Anyone who’s familiar with my writing will know that I have a great love of under-appreciated actors. I’ll use any opportunity available to praise their work, and draw attention to films and performances that sometimes pass by relatively unnoticed.
Michael Biehn, for my money, is the most under-appreciated actor of them all. I’m sure most of our readers hold him in high regard, since he’s starred in several of the greatest films ever made, but to the general public, he’s less widely recognised.
Best known for playing father of the future, Kyle Reese, in The Terminator and D Hicks in Aliens (I’m well aware what the initial stands for, but I was crushed when the Special Edition finally revealed that the D stood for Dwayne, and not Duncan), Biehn also had such career highs as duelling Val Kilmer in Tombstone, fighting commie water aliens in The Abyss, and killing zombies in Planet Terror.
My own enthusiasm for Biehn’s work started when I finally saw The Terminator around the age of eleven, and thinking (as I still do) that Reese was one of the most heroic and tragically romantic characters I’d ever seen, who also happened to be a dab hand with a shotgun. His portrayal of Reese was followed not long after by his turn as Hicks, and that was all it took to cement his place in my hall of worship, as I set about finding any and every film he’d been in.
In an exclusive interview, Biehn spoke candidly to me at length about every film and role in his career that I chose to ask about, including his thoughts on such topics as playing a white supremacist, casting trouble on The Terminator, jumping in at the last minute for Aliens, and turning down The Usual Suspects.
He even took me to task at one point, to make sure that I was paying attention to the specifics of the point he was making, which ended up making us both laugh, even if I did utterly panic for a second. There were a couple of questions that I omitted on this occasion, including his potential casting as Peter Parker, back when Cameron was set to make a film adaptation of Spider-Man, but I was still given more of an insight into his working life than I could have ever asked for.
During a brief chat before the interview, Michael Biehn confessed there was no way that he possessed the organisational skills to be anything like any of the official military, or police type characters he’s played over the years, reckoning that he’d most likely run off and leave his bullets behind in real life.
I informed him of my plan to conduct a whistle stop tour of all the movies that had been important to me over the years, and would try not to take up too much of his time, to which he replied, “I have all the time in the world for you.”
And with that, I set about asking several decades’ worth of questions, while fulfilling a lifetime ambition…
The Fan (1981) was the earliest film I managed to find of yours, back when I had to scour video rental shops up and down the country. Was it quite intimidating, appearing in a film with James Garner, and stalking Lauren Bacall that early in your career?
I had worked off that script in the casting process, and it was a really well done psychological thriller, and the cast in the movie – I was very excited, because it was Robert Stigwood, Lauren Bacall. I mean, it was huge, you know? Flying into New York and all that Stigwood press – I was more intimidated about being in such a big production than I was about working with Lauren Bacall or Garner. I had been working in television, and I thought I had the stuff, and Lauren Bacall certainly didn’t intimidate me.
But I was intimidated by the whole process of the paparazzi. It was the first time I’d ever been around, where people would run up to me, and they already had pictures in their hands of me, handing me photographs saying, “Will you sign these? Will you sign these? Will you sign these?” and going to these big red carpet events.
I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t dressed properly, and that was really more intimidating than working with Lauren Bacall. I thought that [she was] just good casting. There was nothing in her work, previous to this, that made me think, “Oh, I’m really gonna have to put my acting shoes on.”
It’s strange, I always think of the paparazzi as a new phenomenon, but I guess it’s been around for a while…
It was new to me, and I had been working in LA in television, and this and that, and I think that it was relatively new at that time. I actually saw a documentary last night on the most famous paparazzi guy in New York, trying to get pictures of Jackie O. It was an interesting documentary, but I think he went way back into the Andy Warhol days, the Studio 64 and all that stuff, and that was probably about the time… I think it all tripped off about the 70s, early 80s.
Having played a bad guy in The Fan, you then went on to The Lords Of Discipline (1983), which I thought was quite a brave move that early in your career, as you played such an evil character. What was it that drew you to make that movie?
Well, what drew it more than anything else, was I went in and I had met Franc Roddam, the director, and I read for the role that David Keith played, as my agent handled Richard Gere and they had just done that thing where he was in the army…
An Officer And A Gentleman?
An Officer And A Gentleman. So my agent had a little bit of pull at Paramount. I read and it looked like I was going to play David Keith’s role, so they trotted out in to the studio. Me, Bill Paxton, Mitchell Lichtenstein, Rick Rossovich, John Lavachielli, and basically presented the cast to the studio heads and I remember [the moment when] we walked into these offices and they said, “These are our guys?” [Sharp intake of breath], and they said, “Thank you very much”.
My agent got a call that afternoon, or the next day, saying I got the role, amazing, [then they] came back and said, “No. You didn’t get the role, they’re giving that role to David Keith”, who had just scored big in An Officer And A Gentleman, and he was very, very good [in that]. And I was crushed, and being very young at the time they asked me if I would play the role of John Alexander, so basically the lead antagonist.
I actually did a lot of research at that time. I was really into doing research about the South back in the 50s and 60s, and the Jim Crow Laws, and I mean, I don’t think that [The Lords Of Discipline] story took place until the mid-60s, early 70s, when they let the first black cadet in.
That story was based on a Pat Conway novel where there was a secret society, supposedly, that I don’t whether they existed or not, but what I always try to convey in the character was that like the norm, back then, was that blacks weren’t equal to whites, the norm back then was that blacks swam in their swimming pools, we swam in our swimming pools, they had their babies in their hospitals and so on.
I grew up in Alabama. I was born in Alabama during the Jim Crow Laws, and it was the norm, so the idea that this school, and what this school represented, would let a black man in was completely… it would be like letting – well, you know, these days everything goes – but I mean, it was so foreign to anything that any of these people thought.
They had to bring in the National Guard to integrate the schools in the south, in Alabama, so I played it like I thought I was fighting the right cause. I was trying to [bully] this guy to get him out of school, because he didn’t belong there.
Whenever you play an antagonist you always have to have the right on your side, and I felt I had the right on my side. [My character] thought the people who were trying to segregate the school were wrong, they didn’t belong there. It was one of my favourite roles. I was very, very into the character as far as the research that I’d done, and I could sit and argue, and take the devil’s advocate approach to the situation, and play the Southern racist extremely well.
Now, you’ve gotta remember, at that time, everybody was a Southern racist! They were all racists back then, a lot of them still are down there, but at that time, it wasn’t like being a racist, it was like being a white person, so there you go. I had a lot fun playing that role, I had a lot of fun in London, and I formed a lifelong friendship with Bill Paxton and Rick Rossovich.
I’d forgotten that your link with them went that far back, as you’ve obviously been in The Terminator and Navy Seals together. So over the years, did you spot for each other, or was it coincidence that you ended up in the same films?
Well, I think that we all met there, I think I had known Rick earlier through an acting class, but I met Bill there, and he knew Jim Cameron from working with him on sets and so on, but the next big movie that came along – there was some other work after The Lords Of Discipline – was The Terminator.
And of course, I was cast and Bill, being a friend of Jim’s, was cast, and I think Bill might’ve gotten Rick involved in it, so yeah, I think we were all stomping for each other. I think I called Lewis Teague when we were doing Navy Seals, and said what about Bill Paxton, and y’know, I mean we all liked each other, we were all buddies, young and hungry back then, so yeah, we were pulling for each, definitely.
The Terminator (1984) is next on my list, which I know is a film that there isn’t a question you won’t have been asked about, but could you humour me, and tell me about how you came to be cast, and the problem with the Cat On A Hot Tin Roof audition?
Well, basically, I had worked all morning, rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof for the famous theatre director here named José Quintero, and he had worked us [over and over again]. And at a certain moment, I had to jump in the car and leave.
I went into the audition and basically said, “Hi, I’m Michael Biehn. Alright, let’s read this,” and I read it, and it didn’t dawn on me that there was still a little bit of that southern drawl, I guess that I was pulling on from Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.
I did the reading, and I thought I did a good job, but my agent called me up said “Well, they liked you Michael, but they said that you might be too regional, and I asked them what they meant, and they said that you’re obviously from the south, and I told them you’re not from the south, that you’re from middle America, from Nebraska!” And I said, “Oh geez, you know what happened?” and explained the situation.
I went back in and read for Jim again, and the rest is kind of history. I read with a couple of other girls. I remember one in particular was Rosanna Arquette, and I ended up reading with Linda [Hamilton], and we hit it off pretty well, and they cast us for it, he and Gale [Anne Hurd].
–And at what point did it hit you personally, how big it was going to be?
Ohh about the time they released T2! [I laugh especially loudly, which just makes him laugh more.]
I mean, really, I don’t even know if we’ve seen the end of it yet, let’s hope so! You have to remember, at the time, that even after it came out, it was a hit. I mean, Hemdale made it for six point five million dollars, and they made forty million dollars, so it was a hit. But that same year, 1984 I believe, Karate Kid came out and made ninety million dollars, okay? So you can go back and look at the list of films then, and how much money they made that year, but I’ll bet you that Terminator’s not even in the top ten. [He’s right, it’s not!]
What happened was that everybody starting getting their VHS recorders, and they started buying the tapes, and the video stores started opening up right around 1984, 85, and that’s where everybody saw the movie, on their cassette players.
So it was a hit, but it had been a slow build. You know, people talk about it being an iconic movie, with iconic characters and so on – it was never that back then, and you have to remember, too, that Arnold was not a superstar. He was basically a body builder and Mr Universe and, with all respect due to him for being Mr Universe, but all he had done at that time was Conan, and people didn’t take him particularly seriously as an actor. And he only had two lines in the movie!
So it wasn’t until he went on to do Predator that he became a real star, and Twins, and went on to become not only a big, big movie star, but also the governor of California.
[The success] didn’t hit like that. It wasn’t like that movie came out and [people thought] “Oh Michael Biehn’s a star! He’s getting offered stuff right and left!” It just didn’t happen that way. It just came out slowly, and so I didn’t realise it was going to be anything until… I don’t even know when!
Maybe, like, the early 90s, when they made T2, I figured, “Okay, they’re gonna make T2, that’s Jim… and then they’re gonna make T3.” And then you realise this is a big deal, but it’s very hard to pinpoint the time when I knew it was going to be very good.
But at the same time too, I’ll tell you that Jim used to be very open about letting us come in and watch dailies, and he’d cut a scene together [and call me over], “Michael, come look, I’ve cut Tech Noir together”, and he’d show me early cuts of it – the gun shot scenes in Tech Noir, and the racing stuff. He loved for us to come to dailies, unlike most directors, loved to show us stuff cut together, and loved to take us down to Stan Winston’s special effects shop and show us what he was working on.
So we thought it was cool, we thought it was fun, and that it would be a good movie, and might surprise a lot of people. But it wasn’t like we were working on something like… what’s the famous film that Brian DePalma did of the Thomas Wolf book? [Bonfire Of The Vanities] It wasn’t like we had a piece of material that everybody thought, “This is going to be great”.
When my agents called me about it, they said, “Well we’ve got this script.” I said, “What’s it about?” “Well, it’s about this robot that comes back from the future and chases this girl who works in a Bob’s Big Boy, and you’re sent back from the future to stop it.”
I’m like [dully] “Oh, that sounds real interesting. Who’s in it?” They said, “Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s playing the robot!” And at that time, like I said, Arnold was not like the Arnold Schwarzenegger. He wasn’t somebody that people thought of as an actor, even, and I thought, there’s two strikes. So I asked who’s directing it.
“A guy named Jim Cameron.” I said, “What’s he done before?” “Well, he worked on Piranha 2, but he got fired from it.” And I go, “Oh boy! Geez, this is really something, who’s producing it?” “Gale Hurd.” “And what’s she done before?” “She works for Roger Corman.” “Well, okay, I’ll go in, I’ll meet them.”
And as it turns out, they were all immensely talented people. Gale, Arnold, Jim probably most of all. And Linda I just fell in love with when I worked on the film with her, and things turned out, but we certainly didn’t… I didn’t have any idea that I’d be sitting here talking to you twenty-five years later, or even talking about it at all! A lot of movies I did twenty-five years ago, I haven’t mentioned for twenty-five years!
Talking of Linda Hamilton, I interviewed her about this time last year, and she’d had to revisit Sarah Connor for Terminator Salvation. Did you find it strange when… [and here, I was about to how he felt watching Anton Yelchin’s take on his performance as Kyle Reese, before I thought better of it] Did you see Salvation?
[After a few beats] No.
Oh! [I laugh]
I watched – Salvation was the last one they did?
Okay, well I was in a hotel room, so I didn’t give it really, probably, a fair chance, because I didn’t see it at the cinema. But first of all, I didn’t see three. Then this is the fourth, one with Christian Bale? I watched about twenty-five minutes of it, and everything was blowing up, there was all that CGI stuff, I didn’t know who was who. Sam Worthington was walking around the desert, and things were blowing up, and people were running, and the sound was so loud – explosions just everywhere.
I had been watching it for twenty-five minutes, and I’d seen nothing but bombs trying to blow people up, and they finally made it to some caves, and there were some weird people in caves, and I was like, “You know what? I can’t even watch it, man.”
And I’m usually a person that can sit through almost any movie. I sat and watched Red the other night all the way through. I watched The American all the way through, just to give you an indication of a guy that will stick with a movie that is not necessarily turning him on. But Salvation, I just couldn’t do it.I just wasn’t interested in it, you know?
And I don’t have any – Christian Bale is a brilliant actor, and probably going to win the Academy Award this year, a lot of great people were involved with it – I don’t have any bitterness towards it, I just wasn’t interested in it.
I don’t think you were alone in that! When I spoke to Linda Hamilton, we were talking about the convention circuits, and she was saying that she loves doing it, and finds it important to connect with fans. You always seem to be loyal to your fans, even taking time out when asked a question on the street by some random guys on YouTube. Is it important to you?
Well, I don’t necessarily look at it as like my fan base, or a certain group, I like people to see the real Michael Biehn. People say, “Oh Michael Biehn, I love him! I love him!” They don’t know me.
I like to get up in front of a group of a couple of hundred people and answer questions about – basically the same thing that I’m doing with you – answering questions that people might be interested in, asking about the making of and really putting history in perspective, the way I saw it. And every once in a while, stopping the urban legend that is always on my Internet sites – that people always say that I turned down a role in The Usual Suspects, the Bryan Singer movie, and it’s just not true. I don’t know…
Where it came from?
Well I know where it came from, it came from the fact that when I read his script twenty years ago or whatever, I didn’t understand it, I was confused by it – it’s kind of a confusing story if you’re not paying attention, and I’d probably had a few drinks, and thought, “I don’t get this, man, I don’t get it”, and threw it to the side. It was a huge mistake. It would’ve given me a chance to meet Bryan Singer, and I still haven’t met Bryan Singer, and I’m sorry that I haven’t, and I’m sorry that I didn’t understand it.
It didn’t make any sense to me. Even when I watch the movie now [I acknowledge] that you really have to stay on top of it to know what’s going on. But they never offered me the role, they said would you like to come in and either audition, or read, or maybe just meet Bryan, and I said, “No man, I don’t understand it,” and of course, I didn’t know Bryan Singer was going to be Bryan Singer. I thought it was just a guy with a confusing script! [Laughs]
I don’t really think of myself as anybody with necessarily a fan base. I’ve got some fans on IMDb, the IMDb page, on the discussion boards. I think I’ve got thirty or forty people that are always talking amongst themselves. I hope that what I do as an actor provides some enjoyment for people, and that’s really all I hope for, is that my work brings some either enlightenment, or enjoyment, or some retrospective thinking to people, and that’s about it.
You know, fan bases, or fans and so forth… I do like to go to the conventions to talk and answer questions about certain things that have come up, and certain misconceptions about me, and I like to talk frankly about some of the problems I’ve had in the past, or working in the business. You know, once I’m gone, people can say anything they want about me, but at least my side of the story will be out there.
With Aliens , you came in to it fairly late in the day, when James Remar had originally started playing Hicks…
Was it strange to come in that late in the day, or was it quite nice, because you had Bill Paxton and people there – was it a welcoming fold to enter?
Yeah. It was actually very, very – I got called by Gale Hurd on the Friday night checking my passport was in order. I said yes, and I was shooting Monday morning. Which meant that I didn’t have to do that three weeks of rehearsal period, before the movie started, where they did the round table reading, and they would take all the soldiers out and march them over and over again, and have all the dinners.
I just jumped right in, I just did it from the word go, and so that was a relief to me, because any time anyone does an army movie, they take all the actors out and get some old worn out drill sergeant to put ‘em through their paces, and I hate to do that. I really didn’t want to do that.
So I just jumped in there and did it. The one thing I didn’t like about it was they made me wear Remar’s vest, his chest plate – every actor got to create his own chest plate, and James Remar created his and he painted [it]. Everybody painted theirs, and he painted his with a heart with a lock on it, and the painted heart was right where his heart was, and I thought, “Fuck me, I’m not wearing that – that looks exactly like a target to me!” [Laughs]
All this camouflaged green, and then, all of a sudden, you’d see this pink blur and think, “I’m going to shoot at that”. I didn’t really appreciate that! But yeah, I came in late, but I enjoyed it.
I know that a portion of the cast went on to work on Near Dark, so I wondered if it was something you ever contemplated, or was it ever an option?
Yes, yes it was. You know Kathryn [Bigalow, the director] called and offered me the role that Lance [Henriksen] played, and again, I read that script and I found it confusing, and I made a mistake, probably, by passing on it. I’m a very linear person – I’ve got to see beginning, middle and end, and if the scenes don’t make sense to me, it’s very hard for me to progress with them. I mean, I had real trouble with movies like Memento and Irreversible, and the flashbacks, stuff like that.
Again, it was a mistake that I made, because I would’ve loved to have worked with Kathryn, because she went on to do the movie with Patrick Swayze and Keanu [Point Break], and there was a call that was made to me about the Patrick Swayze role in that, also. That was a mistake, that I didn’t do Near Dark. I look at it, and I’ve seen it recently, and it’s an interesting film from a first time filmmaker, and she’s a brilliant filmmaker.
But there have been other, dumber, things that I’ve done as far as turning down roles, but that was one that I actually did get an offer on, and I probably should’ve done it. And it would’ve been a lot of fun with Bill and Jenette, but look at it this way – Lance Henriksen got to play the role, and he did a great job.
Michael Biehn, thank you very much!
Join us for the second part of our Michael Biehn interview tomorrow, where we talk about his work inThe Abyss,Tombstone, and his directorial debut, The Victim.