The actor: Michael Rooker is the rare character actor whose largest and most famous role happened early in his career rather than later. As the eponymous character in Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, Rooker brought an intensity and casual menace to a role that’s as much about a serial murderer’s domestic dysfunction as it is about his terrible exploits. It took three years for Henry to find enough champions to get into theaters, but it made one heck of an audition tape for Rooker to submit for character roles of various stripes. For the past 25 years, Rooker has worked consistently in TV and film, with memorable turns as a Black Sox ballplayer in Eight Men Out, a Klansman in Mississippi Burning, and a foul husband turned mutated beast in James Gunn’s horror-comedy Slither. Rooker recently discussed these and other roles while doing publicity in Chicago for Gunn’s new superhero comedy, Super.
The A.V. Club: You worked with writer-director James Gunn before on Slither, but this was a smaller production. What was the shoot like?
Michael Rooker: It was mayhem. No, not really. James tried to keep everything really organized. He had a good AD department. Everyone was professional, by which I mean all the actors of course had a lot of good experience, and the crew did as well. So even though the budget was small, everybody was dead-on and worked real hard. You have to when you do a little one like this, because you don’t have time to waste. And there is no time. There’s no money. In these kinds of productions, time is definitely money, so if you screw up a day or a shot, you may not get a chance to go back and get that shot and redo that day.
AVC: You’ve played more than your share of heavies in the past. How did you approach playing this one?
MR: I had like, six lines maybe, in the whole piece. [Laughs.] I started my career in smaller roles, here in Chicago. I was still in school, and I’d cut class to go do a tiny little role on a TV or a film or something that came into town. So you get good at bringing it, you know? You develop it all yourself in your mind, and you develop your beginning, middle, and end, where you came from, where you’re going, and all that kind of basic acting stuff. And these little roles like this, sometimes they’re harder than the big roles, because they have no descriptive material in the script. You can’t go by the script, because the script has nothing for you to do. So you gotta make it all up yourself, and it’s kind of fun, and it’s rewarding and satisfying, because you’re bringing it yourself. You don’t have a director saying “This is where you came from. This is what happened. This is da-da-da.” Sometimes you do more homework for the small ones than you do for the big ones.
AVC: This film attempts a daring tone between dark comedy and real psychosis. Reactions have been all over the map. What’s your take on it?
MR: It was a really weird script, and in my mind, I was going, “How the hell is he going to do this?” And being James Gunn, you know, it’s been in his head for over 10 years. He wrote the script 10 years ago. He had it in his mind what he wanted to do. While we as actors have in our mind how we want the role to arc and everything, he had that for the whole film, for all the characters, even the small ones. He had those drawn up really well. It was very cool. He made it happen. He’s the genius here. I just did my little role, and I kind of make it my own. But he had to do that for the entire script.
Slither (2006)—“Grant Grant”
AVC: Here, your character makes a horrifying transformation. How did you handle that? Was it a makeup thing? The more makeup you had to put on, the crazier you got?
MR: Not at all. Makeup had nothing to do with it, really. It was all internal. I got my training here in Chicago at the Goodman School Of Drama, and a lot of my personal work is usually internal work and stuff. Everything else that goes on is icing on the cake—your wardrobe, your makeup, whatever else you have to do. But I gotta tell you, the makeup had a lot to do with how I performed on the day, because it was physically demanding, painful. It took forever to put on. The first time we did it, it took eight hours. My call was four hours before anyone else’s. So I’d have a 3 a.m. call if they had a 7 or 8 a.m. thing. I was there in the makeup chair for four, five, six hours. I think we got it down to maybe five and a half hours total.
AVC: How many days of this did you have to go through?
MR: They were very good to me. Gunn knew it was demanding and hard and stressful and painful. Some of it can be. He tried to keep it down to a minimum. I think I did maybe six, seven days, full makeup. And then there were lots of varying levels of Grant Grant, which was very cool.
AVC: The reaction to the film has been interesting. It has found a cult following as of late, but it had trouble finding an audience initially.
MR: Yeah, it did. No one went to see it initially! [Laughs.] You’re trying to be kind!
AVC: Horror-comedy is always a tricky proposition, but did you feel what the result was going to be as you were making it? That it was going to be one of those that might not find its audience right away?
MR: A lot of times, I don’t think about the audience. Sorry, guys. I don’t fucking think about you guys. I really don’t. The marketing part, I leave that up to the other folks. They have their supposed “experts.” They screwed up on Slither, in my opinion. They screwed up. They tried to sell it as a horror movie, and it wasn’t scary. Horror fans need horror, okay? They don’t need little worms squirming around going down your throat. To them, that’s not horror. If they’re going down your throat and it comes out your gut and your brain explodes, okay, that’s better. That’s more horror. But this wasn’t like that. It was sold as a horror, and once you lost the horror fan base, too bad. Because they’re very loyal. But it was more comedy. And it was quirky. I felt it was a crazy, goofy love triangle. A weird, sci-fi love-triangle thing.
Crime Story (1986)—“Lieutenant”
MR: That’s one of the roles that I cut class at school to go do, and I never told them. They didn’t know how else to work outside of school, but I did anyway.
AVC: This is Abel Ferrara directing, and you got a big cast for it. Any recollection of that?
MR: I think I ended up getting my SAG card with that. And I had to cut my hair. I was in a play, and I had to have my long hair for it. Then [the Crime Story producers] wanted me to cut my hair because I was a cop or something like that. So what we ended up doing was cutting just the edges and stuffing my hair up under my hat, my cop hat, and I did the role that way. [Laughs.]
AVC: There are certain roles, if they’re small enough, where it’s like, “I’m not going to completely transform my body for this role.”
MR: Well, I was already committed to the play. They didn’t want me to cut my hair, so I couldn’t cut the hair. But the job paid the money, the little film thing, TV thing, whatever it was, they were going to give me money to cut my hair. So I was like, “Let’s just cut pieces of it.” [Laughs.]
Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986)—“Henry”
AVC: This is your most recognized role. How did that come together?
MR: I was doing a play called Sea Marks, an Irish play, a two-person play. The director was doing the prosthetic work for Henry, and he turned me on to what was going on. “They’re casting this guy. You should go and audition.” I did, and I ended up getting the job. That’s how it came about.
AVC: Films have rarely, if ever, depicted the everyday life of a serial killer with this unvarnished realism. What were you looking to get across about Henry Lee Lucas? What was your approach to playing that character?
MR: That was my first real film role that had any sort of beginning, middle, and end. I was there throughout the whole piece. I started reading some books and material. Nothing really helped. I saw a couple of interviews with [Lucas] with a state trooper or something like that. So I got a little handle on it from that. He’s very soft-spoken, and very shy and introverted. So I hooked into that, and that was my handle for the role. Everything else was just our imaginations, and my imagination. That was a really kind of crazy piece for me, because I was scared shitless. It was my first real role in film. I had done plays, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be good at this film stuff, so I really worked hard to make sure that I was there, I was bringing it that day and that minute.
AVC: There are stories about you being in character for a fairly extensive period.
MR: I stayed in character all day. Once I went in to work, I stayed in character all day long. So after the cut, I would leave the set and go to my room, close the door, and not talk to anybody. I wouldn’t talk to anyone all day long during the filming of it. I would just do my work and go away. Come in, action, do my job, do what I needed to do, and then go away. And that’s what helped me through the entire piece. It was way too difficult to go in and out of character, especially then, because I was young as an actor. I didn’t know how this film stuff worked. In a play, you stay in character pretty much almost all the way through until the evening’s over. So that’s what I did here. I used that technique. I stayed in character as much as I possibly could all day long, or all night long, whatever the times were on the day we worked. People thought that was a little weird, that I’d just go away, that I wouldn’t talk to them and stuff. Then they saw my room, and I had all my mirrors covered up, taped up. I didn’t want to see images of myself, and I kept the room dark or black. And I just stayed in the room and just prepared for the next scene. So yeah, it was kind of weird and crazy, but that was a technique that seemed like it worked.
AVC: Did you ever do anything like that again in the future with that kind of—
MR: Intensity and commitment? Like that? Not really. I learned a lot. That’s what I learned so much from doing Henry. I learned how to turn it on and turn it off. You learn that in theater, too, but for film work, I learned from doing Henry, I learned how to leave work at work and go home. There’s always spillover. Actors speak of this. I don’t know if the normal everyday person knows about this. There’s psychological spillover and physical spillover into your daily life as an actor once you start preparing and you get into your roles. But there could be no spillover for Henry, plain and simple. I had to learn really how to turn it on, turn it off. And even with that, there’s spillover.
AVC: Did it feel like you were getting away with something? When this film was finally put together, the producers, Malik and Waleed Ali, famously shelved the film, feeling like they didn’t get what they paid for.
MR: They wanted T-and-A. They really wanted some sort of scary, serial-killer, tits-and-ass kind of thing. We didn’t give them that. There were no cop chases. There was not a lot of tantalizing sexual content. The women that were victims were simply victims.
Eight Men Out (1988)—“Arnold ‘Chick’ Gandil”
AVC: How much baseball had you played in your life leading up to that film?
MR: I played as a kid. I played ball like any other kid, but I didn’t have any real technique, you know? Making that movie was like being a kid again. It was one of the most fun jobs I had ever done in my career up until that point, and still in the top three in my whole career. It was just a joy to get out to the ballpark and play every day, and fight and argue and bet with the other players about how many balls you’re gonna hit. It was really, truly like being a 12-year-old again.
AVC: How did you get the part?
MR: I was one of the last ballplayers to be cast. They couldn’t find this guy, Chick Gandil, anywhere. They had called up several theaters around town. They got my name a few times. So they called my house after getting my number from some of the theater directors. They wanted me to send in a tape for this role. I think it was one of the smaller roles. But I said, “Where is [the production]?” It was in Indianapolis, Indiana. I said, “Well, my God, I’m going down there on a family barbecue this weekend. Why don’t I just try to swing by and do the reading when I get there?” They said, “Okay, yeah, we’d love that.” Of course, I lied through my teeth. I don’t know anybody in Indianapolis, Indiana. But at that time, video sucked, and I would do anything to get in to do the audition physically without doing a video.
Now, I gotta be there. I didn’t have an agent at that time. I just fired all six of my agents here in Chicago. I went around the city, firing all my agents and taking back all my headshots, because they weren’t doing shit for me. It was a turning point in my career. I had decided “I’m not going to do film anymore, or TV. This is bullshit. I’m gonna do theater the rest of my career. I’m just going to do theater. I don’t need this bullshit anymore.” So, I went around and fired all of these schmucks, and I got back all my headshots and résumés. And literally two days, three days later, I got this call from this film company. [Laughs.] So I basically lied and I got into the audition. I borrowed $40 from my sister, drove down to Indianapolis in my Pontiac with a hole in the floorboard. I had to keep my windows open the whole time. Before I got there, I called the one and only agent that I hadn’t been with in Chicago and said, “Look, you’re my agent. I got an audition on this film. They’re going to call you. I gave them your number and name. They’re going to call you. Make the appointment. That’s all you gotta do, okay?” “Okay.” “Thanks, bye.” That’s all they did. They made the appointment and called me back and said, “Oh, yeah, you have a reading with John Sayles.” I’m like, “Holy shit, great!”
And so I went down there the whole time thinking “I’m going to have a reading with John Sayles!” So I get there and I’m talking with the casting lady, and there’s no John Sayles to be had. He’s not there. I didn’t notice at first, and we were talking, and we start arguing about, “Well, where’s John Sayles? I mean, I drove all this way to meet the director and read with the director.” “Well, you can’t do that.” She wouldn’t tell me he wasn’t in town. So we have this whole row about it. We have this big argument about auditioning and “Where’s John Sayles?”, and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And so finally she yells. We’re yelling in the office, and I’m a little upset because I drove this whole way. It’s my last $40 in the world, and it wasn’t even mine. I had borrowed it from my sister.
Finally, she said, “Well, you have to read with me first no matter what.” And then I was just, “Oh, okay. No problem.” So as we’re going back through the hallway, she gives me the sides, “Here, read these.” It’s some three lines, some thug or something. As I’m going back through the hallway, there’s photos of the ballplayers on the wall. And as we’re going back, I’m still a little teed off, because I’m not reading with John Sayles. I borrowed my sister’s last $40, and I begged her for that, and I’m like, “Oh, fuck me.” Walking through the hallway, I go, “Well, you know what? If I was going to play anyone in this stupid movie, I’d play this fucking guy here.” And I smack the photo. And it’s Chick Gandil. I smack the photo of Chick Gandil, who is the only ballplayer they couldn’t find. Everybody else had been cast. They couldn’t find Chick Gandil, and lo and behold, and she stops and looks at me, because when I smacked it, it made a loud noise. She turned around, and she looked at me, and she looked at who I smacked and she said, “Here, read this. Give me that.” And she took away the old sides and gave me the Chick Gandil sides. [Laughs.]
And we went into the room, and I fucking did the audition and blew her away, and the rest is history. She asked me to stay for the weekend, and I said, “Yes, of course.” And then I slept in my car until Monday morning to meet John Sayles. She wanted me to read for John Sayles. She invited me out to dinner and wanted to get to know me, make sure I wasn’t some crazy person and I was a real actor. And I got to read for John Sayles that Monday, and ended up being his first choice.
Then I was saddened, because even though I was his first choice, he couldn’t cast me, because his producers in L.A., Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford, it was their character to cast. He had already cast his allotment. They split up casting. This was their choice. The Chick Gandil role was their choice to cast. So he said, “They won’t cast him.” By this time, I’d already won over John Sayles. I was his choice. I won over the casting director. She loved me by this time, and I was her choice. And he was like, “Has he done anything? They want to see him on film. Has he done anything at all?” She said, “Well, he has done this one thing.” I had given her a VHS copy of Henry, and she had seen part of it and locked it away in the drawer thinking, “No, I better not show this to anyone. He won’t get the role for sure if I showed this to anybody.” So he was like, “Well, what is it? What is it?” She finally gave it to him. “Well, it’s this. I don’t know if it’s what we’re looking for.” So he went upstairs and saw it, immediately cut out maybe 45 seconds to a minute of the table scene from the movie, when Henry’s talking about his mom, sent it off to L.A., they saw it and said, “Cast him.” I got the role because of Henry, and because of whatever, the stars. I did everything you should never, ever do to get this role. I fought with the casting director, I was an asshole. I was upset. I mean, I was everything Chick Gandil was. Hence, Eight Men Out.
AVC: We have so many more roles to ask you about, but we’re out of time. How about a lightning round?
MR: Mallrats. Love Mallrats. Kevin Smith. This is Kevin Smith’s directing technique. [Turns empty Fiji water bottle on its side, starts tapping on it with his thumbs.] Game Boy, bum-bum-bum-bum, oh yeah, action, go ahead! That’s Kevin. I loved him. [Laughs.]
Tombstone (1993)—“Sherman McMasters”
MR: Tombstone! I learned to shoot in
Tombstone. I’ve been shooting ever since. As a matter of fact, I’m a co-owner shareholder of a shooting range outside of L.A. I shoot at least once or twice a week.
Cliffhanger (1993)—“Hal Tucker”
MR: Cliffhanger got me in the best shape of my life, working at 10,000 feet up in the mountains. And everybody was great. I lived in Italy for seven months doing that movie. It was a great vacation.
Undisputed (2002)—“A.J. Mercker”
MR: Undisputed! It was in a prison in Nevada—was it Arizona or Nevada? Nevada, yeah. And it was scary. It was very scary. Every teenager should go visit a maximum-security prison. Talk about being scared straight. That was a scary, scary place. Clean as a whistle. You could eat off the floors, but it was so sterile and scary, it was like, “Holy shit. Let’s do this movie and get the hell out of here.” And the prisoners were very nice. The inmates were very, very cool. I have a lot of friends, a lot of fans that are in maximum-security prisons all over this country. [Laughs.] They watch film and they see all kinds of stuff. They probably got to see Slither before, you know, Belgium got to see Slither. So, yeah. They get to see a lot of film.