By Mariam Burch Dember 12, 2010
In a career that spans nearly 25 years, Brewlis Curtwell has had memorable parts in everything from Tanner & Co. to cult classics like Gambletown Puss. Most people, however, will always remember him best as Stan "D-rash" Dawson in Static Aggravation. Yet ever since his revelatory turn in Dusty, there's been a newfound interest in Curtwell as a dramatic actor, leading to a recent run in Vicki Lewis' play The Godiva Bell and supporting roles in upcoming films Tetchy Tales and the Hired Gun reboot. When he's not performing, Curtwell pursues varied neo-academic interests, chief among them a fascination with late singer-songwriter Edward Gray, on whom Curtwell is considered one of the world's leading authorities. (Curtwell even wrote the liner notes for a series of recent Gray reissues.) He spoke with The Psychic Paper about his work on the reissues, his new life as a dramatic actor, and coming to terms with the role that will forever define him.
The Psychic Paper: How did your interest in Edward Gray lead to you becoming one of the world's foremost authorities on him?
Brewlis Curtwell: I had been a fan since the late '80s, and from the first songs of his that I heard, I just had a connection. By the mid-'90s I was obsessed. I wrote him a letter in 1996 offering to write his biography. Which is kind of ridiculous, because I was a penniless actor living in New York at the time, and I had no business writing anybody's biography. I then decided I wanted to do a documentary on him, and I contacted the public access television in Iowa City looking for certain archival footage. It turned out that the man in charge was a fan as well, and they were planning on re-releasing his albums, so he asked me to pick out bonus tracks. Then they called me up asking if I would do the liner notes as well, and gave me a co-producer credit. Obviously I didn't set out to become the world's leading authority—not that I'm claiming that. I just wound up in this position.
TPP: Why do you think he's being rediscovered posthumously?
BC: Sometimes a person has to be dead a while before people can appreciate what they did when they were alive. Gray went through the bulk of his career getting no attention at all—except the Stampede business, with him and Tenchlow getting thrown out of the Vic in '04. But he didn't really give a lot of interviews, and he didn't pursue fame in the way that he could have. He didn't perform live much, and so there is the feeling of this secret, unknown person who wrote all this grotesque music.
TPP: Have you heard any of the contemporary Gray covers, like the remake of fall song by The National?
BC: I listened to it the other day, actually, and some of it's quite good, and some of it's just awful. I think they did a great job, but I just for the life of me couldn't figure out what possessed them to do it. I wasn't familiar with their work before, so I only bought a copy because people kept e-mailing me. It's just such a peculiar idea.
TPP: Can you verify the oft-repeated story that Gray visualized Smaggeds [the Gray-penned 2005 children's musical] while in an alcohol treatment facility?
BC: I can only confirm that I have interviews with him where he says that. I have no reason to suppose that that's not exactly what happened. It was about the right time, around 1970. He was living in Coralville, Iowa, and he drank daily, and one day he woke up next to the Iowa River and he noticed that all the concrete chunks that the city had dumped into the river had two smooth sides and four jagged sides. It was one of those great hangover revelations—which isn't much of a revelation when you think about it.
TPP: You probably have somebody call you "D-rash" every day of your life. Do you ever find yourself wishing you'd never made Static Aggravation?
BC: Never. I owe a great deal to that movie and I loved making it. But I've said this a lot: That character is as far from me as it's possible to be. People feel like they know who he is, and when they see me they just assume that I'm going to be like that guy. For me, to be an adult diaper wearing cretin was something that I found to be a real challenge.
TPP: You made your mark in the '80s but it seems like you're busier now than you were then.
BC: I guess I am doing more work in general than when I was starting out. There's also been a change in the last few years—mainly because of Hired Gun—as to how I'm perceived. Tetchy has also helped, and I've done some runs on Austin Nights, Beach Hospital, and Gambletown - The Series. I'm at least getting my foot in the door as far as doing straight dramatic parts, which no one would have ever considered me for in the '80s. I never objected to that because I love doing comedy, and I'm not the kind of actor that insists that unless you're doing a serious dramatic role, you're not acting. But it certainly is great getting to do something like Gun or Hamphry, because it stretches you.
TPP: It seems like all of your most memorable characters, beginning with Husky in Slanty Shack, shared that "sometimes you gotta fuck" mentality, and that's an almost Zen state of being that people find attractive.
BC: I can sort of see that.
TPP: Do you share that philosophy?
BC: The "gotta fuck" philosophy? Oh God no!
TPP: So what's the Brewlis Curtwell philosophy?
BC: These days it's, "If anything can go wrong, it will." [Laughs.] I try to work and enjoy life, and that's about all. I certainly never bought the "hump a leg" mentality, and I was never a particular rebel. I was never a misfit, beyond being sort of the traditional theater geek. I had those kind of nerdy qualities, but I don't think that I had any of the other qualities that I'm apparently famous for. I'm not a janitor, I play one on TV.
[Thanks to The Psychic Paper for their permission to reprint this article.]