Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 marks the latest lap across America in the Transcontinental Race that began in 1976. Death Race 2000, the campy original dystopian science fiction satire, predicted that people in the year 2000, the future for them, the past for us, would sit glued and brainwashed by some kind of competition TV show. Why, in a world like that, someone could become president after having a hit TV show. Well, that was before the actor Ronald Reagan became president and reality TV became the norm. The new one puts a boardroom spin on the tract.
The Chairman of the United Corporations is played by iconic actor Malcolm McDowell. While most of our readers might best remember him as the only British person the South Park guys could find to skewer A Christmas Carol, he is also the reason you sometimes see Bart or Maggie Simpson wearing a derby and one false eyelash. McDowell is the reason a lot of people got into films and TV in the first place.
Knowing full well that vintage macho bullshit is ratings gold, the man who turned a psychotic dictator into a romantic Valentine’s Day gift in Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1979) spoke exclusively with Den of Geek on topics that veered from his despotic turn in his upcoming road rage flick.
Den of Geek: Hi, how are you? I heard you had a virus.
I’m just feeling okay today.
It’s not a recurring symptom of the Ludovico treatment, right?
Not quite like the Ludovico treatment, no, just a boring old flu.
Have you ever run your car up the side of a building?
Not yet. Close.
Any soft spots under that armor?
None at all, like a rock.
Do you consider yourself a role model?
Well, I don’t consider myself one, but by default I’ve become one.
I agree. Do you have any thoughts on your legacy?
No, all I try and do is give 100 percent and enjoy myself. I try to infect everyone around me to enjoy themselves too and do what we do, which is a great privilege, and enjoy it and it makes it a lot easier.
It comes across. When I spoke with Roger Corman he said he gave you a specific grooming tip. Did you watch any Trump footage to get prepared for the job?
No, I don’t work that way. They wanted me to wear this extraordinary hair piece that I thought was unbelievable. I thought “well, what’s this? I thought we were doing a futuristic deal” or something. It was fun and of course, there are overtones of Trump, but I didn’t base it on Trump.
Do you think the well-adjusted malchick Alex from Burgess’s book A Clockwork Orange could have grown up to be the chairman of the United Corporations of America?
Well, it’s possible. Isn’t there a certain ruthless streak in all these guys who run these companies? There has to be. I asked Bill Gates, didn’t he tromp on a few people to get where he got? I’m sure he did. Of course, if you’re very successful there has to be a time in some point in your life where you have to make a decision about something which may affect somebody else in a different way. So, yes, most people who are really successful have to fight their way for it. I think that’s probably true.
You are a science fiction icon, what do you think people take out of these dystopian movie warnings?
I don’t know. Listen, I’ve been very lucky. Science fiction has been wonderful to me and I’m always fascinated by science fiction, of course, going back to Clockwork Orange. You can say that’s science fiction, though that’s science fact now. I’ve always enjoyed the stuff that I’ve done. Even things like Star Trek Generations and stuff like that, which was fun to do.
Death Race was fun because its predecessor was a kind of camp movie. It’s a piece that people love. I figured why not do it? It’d be fun and of course, Roger Corman, how could you say no to Roger Corman? You’d have to be pretty crazy to say no to him. He’s a very nice man and, actually, I got to meet him and his lovely wife at a convention in Las Vegas a few years ago. We sat down, had fun talking about the old days and all that. I did know him personally a little bit and he was such a gentleman and it was such fun hanging out with him. Then I got to work with him. In fact, I never actually saw him while I was doing the movie, I saw him before that. Anyway, it was just a pleasure to do it for him.
I always saw Alex in A Clockwork Orange as a kind of Mother Courage figure. Brecht wanted people to hate her, but the part was so magnetic, who could? Kubrick and Burgess wanted people to revile ultraviolence, but Alex was so damned likeable. What was it about the character, because it’s the same with the book?
I think you hit it. Here you have an immoral man who’s irresistible. In that film, he is the only character that loves life. Even though his life has taken a bad turn, it’s kind of explained away in the social circumstance. I mean, look at his parents for god’s sake. You can’t kill this wonderful light in this character. Even when they put him under the Ludovico Treatment and make him somewhat a zombie, he kind of comes back. It’s sort of a wonderful kind of Frankenstein character in that way.
I think a lot of it has to do with your portrayal. Popular as he might have been, I don’t think people would have loved Mick Jagger as much?
Probably not, but listen I can’t sing as well as him. We all have to be grateful for what we have.
Well, you did play Reggie Wanker.
Yes, I did play Reggie Wanker you’re absolutely right and thank you for mentioning that. One of the most fun things I’ve done [Get Crazy (1983)]. I had a great time doing that. I do think the key, honestly, for me, is to enjoy it. I do all the work and all the agonizing after set. When I’m at home going through it, I’m meticulously working on the script. And then when I get there I can throw all that out and just go for it and enjoy it and see what happens.
Do you still get shit for killing Captain Kirk?
People are more grateful now, I think, that I did it. Not William Shatner, of course. But people that I see are pretty grateful that I did the deed. Somebody had to do it, let’s face it. In all good fun, I get on very well with him we just razz each other about it. It was great fun working with him, and Patrick, and all those guys. They were very, very nice to me. It was an amazing location, on top of this mountain about an hour outside of Vegas in the desert of fire, whatever it was, the valley of fire. It was like a moon scape. Quite extraordinary. We had quite a time up there. I think we were up there for like three weeks.
What science fiction did you read growing up?
The usual, H.G. Wells a little bit. I think Jules Verne was the main one. And of course, in later years, Ray Bradbury, who is a friend of mine and a dear man and a brilliant, brilliant, wonderful writer. He was America’s answer to H.G. Wells. Ray passed, he’s not been gone long, but his legacy will always live on. He was an amazing character. I liked him very much. Those three were the giants of science fiction right there.
And of course comic books. Who doesn’t read comic books?
What are your favorite comic books?
Kids of my generation all read comics. That was it. The Beano and The Dandy, in England, and The Eagle, which was a sort of up-market one for smart kids, supposedly. That was the only one that was allowed in my school. It was fun. Dan Dare, I’ll never forget. That’s it. So one was really influenced more, I think, by comic books and by Hollywood. Going to Saturday morning pictures to see the Batman series, which was pretty bad, or Flash Gordon. If you look at them today, you go oh my God, they are cardboard sets, but they were really moral tales. They were pretty good.
Do you think H.G. Wells, who you played in Time After Time (1979), could have foreseen this future?
Well, I don’t think anybody could see quite how far we’ve come. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. You know H.G. was a great exponent of women’s rights before it was fashionable and he was a socialist as well. I think he would probably be a little uncomfortable in Trump’s America. But, I don’t know. He was also fairly adaptable, so I’m sure he would find some way of getting through, like we all do.
You narrated the documentary The Compleat Beatles and you grew up in Liverpool. Did you get to see the Beatles play before they got famous?
Yes of course. I went to see them at the Cavern when they were called the Silver Beatles. I think they had just come back from Hamburg. I was so taken with them and also this cellar. The Cavern was a tiny place, a bolted room with a little raised stage at one end. They weren’t raised that much, maybe six or nine inches off the floor. The place was packed, jam packed. The Beatles, who had done, by then, the 10,000 hour thing. They’d played so much together. They were so tight as a band, but they weren’t yet singing their own stuff. As I remember, it was mostly covers of Chuck Berry and all that, Little Richard and stuff. But they were extraordinary. I went back.
They had played on Friday night and I went back for a few months to see them every Friday. Then I noticed, one of the last times I went, they suddenly had hair cuts and the leather jackets were gone, the drainpipe trousers, the DA haircut, all gone. Now they were the Mop Tops. Obviously Brian Epstein had got hold of them and they were moving. Within the year they were the biggest band in England and I was listening to them on the radio. In the car. BBC did these live shows from Manchester that had Beatles on it.
I actually have a collection of all those tapes.
Yeah. It was amazing. It was terrific and I was thinking oh my God, these are the guys, you know? Anyway, who would have known that they would have been so creative in terms of the writing of these incredible songs that they came up with? Singularly or in a group. Of course the great influence fo George Martin and all that.
My 13 year old was always an Elvis man. I kept saying the Beatles and he wouldn’t want to know. Now I see everything on his playlist is the Beatles. They have to find it themselves. A father cannot tell them what to do. He can only suggest, point in a direction and they eventually get there. It’s great. In fact, he sang at the school, at a thing the other night, “Strawberry Fields.” I thought “oh my god, how ironic and bizarre is this? My 13 year old singing “Strawberry Fields.” And he doesn’t even know what he’s singing about. Strawberry Fields is an area in Liverpool, it’s amazing. Just like Penny Lane.
You consistently bring humor into the most dire of circumstances, what do you find so amusing about acting?
I think it’s a lot of fun. I found that if I’m having fun, the audience is having fun. I’m going to look for a way in a character that I do where I can, hopefully, light up the screen. When I say light up the screen I mean if there’s a twinkle in the eye, then it’s infectious. That’s what I try to do, if I can, obviously if the role warrants it. But I always look for ways to do that. I have great fun when I work. That’s not acted. That’s not put on. That’s just the way it is. I think that shows, very often. If you’re having fun the audience picks it up.
Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 is available on Blu Ray, DVD, and Netflix.