Lance Henriksen’s filmography is a mile long and he always has a dozen projects in the works at any given time. Like many of the characters he has portrayed throughout his career, his energy is fierce and unyielding. Cool confidence and the wisdom of age cannot betray his passion for the challenges of acting and of life. The gravel of his voice is more soothing than distressing; words are impressed upon you with the solemnity of a person who is sharing some secret knowledge only you are privy to. The deep creases of a weathered brow might be evidence of a grave personality, but Lance never takes himself too seriously–and really he can’t. He has a ten-year-old daughter, Sage, who keeps him on his toes. His dedication to family is refreshing and touching–much like his character Frank Black on Chris Carter’s Millennium. As a traveler in his younger years he was forced to be self-taught and self-disciplined to survive but I suspect he wouldn’t have it any other way. The man with a laborer’s hands and a poet’s heart has carved a path for himself in a discipline that is sodden with the unoriginal and uninteresting.
Here is part one of my interview with the veteran actor.
Lance: Have you seen Avatar?
Alison: No, I haven’t yet. And actually that’s one of my questions for you. I was going to ask you what you thought about some of the recent negative criticism of the film’s story vs. the amazing visuals.
Lance: You know what…knowing how well Jim tells stories, you’d probably have to see it two or three times to really get the nuances. He’s a brilliant screenwriter, he really is. I’ve had several of his scripts, I’ve done them and one of the things that is always true is that you could almost publish it as a book. That’s how well it’s written. I remember the first line out of the Aliens script—the first line said, “Space, like the love of God, cold and remote.” And I thought wow—does that describe it! Anyway, a lot of his scripts, even the ones I haven’t been in—I find them beautifully written. So, even though I haven’t seen Avatar yet, I really believe it’s probably got a wonderful story and it’s just a matter of surrendering to the visuals and then finally getting the story. Man, from what I’ve heard it’s very involved.
I met Jim when Kathryn Bigelow was having a screening of The Hurt Locker. I hadn’t seen Jim in a while and we were all there watching the movie and then Jim told me, “You’ve got to see what I’ve been doing,” and he was so excited about it, about what the potential is for the new things he had created. I’ve known him a long time and I know him not to be exaggerating. He was very honest about it all. I’m waiting until the hype is over before I go see it so I can have my own opinion. I haven’t heard anything negative except that people said they were sea sick, you know, from the stimulation.
Alison: When a film gets as much hype as Avatar, I’m always afraid to wait too long to see it because I know I’ll be let down in some small way.
Lance: I haven’t been listening to any criticism. I haven’t even read a review. I’m waiting about another week and then I’ll see it. You know, I just don’t like to go around it when it’s so buzzing like that. So, I’m going to really enjoy it. I did the same thing with The Hangover, I waited to see it and then I saw it twice because it made me laugh so hard. Pretty funny movie.
Lance has been an active voice actor for some time now. His voice and likeness will be appearing in the upcoming Sega game Aliens vs. Predator as Karl Bishop. I asked him if he prepared for voice work and live roles in the same way.
Lance: I’ve done quite a few video games, and one of the things I do is just…because it was Bishop—it is connected to Bishop, and I felt there was a certain kind of history I had with it where I felt very free and knowledgeable in what this could be like. Whatever direction they gave me was always discussing it as an actor and not as a voice over guy. Even when I did Kerchak, I did it for Disney for the first Tarzan—when I did that we approached it really as an actor as opposed to someone being a pitch voice. That’s the only way I know how to do it. I’m so much of a primitive, I have to get into it. I don’t have a lot of trouble getting into it, I must tell you. I’ve been doing it a long time. [laughs]
Alison: Did you play the 1999 original videogame?
Lance: No, no, no. I’ve never played a videogame.
Lance: It’s a little bit like golf. I think you could become obsessed about it and never do anything else. I don’t play golf either. Just because I think being closer to the back door of life, I want to do real things. I make pottery when I’m not acting, and work toward that, you know? And I’m sorry to say but I have better things to do with my time than just sit around and kill things. [laughs] If they had one I could play with my child, where it was creating some sort of fantasy world and traveling through it, talking to animals as opposed to killing them, I think I would probably play with her.
Alison: I wanted to go back to Bishop’s character. Bishop’s character throughout the Alien series has been seen as a comment about xenophobia, in the form of a hi-tech racism and technophobia—similar to themes in this year’s film District 9. Have you seen the movie? Do you think the comparison works?
Lance: Yes I did. I’ve been to South Africa before apartheid and after apartheid. I have memory on both sides of that. The first time was very upsetting to me. There was a youth movement there that did a lot of plays while I was in Johannesburg. I was all around Johannesburg in the balance of filming, but whenever I had a chance I would go see a play. They tore your heart out because people were so sweet and wonderful. What I’m trying to get at by talking about that is, that movie is really about apartheid and that whole metaphor.
It was ok that movie for me. I thought it was all right. I enjoyed it, but to me it was based on all of that and that’s the eyes I was seeing it through. It confirms something that I’ve always felt–that science fiction like all westerns are morality plays.
When I did Bishop—one of the things I did…I was using the fact that I was 12-years-old. I was using my 12-year-old emotional life and thought of myself as a black kid in South Africa. That if I made a mistake anything could happen. So, that’s what I was using through that whole role. There was a certain innocence about Bishop that I created that way. And of course when you’re 12 you forgive adults because you know you’re going to outlive them.
Alison: That’s very interesting. Now, in turn, the film series itself has been viewed as a commentary on post-Vietnam anxiety and a kind of hyper-patriotism. Is Bishop’s character the real hero of the series because of his pacifist tendencies?
Lance: Yeah he would never hurt anybody. There’s even a scene about that where I’m saying this other creation was skittish and screwed up, but that would never happen with me because I’m so advanced. I also remember Jim saying to me, if we ever did another one that what he would have done is probably had that character realize that somebody had fooled around with his brain and make him constantly worried that he was going to do something dangerous. And so I thought, well, what a nice piece of conflict that is. You know what’s really interesting? All of these thoughts around that pacifist issue probably came about…and I never mentioned to anyone what I had done after I did the movie…but what I had used to play that character was coming through. It was a critical movie for me because up until that time I had really always been trying to serve the film, serve the movie, serve the script. One of the things I didn’t do, which I did do with Bishop was personalize everything, like I should have been doing my whole career before that. Really personalizing it, so I was a living entity of some personalization that I did. And that’s what makes good acting as far as I’m concerned. Ever since then, I have done that. It was a critical movie for me because my idea was that if I saw the movie, and the work that I was doing wasn’t there that I would not be acting anymore.
Lance: Well, luckily it was there. And I really mean that.
Alison: I don’t doubt you’re a man of your word.