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SYFY WIRE Total Recall

Ronny Cox only played 'Boy Scout nice-guys' until Paul Verhoeven turned him bad

By Adam Pockross
Ronny Cox in Total Recall

Before breaking bad, Ronny Cox was known far more for his standup turns as guitar-picking Drew in Deliverance and hard-talking-but-ultimately-just Lt. Bogomil in Beverly Hills Cop. But by tapping Cox to play the Enforcement Droid Series 209-lusting Dick Jones in RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven forever changed Cox’s Boy Scout trajectory. And Verhoeven ultimately sealed Cox’s baddie persona by tapping him once again to play the corporate air raider Cohaagen in Total Recall.

Thirty years later, Total Recall stands the test of time, and Cohaagen remains a big reason for that, as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Quaid could only be as heroic as his main foe forced him to be. In honor of the film’s 30th anniversary, Cox spoke to SYFY WIRE all about playing one of sci-fi’s great evildoers, and why Verhoeven thought the audience would buy into Cox playing evil in the first place.

“I talked to Paul about that. One of the things which shows, I think, the genius of Paul Verhoeven is that from Deliverance up until RoboCop, I had played all these Boy Scout nice guys,” Cox tells SYFY WIRE. “So Paul wanted to trade on that residual goodwill that my characters seemed to have. And his feeling — and I think he’s correct — is that if you have a character who your initial reaction is, ‘Oh, this is going to be a good guy,’ and then he turns out to be evil, that makes him twice as evil. So I think he wanted to trade on that to make Dick Jones even more of a villain.”

But evil comes in a number of forms. So, how did Cox go about differentiating Jones from Cohaagen, who was similarly evil, but not exactly the same kind of evil?

Ronny Cox and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall

“Oh, they’re completely different. Every character is different. I never approach any character with any feeling of what it was like [to play] any other character,” Cox says. “My interest in acting is playing a character.

“You know, there’s sort of two schools of thought about that: There are some people who play persona, if you will, which is sort of a modified, glorified version of themselves. They have a screen persona that they play,” Cox continues. “And that interests me not at all. My favorite actors are the ones who... they can play this guy one day, and this guy the next, and this guy the next, and they have nothing to do with the other. People like Robert Duvall, and Gene Hackman, and those kinds of actors. Those are my favorite actors.”

But what made Cohaagen the Cohaagen we all grew to know and fear?

“What’s on the page is what makes that,” Cox says. “I spent tons of time working on... now I’m not a method actor, though, don’t get me wrong, I’m opposed to that... but I find out as much [as I can] about this character, how he feels, what’s going on in his mind, what motivates him... and then I try to just play as simply as possible what’s there. I didn’t start out trying to think that this guy is this, or this, or this… I look at what he says, what he does, and how he reacts to people, and that dictates how you play him.”

One great way to make your character look more evil is to kick over an aquarium and let the inhabitants suffocate, all to make a metaphorical point. But Cox assures us that no goldfish were harmed in the making of this film.

“Zero! And I got more hate mail about that,” Cox recalls, while noting why that mail was completely unwarranted. “Because at the time when we did that scene, with me kicking over the goldfish bowl, we put down on the floor another tank, and when I kicked over the goldfish bowl, the fish went into another tank down below. So not a single fish was hurt.”

Goldfish in Total Recall

Though Cohaagen went on to perform far worse actions, particularly if you were living in Venusville, that was seemingly the one that really got people’s goat.

“I got so much hate mail from that, you can’t imagine,” Cox says. “They could care less about me saying screw the people in the tunnels that weren’t getting any air... but kicking over a goldfish bowl, that was terrible.”

As Cox told SYFY WIRE in our previous anniversary story, he got along “famously” with both Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven, but we were just as interested in finding out how he managed to make perennial tough guy Michael Ironside look like he was shaking in his shoes.

“That’s not my job, that’s his job,” Cox says. “There’s an old line from Shakespeare, but it’s apropos: ‘The king doesn’t play the king, the king is just the king.’ And it’s how everybody else treats him; you don’t play being the king, you just are the king.”

As Cox showed with Cohaagen, it’s certainly good to be the king — or at least it is right up to the very end when you’re booted to the lethal surface of Mars and left to decompress so viscerally your eyes pop up out of your head.