A Talk with Marj Dusay: Part 1 of 2

Heather Henderson

Reprinted with permission

HH: You played two of the most memorable female characters in Five-0: the undercover Treasury agent Andrea Dupree in "24 Karat Kill", during the first season, and Nicole Wylie, the witness on the run in the second season episode "The Singapore File". How did you get these roles?

MD: Well, the first one was easy. My agent called me up, I went in for a reading and got it. Then later on I was asked to read for a part in another episode where I would have played a hooker. A very hard, tough woman. The girl in "Singapore" wasn't really a hooker -- she was more of a dance-hall girl. But this one was a real prostitute. So I dressed the part. Heavy makeup, ripped hose, the whole bit. I was on my way to the reading when my car broke down on the freeway. There I was, in my hooker outfit, out on the L.A. freeway! By myself! I thought, "I am DEAD. They're going to find me dead, and they'll look at me and say, 'Wow, I wonder what she did for a living?'" (laughs) I finally got there and did the reading. Well, I didn't get the part. They felt I wasn't right for it, I guess. I was mad. Anyway, when I went in a while later to read for "Singapore File", I had a real attitude. And the script wasn't good, at least the piece they had me read. There were some terrible lines. Like: (husky voice) "McGarrett, you got big shoulders -- I wanna lean on 'em!" I mean, REALLY! It was corny stuff! Even back then, it was corny. I just told them that, flat-out. I said, "This sucks!" I said, "Am I supposed to laugh or cry when I say this?" The producer said (soothing voice) "We know, it needs work, we'll fix it." I guess they liked what they saw, my reactions or whatever, because I got the part.

Steve pulling his gun HH: What was it like, filming in Hawaii?

MD: The first show I did, I'd never seen Hawaii, and it was just so picturesque -- a fairy tale land -- that I was just in awe. We went to see Don Ho! (laughs) I was just madly in love with Hawaii. By the time I got there the second time I felt a little bit more sophisticated. The first time we stayed at the Ilikai. The next time they'd moved out to the Hilton, which is really lovely. You're out at the far end of the island -- it's where Jack eventually had his place, where he lives. And it was just so gorgeous. So the second time it was a lot of fun because I knew Hawaii... and when I was over there that time it was when the men landed on the moon. We were all sitting out, on a Sunday, by the pool at the Hilton, and we were all listening to the radio as the men were landing on the moon. It was uncanny. I thought, "This is quite a world! We can be sitting here in Hawaii, doing a fantasy show, and having our little radios on, sipping a little Hawaiian punch, and listening to the news about how there's a man on the moon!" (laughs)

HH: How long did it take to film a show -- a couple of weeks?

MD: Each show would take about 7 to 8 days. They were doing it basically all on location -- they had very few studio scenes. They had a studio there, but they wanted to use Hawaii, of course. Hawaii was the star! So, you were on location all the time. We went to various places. We were out at the seashore, on the docks, with the ship. For "Singapore" we were downtown shooting all night in a gay section where men dressed like women -- the transvestite section. In Hawaii they had to make a rule that all transvestites had to wear a little button under their lapel, under their collar or something -- under the ruffle at their neck -- something that said "I am a boy". If they didn't have it on, they'd get arrested. Now there ya go. What kind of justice do we have in the world? I think they did it partly for themselves, to protect themselves. They would get beaten up. We spent a night down there and I learned an awful lot -- that was where I did my hooker research. I got all the stories of why they were hookers, and what they wanted to be. They were all saving their money -- either they were saving their money for a sex-change operation or to start their own business. Always thinking in terms of business. How many actually did it, who knows. It was like an Undercover Young Entrepreneurs Club. Independent career girls. Or boys who wanted to be girls.

HH: Which scenes did you shoot down there?

MD: We did some scenes in alleys, and a scene in a seedy little club.

Steve and Nicole in the alleyway HH: So they would even do the interiors on location?

MD: Yes, they would. Very often. And in that kind of a situation you sometimes have to do a night shoot because you have to wait until the establishments close down. You have to wait for light traffic which would allow you get in there to shoot. That's the problem with location. But location was so important to the show. And I do think they used Hawaii correctly.

HH: I think they worked at that.

MD: They single-handedly raised the real estate values down there. It's all Jack Lord's fault that none of us can afford Hawaii anymore! (laughs) And then, when you think about it, I suppose they were the first to bring in a lot of ethnics from other countries. There weren't that many shows around doing that.

HH: People like Zulu really didn't get much in the way of lines, but at least they were on.

MD: At least they were on, you're right.

HH: And they were heroic. It was an unusual show for that reason.

MD: Well, it was.

HH: What was it like to work with Jack Lord?

MD: There are horrendous stories, notorious stories, about him. But in my experiences with him, he was always a gentleman. Maybe it's the way I approached it, because I walk in respecting what I'm doing and he's doing. You have a lot of actors out there who are really angry people who don't respect that. When a star picks up on that, he says, "Hey, you don't want to be here -- I don't want you here! You don't have to take the money, get the hell outta here!" (laughs) But he was very much a gentleman to me. And I was a lady to him!

HH: So you had a good working relationship?

MD: Yes. We worked on the script together. As we were running some lines, I think it became obvious that they needed work. He asked me into his mobile dressing room, you know, his camper, to go over them. "Come on, let's go in here and we'll be able to discuss it." Everyone was very surprised at that. "Ooh, he asked you into his dressing room? Ooh!" Because usually he wouldn't. He was a very private man. So we sat there with our cups of coffee and we got to talking and we worked on the lines, tried a couple of things.

HH: Do you remember what you changed?

MD: Not really. Except for that one line that still sticks in my mind, "McGarrett, ya got big shoulders..." We got rid of that one fast. (laughs)

HH: Did you talk about how to play the roles, or did you talk about rewriting the lines?

MD: We talked about how to make them work. And when they didn't work, I would try something or he would try something and then -- it was never the kind of thing where I would try to change a line because you just basically don't do that. You SUGGEST things. (laughs) Because you know, that's the safest thing to do. When you work with an actor like Jack Lord, if you have a line that doesn't work, you say, "Would you mind if I changed this slightly -- the words don't seem to come trippingly off my tongue." (laughs) "Do you think this..." And as we do it he may have an idea -- you know, "If you do that, then I'll change this a little bit -- that sounds better --" and so forth. You know, you work together. Or, "Do we really need this, can't we just do that with a look?" Those are the kinds of things that happen as you sit together and run the lines and rehearse. And that's the time -- unfortunately, because television is shot so quickly -- that you find out if a scene works or doesn't! Sometimes the director will listen to you and say, "Okay, we don't need this, we need this, this isn't working, let me get a new tagline, it's too long, let's edit it, with the action you don't need that ..." But when it got down to "corny", you know, somebody had to call it.

HH: And he didn't resent your opinion?

MD: Oh no, no! It's all in the way you approach these people. Because they want the show to be good too. I think he had a sense that I wanted things to work. When an actor goes in and they sense that you're just complaining, you're saying "Nothing's right, this is a piece of shit, this won't work, I can't do this, this character wouldn't do this" -- you know, it all depends on how you approach it. If you approach it as, "Do you find that this is reasonable that she would do this, do you buy this? Maybe it's me, maybe I have a quirky thing, that I don't buy the way these words are written, or the direction of the scene." So you know, you have to get other opinions. Some characters are easy to fall into, some characters are very difficult because you're just so far removed from them. But I did put it delicately -- things that I had questions about, I allowed him to question them with me. And if he said, "No, I think that's fine," then we probably did it that way. Then I have to go into my own work and say, "How do I make this work when I really don't believe it?" You give and take. You don't do these things alone. Until you get a thing on its feet, it's very difficult. And that's why it's so important that you're able to communicate with the other actor, or actors. So that you all reach the same goal, get the same feeling, without losing your characters.

Steve and Nicole - 'how about behind the knees?'
"Come on, I'll take care of ya... Let's go." (WAV format, 46K)

HH: Was he difficult at times?

MD: He was adamant about what he wanted, he was precise. But then Jack Lord was in every scene, he was the most tired, the most pressure was on him -- when that happens, if you can be just a regular funloving guy, great. If not ... He was quite different from Mike Connors, who did Mannix, which was the same type of show, where he was on in every scene -- Mike in front of the cameras would look at you and say, "Okay, let's have some fun." Laughing and joking. But Jack was a very serious guy. He was a serious painter, he was serious about his art, and he was very serious about the show. I think he felt that he definitely knew what he wanted to do with it, and he was SO loyal to it. So he could be very difficult. I know there are horror stories about how he frightened people, fired people unjustly, and on down the line. But he was okay with me. I just left him alone until he suggested something. Well, you know, it was his show. And when the onus is on you, everyone's job depends on you, you're serious. You are, you can't help it. Some people are better at management than others. From the star's point of view, it's really kind of a management situation, I think.

HH: Kind of like being a CEO.

MD: Yes. You have to set the tone. Hopefully you set a tone where actors are happy, the crew's happy, people don't walk in every day fearing for their jobs. Working together -- there's nothing better than working together on a project where everyone wants to be creative and get the most out of it. But when you have people who just want to hang around and put things down, that's not too pleasant.

HH: It seems like the Five-0 set was not all that happy.

MD: They weren't. I think they probably had a lot of crew changes, people requesting, "Get me the hell out of here!" I've heard that one a lot. You know, "I can't take this any more -- one season, I'm outta here -- whether Hawaii is dreamland or not." As a guest star you're only there a little over a week. These poor guys that were on the crew, on the set day in and day out ... I can see how you could take one season and then you go bonkers. They're under a lot of pressure.

HH: I wonder how James MacArthur stuck it out for 11 years.

MD: I think he was that kind of guy. I think he had that kind of personality. He didn't need to put himself forward. He didn't have to be the center of attention. Also, it was a good situation for him. He was a fine actor, but not at all the kind of charismatic star his mother was -- and I don't think he wanted to be. So what are you going to do? You're going to constantly be compared, and you know, I think he wanted to do HIS style. And really, the part that he got was his style.

HH: It was ideal casting.

MD: He's a "reality actor". He didn't want to be a star, he wanted to be an actor.

HH: Was Jack friendly with you off the set? Did he chat with you?

MD: Not very much. He was pretty private. But he was the only star who personally wrote me a thank-you note for guesting on his show. That's just unheard-of.

HH: In all those shows you were on, you never --

MD: I never got it from any other person on a show. And there were nice people, but you know, that takes a lot of time! Especially when you're carrying that much of a load on the show. So that always impressed me greatly. I felt like he really enjoyed working with someone who cared about the show. I think maybe the problem was that a lot of people would come down to Hawaii to guest-star and they'd sort of pooh-pooh it as not really a serious show. And when that happens, a star can get pretty nasty. Like Bob Conrad. If you look at Wild Wild West now, it's a brilliant show! And if somebody wasn't taking it seriously ... I remember he fired a girl on the spot one day. They were having trouble getting a shot, and she said, "Aw, let's just shoot this shit." He turned to the director after that and said "Cut all the rest of her lines in the show." What they're going to pick up on is attitude. If you have an attitude where you want the show to win -- if you're not making fun of the show, you just want to make it better -- they'll go along with that. But if you have an attitude where you think "This is a piece of shit, what are we going to do?" -- then you're in trouble.

HH: Bob Conrad was kind of a hardass, wasn't he?

MD: Well, he was the same kind of way -- actually, he was great. He was dedicated, he had arguments and he was strong -- he'd say, "Look, if my dad doesn't get this, you know, nobody's gonna get it." He was just a down-to-earth guy. So I liked him very, very much. And he made you comfortable. I don't think Jack had that kind of personality. He could be offensive, he could scare people. Sometimes without meaning to, I think. In "Singapore" I had to do a total crying scene. It's on the boat -- there's just been a big fight --

Nicole in hysterics - Steve fresh from fight HH: He throws the hit man overboard and you think it's him?

MD: Yes, that scene. I had to completely break down, screaming and crying. So he's preparing somewhere around the corner from me -- and it's very quiet and I'm trying to get into this mode of crying, crying, crying -- which is not the easiest thing in the world for me to do on camera -- some people can tear up on cue and I can't, I have to really be there. And all of a sudden I hear this [really loud] "HOOT!! HOOT!! HAH!! HOO!!" I thought, Jesus Christ! What's that?? And it was him getting his energy up. He had to come running in from the fight and he needed to get his energy up. But it scared the hell out of me! And then I just had to laugh. It took me a while to get back in my mode after that. It was like, "Give me a minute ..."

HH: I wouldn't think he would have much of a sense of humor about stuff like that.

MD: He didn't have much of a sense of humor. They would play jokes on him and he would just get furious. I understand one time -- not in one of the shows I did -- he was supposed to peek into a closet and rummage around, and when he opened the closet they had hung a skeleton inside. It startled him -- he jumped and went "AAAAHH!!!" Imagine, this big tough guy scared like that. He didn't take that very well. He didn't like to be embarrassed. He didn't like to be made to look foolish. You know how some children are like that? Some children can take a joke, and laugh and roll on the floor with it, and some can't? I think he's like that.

HH: Was he demanding on the set? Did he get impatient if you screwed up a line, for example?

MD: I think he understood that actors have problems. It's very seldom that even a fine, fine actor doesn't have a problem, and flubs a line. I think the onus is on the actors, certainly, to show up on time, know your lines and be there FOR MR. LORD. In other words, he's the last one called to the set, and you're there and ready and pumped up to go. And you had that onus on you, I think, if you had any kind of brains in your head at all. And I think probably that people -- you know, in our business there's all kinds -- if people didn't do that, I'm sure he would give them a little bit of hell, or walk off the set, or tell the director to talk to them. It seems to me he gave the crew a tough time. I heard a lot of crew stories. And of course, these crews are there going on 18 hours a day, and they're exhausted, and they're usually away from their families. And the crew gets very, very close and very, very tight. I think probably most stories would come from the crew members. Most of what I always heard was from them. You can pick up the flavor of a show from the crew. You know what kind of a guy the star is by the way they treat him -- and basically, you'll be safe if you treat the star the same way. They know his ins and outs. And you can catch things -- you know, there'll be snide remarks, if someone's to be pampered -- do this, don't do that because the star doesn't like it -- so there'll be hints all the way around.

HH: I gather Jack was pretty hard on himself, as well.

MD: I think so. He would get angry at himself.

HH: Would he?

MD: Oh yeah! He wanted to do things PERFECTLY. That's the impression that I got. As much as I could know him, having spent some part of two weeks with him.

Steve with a lamp

Continue to Part Two