Based on the characters he plays on TV, you might think Alan Dale is an intimidating jerk. It turns out that that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The New Zealand actor best known in America for his roles on The O.C., 24, Ugly Betty and Lost is actually a nice guy in real life. Luckily, this popular misconception doesn’t bother Dale too much since it affords him a certain amount of privacy.
We recently had to opportunity to sit down with Dale and pleasantly chat about the final season of Lost, his tragic history of on-screen heart attacks and his sweet 1970s afro.
How did you get into acting? When did you decide it’s what you wanted to do for a living?
I was probably in my 20s when I decided that’s what I wanted to do, but I had been doing it for years because my parents were involved in amateur theatre in New Zealand, where I grew up. They and some friends built a little theater at one point. I used to go in there and sneakily smoke cigarettes behind the sets and wind the wind machine when it was required and get involved. It was a place that I enjoyed.
When I got to my 20s, I was messing around. I sold cars and real estate, then I went back to university to do a law degree. And one day I thought, “I can be a lawyer or a judge. I can be a doctor or just be an actor. I’ll do it all.”
Did you work steadily as an actor early on or were you doing other things besides acting?
It was an odd thing because I was married at the time and I said to my wife, “Look, I’ve decided this is what I want to do” and in New Zealand, the population at the time was three million people – there wasn’t going to be much chance of making a living. But I did, for some reason. Fairly shortly afterward, I got a role in a series that lasted about nine months. Then I did have a period of a few months out of work, so I went to Australia and almost immediately went into a series there that lasted for three and a half years.
I also did a bit of radio along the way, so that was the sort of thing I used to do to fill in the gap. So I really had a good time, to be honest.
What made you decide to move to the United States? Did you come here to pursue an acting career?
It was for acting. I had been in a series that was very big in Australia, a series called Neighbours. Neighbours was a hit in Europe and Asia and Australia and New Zealand and I’d been in that for eight and a half years. That character that I played meant that it was very difficult for me to get a role in anything else in Australia.
So I fiddled around with it for a while, then in 1999, I did a movie of the week called First Daughter – an American movie made in Australia. I played the chief of Presidential security. I overheard the producer talking about what they were paying one of the American actors and I thought, “He’s getting about 10 times what I’m getting, I should go to America.” So I just picked up my wife and we had a two year old at the time and we just came across to see what would happen. It’s been fantastic, so that’s why I came and we find ourselves living here in California and very happy.
Three of your big American roles have been Vice President Jim Prescott on 24, Caleb Nichols on The O.C. and Charles Widmore on Lost, all of whom are powerful, tough men. Why do you think you keep getting cast in these types of roles?
Good question. I think part of it is because I can’t play the juvenile lead anymore. (Laughs.) I look like I do. It is interesting because before I came here, I didn’t play this sort of role very often in Australia. I became famous in Australia and New Zealand and England for this role in Neighbours where I was Australia’s most beloved father, really. But that was me when I was younger and I had hair and [this type or role] just seems to be the one that I’ve fallen into. I have tried out for other roles, but this is the one I seem to always get. So what do you do? It’s a living.
Three of your best known characters – Jim Robinson on Neighbours, Caleb Nichol on The O.C. and Bradford Meade in Ugly Betty were written out of their shows through fatal heart attacks.
It’s terrible. I think I should go into the Guinness Book of Records as the actor who has had the most heart attacks on television.
It’s got to be a little disconcerting.
(Laughs.) Well, I do wonder if that’s how I’m going to go.
If so, it will undoubtedly be a fantastic scene.
Well, yes and I’m hoping the cameras are rolling.
How did you end up with the role of Charles Widmore on Lost and were you a fan of the show before becoming a part of it?
I was. I had just been cast as Bradford Meade in Ugly Betty. I think we’d made the pilot and I’d just come back. I think we were still waiting to see if the pilot was going to be picked up and this role came up. I went to see the casting people and got the role. As far as I knew, it was just one episode. I didn’t know that it was going to continue on right through to the end of the series. But that was it. And they were looking for someone to play an Englishman. Well, in the end, he mostly sort of has my accent more than an English accent now, but these things evolve.
But that’s how it happened. It really was just one of those things. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to stay and in the end in 2008 I went to London and played the lead in Spamalot on the West End for five months. They had to come to London to shoot scenes with me because I couldn’t take the time off to come back to Hawaii. Each step along the way, I haven’t know that I was going to be in it for the next season, but it just has turned out that way. So that’s good.
When did you start to discover how important your character was to the mythology of the show? Was it just as you were getting the scripts and reading them or did they ever pull you aside and explain their plan for your character?
They have never explained anything to me. I still don’t know if I’m a good guy or a bad guy. But I’ve had calls from publicists and people like that. I remember my publicist ringing me and screaming down the phone. I’d done this one scene in the back of a Bentley in a factory parking lot in Waikiki. They had a hose and they were spraying down the car trying to make it look like England. I came home and it went on air and this publicist girl that I had been working with rang me and she said, “You’re the man. You’re the one behind the whole thing.”
I said, “I can’t be. I’ve only done one scene, what are you talking about?”
And so, she sort of explained and it looked for a long time like I was. I still don’t know if that’s true.
You mentioned being a fan of the show. Do you go on websites and read theories or do you just take the information as it comes and try not to worry about it too much?
Well, I worry about it because I do think it effects how you play the role – knowing where you came from and where you’re going and things. And I find that disconcerting. But, at the same time, there isn’t anything I can do about it.
The writers and producers had a thing where people paid $35 a head and spent the day with them and they told them what they wanted to hear, a few weeks ago. It was written up in the press and I read that. During that, Jack Bender, one of the executive producers and one of the directors of the show, was laughing about the fact that I was particularly difficult about it. Most other actors just put up with it. But I keep on about it because “Why am I doing this scene? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Am I trying to kill this guy or am I here trying to save him? What am I doing?”
They tell you only just enough, on this show, for you to do the job. It has been a bit frustrating, I have to say. But, on the other hand, it’s funny and fun and it’s nearly over. It’s been a great ride.
Have you drawn any conclusions about Charles Widmore? How do you view the character?
As far as I know, I’ve finished on the show. But they’ve still got two more episodes to shoot. I don’t even know if they’re going to want me to go back or if that is it for me. And as I say it to you, I still don’t if I’m a good guy or a bad guy. That’s the truth about what I know about it.
I’d love to be able to tell you more. And I’m asked this all the time and sometimes people get very frustrated with me. And I sometimes come up with convoluted answers to try to help and end up with terrible things happening.
If you have a minute, I have an example. In London a couple of years ago when I’d gone across to there to do a miniseries, I was doing publicity for it and there was one of those junkets where the journalists came in out of the room and I sat in this room. For two hours, I sat there. At the last one, I was finished and they were finished and we were putting our coats on because it was cold and we were about to leave. As we were walking out the door, the woman said to me, “So tell me about Lost.”
And I said, “I can’t really tell you anything about Lost.”
She said, “Why not?”
I said, “Well, I sort of stopped watching it really.” I said it tongue-in-cheek. I said, “After you watch them walking through the jungle a thousand times, you sort of wonder why you’re watching it. Then a cloud came out of jungle, picked up an African American man, threw him against the tree and killed him. And I said to myself, ‘Well, I don’t think I should watch it anymore.’” That’s what I said, just joking and chuckling and walking down the hallway. The next day, the headline in that paper was: “Lost star commits career suicide.” So you’ve got to be careful what you say.
But there’s not much to say because they really don’t tell us, you know?
You mentioned that you think you might be done filming the show. Did you get a sense of closure in the episodes you filmed? Did you walk away feeling that if you didn’t come back your character’s story arc is complete?
No, but again, you’ll have to understand I only get to read the episodes that I’m in, so I don’t see any other ones. So anything that hasn’t been on air yet, I don’t know actually what happens in those episodes that I’m not in. So the honest answer to that is no, I didn’t get that feeling. In fact, I thought, “Gosh, if that’s it, I still don’t know if I’m a good guy or a bad guy, so I don’t know what it was all about.” I’m hoping that when I sit and watch it, and I am watching it, that when it comes to the end, it will all be clear. But at the moment, I have no idea.
David S. Lee played Young Charles Widmore on the show. Do you think he did a good job playing a younger you?
They wanted to know what I looked like when I was young, so I sent pictures of then. If you go online onto YouTube, you’ll see in 1979 I did a Schick razor commercial and I had long curly hair, sort of like an afro. So they got a guy that had long, curly hair to play me. I met him, but he was a bit distant with me. (Laughs.) I don’t know why.
But I don’t know whether that’s me. It’s very difficult to tell whether that’s you or not.
The battle between Charles Widmore and Benjamin Linus has become integral to the show’s mythology. What is it like doing those scenes with Michael Emerson, particularly the one you mentioned where they came out to London to film that confrontation in Widmore’s flat?
First of all, suddenly Charles Widmore had a beard because I was playing King Arthur and he had a beard.
Michael’s a very nice guy. Really. And we really enjoy it, actually, because it’s quite intense. The scenes are intense. Truthfully, he knows a bit more than I do because he’s a regular on the series and I’m more a recurring character, so he lives there and he’s more immersed in it. But still, I don’t think he’s much more aware of whether he’s the good guy or I am.
But all we do is we get in there and he’s got those eyes and he stares at me and I stare back at him and we just go for it. That part’s really fun. Getting the job is the work. Playing the character, you’d do it for nothing. It’s fun.
Is there a different vibe for you this season actually being on the island?
Not quite as much as you’d expect because I’m actually on Oahu when I’m shooting most of those scenes anyway. But I have to say that my feeling about going to Hawaii changed considerably when I went to the North Shore for the first time to do some of those scenes last season – when I was taken down the jetty and put on the submarine when I was thrown off the island and a couple of other scenes I did. When I got to see that part of the island, I started to fall in love with the place. I’m very sad that it’s over, from that point of view. It’s a very beautiful place to go.
Obviously, there is a big battle on the horizon between your character and the smoke monster character. Is there anything fans should be looking out for or things we can expect to see in the coming weeks?
I think just that. I’m hoping that it doesn’t end up being a damp squib. I’m concerned that fans might chase me down the street with meat cleavers if the questions aren’t all answered. But I have a feeling that they aren’t all going to be answered. So I’m not sure how it’s going to go.
Have you given any thought into how you would like the show to end or what questions you would like to see answered? Or is that not something you really worry about?
It isn’t really, to be honest. No, I don’t.
All I can say is it seems to be building towards some of a big event at the end and I don’t know what that event’s going to be. But it seems to be. But I can’t say anymore about that because that would be unfair. They’re so protective.
I was in the show The X-Files the last seven episodes playing The Toothpick Man. It was an interesting thing. We actually shot the final scene. They completely built the Oval Office and I was in the Oval Office with President Bush – they got that famous guy that’s a Bush lookalike and they cast him in it – and we did this scene, the end of The X-Files, which in the end they didn’t use. And I think they did seven different scenes like that and then decided which one to use so no one could guess how it was going to end. And I’m not sure that that’s not what they’re going to do here too. I don’t know that it is. So I think they’re being very careful to make sure that nobody knows how it’s going to end.
And I’ve talked to Matthew Fox, he doesn’t seem to know. If he doesn’t know, probably nobody does. Certainly Terry [O’Quinn] doesn’t know.
Do you and the other actors toss theories back and forth and try to figure this stuff out on your own?
It’s a little like working in an ice cream factory. You don’t probably eat that much ice cream when you do. I think when we’re finished, we’re happy to go and pour a glass of wine and talk about the football.
Do you get recognized a lot by fans because of Lost?
It’s interesting because when I played that character in Australia all those years, people used to hurl comments at me from cars and things. Now, they don’t do that so much because they’re not quite sure if this guy is likely to rip their head and do something dreadful to them. They tend to stand back with me a little bit with me now and I quite like that.
So playing these bad ass characters has helped you out a bit?
It does. It definitely does, in that way, yes.
What other projects do you have in the works? What’s on the horizon for you?
I just finished a movie called Earthbound with Kate Hudson and Kathy Bates and Whoopi Goldberg. And a couple other roles. They’re not huge roles, but they’re movie roles. I’m sort of hoping to move into that area a bit.
And I must admit, I’m actually very tired, so if I end up with a month or so off, it won’t be a bad thing. I’ve been to New Orleans three times and Hawaii three times in the last six weeks, so you get rather tired from it. I’m just recovering.
Have you put any thought into what types of roles you would like to play? Would you like to do something different?
Yes, I have. I would really love to do a sitcom. And I had a lot of fun when I did Spamalot in London. I don’t know if you ever saw the musical Spamalot, which was Monty Python, it was very, very funny and fun to do. I actually did a pilot for a sitcom a few years ago – I played a gay English butler – it looked like it might go, but it ended up not going. That’s something I’d love to do. But whether I get the opportunity is … it’s one of those things, I often listen to these actors talking about how they choose the roles they play. I’m always a bit bemused because I know how I choose mine – they’re the ones I’m offered. (Laughs.) “That means income, you know?” “Oh, okay.”
I think I have turned one or two roles down. I’ve got four sons and two of them are little. I really don’t want to play child molesters or those sorts of characters. So I have turned those sorts of roles down. But apart from that, usually the roles I play are the ones that I’m offered.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
I actually was quite good at selling cars. As quite a young man, my early 20s, I was the manager of a Nissan dealership in New Zealand. I was quite good at that and I didn’t mind it. I love cars, so I quite enjoyed that. Looking back, that’s probably what I would have done.
But apart from that, I have to admit once I started working as an actor, I have never regretted it. When they ask you to fill out the form that says occupation and I put “actor,” I love it.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I played rugby as a sport and I played at just under the All Blacks level in New Zealand. I played for Auckland and for Wellington. That is one of my great passions. That might be something, I suppose.
There isn’t very much. Sadly, when you’ve been in the public eye for a long time, the public knows everything, even your age. I often meet people who hide how old they are, but I don’t have the option of that. They found out how old I was when I was young and it didn’t matter and they just add a year each year.
What does the future hold for you?
I don’t really know, to be honest. I think that’s one of the joys, though, of life. I think most people think that their safe when they’re employed by someone. They think life is safe. But life isn’t safe and in the business that I’m in – and you’re in, our business – you can be out of work tomorrow. It’s quite an exciting place to be. I don’t have any idea and that’s probably a good thing.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. The final season of Lost airs Tuesday nights on ABC, but you probably already knew that.