Renaissance Man David Lipper Discusses His Upcoming Films, The Monkey Puppets, and a Career Full of Transformations
David Lipper is a difficult actor to pin down, both in terms of current projects and location. With six major ventures in the works in the last year alone, Lipper has crossed genres and oceans, and after 25 years in the industry, he still continues to defy expectations. The bold and ambitious Canadian boasts, “If I showed you pictures from my last five movies, you would see five completely different looking guys.” Yet no matter his appearance or role, Lipper seems to truly enjoy his work. Off-camera, he beams an infectious smile, which creates a stark contrast to the intense, difficult characters he plays with apparent ease.
From his home in Montreal, a city known for its European-like flair, Lipper made his way to the US to earn his BFA in Musical Theater at Emerson College in Boston in 1991. Several years later, he landed his first major role as the iconic bad boy and D.J. Tanner’s love interest, Viper, on Full House. Given that show’s loyal fan base, Lipper’s brief involvement near the tail end of the series left some die-hard fans wondering years later what had happened to this quintessential ’90s heartthrob. Well, the mystery is over.
Lately, the chameleon-like entertainer, who moonlights as a musician in his spare time, could be seen playing an American revolutionary in the History Channel’s mini-series Sons of Liberty; a mustachioed father to teenage victims in the satiric ’80s-type slasher flick Lost After Dark; a National Security Agency analyst in the TV movie Non-Stop; and a fraudulent American investor in post-revolutionary Romania in Pioneers’ Palace. That last one took the hockey aficionado to the Sundance Film Festival for the very first time.
Still, Lipper’s career has not been without its obstacles. His diverse track record is filled with ups and downs, good years and bad. This is the type of work that has driven many of his peers into retirement, but Lipper seems to feed off the chaos. Chalking up his busy schedule over the last few years to a mixture of passion and luck, the former CEO of litoptions.com, an Internet company for the entertainment community that folded in 2000, approaches the future with the same lighthearted zeal that has guided him throughout his many transformations. Given the praise now echoing from fellow actors and audiences around the world, Lipper’s tireless dedication may be earning him the attention he undoubtedly deserves.
GALO recently spoke with Lipper about his flurry of current and upcoming projects, coaching fellow actors, working in Romania, and his unquenchable drive behind it all.
GALO: One of your most recent projects was the mini-series Sons of Liberty, which focused on the American Revolution. You’re a familiar face in American entertainment, but you’re not originally from the States. What was it like to play a revolutionary given that you’re Canadian?
David Lipper: I grew up in Montreal, but I went to university in Boston before moving out here [to LA]. I’ve lived in America more than I have in Canada. Growing up, American history was a subject in school, but certainly not as big as in America. I don’t think I knew about the Battle of Bunker Hill, but we learned about the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre. It wasn’t like I didn’t know who John Hancock and Paul Revere were, especially going to school in Boston, where the Hancock building sticks out so that you can’t miss it. Samuel Adams and Paul Revere — anyone who has spent time in Boston knows these guys.
Still, I definitely did some research, especially during pre-production, to learn more about the personal stories involved. I knew the basic history. I knew the colonies were sick of paying high taxes to the British, and I knew that these guys were the leaders of the Revolution. I don’t know if I knew a whole hell of a lot more than that.
GALO: Speaking of personal character stories, your character wasn’t a real person — Amos was an amalgam of an entire class of people.
DL: You’re right. When they formed this gang — and it really was a down and dirty gang — you had the money guy John Hancock, you had the leader Samuel Adams, and you had the more go-getter type leader Paul Revere, who was instrumental because he had a metal shop and could get weapons. The merchants were basically your street guys back in those days. We were the “horse and buggy guys,” slinging booze, guns, and ammunition. Especially my character — although, it would be nice to see the original edits before they cut it down for TV — [who] was instrumental in setting up a whole system of gold coins, which could identify members of the gang. If you had one of these special coins, you could buy and sell goods within the group without paying taxes to the British. Eventually, a spy uncovered the system. Things started to get nasty, and that’s when it turned into a violent revolution.
The producers knew the merchants were a very important part of this gang. Rather than have a whole bunch of merchants, they decided to have one character to represent them all. They didn’t have a famous merchant to draw from, so they created their own, [one] named Amos. He’s there throughout all three episodes with Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. He was certainly in the thick of the war by episode three.
GALO: As you mentioned, you played a fictional character, but the overall show was historically accurate, since it’s on the History Channel. In another one of your recent projects, the film Pioneers’ Palace, you play Kevin, who’s another fictional character based in reality. What interests you about fictional roles based on true events?
DL: Well, I’d like to tell you [that] I had a special hand in choosing my character. Funny enough, they originally wanted me to play Barrett, a farmer who houses the revolutionaries at his farm in episode two. But the director and producer, who were in Romania when I was just finishing up a film, were excited that I was already there. They wanted a bigger part for me, so I ended up with this four-month shoot playing Amos. Why do things like that happen? I can’t really say. I just wanted to be a part of the project. Whatever part they saw me fit for, I would have been happy to play.
My part in Pioneers’ Palace came about by an interesting series of events. I was originally in Romania to teach an acting Master’s class. Some of the students were professionals, working in film and television in Romania. Some were complete novices who had never worked before, other than at this school in Romania. While I was teaching, all these movies kept popping up. People kept saying, “I can’t believe you’re in Romania, can we hire you?” That’s how I ended up shooting five movies there last year. The owner of the school, Bobby Paunescu, is a famous producer and director in Romania. He put Pioneers’ Palace together and wanted to put this entire Master’s class in the movie. The students made up about 99 percent of the cast. Basically, I coached the entire cast.
Yes, the movie is based on actual events: the coming of age of this director and what it was like for him as the son of a diplomat in post-revolutionary Romania. This takes place in ’91 or ’92, immediately after the overthrow of [Nicolae] Ceauşescu, who was a terrible, tyrannical communist dictator. The movie is about these kids who are coming to terms with growing up in a very unique time — not only for Romania, but for the world. One of the topics that pops up in the movie is AIDS. The kids start freaking out. For example, a guy and girl kiss and don’t know if they can get AIDS from kissing. If you think back to the ’80s when AIDS broke out, we didn’t know what was safe. We had the same panic. I think people can relate to that and remember that time.
They had one character who was an American, who was one of these investors that came in and bragged that he had millions of dollars when it was all BS. It’s very similar to the California Gold Rush, where you had all these dreamers come out in search of a better life. All of a sudden, there were all these untapped possibilities. And then you had people who came to take advantage of the dreamers. I’d say you still have descendants of both here in Los Angeles. It was very much like the Wild West at that time. I think the movie really hits the core on what that time was like.
GALO: Playing that foreign character, did you feel your foreignness more acutely? Obviously you connected with your fellow cast members, mentoring them and helping them with this project, but did your role highlight the differences between you?
DL: It was actually great for me. It’s very important for actors to be proactive, which means we’re constantly excited to meet our emotional need in a scene. But it’s also very important to listen. I don’t speak Romanian and they’re all speaking in Romanian, so on camera, I’m really paying attention. We didn’t really have a script. It was a full-length feature based on seven pages. You can imagine how much ad-libbing was necessary in every scene, so I had nothing to refer to for context. I focused on trying to understand, ‘Is the guy talking about me? Is he saying something good about me? Is he saying something negative?’ All of that was real. I just didn’t know. That was really exciting for me to play. It came out really, really funny.
GALO: I imagine it built a lot of energy there on set. Not knowing what they’re saying must have been crazy.
DL: Well, it got into the Sundance Film Festival. That was rewarding for me, not only as an actor in the movie, but as a coach to all of the other actors. All these first time actors were recognized as some of the best actors in all of Sundance. The head of the festival made a big opening speech, saying how excited he was to have the film there and how good it was. It was also great that so much of the cast and the director all made it to Sundance. It was a nice reunion for me. We had a lot of fun.
GALO: At Sundance they discussed Pioneers’ Palace in the context of Romanian New Wave Cinema, which includes multiple films that tackle this same subject. Did you feel that the film culture around this topic in Romania constricted the work at all, or do you feel that the film approached the topic in a new way?
DL: I don’t know if they were specifically saying this topic is the New Wave of Romania. I think it’s more that there’s a thriving film community in Romania right now. A wave of new talent is coming out there, which they discussed on our panel, asking, “Why is this happening?” One expert on the panel explained that the turn of the century was a dark period for Romania, where nothing was coming out. You had some people, like our director, who left to study at the USC film school. He learned the tricks of the trade outside of Romania and came back. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons there’s this new wave.
You also have some very good crews. Sons of Liberty included some of the best sets I’ve ever seen, and I’ve shot $100 million movies. Granted, they brought in a lot of the crew from England, but all the carpenters and set guys were local.
There are three big studios that are busy there. While we were shooting Sons of Liberty, there were crews on two other movies all staying at the same hotel. Between us, we took the place over for production. It’s just been a revolving door of productions coming in and out. It’s really quite convenient to come to Romania from other European countries, especially because they’re part of the EU. It’s easy to shoot as a British production or co-production.