Canadian-born actor Michael Ironside has been making movies since 1977, and has appeared in some of sci-fi's finest films.
Ironside currently stars in the independent sci-fi/horror hybrid Extraterrestrial, which follows a group of young friends whose weekend at a secluded cabin in the woods turns into a battle with the survivors of a crashed alien spacecraft. In the film, written and directed by Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz (known as the Vicious Brothers) Ironside plays Travis, a local whose experiences in Vietnam and with various chemicals have rendered him all too susceptible to conspiracy theories about alien invasions, men in black and government cover-ups -- which, in this case, turn out to be true.
Ironside, the quintessential character actor, has shown up in lots of popular films, like Top Gun and The Perfect Storm, but his sci-fi output includes classics like Scanners (1981), Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997). He's done his share of top-shelf titles and B-list pictures, but his no-nonsense demeanor is always a welcome and recognizable presence. Blastr got Ironside on the phone to chat about his latest work and share some tales from some of his key genre movies.
Let’s talk about Extraterrestrial a bit to start off. What was it that kind of grabbed you about this character and about this movie?
Well, I actually read it two or three times when they sent it to me the first time. And I thought wow, if they do this correctly, it could be a lot of fun. If they don’t, it wouldn’t. It’s basically the teenagers go to the cottage, broken family, the usual fare. And instead of like the serial killer or the thing that goes bump in the night it turns out to be an alien invasion. And it has almost every kind of B-movie cliché in it. But it’s so well written, so tightly written, I thought if they do it well it could be a lot of fun. And they did. I remember talking to them, and they really had their crap together, you know, the Vicious Brothers, as they call themselves.
Is that always a concern, especially when you’re going into an independent production and the filmmakers are not people you’re familiar with, that you’re going to walk in there and things are not going to be together?
Look, I’ve done like a couple hundred films over the years, and this is one of about three during that time period I could have done. I don’t mind working with new people. It’s more fun. I also come with a certain amount of expertise or track record or experience that can usually be of service. But I want a fresh take on telling a story. And Stuart and Colin had that. They really did. I’d never worked with two directors before, so that was a bit of a curiosity for me. And they had their stuff down. They were aficionados. The expertise and the kind of tightness in their writing was also in their filmmaking and their choices. I just had a wonderful time. I don’t usually do press on films, but I really wanted to come out and support this one.
Your character, Travis, is very interesting. He strikes me as being a guy who’s in the right place but at the wrong time -- he’s already conspiracy-minded and open to these possibilities but at the same time he kind of gets screwed by being there.
He’s kind of like a metaphor for a whole generation of these people. He’s paranoid, into conspiracy theories, smokes way too much medical marijuana, grows way too much medical marijuana, and just happens to be correct in this situation. It’s like his nightmare and his dreams come true. He really was a fun character.
Is it fun to kind of cut loose with a guy who’s in a, shall we say, heightened mental state and just take him as far as you can?
Well, I try to make him real. I think most of the guys I do, I try to make as real as possible. I actually had a friend who was an ex-Vietnam vet who lived in the Santa Monica Mountains for a while, and he kind of lost his mind. I went up and saw him a couple of times and tried to talk him out of the woods. I kind of based Travis on him, because he wasn’t so much physically threatening as completely incapable of having a bonded relationship with another human being. I took that to their writing, and it really worked.
Any particularly memorable moments from the shoot that stand out to you?
I got as sick as a dog the first day. When the character gets introduced he has this gas mask on. And it was a circa World War II gas mask I think they picked up in some Army surplus store. They went and washed it before they gave it to me just before I put it on, but I think that woke up all this mold and fungus that was in it, because I wore it for over four hours and started coughing. By the next day I had like a 104 temperature and a lung infection. And it was kind of cool, because I thought, "OK, let’s see how this is going to affect the character." We did the dope-smoking scene the next day where he was rolling the joint and talking about 'Nam and stuff like that. That’s the scene they shot with me having a 103 or 104 temperature. I thought it came off pretty good!
I read that you grew up reading science fiction, which makes sense given a lot of roles that you’ve done.
Well, I don’t know if it ties in. I am a sci-fi fan or aficionado. I mean, they’re just a modern western, is what they really are in a lot of ways, you know. I think somebody once said to me there’s only five or six movie scripts out there, or storylines, and four of them are westerns. That’s pretty true. But yeah, my grandfather was part of that original sci-fi group that involved people like [Robert] Bloch and [Robert] Heinlein and those guys. When they weren’t publishing legitimately within the legitimate press, they had their own little sci-fi club. My granddad, Sidney Ironside, he was an electrical and chemical engineer back in the 1920s, and he knew all these guys from university and writing and stuff. And they would send him their script, their galleys, so that he would go through it and see if he could find any technical mistakes. I read Dune, for example, out of a shoebox. Herbert had sent it to my grandfather, and written on the front was "Hey, have a look at this and see if you can find any bugaboos."
So, I had that connection with my grandfather, who kind of shepherded it. My mom and my dad read, but my dad worked a lot, and my grandfather was always around, so I kind of leaned toward my grandfather, and he was very much into sci-fi. He always said, "How can you look up there at the stars every night and be arrogant enough to think that you’re the only one there?" That kind of stuck, and that just opened my mind and allowed me to consider other things and other storylines.
I did want to ask you about some of your previous science fiction films, starting with Scanners.
Scanners was David Cronenberg. Incredible writer. Writes this outlandish material but makes it very safe for the actors on set. Do you know what I mean? He creates kind of a dome of possibility and work and safety, so it allows you to engage with and consider some of these outrageous things that he comes up with. I think that’s why actors want to work with him again and again -- people like Viggo and Jeremy Irons. Because when you’re working with somebody like David, you feel safe.
You have two classic scenes in that -- the exploding head and the scanner battle at the end, which involved a lot of makeup effects.
Yeah, those was the first bladders, you know, those things that make you look like something’s crawling under your skin. That was Dick Smith. He had been putting stuff together for Altered States, which I think had a shutdown. They had a personnel problem, they shut down, and he came up and worked on our film for about a month at the end. And actually Dick Smith constructed the whole end of Scanners, from the moment the fight between the two brothers starts. That was originally shot the day before Christmas. And then we reshot it in May, four or five months later, and Dick Smith and David Cronenberg came up with that ending based on Dick’s ability to create these special-effect makeups.
What do you remember about Total Recall?
That’s one of my favorite films, because of the people I met. I have friends that I met on that film, crew and technical people, that are friends of mine to this day. It was just this incredible collection of people that Paul Verhoeven gets to work with him. And I got to see them again on Starship Troopers, pretty much the same group of people. Paul Verhoeven is an extremely deft and talented storyteller -- once you work with somebody like that, you want to work with them again, because your talents are appreciated, your craft is appreciated. He puts demands on you. He doesn’t make it easy. Paul works very hard, and he demands that everyone around him work as hard as he does. But when you see the fruit of that kind of labor, you want to work with that person again.
One of my favorite roles of yours is Rasczak, the history teacher turned squadron commander in Starship Troopers, also directed by Verhoeven.
When I first got that script and went to the meeting, I said, "I've got to ask you, what are you going to do with this?" And Paul said, "Are you questioning me?" He meant like, "Why are you asking that?" I said, "Well, it’s a super right-wing piece of material," which it was, you know. It was very paranoid. It was based on the idea of what happens if these Communists take over the world, and it had a whole very right-wing kind of feel about it. So I said, "What are you going to do with this?" He said, "Look, if I stood on a soapbox and told everyone in the world right now that their right-wing and fascist way of looking at things doesn’t work, nobody would listen to me. So I’m going to create a perfect world where everyone’s beautiful. It has the best technology, but it’s only good for killing bugs." And I laughed and I said, "I’m in."
It’s an amazing, amazing political satire. I’m amazed at how many people look at it now and come to me and say, "Oh my God, it’s a political satire." It was interesting, because when it first came out it got a huge reaction. I remember on the press junket for it, somebody asked me if Paul was a Nazi. And I went, "Do you people do your research?" He was raised in German-occupied Europe –- Belgium and Holland and places like that. He’s a war rat. I mean, how could you ask that? All they’d seen is the stormtrooper-like uniforms of the officers and they all said, "Oh my God, is he a mouthpiece for right-wing politics?" I went, "Oh my God."
Before they pull you away, what do you remember about doing Terminator Salvation?
When I got the phone call from the producers, I had been shingling my brother’s barn up in Ontario, Canada. And I fell off the barn and had landed on my back and lost the use of my legs. When they picked me up and put me on a slab of wood to take me to the hospital, the feeling in my legs came back. I was in the back of a Ford Explorer lying on a 2 x 12 when the phone call came in. It was my manager, David Ginsberg, and one of the producers on the film. And they said, "Hello, Michael, we’re so happy to invite you. We’re gonna do this film, and we want you to be on it." And I went, "Great!" Meanwhile I didn’t know whether I’d broken my back and whether I’d be able to walk or not. So, I had never done this before, but I went, "Well, that’s wonderful [makes phone interference sound], I’ll call you back," and I hung up. I faked interference. My wife said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I’ve got a job, and I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to walk."
So, I get to the hospital, they did the X-rays and they said, "Yeah, you’ve broken three of your vertebrae." And I said, "What do we do about that?" And he says, "Nothing. We can’t do anything about it. You may have problems lying down and sitting down for the next few months." They gave me some muscle relaxers, sent me back. I called my manager, and I explained what had happened. He said, "You’ve got to be [on the set] in about two weeks. Are you going to be healed up?" So I had this Ford Explorer with these wonderful seats that had back support, and the only thing I felt comfortable in was that car. So I drove to New Mexico, Arizona from northern Ontario, Canada, just because I felt comfortable in the car. I didn’t feel comfortable lying or sitting down. And if you notice, the character I played never sits down. He’s always standing. He wanders around barking at people and stuff like that. But when I got there I remember asking, "Is there any reason for this character to sit down?" I didn’t let anyone know my back was broken while I was doing that.
Here’s something else from that shoot: I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and I did Top Gun about 30 years ago. I was sitting on the set with the producers and the director, and we’re setting up the shot, and they were looking at the replays on the monitor and stuff. And there were all these cute little PA girls running around in short shorts. I think McG [director] likes to have them around on set. So there was this one girl –- I think her name was Emma -- and for like two days she kept looking at me out of the corner of her eye, and she said to me one day, "Can I ask you a question? Are you any relation to the Ironside that was in Top Gun?" And I said, "Yes, I am." She goes, "Damn it, I knew it! Talent must run in your family." And she went walking off very proud of herself. I literally turned and looked to my left and the producers and McG looked horrorstruck -- they were wondering how I was going to react to this. And I said, "What are you guys so upset about? I’m old enough now to be the father of that guy." It was interesting, because I think they thought it was going to be like a slam against my ego or something.
People from different generations see you differently.
God, yeah. I’ve been making films for at least three generations of people. I’m old enough to be the grandfather of the guy that was in Scanners.
Extraterrestrial is out now in theaters and on VOD.