If you’re reading this site and don’t know who Michael Ironside is, I can only assume you never read the credits of movies. Kids of my generation first remember him as Ham Tyler in V, but he’s been a presence in sci-fi ever since, appearing in the likes of Spacehunter 3D, Scanners, Top Gun, Highlander II, Total Recall and many more, usually as a major badass.
In Extraterrestrial, which opens today, he plays a marijuana farmer caught up in the potential violation of a secret truce between the government and aliens, and in a small handful of scenes, this man in his 60s easily steals the show from the teens and twentysomethings who are supposedly the stars.
In a rare interview, Ironside discussed many things with TR, from the dream role he nearly but never got to the strange stealth Christianity of The Omega Code and his thoughts on Batman.
Michael Ironside: Hello?
Luke Y. Thompson: Hello, Michael?
LYT: Honored to talk to you, man. I’ve been a fan of yours since before I knew your name.
MI: Who is this?
LYT: This is Luke from Topless Robot.
MI: Hey, Luke! Topless Robot! [chuckles]What a great name!
LYT: So how did you get hooked up with Extraterrestrial?
MI: They actually sent me the script, and I remember I read it online – on the computer – then I printed them and read it a second time. I get about two or three – I’m not bragging, I just get a lot of this crap. Reading it a the second time, it’s a genre picture that does this big kind of well-worn kind of cinematic story trick in it. I wanted to see if the people that had written it and were making it were as competent with the script.
So we had a meeting and talked to them, and they were…The Vicious brothers were quite good, and I was really impressed enough with the script, and then when we talked to them, I felt that they were good.
Have you seen it?
LYT: I have seen it. I’m afraid you’re breaking up just a little bit.
MI: I’m breaking up?
LYT: That I heard very clearly.
MI: I’m driving through La Cienega, coming through the Baldwin Hills. Do you want to do it again? Is this live?
LYT: No, it’s not live. It’s being recorded. It’s going to be written up later.
MI: Oh, it’s going to be written up. Good.
LYT: I got that you said you met with the Vicious Brothers, and they were very competent film makers. It was the bit before that that I didn’t get.
MI: Oh, well, when I read the script, it was full of every clich? and kind of action and sci-fi movie – all the beats in it were very kind of genre, and I thought even though the script was very common and very tight, I thought it could either be really, really good, or it could be a total piece of crap, because it was such a confident script. And when I met with them, they were as confident and as serious as the script. It proved to be true. They were very good.
And you have seen the film?
LYT: I have indeed, yes. Yeah, it’s cool.
MI: I thought that they’d stretched the limits. It’s almost daytime television, and they did it deliberately. I thought that they did a really good job. I don’t usually do a lot of press on films, but this one I really wanted to. One, because their film craft I think deserves another shot. And hopefully give them more time, more money to blow their brains out with it.
And Brittany Allen – I didn’t know her before this film, met her on the set, and was absolutely enamored with her ability as an actress. She’s quite amazing. When they showed me the rough cut of the film, I watched it with my wife, and she absolutely said we’re on the right track.
She’s so approachable as a human being, onscreen and off-screen. I find that’s – like a complete human being, and what you see up on the screen, that’s a full, three-dimensional, emotional, real person. It’s not some sort of – I think the term I’ve used is kind of green-eyed T&A hairdo, you know. She has a dignity about her, a power about her. I just hope she gets more jobs. I’d love to see her do more acting.
LYT: I think she will, based on this.
MI: I mean, she’s really good. She’s really good. And you know what I’m saying; real actors, and especially like Brittany – they’re approachable. She makes it safe to approach her. She makes it safe to trust her, to sit in the dark and watch the film and feel safe, that you’re in good hands – that she’s not going to drop you on your head. Yeah, I’m a fan. I don’t know her. I knew her on set, I’ve met her in New York while we were doing the press junket in New York and stuff, but she really is the real deal. I can’t wait to see where she’s going to go. I’m almost sure that she’s going to have a very healthy career. Evidently she’s already won an Emmy for some daytime television show. I found that out afterward. In this age of kind of fast-fry and of-the-moment performance, she’s very well crafted, very professional. You get the picture, right?
LYT: I do, I really do.
MI: I don’t mean to wax on about it.
LYT: Oh, don’t worry about waxing on. This is an interview; people want to hear you talk! No worries about that. When you said that you were in good hands with her, I thought that was cool, because when I see your name, I feel like I’m in good hands with the movie.
MI: Oh, well, thank you.
LYT: I know you have a reputation for being a Method actor. Did you do a lot of research on pot farmers for this?
MI: No, no! Actually, I hate talking about Method acting, because it gets misrepresented over the years. One of the first things I was taught was never make your performance or your way of doing things anyone else’s problem, on-set or off. So most of my work is done before I ever get to set. And I usually throw what my daughter calls ‘binky,’ this very user-friendly raincoat over the character, because most of the characters I’ve played, nobody wants to spend 24/7 with. So I’ve got a user-friendly goof guy that is a raincoat that I can pull off and just walk into the scene, which is kind of my protection from having to wear the character around, and it’s the crew’s protection from having to deal with the character.
Because I’ve played some pretty unliked, stormy characters. The character in the film is based on a fellow I knew who was a vet who decided he couldn’t stand the mores of society, and he went up in the Santa Monica mountains and lived in kind of a makeshift cave for a while, and comes out to visit me at times. He’s doing well – he’s been back in society for about seven years now, but he did two or three tours, and he was pretty burnt. Very intelligent, very sensitive, and pretty fried.
So I kept the basis of that person and put it into this Travis character, and then went to the script for the top of it. And it’s – I think it’s important that that character is approachable. He’s got to represent not only parental, but he’s got to represent messed-up authority, and his paranoid, delusional life just happens to be on the money, as the film goes, you know! Actually, the alien invasion to the stage has improved what little sanity he has left. He has some raison d’?tre, you know. Are you still there?
LYT: I’m still there.
MI: You’re the quietest person I’ve talked to!
LYT: Well, I don’t want to interrupt you. You’ve been on a roll and that’s what people want to hear! It’s awesome that you’re so well-known for playing bad-ass roles and your name is Ironside, but I was wondering if growing up with that name, was there pressure to live up to it? Was there childhood teasing for that?
MI: When you have a name like Ironside, it’s not so much to live up to it. You hear everything through – this isn’t being recorded to broadcast live, is it?
MI: OK. I’ve got a woman sitting in the car. I’ve heard everything you can do with Ironside. I’ve heard Coppercunt, I’ve heard Platinum Puss, I’ve heard Steel Shitter, he’s got rust on his underwear. I mean, you know, anything you can do with Ironside – my dad had the belief that if you’re going to have a name like Ironside, you should have a moniker in front of it. My real name is Frederick Reginald Luther Ironside. Mike was a nickname, but it later became Michael for film.
I think my dad thought if you name a kid John or Joe, and you’ve got a name like Ironside – let’s give them something to react to! So all my brothers – my one brother is William Gregory Finley Ironside. The other one is Robert Bruce James Ironside. Ironside is one of those names that I think brings out the best and the worst in people. Because every joke you can do with that name – somebody has their bright-eyed idea that it’s the first time I’d hear it. I remember I met somebody – Alan Ball – and I said, “My god, I think your name is probably worse than mine! There is nothing that you can do with the word ‘ball’ that you haven’t already heard.” He looked at me and he said, “You know!” [chuckling]
But it’s true! Children are cruel! Children are cruel – they sharpen their nails and their teeth on the backs and faces of another like kind when they’re growing up. They pick a flaw, or something to give them an entry for conversation, and then they’ll claw you to death. What’s your last name?
LYT: My last name’s Thompson, my first name’s Luke, so I get a lot of “I am your father.”
MI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. See? We’ve all grown up with that.
LYT: Mine’s not exactly cruel, it’s just redundant.
MI: Did you ever get any Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner?
LYT: I didn’t, but my dad loved that song. I got a lot of Pukus-Mucus.
MI: Oh, yeah, yeah! I bet! Ugh!
LYT: The most obvious thing you can think of. There’s not a lot of ways to go with it, so everybody thinks of the same things.
LYT: How many days were you on the Extraterrestrial shoot?
MI: It wasn’t that long. I think it was eight days. And a couple of them I was very sick on. The gas mask that they gave me was circa World War II or Korea, and before I went on set they washed it, and whatever fungus was in that breathing passage got into my lungs, and I got as sick as a dog the second or third day. Got a huge temperature – had to get antibiotics. It was horrible. It was that opening sequence, and when we got to the scene where I’m rolling the doobie, I actually had a temperature of 103 or 104 – full of antibiotics. I had just gotten back from the hospital, and they said “Do you want to do it? Are you OK?” I said, “Well, I’m kind of delusional, and sweating. I feel like crap. I think I’m in character!” [laughs]I knew the dialogue, so I said, “Let’s go ahead.” I was really impressed when I saw it. I realized we did three takes and I rolled three doobies, on camera.
You know, with that scene they did a great job of that photograph for being Vietnam era. They did a wonderful – the artwork on that, they did a wonderful job. I wonder where that photograph is, because it was such a great overlay of my face over that grunt picture. But I think it’s just that uniform, and the set dresser did a wonderful job on it.
LYT: Yeah, it looked good. I always wonder with those old photos, if they just go to people’s childhood homes and find them.
MI: Yeah, well, some are very obvious. But that one was so well done. The art effects on that film were great. For the money they had, I mean, I think it was a $40 – $45 million film. They did a wonderful job. They didn’t try and make the DeSoto look like a Cadillac. They said we got a DeSoto, it’s going to be a perfect DeSoto. That was a car, by the way, for anyone that’s younger than 45! [laughs]
LYT: I actually did know that one! You’ve done so many sort of military characters and hit men, and killers and soldiers and so forth. Have you ever done boot camp or any military training?
MI: No, I’ve never – I’ve been told I have an anachronistic body – that I look good in a uniform. The generation before me – my mom had eighteen brothers and sisters, and all of the men served in the second World War. My father served – my father’s only brother was killed during the war. So I came up and grew up very aware of military, and the idea, but not doing any service.
I have one of those bodies, I think, that looks good in the uniform. Whether it’s a baseball uniform or a scout uniform – I’ve always felt very awkward in casual. It just never looks good on me. But also, you know, I think I dig uniforms as a costume. I really do get that. The taking away of the individual personality and draping them in a uniformity – you know what I mean?
MI: I think those with responsibility of your actions allows you to have a certain kind of dignity of purpose and stuff, so I get that. For your safety, I guess. I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. I never kind of looked at it that way.
LYT: And it also seems to tie in a little bit for you – you’ve got an affinity for comic book characters. You’ve voiced Batman and Darkseid and Ultra Magnus. Are you a comic book fan?
MI: I was growing up; yes, very much so. I never really got the irony of having Iron Man as one of my favorites until my dad said “It’s not because of our name, is it?” I went, “Oh, gosh, I never thought of that!” I liked that character very much. He seemed like a practical mix of science and fantasy. I was a big fan of classic comics. I’m Canadian, so we’re pretty well fed those strong All-American icons, you know.
I like reading, period. I was raised on books. I can actually remember we had to go to the neighbors to watch television, because we didn’t have a TV.
LYT: Having portrayed the Dark Knight Returns version of Batman in animation, are you excited to see what they do in live action with it when Ben Affleck kind of does his variation of that?
MI: I think Batman is a pretty universal character. I remember him as a child. But I think Christian [Bale] did the best I’ve seen so far, because of that tortured background of loss. The original Batman, they’re not much remembered as a Batman character – they were not used for training [chuckles]. You had to really – there was a darkness and a damaged-ness about his character that I think they got right with Christian Bale. Especially in the last two. But that doesn’t have anything to do with Ben Affleck. I think he’s willing to take risks. He seems to be.
LYT: Do you think it’s essential to the character that they do take risks? There’s sort of a fear that because it’s…
MI: I think absolutely that you have to. If you’re going to reinvent something over and over again, you’ve got to bring something – you can’t go backwards. It would be great if they do Batman Bizarro someday, or Superman Bizarro, because that would be really different. It would be the antithesis of the character played. But I don’t know.
LYT: Speaking of reinventions that don’t take risks, I have to ask did you see the Total Recall remake?
MI: No, I didn’t. They asked me to be a part of it. I said “No.” I said, “No, thank you.” I didn’t – when Paul Verhoeven’s done something, I don’t want to be part of a failed comparison. That’s taking a huge risk.
MI: And that Philip K. Dick story was kind of a very well trodden story by that group of people who did Total Recall. To go back and do it, with just a bigger bang, or cuts and zooms, I don’t know if I want to be a part of that. I had a good friend who was in it, and he was completely cut out of it, because he was in a story line that got in the way of some of the special effects, so they completely cut his character and that story out, to accommodate all the big-budget kind of wide shots. I watched it, I think, on DVD somewhere, or a pay-per-view station. I thought the art direction was brilliant, but there was no bloody story! There was absolutely no story. And one thing Paul Verhoeven is, is a story-teller.
LYT: He’s excellent – one of my favorite film makers by far.
MI: He promises we’ll work together again. He said, “We should do another one.” I saw him at a film festival in Ankara, Turkey a few years ago, and he was the governor general of the festival – whatever it was, I don’t know – it was when The Wrestler first came out, so it was a couple of years ago. I remember hanging out with Paul, having a couple of snacks and stuff, and saying “Yeah, yeah – we should do another one!” He said “Three – three would probably do it.” I said, “OK.” Wait and see, you know. Paul usually does what he says.
LYT: I keep waiting for his Jesus movie that he talks about all the time. I’m dying to see that.
MI: Oh, that was interesting. He was researching that. He actually argued the merits of the historical aspects of Christ at the University of Toronto. He said did I know anyone on it – they would present questions to him and they would argue questions and discuss the answers and stuff. He really wanted to take that on. I think Willem Dafoe from The Last Temptation of Christ – that kind of side-stepped that for Paul – that kind of derailed it a bit.
It’s interesting how it had just come out, that very aspect, from the papers that were found in the monasteries that they have in Ireland, and parts of northern England, that date back 1400 or 1700 years that talk about Christ and his family. And these are church papers that were dragged out of Rome, and they burned the library, and all the monks don’t want to get slaughtered by all the Shi’ite Christians that were destroying – Everyone forgets the first Shi’ites were Christians – they would go and stab the pagans and say send me to my God, and march into the Collosseum singing Christian hymns and stuff. “Send me to the lions, send me to my God.” There’s a book that talks about Christ, and Christ’s family, and how Mary – the other Mary is the mother of his two children and stuff. It’s also in these church papers that they found in all the monasteries.
LYT: This is actually a great segue into the fact that I wanted to ask you an Omega Code question!
MI: Omega Code! I’ll tell you about that – I was on that film for two weeks before I realized it was being funded by the BMI, or whatever it was.
LYT: Well, there’s once scene where Michael York talks about the love of a man or a woman, and it sort of implies that – for a moment it implies that there’s this gay love triangle between him and you and Casper Van Dien, and I was wondering if that was ever talked about on set at all, or if that’s just an impression I came away with watching it?
MI: [laughing]I’ve never heard that one! I’ve never heard that one. I do know that he wanted to play up the Beast, and the idea of being the Beast – you know, 666. But Michael – I couldn’t be responsible for what Michael was saying there. He was very much – they actually owe me quite a bit of money, those people! I did not know that they were the distributors of the film. I was on the film about three weeks, and I said “Wait a second!” They started changing the script, and I said “No, no, no, no – I’ll go home and everyone will be happy.” And I think I got some percentage of the back-end or something, and they made a deal with me, because they said “You don’t want to go to court over this.” I went “Oh, OK.” They threatened court, and I stayed. But they never paid. They owned all the distribution on it.
It’s not that good. I remember seeing it, and I thought it was very shoddily cut together. There was a better film that we shot than that. And Michael was believable as a megalomaniac religious iconic businessman. And Casper – he is what he is. He is what you get. I mean, he’s a wonderful, open-faced, honest person. He really is. And that – I think they fell in love after that. I think they got married after that. What’s her name -the princess – I forget her name.
LYT: Catherine Oxenberg, I think.
MI: Yeah, Catherine Oxenberg. Yeah. I think she was an Austrian or a Bavarian princess, if I remember right. But they were madly in love. Casper couldn’t see the forest for the trees on the film because he was – wherever Catherine went, there he followed. It was wonderful to watch.
LYT: So in production – you didn’t know it was a televangelist…
MI: I did not know it was an evangelical financed film. That just shows you how bloody flaky I can be. Here I am – I can be terrible, I don’t want to go there. [chuckling]Nah, it was – I got a free trip to Rome out of it. It was great.
LYT: Are you at the point where you actually have to look for work, or do people just …?
MI: I’ll tell you something – I’ll tell you the truth, these scripts are weak. A lot of them, I’d say maybe one out of every 25 that I consider. I’m also of that age where I think I’m too old to be the bad guy, and the bad guy usually doesn’t have a dad! If he does, he’s just a scarred, corpse-like character, you know. Hold on a second. Are we OK for time?
LYT: We’re probably running out.
MI: We’ve got another five minutes, evidently. Is that OK?
LYT: That’s fine. I appreciate how long you’ve been on with me.
MI: Nah, it’s great. I don’t do this very often, so you might as well get as much from me as you can!
LYT: I will fill out my time because my readers had some questions. One guy says “After an amazing career filled with bad-assery, is there one role that you would love to do but have never been offered?”
MI: Oh, I wanted to play Gurney Halleck in Dune – the original character in the book. He was a brute of a warrior who played the lute and he played the lute so well that the stars would cry. And when they were doing Dune, I was offered – because Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck are the two characters who are Muad’dib’s bodyguards. I read that book in galley form out of a shoe box; my grandfather had befriended authors and they used to send books to my grandfather. It was written on the front of the script – it said “See if you can find any bugaboos in this.” I read that when I was about seven or eight years old, so I fell in love with that – with those characters.
We were set to do it. Marlon Brando was going to play the Baron Harkonnen, I think. Jane Fonda was attached at the time. God, my brain’s going – Norwegian actor – I can’t believe I’ve lost the name. 6’2″, huge arms…
LYT: Dolph Lundgren? No, he’s Swedish.
MI: Dolph Lundgren! No…anyway – Did a lot of Ingmar Bergman films. I’m probably pre-dating you now. Anyway, everyone was attached to it, and they asked me to play Gurney Halleck, and I was like “Brilliant!” And then Jane Fonda pulled out – I don’t know, she had something, some problem or something. When she pulled out, Marlon Brando re-associated himself – they had to set the film down, to hold the film. I went “Aww.” I went out to do Walter Hill’s Extreme Prejudice, and then in the middle of that, they called and said “Yeah, we’re going again, we grabbed somebody else, can you do it?” I said “I’m in the middle of this film.” And they hired, of all people, Aldo Ray was going to come down. And then he came down, and he was drunk on the plane and fell off the plane, and they put him back on the plane, back to America, because they were shooting. And hired the good Captain of Star Trek, Patrick whatsisname…
LYT: Patrick Stewart?
MI: Yeah, and they rolled Duncan Idaho, if I remember right, and Gurney Halleck – it was so cut short that they just rolled the characters into one character. And two very wonderful, two very vivid, very strong characters kind of got – not diminished – they were not paid the best service. So I never got to see the TV series Dune, but there was a mini-series done in Europe. Did you get to see that?
LYT: I did not.
MI: I think it was eight or nine years ago. But that was always a character I wanted to do. Now I’m too old. I always wanted to play that character. That’s the one, the one character I wanted to play. That’s the one.
LYT: Well, Michael, I’m going to let you move on to the next guy because I’m sure he’s got a lot of questions too, but thank you so much.
MI: Was that OK, Luke?
LYT: That was fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today.
MI: It was wonderful to talk to you. Thank you.