Meeting Alastair Duncan
When I told an older boy at school that my name was Duncan, he said I was lying. There was already one Duncan at the school — did I really expect him to believe there could be two? Memory is fallible but I think he was really angry about this.
My parents picked the name Duncan from the closing credits of a Scottish cop show, one night in the late eighties. It was the name of one of the actors. There’s nothing all that Scottish about my family, they just liked the sound of the names. Duncan’s fine, as names go. The worst nickname I ever had was “Duncan Donuts”, which isn’t much to complain about. Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t even exist in New Zealand, where I was from, at the time — so when someone at school went to Disneyland or whatever, they’d return from LAX with the sagacity of Columbus: I have seen a place called Dunkin’ Donuts, and that’s you, that’s who you are. It never caught on because nobody else in New Zealand understood the reference.
I didn’t find out until recently that the show my parents watched in late 1986/early ’87 was Taggart — the longest-running English language cop drama, apparently. I’ve still never seen that show, but when I looked it up on IMDb, I found that there was only one actor called Duncan in all the episodes my parents could have watched: the Edinburgh-born Alastair Duncan.
Duncan left Taggart after a few years, and has worked steadily ever since, in live action but more frequently in animation and video game voiceover. You might remember him as the ball-busting, Scottish-accented Turian councilor in the Mass Effect trilogy, the ethereal elf lord Celebrimbor in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, or as the psychotic presidential candidate in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. He played Alfred on the most recent animated incarnation of Batman, and has popped up in episodes of Westworld, Mad Men and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
He’s also the best and only fun thing in the bizarre 1992 Rutger Hauer vehicle Split Second, a Satanic cop thriller in which a deeply moody, betrenchcoated Hauer lights his cigar with a blowtorch and flashes his badge at a bulldog he addresses as “dickhead.” Duncan plays his egghead sidekick (“Dick Durkin”) who feels repeatedly compelled to ensure Hauer knows that he a) has a girlfriend, and b) has sex.
I didn’t know what to make of our connection, or whether I ought to feel like we even have a connection. But when I watch Duncan in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or hang up on his character in Mass Effect, I can’t help wondering: does he know I exist, too? Would he be proud of me?
I figured it was worth trying to get in touch. How often do you get to meet your namesake? Probably never, unless it’s your dad.
So in January, I cold-emailed his agency and manager laying out the whole story — “I’m named after your client” — and his manager replied to confirm that Alastair Duncan was willing to speak to me. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of that phone call.
It feels so improbable to me that my parents could choose my name from an actor they saw on TV one night, and that years later not only would I be able to figure out who it was, but we’d be working in adjacent professions in the same industry, video games. Especially because I grew up in New Zealand, and anything outside New Zealand might as well be on another planet.
I get it. Coming from Scotland, the reality that I live in Los Angeles and make a living here is beyond — I mean, it wouldn’t have even entered my head as a child that that was a possibility. That I could walk into Errol Flynn’s old house, and be standing where he stood.
It ends up being a very, very small world. It’s amazing how small it is and how few degrees of separation there are. Should we be surprised? No, it was inevitable that we would meet up in the end. Somehow or other the zeitgeist demanded it.
I like that perspective. So how does it feel to have someone named after you?
You know, it’s rather disconcerting.
The reason I got to work in America was really because of the work I did on Taggart, and Split Second. Those two things gave me enough of a profile that when I presented myself to the American authorities and said, “Hey! I am an actor of note and worth, and look at all of this and all this publicity,” they said, “Oh, OK,” and they let me in. But to actually have somebody who is a perfect stranger be named after me, it’s sort of… [Laughs.] It’s a weird compliment.
Now that I’m speaking to you, I feel like I’d be letting you down if I’d turned out to be a really horrible person. I shouldn’t want to be a horrible person anyway, obviously, but now I feel this personal obligation to you.
[Laughs] You should only feel an obligation to your parents. Not me.
How has the name Duncan worked out for you?
It’s been great! ‘Dark-skinned warrior’, I think it means? It’s not very accurate in my case, I’m not a dark-skinned warrior by any means, but it’s nice to have the name of a warrior.
You know, you’re asking this question and I’m going, ‘Huh, I guess I’m proud of my name.’
What can you tell me about the Duncans, the family?
The Duncans. Well, my father’s name is Archibald Alexander Macbeth Duncan. His grandfather was a Macbeth. If he’d followed the family traditions he would’ve called me Alastair David Macbeth Duncan, but he just called me Alastair Duncan, because he decided it was too poncy. We have serious warriors in our history: I think it was Neil Macbeth, during the Crimean War he went out and rescued someone in the No Man’s Land and came back with 14 bullet holes in his kilt, and he won, I think, the Victoria Cross.
The older I get the more I feel connected and separate from my heritage, from the Scottishness that is where I came from. I love seeing it again and being there. I don’t know if I could ever live there again, but I do love going back.
How long have you been in L.A. now?
I moved here in ’94, two weeks before the Northridge earthquake. I’d been going back and forth since ’88 and then finally in January of ’94 I bit the bullet and came.
And it’s worked out?
Yeah, it has, I have an amazing life here, two wonderful kids. I’m very happy.
Do you happen to know who you were named after?
Alastair? No, it was just a name that they liked. But I like Alastair. In America it’s an unusual name, and that’s good. It’s nice to be sort of unusual.
To stand out.
Exactly. And Duncan is not a normal name, I’m sure you’ve had that.
You’ve been working in video games and voiceover for a while now, and I’m just starting to do some writing for video games — do you have any advice?
Oh my goodness. I wouldn’t begin to offer you advice. I believe it’s still a nascent industry, it’s going to change phenomenally over the next few years.
My experience has been that the problem that you have as a writer, is that you’re writing interstitial story to get the player from one event where they’re fighting, battling, travelling, whatever they’re doing, to the next. It’s got to make sense and it’s got to be interesting enough and it’s got to have a big enough pay-off at the end. And there’s no three-act structure. I think it’s a very difficult format to write in and you have to write a phenomenal amount for every game. That’s what I see — but I have no idea what you would do, no. It’s hard enough on my side.
How do you find working in games? I know you still divide your time between TV and animation.
I’m not going to give up working on games until the day I die. The great thing is they can peel me in front of a voice booth and I can sit there in front of a microphone for four hours and I can play someone 20 years younger than me, then they can peel me out again. There’s no reason, provided I can still do it and provided people are interested enough to employ me, that [I would ever stop.] Theatre will go first, then film and television will go next, then I would think video games and voiceovers will be the last to finally give me up. That’s a question of age and your relevance in the business.
Do any of your video game performances stand out?
Oh God, yeah. Celebrimbor, in Shadow of Mordor, is still my favourite. Lord of the Rings was the first book I ever read and loved, and when I put it down I cried because it was over. I was in my teens and I read it again and again and again. To have a chance to [be in that world] was fantastic.
The majority of time with games, I come in and I’ll be playing a part, and after four sessions, the character changes. I discover that I’m an entirely different being in this with an entirely different role at the end. “Hold on a second, nobody told me about this!” Sometimes because the games makers don’t want to give anything away so they won’t give you all the information. And that makes it more difficult.
It was very different with Celebrimbor. From day one, I knew exactly who I was and where I was going.
I don’t know if you know this, but one of your performances has recently spiked in popularity–from Metal Gear Rising, where you play this extremely buff U.S. Senator. There’s a clip that has a lot of views on YouTube now, of this kind of deranged monologue you give towards the end of the game while you’re pounding the hero into the dust and talking about the hypocrisy of the political system…
Oh, wow! Yeah!
And the key thing you say is you want to make America great again.
I had completely forgotten that. I remember that character so well, I remember being in the booth with the voice director. I loved it, I loved just letting rip, and it was so much fun. Now, of course, with what we’re facing in this country — and for both you and I as immigrants, but, you know, very privileged immigrants — to watch this what is going on and to have that reality staring you in the face, it’s scary.
Do you have kids?
No, but I’m getting married this year, so I’m starting to build a family, yeah.
There you go, because having kids, it’s no longer about me. It’s about my kids’ future. It’s mobilized me as nothing ever has in the past.
I imagine it might be a mixed bag for you, to have something like that performance rediscovered, but everyone who watches it goes away profoundly bummed out.
I can’t remember what it was, there was a movie with Martin Sheen and he played the president…
The Dead Zone?
Yes! Yes, yes, yes, that was it. Oh my goodness. That’s what I think of, that character. That was a similar thing. [To see that now, in real life, it’s] terrifying.
I have just one last question and I’ll let you go — as my namesake, as it were, do you have any advice for me in general, about life?
Say yes more than no. Say no often. You have the right to say no, but also, go out and say yes, see what’s out there.
I feel my task for my next act is to find the joy and the fun in my life. When you’re in youth, and when I look at my kids and see that wide-eyed openness to everything… and that changes. And it’s an old story how it changes. But I believe that we have a choice as we grow up, and how we grow up, and what we do. My belief is you have to remain open. To remain open, you’ve got to say yes. If you become fixed and dogmatic then you end up in the situation we’re in right now. Have a belief system, have a sense of a moral self and an ethical self, but go out there and listen.
[My task is to be] open to the opportunity for change, at this stage and going forward — and I will be, I truly believe I will be. If something arises and this doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. Go after what you want, what you love, and find something to do that fulfils you and pays you, and — hey! Enjoy your life. You only get one shot around, you better enjoy it.
I appreciate it. And it’s impossible for me to say now without bias but I think I always really have enjoyed your performances, and certainly I now feel quite protective of them.
[Laughs] Oh, thank you. I’ll tell you, I’ve had a glimpse of me in Taggart when I was young. I look back, and I was so bad. I was not a good actor. I’m a lot better now. Which is lovely, it’s lovely to be able to turn around and say, “Oh, I can do this.”
But thank you for being protective — I’m probably less protective of them than you are, but there you go.
That’s fine. Someone has to be.
[Laughs.] Somebody does, you’re right.