It goes without saying that Michael Ironside is a genre icon of the highest order. He’s been entertaining audiences worldwide for years now with his indelibly menacing voice in hundreds of films and TV shows and shows no sign of slowing down. He’s appeared in memorable films like Scanners (1981), Visiting Hours (1982), Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone (1983), Extreme Prejudice (1987), Watchers (1988), Total Recall (1990), Free Willy (1993), Starship Troopers & The Perfect Storm (2000) and that’s just to name a few. He can currently be seen kicking ass and taking names in the new film from The Vicious Brothers, Extraterrestrial, and he stopped by to speak with Horrornews.net about that film and his career.
Horrornews.net: First and foremost, I have to tell you that I am a huge fan and I’m honored to have the opportunity to speak with you!
Michael Ironside: [Laughing] Thank you so much, I never get tired of hearing that! It’s an honor to speak with you as well.
HNN: You must read lots of scripts. What was it about the script for Extraterrestrial that made you want to participate in it?
MI: You’re right, I get between 5-10 scripts a week to read and a most of them are pretty ordinary. But when I sat down to read this one, I found myself reading it all the way through to the end, whereas I usually quit reading them after 10 pages or so. I was really interested in the characters here and thought the script was gripping and very well written. It was obvious to me that Colin & Stuart (The Vicious Brothers) were competent story tellers, they knew what they were doing. So when we finally spoke, I told them what I wanted to do with the role of Travis and they agreed. Now, I haven’t seen the finished product yet – I’ve seen the fine cut with some, but not all, of the special effects in it. But I gotta tell you, I was really pleased with what I saw. Have you seen the film?
HNN: Yes, I saw it last night.
MI: Really? Did you like it?
HNN: Yes I did! I thought it was really good with some terrific performances in it.
MI: When I first read the script, I realized that it crossed over into multiple genres. So I asked the guys “What are you gonna do with this?”, and they explained to me what they were going to attempt to do with it. Quite frankly, after seeing the fine cut, they succeeded in getting 80-85% of their vision on screen. They did a really good job with it.
HNN: Do you believe in aliens and alien abductions?
MI: I think it would be kind of arrogant of us to look up into the stars at night and think that we’re the only intelligent beings in this galaxy, that’d be pretty self centered.
HNN: What about alien abductions?
MI: I don’t know about alien abductions. I don’t think the question is whether there is intelligent life out there. I think the question should be where we stand on the development scale when compared to them. If there are alien abductions, then that means that they can visit us whenever they please, from wherever they’re located. We can’t do the same, so I think they’re a good deal more advanced than we are, and we rank pretty low on the development scale [Laughing]. Hopefully they’re more advanced than us on a emotional/spiritual level as well, I’d like to think that they have some level of compassion towards us.
HNN: You worked with a really young cast on this film, and your director was young as well. What was that like for you, was it an enjoyable experience?
MI: Absolutely! I don’t wanna blow smoke up your ass but Brittany Allen was absolutely delightful to work with! I hadn’t seen her since we wrapped the film, but I just saw her a few minutes ago as we got here to do these interviews and I lit up like a Christmas tree. Acting is sometimes like playing tennis in that you serve the ball and you expect it to get hit back to you, but sometimes I’ve had to run to the other side of the court and hit it back to myself. Sometimes you work with people who aren’t interested in participating in any kind of shared situation, but with her it was seamless! She was a complete professional, delightful and surprising! She was in nearly every frame of this bloody film, and she did more than just a competent job – she’s the real deal. I look forward to watching her career evolve.
HNN: I agree! I thought she was completely believable in her role. She sold me completely.
MI: And all of the genre traps are there for her as an actor, traps she could’ve fallen in, but she didn’t. She kept it real and also made it safe for the audience to identify with her, and care for her. You can only do that by committing to be real, committing to do your job properly and not commenting on what you’re doing. Understand this, I don’t do this very much – I don’t come out and promote movies very often, but I like this one, and if anyone gets anything out of this – I hope it’s her and the boys. I hope the boys get a shot at doing something with a bigger budget, with a big juicy role for her in it.
HNN: Not meaning to belittle your acting prowess, you’re a first rate actor for sure. But how much of your success do you think is attributable to your voice?
MI: I think it’d be like asking a race horse how much of its success would be attributable to its right leg, they’re all elements of the same animal. There are lots of actors out there with great voices, but I wouldn’t feel safe turning a story over to them. When you go into a dark theater, you’re looking through a window into the privacy of somebody else’s life when you’re watching a movie. And to me, bad acting is when you make it about yourself and you remind the audience they’re not supposed to be there. They’re not supposed to be sitting in the dark, looking through that window. We’ve all watched films that have been poorly conceived and poorly made, but we’ve also seen films that are perfectly conceived and very well made. And these are the films that make us totally oblivious to whatever is going on around us. The air conditioning can break down, a baby can be crying in the corner, but you’re still riveted to the screen because they’re not making it about them. Our job as actors is to not make it about ourselves, it’s to look after the material and take care of those people who are sitting in the dark who are giving us the privilege to lie to them. They walk into the theater and drop their guards so that they can be lied to by us, they give us that gift and when we make it about ourselves, we abuse that gift. My voice is part of that tool kit, but I was very well trained by a woman named Jeanine Manatis. I took 24 hours of classes a week for five years before I got my first job. I actually started out as a writer, I took acting classes to help me out as a writer and ended up where I am now. Now I’m in what I call “The Circus“.
HNN: Is that what you consider acting to be?
MI: I do. Forty something years ago, I came home from work and my oldest daughter was in the living room with some other tykes on the carpet. And I overheard one little boy saying “My dad makes cement“, and as he said that, he was smoothing over the carpet with his hands as if he was smoothing out freshly poured cement. Another kid said, “My dad does floor tiling” and he pretended to be laying down floor tiles. Then they turned to my daughter, Adrian, and said “What does your dad do?“. She let out a long sigh and said “My dad is in the circus“. And I was about to correct her, but my sister was there as well, and she put her finger to her mouth and gave me a “Shhh“. It was then that I got it – that’s their reality, and you don’t wanna correct their reality. And after thinking about it for awhile, I realized that it was the truth, I am part of the circus.
It’s not so much these days but in the old days people would go to the circus and ask how certain things were done afterwards. Like, how did the Spider Man climb up the side of the circus tent? Now it’s the complete opposite, with all of the different platforms we have available to us like cell phones, iPads, iPods, laptop computers, flat screen TV’s, 24 hour cable, the audience is actually not being kept in the dark – it’s being invited into the workplace, into the actual story telling technique. So it’s a little bit different, but I think we have to keep that wall of privacy up. We’re still asking the story teller to lie to us, to make us believe. And to do that we have to suspend our own belief systems and drop our safety guards so that you can tell us a story.
HNN: Have you ever taught acting at all? As I listen to you, I hear the voice of someone who should be teaching young actors.
MI: I’ve done some lectures. I don’t know if I’d want that responsibility on a day to day basis, that’s a huge responsibility. It’s great to be a resource, to get called up and asked questions about stuff like that. I think it’s being part of that active village, you know how they say “It takes a village to raise a child“?, I think it takes a village to make a movie. The village being the crew that gets wrapped around a project, and the director is the mayor of that village. But sometimes, if the mayor doesn’t do what the village wants, he can get fired! I don’t mean that as a threat, but I’m not a big fan of the auteur theory where the director is the sole storyteller. It’s more of a collective storytelling where he has the responsibility and the weight of making all of the decisions.
HNN: Well…film making is a collaborative process, isn’t it?
MI: Of course it is. But there are those that would disagree with us.
MI: Oh absolutely!
HNN: Well, they would be wrong.
MI: [Laughing] And I’ll say no more because I might be working for them in the future! It’s almost like being a surgeon – it demands a bit of eccentricity and egocentric behavior. Because there’s a lot on the line when you make a cut, whether it’s with a camera, an angle or a scalpel. And they’re not going to blame the boom operator for the scene that didn’t work, they can’t blame the violinist who played part of the score for a scene that didn’t pan out as originally conceived. It’s always the director or the line producer, so there is a lot of authority/responsibility that’s intertwined there, but I really do see it as a collective art form. I’m interested in seeing the new season of American Horror Story with Jessica Lange…
HNN: I watched it last night.
MI: How was it? I watched the first season and I wasn’t quite sure what kind of metaphor/parody they were trying to make, but I got a funny feeling that this season might actually be passing comment on show business.
HNN: I think you’re right, but it’s too early to say just yet.
MI: I looked at the ad campaign, and I thought “Are they talking about us?” [Laughing].
HNN: You’ve played so many different roles throughout your career, in so many different genres. Do you have a preferred genre that you like to participate in or do you just go for whatever appeals to you at the moment?
MI: I try and do at least 1 or 2 large films a year, or every other year. I’ve always referred to myself as a “Garnish” name, if you get one or two big names then I’ll look good next to them. They may be the steak, but I’m the parsnips or the potatoes that make the plate look appealing. I do these large films so that I can go off and do something like Extraterrestrial, where I play a delusional Vietnam vet who is paranoid, terrified and self medicates with marijuana because of the things that he’s been party to in the past – and it just so happens that his paranoia becomes real. I get to take these misshapen characters and make them come to life, whereas on a bigger budgeted film I get to take a shovel and hit an old lady on the head with it, so that someone can make money.
HNN: There’s a overwhelming sense of humility in your words when you talk about your career. You seem so humble…
MI: I really mean it! I’m not going to waste too much time talking about this, but I had cancer a few times over the years and I beat it each time…
MI: Thank you. Because of that, I gained some weight and a lot of my vanity has gone out the window, I’m about to turn 65 soon and I’m not so guarded about the way I look anymore, and that offers me a lot of freedom as an actor. And there’s stuff that I was trained to do that I’ve never really had the opportunity, or have been willing to do in the past that I can comfortably do now. Maybe I’ve been a little uncomfortable with the idea of showcasing this stuff in the past, certain vulnerabilities, certain reactions – it’s kind of like I have stuff that I want to try out now. I’m kind of excited about acting again.
HNN: One last question: I read that you were up for the role of Robocop (1987)…
MI: I was!
HNN: And it boiled down to you not fitting into the suit?
MI: I met with Paul (Verhoeven – director of Robocop) 2 or 3 times about the part, and Rob Bottin was involved with building the suit. But eventually, Paul told me that if I was going to wear the suit then Robocop would look like a Mack truck! They couldn’t figure out a way to get someone with my frame into that outfit and keep it to a realistic size. Peter (Weller), god love him, lost 45 pounds and still had a hard time getting into the suit. Paul offered me the role Kurtwood Smith eventually played (Boddicker), and he showed me the storyboards with someone who looked like me all over them, but I was in the middle of shooting Extreme Prejudice (1987), and I was already slaughtering a lot of people in that one. I didn’t want to play another character who slaughters people. So I passed on it, and I heard that Paul hired Smith, not only because he was a good actor, but because his storyboards already featured a balding man and he wouldn’t have to redo them!
HNN: If you had played the part of Robocop, how do you think it would’ve affected your career?
MI: I couldn’t do it. They needed a Ferrari and I was a Mack truck, I was too big to play the part!
HNN: Humor me! If you could’ve played the part…
MI: Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve! There’s a lot roles that I’ve turned down over the years that other people took on and did wonderfully with them. Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet (1986) for instance…
HNN: You were offered the role of Frank Booth?
MI: It was written for me and I said “No” to it!
HNN: WHAT? Why didn’t you take it?
MI: Because I was at a stage in my life where portraying an Amyl Nitrate huffing, knife wielding, vigilante rapist just didn’t appeal to me! I think Dennis had just gotten out of the hospital and was newly sober at the time and he was absolutely perfect in the part. Everything works out for us the way it’s supposed to in the end if we just honesty listen to our hearts. And I don’t think I could’ve done a better job than Dennis did anyway!