Some of us dream of a presence on the silver screen. David Willis '71 has made that dream a reality. To be sure, it’s a dream that has taken a long and serpentine path. But then how many actors can say they are in a film that was nominated for eight Academy Awards?
Willis has a supporting role in the critically acclaimed “There Will Be Blood,” in which he plays Abel Sunday, who has his land — and oil — swindled by the lead character, Daniel Plainview, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. Based on the 1927 Sinclair Lewis novel Oil!, the plot centers around the early days of the oil business with subnarratives of greed, family and religion.
Willis says being on the set was a heady time. “This is more than I’ve ever had before,” he says, relishing the experience. Whether the role leads to more spots in the capricious film industry, however, remains to be seen.
Willis is taking no chances in that regard and is finishing work on an online master’s degree in library and
information science from San Jose State University.
Since leaving WSU, he has had “some success” as an actor, but the business is notoriously tough, and Willis, like many who aspire to make it in the profession, has had a variety of other jobs to make ends meet.
Those who attended plays at WSU in the late 1960s and early 1970s likely saw Wichita native and East High graduate Willis on stage. As a theater student, he took part in 27 productions during a three-year period, honing his skills under the direction of the noted Dick Welsbacher, whom he admires greatly.
“I always wanted to emulate him,” Willis says about WSU’s longtime theater guru, now professor emeritus and director emeritus of WSU’s school of theater. For his part, Welsbacher calls Willis’ movie performance “very, very good. Of course, he’s not in there as much as we would like him to be!”
Welsbacher, who still keeps in touch with Willis, recalls with fondness the busy days of WSU theater in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a time in which there were up to 10 productions in a school year, along with a half dozen readers’ theaters.
After Willis left WSU to explore his career opportunities, he maintained his Shocker connections. “My WSU network is really important,” he says. “I stay in touch with a lot of the people I knew there.”
One of those, David Stone ’70, knows exactly what Willis had to go through to get to a major break. Stone “kicked around” with Willis while the two were at Wichita State. They both went to New York to seek fame and fortune as actors, but that didn’t work out — at least not in the Big Apple. Willis made his way to the West Coast, and Stone headed to Philadelphia, where he works as a producer. Stone’s work with actors has given him an insight into the business. “It’s a tough way to make a living,” he relates.
Willis has landed roles in a number of movies, including “The Good German,” “Lost,” “A Murder of Crows” and, early in his career, “Endless Love,” a film starring Brooke Shields. He’s also done work in commercials. Stone is proud of his friend’s accomplishments. Willis, Stone says, is simply “a terrific guy,” who is well deserving of a big break.
Willis kept up his ties to his buddies while filming “There Will Be Blood” on location in Texas, where he wrote a blog and e-mailed friends. The blog — full of information about Texas, the movie business and Willis’ experience — was “a riot,” Stone says.
Landing the role in “There Will Be Blood” was unlike anything Willis had done before. While working at the Burbank Public Library, he received a call in February 2006 from his manager about casting for a new film. Usually tryouts, known as “cattle calls” in the industry, last five minutes at most. This one was not the norm, going on for about 25 minutes with casting director Cassandra Kulukundis.
“I had a feeling about this since it was such a different experience,” Willis says, “and my instincts were right.” A month later, he received an unexpected package: The entire script to “There Will Be Blood.”
“That had never happened to me in 27 years,” he says.
But then Willis didn’t hear back from the producers until he received a call one Saturday two months later asking him if he was able to meet with director Paul Thomas Anderson the next day at 3 p.m.
“Oh, yes I can,” was his reply. Also at the meeting was lead actor Day-Lewis. The group worked through the script. Willis’ day had arrived. At 63, Willis ordinarily would be a bit old for the role of a father, but director Anderson wanted people who could portray an aged, weathered look that showed the toll a tough life had taken — and Willis fit the bill. With his hands on the wheel of a brand new car, Willis drove to Marfa, Texas, for the filming. West Texas was an apt setting for the film: desolate, hot, dry and dusty.
“It was a wonderful location,” Willis says of the area, also the filming site for the movies “Giant” and “No Country for Old Men.” While Willis’ time on the set was scheduled to be seven weeks, it stretched into 10 weeks, and he was there until the last scene.
There was a two-week period in which Willis just had to bide his time, and although he grew a bit restless with the hiatus, it provided an opportunity to explore the scruffy landscape. Because of the extended leave, he needed to pull some strings to keep his library job in Burbank, but he managed to hang onto it.
“There Will Be Blood,” which made its premiere Dec. 10 in New York, was put into limited released Dec. 26 and full release Jan. 11 to widespread acclaim. It spent weeks on the list of top 10 grossing films. Willis is pleased with the movie’s success, but as an actor knows that nothing is certain. He intends to keep his union membership — a necessary requirement for obtaining work — and audition for other roles when he can.
“I hope it leads to more opportunities,” he says, “but frankly this whole thing happened to me after I’d already given up hope that I was ever going to make it.”