Interview: Robert Davi Talks Doonby and New York City Christmas

Inspiringly branching out into new platforms in your career can be intimidating for some people who have already found success in one particular niche. But venturing out into diverse platforms can provide exhilarating new life experiences and opportunities that allow you to fully explore and showcase your talent. Actor-singer Robert Davi, who has made a name for himself portraying gangsters in such films as ‘License to Kill’ and ‘The Iceman,’ did just that by surprisingly taking on the role of a sheriff in writer-director Peter Mackenzie’s new independent mystery thriller, ‘Doonby.’

‘Doonby’ tells the story of Sam Doonby (John Schneider), a mysterious drifter who quickly becomes the talk of a small Texas town. He finds work at Leroy’s Country Blues Bar, where his musical talents make him a local celebrity, attracting the attention of the beautiful but spoiled Laura Reaper (Jenn Gotzon).

Sam is strangely immune to the misfortunes of others, yet always around to prevent sudden disasters from happening. It’s not long before the narrow minded townsfolk, including town Sherrif Woodley (Davi), become jealous and start to question his background and motives. But, it is Laura’s doubts that that cause Sam to vanish, leaving the locals to deal with some difficult admissions. Sam’s abrupt disappearance forces those he left behind to deal with some painful revelations and to question his mysterious arrival and departure.

Davi generously took the time to talk about filming ‘Doonby,’ as well as recording his captivating forthcoming holiday single ‘New York City Christmas,’ recently over the phone. Among other things, the actor-singer discussed how he was drawn to the mystery thriller because of Mackenzie’s strong passion for the story, and the fact that the role of the sheriff is different from the gangster roles he has built his film career on; how VOD is an important platform for independent films like ‘Doonby,’ as it cuts down on the amount of film piracy on the Internet; and how he choose to record ‘New York City Christmas,’ because he was looking for a new Christmas song to record, and how he perfectly captured the sound and essence of such musical legends as Frank Sinatra.

Question (Q): You play Sheriff Woodley in the new mystery thriller, ‘Doonby.’ What was it about the character, and the script overall, that convinced you to take on the role?

Robert Davi (RD): Well, of course, the director, Peter Mackenzie, had a strong passion for the film when he spoke to me. Also, the idea that it wasn’t preaching, but instead posing some questions that you could fall on either side of the fence with.

The character of the sheriff is someone I haven’t played. I just did ‘The Iceman,’ and my character was a mob guy out of New York. So to play a sheriff who was countrified a bit, who was skeptical and had a mystical wisdom about him, was interesting to me. I also liked the ability to have some humor.

Q: Speaking of the fact that you played crime boss Leonard Marks in ‘The Iceman,’ and you’re also known for playing drug lord Franz Sanchez in ‘License to Kill,’ what was the experience of portraying the opposite side of the law in ‘Doonby?’ Hw did you prepare for the role of the sheriff?

RD: Well, I did an NBC television series how for four-and-a-half years, from 1996-2001, called ‘Profiler.’ It was the father, really, of shows like ‘CSI’ and ‘Without a Trace’ and ‘Criminal Minds,’ and a lot of the current crime dramas, and even ‘The Blacklist.’ I played the head FBI agent at Quantico, who created criminal profiling. It’s a marvelous series. I spent weeks researching at Quantico for the role.

Over the years, I’ve played some different police officers. I researched as I went along, so I had a certain type of preparation for this character already. Then I also met with some small-town sheriffs, especially where we shot, and found a rhythm of their behavior.

I just did ‘The Expendables 3,’ and played the head of the Albanian mafia. So for that character, I had to go to Toronto and talk with some Albanian guys. When I did ‘Bond,’ I went into the Columbian drug lord mythology, and met with some of those very interesting characters. Even with ‘The Iceman,’ you research that character, and you find something in that reality.

For instance, when I did ‘Kill the Irishman,’ you find out different things about the character. That’s the fun part about acting; Socrates said, “Don’t try to change worlds; change worlds.” (laughs) That’s what an actor kind of does in his imagination.

Q: Did you have any rehearsal period with your co-stars before you began shooting ‘Doonby?’

RD: Yeah, you’re able to do rehearsals, of course. When you discuss something, you try to get everything going. In the course of that, you discuss with the director, and that’s your process there. We didn’t have a rehearsal prior to that, per say; sometimes you can’t on a film.

Q: Speaking of the film’s director, Peter Mackenzie, he both wrote and helmed ‘Doonby.’ What was the experience of working with Peter as both a scribe and a helmer on the set?

RD: He’s a lovely, open gentleman, and he’s a genuinely nice man. He was fantastic and available, and was a charming, lovely fellow.

Q: ‘Doonby’ was shot independently on a smaller budget. Did filming independently pose any challenges on the set? How does filming an independent film like this one compare and contrast to the bigger studio movies you’ve appeared in?

RD: People are always treating you well on films. The hardest shoot I ever had was in the Amazon rainforest, and that was because we were sleeping in tents in the deep jungle. Otherwise, on other projects, you may get a different size trailer, based on what’s available in the city or town, but people are always treating you well. Of course, you get pampered more on big budget films.

I did a film a long time ago with an art director, and Johnny Depp and I had a little cameo in this film for this finished director. There weren’t any big egos involved, in terms of accommodations.

Q: The film was released on November 1 in theaters and on VOD. Are you personally a fan of watching movies On Demand? Why do you think that VOD is an important platform for releasing smaller, independent films?

RD: Well, I think with the piracy rampantly going on, VOD provides a smaller window of opportunity for piracy, at least immediately. When a movie first comes out, people are already able to download it from a Russian site or somewhere for free.

I did quite a bit on piracy in the mid-90s, when I was a spokesperson for i-Safe, which is an organization dealing with Internet safety and education around the world. It first started here in America, and we got it into the schools, to deal with all the aspects of Internet safety and piracy and intellectual property rights and identity theft. Due to that, VOD and all those other platforms having a concurrent availability, at least makes some attempt to cut down that theft.

Also, you want eyeballs, as you want to have something available to everyone, especially on an independent film that you can’t release on 4,000 screens on a specific weekend. If people find an interest in it, they can tune into it at home.

Q: Besides ‘Doonby,’ you’ll also be releasing your forthcoming ‘New York City Christmas’ single for the upcoming holiday season. It’s the second Christmas single you’ll be releasing after 2011’s ‘Mistletoe and Holly.’ Why did you decide to record the single, and music always been important to you?

RD: Yes-I performed in concert on August 30 on Long Island, New York, to 10,000 people. We had a great turnout, and people seemed to enjoy it. I heard the sound was good throughout.

Quincy Jones has given me amazing feedback on my music. I have also headlined at the Venetian, and just opened for Don Rickles in Las Vegas. I’ll also be touring in Europe.

Singing is a way of expressing who I am. Singing is one of my first loves as a kid growing up, and I studied opera in Florence. I did my first film (‘Contract on Cherry Street’) with (Frank) Sinatra in 1977.

‘The Great American Songbook,’ to me, is the Shakespeare of America, and is the golden age of American music. It’s what made the world fall in love with our country. Through world wars and depressions, there was a unifying principal in that music. It also had a certain civility to women and music and heartbreak and romance. So I felt, with current trends, a certain discontent with our country and the world, and a cultural praying, so to speak.

As an Italian-American myself, there were two figures growing up-the Pope and Sinatra, and not necessarily in that order. I wanted to pay tribute to not only his contribution to music, but also what he did for society.

He was the first superstar to come out against anti-Semitism and racial bigotry of any kind. It’s amazing what his contribution was in that retrospect. He won a special Oscar in ’46 for a song he sang in a short film. He wouldn’t play at a place if a black artist wasn’t allowed to play there, and this was in the ’40s, way before the civil rights movement. He wouldn’t tolerate any bigotry or anti-Semitism.

That being said, the ‘Songbook’ is also a symbol of our culture; it comes from the struggles of the black jazz artists, and the Irish-Welsh-English-Norwegian-Arabics, who have been here since the Revolution. But a large portion of the ‘Songbook’ comes from the sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants. So you could say without them, we wouldn’t have the ‘Songbook.’ I have a strong love for it, and it’s letting me express all of who I am, through the music.

I choose this particular Christmas song, ‘New York City Christmas,’ because I’m a New Yorker; I was born in Astoria, Queens, and grew up on Long Island. I went to Hofstra University, and then went to Manhattan and got my start there. It’s a wonderful city, but gets a rap sometimes. It’s gone through some difficult times over the past decade or so, in terms of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy.

I was looking for a new Christmas song to do, but in the style of the standards. Someone came to see my show, and raved about it, and it was a guy I had an acquaintanceship with-I knew his dad. He played the song for me in a totally different style that he had written.

He wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing it. I said not in that style. But I would do it if I could get the composer and arranger I wanted, Chris Walden, and we could do it at Capital Records. Also, I wanted to work with Al Schmitt, a legendary guy who did duet albums with Sinatra. Also, when Phil Ramone, who produced my album (‘Davi Sings Sinatra-On The Road To Romance’), was alive, he produced the track. Phil just passed away a few months ago.

I said, “If we can go into Capitol and do it with a real upbeat swing beat, and make a few little adjustments here and there, let’s do it.” I got the wonderful Steve Penley to do the wonderful cover art.

Besides the iconic moments of New York, I wanted to capture the magical time of Christmas. No matter what your religious beliefs are, it’s a wonderful time. Whether you believe in the nativity and the birth of Christ or not, like I do, as I’m Catholic, it’s a happy time.

I didn’t like the attack on Christmas and the nativity scene, and people not wanting to say, “Merry Christmas.” There was also the time when people said, “Don’t call it a Christmas tree; call it a seasonal tree.” I think that everyone can believe what they want, but don’t attack anyone else’s beliefs. I don’t care if an atheist puts up a stone, and says “I believe in nothing.” But don’t attack; I wouldn’t attack them for not believing. So I also wanted to do a song for people who had a fondness for the holiday, and a remembrance for what that time was, without it being a song we’ve heard covered a 1,000 times.

Q: Are you interested in performing in concert in New York again, or across America, to promote the song, and music overall?

RD: Yes, eventually I will do that. Right now, I’m preparing for my next album; I have more than half of the album done. That will hopefully come out in late summer. After that, I’ll do a Christmas album. I wrote a film based on this music, as well, that I want to put out for the centennial of Sinatra’s birthday. But I’ll absolutely come to New York and do more concerts, and then perform around the country and the world. That’s what we’re planning right now.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects lined up, whether acting or singing, that you can discuss?

RD: Yeah, like I said, we’re putting together the tour, and we’ll be going around the country and to Australia. I just did ‘The Expendables 3,’ and I think I’m doing a film called ‘T Minus,’ which is a very interesting project. I can’t say too much about it yet, though, as we just negotiated it (on October 30), and we want to make sure the dates work. I don’t plan on slowing down!

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