Interview with actor Michael IronsideJune 2, 2016
With more than two hundred and forty acting credits to his name, including such films as Top Gun, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, it’s safe to say Michael Ironside is a veteran of the acting world. Recently, we had a chance to talk to him about his role in the movie California Winter, his philosophies on acting and some of his experiences in the world of television and movies.
Can you tell me a bit about the character you play in the movie California Winter, Sheriff Hillman?
Michael: Well, let me talk about how I got onto this film. This film basically had been held up for a couple of years as far as I know because the rights were in contention. One of the distributors didn’t give enough money for the right and held onto the rights, they had to go to court to get the film back, so it’s kind of had a bit of a breech birth. To let you know a little bit about me, I do jobs for money or for studios or big distributions at least once every eighteen months, if I’m lucky I’ll get one a year, so I’ll do one big glitzy picture to keep my distribution in place and then I can run off and do these little films that care about stuff. This is a film that when I read the script I cared about it, I think it came to me unsolicited through a friend of a friend and I remember talking to the director and the lead actress and trusted that they wanted to do. In this movie, California Winter, you saw people getting outrageously back loaded loans, mortgage loans, that were completely taken to the cleaners by these kind of multi layered criminal mortgage brokerages and how it affected people, how it affected the human side of things. The part I play is a soon to be retired police sergeant, beat cop who’s down to basically serving warrants and evictions and how is just trying to show up and do his thing without getting emotionally involved, mentally or morally involved, and how by the end of the film, the law may be legal but it isn’t right and how he just can’t do his job. It’s a very minor part in the film but it’s a very human part, that’s one of the reason’s I got attracted to it because it shows an arc of change, where a lot of us sometime hide behind the rules, between what is legal and what is right and in this case the script was wonderful, it really starts off with all the right kind of human excitement of being able to be successful at something.
Our lead actress ends up having to be morally and ethically responsible for what is going on and how a lot of people did not really know what they were involved in during that whole ex-Regan era where he muzzle was taken off the mortgage brokerage industry and it was literally just highway robbery. It was done where everyone in the film did it for scale, nobody made money on it, we all did it because we believed in the project. I remember the wardrobe in one location was in somebodies basement and I got caught short, talk about the big short, an actress walked in and I had my pants down and we got to know each other real well. I remember as well as that was going on, one of the AD’s walked in and had to re-charge all the walkie talkies and plugged into the wall next to my ass. It was that kind of film where everybody was there because they wanted to be there, because they believed in the project, believed in the writer/director and the lead actress is wonderful.
Somebody else asked me, I’ve got a reputation for telling the truth and I’ve had a lot of reporters call me over the years because what I said got printed without being too distilled down. I don’t do press for something unless I care about it and I think this film is something I would pay money to see. I know they’re getting a short release somewhere but it’s a film worth seeing. If I thought it should be seen off Netflix or Prime or something like that I’d say that. I would make the effort to see it a theater, and I don’t say that about everything. Some films I’ll say my work is great but the overall effect of the film is a piece of shit or I’ll say they cut the best parts of the film out so to show where the producers spent their money and there’s no story, it’s just all special effects, I’ll say that about a film. A lot of producers and distributors are not happy with that but I don’t give a shit, I’d rather tell the truth, it’s my life. I keep on getting hired so I don’t know if I’m doing things the right way but I’m only here for a short time and I want to have as good a time and as honest a time that I can have. So yeah, this movie turned out great. I liked the script, the script worked, it was directed in earnest, they basically used a lot of private money and people did it for nothing so they would have more control over the subject matter and how it was told.
Do you get frustrated as an actor when you work on a film like California Winter when you know it might not get the attention it deserves in the movie business?
Michael: You know, how do I say this, that’s not my job. My job is to show up and do the best job I can. I get sad more than I do frustrated when something doesn’t get properly edited or handled or somebody’s ego gets involved at the producing or distributing end of it. I remember we did a tongue in cheek film years ago to poke fun at all the slasher films and I won’t mention the film, but the distributors took it, re-edited it and tried to make it a real slasher film. So it came out and kind of fell on its face a bit and I remember everyone worked so bloody hard on that film to make it funny and tongue in cheek but still with a certain amount of respect for the audience and these buggers took the short route to a fast buck. I thought they took something that could have been an iconic piece of art and turned it into a very poor popcorn film. That is the sort of thing I find sad, because you know the intent of the people involved and then it was kind of taken over afterwards. People make decisions for money rather than longevity, you know? Sad yes, frustrating, nah. I’ve been in this circus business for a long time and you cannot control the way it is perceived.
Have you always approached acting a certain way or did you change your approach as you got more experienced?
Michael: One thing I did learn over the years is that you can drive yourself mad if you demand to see yourself a certain way. I see my job as kind of being a conduit to the best of my ability for what I’m trying to do and if it hits it’s mark, you know every film, and I’m not being presumptuous here, I’ll see myself once and that’s in the final product. That’s not what I hold on to what usually happens behind the camera, grips and gaffers and make-up artists and other actors and stories we tell. I just worked with Franco Nero in Romania and he and his wife Vanessa Redgrave just met the Queen four days before he got there and I got to talk to him and compare stories, I remember the first time I saw Camelot and how my mom fell in love with him and caused my dad to be upset, he was laughing about it and how him and Vanessa Redgrave are still together after all of these years. There’s a young Canadian on this film, Jason, he’s a dwarf and plays the jester, wonderful actor and that’s what I remember. It cleared my head up that I didn’t have to worry about the final product, that all I had to do was show up, do the best I can, hopefully learn something along the way and let go of the final product and see what happens to it.
Would you say that you always wanted to be an actor or did you have other interests in terms of an actual career?
Michael: I grew up in Toronto, Pape and Queen area, went to Riverdale Collegiate. Instead of going to university and taking creative writing and journalism I ended up going to Art College and taking writing on the side. The woman who was teaching me said they can’t teach you how to write, you need life experience, what’s your second love? And I had already been accepted to Western, Carleton and University of British Columbia. U of T, University of Toronto, did not give me a scholarship, they gave me a partial one, I had a free ride at all of these other places and I was too afraid to leave town. I wanted to be thought of as this liberal, gallivanting character but the truth is I was terrified to travel on my own in those days. I was kind of young, eighteen, nineteen, and I wanted to go to U of T but we couldn’t afford it, we had no money so I went to the art college instead because it was affiliated to U of T at the time, it was the Ontario College of Art, I thought maybe I could do a year there and switch over to U of T. I ended up staying at the art college for five years and doing an assistant-ship under Gus Weisman and teaching life drawing and stuff. My dad used to say pick a direction, not a destination, that was one of his favorite sayings, and I just said it to my seventeen year old daughter. I don’t feel much older, I still have all that enthusiasm, but sometimes I feel like a nineteen year old driving a very old car. But I still have shit to learn and the more I learn I realize what I thought I knew I didn’t.
This past March actor Casper Van Dien was in Toronto for a comic convention and we talked to him about Starship Troopers. That is just one of a few movies you’ve done, including films such as Total Recall and Scanners that still has a huge fan base today. Why do think fans are still so loyal to these movies, years after they first came out?
Michael: Well, Starship Troopers is a funny kind of movie, I guess a hybrid. Paul Verhoeven did it as a satire and a lot of people didn’t take it like that. I remember, I’d already done Total Recall with Paul and when we met for that I said can I, see I knew Heinlein’s work and I knew he was a bit of a, he wrote The Citizen’s Handbook right after Starship Troopers where he believed that if you weren’t willing to kill people for your country you shouldn’t be allowed to vote. He’s a super, super right wing motherfucker. So I said to Paul, I know you are a very, very right wing conservative person but at the same time you’re a very liberal in your political views, why are you making this movie? So he said are you questioning me and I said no, I just want to know what page we’re on, because we’d got to know each other after Total Recall, and he said I’ll tell you what, if I stood on a soapbox and told the right wing factions of the world that they’re way of doing things was un-nurturing nobody would listen to me. So I’m going to give them a perfect, fascist society, perfect and beautiful in every way except its only good for killing fucking bugs. So he said, does that sit with your political leanings, Michael? Are you still going to question me? I said hey, I’m on board, absolutely.
Yeah, he’s an interesting guy, Paul. He wanted to do a third movie together, he said I’ll find something, everything should come in three’s, especially in a relationship like ours. He was going to do a movie on Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, and there’s a book out on Speer and he sent it to me and said read this. It was eight hundred fucking pages on Albert Speer called Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth: by author Gitta Sereny. Paul was thinking of doing a movie from the book and have me play Speer at an older age and he couldn’t get funding for it if I remember right because nobody really wanted in Europe to wake up that whole side of the right wing society, and he said maybe someday we do it, I don’t know. Paul’s a great storyteller, he’s very in depth. He said if you have something you might want to challenge or change he consider a discussion around any suggested changes but you need to tell me twenty one days ahead due to the shooting schedule, especially when special effects were involved because after that I’m not changing anything. His storyboards and everything, it’s his vision, he’s a meticulous director.
Tony Scott on the other hand, who did Top Gun, Tony is very visual. He sculpted the set, he didn’t give a shit what you were doing acting wise, it was I want you to stand here, do your scene from here, sit here, the lights going to be coming through the window and I felt like the first day or so, we were doing a lot of master shots, I felt like I was handcuffed in jail. I remember looking at the dailies on the first couple of days on Top Gun and then I realized, he didn’t give a shit, he expected us to be real within that structured kind of visual portraits or paintings he was doing with light and everything. Actually, once you saw that you had a lot of freedom and it really helps. Tony said I don’t give a fuck as long as you’re real but I need you in these structured visuals. Paul is very much like that, he would say, I need this character to be angry here and I’d show him and he said what the fuck was that? Well I said, what kind of anger do you want? Ah, you’re fucking with me, I said no, what do you want? So I gave him six different versions of anger and he said, oh wow, we’ll use number two. Later when we worked on Starship Troopers he asked how I did that because he didn’t really know anything about acting. A lot of people don’t know I’m totally method trained but not to the point where I’m going to make my work method anyone’s problem. Method acting gets a bad rap, where everyone is sitting around waiting for someone to find their emotion. That’s bullshit, that’s people who don’t know what the hell their doing. Your job is to bring that with you and get your work done.
What is it that still makes acting interesting for you and what keeps you coming back for more?
As an actor I believe you just have to give it up. You have to go in, do the best you can and pray that what you did is good enough to make it to the end. If you try and control what you’re doing or manipulate what you’re doing, it comes out so false. I remember trying to come up with an analogy and I came up with the script is like a piece of stained glass. It’s already structured, it’s already there and my job as an actor is to be the light under the stained glass. The director chooses how much of the stained glass he’s going to show, whether he’s going to travel around it or show all of it at once and he controls that intensity of the light underneath, that’s just my job. The stained glass is already there, the script is already there, our job is to put the light under it, in the most ideal situation. Of course, there’s a whole bunch of people out there who thing they are the stained glass. It’s like therapy being an actor, you’re always struggling with how much do you reveal about yourself. You do more acting in a day then I do in a film. We’re all actors, we don’t go around showing our emotions, we basically do a horrible amount of lying during the day representing who we are. Acting, all it is, is you let those sort of covers drop, you let those walls drop and then you get to play a character that hopefully has some real life emotion in them. I actually get more rest acting then I do preparing for acting. Once I choose the colors and put it all in place, what emotional colors I’m going to be using, then it’s kind of like a holiday. It’s kind of like being a kid, and kids are the best damn actors. When a kid plays Zorro, he’s Zorro. When they are Batman, they are fucking Batman, you know what I mean? You watch a kid and they’re totally committed to what they are doing. That’s all we have to do as actors, bring that level of commitment.
I remember on Extreme Prejudice, while I was doing scene, we’re all sitting around, Powers Booth, Nick Nolte and I, and a couple other actors, and one was wondering around, he had a scene to do and said, I need a moment, so he was going around punching walls, kicking garbage pails and shit, and Rip Torn sits down and starts reading a book, Nick is smoking a cigarette and going through a magazine and I remember I was sitting beside the director, Walter Hill and he said to me, goddammit Ironside, I am so glad you are not one of those method motherfuckers and I wasn’t going to tell him because I am, I’m absolutely straight up method but I’m not going to make my work process your problem. Walter and I have been friends for years and I told him after the film was over and he said, you’re shitting me, your method trained? I said yeah, so is Clancy Brown. He said, Clancy’s method? I said yeah, but Clancy comes to work in character. He said, oh shit, well, what about that other guy? Well, I said, I have no idea what that motherfucker was doing. That’s the shit I love, that’s the shit I remember.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, though. I was about four months into my recovery from prostate cancer when I did California Winter. I was bloated, I was really overweight but grateful to be alive. I remember when I had the cancer the doctor said to me it was sixty to forty, as in forty percent survival rate because he didn’t think they’d caught it in time but we had a couple of successful surgeries after that we got it. I’m a twice thyroid cancer and abdominal cancer, prostate cancer survivor. I’m a lucky man.
I want to thank Michael Ironside for taking the time to talk with us