Daniel Kash interview: Aliens’ Private Spunkmeyer

What was it like to play an ill-fated marine in James Cameron's Aliens? Owen spoke to Spunkmeyer himself, Daniel Kash, to find out...

For a while there, between the trailer dropping last Christmas and its release in June, Prometheus was looking like an awe-inspiring, genre-defining future classic. Arguably, it turned out to be… not that, but it’s early days yet, and with the recent Blu-ray and DVD release, perhaps the re-evaluation starts now.

With that in mind, we’re casting our minds back 24 years to Aliens, now rightly considered a classic, but before its release, not much anticipated – even by some of its cast. Daniel Kash is still amazed that the film follows him around, despite his relatively lowly role as the ill-fated Private Spunkmeyer. “I didn’t want to make a stupid space movie,” he chuckles…

Yours is quite a small role in Aliens: does it surprise you that you’re still talking about it, decades later?

I’ve done 85 movies and Aliens is the only one people give a crap about. It was my first job! It’s weird, man. It actually shows you that when the sword falls on your shoulder, only a couple of things really make an impact. The Alien franchise seems to be one of them. And it was on the track of James Cameron’s destiny, so that’s part of it.

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So how did you find yourself in the film? What was it about you that made you the perfect Spunkmeyer?

Mike Myers was fired from Second City in Toronto and he was sleeping on my couch in London, and we were playing football in the park, and I broke my leg. And I had a cast on and got this call for Aliens. I was still in my drama school headspace, thinking I didn’t want to do some bullshit movie about space. I knew the first one was movie history. The first half of the first one is brilliant: real people in a garbage truck in space, and the face hugger and the alien coming out of the chest… And then I thought the second half was just a chase movie really.

I remember there’s a part where Harry Dean Stanton is looking around and there’s a loud noise and I jumped out of my seat, and it’s just the cat. C’mon! I just thought that was manipulative; it’s just a cheap shot. So I read Aliens, and thought that of course I’d do it, but I thought it was just another chase movie. I thought it was just an action movie, but it went a hell of a lot further than I expected, and the characters were better than I expected, to be honest. It impressed me.

I was really confident then. I’ve lost all that now, by the way. So I went in on my crutches, in this really space-age long jacket. I met Al Matthews [Sgt. Apone], and he was a really scary guy and he’d been in Vietnam. I thought, “There’s no way I’m talking to any of these people.” He was living in England because he hated America. All that stuff he did was all improvised. Anyway I went in on these crutches in this coat, for Hudson’s role, and I said to these two assistants, “Guys, tell whoever wrote this to re-write it – I think it’s silly.” And then I got a re-call and went back, and realised that the two assistants I was pushing around were James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd! And Cameron said he really liked my coat, so I told him if he gave me the part, it was his. So, when he gave me the part I gave him the coat. 

Did you and the other actors bond as a real unit?

We partied our asses off. I was unemployed; I had no money at all. I was living on half a bag of chips, and then suddenly I was getting picked up in Kilburn by a car with a chauffeur. I thought, “This is the life!” And it was good money: better than they pay now for a lot of us. I had a lesser part of course, but all of us… Cameron would rent a whole restaurant and spend a lot of money making us have a great time. I guess that was his way of making the atmosphere like he thought it should be. Maybe part of it was making us bond as a unit. 

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What was Cameron like as a director in those days? It’s amazing to think Aliens was only his third film.

On the set, not to be hypercritical, but the only direction I ever heard any actor get was, “Faster”. I didn’t hear any superb observation that radically changed a scene, although obviously I was there for limited time so that might not be fair. He got into some trouble. I mean, there was a mutiny! The First Assistant Director was called Derek [Cracknell]. He was a cockney, and the best man I ever met. He was like your sergeant in the war, who you’d go over the hill for. You hate him, but you respect him at the same time and you do anything he says because he’s The Man. And this guy knew how inexperienced I was, and he would constantly give me wonderful confidence. He ran that set.

They were all very veteran people on that set. They’d done all the Bond films. They were like a brotherhood, and I think James Cameron had a bit of a hard time with that and he couldn’t really crack it. There was a lot of wink-wink-nudge-nudge, “Who gives a shit what this American says? We know best, we’re artists, he’s just a moneymaker…” and all that. And at one point he fired Derek, and the moment he did it, everyone walked out. And we all went too. It was like, “You can’t fire Derek; he’s a landmark character in this industry!”

I’m sure Cameron learned a lot in that moment.  He had to work through that guy because he couldn’t work against him. That’s how it worked in England anyway. It’s different in LA. He was a first or second time director working with a veteran crew, and these guys get their jobs by word of mouth. They call each other; their survival depends on each other. I’ve heard Cameron in interviews saying, “I used to let my anger be more obvious,” and he says he’s changed a lot now.

I liked him though. He really had a good time with the actors. I thought he was a nice guy. He was like a kid in a candy shop. I thought my whole career was going to be spent in fascinating worlds where art department guys have gone nuts. If he has a love of anything, it’s not really drama between people: it’s visual. He wasn’t a great director in the moment, with actors, but he cast it really well. I have a lot of respect for that: that he cast people that he felt he could just let go. I prefer that to someone who doesn’t have an instinct for acting and yet still imposes stuff on you.

How did you approach being on a film set for the first time?

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I didn’t know what the hell was going on. The first thing we did was that cafeteria scene, with Bill Paxton and the knife thing. I actually had three recalls for Bill’s part.  That would have changed my life! But Bill had previous history with Cameron, and he’s in every damn James Cameron film from thereon in. Anyway, that was the first time I’d been on a film set, let alone a big fat film set. And people weren’t sticking to the script. They were just like talking all around it. I was losing my mind with nerves on that set, and I’m actually impressed that I don’t look out of place and I managed to get my lines out, because I was shitting bricks. It was totally different from doing standard theatre. I also had no idea that on a big film like that it could take ten hours to set a shot up. I was exhausted the whole time, ready to do my thing! I was really thrown into the fire on that one. 

You drive a loader too, don’t you? How did you find working with effects and special props like that, having come straight from theatre?

Listen, this was pre-technology. So there was this northern English, very large stuntman strapped in behind me on the loader. It wasn’t mechanical at all. It felt like crap. I thought it sucked and it was going to be awful. I was just getting jolted around, like a bad Disneyland ride: one of those that shakes you in your seat while you’re watching a screen. There were close-ups of me supposedly loading, and that was also terrifying because I didn’t know how to improvise any of that crap, at the time. It’s so easy now but I was shitting that, because it was Alien! It was the ultimate sci-fi movie, and this guy’s giving me dirty English jokes in my ear, just walking this stupid thing around on his legs. 

I didn’t realise how much of film was theatrical, in that they’ll save money if they can. So they needed another loader. There’s one in the distance when I’m loading, just walking around. But when it’s in its dock, they just used a mirror. They did the same thing in hypersleep to double the amount of pods.  It’s just a fucking mirror! Isn’t that fantastic!

Were you miffed that you didn’t get a spectacular death like most of the others?

I was so sad that I died off-screen. It would’ve been awesome to be, like, skewered by the thing.

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How did Aliens’ success affect you?

It follows me around. There are people obsessed with Aliens. Especially on film sets. Especially sound people and FX people. They know all my lines, insignificant as they are.

Are you on the convention circuit?

I’ve only done one convention. I got called over last year. I had fun doing it. I got an agent who just sets you up with those things, and of course as soon as I did that, the recession hit and all the conventions went away! People don’t have their fifty bucks now. A lot of people have the crew’s autographs but they don’t have the semi-insignificant actors, so they need mine and Cynthia Scott’s to complete their sets. So I still have a great future with that. Whenever one of those scripts comes to me now I go, “Hey, that’s a convention movie, I’m doing that!”

I did a convention in England, and the pretty boy from The A-Team had the biggest line-up. I couldn’t believe it. Nobody likes that show in the States anymore, and it was stupid when it was on. A lot of these people make a pretty good living on that circuit now. So I’ve decided I’m going to do all those things from now on, like a big whore. But only one’s come up so far.

Final thoughts?

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Aliens is an amazing thing in my pocket, a landmark thing. On my gravestone it’ll say, “Well, his career wasn’t that great, but he did Aliens.”

Daniel Kash, thank you very much.

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