Face Time with the Man Behind the Famous Voice
Keith David Williams was born in Harlem on June 4, 1956, but raised in East Elmhurst, Queens, where he developed an interest in acting after playing the Cowardly Lion in a grade school production of The Wizard of Oz. He later attended New York City’s High School for the Performing Arts before studying drama at Juilliard.
After graduating, he dropped his surname en route to embarking on an enviable stage, screen and television career with close to 200 acting credits and counting. In film, he’s made memorable performances in such hits as ATL, Crash, Bird, Platoon, Armageddon, Pitch Black, Dead Presidents, Clockers, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Requiem for a Dream, Barbershop, There’s Something about Mary and Armageddon, to name a few.
In addition, the stentorian-throated thespian’s commanding voice has led to voiceover work as the narrator of such PBS series as Jazz, The War and Unforgivable Blackness, as a pitchman for The U.S. Navy (“Accelerate Your Life!”) and numerous other PSA campaigns, and as a character in such animated adventures as Aladdin, Coraline, Hercules and Princess Mononoke.
Here, he talks about his latest role, playing the villain Dr. Facilier in The Princess and the Frog, a cartoon coming courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
Keith David: You’re very welcome.
KW: So, what interested you in playing Dr. Facilier?
KD: Someone offered me a job, brother. [Chuckles]
KW: Do you feel that The Princess and the Frog is an important film historically, given that it is the first Disney cartoon to feature a black princess?
KD: Is that important? It is very important, and I feel proud and honored to be able to participate. It is an honor for me. And even if I weren’t in the movie, I’d still feel grateful that Disney has opened up its mind and expanded its horizons to include a black Princess. That’s pleasing in and of itself. And my being able to participate makes me all the more proud.
KW: Were you aware of the historical significance of the project when you were making the movie?
KD: Yeah, of course, I’m not stupid. But that was the icing on the cake. And the fact that people also love the end result is just a wonderful. Listen, I’m an actor. I was offered a job, and my inclination is to take jobs that mean something to me. In this case, I’m very happy that it also resonates with the people seeing it. I have two little girls. I knew that seeing a black princess who looks like them would mean something. It would resonate. The rest of the analysis I leave to you critics to make of it what you will. Not all of you are so pleased about it. But that’s your opinion and you’re welcome to it. I myself am very happy about it.
KW: Did you hear that the African-American Film Critics Association, to which I belong, named The Princess and the Frog the #2 film of the year?
KD: No, I didn’t. What was #1?
KW: Precious. I’m also on the NAACP’s nominating committee and The Princess and the Frog was nominated for 7 or 8 Image Awards, including you for this role. Congrats!
KD: That’s wonderful!
KW: How do you prepare to do a voiceover role?
KD: The same way I would for any other role. When I wake up in the morning, I warm up my voice, read the script, and then go to work.
KW: Which do you prefer doing, voiceovers or live-action?
KD: I prefer to work.
KW: You have about 200 acting credits on your resume. Laz Lyles wants to know, to what do you attribute your successful and enduring career?
KD: My success is that I work. Fame is what they give you. Success is what you give yourself. I went to school. I studied to become an actor. I worked hard. I am now successful because I’m able to live my dream, living my life as an actor. It’s what I feel I was born to do. Everyday, when I wake up, I thank God for another day of living and for allowing me to do what I do. Therein lies the definition of my success.
KW: When you were a kid, did you get your start out at Har-You Act [Harlem Youth Act], like a lot of young black actors back then?
KD: No, I was not a part of Har-You Act, although I was aware of it, and around it. However, my cousin and I were in the group of kids in the very first acting class at the Harlem School of the Arts started by Dorothy Maynor in a church basement on St. Nicholas Avenue. As a matter of fact, my grandmother lived right across the street.
KW: Documentary filmmaker Hisani Dubose says she thinks that it’s great that you’ve done several truly independent movies. She was wondering, why you’ve chosen to do this type of work?
KD: I choose the projects that I do based on the roles. It can be a big studio or small studio movie, as long as the role is interesting and the story is good. A good story is a good story, and a great character is a great character.
KW: Speaking of great characters, “Realtor to the Stars” Jimmy asks, whether playing the quasi pimp in Requiem for a Dream, Big Tim, was a big departure for you?
KD: Yes, if you know my work well, you know that was a big departure.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks, how do you feel about the fact that many people might be more familiar with your voice than your face?
KD: As long as the person signing my paycheck knows who I am, that’s what’s most important.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
KD: I can’t think of anything at the moment. As you have demonstrated, I get asked a gamut of questions, some of which never would have occurred to me. [Chuckles] But I will answer them as they come along.
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
KD: This morning.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
KD: In life? Of course.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
KD: Most of the time.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
KD: I’m currently reading one about creative writing and also a great book about W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson called The Professor and the Pupil.
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: who is your favorite clothes designer?
KD: I particularly like Zegna and Hugo Boss, but my favorite new designer is a guy named Waraire Boswell.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
KD: I see me. I see a black man standing in the mirror.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
KD: I practically remember coming out of the chute. I do clearly remember falling out of bed one day and just falling back asleep on the floor, and having my grandmother wake up the whole house screaming, “Oh my God! The child is dead! [Laughs]
KW: The Mike Pittman question: Who was your best friend as a child?
KD: My grandmother, Dorothy, although I always called her Hortense.
KW: If you could have one wish granted, what would that be for?
KD: Hmm…. One wish instantly granted? To not have to worry about anything monetary.
KW: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help you?
KD: By keeping those cards and letters coming. If you want to see me do something, write the studio about it. One letter equals a thousand votes.
KW: What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
KD: Getting past other people’s perceptions of me, of who they think I am and what they think I am capable of.
KW: Which of your movies is your favorite?
KD: Men at Work is one of my favorites. Dead Presidents is another.
KW: Well, you have certainly demonstrated over the years that you have a great gift for disappearing into a role.
KD: I Appreciate that.
KW: Tell me a little about the title character you’ll be playing in your upcoming film Pastor Brown.
KD: I used to want to be a preacher, so Pastor Brown is quite close to my heart. Now, I think of acting as my ministry. If I play a part, and you can see yourself in it, or see the person you want to be or the person you absolutely don’t want to be, well, then, that is ministering. That’s what good ministering is, a guideline to becoming a better person.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
KD: Study! Learn the craft! Learn the craft!
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
KD: Keith David tried to love them.
KW: Thanks again, Keith, and best of luck with The Princess and the Frog and your many other projects on the horizon.
KD: Thank you.
To see a trailer for The Princess and the Frog,