What It’s Like to Play David Duke

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S1: I’m chatting this week. Plus, Monday’s episode, the Season four, which is covering the rise of white nationalist youth from 1989 to 1991.

S2: These bonus episodes, I’ll be chatting with host Josh Levine and producer Christopher Johnson about the making of the series. And we’ll have some exclusive or extended interviews that didn’t make the cut in depth deeper into the season subject. Today, we have an interview that was recorded specifically for Slate Plus, and that’s with actor two for Grace, who played David Duke in Spike Lee’s 2013 film Black Clansman. But first, let’s talk to Josh and Christopher. Hi there, guys. Hey, Joe. Hello.

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S3: So let’s talk briefly about last week’s short interlude story about Joanna Burnett and her phone call with David Duke. How did you first hear about this incident?

S4: All credit to our producer, Madeline Ducharme, who found Joanna’s audio and then also found Joanna. So when we are looking for stuff to include in the show, one important aspect is that it has to exist somewhere in the world. Another aspect is we have to be able to find it. And then a lot of the time, the person who is involved in the story needs to be findable and willing to talk. So Madeline kind of did all of it in this case. And it’s a testament to her research skills and doggedness in terms of finding interview subjects. But Joanna was very excited to talk to us. I mean, we’re excited to talk to her as well. She had actually posted this audio on the Internet archive and so is out there for anyone to listen to. And we just were totally, I think, you know, in a way charmed by it, in some ways horrified by it. But as this little slice of, you know, a moment in history that’s captured by a 12 year old girl when Duke was sort of at the height of his scary ness and in some ways. And so to here, Joanna, confront him in that moment. It’s really an amazing thing and so glad that she captured it.

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S2: Yeah. It’s sort of like a unique sort of story that I feel is almost perfect for filtering into.

S3: It’s capturing like a personal side.

S5: Yeah. And we and we debated for a while, as you know, childlike how we were going to handle this interlude between the first and the second half of the show and landed on this idea that we wanted to offer a bit of a mind break. This is a particularly intense season, I think. I mean, slow burn is an intense show, but this is a really intense season.

S6: And so we felt like we had this story and we were trying to figure out where to place this bit of gold in the series and felt like it actually was strong enough to stand alone as a part of a shorter episode, but standalone nonetheless because of the arc of it. And because, as Josh said, Joanna is so compelling and that because we have two versions of her, right. We have her 12 year old version and her contemporary version going back and forth kind of in dialogue with herself.

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S4: And so those are some really good ingredients for a storyline and to give listeners a little insight into the editing process. Christopher, I believe we had Joanna in episode one at one point. We had Joanna in episode three at one point, not an episode two. But she has found a good home and this interlude episode. But I think in the first and third episodes we decided that bringing her in and made those shows filled too crowded and that we wanted her story to have a little bit of room to breathe and to sort of linger on the sort of odd moments in that recording, but also the more poignant ones. And just like an episode three, for example, it seemed like just kind of sticking with both Ricki and an Levie really made sense for that story and not bringing in this whole other voice and whole other storyline.

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S3: And at the end of the episode, you spoke a little bit about why you decided not to reach out to Duke for this podcast. Were you considering it at any point or were you close to contacting it? And did you reach out to anybody?

S4: We talked about it a bunch. Christopher and I and, you know, other folks on our team had a bunch of conversations. And as I say in that interlude, it is standard procedure to reach out to the subject of a series like this. And so it’s not something I was gonna dismiss out of hand if we’re going to deviate from that. I think you need to have a really strong reason and you need to have thought it through. And so. Once we made the decision, I also didn’t want to hide that decision or the decision making process from our listeners. I felt like, again, if you’re making a call like this, I want to explain myself. I think we owe it to the people that are listening to the show to give them that explanation. And I thought that also revealing what our process was could maybe be useful to other people as they’re thinking about these sorts of decisions. And I’m not I don’t want to, like, stand on a high horse and claim that we did this. Absolutely right. And anybody else who made a different call was wrong. But I just want to explain what our decision was so that, you know, we’re just being clear to the people that are are listening. And again, maybe it’s useful to somebody else who’s making a similar call.

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S5: Yeah. And we’ve had people even, you know, my friends and family, they were asking me, are you going to talk to Duke with this kind of like recognizing the challenges behind that and how that might make things complicated. So I wouldn’t be surprised if listeners have also been asking themselves that question, is David Duke going to make his own appearance in this series? And so it also felt like a really good time to address the elephant in the room, in a sense. Right. And and I think Josh has a really elegant job at walking us through both the like the thinking spring boarding off of Joanna’s own consideration about how to interpret Duke’s presentation of himself and his truths. And so Josh spins off of that, like, consider that question. As you listen to this series and as you think about how we think about reporting out this series and this idea that Duke himself has remained pretty consistent for the most part over the decades and really laying out the case for why we thought about it and why we’re making the choice to ultimately not do it. And really standing firm on that. I have to say, it’s like a producer on this show. I’m a part of the team, just like the rest of the team members. And I’m also learning and it was a wonderful learning experience for me to sit at the table with our editors and our other producers and really hash this out and think through in a very intense way and to take it very seriously. Right. To not dismiss Duke, but to think about it very seriously and to ultimately land on this decision, having considered it pretty intensely. Like, so what?

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S4: What you hear in the in the actual episode is just a few minutes of, like, hours of thinking this through many, many slack and email conversations about how to handle a credit to another of our producers, Sophie Summer grad, because it was her idea actually to pair the Joanna story than the Duke decision in this way, which I think is a really elegant solution. And, you know, both of these moments, this Joanna episode and the explanation, they both kind of live outside the main narrative of our series in very different ways. But I like how we’ve packaged them together in this way. And just one final thought is, you know, just because it would be unpleasant to interview someone like David Duke. I think that alone isn’t sufficient as a reason. I agree to not do. And as discussed at length, I think it’s more the platform issue and the question of what ideas you’re surfacing and what the world is getting out of that choice.

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S3: I mean, have you heard anything from Duke or anybody associated with them so far? Has anybody tried to reach out to you?

S4: Haven’t heard anything from Duke, which I’m not sure if we will or we won’t. He’s definitely on the Web site, Twitter Acom. So he he he has he has platforms that he has, like online radio show. He has the ability to let the world know if he has heard the shower, if he cares to comment on it. Would you go on if he invited you on? Not really interested in that. And on and on. So I don’t think so. But, you know, we haven’t had the hours of discussion that we had before forum for discussion. You know, that seems like a bad idea to me. Just off the top of it, off the top of the hour. But we sure if it comes to that.

S5: Sorry to put you on. This is love radio. It’s okay.

S3: So let’s talk about episode four, which is about two Senate run in 1990. Josh, you mentioned that seeing a Duke bumper sticker was one of the few things you remember as a kid from this campaign. What do you think stuck out to you about those stickers and that sort of stuff?

S4: Yeah, I mean, not just the stickers, the signs and all the stuff, the blue and white iconography of Duke. I mean, what stuck out to me was the visual, the pure sense memory of having those colors on that font and those those. Words imprinted in my mind, but also. And this is the key to that opening section is thinking about the fact that people were displaying it. The choice that was made to not only support Duke, but to support him in this very public in your face sort of way. And so we started the episode there. But then, you know, Christopher, one of the things that happens as the episode goes along is we start to kind of look a little bit deeper into that, tear it apart and question what does it mean to display that stuff publicly? What does it mean to not display it publicly? What aren’t we seeing? If we just focus on the people who are displaying this iconography.

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S5: Right. And, you know, listeners of Slow Burn would recognize this kind of an episode in the slow burn season where we are taking you across a timeline.

S6: But we’re also we’re going into an idea and this idea of how Duke kind of as a politician, sort of signified his presence with his signage and his hats and buttons and bumper stickers and the rest. And so I remember us talking about what we were going to do with Episode four. And Josh was just starting to turn around this idea of something around the symbolism of the Duke campaign and how to talk about that along a timeline, but also dig deep into something that’s a little bit more abstract and really kind of get at it. And so this is where we landed with this kind of hybrid where it is we’ve moving you across time, but also talking about the way that these images impacted different people in the way that it kind of pushed Duke out there without Duke having to do all the work. It becomes this kind of political expression, but also a kind of violence in some instances.

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S4: We turned over so many different kinds of stories that would potentially help us tell that bigger story. We’re really looking through archives in nineteen ninety four different incidents and moments that really captured this feeling that. Duke’s name. These images were really insinuating themselves into everyday life in Louisiana. There were stories about, you know, a General Motors plant in Shreveport where workers had worn Duke paraphernalia and that leading to conflict. There’s a story I just found recently that I was telling Christopher about of float in a parade in a place called Jenrette, where there is a David Duke float. And, you know, black leaders in that area decided or pushed for boycotting the parade because they didn’t want to be involved with this event that welcomed Duke and his supporters in this way. And the moments that we highlighted in the beginning from St. Bernard Parish, I mean, we got Tammy Barney to really share with us and open up with us about some really hurtful, racist things that happened to her when she was the bureau chief in St. Bernard. But also this idea that a black family would move or be on the verge of moving into this place. And then overnight, 13, David Duke for Senate signs with pop up around their House is just such a evocative image that really demonstrates the concept.

S5: I think we were trying to show in this in this episode, in that instance in particular, kind of becomes like the new burning cross on your lawn.

S6: It’s doing the same kind of violence. There was another story that we came across about a black high school cheerleader and adult sponsors of the cheerleading team at this high school were wearing David Duke T-shirts. And it just sparks this protest that brings in members of the football team, the cheerleaders, mother and other members of the community, and really kind of highlights racial tensions that had already existed at that high school. Really kind of fans those flames. And so we see just the representation of David Duke out in space, kind of activating a lot of tension that seemed to already be there.

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S2: Yeah, the title of the episode is A Silent Army, right? Right. Yeah. That’s a lot.

S3: So part of Duke’s platform then was on reforming welfare. And we hear him tell a story along the lines of the welfare queen myth that was popularized by Ronald Reagan.

S2: And Josh, you wrote a book and did a podcast on the woman that this myth is based on, apparently based on their both called the queen. So you know a lot about this topic. And I’m sure you’re not surprised at all that Duke would latch on to this racist stereotype in his campaign?

S4: Yeah, I think it’s come up before chow or we’ve talked about what I knew about Duke going into the process of researching this, because I had actually run across David Duke in my book research because he was telling these spends on the welfare queen myth stereotype during these runs for office. So that was one thing I was actually aware of as a journalist within the last few years. And, you know, Duke has mentioned in the book and he’s kind of mentioned also alongside Bill Clinton, who was making his first run for the presidency at that time. And though Clinton was talking about welfare and welfare recipients in a totally different way than Duke was, he was still talking about how welfare was a huge problem and that we need to end welfare as we know it. And so there’s a very potent message across party lines in this period. But, you know, I thought it was really important and absurd to contextualize the fact that aid to families with dependent children was two percent of the state budget in this moment. And so this idea that it was really the biggest problem facing Louisiana and that there are all these people who are bleeding the system dry is just not factual. But it just felt true to the people that Duke was trying to sway to his side. This anecdote is is insane. But the way that he told it and the way that he repeated it, I think really stoked the anger that he was trying to stoke and all sorts of different ways at these rallies and among his voter base.

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S5: Yeah. And it and it seems to me this it’s already riding this wave.

S6: And Josh talks about this in the episode of this sense that black people have already gotten way more than they should have or least have had gotten enough. Where everything is fixed, everything is fair and equal now. Can we move on?

S2: Yeah. Like tapping into the economic anxiety, right?

S6: Yeah. And in addition to just flagrant racism.

S4: It’s part of the affirmative action piece. It’s all these kind of things that are swirling around and have been swirling around since the 70s. I mean, we talked about this in Episode two, Christopher, about the rhetoric the Duke was using around these issues when he was a Klansman. And so the thing that’s changed is the language he’s using and the way he’s talking about it, not the recognition that these are the kinds of issues that can stoke. Weight outrage.

S2: So in the end, Duke does not win the Minoff race, but he does get 60 percent of the white vote in Louisiana. And so at the end of the episode, you ask Michelle Balsinger about how someone is supposed to feel. Okay. About that. You know, continue on knowing that fact. And you all say that this is something that you are still thinking about today. Can you talk a little bit more about that and in your feelings about it?

S4: Yeah, I think as I’ve been working on this series, I realized that that is actually the question. The question that I wanted to answer and maybe the motivating force behind undertaking this in the first place, just this very simple question of did David Duke win or to David Duke lose during this period? And he didn’t win the Senate race. Spoiler alert he didn’t win the governor’s race either, but he won the people that he was trying to win, you know, 60 percent. It’s not 51 percent. It’s it’s I mean, 52 percent. It’s a super majority of white people in the state. And so people like Michelle, whether it was the day after the election in 1990 or whether it’s in 2020, you’re living in that state. You know, the fact that Duke, quote unquote, lost doesn’t mean that those people voted any differently. You can’t wipe that from your memory. And I thought her answer is just so beautiful. Like, I loved I didn’t obviously know what she was going to say. I had the sense, based on the letter that she wrote, that she would be a good person to reach out to. But, you know, Christopher, sometimes people just give you so much of, you know, their heart and what they’re thinking. And we’re so grateful when people choose to talk to us and are able to be. So why is about something that I think we’ve been noodling over for, in my case, for 30 years?

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S5: Mm hmm. Yeah, I agree. And I love it when we find people like her where she’s obviously a successful, accomplished professor and has her mind on probably lots of other things that right now in her life. And so we take her back in time to this moment. And we spoke to her over Zoom and we had the video on and we could see her responding. And it was a lot of this was coming back to life for her in a way that although wasn’t an easy time period for her, she seemed to enjoy kind of rethinking about some of this stuff, and especially, I think, her her own stance on this, like her becoming. And so in the letter, she’s sort of identifying with another woman who’d said that this moment made her blacker. The moment had left her feeling blacker. And Michelle says, yes, same same was the same for me. And you could see her recalling this moment where she is kind of radicalized, like her blackness is something that she lives every day. But there is this vividness to black life in America that comes out in moments of anti-racist struggle. And I think that that’s part of what she was feeling. You know, she says that I grew up in a time where a generation of people that didn’t have to fight the kinds of fights that become kind of synonymous with the civil rights movement. And this moment makes me identify with that struggle and therefore with that kind of blackness. And it’s also becomes a shelter for her. And it’s so personal for her. As Josh says, it became a personal thing for a lot of people. And when you’re fortunate enough to have bring someone onto a show like this and they’re willing to get personal with you, it just makes our episodes that much richer. So thanks to Michelle and all the other folks who have done that kind of stuff for us, it just makes it makes our episodes really more well-rounded and full.

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S4: And I think the fact that George Floyd’s murder, the protests that are happening right now, the fact that, you know, Michelle is now a mother, all of that was kind of on her minds and in some ways makes this specific past feel more present. And it doesn’t feel distant. I think in some in some ways it does and in some ways it doesn’t. But just conjuring these emotions based on what she told us, they’re there right now. They’re in a lot of ways not that far from the surface.

S5: And it must have been something. I mean, she does say in her letter that most of her colleagues essentially are white. And that idea that she’s now looking over her shoulder, not just at her colleagues, but also her neighbors and her larger community, wondering who is supporting David Duke. And therefore, I don’t put words in her mouth, but is supporting a kind of an agenda that definitely pushes directly against her existence for sure. And that idea that she’s moving through that kind of space and pulls towards a radicalized blackness is a very particular choice. She could have gone in lots of different directions in that moment, including. Just keeping quiet. She does have a political act like writing this letter and saying, I’m actually choosing to say something and lean into our blackness. I kind of radicalize. Blackness is also pretty awesome. Having met her virtually. It makes perfect sense that she is. She’s amazing. She’s a force, like you can tell. So it’s not surprising that she took to his position that she got.

S4: And there’s there’s a very brief mention of the fact that her family had been in southeast Louisiana since the 1746 before Louisiana was a state. And so there is an aspect of this that’s like, I’ve been here, I belong here. You can’t tell me who fits into this place and who doesn’t. I’m not leaving. You’re not going to dislodge me. There’s a certain kind of strength in that.

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S3: And so for today’s bonus content, we have an interview with actor two for Grace. He portrayed David Duke in Spike Lee’s 2018 film Black Clansman, which is based on a true story from the 1970s of a black detective who posed as a white man over the phone to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan and then start having regular conversations with Duke over the phone, which kind of feels like the Joanna Bernet story in terms of just talking to people on the phone randomly. Josh, can you talk a little bit more about your interview with Tim for Grace?

S4: Yes. So as you just mentioned, how this movie came out a couple years ago, Topher Grace is not on the publicity circuit right now, but he wanted to talk to us because he feels like he’s very proud of the film and of working with Spike Lee and helping to realize Spike Lee’s vision. And so just having somebody who’s willing to really go deep with us on the process and, you know, talk about what it’s like to embody someone who is, you know, a real life villa, you know, and Topher Grace told us I don’t think he had played any or many real villains like he’d played like, you know, bad guy and one of the Spider-Man movies or something. But that said that that’s very different. And so, you know, one of the things I was so curious about is that for a lot of people, huge number of people, their image of David Duke and who he is is going to be tofor grace. And so I was wondering, you know, how did that make you feel? It’s a lot of responsibility. But it’s also just an odd sort of thing. I mean, I feel I had an uncomfortable when there’s, you know, in a in a script, there’s David Duke’s words between, quote, Marks and I have to read them. And so that’s just a little bit of a of a sense that I thought of of what it would go through, that no dress like him, sounds like him, look like him and be him basically again.

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S5: Speaking of like pulling people back into the moment, we were pulling him back into the moment of when he was preparing for this to play the role of being on set of thinking through this stuff with Spike Lee and his fellow actors and working through this. And you got him kind of scratching his chin and saying, hmm, that’s a good question and thinking about it, because I can’t imagine that this wasn’t a very challenging role, a very difficult person to embody in all kinds of ways that we were pulling him kind of into another layer of thinking about playing a very, very hard role.

S3: I got to feel like he probably felt like isolated in that role in some ways because he is like the villain. And, you know, he was the only one that had to read all the speeches and read the text material and do all that sort of research besides Spike, obviously.

S4: But he’s not you know, he said he’s not like a method actor. It’s like I feel like some people just based on what I’ve read, I’m not like good friends with Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale, but just bad. Based on what I read, I think some actors kind of get off on that that that sort of thing. And she clearly doesn’t.

S3: Okay, great. Let’s listen to the interview with you for Grace.

S7: My name is Sophia Grace, and I had the unfortunate job of telling a bunch of research and learning a lot about David Duke for Spike Lee’s Black Lantern.

S8: So it was a great performance. And my first question about it was, when you have a director like Spike Lee tell you that of all the actors in the world, that you, Topher Grace, are the best guy to portray David Duke. Does that make you feel good about yourself or bad about yourself?

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S7: Well, I think at first I really convinced myself it was just because we physically looked the same at, which I still hope is the case, that that’s the ending of the of our similarities. But to be honest, it was actually my fault. I wanted to read the script and then I’m the one who called my agents. And it’s a weird phone call to say, hey, I think I might be right for David Duke. And there kind of a long pause on your phone, and it’s not a role that I’ve ever played before, type of a role it played before and I didn’t know that much about him at the time. I guess I’d done a little research after I read the script. But I understood what the utility that character was in the movie.

S8: So we’ve gone through similar experiences. I have spent months reading stuff that Duke wrote, watching interviews that he did.

S9: The here and now we’re going to read My Awakening. And I wanted to ask you about that because I read it cover to cover.

S8: And it was like it’s like more than 700 pages.

S7: Yeah. I mean, I did a lot. I read my awakening, which was just terrible experience. If someone wrote a full book that gravity doesn’t exist, it’s just every page is like, you know, I’m pretty sure it does. Just me sitting here is evidence of it. So it’s it’s weird to read something that you feel like even just by reading it, you’re complicit or something. But I thought the film was great and I wanted to do the best job I could. I hadn’t played a lot of characters that were not fictional, and even the ones I’d played that were based on real people weren’t people that many people were aware of or were Infernus. So I listened to his radio show, even though he was older when he did that. You know, kind of taught me a lot about how he spoke. You know, I watch old clips of his in the 70s, read on articles about him. But then it was really I saw he had a couple appearances on Donahue. I’m sure you’ve watched some of those. Yeah. That taught me the most about him because it was him interacting with the crowd. I mean, he was there for people to hate. That’s why Donahue brought him on. But what I noticed by the end of these episodes is that it wasn’t like they were cheering for him, but he’d changed the temperature of the room. They were listening to him. And I thought, oh, man, this guy’s a different kind of evil, like a new form of racism. And that, you know, it’s not like whatever at the time was like the conception of a racist. It’s like a different thing. Where people are really starting to listen to him was the same thing Black Lines was trying to show is how that changed the course of racism in America.

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S8: It seems like my awakening reading that book just really punch to the gut. What was it about it? Does it make you sad or or angry that somebody could espouse the things that he was espousing? Like, do you remember just what it felt like to be a Merced’s kind of inside his mind like that?

S7: Yeah, it’s funny. Making the film was not I wouldn’t say fun because it was a serious subject matter. But Spike runs a very light fun set, and some of that is the tone of the movie. You know, not all deadly serious, but it was really the research beforehand that was just I felt bad for my wife. I was in such terrible mood for the two months before we started shooting that I was not only reading that book, but watching all that footage. And I felt the same thing reading the book that I felt watching him speak, that I feel even now when I was watching in Charlottesville, I felt like he was so charismatic. I hate to say words that could be seen as being positive, but I thought it was even more evil because he has a way of kind of framing things that opens people’s mind maybe, or their ears a little bit to his cause, which I think is more dangerous than someone who’s just spewing pure hate. Not that it’s not your rape. You know, that is there’s been more obvious about it. He has a real way of making people listen. I remember on that Donahue episode, I could see people like they were nodding, but they were like, you know, he has a point, like, this guy is insidious.

S8: So we’re gonna run this in a pretty unexpurgated way.

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S9: We’re not going to take it out of context and say Toper Grace thinks David Duke is super interesting headline.

S7: So black, especially when we were doing the press. So there was a lot of questions about. You know, kind of that you weren’t a thousand percent unlikable in your portrayal. And I really think that is what’s important to know about David, is that it’s not obvious. And that’s what makes it more evil in my affairs. I mean, I did it because of that scene where you see the crack in his armor. When I take a picture with John David Washington and he kind of surprises me and takes a picture real quick and you can see that there’s someone underneath it. But there’s something he doesn’t show the public that much. And that to me was like where you start from. And then you build everything up around there.

S8: Yeah. I mean, you talked about playing fictional roles, playing villains before, and you hear actors lot talk about finding a way to imagine themselves as a hero and a movie even when they’re a villain, finding a way to find something relatable in the character. I imagine that’s a lot easier to do with someone who isn’t real. Is that an accurate statement?

S7: Yeah, I’ve I’ve done that, too, and I played bad guys, you kind of suck. So from this character’s point of view, why is he doing this or how can you kind of wrap your head around how he’s doing it? In a way, it’s easier if you’re playing the Joker or something because it’s all fictional. The backstory and you know what’s happening is fictional. But when it has its roots in Charlottesville happened, I think like three weeks before we started filming and, you know, we go home from the set. And what we’re watching on the news is we felt really connected to what we were making. The more research I did about him, the more I read his own stuff and listened to him, the further away I became from being able to understand how to I don’t see it from his point of view or agree with any of it. So, I mean, I didn’t start off liking him, but I hated him course more and went. So what I did was really focus on how smart he is. And I remember when I was doing press around that time, I was really careful. I want to give him a compliment and say he was smart, but he has a I guess you call like an evil genius. And I thought instead of trying to find something that I can understand or that I agree with this character, I’m just gonna play it just purely evil. And he just has a really charismatic way to convey that to people.

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S8: Do you find him compelling as a person, like even if you come out of this at the end and you say you don’t necessarily understand, do you think the effort of kind of trying to understand was worthwhile? Or do you come out of it then and be like a you know, you’re obviously proud and rightfully proud to have been in this film, but do you come out of it and and say, if I could have been in a Spike Lee film and not played David Duke, then I would agree to that trade right now?

S7: No, I think he was very clear in the script before I was involved. And it was very clear when I saw it, when it first debuted in Cannes, we totally portrayed him as an idiot. I don’t think anyone watching the film is including David, would be thrilled with how we were characterizing him. And so that made it OK. I’m I’m not dying to play David Duke. I’m more dying to do it with Spike Lee and a Spike Lee joint to really answer your question. I had the most interesting experience and were promoting it when it first came out where I sat with a reporter, much like how we’re talk about it now. And I was pretty open about my feelings towards it wasn’t like I was being shy about how I felt personally about David and his movement, whatever. And the article came out and I read it. That’s a very good interpretation is very obvious that I don’t like him. And I said so many negative things about him in the article. And one of the things I said in the article was that when I was watching one episode of Donahue, he used the term Make America Great Again and America first. And, you know, when you’re watching out and I said, I guess it was two thousand seventy two thousand eighteen lines doing research for it. You know, it really stood out to you more so than if you’d watched Donahue probably when it was aired. And my wife walks up one morning and said, you know, David Duke is tweeting about you. And I went, oh, my God. This is so surreal. And the tweets were like, directed at me. And I never responded because I don’t want to be in a conversation with him. But it was saying thank you tofor. You know, I did come up with Make America Great again. Erica first. And even though he didn’t buy it. But like, you know, I beat Donald Trump to that and he stole that from me. And, you know, you’re right. Donald Trump is an original. I am. I sat there going, oh, my God. He’s a smart guy. Like, he figured I had turned an entirely negative article into me, kind of taking his side in some weird way, like he figured out that this guy is just so dangerous. Like, I mean, I. I didn’t mean that to be a compliment to him in any way. But he found a way to kind of push it so that people who were following him would even think that I was kind of trying to say something positive about him was smart, dangerous and terrifying. And I’m glad that the film was louder than he is.

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S8: Did you learn something by going through the act of portraying him, by being on set, by performing in front of the cameras that maybe you didn’t know from the research that you learned by actually doing it?

S7: Oh, you know. Yeah. We did this Klan rally all week and it was gonna be cut up into different Klan rallies and different, you know, was shown in different parts of the film. So you’d never watch a full hour of it. But it felt like we were filming that because it was all continuous and we had the robes and the whole ceremony. And there was a moment where we started watching. Birth of a nation where Spike, who really encourages improv and is just an incredible threat. I mean, also with some of the worst moments I had, he was really there for me personally just to kind of say, like, hey, don’t worry, I know this feels awful. These things feel terrible. But, you know, it’s in service or something. I’m trying to say. You know, I got you. I’m Spike Lee. I can take care of you. And there was one we’re watching Birth of a Nation. I think countermarch you started this wasn’t in the script, but just start yelling white power at a certain point. Oh, my God. I’m like, you know, two hundred people that I met. And it was so quick. And I think we were rolling when he had the suggestion. I just started doing it. And then this whole crowd started following me. And the things were watching on screen were so horrible, especially because that film was such a popular film. When it came out to it, it was terrible to be watching it and then yelling these things and then having a crowd behind the repeat what I was saying. I don’t think it probably is about David Duke, but it certainly taught me how things can spread so quickly through a crowd and how powerful and just terrible it felt. I just thought not even just this ideology, but how any ideology can be, you can just kind of spread like wildfire. That was, I think, the worst moment, the whole thing. I had to kind of go sit down. And Spike was so wonderful to say, like, don’t worry, I’ll at this footage, you won’t be used the wrong way.

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S8: So the power of your medium is that for a lot of people? I think maybe most people, the image that they’ll have of David, do you know, he sounded like my guy and then the one that you that you created. You know, I’ve struggled with in doing this podcast. There are certain times when I have to articulate what he believed and what he said. I have to, like, read something. But it’s clear that I’m the one who is reading it and there’s some distance there. But I don’t like having to say what David Duke said about integrated schools. And, you know, that he didn’t want, you know, white children to have to go to school with, quote unquote, black gorilla. It’s like, I hate saying that, but sort of knowing that that portrayal that you, dad, will be kind of the portrayal of David Duke that lives on that in one sense, that’s really humbling. Right. Another sense that I don’t know. How do you feel about that?

S7: Well, I certainly know of any qualms about how David feels about it. I don’t care. But I do care that the message that Spike had and how he wanted to portray that character got out the right way. It’s something I was very passionate about and I think it did. And I got to say something to the whole world. You know, that’s a great thing about a movie for a second. If it’s great, the world of slow down and listen to what it has to say. And, you know, there’s a reason I’m involved with them is it’s my favorite medium. I think when it comes to saying some of the racist stuff, you know, I remember when I was I went wanted to read for Spike. You know, I don’t always going to read for people, but I find out, like, how why would he give me the wrong? So I prepared an audition and went in and read for him the night before. I mean, I was alone in my office. My wife had gone to sleep. There’s no one who could hear me. And I couldn’t say half the words in the script. I mean, you’re trained not to think, let alone say them out loud. I just couldn’t. So next day when I went in, I kind of had a little speech prepared and I said, you know, Spike, I just feel so uncomfortable. I don’t have actors in Django Unchained did it. I never, ever get how that happens on a set and spike. And I mean, not only put me at ease, he’s he’s a really funny guy. But, you know, he really knows what he wants to say specifically. It’s thanks to him that I could do it. And then, like I said on set, you know, it was so hard to do there, especially with the majority African-American crew, to say a lot of that stuff. I’ll tell you a funny story from the set is sometimes when on a comedy, the director kind of come and whisper a joke in your ear. And, you know, they don’t want the crew to know and they don’t want the other actor to know what it is. So a lot of times I was on the phone with John David. We were actually being filmed at the same time. They built those sets back to back and he got a run in and whisper in my ear. And in this case, like the most racist thing I’d ever heard. And I said, Spike, I can’t make it. No need to whisper it in my head.

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S10: You can say it out loud, please. Like, I only will say it if you say it. It came out. People were giving me credit for whatever I’m about to say, and I could tell her, come up with that himself. So I was always happy to say anything. Spike said first out loud in most of the movie.

S8: You have the same wardrobe, right? You’re in a suit. You’re also often on the phone. Can you kind of take us to the SAT and what it’s like to kind of get into the makeup or sometimes you’re putting robes on? Like, what is that feeling like of really like reraised?

S10: I couldn’t believe it. The first day I walked in my dressing room, there was like a Klan robe hanging up and it was your size and it was perfectly sized to me.

S7: But I I’d forgotten by the time, you know, because everyone’s working again, you’re playing enemies, you know, you’re all working together to make this film work. So one day, remember John David watching and this is his first movie and something always be really grateful to. As I was we were shooting in Brooklyn and the craft service table, you know. You know, you got a bagel or something without on the cover. Busy street in Brooklyn.

S10: I just walked out of his church. We were filming it. And John put his handling right. As I got to the door before I walked outside, he put his hand to my chest in his e-mail lounge. You go get in your street clothes first. Oh, my God.

S8: I just walked out and my clan rose to get a dining hall that feels like a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment or something. That’s amazing.

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S7: Yeah, I know exactly how I pictured Hollywood when I when I went to Disney World when I was a kid.

S8: Do you find there’s any kind of conflict or how do you wrap your head around the idea that in one sense he’s kind of a ridiculous figure and the movie? It’s funny, like there are moments in it, you know, where Duke is ridiculous and he’s made to seem ridiculous and made to seem kind of small. And on the other hand, he’s legitimately dangerous. The ideas that he is presenting are dangerous. The people that he’s associating with in the movement he’s trying to build is dangerous. So how do you strike that balance between those two ideas that are very different?

S7: Well, look, the whole movement is ridiculous. We were recreating the Klan ceremony. We’re looking at on Driver and we’re just cracking up how stupid this whole thing is. It’s like a bunch of grown men dressing up in these robes and the ceremony over the whole thing was ridiculous. And on the same part, you realize how much pain it’s caused people. And it was like one of the darkest weeks of my life filming. We did all the Klan stuff together in one week. By the end of it, I was really kind of messed up. So I don’t know. I mean, I have to be honest. When I was doing press for it, people were looking to me for some kind of understanding, maybe because I’d done so much research. Yeah. I don’t know more than the average person who has a lot of opinion of why someone would put such riches as I did. You know, as an actor, you you have things you want to say, and I’m not sure many actors should say them. I don’t know if they’re really the right people to get political. Most of the time. But when you can find someone like Spike who is really making a work of art and it’s something you agree with, you can be a helper. And that’s what I felt, is that I was learning from Spike and learning from the script and this amazing story. And, you know, Ron Stallworth, the cop that John did Watchmen plays, was actually there on set. So we were helping Spike tell this story. I think it’s the best you can kind of do as an actor. I got to say, I honestly, I the reason I’m doing this interview is because I was so moved by my experience making the film. It was cathartic. It’s rare that you’re able to do something that you feel like pushes the conversation forward. It wasn’t something we were saying. Like I said, something that Spike was saying. But to be able to help him say something I so agreed with. It was so happening in the moment. Like I said, Charlottesville had just happened. It hadn’t even become the ending of the film yet. That was something Spike would figure out during production. And then when we came out doing press for it, every conversation was something that everyone there wanted to talk about. And I loved it.

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S8: What did your wife think of your performance? Did you guys have any kind of conversations about it?

S7: Well, I felt most bad for my wife because once I got the role, the preparation is when my watch was hanging out with me more because she was in L.A. with the baby. And some of these speeches that I had to give, I really wanted it to, you know, on top of doing all the research, you want to feel like he’s given this kind of, you know, racist stump speech that he’s given, you know, a thousand times. So I just kept doing these long speeches that he has. The way Spike shot it, you know, it goes in and out of showing them in the movie. But they were much longer, too. And I felt so at some point, my wife was like, can you just, like, go to the basement or something and just do it alone into a pillow? Like, this is horrible with a newborn here, like, what are you doing? Right. So I went into the den and. That’s right. I did all my rehearsal.

S8: And of course, the conversation just popped into my head. I was wondering if you saw Jojo Rabbit.

S7: I did. I loved it.

S8: What did you think of takeaway tt’s Hitler?

S7: Well, I actually know him a little bit, so she confided me to a screening out here and I saw it with him and we hung out afterwards. So as Hitler and do just kind of like, you know, I with Sam Rockwell wasn’t there, but we were like, oh, man, we got to, like, get together and talk about the interesting experience of doing not only these kind of roles, but doing them and kind of dark comedies. And it’s such a tightrope walk. I think we take a had is the same thing that I had, which is a great director who’s just happened to be him. But you need to make sure that the person who’s telling the story in a film, it’s an auteur medium, you know, it’s one person is saying, and you’ve got to make sure that that person really understands specifically what they’re saying is very, very dangerous stuff.

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S8: If someone is one percent off, would you play Duke again?

S7: No, I mean, not like I said, I don’t want to play David Duke in, like a TV movie The Week or in any movie. I only really wanted to play him for Spike Lee in this amazing script that went on to win the Academy Award. The script. Like, when I read it, I thought, oh, this totally understands how they’re using this guy and the utility he serves inside. The story is very clear to me and I understand your question, which I can see the actors who are wanting to play Skinhead to like you. I don’t know whatever, get attention or be salacious. And then people who want to serve a function in a story that and what happens is it’s not as cool at all when you’re not doing it for attention. What happened is kind of what happens is that he’s, you know, the end of it. He’s made to look like a total idiot. And that’s the right ending.

S8: So one of the things that we try to do on slow burn is try to forget what happens ultimately and try to capture what it felt like to be in a moment in the 70s. Duke seems like maybe he’s on the rise. Maybe he’s starting this big movement that’s going to sweep the country in the late 80s and early 90s. He becomes an elected official and has these great ambitions sort of living in that moment. Could you imagine, you know, a version where it plays out very differently for him, where he does get way bigger, where things just play out differently than they did in our world, the stuff he was pushing and this kind of rebranding of racism?

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S7: I mean, when we were making the film and today, the stuff I was watching on news seemed like he had total success with getting that message out there and finding new words so that it was more adoptable by more people. There was a moment where I think my wife tournaments. And do you want to do this like using a little bit of a ride? And it was and the reason I wanted to do it is because you have so few opportunities as an actor to participate in that conversation. And I really believed in what Spike was saying. And I really believe that he was successful. I mean, I know he didn’t become president, if that’s what you mean.

S10: But in a way, what he was trying to do, especially once I you know, I research what he was trying to do and what he was trying to say, made it all the way in line.