The star of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ discusses the iconic film 50 years later

"I have met a number of astronauts who have told me that, as young people, the inspiration from '2001' resulted in their becoming astronauts."

Keir Dullea in a scene from the 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey." –Warner Bros. via AP

Keir Dullea is best known for his portrayal of astronaut David Bowman in the sci-fi epic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary this year, Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline will host special 70 mm film screenings this weekend. Dullea, now 82, will introduce the screening on Saturday afternoon and participate in a moderated conversation after the Saturday night screening.

The Globe spoke to the actor about director Stanley Kubrick, the movie’s notoriously enigmatic meaning, and the nature of art that endures. “The question is always asked: What does this film mean?” Dullea said. “I think the very fact [that] that’s a factor of this film is part of the reason it’s become the iconic film that it has.”


Q. How did you land the role of Dr. David Bowman?

A. I was filming a film in London with Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley called “Bunny Lake Is Missing.” It was an Otto Preminger film. Not a pleasant experience. Working with Olivier was the exception. That was wonderful, and he was very kind to me. One day after work, my wife said to call my agent. So I call, and my agent asks, “Are you sitting down?” I said, “No, why?” He said, “You’ve just been offered the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s next film.” I absolutely had no idea I was being considered. I never met anybody about it. It was totally out of the blue.

Q. What was it like working with Kubrick?

A. It was like going from hell to heaven, having worked for Preminger, who was an all-time bully. I loved working for Kubrick. He was calm, and you just knew you were in the presence of genius. He was a perfectionist, but he was usually right about his perfection. He was also very open to ideas. That didn’t necessarily mean they were used, but you didn’t feel he’d look down on you for suggesting something. It was a wonderful experience.


Q. What did you think when you first saw “2001”? Rock Hudson famously walked out of the premiere.

A. The second premiere was in New York. In New York alone 250 people walked out of the premiere that night, before it was over. It got terrible reviews, for the most part. Well over 60 or 70 percent of reviews were terrible. And then, suddenly, within a couple of months, it ended up being the top-grossing film. And it was the young generation, I think, that was responsible. They were lining up around the block. I think MGM [the production company] thought that maybe a lot of those kids were smoking funny cigarettes. So they changed the advertising campaign. Two months later, a new poster came out: “‘2001’: the ultimate trip.”

Q. Do you have a favorite interpretation of the famously ambiguous ending?

A. There’s no real answer to that. One of the best answers, which Stanley gave and I’ve always liked: How do you describe Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in words? It’s a completely subjective experience. And the perfect example of that is [Johan Strauss II’s] “The Blue Danube,” used in the film when the space vehicle is about to land in the space station. Someone who has never seen “2001” probably thinks of Vienna. But a lot of people who have seen “2001” will think of space. Who is correct? They’re both correct. “2001” in a way is a visual symphony. There are many possibilities.

There was a nun at one of the premieres who said it was one of the most religious experiences of her life. Atheists equally tout it as an extraordinary film. Who’s right? They’re probably both right.


Q. Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?

A. My favorite part of the film is the Dawn of Man sequence. To me, there are two great moments: one, when the lead ape inadvertently discovers the use of a bone that he’s kind of wielding aimlessly among some fossils lying on the ground. In one of his motions, a chip flies off in a very purposeful way. To me, that is the moment in history when the penny dropped in humankind, where the animal became a more modern entity. The other moment is the greatest jump cut in history, when after the victory over the other group of apes at the waterhole, the ape throws his bone in victory and, in slow motion, it rises into the blue sky and morphs into a space vehicle. But that’s not just a space vehicle. The intention — it’s in the book — is that the space vehicle is a nuclear weapon, in constant orbit around the earth. So you have the first weapon invented by the apes morphing into the most recent weapon. It’s a favorite moment of mine.

Q. This movie has inspired so many over the years — scientists, science-fiction lovers, casual moviegoers.

A. I have met a number of astronauts who have told me that, as young people, the inspiration from “2001” resulted in their becoming astronauts. It’s a film unique in the fact that there isn’t one foot of the film that was a result of computer-generated special effects. Everything you see in the film was a physical entity that was photographed. It’s remarkable.

And I think because it’s become an iconic film, and because it’s lasted so long, it gets explained too much. Every generation brings its persona to the experience, just as every individual does. The film was made during the Cold War. Twenty-five years later, the Cold War ends, and people will see other things in the film. It remains the constant, open possibility of all things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.