AVC: When you’re working on a project like that, presumably you just have to put your trust in the vision of the director—or, in this case, the directors.

MI: Absolutely. I mean, the three of them are very passionate. I had worked with two directors before, but never three. That was kind of a joy, in a funny way. I’m old enough that I’m pretty well battle-tested. You can’t really damage me. [Laughs.] So my attitude is to go in and sort of say, “Why not trust somebody? Why not give them the support and the trust until they abuse it?” And they never did abuse it. Because as an actor… Look, the whole idea is, we go out and we act like kids. No matter what age I am, I’m still a child. The best actors on the planet are children, to be able to suspend reality and become Batman or The Lone Ranger or whoever you want to be. For those few moments, you really are those characters. And that’s what the best of acting does: It allows you to emotionally throw yourself into it.

But to be able to do that, the environment has to be safe, and that’s what I look to the productions and directors and storytellers to do: make that a safe environment. And the three of them did. It was kind of interesting, too, the way they broke up the role of directing. François Simard, he looked after the crew and the camera and was hands-on with them and the technical side of things. Yoann-Karl [Whissell] dealt almost exclusively with the talent and the actors. And Anouk [Whissell], who is Yoann’s wife—they were engaged at the time—and is François’ sister, she seemed to rein both of them in. [Laughs.] She seemed to be the common ground between the two. They’d meet for a few minutes, all nod and have a little discussion, and then come over, and one would talk to technical, one would talk to acting… It was a wonderful experience. I felt totally safe and protected with their way of doing things. And it was really kind of cool to watch all three of them lose their virginities here at Sundance…and I mean that in the kindest of senses, because they were very emotional, and it was kind of a nurturing way to do it.


By the way, I’ve got to at least tell you a story about the kid who actually plays Turbo Kid. I come home, and I’ve got a daughter who at the time was 14 or 15, and she’s sitting with a bunch of her friends, and she says, “What were you working on, Dad?” And I said, “Oh, I’m doing this thing called Turbo Kid.” And they said, “Oooh! What’s that?” And I said, “Oh, it’s this kind of futuristic, post-apocalyptic kind of Road Warrior thing, but they don’t have cars. They use BMX bikes.” And they said, “Oooh!” And I said, “Yeah, there’s me, and there’s kid called Munro Chambers.” And I swear to God, one of the girls started trembling. [Laughs.] I thought she was having an epileptic fit! I said, “Are you all right?” She said, “Mun-mun-munro from DeGrassi?”… They all started trembling and running around in circles and bumping into shit. And I said, “What’s going on?” And my daughter, who’s very savvy about television, said, “Oh, he’s one of the stars of DeGrassi.” I said, “What do you think of him?” She said, “Eh, he’s all right.” ’Cause she’s kind of jaded, you know? When you have everyone from Arnold [Schwarzenegger] on down walking through the house… On any given day, somebody who causes that kind of reaction walks through my house and opens the fridge to make themselves a sandwich. Our house is very non-show business. It’s not, “Don’t you know who I think I am?” I try and leave work at work and put on my Birkenstocks and come home. But I did not know who Munro Chambers was or the effect he was going to have on these teenage girls. He’s a wonderful actor, though.

By the way, if you look at this woman who’s playing Apple in the film, Laurence Leboeuf? Those are really her eyes. She has eyes like a bloody Husky. Those white-gray eyes… You look at them, and you go, “Holy shit!” [Laughs.] And then you take her out of the outfit she wears in the film, you put her into a skirt and top, and it’s, like, “Holy shit, she’s a rock-solid little puppy!” She walks down the street, and people are walking into telephone poles looking at her, because she just has this enigmatic kind of calm, healthy sexuality about her.


Look, we’re all kind of playing these very comic-book kind of caricatures, but [Chambers] holds onto his character as well as Aaron Jeffery from New Zealand and myself. We all kind of made this commitment to hold onto these stylized characters, and… I don’t know. It’s kind of cute. I watched it last night, and I was kind of cringing for the first five minutes. I really was. I was, like, “Oh, this isn’t what I expected…” But then, I swear to God, it has this complete charm and commitment where you go, “Wait a second…” It just works, you know?

The Ottawa Valley (1974) —“Soldier”
Outrageous! (1977)—“Drunk”

AVC: IMDB says your first on-camera role was playing a drunk in a movie called Outrageous!


MI: That actually wasn’t my first. The first role I ever had—well, the first union thing—was on a CBC thing called The Ottawa Valley, which I think was part of an anthology series. I played a soldier on a train, and I had two or three lines in it, and it was a World War II thing. It was an Alice Munro short story that was turned into a half-hour drama. But when they were filming, they wanted to hide some technology, so they had me sit on the arm of a chair rather than in a seat. I thought, “This is cool! Somebody’s gonna see me!” And I had to smoke this cigarette, because I think [the director] wanted some kind of character. The problem was that, 14 takes later, I’m still sitting on the arm of the chair. [Laughs.] And the cheeks of my ass, you could probably park a Buick up there! It was two days of sitting on the arm of the chair on a period train, smoking non-filtered cigarettes. I felt like I was about 80 years old and had been fairly abused. So that was my introduction to film work.

But Outrageous! [Hesitates.] Have you ever seen the film?

AVC: Actually, yes. It turns out someone’s uploaded it to YouTube.

MI: Okay, so you know, then, that it’s about Craig Russell being a female impersonator back in the ’70s. I actually played a taxi driver who was homophobic but who was ferrying around this transvestite or transgender kind of crowd, and he ends up spouting out all his homosexual fears, gets the shit kicked out of him, and then comes out of the closet and becomes this outrageous gay guy. Now, none of that is in the movie. In fact, I think I’m completely cut out of the film, if I remember right.


AVC: But they credit you as playing a drunk, not a taxi driver.

MI: Yeah, they called me “Drunk” because during the second act he comes in during this performance and starts yelling gay obscenities. That’s when the crowd beats the living shit out of him. I broke two ribs on that film, because the extras were real, and they didn’t tell them I was an actor. And then I come out after that. I have this kind of emotional epiphany, and he ends up being gay. But the comment from the director was that it was like a piece of Taxi Driver in the middle of a gay Alice In Wonderland, and it didn’t fit. My performance was a little too real, apparently, and they wanted that kind of tongue-in-cheek fairy tale that was outrageous. So that was my first time on a film. I remember that was a non-union gig—in those days, film and television weren’t connected in Canada—and they deducted my makeup, my wardrobe, and my dressing room. [Laughs.] I think I ended up with $1,300 for three and a half weeks of work. The production deducted four grand off my check!


They’re all dead now, by the way. Not that I say that with any kind of glee. Craig Russell was a good friend of mine. I ended up staying at his place when he went off on tour. The girlfriend I was living with at the time, we stayed at his apartment for, like, nine months. It really helped me financially, I remember. But they’re all gone. They’ve all passed, because of the AIDS epidemic. The director, most of the cast… There’s a huge hole in the arts community of Toronto because of that. [Sighs.] Okay. Next?

Extreme Prejudice (1987)—“Maj. Paul Hackett”

MI: That was another one that got cut. That was Walter Hill. Andy Robinson and I play CIA agents, we’re trying to do this whole covert op, and my character was the go-between between the military side of the story, the police side of the story, and the government side of the story. But when they put it all together, Walter said to me, “It looks like it’s starring Michael Ironside, with Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, and Rip Torn supporting him, so we’re gonna cut the whole Andy Robinson side of the film out.” [Laughs.]… They cut something like 45 minutes out of it!


The great thing about that film, though, was meeting Ry Cooder. This guy pulled up in a Volvo station wagon and said, “Hey, can you give me a hand? I don’t want this sand to damage the paint.” I was pulling a cover over it, and we were taking guitar cases out of the back. He was kind of yuppified. He had a pair of seersucker slacks, penny loafers, and a golf shirt. But when I looked at him, I went, “Oh, Christ, you’re Ry Cooder!” [Laughs.] And I was in a pair of shorts with Birkenstocks and a golf shirt. And he said, “Yeah, and you’re the badass Ironside. Look at us!” And he made some kind of comment about the P.R. of selling things and how they find an aspect about us and just sell it. Yeah, he was an absolutely brilliant blues guitar player, but not what you would expect him to look like. He was just an upper-middle class beautiful guy driving a Volvo who had a beautiful gift. And I was driving a Volkswagen! It all depends on how they want to stereotypically package you to sell something.

I also remember on that film that Ry had an ancient guitar—it was about 100 years old —that he was using for the soundtrack, and it got stolen off the set when we were shooting. That was a priceless guitar that he’d brought in because he was giving Walter ideas on what he wanted to do. We were shooting down on one of the old sets, at the studio where they shot the burning of Atlanta in Gone With The Wind, and there were a lot of other things shooting there, so there was a lot of traffic going through the studio. I remember him coming back at one point, and he was all panicked. I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I can’t find my guitar!” Someone had just picked up his guitar case and walked off. I remember he was so devastated by that. He said, “It’s not that they stole it; it’s that they won’t understand the value of it.” He was just gutted by that. It was such a sad day.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)—“Gen. Katana”

MI: Wow. General Katana. How can you not like a guy where they give you… [Starts to laugh.] Look, I’m bald. I have not had hair since I was 27, 28. But I showed up for work, and they glued a full mane on me, give me a cape, leather boots that go to my thighs, and a four-foot stand that I can cleave people in half with. How can you not want to go to work, you know? That was an absolute joy! And then I get to hang out with Sean Connery?


I just saw Russell Mulcahy, actually, when I was in Nova Scotia. The new Lizzie Borden miniseries, I’m doing a piece in that, playing a crazed mountain man who’s wanted for murder and stuff, and while I was there, Russell was directing the second section of it.

But we hadn’t seen each other since after Argentina, when he was in town shooting a music video for Elton John—he did a bunch of his videos—and he calls me and he says, “Hey, let’s go to dinner! We’ll all go to dinner!” So I’m at dinner with my wife and Russell, and Chris [Lambert] came along, and he brought Diane Lane with him, because he was married to her at the time. Diane’s a hoot. She’s a great friend. We did The Perfect Storm together, too.


But, anyway, I’m sitting there at dinner, and there’s this guy with a beard and long hair across the table, and he’s talking about how he’s working on this Western he’s been wanting to do. I said, “How long have you been working on this script?” He said, “About 11 years.” I said, “Dude, you’re a cliché! Do you know how many people in this town have a first and second act and an unfinished third act?” And we were laughing about it, and he said, “Yeah, I know, but it’s an obsession with me.” And I’m sitting there… and I go, “Oh, my God!” And he said, sounding surprised, “What?” He actually looked around, because there were, like, eight of us at the table. And I said, “You’re Bernie Taupin!” And he said, “Yeah! And you’re Michael Ironside. I’ve got a copy of Scanners. Could you sign it for me?” [Laughs.] I’m sitting there for a fucking hour and a half talking to Bernie Taupin before I realized who he was! One of the greatest lyricists of all time! I mean, just Tumbleweed Connection alone! And Russell was sitting there, and he looked down the table—he’s got these blue, devilish juvenile eyes —and he said, “You guys are getting along famously, aren’t you?” It was one of those perfect dinners, where everyone at the table just added to the conversation, and it was wonderful. Stories just rolled around the table. It was a 10-star dinner.

So that’s basically what General Katana reminds me of, but… in Highlander II, do you remember when I fall through the ceiling of the subway? Well, here’s an anecdote from that. The stunt guy was my double—I won’t mention his name, ’cause he’s got kids—but we shot that in Argentina, and he’d never been anywhere where cocaine was so cheap. You know, you could buy a gram of cocaine for about four dollars American, and you could buy a brick of it for about 150 dollars. And he was hammered out of his mind on drugs while we were there. And we go to do this scene, and… I’d done all of the sword-fighting training, and Frank Orsatti, a dear friend of mine, and Tommy Huff were the stunt coordinators. They’ve both passed now. But we learned how to sword-fight and did all that stuff, me and Chris Lambert, we were all getting along great, but… My stunt double… came and knocked on my door in the middle of the night, and he was totally naked, and he had paint all over his testicles. [Laughs.] And I said, “Are you all right?” He said, “Can I borrow a pair of sweatpants?” And I said, “Well, why don’t you go to your room?” And he said [In a low voice.], “There are people in my room.” And I went, “Okay!” So I went and got him a pair of sweatpants, and he said, “Thank you!” And he smiled and ran down to the exit.


Two days later, he had to do that stunt for me. We’d built a subway car, and he had to walk along and crash through the floor—because I come to Earth, if you remember, on a comet—through the cement into a subway. All he had to do was sort of hang on the ceiling, and they’d blow the thing, and he’d fall face-first, flat body, through it. And he was so whacked out of his brains when we went to do the stunt, they blew it, and he decided, “Wait a second,” and came through backwards and upside down, and he landed on his ass. And not only was it totally not usable, but he broke his ankle in the process. And Russell was sitting there, and he went, “Christ, what are we fucking going to do now?” And stupid, stupid me, being from Canada, where we used to do all our own stunts, I said, “Well, I could probably help you out there. I could probably do it.” He said, “Well, we don’t have another train car. I don’t know how we’re gonna do it.” I said, “Well, I think I know how to do this.” And then I thought, “What are you doing, you stupid asshole?”

So we set it all up, and I hung from above the hole of the ceiling of the subway car, and he called, “Action!” I let myself fall, and if you remember, they piled all this plaster shit on my back, so that when I fell, it looked like a bunch of stuff fell with me. We kind of made it up as we went along. And in the film, I land, and… I said, “No matter what happens, Russell, keep rolling, because if I break anything, we’re only gonna get one shot at this.” Well, I dinged my head a little bit coming through. I hit a crossbar on the subway. But when I landed on the floor of the subway, everyone’s staring at me, the dust is clearing, and I remember thinking, “Did I break anything?” I’d broken my back before, so I stood up, I checked my back, my shoulders, and my hands while I was half-bent over. But when I realized I’d done it and I hadn’t broken anything, I threw my head back and I went, “YES!” [Laughs.] That’s when I realized, “Wait a minute, the camera’s still rolling!” And I went, “A-HA!” And I walked off-camera. So that was not acting in its purest sense. That was just me surviving a stunt! And Russell said, “That was fucking brilliant! Let’s leave that in, and we’ll build on that!” So that’s how I got the coat and the cape and all that other stuff, walking through the train. But we kind of made that up as we went along… all because my stunt double had screwed up the stunt so bad!

McBain (1991)—“Frank Bruce”

MI: Oh, God. That’s a joke to everybody. Even to The Simpsons. It’s their favorite movie! [Laughs.] You know, in all truth, that was a filmmaker who was being backed by his father, who had a ton of money, and just pissed it up against the wall. I remember it was a fairly good story to start off with, which was about ex-vets having to get rid of their shame of being survivors, I think. You know, when their friends are lost? And by the time we got it, they had rewritten the script from an A-minus to a C-minus script. God, I just have nothing good to say about that film. Absolutely nothing. Other than that the filmmaker, thank God, will never make films again. He ended up going back to restoring vintage racing cars on his father’s chit. And you can put all that in there. I don’t say anything in interviews that I wouldn’t say to somebody’s face. [Laughs.]

Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone (1983)—“Overdog”

MI: What’s interesting about that is that it was four and a half hours of makeup every morning. That was Tom Burman and Steve LaPorte. The special effects makeup was Tom’s creation, and it was either 16 or 17 applications. But once I got under that gear, I stayed in makeup for lunch hour—I’d take the chrome teeth out—and I looked like a wise little Buddhist monk once I was out from under my little flowerpot stuff. So I’d go off and eat lunch, and I still had to eat lunch very carefully with all that makeup on, but people would come and find me and start confessing shit to me. [Laughs.] Like, “My husband doesn’t love me,” or, “My kids don’t do this and don’t do that.” Tom noticed it and said, “They come do this to you every day! It’s like they come and piss in your ear!” I said, “Yeah, and it’s all your fault! This makeup makes me look very wise!” It actually changed the way I did the character, too. I got this kind of wonderful embrace every day from two or three people at lunch hour who’d come to confess to me, and then I’d go out and be this brutal, monochromatic, emotionally devastating character!


AVC: Molly Ringwald was just getting her feet wet as a film actress.

MI: Yeah, it was only her second film. She’d just done that [John] Cassavetes film, Tempest. But I remember Molly wanted cleavage. [Laughs.] And when nobody was looking, she’d grab a makeup sponge and rub it up and down on her chest, trying to give herself cleavage! God, she wanted so bad to do the Edie Sedgwick story. Even her little dog was called Edie. And I think she probably would’ve been good for it. And I’ve heard that they’re eventually gonna get that off the ground, in a year or so. But we’ll see what happens.

Starship Troopers (1997)—“Jean Rasczak”

MI: It’s interesting, because I read that book—that’s Robert Heinlein, right?—when I was younger. My grandfather gave it to me. He was a paranoid, right-wing kind of guy. He wrote that whole kind of political, right-wing idea in the book, which was, like, “If you’re not willing to kill for your country, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” And he wrote a citizen’s manual after that, because he was so paranoid of the Communist scourge and anything that wasn’t straight up Republican American at the time. He was also a cross-dresser, I think, if I remember right. At the very least, he wrote a book right after that about this old man who had his brain transplanted into a young woman’s body [I Will Fear No Evil], and the book is just this constant going on and on about fetishes, about the way the nylon feels on his skin and the silk on his ass and all this shit. He was a very strange dude.


I knew all this going in because my dad’s father was a member of the original Sci-Fi Club, which was Frank Herbert and a bunch of other writers before they were published. I actually read Dune out of a shoebox, and scrawled across the front of it was… Frank Herbert had written, “John: See if you can find any bugaboos in this. Frank.” It’s still kicking around. I think one of my nephews has it. But, anyway, I knew all this, but I also knew where Paul [Verhoeven] comes from, being a war rat, after the second World War, so I was, like, “Why is he doing this right-wing manifesto piece?” We’d already done Total Recall by this point, so I said to him, “Look, before I sign onto this, Paul, you want to tell me what you’re going to do with the material?” He said, “Are you questioning me?” He’s a very inflexible character… and a friend! So he said that, with his Dutch accent, and I said, “I want to know, because this is a right-wing manifesto!” He said, “All right, I’ll answer you. If I was to stand on a soapbox and tell people that right-wing politics and right-wing way of looking at the universe is unnurturing, nobody would listen to me. So I’m going to give them a perfect, beautiful, crystal-clear fascist world where everything is perfect… but it’s only good for killing bugs!” [Laughs.] And he said, “Are you happy now?” And I said, “I’m in!”

AVC: Were you surprised when people didn’t seem to get that?

MI: When they didn’t get the satirical side of it… I’m amazed by the people that do. It still rings true. I had somebody here at Sundance walk by me and say, “I just re-watched Starship Troopers, and I did not get the political satire until now.” And I think the problem is that so much of society now is illiterate about history. If it doesn’t fall into a corporate three-month period, nobody really thinks about it anymore. And that’s part of the statement of the arts: we shouldn’t forget our past, or we’re destined to repeat it. I think we can see it in the Middle East right now. But I don’t want to get into too much politics. I’m Canadian.

Total Recall (1990)—“Richter”

AVC: Was Total Recall where you first worked with Verhoeven?

MI: Yeah. That was absolutely wonderful. God, I have so many friends from that. You know, on most films I make friends. I make friends with people behind the camera as well as in front of the camera, and I think I made more friends on that one than any other. Friends I’m still close with. It holds a really warm spot in my heart. It was six months in Mexico City shooting that.


AVC: You didn’t have anything to do with the remake, but did they ever pitch you on the idea of doing a cameo?

MI: They did, and I said I didn’t want anything to do with it. A good friend of mine, Currie Graham, shot on that film for almost a month and a half, and then he went to the premiere, and they didn’t tell him they’d cut him out of it a week and a half before the premiere. So he went through all the press, got in there, and he’s not even in it. It was one more time where the people behind the money are making decisions on creative things. They wanted their dollars on the screen, so they cut all the character development and all the storyline and put all the production value in, which is the money. And the audience, one more time, was not treated with respect, and they walked away from the film. I’ve said this before, but all the wrong people are making the creative decisions in our industry right now. We have accountants and dollars-and-cents people making decisions when they really should be supporting the filmmakers. Storytelling is an art.


AVC: Have you ever had an experience where you did a film that you expected to turn out one way but it turned out another?

MI: Most of the time, actually. I never look at the work when I’m doing it. I know a lot of people rush off camera to look at playbacks and shit like that, but I hate looking at what I’m doing when I’m doing it. Because emotionally, if I’m correct, the director will tell me, and if they like what I’m doing, I’ll stay in that line. If I look at what I’m doing, I can’t help it, I’m only a human being: I’ll go, “Wow, that’s the way it looks?” I’ll become conscious of it, and I’ll be like, “Why don’t I look the way I feel?” So I’m really custom-built to support storytellers. If they like what I’m doing, then that’s what I’ll do. But because of that, I’m always surprised when I do finally see it, as I was with Turbo Kid.

Scanners (1981)—“Revok”
Top Gun (1986)—“Jester”
Terminator Salvation (2009)—“General Ashdown”

MI: Last night I ran into somebody that did assistant crew work on Scanners in Montreal years and years ago and then moved to Los Angeles, and he sent me an on-set photograph from when we did that that was just brilliant. I mean, we shot that in ’79 and ’80, and then it came out in ’81, so that’s… 34 years ago? Holy shit! [Laughs.] But there’s this shine and glee in my eye. I got back to the hotel last night and pulled the photo up on the laptop, and I looked at the photograph, and then I looked in the mirror, and… I looked like the grandfather of that guy! It’s so wonderful.


When I was on the set of Terminator 4, and we were shooting, and I was sitting with McG and all the powers and be and stuff, and there were all these gorgeous little PAs that McG has around, little girls with shorts or tight jeans and walkie-talkies. I was waiting to go on set, and they were doing playback and shit, and this girl turned to me and said, “Mr. Ironside, I’ve been wanting to ask you about something for a couple of days.” I said, “Yes?” She said, “Are you any relation to the Ironside that was in Top Gun?” I said, “Yes, I am.” And she was absolutely ecstatic. She said, “I thought so! Talent must run in your family!” And she went walking off, very proud of herself. And I looked over at McG and all the producers, who were sitting there horrified, looking at me. [Laughs.] And I said, “What the fuck are you guys so uptight about? I’m old enough to be that prick’s father now! That was 25 years ago! She has no idea. She probably watched it on her laptop or pulled it up on Netflix or something like that.” But what a wonderful compliment, that it’s for the continuity of talent and not the physicality. And I told them, “Don’t you dare embarrass her by giving her that point of view, you bastards! You just leave her alone!”

AVC: Could you talk a bit about the experience of working with Scanners director David Cronenberg?


MI: Well, David and I, we didn’t work together after that, and we had a… [Hesitates.] Oh, fuck, I guess I can say it. We were at a function, and I didn’t like what he did with the twins thing with Jeremy Irons [Dead Ringers]. I thought it was a masochistic rendering of the material in what he did there, and he didn’t agree, and we had kind of a falling-out, and… I don’t think we’ve talked since. But I’ve got to tell you, he’s a master filmmaker. I liked what he did with Spider [2002]. When he does other people’s material, he shows that he’s not just a one-trick pony who only does his own stuff. He’s very much an accomplished and incredible storyteller. I guess I wish we’d been more flexible that night with each other. I think it was in Vancouver. He was doing something, I was doing something else, and he asked me what I thought of that film, and being a father of two girls, I think I basically said, “I wish it was something a little more affirming for females.” He said, “I don’t understand,” and I said, “Well, you have these horrific created objects being stuffed into women’s vaginas.” Anyway, the conversation went downhill from there. [Laughs.] It was the wrong energy at the wrong time. But I said, “We can talk about this in private,” and he said, “No, no, we can do it,” but he looked a little uncertain, and… well, whatever.

But Scanners is a fucking brilliant film. And it still holds up. My 16-year-old daughter saw it about a month ago with her friends, and she said, “I didn’t know about this. This is good. I like what it’s talking about, with the mucking with people’s genetics and stuff.” So that’s kind of cool. When something holds up almost 35 years later to a completely new generation, I don’t give a shit what anybody else says about it: It stands up.