Halloween is fast approaching, so all this week, Yahoo Movies will be talking to stars who scared us silly in classic horror movies. Go here to read our complete Halloween coverage.
It’s a safe bet that when horror-film buffs see Lance Henriksen’s name in a movie’s cast, it makes them smile with anticipation. It’s no wonder the 76-year-old charismatic character actor now has more than 200 acting credits on IMDb — including 16 (!!!) feature film roles in 2016 and beyond. While Henriksen boasts a diverse résumé, including parts in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the gravel-voiced fan favorite is arguably best known for his participation in enduring genre favorites such as (but hardly limited to) Aliens, Near Dark, Pumpkinhead, Man’s Best Friend, and Hard Target. With Halloween movies on our minds, we chatted with Henriksen about his decades-long career and, in particular, his work in horror and thrillers.
Yahoo Movies: IMDb currently lists eight upcoming movies of yours that are either in pre-production, post-production, or completed. And that’s not even factoring in your TV and voice-acting work. Are you always exhausted?
Lance Henriksen: [Laughs] I went through a couple of movies where I had very big parts in them. One of them was a western, and I did the lead in it. I’m telling you, man, that was tiring. By the time I got to the end of that movie, I thought, “I’m never doing another western where I’m the lead in it. I’ll do a small part, but I’m not carrying a movie like that.” It’s so much work.
But it must be encouraging that, after all these years, you’re still in such high demand.
It is. I have nothing but gratitude, believe me.
Some of your most notable work has come in horror movies. Is there something in particular that draws you to the genre? Or something that draws the genre to you?
It’s a little of both. I read a script not long ago called Wraith, and it was the story of a priest who has to go and purge a house of demons. It was so well written, I thought, “My god, I’ll do this.” And you don’t find out until the very end that [Henriksen reveals a twist that adds another layer to the role—ed.]. I mean, it was really cool. I’m always looking for something [like Wraith] that’s actable and not just clichés. I love the search. And it’s always an adventure.
Were you always a horror fan?
Oh, yeah. I went through a golden age of discovery. When I was a kid, all of the movie sets were made out of, like, balsa wood and egg cartons, and yet they allowed you to suspend your disbelief as an audience member to believe it and to have fun watching it. We’re talking about all the way from Bela Lugosi to The Thing From Another World with [James] Arness, to movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was really crazy stuff.
You’re often cast as heavies. Did you ever envision yourself that way?
No, no — never! [Laughs] I’ve gone through a period now where that’s not happening. I’m playing — well, no, it is happening, what am I saying! [Laughs] It is. But I don’t try to play [heavies] that way. I’m not trying to play a badass unless the script is totally in that position. I don’t flaunt it in a cliché way. I try to find the humanity in something.
What was the first film that, in your opinion, marked you as a horror-centric actor? Was it Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 Near Dark?
No, I think it even goes before that. Jim Cameron gave me my first real lead in a movie, when I did the worst movie — we both hate the movie — Piranha 2: The Spawning. It was a survival movie, and what I mean by that is, we had no budget. We were down in Jamaica, and I had to buy the clothes off a waiter because they didn’t have any wardrobe and I’m playing a harbor cop. Then I had to carve my gun out of wood and keep it in my holster. And my badge was a “Save the Whales” pin upside down, so you couldn’t read it. We did the best we could, we really did. But that was the beginning of the tough guy thing.
Truthfully, I was a tough guy when I was 17. But after that, I started to soften because movies kind of gave me an education, and they always have. I have nothing but respect for what we do, and what is done, trying to make a movie.
Do you have a favorite film of yours — or, at least, a favorite production?
The longevity of my career has been amazing, even to me. But it’s always the last movie you just did. The way that I work, it consumes my life, it really does. It’s an amazing learning process, and I feel like I’m getting better and better. That’s not vanity talking. I’m just feeling the power of what movies are and what you learn by doing one — I mean, it’s not easy. And I can’t fake it. I’m not a good imitator of emotions. I’m either feeling it or it’s not going to be there. I don’t like to fake it. And I don’t look like Tom Cruise. I kind of look like an unmade bed. [Laughs]
I got offered a movie in upstate New York, in Niagara Falls. It’s a comedy called After the Sun Fell, and it’s an incredible movie. I finally saw it finished, and I was so proud of the director. The script came from a Broadway show that wasn’t done, and they turned it into a movie. It’s so well written. I’m playing a guy who’s never wrong. He’s the patriarch of a family who’s never wrong, no matter what. And I was really kind of terrified when I went to do it. I had worked on it on my own, and when I got there, we did the first scene, and I went, “I can do this. Stop worrying!” [Laughs] I worry stuff to death.
It’s very intense for me because I really didn’t have an education. I think I went to three-four years of grammar school, and I never went to high school, even. So the industry has been my high school, college, and all the rest.
I imagine James Cameron — with whom you worked early in your career, on Piranha 2, The Terminator, and Aliens — played a big role in that education.
Oh, yeah, sure. Every movie does. You have to be like a dancer, or a fighter, to work with all these different personalities. There was an exponential rise in Jim’s talent, even though it was there from the beginning. But it takes money to make a film, and I think our Piranha budget was $300,000. We made the movie, though. Jim had a work ethic that I respected. And, of course, my first movie was with Sidney Lumet, with Dog Day Afternoon. I got an introduction to the industry by being elbow to elbow with some really fine directors.
Lance Henriksen in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (SPOILER ALERT! This scene reveals a major plot point and contains violence):
You learn from them, but you also have to put it out. You can’t just skate along. So there’s a lot of interchange between talent, either with the director or other actors. Charlie Durning said something to me when we were shooting our first movie. He was a real comic, and he said, “Lance, you’re not going to work until you’re older.” And I said, “What are you talking about, Charlie? Why?” And he said, “Because you look funny.” [Laughs] I’ve been surrounded by very talented people my entire career, and it rubs off. The permission to work hard and be good at it comes from being surrounded by very talented people.
My favorite film of yours is 1988’s Pumpkinhead, which I watched endlessly as a kid…
Oh, buddy! Wow.
Stan Winston, who directed it, is another legendary Hollywood artist. Do you have any particularly fond memories of working on that film or on either of the two sequels in which you co-starred?
Those sequels were so s****y. I remember, they showed one of them at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and I was there with my agent. We got three-quarters of the way through the movie, and I said, “Jesus, Jeff, this sucks!” They were going to have a Q&A afterwards. And as the lights started to come up, and I hear the guy go, “And we have Lance Henriksen here for the Q&A…” I began crawling out of the theater on my hands and knees, and I left. I ran out the front door. Because I can’t lie. I didn’t want to stand there and bring the movie down to its knees. But my agent was laughing his ass off because I’m crawling through all the gum wrappers and the popcorn.
But the first film isn’t one to be ashamed of.
No, no! I love what Stan did. There was a particular scene that made me do the movie. When I first got the script, I said, “Pumpkinhead? What, am I going to be riding around with a watermelon on my head?” I didn’t know. And then I got to that scene — when my son is dead, and I’m on a country road, and he sits up and says, “What have you done, Daddy? What have you done?” — and it m-*ade the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It made me do the movie, that one scene.
Watch a home-video promo for ‘Pumpkinhead’:
Another great director you worked with is John Woo, on 1993’s Hard Target. What was working with him like?
I had seen all of John Woo’s movies, beginning with Bullet to the Head. All these incredible movies he’d made. His action was like ballet. It was really incredible stuff. Then, when I meet the guy, I find out he’s this warm, bright, hard-working man, and I just — I love John Woo. He set me on fire twice. [Laughs] I said, “John, you’re the only guy in the industry I’d allow to set me on fire. Let’s do it again!” He got my adrenaline up so high that you literally couldn’t see the color of my eyes, they were so dilated. And I said, “One more time! I need another one, John!”
One of your most memorable roles was as Bishop in Aliens (and Alien 3). Ridley Scott is continuing the franchise with Prometheus and the upcoming Alien: Covenant. Would you be open to reprising the role if the opportunity arose?
You know what goes on — a writer gets to the middle of the night, and he’s tired, and he goes, “I got an idea. Let’s bring Bishop back!” [Laughs] There’s a South African director who might do a film taking off right where Aliens left off. That guy, [Neill] Blomkamp, he’s so talented that if he ever said he wanted me in it, I’d do it — of course, I would. Because I love his movies. They’re really good.
Was it daunting to step into Aliens, given that Ian Holm had made such an impression as an android in Scott’s original Alien?
I was worried about it. But it wasn’t only Ian Holm. It was Rutger Hauer, and what he’d done in Blade Runner. These guys were at the top of their game at the time, and I thought, “How can I compete with that?” After I’d gotten the role, I started panicking a little bit. And then I went, “You know what? I can’t compete with them. Forget about that. Don’t do that, don’t go there.” I felt, really, that I had created a very innocent character. And I was happy. I felt it was right, and Jim liked it. I just took a different turn on it.
I remember being so innocent about stuff that I’d get lost in London all the time. Because I was playing Bishop every minute of every day while I was doing it.
Did you actually learn the knife trick?
Yeah, I did that. I learned that from a circus guy.
Watch Bishop’s knife trick from ‘Aliens’:
Can you still do it?
I try not to because it excites people way too much. It’s like in restaurants, and cops… A cop pulled me over once, and he tapped on the window, and I rolled it down, and he went, “Bishop?” And he pulled his pen out of his pocket and said, “Do the knife trick.” [Laughs] It was funny, man.
Did you get out of the ticket?
Yeah! And I actually didn’t have to do it, either. He said, “Get out of here. Don’t do it in front of me is all.”
You also have a career as a painter and a sculptor. Is that artistic impulse related to your acting, or is it a separate creative outlet?
No, it’s not connected, and that’s the best part. It gives me room to breathe, to get back to life, as opposed to inhabiting a role, and have that be part of my fiber. You have to have something that has no commerce involved in it, you know what I mean.
Another film that sounds intriguing is Bring Me the Head of Lance Henriksen…
It’s a great idea. And, really, I did it for nothing because I liked the idea so much. It’s a young filmmaker, he’s a really nice guy, and I’ve known him a long time. In the story, everyone’s playing themselves. The idea is that [actor] Tim Thomerson is my age, and he can’t get a job because every time he goes in, they’ve either offered it to me or I already have it. And it drives him crazy. So he starts stalking me, to find out what I do to get all these jobs. It’s a comedy, by the way — the whole movie is improvised — and he comes to my house and I catch him, and I take him under my wing and start torturing him. And by that I mean, I get him into situations that are really absurd, and I say, “Did you learn anything from that?” [Laughs] I love Tim. He’s a really nice man. I’ve worked with him a number of times.
Is it strange to be so well established that they’re now producing meta projects about (and starring) you?
Yes, that’s strange! [Laughs] But when I’m living my daily life and getting gas at the gas station, I forget that I can be recognized. A total stranger will walk up to me and go, “Hey, I know who you are. I heard your voice, and I knew who you were,” and I’m always taken aback by that. When I finish a film, I leave it. I have to or I’d turn into a psychopath. I leave the film like a cat leaving a cat box — they don’t look back, they just do their business and they go on. [Laughs] I know that’s a very odd kind of analogy, but…
I would think, with all the projects on your plate, you’d have to approach it that way.
Yeah. You have to hang the laundry out to dry. Otherwise, what would I turn into?