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An Interview with Robert Davi

We’ve been doing a bit of celebrating this month, to mark Bond’s fiftieth anniversary on film (and the release of Skyfall). Actor Robert Davi, who played the villain Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill, was kind enough to get in contact with us about a piece we published covering the character, and politely volunteered to ask a few questions about the film. Davi has been a remarkably recognisable screen presence since the eighties, with roles in iconic movies like Licence to Kill, The Goonies, Die Hard and the hit television show Profiler.

He now manages his own film (Sun Lion Films) and music production (Sun Lion Records) companies. In 2007, he made his directorial debut with The Dukes, and launched a professional singing career in 2011. You can check out his Sinatra-inspired work at Davi Sings Sinatra, with some great testimonials. (Quincy Jones knows music, and his endorsement is worth more than mine – although consider mine offered as well. Check out a sampler here.)

The opportunity to ask Davi some questions was too good to pass up. It was a delight to be able to put some of my questions to him, and Davi was very generous with his time in answering quite a few of the more tangential and nerdy ones – a great insight into the construction of, I’d argue, one of the more fascinating Bond villains.

Darren: I understand you were offered the role of Sanchez in Licence to Kill after writer Richard Maibaum saw you in Terrorist On Trial: The United States Vs. Salim Ajami in 1988.

Robert Davi: Actually, Tina Broccoli was a fan of mine from Goonies and she thought I would get along with Cubby . So she set up a dinner with Cubby and Dana. Cubby and I were both born in Astoria, New York and of Italian descent, this brought us immediately close. About a year later I had done Terrorist on Trial. I had gotten tremendous critical acclaim and was on the cover of all the entertainment sections of the newspapers.

This attention, and having met me, had made Cubby put on TOT. It so happened Richard Maibaum also was watching it and had called Cubby to put it on. Cubby said, “I’m watching it.” Richard said, “That’s the next Bond Villain!!!” Cubby said, “I think so too.” I was called to meet Cubby, Michael Wilson and John Glenn the next day! And offered the part.

Darren: Can you talk a bit about what it was like to work with that creative team? The Broccolis and John Glenn had been steering the franchise for years, what was it like to be a part of that?

Robert Davi: Dana and Cubby were always very supportive. They always had the idea in mind that – even in wardrobe choices – the Bond films maintain a classic feel. Cubby and Dana were very hands on – after all Bond is their baby! – as were Michael and Barbara. The set was like a family with Cubby as the Padrone. Great times!

John Glenn made an enormous contribution. He is quite an amazing talent. He has a great sense of humor and style. He recognizes offbeat behavior and encourages the instinct of the actors, as well as a tremendous filmic sensibility. His thumbprint is on all the characters in some way.

Darren: How familiar would you have been with the franchise at the time?

Robert Davi: I was very familiar with the Bond Films and the books since the 60’s – I read the first Bond book at the behest of my little league coach, Ed Kirkman. He was a crime reporter for the Daily News. He mentioned to us that JFK was a fan of the books. The first book I read was “On His Majesty’s Secret Service.” The first film was Dr. No.

Darren: Licence to Kill is notable for being the first film in the series that doesn’t even take its title from an Ian Fleming novel or short story. Was there a sense, in reading the script or developing the role, that this was something quite a bit different from a regular Bond film?

Robert Davi: No. We went back to Casino Royale and it was an attempt at reinvigorating Fleming’s ORIGINAL idea of Bond. As time has shown, I believe we were successful.

Darren: Sanchez manages to balance many of the conventional quirks of a Bond villain, but he seems a lot more grounded and more real. For one thing, the character seems a lot more comfortable with what he has, rather than wanting more. Was this a conscious decision on your part, to play Sanchez as less of a striver, and somebody more comfortable in his own skin?

Robert Davi: As I mentioned, we went back to Casino Royale. In that book, there is a very substantial description of Bond and the villain and their relationship to each other. It is in that book the key to Sanchez for me, lay. Bond and the villain being mirror images of each other. Also, Sanchez was quite well off and it wasn’t necessary for him to have world domination. All of South America was quite enough.

Darren: Sanchez is very different from a lot of the typical Bond villains, particularly in the film series. One of the unique things about the Bond franchise, as I understand it, is that some actors have done a great deal of helping to craft their villainous character. (For example, Donald Pleasence designed his own make-up in You Only Live Twice and Christopher Lee fundamentally re-worked Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun.) What sort of input did you have in defining and characterizing Sanchez?

Robert Davi: I did the customary research when developing a character and studied the music, culture and social situation that he lived. Also, I got insight from people who had direct dealing with Pablo Escobar. I had discussions with Michael Wilson and developed the “loyalty is more important to me than money” theme. As well as the relationship to Dario. While not fully on the page, I wanted to infuse an ambiguity between Sanchez and Dario. I was able to weigh in on who would play Lupe.

There is always an actors understanding and interpretive powers that can help shape the arc of a character. The treatment of the Iguana and all those in Sanchez’s world. The respect and friendship he has for Bond. I wanted Sanchez to have a 6th sense, an ability to size someone up, a psychic ability. He recognized in Bond someone formidable. Also, the Achilles heel that leads to his demise trusting Bond, while it is Bond who is not to be trusted.

Darren: Sanchez gets the best one-liners in Licence to Kill. I know “he disagreed with something that ate him” came from Fleming, but were any of the others your invention?

Robert Davi: No, the one liners were all the invention of Michael Wilson, Richard Maibaum and John Glenn. I had the good fortune of interpreting them.

Darren: One of the little things I like about Sanchez is the way that he seems to be a lot more in touch with his violence and his animal side than most Bond villains, and that expresses itself in the way he keeps animals around him – the stingray tail whip, the lizard, the maggots and the shark. I know there’s some debate about who was responsible for Blofeld’s cat in From Russia With Love. Were those touches from yourself or the screenplay?

Robert Davi: They were in the screenplay and gave me clues as to who Sanchez was.

Darren: I can’t help noticing a few similarities between the character of Franz Sanchez and that of Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun – not the movie adaptation, but the original Fleming novel, the last he produced. Was that novel an influence on your portrayal?

Robert Davi: No, as I said Casino Royale‘s comments about Bond and the villain were.

Darren: There seems to be a subtle homo-erotic undertone to the relationship between Sanchez and his male employees – sneaking into Bond’s room at night, lots of affectionate touching and hugging of Dario. Is that a case of viewers like myself reading far too much into things, or was that something you were consciously playing up?

Robert Davi: You read it absolutely correctly! Yes, that was done intentionally on my part and was not in the script per se. First, that is part of the culture Sanchez came from – expressing affection – but I wanted to take it a little further with the play between Sanchez and Dario and have a suggestion of that. It was also organic because of the friendship between Benicio and myself.

Darren: What were your influences in playing Sanchez? Were you influenced by some of the previous Bond villains, or did you look to more “real world” sources?

Robert Davi: I looked to real world sources. Extensive research on the drug world and businessman with a malignant narcissism. I saw the character as Shakespearean. I said at the time if Shakespeare were alive he would have written about Sanchez.

Darren: I think Licence to Kill stood out for a long time as a bit of an outlier when it comes to the Bond films. However, if you look at the Daniel Craig films, there’s a lot that can really be traced back to Licence to Kill. Do you feel like the movie is due a reappraisal?

Robert Davi: Absolutely! And it has been getting that and quite favourably I’m pleased to say.

Darren: You’ve had a string of massively iconic cult roles (Licence to Kill, Die Hard, Profiler, The Goonies, Showgirls). Which are you most likely to find yourself recognized for?

Robert Davi: It is quite varied. Even some you haven’t mentioned not one specific role.

Davi has a pretty full plate ahead of him. On top of his recording career, audiences will also be able to see him next year as part of a powerhous ensemble in The Iceman, the true story of mob hitman Richard Kuklinski. Michael Shannon headlines a superb all-star cast including Davi, Chris Evans, James Franco, Winona Ryder and Ray Liotta. It has a US release of 3rd May 2012, but doesn’t seem to have UK or Irish release date yet. He’ll also be appearing in The Bronx Bull, the story of boxer Jake LaMotta that picks up where Raging Bull left off, with William Forsythe stepping into the iconic role.

5 Responses

  1. LOVE Robert Davi! “Sanchez” Made My Top 7 Favorite Bond-Baddies Of All-Time List! He Was #6 On Said List, Actually!
    Robert Davi Is Such An Underrated Actor.
    I Just LOVE His Work!!!
    Excellent Post, Sir, Excellent!!!
    -B.

  2. Excellent 🙂 Really enjoyed reading this one! Looking forward to next year’s films.

  3. Is Robert Levi so ignorant that he doesn’t know it is good manners to remove the hat during an interview? I’m referring to his interview on Fox News this morning.

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