James Duval: staying true to indie roots

By Cathy L. Witbrodt
May 27, 2004

James Duval burst onto the indie film scene in 1993 playing a disillusioned teen in writer-director Gregg Araki’s “Totally F***ed Up” and soon became the embodiment of Generation X alienation in Araki’s follow-up films, “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere.” Duval’s 10-year career has been filled with diverse and offbeat roles, making him a favorite of indie fans and a notable presence in mainstream films.

Born in Detroit on Sept. 10, 1972, Duval’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was 2. Growing up in a variety of L.A. suburbs, Duval eventually settled in the small town of Covina, Calif., where he graduated from Gladstone High in 1989. He comes from an ethnically mixed background: His mother is from Saigon and is French and Vietnamese, and his father is Irish and Native American. While attending elementary school in Redondo Beach, Duval had a difficult time fitting in and was taunted by classmates because of his heritage. Having no cultural group to identify with, Duval ultimately realized that he had to define himself by the things he thought were important, and not to be influenced by how other people perceived him.

Duval later developed an interest in gymnastics as well as anthropology. Music has been a strong influence in his life: He trained as a classical pianist, plays the guitar, writes songs and collects rare musical recordings. He would travel to Hollywood to buy records, and it was there that he met actors and musicians, and was exposed to opportunities that he hadn't had in the suburbs. In his late teens he played in a band but soon decided to quit and move to Hollywood to become an actor.

Eighteen years old and not knowing how to break into the business, Duval audited acting classes, looked for a job and hung out at the Melrose Rainbow Café, where Gregg Araki did his writing. Araki introduced himself to Duval as an indie filmmaker and showed him the script for “Totally F***ed Up,” thinking he would be perfect for the role of Andy. Eager to be part of this new project, Duval was inspired by Araki’s innovativeness and how he challenged the way people thought about social issues. He also closely identified with the isolation of the characters in the film and understood the struggle they were going through.

It was three years before Duval found an agent and manager, but in the interim he took jobs as a bus boy and waiter to pay the rent while he filmed Araki’s new film, “The Doom Generation,” which also featured Rose McGowan and
Johnathon Schaech. It was for “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere” that Araki specifically wrote roles for Duval that were based on the way Duval viewed the world. He garnered accolades for his role as Jordan White, a näive and vulnerable suburbanite caught up in a hellish road trip, but the film received mixed reviews because of its graphic violence.

Duval then took a small role as a biker in “Mod F**k Explosion,” directed by Araki’s friend Jon Moritsugu, and played a student in the psychological drama “An Ambush of Ghosts,” starring Stephen Dorff. Duval traveled the film festival circuit to New York City, San Francisco, Spain, Deuville, Toronto and Venice promoting “The Doom Generation” but held on to his job as a waiter.

German filmmaker Roland Emmerich came into the restaurant where Duval waited tables, mentioned that he liked his performance in “Totally F***ed Up” and offered him the role of Miguel Casse in his new sci-fi epic “Independence Day.” Duval received critical praise for his performance in “ID4” and credited Emmerich for bringing him to the attention of a mainstream audience. He enjoyed the experience of working on a big-budget film but wanted to continue working with indie directors and writers who were emerging on the scene and were willing to push the boundaries of film.

The success of “ID4” allowed Duval to concentrate on acting full time, and he teamed up with Araki for the final installment of his trilogy, the twisted anti-pop-culture film “Nowhere.” In a large ensemble cast featuring some of pop culture’s most recognized stars, Duval played the principal role of the sensitive and conflicted character, Dark Smith, an idealistic teen looking for love.

Duval ventured into television with, “This is How the World Ends,” an MTV pilot directed by Araki about the gay club scene, and a James Merendino project called “Alexandria Hotel.” He then took part in the PBS miniseries “The United States of Poetry,” an anthology of modern poetry shown in rock video format with images reinforcing the authors’ words. The series also featuring Johnny Depp and rock icon Lou Reed.

Next came supporting roles in two award-winning films: Duval joined Michael Imperioli as a street hustler in the AIDS-related drama “A River Made to Drown In,” and followed it with “How to Make the Cruelest Month,” starring Clea DuVall and Ethan Embry. Duval also participated in three little-known indies: “Lunch Time Special,” as a teen who mistakenly believes he has only 24 hours to live, “Stamp and Deliver,” playing a postal worker blamed for a massacre (the film was shelved due to lack of funds), and as the rebel outsider in the slasher film “Clown At Midnight.”

In 1999, Duval once again teamed up with James Merendino for “SLC Punk,” a study of the 1980s punk scene, set in the director’s hometown of Salt Lake City and starring Matthew Lillard and Michael Goorjian. Next up was “GO,” the indie hit about a drug deal gone bad and told from three different points of view, co-starring Sarah Polley and Katie Holmes. Taking another leap into mainstream film, Duval joined Nicolas Cage, Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi in the crime-thriller “Gone in 60 Seconds” as a member of a gang of professional car thieves.

In the acclaimed film “The Weekend,” the story of a group of friends gathering on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, Duval was cast in the pivotal role of Robert, a gay artist, and his piano playing skills are featured during a scene. The film won the Seattle International Film Festival, New American Cinema Award for Excellence for Ensemble Cast Performance. It co-stars Gena Rowlands and Deborah Unger.

A longtime “Star Wars” fan and avid collector of memorabilia and action figures, Duval took part in the 2001 documentary “A Galaxy Far Far Away,” which examined the “Star Wars” phenomenon and the fans who became part of it. Andy Garcia, Joe Pesci and Samuel L. Jackson were among the celebrities interviewed, and Duval said that the “Star Wars” films changed his life and inspired him to dream about the possibilities that were open to him.

After seeing Duval’s performance in “ID4,” Native American writer-director Randy Redroad wanted him for the role of Hunter in his film “The Doe Boy.” He sought out Duval to play the half-Cherokee, half-white hemophiliac teen coming to terms with his identity, in a script based on Redroad’s own experiences. It was Duval’s first lead role, and critics called his portrayal “a powerful performance of a teen caught between two cultures.” Duval won the Best Actor Award at the American Indian Film Festival, as well as the Best Actor Award at The Wine Country Film Festival. A trailer for the film can be viewed at

Soon after its release in 2001, director Richard Kelly’s film “Donnie Darko” became a cult favorite. In this psychological thriller, Duval is the ominous 6-foot-tall bunny Frank, who convinces a delusional high school student, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, that the world is coming to an end. The director's cut of "Donnie Darko" is set to be released in theaters this summer.

Duval also did a short film called “The Tag” with Djimon Hounsou, and rejoined director James Merendino in the Dogme13 production “Amerikana,” a road movie featuring two men who set out to discover the bright lights of Los Angeles. This was followed by a small role in “Comic Book Villains,” a film about murderous comic book collectors, starring Donal Logue and Danny Masterson.

In 2002, Duval played Blank in director Lucky McKee’s horror film “May,” starring Angela Bettis as a lonely woman who goes to terrifying lengths to find companionship. Originally there was more to Duval’s character; he and May bonded against society, throwing off conventional language and names, but the scene was cut from the film. Jeremy Sisto and Anna Faris co-starred.

In his next film, “Pledge of Allegiance” (aka “The Red Zone”), Duval plays Ray, a Native American in this coming-of-age story set in a community overrun with crime and violence.
Freddy Rodríguez of “Six Feet Under” has the leading role of a high school senior who gets caught in the middle of a rivalry between Italian and Indian casinos. For updates, the trailer and behind-the-scenes photos, visit the official website at

In the musical comedy
Open House, Duval and Kellie Martin play a couple who break into song-and-dance routines while visiting an open house. This innovative indie film about the real estate business premiered at the Slam Dance Festival in 2004 with an ensemble cast who performed their songs live for the camera instead of lip-synching to pre-recorded music. For more info, song clips, a trailer and updates, visit the official website at

Duval made a cameo appearance in the indie horror film “Frog-g-g.” The film was screened in Los Angeles in 2002 and is said to have the classic appeal of old horror films. It now has a tentative release date of “summer 2004.”

Next up for Duval are two comedy-dramas, both in post-production and tentatively scheduled for 2005 releases.

In “Window Theory,” starring Corey Large and Jennifer O’Dell, Duval plays Dave Kordelewski in a film about “an aimless playboy who returns home for his best friend's wedding only to find that the bride is his high school sweetheart.” You can view the trailer and check for updates at the official website:

The film “Standing Still” is the story of a popular actor who reconnects with a group of college friends for a wedding several years after graduation. Duval joins a popular young cast, including Jon Abrahams, Colin Hanks, Adam Garcia, Amy Adams, Ethan Embry and Mena Suvari. The film was in the editing process in early February, and the filmmakers will soon be looking for a distributor.

Throughout his career, James Duval has credited his success to Gregg Araki, and has followed Araki’s advice to surround himself with people who believe in what they’re doing and are committed to making films with a message about the human condition.

Cathy Lynn Witbrodt lives in NYC and is a longtime fan of indie films and experimental theater.

Related link: James Duval, a calavera fan site
Related link: James Duval's filmography @ IMDb