Max Out: William Morgan Sheppard interview

Fresh off the set of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, the most ubiquitous genre actor since John Carradine talks about his work in Max Headroom, Transformers, The Prestige and more...

William Morgan Sheppard - 'Blank Reg' in Max Headroom

Ever since shaving his head into a Mohican at the age of 53 to play post-apocalyptic punk ‘Blank Reg’ in the 1980s sci-fi hit Max Headroom, veteran character actor William Morgan Sheppard has been surrounded by aliens, vampires and robots, often inhabiting these roles himself.

Sheppard was Cassandra Peterson’s nemesis in Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark (1987), a Klingon Commander in Star Trek VI and a more conventional military type in Transformers (2007), amongst a plethora of other film work including in The Prestige, Wild At Heart and The Elephant Man. His latest film role finished only a week ago, on J.J. Abrams’ new imagining of Star Trek.

In television Sheppard has had guest and regular roles in diverse sci-fi and horror series including Charmed, Babylon 5, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, American Gothic, Seaquest DSV, and much more. In addition to this his mellifluous bass voice is one of the most ubiquitous in ‘A’-grade videogames such as the Medal Of Honour series.

His son, Mark Sheppard, is no slouch in the sci-fi stakes either, as a regular in the new Battlestar Galactica, The Bionic Woman and 24, and the pair occasionally attend science-fiction conventions together as guests.

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Has your career gained more through your sci-fi association or has it cost you something there as well?

No, it’s gained. You can never work out profit or loss in that way. Max Headroom is a marker – it changed my career, really. Without Max I wouldn’t have ended up in America. Without Max I wouldn’t be playing – most of the time – bigger roles than I was playing back home in England, where I was just a good supporting character-actor. In America I have more visibility.

Were you very attracted to the Max Headroom script when you saw it?

Are you kidding? I loved it! it was great – there were a lot of guys up for it, I believe even – bless him – Norman Rodway was up for it. Annabel Jankel and Rocky sat there and they looked at me and they said ‘would you shave your head’? I said ‘for an extra thousand quid I’ll go to bed with both of you’! [laughs] no…I was kidding. I said ‘yeah I’ll shave my head for an extra thousand quid’. I believe I actually got an extra thousand quid for shaving my head.

I was going to ask…

Yes I know, but what a role though – what a role! The reason I got it, apparently, was that Rocky said that he liked Elvis and I said ‘No he doesn’t…no, Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, is what he likes ‘, he started laughing. I believe that’s why I got it, as my son was then a rock and roll drummer – Mark Sheppard. So Mark had educated me towards Punk and Rock, and the old fart sitting there knew what he was talking about a little bit. That’s why I got the job.

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To play the role of an aging punk, did you do any other research?

Yes. I had taken Mark’s band The Barracudas out on tour – they were known then as ‘The TV Personalities’. The only time he said they ever made any money was when I ran it! I would demand the money at the interval, you know, the ‘Chuck Berry syndrome’, and it worked in some of the terrible clubs up in the North of England. I got to America with it, which was great.

I was trying to get a tone for the guy, and I decided ex-military obviously, and then a punk, and then it just became angry and anachronistic. I knew a lot of guys who were like that.

What do you think was different about the script that made it stand out, in general from your particular roles?

It was funny – that’s the whole point. That’s what I miss about England. I miss that humour, which is not always visible here. I did the first episode, then three days later [series producer] Peter Wagg said, ‘come down to my office at Universal ‘. So I walked down the corridor, and all those doors opened – this is absolutely true – and Wagg said ‘Hey baby that terrific, oh WOW!’. Apparently, the Americans had tried to re-cast it with home-grown talent, but they couldn’t find anybody. They got bikers in, they got funny guys in, and they couldn’t get anybody who was funny and dangerous at the same time!

My career has to a certain extent, been motivated by that. After that I was so lucky to walk into Gene Roddenberry, the man himself…sweet man. That’s how I started on Star Trek. Just before totally leaving Max Headroom.

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A lot of people think that Max Headroom was too ahead of its time. Do you think that’s a possible reason why it got cancelled so early?

It was because it was biting the hand that fed it…think about it!

You know what they are like out here, they will cut it if they so desire. They’re famous for that, because there’s always another bus coming round the corner. I think it was only about 16 episodes that we did, and I was very careful that if I only had four lines of dialogue in an episode, I would say can I be cut? Because I recognised that he was so exotic, and also with Blank Dominique – Consetta Tomi – who is just bloody wonderful.

We had a spin off series planned – don’t laugh! Steve Roberts had written it, apparently, with me and Dominique going off with Max to start our own rebel cable series! With me in a Chanel suit and brief case. Well, that was the idea. It came to naught, of course. That’s Hollywood…

But Steve was great. Steve Roberts is a funny writer, he really is, and it was a joy to do. Jeff Tambor and Matt Frewer, Amanda…Amanda’s dad the lovely Howard Pays – who was my agent for 16 years in London. She’s a darling. Just nice people, we had a great time.

You have a long and continuing association with Star Trek, even up until recent weeks, you were saying?

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Yes, just did the J.J. Abrams one. Can’t say anything about that obviously.

You can’t say anything at all?

No I can’t, and you damn well know it [laughs]! But yeah, I’m only playing a very small part.

Is it a repeat of any role you have played previously?

No, I will say that much, definitely not. In fact I am playing a different race, I’ve done Klingons…actually, I am going to be judging as a Klingon, though I won’t be dressing up as one for it, at one of those big conventions up in Maryland. That one’s in July, and they want me to go. It’s a Klingon convention. Can you believe it?

Just for Klingons?

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It seems to be, yes. But I thought the Star Trek ones were apparently coming to an end. I am in at the tail end of it. I only started doing it towards the end of last year, and this year they have booked me for about four different things. I am coming over to do some, with my son.

I was reading you did another convention with Mark at Indiana. Is it fun to do that together?

Oh yes, it’s great fun. It’s quite humbling, actually, because you have the ordinary American standing there looking at you, and I get embarrassed charging them for a photograph. Both Mark and I have got that English thing, we are both very much Brits!

In fact we are both Irish, but you know what I mean. I was brought up in Ireland. We hate doing it like that, but it’s the American way and they expect it and understand it.

So there’s a guy standing there looking at you, and suddenly saying ‘you know what you’re known as in our house?’. And of course, you don’t know and he goes ‘THAT guy’[laughs]. So I’m that guy, because nobody really knows who I am!

I have done so many of the Medal of Honor series that I am kind of out there with the younger generation. They hear the voice and go ‘Wait a minute…!’. So you’ve got that kind of respect.

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It looks like Mark might be matching your track record with Sci-fi.

Are you kidding? He’s going to go far past, way past, bless him. He’s terrific in Battlestar. I really think it’s a wonderful performance, and a wonderful role.

Have you ever worked with him?

Yes, we did one little movie together, which was on Danish television. We played the younger and older versions of the same guy. A hitman sitting in a car, waiting to kill somebody. One of those very moody sort of Danish movies.

Then Mark directed a thesis – he wrote his own thesis picture to get himself going as a director. He used the lovely Sally May James, who was in Seconds with Rock Hudson, and ME! He used us in it, and I was directed by him. It was a good experience, cos he didn’t yell [laughs].Did you give him any advice when he decided to become an actor?

No, but he used to sit in the back of my classes – because I teach acting – a couple of times a week, in a buddy’s workshop, a fairly famous one. He would sit at the back of the class and argue, which was great! We are very much two alpha males, we really are.

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I was very careful what I would say about the business, with him being around it. He was my dresser when I did a musical down at Shaftesbury Avenue, when he was twelve. So he was brought up around it. He then went into music in a band that got ripped off – the usual story – and ended up in Dublin. I went and got him.

He was on the bill with U2 at one point. I got him out to Hollywood with me, literally living down the road from me. He’s been here ever since. He’s done pretty well. He’s married, so I’ve got two lovely grandkids, and its been good. He’s one hell of a good actor.

I was pleased to see that you write on the IMDB forums and reply to your fans. You wrote there that you started out as a film buff. I wondered what type of movies or actors spurred you on when you were sixteen and contemplating a career in acting?

Richard Widmark! I wanted to be Richard Widmark. And you know how bad the British are at that kind of thing, saying [in RADA accent] ‘stick them up or I will shoot you dead!’ [laughs]. I have been so lucky because I went into the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that was twelve marvellous years with Peter Brook and all those guys…Ian Holm, Ian Richardson…they were all buddies, and they were all really terrific actors. They were my mentors to a certain extent.

O’Toole was another one – one of the best people I have ever met. I could tell you stories about him…I have got such a respect for that guy.

Then there was watching Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen and realizing…oh! That’s what movie acting is about. I see Mr McQueen you bring an intensity to the place and you bring everything to the one spot.

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I took up Martial Arts when I was about forty, and that focused my acting. Acting is very simple really – it’s about cutting and killing. Its about dealing directly with what’s in front of you, no matter what they do. Not thinking of either victory or defeat, just thinking of the work. It then got a bit simpler and I think it got better. I’ve got better.

I acted with Michael Caine in The Prestige. It was three days of absolute joy. I was nervous, and I blew the first take. He looked at me and said to me ‘What’s the matter with you?’. I said ‘I’m nervous’. He said ‘You? How old are you?’. I said ‘Seventy-five’. He said ‘You can’t afford to be fucking nervous!’. I said ‘I am working with you, that would make anybody nervous’.You still get star struck then? You’re not totally immune?

Just a little bit. We had three days just sitting and talking about acting, Michael Caine and I. A lot of actors don’t do that. And he finally said ‘I always have trouble escaping into roles. Do you?’ I said ‘no’ [laughs]. He said ‘You cheeky son of a bitch!’ and he was laughing.

He said that he’d only managed to disappear into a role three or four times, to which I said that I’d done it around eight or nine, and that surprised him. But I pointed out that he was Michael Caine disappearing into a role, whereas I’m Morgan Sheppard, and they say ‘Who?’. Caine said ‘Oh yeah, I see what you mean.’ It’s easier for me because I only have a couple of weeks’ work to do, but he’s got to carry the entire picture, and it’s probably his story anyway!’.

How did you find working with Christopher Nolan?

In a nutshell…magic!

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Is he a very ‘hands on’ director?

No, he leaves you alone. He’s very firm about what he wants. He’s very tactful. He’s in control. It’s that wonderful way to do it, where he never quite lets you know that he is totally in control. You don’t feel the fist, you don’t feel the hand on your back at all. It’s just there and he does it.Was your part in Transformers very blue-screen oriented?

It was completely blue screen. It was supposed to be in Alaska and it was completely cut. I mean, you’ve seen it, I am down to literally four lines, that’s all that’s left. I am picked up by the Megadom or whatever you call it, blinded by him, held up by him over the crevasse…a whole pile of stuff, all of which got cut. Which I can quite understand, he wanted to get to ‘crash bang wallop’. Also we were at the beginning originally, the opening of the movie.I was watching one of your longer roles in Elvira Mistress of The Dark. That looked like tremendous fun.

Oh yes, she’s a great lady. I love her dearly. Very funny lady and a very good actress, actually, because she’s trained at The Groundlings and really is, no joke, a mistress of improvisation. A lot of that stuff was ‘improv’, all that about the bandage and ‘how’s your head?’…’well I’ve had no complaints so far!’ [laughs]. These are all ad-libs. She’s like that – she just tosses them off.You were under very heavy makeup at one point in that film, and – of course – as a Klingon in Star Trek VI. Does that empower you or hold you back?

It holds you back, really. Sometimes you can act the wardrobe, or the wardrobe does the acting for you. When it’s prosthetics like that it’s hard work to get any kind of humanity, even if its an alien. Hard work to get any kind of life behind it.

I had fun being a Klingon. My favourite is ‘Soul Hunter’ in Babylon 5. [J. Michael] Straczynski really let me go with that one.

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There doesn’t seem to be a great many gaps in your career over the last twenty, thirty years?

Oh I mini-cabbed, in South London, round about 1973-4. It got pretty hairy sometimes, but it was great experience because I could use that stuff. I know how to play psychopaths [laughs].

William Morgan Sheppard, thank you very much!