups of Sand and Mandy, deftly and slowly blending their faces into one with a care I honestly haven't seen since Carl Theodor Dreyer and Rudolph Maté's masterclass in how to light and shoot the human face: 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc.    

Where Bill Duke makes his appearance is as Red's friend Caruthers, who equips Mandy's hero with the implements needed for his bloody revenge against those who slaughtered his great love. Duke's character – in keeping with his appearances in films like Predator or Commando or even in TV shows like Kojak – is really the archetypal 'speak softly and carry a big stick' character, intense, looming, and a force to help the good guy, no matter the cost.

Catch Mandy on VOD now and check out Duke's autobiography "Bill Duke: My 40-Year Career on Screen and Behind the Camera" perfect for the cinephile in your life this Chrstmas. Also consider a charitable gift to The Duke Media Foundation which does amazing work preparing "youth for the future by exposing them to specific new media tools and financial literacy tools that will enable them to compete, survive and thrive." Give by heading here.

Hello, Bill.

Hello, who am I talking to?

Wess from The 405, how are you?

Wonderful, how are you?

I'm good.

Good, good to know.

Getting right into Mandy, what initially attracted you to the project?

A couple of things, I read the script, liked it, loved it. I thought they did a great job in writing it, and also I wanted to work with Nicolas Cage – I've been a fan of his for years. I thought the timing was great, and I wanted to work with him.

Cool, that kind of gets into the next question that I have too, that scene as well, the part of the scene that really stuck out for me, was when your character, Caruthers, says "whatch you huntin'?". Red (Cage) replies,"Jesus freaks…" and so the rest of the scene goes – as to not inject a spoiler for the reader.

Bill Duke as Caruthers in MANDY. Still courtesy of RLJE Films.

Your characters have that speak softly and carry a big stick thing about them, which is a very cool thing. I like that. I was just wondering what was it like to get into the headspace of Caruthers?

Well, it's complex because he is an army man, he served his country, et cetera, he's an arms specialist, when he's – and we don't know much about his relationships because he's isolated in that creepy little place, that little shack, but he's also a drug addict. Before he starts to move, when Nicolas comes and sits down, there's a table with this needle and all these drugs on it.

Then he looks at my character, and my character says, "I have allergies," [laughs]. I love that line, "I have allergies." He's a complex character, but the core of the character is in terms of his friendship, and he loved his wife also because they're a good couple, and when he hears what happened, he knows what Red is going do. If I offer to go with him actually, he tells me, "No, no, no. You're going to get in trouble. I'll do it myself." Since I don't go with him, I have a plan to think he needs to take care of business.

Absolutely. What are some of the challenges like on that?

Well, it's in between – Caruthers, he's not a good guy. He's a bad good guy, or a good bad guy.

You're right. Kind of an anti-hero.

Finding the good in that person. Finding what drives him, what is it about him that he cares about more than himself. You have to really be aware of that in the kind of character, not just saying lines, but becoming the person who's saying the lines, does that make any sense?

Absolutely. Yes, immersion if you will. Yes, yes, yes, most definitely.

That's why I think acting shouldn't be called acting because you're not acting, you're being.

Yes. Definitely would agree. Let's see. What do you hope audiences will take with them from the movie?

Well I hope the same thing they took from Dexter. I hope it's the same thing as from watching Dexter because I was rooting for a serial killer who was killing people that were worse than him.

[Laughs] Yes. Both are righteous violence for lack of a better term.

I hope even though Cage started doing some pretty cold-blooded stuff, they set it up really well because he was a man who loved this woman unconditionally. What they did to his wife, what they did to this woman, man, is unforgivable.


From any of us who have people you love, if you saw somebody doing something to that person the way they were doing to her, I think we would respond in a similar way. Some of this is very socially correct, you can say. At the core of it, if somebody killed somebody you love, how can I identify with them? I'm not a pacifist, put it that way.

Absolutely. The thing that really blew me away about it too was like you said with the story, but also the visuals. Absolutely incredible.

Those are wonderful. It is.

Nicolas Cage as Red opposite Andrea Riseborough as Mandy in MANDY. Still courtesy of RLJE Films.

Yes, it blew me out of the water. Switching gears just a little bit. You have done a lot for diversity in the arts for some time now. I thought I would ask, any advice for budding filmmakers, writers, actors, actresses who would be reading this?

Well, I have a foundation that's called the Duke Media Foundation. We teach young people coming to the industry two things. One is that there's a paradigm shift from film and television to media, with these Hulu, Crackle, Amazon, Netflix, and others, YouTube, other platforms of distribution. You don't have to wait anymore, you can discover yourself.

You look at Issa Rae, as a great example. I'd like young people to understand they don't have to wait, they can discover themselves. Also, with the jobs behind the scene, kids buy cellphone apps, and no one tells them about the people who make the apps like the coders and the programmers, and they can be involved in that.

So true. Great to see that impetus on STEM as it relates to media.

The second thing we teach is financial literacy. We're taught how to spend money, but not how to use it. What's is the FDIC? What's is the Federal Reserve? What is Wall Street? What is the stock market, what is debt, what is savings, what is credit, what is interest? We teach those two things because many people come into the industry, and I was guilty of this when I first came in. If you're poor, and you make money, you spend it because you're not told how to use it. Make any sense?

It absolutely does. I'm just soaking in what you were saying there – I think really no one (or at least not many people) is putting that impetus on financial literacy. You don't see that much anywhere, and our kids aren't being taught that really at any stretch.

Pivoting just a bit, one question that I like to ask everybody is what makes a great film?

That's a great question.

Thank you.

For me, what makes a great film is what you have after you leave the theater. What impact did it have on me? The films for me that really have great impact, whether it's in action, or superheroes, or drama, or comedy, whatever, would I share that with anybody, that I just saw?

I appreciate the bombs and the cars coming at you, and explosives, and the gunshots, and gunfights. I appreciate that, but what about a great story? Joseph Campbell, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" – did you read that book?

It's been a while, but yes.

He's a model for Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Woody Allen, all of us. How do you tell a great story? No matter what goes on with it, how do you tell a great story? That's what I always look for. That's what I love, great stories, and surprises, you know?

Cosmatos's blending of faces in that pivotal scene in MANDY. Still courtesy of RLJE Films.

Yes. Most definitely. Let's see, we might actually have time for that other one. Going off that question a bit, I'm curious about the performances that have really influenced you as an artist in terms of your development. Big question.

For a lot of them, it's been a lot of films, but I can tell you one thing that got my attention and made me understand the depth of acting was one of Meryl Streep's first films – Sophie's Choice. I don't know if you've seen that film but she's in Nazi Germany. She has a friend that gets her to the train station to put her and her two children on the train.

The officer says to her, "There's only room for two people on the train," so she says, "Take the kids." He says, "No, no, no. We need to take somebody who is in charge of the children, and you can choose your son or your daughter." When you see what she goes through, oh my God, it's incredible. She's one of my favorite actresses ever, ever, ever.

Absolutely. That's an amazing film.

I mean she lived it, she didn't act it, she lived it. You know what I'm saying?

Yes, definitely.

That's rare, you know what I'm saying?


I loved Marlon Brando in something Paris, I forgot the name-

Last Tango in Paris?

Man, he was a genius in that thing, yes?

Yes. Sad about Bertolucci recently passing. Great director.

One of the greatest moments in that movie was, of course he's having sex with this girl blah-blah-blah, then he falls in love with her but she knows he's like one of those people that she can't be with, and she should stay with him even come to her apartment at the end of the film, and he says, "I love you," and she takes the gun out and she says, "Get away from me."

Man, I'm going to have to check that again.

He's coming toward her and she really cares for him, but she shoots him. Then he actually hasn't been shot, he just smiles at her and turns around and goes out in the balcony he looks up at the sky, takes the gum he's chewing out of his mouth, puts it under the rail, and just falls to the ground.


Yes. [laughs]

Was that genius, was that brilliant or not?

Absolutely, I'm going to watch that again...

He was brilliant in that movie.

He really was.

I love Brando, I love Brando's work, and I like great actors, you understand? Great actors.

Definitely. Loved Brando ever since seeing The Godfather when I was a teenager. Let's see. Actually we're at our last question which is what's next for you?

One thing, my autobiography is out, you can order it on Amazon, it's called "Bill Duke: My 40-Year Career on Screen and behind the Camera", I'm really happy with it, it took me two years to write it but I got through it, and it comes out November 14th.

I have another film coming out by Steven Soderbergh we shot in New York. They shot the whole thing with four iPhone eights, and it was mostly available light. I worked with them before, and I just loved working with them, and it's coming out soon.

Sweet. He's a great director and Unsane (which he also did on iPhone) was incredible.

I did a series called Black Lightning and it's based on the comic superhero. That's the second season out now. I'm in that, and I'm directing a documentary called Never Stop. It's about foster kids and adoption.