By Clark Collis
March 31, 2018 at 03:01 PM EDT

The science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey was released 50 years ago. But actor Keir Dullea — who played the computer-battling astronaut David Bowman in the film — has no problem recalling his collaboration with legendary director Stanley Kubrick on the project.

“Working with him was an extraordinary experience,” says Dullea. “You couldn’t help but realize you were in the presence of genius. Just to see the concept happen before your eyes. I was arriving at these sets that made Disneyland look like a country fair.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get the role of David Bowman?
KEIR DULLEA:
2001 was, I think, my seventh feature film. But I had no idea I was being considered until my agent called me. He said, “Are you sitting down? You’ve just been offered the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s next film.” It was that simple.

The Canadian actor Douglas Rain would ultimately voice the computer, HAL. Who read the character’s lines during the shoot?
There was a wonderful actor by the name of Nigel Davenport that Stanley hired, and he was on the set with us, off camera, doing the voice of HAL. But quite soon after shooting began, Stanley decided he didn’t want a British voice. He said, “I’ll worry about it in post-production,” and he turned to his first assistant director, Derek Cracknell, and said, “Derek, you do the voice of HAL. For the rest of the film, the voice of HAL was something like [adopts Cockney accent], “Can’t do that, Dave!”

That’s a pretty good Michael Caine you’re doing there.
It was a little like Michael Caine.

What did you think when you saw the finished film?
It blew my mind. If you’re an actor in that kind of a film, it’s like you’re several inches away from a masterpiece, and it’s not ’til you stand back that you see what an extraordinary painting it is. That’s kind of how I felt about it when I first saw the film.

The movie divided critics. There were lots of positive reviews but Pauline Kael described it as “monumentally unimaginative.”
I would say 50 percent of the reviews were terrific and 50 percent were not terrific. People walked out, particularly in L.A. Rock Hudson walked out. I don’t remember exactly how he referred to it, but it was the equivalent of, “What is all this bulls—?” But MGM realized there were a lot of young people smoking funny cigarettes watching the film, so several months into the release, they came out with a poster that said “2001: The Ultimate Trip.” Anyway, it became a huge success, as we all know.

The film has been so influential in the science fiction genre. Without 2001, there might not be Star Wars, there might not be Alien. The recent Annihilation clearly owes a debt to the film. When you watch sci-fi films do you think, “We did this 50 years ago!”
[Laughs] Well, there’s always new aspects to these films. Going back to Stanley’s genius, there was not one foot of that film in which there was a computer-generated special effect. Not one. Everything you see in that film was done physically, which is amazing. And yet, as you have just said, you can still see the influence on the films today.

What have you been working on recently?
I did three seasons on a TV series which was on Hulu called The Path. I’ve been doing theater, I’ve been doing films. In fact, HBO has done a remake of Fahrenheit 451 with Michael Shannon, I play a cameo in that. So, I’m still working!

Watch the trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey above.

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