Watching Kurt Russell & Donald Moffat In The Thing Was A Learning Experience For Keith David

John Carpenter's 1982 remake of "The Thing" is, like many of Carpenter's movies, possessed of a nihilistic streak. The titular Thing is a living mass of alien tissues, existing without form, able to invade a host, consume it, and replicate it down to its very brain functions. It can look and sound like anyone. The Thing doesn't appear to be intelligent and lives only to consume and perpetuate itself. Carpenter's film is set at a remote Antarctic outpost populated by bored, surly, mostly bearded men, tired of their isolated job and only barely staving off mind-crushing boredom. When the Thing infiltrates their ranks, paranoia immediately takes over, and the characters all begin suspecting one another. Only the stalwart pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) holds it together enough to seek out the creature in a logical fashion. 

By the end of the film, most of the outpost will be burned down, and only two characters will remain standing.

The cast includes Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, and a young theater actor named Keith David as the character Childs. "The Thing" was David's second film ever, and his first credit was for the Rudy Ray Moore film "Disco Godfather," wherein he merely played "Club Patron." 

Prior to his work in film, David was a prolific theater actor, having been part of John Houseman's famed Acting Company, and appearing in William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, and Samuel Beckett plays. He would go on to be nominated for a Tony for his role in "Jelly's Last Jam."

As a theater actor, though, David was inexperienced in front of cameras and looked to his co-stars — Russell and Moffatt in particular — for guidance. David admitted as much in a 2016 interview with the L.A. Weekly

Acting for a camera

Keith David's initial fear was that he would be asked to be inarticulate. As a speech teacher, he was acutely aware of the way English words sounded and feared he would be directed toward clichés. More than anything, though, he had to get used to acting for a camera. On stage, one needs to broadcast a performance to the back of a theater, often exaggerating. When the "audience" is a camera lens only a few inches from your face, a small eye twitch or facial movement can communicate just as much. David needed screen veterans to point the way. He told L.A. Weekly

"I'm a speech teacher, so I spent the six or seven weeks prior doing my speech-teacher training. My experience as an actor was in the theater, and one of the things I was afraid of was that I'd have come in saying things like 'Muthaf***a,' but wasn't going to be able to drop all the good American speech that I was just practicing. Childs is the strong, silent type, so I had a one-line response to most things, like 'Oh, hell no!' or 'What, are you kiddin'?' I learned a lot just by watching guys like Kurt Russell and Donald Moffat."

Moffat, of course, also frequently worked in the theater, but Kurt Russell grew up in front of cameras. He appeared in movies as a young child and starred in several college-set films for Disney as a teen. If anyone was to teach David about ease in front of a camera, it was those guys. The lessons seem to have taken. David communicates a lot through small looks and scant dialogue. 

No need to project

Keith David continued to L.A. Weekly

"Donald [Moffat] was from the theater, too. I learned so much about digesting information and not showing everything you're thinking just from watching Donald let whatever was said to him sink in. All you have to do is think it, and believe it, and it shows."

As for some of the more mechanical aspects of screen acting, David also cites Richard Masur as a capable teacher. Masur, it should be noted, was the president of the Screen Actors Guild for four years in the 1990s. David — again, accustomed to the stage — spoke all of his lines from the diaphragm. The actor failed to take into account that his character was in a small Antarctic room with his co-stars, and didn't need to shout. His voice only needed to reach the boom mic. Masur gave him some advice on the matter. David said: 

"Richard Masur also pulled me aside and said, 'Listen, man, you're doing fine, but you don't need to project as much in this movie.' So I had to learn how to pull it back. That was my very first lesson in movie acting." 

Since then, David has appeared in over 120 feature films, either on camera or vocally. He also played central characters in the TV shows "Gargoyles," "Spawn," "Greenleaf," "From Scratch," and the Stretch Armstrong cartoon. His career might be the envy of any working actor.