Damian London Interview
On July 6, 2000 I had the pleasurable experience of speaking with Mr. Damian London, the actor who plays the Centauri Regent on Babylon 5. Mr. London is a wonderfully charming and talented man with a long history in Hollywood. Babylon 5 is just the latest accomplishment in his amazing career.
Damian London first came into contact with Babylon 5 during an audition for "The Gathering", the pilot movie. "I had been interviewed for the movie as an Earth man, and I didn't get the job."
London came back, of course, for an audition for the Centauri Senator in the first season episode "The Quality of Mercy". "I came in for an interview and bumped into John Copeland in the hall. He remembered me from the original reading the year before. We chatted for a little while. There were usually the director, John Copeland, and the casting director sitting in on the reading, so it was all smiley and friendly with John Copeland."
"That first show was just a couple of paragraphs, and it had to be done on a television camera that would show what you were saying on a video on the set while they were filming the set. It was a very difficult shot to do in the effect that Peter [Jurasik] was talking to the television set and I was facing a camera somewhere else on the soundstage. He couldn't physically see me, and I had no way of seeing Peter."
"It was very late in the day. They had gotten behind in filming on other scenes, and by the time they got to this, which was scheduled for the last scene of the day, they were very much behind schedule. Everybody was worrying a lot because to keep the crew overtime costs a lot of money. Now I sat down in front of the camera and did this scene with Peter in a single take. We were finished. The length of time it takes to see the scene is the length of time it took us to film it, which is really very rare."
"As I was leaving, everybody was so happy because that was the final shot of the day and everything was now finished. Everybody was going home. No overtime. The front office and JMS and everybody were smiling as I went out. So I said to myself as I left, 'I've got a feeling that I'm coming back.'"
"It was almost a year before I came back." That was in the third season's "Sic Transit Vir". He received a promotion from Centauri Senator to Centauri Official. "By the time I came back in the third season, the show was already reaching its stride."
"Jesus Travino was the director on that. That was a lot of fun. I was working with Stephen Furst in that particular sequence. It seemed that Jesus liked the joke about the Narns, the laugh I gave after the joke. So because of that, after the first rehearsal he let me do whatever I wanted. It was in that second time around that the character gelled in my head as to who this person was going to be."
"The first time, when we did 'The Quality of Mercy', there was no idea in my head who the character was. It was some mean person. They kept putting grey streaks in the hair. This was long before they remade 101 Dalmatians, but I looked at it, and I said, 'With all this hair and all these grey streaks I look like Cruella De Vil.' In the first script there is no idea except the Senator is probably rather mean politically because when he says 'I'll be in touch,' Peter says, 'Touch this.' So, he was just played mean."
"When I did 'Sic Transit Vir' I got an idea of the political man like Polonius who had climbed the ladder and was now as far as he was going to go and getting a little silly or senile. He was a man who was very nervous about his job. He might be a little bit addled."
"JMS wrote a lot of the character based on my personality quirks as I had created them in 'Sic Transit Vir'. He saw the way I used my hands. He heard the voice I had created. I had created certain qualities for this man, and JMS began to write the character for me from that point on."
London returned at the beginning of the fourth season for "The Hour of the Wolf", this time with another promotion to Centauri Minister. "That third episode I could see things already written into the script that carried through some of the little things that I had done in Season Three."
"I don't know whether they had planned where the character was going. There were no character conferences. I would get a script and it was left up to you to figure out how your character would say these words, how your character's personality would handle this particular scene. There was nobody standing over you saying, 'This is the way it's going to be.' I don't know how many conferences other people might have had, but I had no conferences at all with JMS. If I would meet him socially, sometimes he would say something to me."
"At a Christmas party I said, 'I keep finding little clues in the character, in the script itself, that tell me where you're heading with the character.' He just smiled an enigmatic smile, and I had no way of knowing what it meant. I got the feeling that he was saying to me, 'Yes, I'm sending you the messages right there in the script.' I said, 'I know I'm coming for another one because in this script you're having me say We'll talk again.' The next time I'm on the show it picks up right from that point."
By the fourth season, London had a firm handle on the Minister's character, which had changed since he was merely a Senator. "He knew how to keep his head. When he finally became the Minister, I think that was the most important thing to him - keeping his head - more than politics and anything else. He was on a very dangerous planet, and I'm sure if you're in politics it's a very dangerous profession even on this planet."
"I was enjoying myself immensely. In Season Four there were a number of shows on in a row." Following "The Hour of the Wolf", Damian London appeared in "Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?", "Into the Fire", and "Epiphanies". In "Epiphanies", London's character becomes the Regent of Centauri Prime. Unfortunately, the Regent doesn't return until a third of the way through the fifth season.
"On the day we filmed my becoming the Regent, I had gotten a job to go to India to film. I told JMS at lunch, 'Two days from now I'm going to India to work in a film, but I'll be back!' After I became the Regent it seemed like I didn't come back for a very long time, and I kept thinking to myself, 'I think JMS thinks I'm still in India.' They had been talking about the Regent more than you had been seeing him."
In "Epiphanies", the newly appointed Regent promises to redo the decor in pastels. "No, it wasn't my idea to make the decorations in the palace pastel. That seems to be everybody's favorite line or favorite word. Something had gone wrong with the wig that I wore and it wasn't fitting properly, so they had me come in a week before the filming to refit the wig. One week before I even saw the script people were saying to me, 'Pastel!' because all of the technical people had already seen the script. They had already seen that line. I didn't know what in the world they were talking about. When I got the script, I finally understood it."
In Season Five, Damian London appeared in "In the Kingdom of the Blind", "Movements of Fire and Shadow", and "The Fall of Centauri Prime".
London's favorite scene from Babylon 5 came during "Movements of Fire and Shadow". It is the very long scene at the end when Londo learns that the Regent has left the planet open to attack. "That was one of the best written, best directed, best lit, best everything scenes I have ever done in my entire career. I had such a good time working on that scene and the way John C. Flinn III directed it. He was the director of photography on all of them, so he was there for every show I did, but he directed two of the programs I was in. I had an affinity for working with him. He's a very fine director. That particular scene, which I thought was so wonderfully written, just moved so beautifully through me."
London notes that the editing process can add even more to a scene. "You never know between the making and the finished product what it's really going to look like. I had no idea while we were making that wonderful scene that it was going to turn out as beautifully as it did. I know that he filmed that long speech from four different angles. It was edited so that you saw my face from different sides as I turned. It was so smooth. It was so beautifully put together that it was better when I watched it than it had even been in my mind."
"That's my favorite memory of that show: that scene and that day and those people that were around that day."
"It's a funny thing. I don't know if other actors do this, but I can watch an old movie I was in, and when I see the scene that I'm in on the screen I also can see all the camera crew. It's just all in my head. I can see the three dimensions of everything that's in front of what the audience would see, so those memories keep coming back. Every time I see that scene [in 'Movements of Fire and Shadow'] I can see all those people around. I can even remember what we had for lunch that day."
"I've been an actor all my life. It's been my life. Everybody, if they close their eyes and they concentrate - let's hope they're not dying - but their life can flash before their eyes. Let's hope you don't have to wait until your drowning. I'm fortunate. I don't have to wait until I'm drowning."
Damian London continues with an interesting story about how actors see their lives. It concerns a British television show. "Tales of the Unexpected came to Hollywood and did six chapters. It was an anthology program. I happened to be in one of those six. I had never seen it."
"I woke up one night about four o'clock in the morning, and I could not fall back asleep. I turned on the television set. I've never seen this story so I got interested in it. Suddenly I see this young man, and I thought to myself, 'My god, that actor looks just like me.' I'm listening to him and I thought, 'My god, he sounds... Wait a minute, that line sounds familiar to me.' It wasn't until that scene that I realized that it was me. That was Tales of the Unexpected that I had done 15 years before. I was watching it as though I was watching some other actor."
"You get a very strange feeling when you see yourself. I'm looking at myself 40 years younger. Very few people ever get to see themselves the way you see yourself in a movie. It's not like looking in a mirror. In a mirror, if you move your head away to the side, you're not going to be able to see yourself in the mirror. When you watch television or a movie you see yourself - all three dimensions of you - moving and talking."
"No matter what kind of character you're playing you can see yourself in the character because the character comes out of you. When I look at the movie like that 40 years ago, I see a young man who seems to me to be a very dear old friend who I no longer can get in touch with except to see him on television. It's somebody you knew, somebody you liked. That's the wondrous thing about seeing yourself 40 years in the past alive and moving and talking and being very real and being very present. You say, 'I really like that person.' You can judge, 'He's not a bad actor. He's a good actor. I'm rather proud of him.' But you see it as someone divorced from yourself. That's the nice thing about having had a life and a lot of it recorded."
On the Future of Babylon 5
Damian London has high hopes for the future of Babylon 5. "In the first season it was feeling its way. It didn't have a great audience in the first season. The show in the third season had found an audience. It was already fairly successful, which is very pleasant for an actor. The best thing in the world that can ever happen to you is to get a running part in a show that's already successful. It became even more successful. I think that its fifth season was its most successful. Then the real success of the show came as they began to rerun. The book was now finished, and then it started all over again so that people could see the whole arc, could get the whole story, could follow all of the characters. I'd rather read a book that's finished."
London is excited that the Sci-Fi Channel has picked up the Babylon 5 reruns. "I think it would glean a tremendous audience because they've already had that experience in other countries where the show has been running from year one through year five. Anybody tuning in at the beginning knows that they are going to get the full arc."
"I think it's only just beginning. As it gains more momentum, as it gains more audience, the more people that start to watch, the more people that they gather to watch. Once a thing starts to become popular there's no end to its popularity. That's the hardest thing to get started. In television most shows are cancelled in the first three or four weeks, let alone the first season. This is something where everybody gets a chance to see the whole five years. I'm particularly happy because my character really came into its being when the show already had achieved a kind of popularity and a wide-range audience."
While we may have seen the last of the Regent, Damian London would love to work again in the Babylon 5 universe. "When they started to do Crusade I wrote a note to JMS telling him that if John Glenn can go back into outer space it's OK to send me back as a totally different character. I would love to do that."
"If they ever made a movie in which they told the Regent's story, I'd love to do that. There's all that period in which he was mistakenly insane because he had been invaded. That whole section of the story is missing. What did he do? What was the government of Centauri Prime really like under his tutelage? How many changes did he make from Cartagia? It might be very interesting. It is to me. I've often in my own mind made up little stories as to what was going on all those years."
London is hesitant to speak about future projects. He refers to his friend of many years, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, on the subject of works in progress. "He once said an artist should just go do their work. Don't tell anybody. Do the work, and when it's finished somebody will either read it or they'll see it or whatever, but don't try to get anybody excited by a work in progress. Just go and do it. I've always tried to do that in my career."
London's Amazing Career
"I was born in Chicago, Illinois. I'm not going to tell you what year, but movies were talking. I saw my first movie when I was about three or four years old. From the second I saw that screen in a movie theatre I thought to myself, 'I've got to be there.' That was all that was ever on my mind. I wanted to be an actor in the movies. I thought it was the most fantastic thing there ever was."
"I graduated high school early. When I was 16 I went to New York. I just left home and away I went! I was going to be in show business. The years in between I saw every movie that was ever made. We had the live theatre in Chicago. I went and saw every play there was to see. It was most fascinating."
"I went to New York, and it was the very early days of television then." Fortunately for London, he wasn't in New York for more than a year before his career got started, but it took a little "creativity" on his part to get his first role. "Now in those days you had to be 21 years old to be an adult. There was no adult at 18. You could not sign contracts. So here I was at 16 saying, 'I'm 21. Yes, I can sign.'"
"They needed a very young looking boy to play a Nazi youth in a television show. I was 16. It was very easy to look like a very young boy. I went in and told them that I spoke German fluently of course. I was thinking it would only be in English with a German accent. They gave me the part, and when I got the script my entire part was in German. I took it to a grocery store that was owned by some German people, and the woman that owned the store pronounced every one of the words for me. I went to the first rehearsal completely memorized. I almost pulled it off completely. They did not know that I did not speak German. One of the actors in it was a very famous German actor who had remarked how magnificent my Berlin accent was."
"The day before we were going on the air to do the show, one of the actors did not show up in time for the rehearsal, and they asked me to read his part. His part was also in German. I had to confess that I couldn't read it. The director wanted to know how I knew my part, and I said it was memorized. He was so nervous. He was ready to jump out of his skin. He was so frightened. The German actors were reassuring him that it was fine, my German was fine. We did the show live, and everything went off fine."
"So, I became a member of the union. A couple of weeks later I got a part in a movie and became a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Often now I joke around and say maybe I could sue both the unions for all the dues I've paid over all these years because, after all, I wasn't 21 when I signed into the unions, and it was illegal."
"I came to Hollywood in 1956, and I did a movie called The Bachelor Party. I was planning on going right back to New York where I lived and was working in the theatre and television. I got a couple of television shows to do while I was here, so it kept me in Hollywood for a year. When I got back to New York I went into a show called West Side Story in the theatre in which I played Glad Hand. I stayed with that until it closed, and then I came back to Hollywood."
"That's all I've ever done: movies and television and the theatre. For me it was never a problem of thinking I wasn't going to make it or being a struggle. I just kept getting jobs. One job would lead to another, so I was able to support myself and continue. I hope that means I have talent."
"I've been very lucky. Last year I went to China, and four years ago I went to India. It's a lot of fun. I've been all over Asia and all over the subcontinent of India. How many people born in Chicago ever get that trip?"
In his long career, Damian London has worked with many talented and famous performers. He is thankful for the learning experience. "One person I worked with for a long time because I was on a series with him was Jerry Lewis. It was The Jerry Lewis Show. It was an hour variety show. I worked in all the sketches with Jerry. Jerry is talented beyond description. Those shows were a great experience. That was 1967 to 1970. Jerry would like them to go back on the air because there are some wonderful people in those shows."
"I worked eight shows with Bob Hope, and that was a really great experience because Bob Hope is one of the most important performers of the 20th Century. To have been near him and worked with him often a long time ago was one of the great learning experiences and joy experiences of my life."
"Somebody said that show business is not what you know but who you know. That isn't true. It's not who you know. It is what you know. When you work with people like Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis, who were at the height of their careers when they employed me to work with them, they could have anybody in the world to work with them, but they choose you because of what you know. Every time I work with one of these 'stars' it's wonderful because what they're saying is, 'You're good. That's why I chose you.' You can't help but love those kind of experiences."
Damian London takes pride in every acting job. He never knows which ones will end up receiving the most praise. "Every one of these things that I did turned out to be a great surprise, turned out to be a great experience. I can not pick one of them that was any better than any of the others. I was employed to do Three Kisses, which won an Academy Award nomination as Best Short Subject in 1955. When we did it we didn't know where it was going to go, that it was ever going to win prizes."
"I have a new picture which I'm one of the stars of called Twogether. It's only a few years old. My scenes turned out, as far as I was concerned and as far as everybody else and the critics were concerned, to be a gem. The Los Angeles Times wrote, 'There are many good character actors in Hollywood, but none better than Damian London in the movie Twogether.' That's a thrilling thing to read. Little do you know when you get the job that you're going to read that some day."
London says that all of his roles are favorites, because he's always at home whenever he is acting. He came to this realization while playing Fritz the director in Rollercoaster Rabbit, a Roger Rabbit cartoon. "I'm the director who comes running onto the set to speak to the Rabbit and tell him that he's a terrible actor and he's ruined my masterpiece and he's going to have to do the whole thing over again. The set you're in is a cartoon because you're live action walking into a cartoon. When it was time to make the shot they turned on all the lights."
"The entire set was bathed in light, and I am standing inside this cartoon of a set. I looked around at the colors and the lighting. A little voice inside my head said, 'This is where you live.' That is something I have realized is the way I have always thought. When I am on the stage or in a movie, the setting - that's the place I live."
"Every part I've played, when I'm doing it, that's where I live. They're really thrilling experiences. Even if it's just one line, it's a thrilling experience. When I did 'How Not to Lose Your Head to Henry VIII in Two Parts', which was a Bewitched, I was a page boy in the great palace of Henry VIII. You get transported. You're wearing a costume - and the lights and the scenery. You're really in a palace of Henry VIII. It's a great trip to go on."
"That's why I can do science fiction. Once I get into that mind state, I'm there. Whether it's outer space or inner space or some other space. The funny part of it was when I came back from India, I felt that I really now knew what it was like to be on Centauri. If you've ever been in India you realize you're on another planet. You're not on the planet Earth. It's that different from the world we live in here. I really can understand another planet."
Would Damian London like to work in science fiction again? "Oh yes, but then again I'd particularly like to work anywhere. I love my occupation. It is so fulfilling in every way." Part of his enjoyment comes from positive feedback from those who enjoy his work.
"I had never touched a computer until I bought my Mac, so I found out where there was a Macintosh users group meeting. While I was in the meeting a woman walked up to me, and she said, 'Are you the Regent on Babylon 5?' I said to her, 'Yes I am but how did you recognize me? I mean, I'm not wearing a wig or the costume.' She said, 'Oh, you just look like him,' and she said, 'I love you!' and she walked away. I thought to myself, how can you not love an occupation that when I just go someplace someone will walk up to you and say, 'I love you.' It's a really encouraging thing."
While he isn't always recognized in public, it does happen occasionally. "The grocery store that I shop in is a big supermarket here in Hollywood. The managers - and there are six managers - that work in this supermarket all were fans of Babylon 5. Even if I were to go in there now, one of them would come up and ask some question about Babylon 5. They have a never-ending series of questions about Babylon 5. When every one of the managers in a supermarket has watched you on television and recognizes you and asks you about the program - and especially Babylon 5 which is very present for them - you get very good service in that grocery store."
"One of the great problems with being an actor in film and on television - and even on the stage - is that the audience is out there in the dark. You're in the light. They can see you. They know who you are, but you don't get to see them. You don't know who they are unless they come up and introduce themselves. So my message is: introduce yourself. I'm always happy to meet people, because that's what we all are. I may be in the light, and someone may be in the dark, but we're all people. We all have something to offer each other and to enjoy from each other."
Damian London has an additional message for future actors, writers, and other artists. "You stay with it no matter what anybody says. No matter how successful or unsuccessful you think you are, stay with it."
I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to Mr. Damian London for participating in this interview.
The Damian London - Regent of Centauri Prime page, hosted by The Zocalo Today, has more information about this talented actor including his extensive filmography.