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Reluctant actor Vernon Wells didn't really want any of his iconic '80s roles

By Adam Pockross
Vernon Wells The Road Warrior

If you grew up in the '80s, or are just fascinated by the fact that such a decade even existed, then odds are good you know Vernon Wells’ face, if not his name. That’s because the well-traveled character actor with a flair for baddies had four iconic ‘80s parts — from Wez, his first film role as the mad mohawked marauder in 1981’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior; to Lord General, basically the same part, just in suburban Chicago, for John Hughes’ 1985 sci-fi teen comedy Weird Science; to Bennett, the chainmail-vested, steam-blowing psycho who kidnaps Arnold Schwarzenegger’s kid (Alyssa Milano) in 1985’s Commando; to Mr. Igoe, the silent-but-deadly mechanical-handed henchman in Joe Dante’s 1987 super-shrinker Innerspace.

Wells has worked steadily ever since, too (including playing Ransik in 2001’s Power Rangers Time Force), so much so that IMDb credits him with 195 roles, though he tells SYFY WIRE that’s underreported, and “it’s way over 200 now.” While we didn’t get into all of those credits while speaking with Wells about his latest film, Impact Event, the actor did take us down memory lane for a jaunt, recalling all those beloved roles above, some of which he seemingly took in spite of deep misgivings.

But first, we were curious to hear about playing an off-type geology professor in his recently released VOD film, Impact Event, in which a meteor causes a global apocalypse that finds a group of hopeful survivors taking shelter in an abandoned funhouse, only to be found highly appetizing by a group of cannibalistic killers. 

“I play a geology professor, I guess you’d call him, who figures out what’s going on, or thinks he has, and he’s trying to get everyone to understand, and nobody really cares. Which is normally the way it is with people,” Wells says. “[It’s] a little like a pandemic, you know, nobody wants to believe it, and it’s all crap till it actually hits you, and then you all go, ‘Oh, damn, it was real.’”

Though one might not think of the perennial baddie as the scientist type, Wells tells us this is really his second time playing a man of science — well, actually his third film, but his previous two stints were technically the same role, as Hyde’s assistant in 2006’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll (opposite Tony Todd) and again in 2017 in Impact Event writer/director B. Luciano Barsuglia’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Wells was actually asked to play a different role in Impact Event, but schedules didn’t line up, so Barsuglia wrote a new part for him, and they shot it after the majority of the film had wrapped. So Wells didn’t get a chance to act opposite the film’s other star, Michael Berryman, who was also Wells’ Mutant Biker co-star in Weird Science.

Vernon Wells Weird Science

Of course, Wells’ Weird Science role was based (not even loosely, really) upon his first feature film role as psychotic, unchained Wez in fellow Australian George Miller’s Mad Max sequel. But the proposition of Miller unleashing Wells upon the world scared the hell out of the actor.

“You know what, if I’d had my way, he never would have set me loose,” Wells says. “I really didn’t want to do it, I was scared of it. It terrified me. I mean, all I’d done was television stuff, like very, very small parts … like walk-on, two words/three words things.”

In the late '70s, Wells was starring in a stage play in Melbourne that he “never wanted to do, by the way.” Miller’s girlfriend at the time raved about Wells’ performance, so the director went and saw it. They met up after a night’s performance, though Wells had, “believe it or not,” never seen Mad Max at that point. “We went out, had a cup of coffee, and told dirty stories to each other, and we carried on like a pair of idiots, and he left and went back to Sydney, and I went back to my life directing commercials,” he says. “And I thought, ‘That was interesting, but what was it for?’”

He’d certainly find out.

“We all thought that we were doing this wonderful little film which would be great and big in Asia, because Japan loved the original, and it would probably do great there, but it wouldn’t do anything in America because they really didn’t like the first one. And so we had no aspirations of anything,” Wells explains. “And to see the phenomenon that it became was just mind-blowing. It just took off like a rocket. You’re like, ‘Whoa, this is scary.’ And it’s just one of those things: right place, wrong time, I guess. I was where I should be and couldn’t get away from it.”

Which seems to be the way he felt about Weird Science as well.

“You know, what’s so funny about that is that I didn’t want to do the film … well, I didn’t want to come to America, if I’m being right about it,” he says. “I’d done the character, you know, and at that time in my life and career, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to continue as an actor.” He was far more interested in directing and producing (which he still does with his Eden Studios shingle) at the time.

“What sold me on it was the director, as soon as I found out who was directing it and I’d went and had a look at what he’d done ... Sixteen Candles and all these youth angst movies, I went, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be so much fun,’” Wells says. “I was in amongst all of these twenty-somethings that were going to become major, major, major players in the entertainment field and didn’t even know it.”

Weird Science producer Joel Silver thought Wells would be great for the mustachioed baddie Bennett — whom Wells refers to as “Freddie Mercury on steroids” — in his next film, Commando, starring arguably the biggest actor in the world at the time.   

“The wonderful thing about it was, I was a newbie, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know Arnold Schwarzenegger, I didn’t know any of the other people on the set, so I reacted to them the way you would react to somebody you just met,” Wells says. “So that whole character developed around the fact that I put out the energy and what I needed to them, making sure I could let them know who I was and what I was. And it worked, I mean it just made the character this total A-hole, to be blunt, who had no problems with taking little girls hostage and threatening to cut their throats.”

Alas, Wells’ acting reluctance came back before another one of his definitive roles, but this time it was more a matter of convenience than terror. Wells was in Los Angeles, scheduled to be flying back to Australia the day he got a meeting with Joe Dante to discuss Innerspace. Turns out an unnamed “producer” on the film was keen on Wells for the role of the one-handed, sunglassed, silent baddie Mr. Igoe, as they’d need someone who could act without using the big tools an actor relies on: namely his hands, eyes, and voice.

“And I went, ‘Ugh ... all right,’” Wells says. “So I left for the airport like three hours early, went over to Warner Bros., walked into a room, and there was every actor I’d ever seen on a movie playing a villain in that room. And I went, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”

Dante told Wells more about the role, particularly as this mysterious producer “Steven” (Spielberg, as Wells would later find out) had envisioned it. When it was well past time to go to the airport to catch his flight, Wells got up from the table between them and accidentally put his weight on it.

“As I leaned my weight on it, it tilted, I went down on my back and the top of [the] table slid down on top of me. And Joe Dante stood there and looked at me and went, ‘You know what, I’ve seen people do a lot of things to get a role in a film, but that one takes the cake,'” Wells says, laughing. “I was like totally embarrassed, I thought, ‘That’s it, it’s over, I’m getting out of here!’”

But by the time he landed in Australia, a certified letter was waiting for him telling Wells he got the part in Innerspace. So he turned right around, flew back to America again on the next flight out, and nailed the role.

Now here we are, some 200 credits later, and Wells has no reluctance whatsoever.

“I’m so thankful that I decided to stay as an actor, because it has been the most amazing time of my life, being an actor and doing all the films and projects that I’ve done,” he says. “I mean, back when I was doing the '80s movies — Road Warrior, Weird Science, Inner Space, Commando — all of those movies are classics, they really are in their own way, they’ve gone on to become classic movies of their genre. Which, when you look it, you go, ‘I was in every one of them, how about that.’”

Catch Impact Event, starring Vernon Wells in his 200-somethingth role, now on VOD.