Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: When Lance Henriksen learned that readers had pitched nearly 50 different roles for The A.V. Club to ask him about, his succinct response —“Oh, shit!”—came with a surprising amount of incredulity for a man who has three times that many movie credits to his name, not to mention 50-plus additional television credits. Having made a career out of character work, Henriksen’s back catalog is one that bounces from soap operas (Ryan’s Hope) to sci-fi (The Terminator), playing androids (Aliens), astronauts (The Right Stuff), assassinated presidents (The Day Lincoln Was Shot), and even voicing the occasional animated ape (Tarzan). To put it in Henriksen’s own words, “Buddy, I’ve done some good movies… and I’ve done some turkeys, too.”
Lance Henriksen: That was a strange movie. I’ve done some strange movies. Actors are basically survivors, so you get there, and if the script is either not working or you’ve got to add to it to make it work… In that one, I’m playing a surgeon who’s looking for eternal life, a way for people to live longer, and I realize that jellyfish, if they’re damaged, they can re-grow their whole body, so they really can live forever. You know, unless a sea turtle eats them or something. So we added that into the movie… and they even embroidered my surgical hat with a jellyfish on the top of it! [Laughs.] It was really fun. I mean, the people were great. They’re always great, because they’ve got aspirations. It’s not a dirge. It can be, but it’s not always. The Needlestick guys, they were cool, and they were trying to make a good movie, but they were limited by budget and everything else.
The A.V. Club: You had a nice supporting cast, though. Harry Lennix, for one.
LH: Yeah, there were good people on that. Not only the actors, but the people trying to make the movie. When you think about it, you have to take a wheelbarrow full of money and roll out and try to make a movie out of it. But you run out of money eventually, and then it becomes painful and it becomes a struggle and time will kill the enthusiasm!
AVC: We try to go as far back in an actor’s on-camera career as we possibly can, but what IMDB has listed as your first role—playing a Marine in the 1961 Tony Curtis movie The Outsider—doesn’t seem to add up, since your next earliest film isn’t until 1972.
LH: No, I don’t think I was in that. Uh-uh. I’ll tell you something I was in, though—I did Cagney & Lacey. A long, long time ago! I was a hostage negotiator, a guy trying to save some people. And what I heard through the grapevine was that the CIA apparently used it as a training film. That’s how good I was. [Laughs.] That’s what I heard. I don’t know if it’s true. But it sounds good!
AVC: It does indeed. So was your first film the one from 1972 called It Ain’t Easy?
LH: Oh, don’t even talk about that one. [Snorts.] I was at the Guthrie Theater doing plays, and the guy wanted me to do that movie, and I remember that I just didn’t know anything about making films. Nothing! But I looked a certain way and that kind of shit, and I guess he thought, “This is gonna work out!” But I remember one distinct scene where my girlfriend gets killed, and the director walked in and started crying and said, “Why do I write these kinds of things?” And I went, “Jesus, you should be playing this role, man!” [Laughs.] I never mention that movie. I sucked in it. Totally.
AVC: You said you were doing theater at the Guthrie. Did you originally have any intention of getting in front of the camera?
LH: No! I never thought I would. I thought, “I’m just gonna do plays the rest of my life.” Because for me, acting was my education. I only went to grammar school, you know. I didn’t go to high school or any of that shit. So when I had to come up and understand all this Shakespeare and everything else, it was like college. It was my education. So I was very grateful for that. And that’s how I started. It was only about trying to find a life. And it’s worked out over the years! [Laughs.]
AVC: So since we’re taking It’s Not Easy off the table, what do you consider to be your first real film? Was it Dog Day Afternoon?
LH: Yeah, it was Dog Day. Because Dog Day… I mean, everybody in it was part of the Actors Studio, pretty much, so we all knew each other. It was a kind of breakthrough—I suddenly understood what this was and how to do it. And then I had to work to get better at it. But, you know, when you’re working with a guy like Sidney Lumet, holy shit! He loves New York actors, and he’s a kind man, and all that good stuff. It was a really good show to work on for anybody. And Sidney liked New York actors a lot, so I could’ve shot my part in probably two days, but what he did was, “No, you’ve got the run of the show,” which meant that I could get an apartment. He was a very kind guy, really.
AVC: To bring theater and film together, you actually worked with Al Pacino on the stage not too long after that, in The Basic Training Of Pavlo Hummel.
LH: Yeah, on Broadway. God, how do you know all this shit?
AVC: The Internet Broadway Database.
LH: Well, there you go! Yeah, that was a good moment, because every actor’s dream is to be on Broadway. That’s the pinnacle, in a way. And Al had done it a hundred times, but this was my first show, so I felt really excited. I remember getting a water pistol—because it was an army show, so we were all in boot camp—and I remember I came on the stage with the pistol tucked in my waist, and every time I thought he lied to me, I squirted him. [Laughs.] And I hid it offstage so that when I’d come onstage I’d know where it was, but I found it all busted up, so… I don’t think he liked it! But Al was a very generous, fun guy. Still is.
AVC: It’s amazing how many other people were in the cast of that play: Brad Sullivan, Paul Guilfoyle, Max Wright…
LH: Yeah! [Chuckles.] Max Wright, yeah. Max was a very funny guy. There’s a great camaraderie in acting. Like I started by saying, it’s about survival—we all kind of link up based on that and try to do a good performance.
LH: That was a real low budget. And [James] Cameron’s first movie! I remember I got down there and they had no wardrobe, so I had to buy my wardrobe off a waiter. I mean, the guy had Chinos, and they had a blue stripe down the leg, so it looked like a harbor cop uniform, and he was my size, so I think I gave him 75 bucks, and he gave me his clothes! [Laughs.] And I carved a wooden gun, because you couldn’t have any guns down in Jamaica. And I had “save the whale” pins, and I stuck ’em on, because… I mean, they didn’t even have props, so I turned them upside down, so you couldn’t read “save the whales,” and it looked like a badge!
AVC: That’s great.
LH: No shit! [Laughs.] I’m telling you: survival, man. You’ve gotta make it happen.
AVC: Cameron clearly had bigger aspirations than Piranha Part Two. Did he call you out of the blue when he decided to use you again, or did you guys stay in touch?
LH: Oh, sure, we stayed in touch. Because we were all in the same boat—we were broke! [Laughs.] You know, the greatest thing about that show is that Jim is so tenacious, he was up in his room making rubber fishes because we didn’t have enough, and the crew was down in the parking lot making miniatures of the boats so we could blow them up, and shit like that. It was fun to do. I really liked making that movie, man. I didn’t like the outcome, but still. And I thought I was still green when I did that movie.
AVC: And yet you already had quite a resume racked up by that point, just in terms of the number of films.
LH: Yeah, but they were all… [Hesitates.] I don’t know what to call them. There are so many varieties of films. You’ve got the jet-lagged films, where you fly to Bulgaria or wherever and get off the plane, and they bring you right to the set, and you start working, even though I don’t even know my name, it’s been such a long flight. Then there’s the alimony films. [Laughs.] But after you’ve been doing this long enough, you’ve gotten into every kind of situation you can imagine, even to the point where there is basically no script, so you have to kind of do it scene by scene and survive.
AVC: Funny you should say that—when we did this feature with William Forsythe, he said he’d just seen you, and he said, “We laughed, because… basically, I don’t think there was one line from the script that we actually said in the movie.”
LH: No, there wasn’t! I was playing the leader or president of an outlaw club, a motorcycle club, and the writer—who got fired a week before I started shooting—he wrote it and was directing it, but they saw the first week of dailies and fired him! [Laughs.] So I knew that the new director was coming in, and I met him in the lobby right off the plane, and I said, “Hi, I’m Lance,” and blah blah blah, and I said, “We’re really in trouble, man.” And at the risk of being fired, I said to him, “You can’t do what this guy wrote.” Because he had written… Every line that I had was biblical. I mean, right out of the bible. And I said, “Wait a minute, the minute I open my mouth, the audience is gonna lean back and go, ‘I’m not listening to this jerk!’” So, anyway, I said, “We’re gonna have to improvise it all. I don’t want to change the narrative or the scenes that have to happen, but everything I have to say… We can’t say it. We have to create it.”
So what happened was, we would get up really early in the morning and improvise the scenes, and then we’d get down to the set and improvise a little bit more, to polish it. But we created all of it. Every bit of it. It was great, though, because you could get deeper into the role. Because you were responsible for what you were saying, it had to be really good. You couldn’t cheeseball it. Because they had a budget. And Craig Baxley, the guy who came in and directed it finally, he’s really a terrific guy, and he was very supportive, and we managed to make it through. Again, survival. You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to do what it takes. I came up with lines in there that I didn’t even know I owned! [Laughs.]
LH: Oh, boy. You’re bringing up all of the… You’re rolling stones over and finding movies under them! [Laughs.] You know what? I swear to god, half your career… Sometimes a guy like Jim Cameron or different directors I’ve worked with, they have such a complete vision of this thing you’re working on that you feel like you’re a surfer on a wave. You just do it, and you know it’s going to turn out, and you know that what you’ve done is going to be seen. It’s going to get out there. Sometimes you do these little movies—and I don’t mind doing them, because I’m getting good at it!—but then you see the movie, and you go, “What the hell?”
LH: I have some movies coming out. One of them is a comedy called After The Sun Fell that I did up in Niagara Falls. I’ve got a great role in that. I never thought I could do a comedy. But after the first scene, I went, “Eh, I can do this.” [Laughs.] And I really enjoyed it. But comedies depend on the director, of course, because he’s the source. He can make you look good, or he can make you look like a schmuck.
AVC: Danny Pudi’s in that one, right?
LH: Yeah! I’ll tell you, I had fun doing that movie. I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning, you know? It was one of those!
AVC: What’s the premise?
LH: Well, it’s a dysfunctional family, and I play the patriarch, a guy who can’t be wrong. He’s just never wrong. That’s the set-up. And then my son’s coming home, and he’s going to marry this Oriental woman, and I just go, “What?!” [Laughs.] And that’s just the beginning of it. The wife is almost as crazy as a bedbug, and the whole family is fairly dysfunctional. He brings home his best friend, who walks into something he’s probably never experienced and never will again. It’s a wonderful movie. I saw it, and it’s really good. I’m proud of it. I’m proud I’m in it.
I also did a Western called Gone Are The Days, and I have a lead in that one. I’m playing the main character, and there are some wonderful actors in it. [Tom] Berenger’s in it, for one. It’s just a beautiful movie. It’s really in a league of its own. It’s a Western, but it’s set in 1920, right at the change of the world, with the mechanical era really starting in earnest.
AVC: The movie poster has a great old-school look to it. It looks like it could belong to some lost John Ford film.
LH: Yeah, it does. And it was great to do, I’ll tell you that. It challenged the shit out of me, because I had to really go after it. I had to really just live it and not worry about it and go for it. I did both those movies in the same year or so, and it was, like, “Wow, this feels good…” I’ve got nothing but gratitude.
LH: [Sighs deeply.] Oh, god…
AVC: C’mon, just about every actor’s got a soap opera in their closet, right?
LH: Yeah, they… Wait, did you say “in their closet”? [Laughs.] Yeah, you’re not kidding! They gave me the role of a ham actor on a soap, and he’s got a toupee… and back then I didn’t need one! But this girl walks into my dressing room and sees me adjusting my toupee, and I try to get her fired, because I’m the lead in the soap opera. It was ridiculous. I was ridiculous in that thing. But I liked it! I enjoyed looking at myself being a total fool, both acting-wise and the part. The part was shit.
Ryan’s Hope… [Chuckles.] And they offered me a contract, which I couldn’t believe. They said, “We’ll give you $50,000 the first year, $100,000 the next year, and 150,000 the next year.” And I said, “I’m a young actor, man. This is going to teach me every stupid thing an actor can do!” Because of the glut of material, you know? It’s just all shit. I’m sorry!
AVC: Hey, it’s all good. The whole point of this feature is to show the gamut of your career, and that’s part of it.
LH: Believe me, man, I just didn’t want to learn all those bad habits. And that was more money than anybody in the history of my family would’ve made! But I said, “No.” My agent fired me, by the way. [Laughs.] He didn’t give a fuck about whether I was going to be a nothing or if I was going to be worse than nothing. He just wanted that 10 percent.
LH: Yeah, I’ve done some real turkeys. I did a movie called Baja, which we did down in Calexico.
AVC: Yeah, actually, Donal Logue—another alumnus of this feature—suggested that we ask you about that one. He mentioned that he’d worked with you on the film.
LH: [Laughs.] Oh, man…
AVC: Although he specifically mentioned that he loved working with you, he did not actually say anything about the film itself.
LH: Well, those guys were good! And the script was… Well, it was all right, but it was what we did with it. I decided, “I’m going to play a Jewish hit man, with a Star Of David around my neck with a gold chain.” And I wore socks that you could see through, and short pants and huaraches. And I looked like a total fucking idiot. [Laughs.] But he was deadly. He was really deadly. And he had a wife that was kvetching all the time, and he had to deal with her in the middle of killing somebody. He’s talking to her on the phone!
At one point, I go down to Mexico to bump a guy off, and we’re in a church, and I’ve got a hangover because I’ve been drinking all fucking night long. And outside I snatched a little stuffed animal off a cart, took the cotton out of it, and stuffed it in my ears because I didn’t want to hear the gun go off. And I tried to shoot the guy in the church, but he gets away and… well, anyway, I get him later. But we were in a little poor church in Calexico doing this scene, and I gave the priest or the pastor $1,000 because I fired a gun in his church and felt bad about it.
AVC: That’s very nice of you.
LH: Yeah, well, I had to do it. It’s part of my morality clause. [Laughs.] But the church was so poor that the floors were linoleum, so it’s not like they couldn’t use it.
AVC: Funnily enough, Jane [Henriksen, Lance’s wife and manager] also suggested that I ask you about the film. She said to ask you about “the hotel with bad breath.”
LH: Oh, god. The hotel of stinky smells! [Laughs.] You know, there was an inch-and-a-half gap under the door of our hotel room, and we were right off the lobby, so we could hear everything going on! And the fucking pillow on the bed was as thin as a whoopee cushion. It was just a stinky-ass hotel. But it matched the budget. It was the worst place, man. Jane went out to a Target, I think, and bought all new stuff for the bed and covered the lamp with scarves, so we could at least feel human. Because it looked like we were trying to sneak across the border! Yeah, it was bad, man.
We’ve been in some situations like that. We were in Bulgaria making a film, and we went to a museum, and we suddenly realized, “There’s no lights on in here!” So we called it “the museum of complete and utter darkness.” [Laughs.] You’d walk by a case, and a little tiny light would go on. They were saving electricity, so it had a sensor on it, and the light would come on, but you could only just barely see what was in the box. You know, when you’re on a big-budget film, they put you up at the Hilton or some great hotel, but here it was… I mean, you should’ve seen the hotel that we got into there. It was, like, the whole lobby was full of hookers, and the elevator shaft was gasping filthy air up into the rooms. It was just unbelievable. So I moved over to the Sheraton, which was the only good hotel in Sofia at that time, and it cost something like $300 a night, but I would do anything for a little bit of comfort. Just a little bit of comfort. Not even that much!
AVC: How much interaction did you have with Francois Truffaut?
LH: A lot. I was on that movie almost six months!
AVC: I was wondering. It’s not a massive part, but it’s a sprawling film.
LH: Well, remember, I was very young as a movie actor, you know? [Snorts.] What the fuck is a movie actor? But, anyway, I was a young actor, and I was just happy to be there. I really was.
Truffaut was a funny guy. He was a really nice guy. And I was fumbling all over the fucking place, and nobody noticed. I remember I walked up to Spielberg and said, “Steven, I want to capture one of these little aliens and drag him into a Porta Potty. I’ll throw my coat over him and drag him in there, and we’ll have one.” And he looked at me like… He looked at me incredulously. Like, “What the fuck?” Finally he said to me, “That’s a different movie.” I said, “Oh…” [Laughs.] Good people on that film, man. I’ve been around a lot of talented people. And I didn’t know what talent was! But a little of the shit rubs off on you, and you start gaining your education.
I remember Spielberg wanted candy glass on all the modules on the big set that we were working on—you know, when the windows all blow out from the signal from the mother ship?—and he took the money out of his own pocket and bought it. It was thousands of dollars. These are passionate people who say, “I’ve got to have what I know will work.” So, yeah, that was a great experience. It really was.
LH: Yeah, I loved doing that movie. We were a real family. Billy Paxton was in it, Jenette Goldstein, and all these people. It was a great movie to work on. Kathryn Bigelow was my first experience with a female director, and it was great. It was a real matriarchal situation. [Chuckles.] God, the way I’m repeating myself, I sound like Donald Trump. “It was great! It was so great!”
AVC: That’s one of those cult films where the size of the cult might not be that substantial, but the members of the cult are downright rabid.
LH: Yeah, people liked that movie. You know, being in a cult film… We as actors have nothing to do with it. That’s the audience doing that. But we all loved doing it. The minute we finished that film, I remember Billy and I standing in the middle of the road, and it was literally the very last shot of the movie, and we both had the feeling right away that we should do the prequel right away. Like, we should start it right now. And we would’ve. If they’d said, “Let’s go, let’s do it.” We would’ve gone. But they never did.
AVC: Oh, man, that would’ve been great.
LH: Yeah. We had the whole story. Billy and I sat for hours after hours talking about it, about what could be in it and that kind of stuff. It was great.
AVC: You worked with Paxton several times, but probably the most obscure occasion was when you appeared in a Martini Ranch video.
LH: [Sighs.] Yeah, we did that. And that’s my truck in the video. The ’36 Ford. I just said, “Let’s use it!” We had a ball doing that. Everybody we knew was in it! [Laughs.]
AVC: It really is an all-star cast in that thing: Bud Cort, Paul Reiser, Judge Reinhold… And on top of that, it was directed by James Cameron!
LH: Oh, yeah, it was a real 1980s video. [Laughs.] Billy had a ball. Again, you never know what’s going to happen. You never know what’s coming up. I refer to films as a kiss in the dark: you don’t know who, what, when, or how it’s going to happen, or even if it is going to happen. That’s your life. So get ready!
AVC: When you did The Terminator with Cameron, I’m sure no one imagined it was destined to turn into the franchise that it’s become.
LH: Nobody else did, but I’m sure Jim did. He’s determined. He’s one of those guys who’s just very determined… as we all know now.
AVC: He also helped turn Alien into a franchise. And on that note, you’ve probably been asked this more than a few times in the past, but… can you actually do Bishop’s knife trick?
LH: Yeah! A cop pulled me over at one point—this was really funny—and he tapped on the window, and then he looked down at me and said, “Bishop!” And he said, “Do the knife trick!” [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ve been asked to do that about a million times.
AVC: Did he still give you a ticket?
LH: No. He said, “Get out of here. Just don’t do that in front of me.” [Laughs.]
Alien 3 (1992)—“Bishop II”
AVP: Alien Vs. Predator (2004) / CR: Alien Vs. Predator (2007)—“Charles Bishop Weyland”
Aliens Vs. Predator 3 (2010)—“Karl Bishop Weyland”
Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013)—“Michael Bishop Weyland”
AVC: Have you enjoyed the opportunity to reprise the role of Bishop—or some “relative” of Bishop’s—over the years?
LH: Yeah. I think it’d be hard to do Bishop again. He’d be looking pretty rough. [Laughs.] But I’ve done it a few times in films and for games.
AVC: You’ve played Bishop’s creator, though, too.
LH: Oh, yeah, in—what was that, Alien Vs. Predator? And of course they had me dying and sick. They do that shit to me. [Laughs.] I don’t know why the fuck they do it. But they said, “You’ve got lung cancer and you’re dying, and you’re the richest man in the fucking world. And… go!”
Johnny Handsome (1989)—“Rafe Garrett”
Tales From The Crypt (1990 / 1991)—“Reno Crevice” / “Sgt. Ripper”
Tarzan (1999) / Tarzan 2 (2005)—“Kerchak”
AVC: You provided the voice of the ape Kerchak in Disney’s Tarzan, which is a pretty high-profile gig, but you’ve done a fair amount of voice work over the years.
LH: Yeah. They’re starting to call me the white Morgan Freeman. [Laughs.]
AVC: There are worse things to be called.
LH: Yeah! I love Morgan. I think he’s a really cool guy. I worked with him on Johnny Handsome. I liked that. Walter Hill is one of the best guys in the world to work for. I really enjoyed working with him. We did one of those Tales From The Crypt episodes, too. It was called “Cutting Cards.”
AVC: How was the experience of playing Abraham Lincoln?
LH: Not good.
LH: Yeah, not good. I mean, I felt like—I don’t know, man. John Gray directed it, and he sprung some stuff on me that was really weird. And it was between seasons of Millennium, which was probably the biggest mistake I ever made, because I was so tired. We were doing 23 shows a year, so when you’re off, you better rest, because otherwise you’re gonna fall apart. I did a lot of studying, and I learned so much about Lincoln that it absolutely blew my mind. Remember, I’m one of those self-educated guys. I have to learn it as I go. So to really try and take on that kind of guy, I had to learn a lot. I wish I had had the time that Daniel Day-Lewis had when he did Lincoln, and that I had that kind of support. Because you can’t do Lincoln without that kind of work. You have to really work on it, not just jump into it.
I do remember a really beautiful moment, though. We were in the ghetto, at one of the houses that Lincoln really lived in. It was surrounded by big metal walls, but it’s in the ghetto now, because the world had completely changed around it. We were actually shooting in it, though, and I was left down at the trailers, and I had to go to the set, so I’m walking to the set in full regalia. I mean, I had the beard, I had everything. I was looking pretty much like Lincoln. And this young guy, a black kid, maybe about 20 years old, is riding his bicycle, and he started circling me. And he finally says to me, “Hey! Emancipation Proclamation! I love that shit!” [Laughs.] But it was one of the most poignant moments, because I just felt, like, “Wow. This really fucking happened.” It was a great moment. That’s my biggest memory of doing that movie.
AVC: How did your role in Millennium come about? Were you approached by Chris Carter?
LH: Yeah, I think he and the director had seen Powder, and they thought I would be right for the role, so we had a dinner together. And my agent—being a manipulator—said to me, “I want you to read this script, and I don’t want to tell you anything about it. Just read it.” Because he knew I didn’t want to do television. So I read it, and I thought, “Wow! This is a dark movie, man…” I mean, I liked it, but it was very, very dark. And then he told me it was a television show, and I said, “Shit.” [Laughs.] And he said, “Take a meeting with Chris Carter.”
So we went to dinner and talked about it, and the first thing I asked him was, “This is so dark, how is this going to be a television show? Where’s the light in this?” And Chris Carter said, “The yellow house.” That’s all he said. And I went, “Yeah? And? That’s it?” [Laughs.] But I decided, “It’s an adventure.”
My feeling about all films and all television is that it’s an adventure. That’s the way I have to look at it. Because you don’t know what the climate of the circumstance is going to be. It could be very good. It could be very mediocre. It could be very bad. You don’t know. But I’ve been doing it long enough now to know that it’s an adventure. That’s what it’s all about. So I’m fine with most things. There’s certain things I won’t do, but I don’t even want to talk about what I won’t do! [Laughs.] But it is an adventure, man, and there’s a lot of people involved, and there’s a lot of excitement about it while you’re doing it. And you don’t know the outcome, really. You can hope for something, but you don’t know. You just never know.
AVC: There’s been talk off and on about bringing Frank Black back.
LH: Oh, I know! They ought to do a film. They really should. If they’re doing all these X-Files movies, come on already! I want to believe? [Snorts.] Okay, good. That’s good. [Pretends to snore.]
AVC: So it sounds like if they did give a new Millennium project the green light, you’d be ready.
LH: I’m always ready. I’m ready for the adventure!