David Jensen Pays His Dues

“The jig is up!” declared Fran Drescher, president of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA)—and beloved star of The Nanny, The Beautician and the Beast, and many other titles—on the eve of a historic strike called by SAG-AFTRA this past July. Coming on the heels of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, the two unions are currently fighting the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) over issues great and small, such as revised residual pay from streaming services and the use of artificial intelligence in future productions. The dual strike has ground Hollywood—and our own “Hollywood South”—to a screeching halt, with thousands of film production personnel currently out of work (including yours truly).

One such member of this workforce is actor David Jensen, who you’ve seen dozens of times over the decades, whether you know it or not. His credit list is extensive, including Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Treme, True Detective, Midnight Special, Queen Sugar, Outer Banks, and many, many more. Actors like Jensen are ingrained members of our Louisiana film community, which has exploded over the past two decades, thanks in part to state tax credits. Jensen is someone I’ve bumped into time and again on film sets large and small—and not always as an actor. In the past you might have found him in the grip or electric departments, a veritable Swiss Army knife on any given set.

As the SAG-AFTRA strike continues on into its fourth month (on the eve of press time the WGA has reached a tentative deal with the AMPTP, but the deal has yet to be ratified and there is no word from the SAG negotiations), I talked to Jensen about his current status, his experiences over the past couple of decades, getting advice from Steven Soderbergh, and an actor’s two biggest adversaries.

What was the first pivotal role that you remember thinking, maybe I like doing this?

Well, there was a theater role I [had] in college where it was a two-character play [How I Got That Story by Amlin Gray], and one character was a reporter in a place like Vietnam—it was called Ambo Land but it was Vietnam. And I play every character, 27 other characters that he meets, anywhere from children to priests to prostitutes to a multitude of military guys [to] the president of the country. And it was just so intoxicating, to play everybody, you know? It ignited my love of doing it.

How would you characterize yourself as an actor? Like, are you a “character actor?” Or what’s the terminology that you like to use to describe the work you do? 

It’s really clumsy, you know? …I mean, I’m an actor, I can do anything. But realistically, yeah, I’m a character actor. Now I’m 71; I’m on Outer Banks (and when the strike is over, I guess I’ll still be back on it as a bad guy). And I go, why am I always a bad guy? I guess I’m just weasel-y; I’m sure it has to do with the way I look physically. But I’ve had a lot of roles, different roles, but nothing has ever screamed oh that’s you, really. I spent seven years on Queen Sugar and I was the bad neighbor to a Black family that was trying to make it in the sugar business. That was interesting. It has a Black audience, and there’s not a Walmart or Costco in America I think I can go into without somebody recognizing me. And I’m always so apologetic about what an asshole the character was, you know? And they overwhelmingly embrace me. Or they’ll say, “Well, you’re an actor aren’t you?” And I go, “I think so.” And they go, “Well, you need conflict, don’t you?” [laughs] They’ll say something that I should know. But I’m always amazed how little I know.

Did Steven Soderbergh give you your first film roles? Or how did you get into film and TV acting as a job?

Yeah, it was early Steve stuff and I think Winston is one of the things we did. It’s online and you can see that… Steve Soderbergh was going to the lab school (high school) at LSU and I was introduced to him. He was like 16 but already a 500 year-old soul. And I thought, you learn from people older than you or your age; I really didn’t pay attention to anybody younger than me. But we started going to see movies together and one day he just turned to me and said, “Jensen, why are you always late?” And I went, “What?” And he says, “I’ve never known you to be on time.” He says, “Don’t you know it’s always easier to be 10 minutes early?” Something dropped in my head and I started following his advice and I was stunned at how much my life changed, how much easier it made things. I started making shorts with him, and it was always pure fun…

Then he wrote Sex, Lies, and Videotape. He was gonna do it with a group of us here in Baton Rouge, but Columbia offered $1.2 million if they could cast it with Andie MacDowell, James Spader, and Peter Gallagher. And thank goodness they did, because they were terrific. And so I worked on that show: I was a best boy grip on it. And then when he won the Palme d’Or for Sex, Lies… people were lining up and in true Steven fashion, he had a dozen movies that he was projecting to do. He did Kafka in 1990. Ian Holm played a doctor who was trying to create the perfect worker and he was doing it by lobotomizing people, or just scrambling a certain area of their brain or something like that. And I played this guy called The Laughing Man who was trying to kill Jeremy Irons, who was the lead in the movie. [We were] in Prague, we started in September of 1990 and the Velvet Revolution had just happened six months earlier. So Czechoslovakia looked very much like it did in 1948 when Communists had taken over—Panzer tanks just turned off in the middle of the street still there. And we were at Barrandov Studios where Miloš Forman and a bunch of other famous directors had gotten their start. But I only had a month as an actor, and we were having such a good time Steven said, “Do you want to stay and maybe work?” And I said sure. So I got on as an electric on the show. So then when I got back to New Orleans, there was film production, so I go, “Oh yeah, I can do this for a while.” And then I did The Newton Boys in ’95 with [Richard] Linklater and then I think it was Runaway Jury, I got an OK role in 2002. And then Pop Rocks was the ABC Family thing with Gary Cole. I played a lead guitar player in a glam band. It was a good movie script, but I don’t know how ABC Television got it… I did Frank Darabont‘s The Mist after Katrina, because they shot that up in Shreveport.

as David in Winston

What year were you able to join the Screen Actors Guild?

1990, so 33 years.

Was that a big deal? It seems like that’s kind of a linchpin moment in any actor’s career, when they get to join SAG.

It is, but let me tell you: I was so stupid. Now when I sit and get the residual checks that I get, or the pension that I get, I’ll sing Woody Guthrie songs all day long for the union… I just wasn’t aware because a lot of people in New Orleans [had the attitude]: “I ain’t ever gettin’ in the union.” And friends of mine would do union work, but not want to pay union dues. And you realize, there wouldn’t be a middle class without the union, you know? Looking back on it, it was a good time to do it. Like when Steven went to Hollywood in the late ‘80s, I’d say, “Steven, what’s it like?” And he says, “Well it’s like a big high school.” And it was at that time, you know? The movers and shakers that really controlled the money and the studios, it wasn’t more than a couple thousand people, maybe. You had three networks… And then that explosion of streaming and these companies like Amazon, Hulu, and even Warner Brothers, they’re making… whatever you’re doing, isn’t being shown in the theater. It’s being shown on somebody’s phone and they’re making tremendous amounts of money. But the people who actually crafted the piece are not getting the benefit. So I guess that’s what the strike has come down to. And there’s only 160,000-something SAG members, and there’s an upper few percent that really make a lot of money, but most of them don’t make the $26,000 annually to buy [health] insurance. You have to make $26,000 a year to be eligible for insurance, and I think about, over my lifetime, my family’s medical care has all been paid for. And you don’t see that when you join, but you are being accepted into a group that somewhere in 1960, Ronald Reagan got the residual thing going.


Ironically, yes, exactly. And people [will ask] is it worth it to join SAG? And I go: If you see a life in this business, you better have that SAG card.

I presume you haven’t been working, have you? Are you currently on hold?

No, I’m not [working]. Before the strike, I was working in Charleston. I’m on three or four episodes of Outer Banks.

What do you do to keep busy and keep sane when you’re not working? What have you been doing during the strike to fill up your days, or kind of keep structure or anything like that?

I’m 71 and a lot of old friends keep on calling and want[ing] to get together—I go, where were you? Why is it 50 years later everybody’s wondering what you’re doing? But there’s two Indian mounds out on LSU’s campus. Well, I started this documentary. They’ve dated them to be twice as old as what they thought they were originally. They originally were supposed to be 6,000 years old, but apparently there’s evidence that they’re 12,000 years old. And have you heard of Poverty Point? There, 3,500 years ago, there were 50,000 Indians. All the Indians in Louisiana are descendants from that tribe—you know, all the Chitimacha, the Houma, Atakapa—that disbanded. The importance of that—other than being the Stonehenge of North America—is that there were a lot of people on the North American continent. Columbus really didn’t discover anything new, you know. And they traded all up into Canada, they canoed the Mississippi and up the Ohio. It’s just amazing how rich that culture was. And it has been validated that the mounds are 11,900 years old. And that predates pre-Clovis, so they wouldn’t be Asians that came over by the land bridge. So the idea of: Who are these people? And the mounds are made of two different materials: One of them is a red mound made out of red dirt and then there’s a yellow mound. And they’re six degrees off from one another. They’re very specific and they are burial mounds. Hopefully, Donna Brazile is gonna do the narration for it. I’ve shot some stuff and hopefully when I get it figured out, do some aerial stuff as well. But just trying to figure out: How do you get people to get their minds back 12,000 years? How do you cinematically create that? And for years, people have rode motorcycles or Jeeps and just driven up these things. And kids, like Monkey Hill in New Orleans, get cardboard boxes and slide down it. And you go: Now wait a minute, maybe we don’t want people doing this on something this old, you know?

as Sam Landry in Queen Sugar

That’s good that you have a project. I feel like everybody who’s unemployed should figure that out because it’s actually kind of a golden time. I mean, it’s stressful, but you gotta make the best of your time, you know?

Yeah. I always wanted to play the piano and I did take it as a child. But now with YouTube, you can learn almost anything. And so I sit at the piano a lot.

As far as the Screen Actors Guild goes, are you active with them, or do you keep up with their progress?

Oh gosh, yeah… I wish it was grittier. They spend millions of dollars to have an office on Wilshire Boulevard, and you go: Do you really need that? It just seems like it could be a more realistic organization. You want your union to be a Quonset hut. But I am active in what they do. Jim Gleason is the New Orleans representative, and I think he’s a good guy.

I know you kind of answered this partially, but are you overall confident in SAG leadership? In the direction they’re going and the stances that they’ve taken in the negotiations?

Well, no. I guess I’m not. I think they, I’m afraid, like in all negotiations, you’re gonna want a better deal. It just seems so simple to me that the demand is that they want the wages at the same level for streaming as for broadcast. Right now, I’ll do a Netflix thing and I’ll get paid for that and then I’ll get the residual check when it airs, and it’ll be a nice, big check. But the next one will be 24 cents. And that, for me, is the heart of it. And then my daughter will say, “You know, that episode of Outer Banks you were on had almost 200 million views.” And you go, what? Is that possible? …And you see the salaries that these CEOs are making, and other executives, and you go: Well this ain’t right. I just don’t understand why you don’t hear anything [from union leadership]. It’s like, I went to check the [SAG] website… there should be something every day. Something should be happening, even if it’s “somebody spilled coffee.” I don’t care. Instead of this dead silence.

One reason I wanted to talk to you is because I feel like you probably represent more of the SAG membership than the Brad Pitts of the world, and I’m thinking that this strike may be a little hard for the general public to digest, because it’s not like UPS or the Plumbers Union or something; it’s actors. And I’d say most of us in the film industry, including actors, are more working class, middle class. So, what’s something you would like the general public to understand about this strike that might be lost because of the unique nature of this industry?

Well, I think you said it. For me it’s a blue collar job. And it’s great to hear Bryan Cranston, or Wendell Pierce, or Martin Sheen get up and rally the troops. Or Brad Pitt, and I can believe that they’re sincere. But when you’ve been in the business your whole life and you look at the movie poster and you’ve done the movie and the first list is the list of producers, you go: Who are they? Well, they’re the people that invested in the movie or whatever, but they didn’t lift any sandbags. [laughs] They didn’t build anything. But it’s a very blue collar job. We went to the state capitol when they were trying to re-up the [film tax incentives]. This senator goes, “Does the movie business really make any money?” And this guy who was a shrimper in Galliano, I forgot what hurricane he lost everything in—but with the money that he had, he started a toilet business and just started following the movies around and he created a pretty good living for a decade, and he had numbers to prove it. And that’s just one aspect.

I don’t think people appreciate how disgusting movie sets are, just like dirt and dust and equipment everywhere.

Oh my God, yes!

It’s like a mining operation sometimes.

No, it is, and then somebody goes, “More dust!” [laughs] Emotionally as an actor, people don’t see that, I guess it depends on everybody’s process but it can exhaust you, and you have just so much life in your battery.

And it’s tough for actors because, as crew behind the camera, I can be upset and it doesn’t really matter how I do my job. But for someone in front of the camera you don’t really have that luxury of just feeling how you want to feel.

I know, and you have to be very protective. I did this thing, it was that Outer Banks thing, and it was like eight pages of exposition-like dialogue. I explained to the director: Please don’t do this in one take. We gotta chop this up. And he was going, “Oh you’re right.” But sometimes they’re gonna go, “We can’t do that.” And that’s why that makes it even more blue-collar to me, ’cause you want to come prepared and have all your tools and you want to help. You want to make it look the best it can… And also appreciate what everybody else is doing around you. Like if I see a sandbag, I’ll put it on a c-stand. And people go, “You know, that’s a union violation.” And I go, fuck you! [laughs] Come on. I mean, you want to help.

Don’t you have an IATSE card, too?

I did until I was getting enough work that I didn’t have to do that. But I can’t even remember, maybe it was 10 years ago. But I carried it for a long time.

I’m glad you brought that up because it is worth pointing out that that’s the exact right way to be on a film set. There’s good union rules but there’s also kind of ridiculous things like you said. Like if there’s a c-stand that needs to be secured, you should do it, simply as somebody who’s conscious of everyone’s safety on set.

Yeah. I was on a set one time and I was in a tight space and the camera was shooting through a hole in the wall and somebody said, we need a double [filter] in the 5K [light] that I was next to. And nobody else was around, so I just put the double in and they went, “Who did that?” And I said, “I think the actor did.” And it was a big deal but it saved so much time… It’s the realization in the real sense that you’re working in concert. And it’s not about one person.

Assuming we all go back to work eventually and all this gets resolved, what’s one thing an aspiring actor could focus on that would help advance their career?

I had an acting teacher that taught me: The camera is the best lie detector test there is in the world. So you’ve gotta bring some truth. That’s why you don’t want to ever be on stage with a baby or a dog, because they’re gonna out-truth you. The dog’s gonna lick his balls, the kid’s gonna throw up, and it’s so real that whoever’s in the audience, their eye is gonna go to it. So whatever material you have, you’ve gotta find the truth in it, because the camera is amazing. The camera wants to be seen as the truth. And I think that’s what’s important about movies: There’s some kind of truth that comes through that you identify with, whether it’s The Grapes of Wrath or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or anything Ernst Lubitsch ever made… I think the hunger for good movie-making is that usually what we like is pretty truthful, and it informs our life. Maybe it’s not a life that you know about but it helps the living of your present life. Early on, I thought I was a good liar so I’d be a good actor. But it’s not about lying at all, it’s about finding the truth and portraying it.

Top photo: David Jensen as Larry Shirt in The King of New Orleans (Photo by Dan Fox)
Bottom photo courtesy David Jensen

Transcription by Michelle Pierce

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