This is a copy of an interview originally published in the Kenya Rock Film Festival Journal. Reproduced here with thanks.
ROFFEKE: This collaboration begun with your status update:
“I like to make myself available as an actor to one or two indie projects in the summers as a way to give back and say thanks for all the support I've enjoyed with my own projects. If you have a part you'd like to write me into or have me consider, do feel free to be in touch and we'll see what can work out. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm5399017”
How important is it for actors to “give back” and what are the advantages of doing this?
ROBERT: In the indie no-budget film world, we are almost always begging favours and hoping people can help us, often for free. That's an unfortunate reality of the work, and even if we have a tiny bit of money, we can never pay people what they are worth. So the art of making indie films becomes a lot about trading favours, and that's where "paying it forward" is a good habit to get into. For my part as a producer-director, I can help by giving people a good experience on my films. I try to keep the days short, with an eye to efficiency and respectfulness. I'd like people to go home feeling good about the work so that they will help someone else some day. I can also help by making sure people get IMDb credits right away, and by doing my best to have the films get out into festivals and beyond so our work gets out there. I also like to offer people their "one-up" position as much as possible, which was a piece of advice I got from a director who was very helpful to me early-on. What this means is a supporting or character type actor can get a shot at a lead role, a background actor can try out having some lines for a change, a person who hasn't done sound but wants to learn can hoist a boom and get a bit of field experience with the recording gadgetry; basically it means that people can try out the next level up that they are aspiring to. For this reason, I see my productions as training vehicles for people, and we treat them as educational opportunities, creating a culture of sharing knowledge and taking chances on people so they can grow. So when I look back on all the goodwill people have extended to me, I like to give back by offering to help others when I can. For me, the most fun way to do that is by offering my time as an actor, since it is what I like to do most, and making my own films and being responsible for the work of others can actually take me away from acting for the pure joy of it!
ROFFEKE: The project required you to improvise. How does improvisation help actors to improve their skills/craft?
ROBERT: Improvisation turns accidents into gifts! A table that gets knocked down on stage unintentionally by an actor can turn into a hilarious moment or a great character reveal. It's all in how you handle things. By training in improv, an actor gains a great sense of being present in the moment with maximum flexibility and a willingness to say "yes" to all sorts of things that happen. It creates a great framework for fun story development with a spirit of playfulness. One of the improv games I like is one where an actor says something, and the other actor says "Yes, and..." and then adds another little bit to the story, passing it back or on to someone else who says "Yes, and..." There are various versions of that kind of game, but they all create a sense of positivity that keeps something growing and building, and each person comes to realize that they don't have to say something totally amazing, but rather they just have to be accepting of what is sent their way and build on it a little bit. I love improv and I encourage everyone to try to take a weekend workshop or something if they can or get a book from the library and try it with a few friends, or watch some YouTubes to see some good improv games. It's fun, and will help your acting immensely!
(Robert was gracious enough to avail "The Dance of Collaboration", an excerpt from "Improv to Improve your Business". Interested in checking it out? Send an email to email@example.com).
ROFFEKE: In this project, you went the extra mile; researching how we say hi in Sheng, putting the Shenganiguns logo in the background. What are some of the ways that actors can go the extra mile?
This was a fun project! I think it is important for actors to understand some key things, such as where their part fits into the overall story, who their character is and the function of the character in helping get the story across. It's often said there are no small parts, but actually there are, and the size and importance of the role to the story should to some extent guide the actor's preparation. A role like the one I just did for the Shenganiguns was not intended to be a major role or one of the sustaining characters responsible for carrying a lot of the story line. I saw it more as being like a single piano chord: "bom!" and you're out of there as the story moves on. A bit of funny counterpoint to whatever is going on in the main story, perhaps to illustrate the growth of the band's fame and increasing global reach. So for a character like that, I feel it is essential just to hit that one chord and not hold back. So in preparing, what I like to focus on is who the character actually is, in the sense of what type of person. I knew from the production team that he was the president of the Canadian fan club. Given my age and look, I tried to picture this guy - the kind of person who in middle age is a total fanatic for a new band. Once I start picturing the character as a whole being inhabiting my physical self, I try to isolate one main quality or trait the person has. In this case, I decided it was enthusiasm. So that is my main play - enthusiasm. Then I spice it up with a secondary trait, and I settled on fearlessness as in the sense of being without fear of trying new things - the kind of guy who would learn a few words of Sheng and Swahili and just put them out there with a big smile on his face! From that point it gets easier once you have made these first few choices. I then searched out some key phrases in Sheng from the web and lucked into this site ( https://answersafrica.com/kenyan-slangs-meanings.html ) which explained to me what Sheng was and gave me some ideas of a few words I knew I wanted to work into the scene. From that point on, I was confident that this guy's enthusiasm and willingness to try new things would carry the scene. I think that's a good tip to remember - the simpler your make your character in terms of their primary and secondary behavioural traits or makeup, the more straightforward it is to play them and there's less risk of getting bogged-down in over-thinking. Just go in and play your main notes, and play them to win!
(Check out how Robert played to win as the president of the official Canadian fan club of The Shenganiguns! Watch here)
For a more complex role, like "Dunc" in the feature film "A Legacy of Whining" my preparation was more involved. The story takes place over a single evening between two former high school friends who haven't seen each other in 30 years. I was given the direction that Dunc's main function was to burst every hopeful balloon that the other main character, Mitch, floated out there. So basically I was to be the permanently mean-spirited downer and pessimist in the face of Mitch's persistent (if unrealistic) hopefulness. But this was a feature-length film and I was one of the lead actors, so how do you sustain that kind of negativity without some kind of internal justification? So the work there became one of creating a believable set of past circumstances, personal history and worldview that would allow me to play this one kind of attitude through the whole film. The secret there was in the back story I created for my character, as to why he was there in the first place and why he is so irritable. I gave him an occupation, a justification for being in town, a triggering incident, and some reasons to be irritable and negative. Having made those private choices for myself, it became a lot more straightforward to play the character in a more textured way without forcing it. I had the luxury of time with that film because we had plenty of time to rehearse and think about things. For many projects you have to move a lot faster, and there isn't enough lead time to do a lot of work, so I focus on that one primary character trait, the one secondary trait and as much backstory as I can quickly put together. It's important, I think, to make those choices quickly and then just start stepping into being the character right away and getting the lines down.
ROFFEKE: You gave back in this project. Who are some of the people that gave back in your projects and in what ways did they do this?
ROBERT: Wow, so many people have given their time, talent, advice and other support to me over the years I could never thank them all sufficiently. This includes people who catch one of our films at a festival and say good things or people who watch on YouTube or other channels, festival programmers like you, Mildred, and others like my Patreon members, even people who were willing to walk around our little movie sets with a smile. If you check out the cast and crew for "It's About Love" and my other films, you'll see a lot of familiar faces! My successes are the product of a ton of goodwill, and I hope I can give back also through my books, festival, support, time, advice, teaching and other ways. I think it's cool if you look at my IMDb and trace the interrelationships among people and see the many times I have worked with other people, you can definitely get the sense of there being a real film family or families there. As an example, Ross Munro wrote the part of "Dunc" in "A Legacy of Whining" with me in mind, and I then wrote Ross a lead role as "Rick" in "It's About Love" because I enjoyed working with him and knew his work ethic. I met cinematographer Ron Heaps on "A Legacy of Whining" and we have all worked together several times since, and so it goes, spinning this cool web of connectivity, and each person also brings their own network of goodwill with them and it grows. Now I've worked with you, Mildred, and it would be cool to do that again some day!
ROFFEKE: Advice for aspiring actors?
ROBERT: Make your own stuff! It's the single best piece of advice I can give to an actor. Turn your smartphone on yourself and speak for a minute on all the frustrations and joys of your day as an actor. Stage a simple scene with a friend that has a funny twist or a cool life lesson. Have fun! If you don't know how to edit video, ask someone who knows editing to help you edit that piece into a one-minute film with beginning and ending titles. Load it up on FilmFreeway or other similar sites and submit it to a festival, or better yet, five festivals. Maybe you'll get into a festival! Eventually, you can put it up on YouTube or Vimeo or similar sites and reach even more people who can see and appreciate your talents. From that point on, you are a creator, instead of being someone who waits to be chosen for a part by someone else. You are now a writer-director-producer who also acts, and that is a much more powerful place to be in your career. As you learn and grow your skills you will get better at all aspects of your craft and your projects will get more complex and interesting. Plus, filmmakers love working with actors who know how to make films, because they bring a lot of knowledge that improves their acting, things like understanding continuity between takes and other insights into the process of filmmaking.The years will pass anyway, and are gone for good, so do you want to spend that time auditioning endlessly for others or making your own stuff? If you keep making stuff you will stay in the driver's seat of your own career. You can still audition all you want, but you are operating from a position of power, and it is your choice.
IMDb page: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm5399017
Patreon site: https://www.patreon.com/robertdavidduncan
Udemy course "Acting Skills for a Better Life" https://www.udemy.com/acting-skills-for-a-better-life/
Udemy course: "How to Make a Feature Film with No Money and No Car" https://www.udemy.com/how-to-make-a-feature-film-with-no-money-and-no-car/
YouTube link to "It's About Love" full movie https://youtu.be/VSSO1VjdHA8
IMDb for "A Legacy of Whining" with trailer https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3766040
Robert David Duncan, award-winning director, actor, writer and producer with a passionate interest in art, storytelling and the whole amazing journey called life. Founder of Fat Punk Productions and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.