This interview is full of spoilers for He Never Died.
Henry Rollins can talk. And he’s a good talker. Anyone who has heard any of his radio shows or spoken word records will already know that.
But he’s also a modest guy, especially when talking about his acting career and his new movie He Never Died, which may be his first true starring role in a feature film to date.
Rollins plays an enigmatic character named Jack, who seems to be fairly bored with life. As it happens, Jack is also an immortal who has been around for hundreds of years, drinking blood for sustenance. Jack learns that he has a daughter (Jordan Todosey), but so does one of his enemies who kidnaps the young girl, and Jack is forced to work with a human, a waitress named Cara (Kate Greenhouse), to try to rescue her.
The movie is the work of filmmaker Jason Krawcyk, who has made a few other movies over the years, but nothing particularly significant, and He Never Died is finally getting a release in theaters and VOD after playing the festival circuit this past year.
Den of Geek sat down with the veteran punk rocker at a downtown hotel suite where he told us how he got involved with the project, getting into the head of a flesh-eating killer, and we also talked briefly about his 2016 plans which includes a spoken word tour of Europe and an intriguing multi-media project called Gütterdamerung.
You’ve been acting for a while now. So how did they reach out to you about starring in He Never Died? Was it just a script that showed up?
I was in New York at Joe’s Pub doing a week of shows at the end of 2012, Novemberish. I was backstage and got an e-mail from the woman at my office, Heidi, who runs all my stuff.
She said, “Attached is a PDF, it’s a script, I just read it, it’s amazing. Drop what you’re doing and read it right now. I’m like, “Okay.” So I read He Never Died, the script. It was funny, it was different, totally original, and I went, “Man, I would love to do this. I would do it this way, that way. There’s a laugh there. Violence but that’s still funny.” I love it when violence and funny goes together.
I wrote her back, “I read it. Damn, it’s really good.” She said, “The producer and director are in town. They really want you to do this. No audition. The writer wrote that with you in mind.” And how do you take that as a compliment in that, “Yeah, you were thinking of me when you thought of a flesh-eating monster. Thank you.” But she said, “They’d like to meet you.”
The next day I met them across the street from Joe’s Pub at the Starbucks at Astor Plaza. Really nice guys, just really cool people and they said, “What do you think?” I said, “Jack is this, this and this” and they said, “Yeah, you got it, you’re on the same page. What do you say?” And I said, “I’m in. What happens next?” They said, “We use your name to get financing.” I said, “You’re screwed. You’re going to get a dollar fifty and I’ll help you out with that. You’re not going to get dime one.” And Zach (Hagen, the producer) said, “No, you watch. We’re going to make this happen.”
As the weeks went on, Zach would keep in touch with us at the office and say, “It is happening. We looked for this goal, we met it, we’re moving forward. This is going to happen.” I believed him. I just don’t believe anything good will ever happen. I just didn’t believe it, yet every weekend I would read the script over and over again. I really didn’t believe the movie would get made because nothing that good ever happens to me. However, I wanted to be ready if it did, and I liked it so much.
A few months in, it became clear that this is going to happen. They had gone over the threshold of the money they needed. They are kind of the 55-yard line. They are getting it together. I was in disbelief. Then the autumn of 2013 comes around and guess what? “We’re casting and get ready, we’re going to be shooting in a month.” Suddenly, we’re all in Toronto together…
When someone comes to you with that knowledge that they’re ready to make a movie, are you able to drop everything else? Because I assume you’re fairly booked up at any given time for months in advance.
I had been, but it was made clear to us that this would be November and part of December. “This is going to happen, so keep your schedule clear.” Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t believe Zach, I just don’t believe that good things happen to me, so I said to Heidi, who runs everything for me, “Look, let’s just humor Zach and his big movie idea. Keep the schedule open.” I don’t like having an open schedule; I like a densely-packed schedule that ruins me.
So I said, “I think he’s going to get it done.” She said, “You’re going to do this movie. We’re going to keep you clear for November and December,” so we did it, and I just prepared and prepared and suddenly we’re in Toronto and I’ve been kind of preparing all year and I was ready.
And then Jason and I, we worked through all the stunt stuff. I wanted Jack to fight in a certain way. I said to the stunt people—and they were already a mile ahead of me—“He’s really efficient. He’s been killing people and fighting for hundreds of years so there’s no bad punches.” It’s just (makes punching sound effects)—he just needs it over. They said, “We’re all on the same page. It’s all close quarter,” and I don’t know how to fight but they said, “You’ll do this,” and I’m like, “Right, like that!” and they had to teach it to me 80 times.
Jason and I would sit facing each other, knee to knee, in this tiny production space going over every nuance of Jack. I’d go, “Okay, I think Jack does this,” or I’d say, “Why does Jack say that? What history is informing this line?” and he would give me this weird backstory. “800 years ago Jack did this and that’s why he’s saying that” so I’m writing it all down. By the time we’re shooting, I was “in it” as they say and it was a joy to come to work.
What made it good, besides good director, good crew, great story and writing was a great cast. If you notice in the film, the two people that make the most sense, who are your heroes, are the two women, the waitress and the daughter, Kara and Jordan (Todosey’s) character Andrea, they’re the good guys. Everyone else, all the men, are just kind of awful—bad boyfriends, mini Mafia thugs, just wretched people—and a flesh-eating monster. Jack is about 99% awful. The one percent of him that’s approachable is the one that [relates to] “Wow, my past got my daughter, who I didn’t know I had, kidnapped. I have to right that wrong. She’s an innocent. I can’t let her twist in the wind. (Kara’s) a woman who got screwed by life, out of her restaurant, she’s a waitress. I can help her. Take my money, help me save my kid.”
The two women basically save Jack, for now. You never know. The next day Jack goes right back to ripping people’s throats out. There’s that one scene in the apartment where I chase my daughter out and she doesn’t understand why. And what she doesn’t understand is that “if you stay around here any longer, I might eat you, because you’re flesh and I’m hungry. I’ll eat kids.” That’s the 99% awful part. It was really fun to work on the thing, but the thing that made it the best was working with good actors, cause they make everything possible
I didn’t really know either of their work. I guess one of them was on Degrassi Junior High?
Both of them do very well. The daughter, Jordan (Todosey), she’s a child actress, she’s been acting like since she was a kid on big Canadian TV, like mainstream Dawson’s Creek-size stuff. So she’s a beloved TV personality in Canada. In America, I don’t know what her exposure is but in Canada, everybody knows her, and Kate (Greenhouse) is more of a movie person but she gets one job after another and wins awards and is celebrated. We were very lucky. They were not busy at the time. They had a month and they were cast and off we went.
And all of our bad guys were great. It was an all Canadian crew except for our principal camera man and our director—everyone else is a Canuck.
The way you play Jack is very different from your normal personality because you usually have a lot of energy and have a lot to say but Jack is quiet and subdued and does things without talking.
The reason is not that he’s a mellow guy. He’s bored. You’ve dealt with New Yorkers—they’ll drive you nuts after a while. You live here for a period and you’re like, “Okay I’m going to murder everyone.”
What if you had 2,000 years of that? Where like, “Oh, another war? Good for you. Another plague. Oh, you’re building more prisons.” You’d be so done with people, because we’re so one note.
Human history, we haven’t changed that much. “Oh, we stole from that guy and a war started. Gee, that never happened before.” That’s why we repeat history because we have no idea how much we repeat history. “We’ll never learn from history, there’s nothing to learn from.”
Humans have five things: Pain, evasion from pain, I want to get rich, I want, I want, I want. “If I have to take it from you, I’ll go there.” After centuries of that, Jack drinks blood out of a bag so he doesn’t have to touch anyone, lives in his underwear, sleeps fifteen hours a day, goes to bingo. Why? So he can get out of the building, be around humans that he doesn’t want to kill, ‘cause old people are full of medicine, the flesh tastes bad. That’s why he likes bingo because they’re all pensioners.
He eats a vegetarian meal because he gets his blood sustenance from blood but he’s tired of killing people so he pays off interns. And there’s always an intern every few months who is a broke med student, who will take your money and get the blood. And he keeps it in the lettuce crisper in the bottom. It’s funny!
And unexpectedly, here comes a daughter and the waitress takes an odd fancy to him, because he’s a regular, he’s nice, probably tips very well. We built in a backstory. Probably leaves $100 like, “Here, I’ve got drawers of these, take it.”
Not that he’s a nice guy, he doesn’t want to interact with you, and suddenly, he finds himself having to deal with more mortals up close and personal. “I’m related to someone. She’s on my easy chair.” And she’s the typical daughter. “What are we doing today, Dad?” To me, that’s funny, so I played the tired dad thing because he’s not into it.
It’s an interesting thing because you read what the movie’s about and as I was watching I wasn’t expecting so much humor, but it has a mix of genres and tones.
Absolutely. That’s why I lunged at it. I read the script backstage at Joe’s and laughed out loud. If it was just without the humor, I like working and I’ve been in a lot of films I’ve never watched ‘cause I’d rather do than watch. It doesn’t have to be A Streetcar Named Desire because I’m not Brando. I’m fine with being in a movie about “Here come the bugs!” “Yeah, okay. Put a plastic bug on me, I’ll act.” I’m not too cool. I just like doing stuff.
So if this film was bereft of all that humor, I still would have done it, but it would have just been another film, “Oh, scary guy rips people’s throats out,” but every other page, “Funny! Funny.”
But it’s a really dark humor…
Yeah and it’s dry. You have to be sharp to get it, and when I read the script I was like, “Funny funny funny funny funny… Damn, this is great!”
The most fun thing about this film—because I never watch anything I do, I’m just done with it. I should watch stuff, it would probably make me a better actor, but I’ve watched this film two or three times with an audience. They didn’t know I was there, I was at the back, different film festivals. To watch audiences watch it where they laugh… “You got it!” Not like one or two people, the theater laughs, and something that’s funny violent, everyone cheers. They seem to get it the way we intended it. That’s having a good writer, Jason, but maybe people like it for the same reason I liked it when I read it.
There’s something different, like you’re taking the genre and giving it a different thing. This film fits very comfortably in the horror genre. It’s in there. It’s one of those “Fangoria festival”—I can see it performing there, so I’m not trying to say that Jason has reinvented the wheel, but the constant humor, to me, speaks of a really interesting mind (and I’m talking about Jason). What I tried to do as an actor is take advantage of every one of those beats and not lose any potential for “nice move, nice move.” Fortunately, all of those actors seemed to be on the same wavelength. There’s just these moments where that is funny.
There’s also a mystery surrounding Jack that I won’t reveal but it’s fun to follow along and try to figure out where it’s going or who he is and then you learn more about him.
There’s a big tell at the beginning of the film where there’s me without a shirt, and there’s some interesting moments where we have our devil guy. And my daughter sees him. “Okay, you must have something of mine. You are my daughter. If you see the guy and no one else can, what else can you do? Are you immortal like me? Did you get this hell passed onto you?” Maybe that’s for part two of this thing.
It’s set-up in a way that Jack is a character who could theoretically show up again.
Jason, our wonderful creator, has written a full season of episodic TV and I’ve read two of the episodes and it’s completely bonkers in the most wonderful way. You’re reading it and “Can we shoot this now? Can we just do this?” They’re looking to make that happen. Hopefully they’ll take me along with them, but I’ve read two episodes and it’s brilliant.
That may be the way to go with it because Sam Raimi put off returning to Evil Dead for over a decade but now it’s become a successful show on cable.
Yeah, and this is the first time I’ve ever been involved in anything where I had such a big role but where I was part of something that might lead to something else. ‘Cause I’m not an actor. I’m lucky. I get parts here and there, but I’m just a ham who comes from the minimum wage working world and a punk rock mentality which informs me, “Screw it, I’ll do it.” “Hey, you want to be in a band?” “Yeah, what else am I going to do?” “Can you sing?” “No.” “Well, don’t let that stop you, here’s a microphone.”
You’ll never hear me tell you I’m good at anything except procrastinating and sleeping late.
Which is funny to hear since you’ve made probably 30 or more records which is not something a slacker might normally be able to say.
And a ton of movies and a ton of TV, voice-overs and all this stuff, but I’m kind of a fan of all of it. All is fair in auditions in that if you audition for something and don’t get it, “Okay,” but if you do get it, “I earned that.”
If you hired me and I’m not good than it’s more your fault than mine. I showed you what I could do. I auditioned and you still hired me, so maybe you need to assess your job.
That’s a very different attitude from most actors I speak to because usually they blame the director if a movie they’re in isn’t good.
Well, I think any actor, you look at back at what you’ve done and you’re like, “Aw, man, I wish I had another take of that. I wish I had one more shot of that scene.” I’ve had a very interesting life because I just show up for stuff. I go to the audition. “Hey, do you want to be the voice on this show?” “I’ll try.” And I’ve ended up doing a ton of cartoon stuff and sports shows, advertisements, like long running ads, and I must have something that someone likes, so the acting thing, I take the parts that I can get.
So when people ask me, “Why do you go for the horror genre?” I don’t go for the horror genre, I go for parts that my agent goes, “Here, go at 2 PM tomorrow and say these words to the lady in the building.” And the horror genre seems to like me, which is fun. I like working, if it’s drama or it’s horror. If I can handle it, if I can pull it off and can do the job, I’m happy almost anywhere. I’m just kind of a utilitarian work dude.
I want to ask about a couple scenes in the movie, the first one being one of the grossest things I’ve ever seen is when Jack licks blood off the floor and then mops it up into a glass. What was that like to do that?
Obviously, Jack opens the bag incorrectly. It’s his last bag of blood. He’s squandered his last resource, he’s not a happy guy. He needs to take advantage of that blood because it’s going to go bad. It will not be useful.
So I said to Jason that Jack really needs to hoover up a lot of that blood. He went, “Yeah, it’s syrup and it won’t kill you but it’s like chocolate syrup, it’s disgusting.” But I said, “He’s gotta drink most of it,” and he was like, “Yeah, but Henry…” “Don’t worry about me. Jack’s gotta do this. We gotta get this shot.” Jason said, “Henry I love you” and I said, “I’m just going to drink as much as I can.”
It was brutal and I ended up drinking about that much syrup which sat in my stomach. They said, “How are you doing?” I said, “I’m trying to not hurl, because everything inside me wants to project it across the room so just give me a minute.” But the scene looks good and that’s Jack in a moment of desperation, so that’s why I’m sitting in the blood thinking, “Okay, this is going to be bad.” Jack is screwed in that moment.
Also, there’s a scene with Kate where Jack is telling her about all the jobs you’ve had and I wondered if that was at all improvised, because it sounded like you were just coming up with as many jobs you could.
No, that’s all scripted. I memorized all of that, every single thing: silversmith, tinsmith, wreck diver, horse trainer. All of that was in order, so what I would do is that I’d get on the treadmill where you’d have repetition and you’d get in the mindset and I’d look at the script and I saw in my head, “There I am in a rock quarry, and there I am underwater as a wreck diver and then I come up and then I’m training horses and then I was in the war and then I went to jail…”
I just saw myself doing it and I memorized visually and then I said it a bunch of times out loud over and over again on the treadmill. When it’s time to rehearse it, I had it. I had been rehearsing it for weeks, cause that was one of the last scenes we shot. We shot it in the freezing cold in Toronto at night.
Yeah, Toronto in November and December is not the best time to shoot outdoors…
Especially because we’re in clothes that don’t reflect the cold necessarily. The camera crew are all Nanook of the North, they’re in parkas with hand warmers and electric gloves and we’re out there just, “I can’t feel my face.” Your face would freeze.
Between takes, when we rescue my daughter, Jordan would run up to me and I’d hug her because she’s just skin and bones, so between takes, she would be shivering because she has no baby fat and she’d run up to me like daddy bird. I had this parka and I’d just hold onto her until we had to act, so she comes running over and I’d be her human warmer.
That was a cold winter, I remember.
And so many of our scenes were at night in the dark. The scene by the water when the guy goes into the drink, I was literally coated in baby oil. It actually works, and the make-up lady said “We’re going to coat you in baby oil,” and I said, “We don’t need to do this,” and she said, “You’re going to want to do this because it’s colder than you think by the water.” It’s an amazing (amount) of degrees lower by the water and there’s a wind, and I have to look wet. They had to wet my hair, which really hurt because it did start freezing. It was a long night and we did it, we suffered through.
What else are you up to? Still doing the spoken word stuff?
What I’m doing now is shamelessly promoting this until Friday. Monday through Friday I was doing He Never Died in Toronto. Saturday and Sundays, I was writing a screenplay for another film and that film is done, it’s finished and it’s amazing. I’m in it, Iggy Pop, Mark Lonegan (from Screaming Trees), Slash…
Yeah, I wanted to ask about this. That’s Gütterdamerung…
I wasn’t sure if it was a silent film or a concert… are you all going to be on stage together?
All of it. Iggy’s band, that’s the band, they play behind the screen, the movie plays and the band plays music behind the images. Actors from the film come out and do their scenes live as the screen behind them is them. I came out in front of me, dressed as a priest, in London, and it rolls out on the festival circuit next year with a full band, pyrotechnics, massive screen, P.A. It’s kind of overwhelming.
It’s the idea of a guy named Bjorn Tagemose, and he came to me in 2010 and said, “I want you to be in this film and I also want you to write it.” I said, “I’m not a screenwriter,” and he said, “But you are a writer.” “I own a publishing company. I sleep with the owner every night.” He said, “Would you try?” and I’m like, “Yeah.”
The first thing I wrote were the scenes for Iggy and he really liked it, so we kept going. A bulk of it was written during “He Never Died” on the weekends, and so I was a busy guy making that movie because during the week I’m also doing voice-over, I’m writing for the L.A. Weekly, I’m writing for Rolling Stone Australia. I gotta lot of hats.
We’re getting ready to start promoting that film which I just did in London the other night and next year I’ll be on tour with it, but I’ll also be on tour on my own, so my shows start January 4 in Berlin and it probably will end in L.A. at Christmas of next year. All spoken word, no band. I haven’t had a band for a long time, so I’ll be in and out of Europe at least three to five times with Gutterdamerung.
I’ll be in and out of Europe, America, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and everywhere else with the talking shows. So next year is kind of flat out busy between the film and the talking tour. This January/February, I’ll be in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, England, Holland, Belgium, Scotland, Ireland, Russia, Kiev and Israel. Then I got dates everywhere else all year long until December I’ll be back in L.A., so I’m busy.
I narrate two radio shows, that takes an amazing amount of time.
Can you do that while on the road?
On the road and at home. I have shows finished through mid-January. I’ve been working on that, knowing I’m going to tour, and I’ve been doing this for over a decade, doing shows in advance. I started working on the winter shows in June, knowing I need shows through mid-February. I’ll be back in L.A. two weeks Friday with off time but I’ll be doing radio until I’m blue in the face.
Do the spoken word shows translate well to these other non-English countries?
Oh, yeah. Believe it or not, my audience in Germany speaks perfect English. Same thing in Holland, Belgium, Scandinavians speak great English because they can’t leave their own country without English.
The only place that’s hard for me to be misunderstood in English is South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi… I’m kidding, I’m kidding! It will be interesting in Russia because I’ve done shows there before and it didn’t go well, and Ukraine? I don’t know what that’s going to be like, but I’ve never been there before so I said “Yes” to the show.
He Never Died will open in select cities, on iTunes and On Demand on Friday, December 18.