The legendary Lance Henriksen began his career in the New York theatre scene, while picking up small movie roles in the likes of Dog Day Afternoon and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then he starred in a little B-picture called Piranha II: The Spawning, directed by a very young James Cameron. Cameron cast him in his two movies – The Terminator and Aliens – and suddenly Henriksen was a name in genre pictures.
Today his work encompasses over 200 movies, and through good films and bad, his presence is always a welcome one. A number of them have become genre favorites, including Near Dark (directed by future Oscar Winner Kathryn Bigelow), Hard Target (the English-language debut of John Woo), and Pumpkinhead (the directorial debut of effects legend Stan Winston). His latest film is Stung, about a garden party interrupted by giant marauding wasps, and the veteran has taken its self-knowing tone completely to heart. In an exclusive interview with the Sci-Fi Movie Page, he talked about his career, the movie, and how little directors have a way of turning into big ones.
Question: What was it about Stung that made it so appealing?
Lance Henriksen: They sent me a sizzle scene, and I saw it, and I looked at the script, and I said, “this could really be a lot of fun.” They were taking the right attitude towards it, and when we started shooting, it became apparent that the whole cast and crew just got what they wanted to do with it.
Q: You’ve been in this game a long time. Has the approach to smaller films like this, genre films, changed at all in the intervening time?
LH: The industry has changed completely. I’ve talked to a lot of friends of mine who have been around for a very long time and been on a lot of big movies. Things change, in a big way, and when they do, you have one of two options. You can stay in your nest and wait for the big movies, or you can work. I’m an actor. I like to get up in the morning and act, and so I look for the best work I can at the time.
The thing that hasn’t changed much is looking at scripts and looking for potential. If you see potential there, then it becomes a lot more appealing. With Stung, that potential was in Benny Diez, the director, who basically got all of his buddies together from film school to make this movie. They planned this out carefully, and he found those moments that you look for in movies like this. They overcame every obstacle. They met every challenge. Benny would say that he was making it for the audience, not the producers. He could see the audience and he spoke to them. You don’t see that every day.
Q: Back in the day, they used practical effects a lot more, and that’s not really the case today. Does that change your approach as an actor?
LH: Not really. It can be nice sometimes to have something practical to work against, but when I was acting in New York, we never had any money to put together a production. And when any production was up and running, you went with what you had. It was often an empty stage painted black, because that was the cheapest paint you could buy, and you put a chair up and you started the play. Whether it’s that or green screen, it’s the same thing. You still have to do the same work.
When you see the movie up onscreen, you can tell when the effects have taken over. When they become the important thing. Then the movie becomes a producer’s medium. People need to see characters they can relate to, and you get that with a good script and a strong connection between the director and his cast. We got that on Stung. Both with the director and with Adam Aresty, who wrote the script. He was on the set almost every day, and if any of us had an idea about the way something had to go, we could talk it over with him. We worked it out, and it worked out well. The communication levels were just so good. You get that kind of intimacy in lower budget productions. I like that kind of intimacy.
Q: This film is certainly quite arch and knowing. Does that kind of subtle satire affect the way you approach your character?
LH: No it doesn’t. I’m fed up with politicians, like a lot of people are. I’ve spent a lifetime listening to their BS, and I wanted to take the shine off the apple: I wanted to play a guy who was a loser. He’s still grunting along, like a lot of them do. Getting reelected on sheer inertia because people are lazy and want to go with the devil they know. So I decided to play this guy as an alcoholic who’s at this party to raise some money if he can. That gave me an opening to really have fun with it. Then, as people say, you play it straight and let the comedy take care of itself. I believed in this character, and this character’s shortcomings, enough to trust that that would happen. I dressed a certain way, and grew that stupid little mustache. You look ridiculous, but this character doesn’t think so. You find your way in through something like that, and you’re set.
Q: How useful do you find those trappings in building the character? The costumes and the make-up?
LH: Extremely useful. Always. I asked for a very specific watch for this character. Gaudy and big as life. You never see it in the movie, but it really puts you in the right frame of mind. A good filmmaking environment helps that happen.
Q: You’ve spoken very warmly about the shooting environment here and the filmmakers’ dedication. How does that compare with someone like James Cameron? You worked with him when he was the guy with no money and a dream.
LH: [Laughs]. Yeah, we were down there in Jamaica for this movie called Piranha II. We hate talking about this movie because of the position we were put in to do it. We had about $300,000, and that was it. But Jim gave it his all. He was up in his room making rubber fishes and the crew was down in the parking lot making miniatures. And they had no wardrobe for me. I bought my wardrobe off a waiter, and I had these “Save the Whales” pins in my suitcase, so I put one of those on to help find the character. I had to carve the butt of my gun out of wood. They wouldn’t let us have guns on the set, so I had to carve my own prop. I was playing a harbor cop, and I had never driven a boat before I got there. Those were the challenges we had. But we got through it. We got through it and made the movie, and some of the things we picked up there made the next couple of movies a lot better. We learned to be relentless. You don’t get second takes in a low-budget film. You don’t get a chance to go back and do it again. You have to be on your game. And I think that those lessons helped The Terminator become what it became.
Q: Did you feel any of that energy here?
LH: I did, though obviously it was Benny’s energy, not Jim’s. My adventure in life is the people I work with. When I get on set, I meet a whole bunch of new acquaintances. And you feel their energy and you feel what they’re trying to do. I come on a film and I just want to do the best I can and to contribute as much as I can. Especially on a low-budget film. These guys are letting it all hang out. They’re putting it on the line. If you have a billion dollars and you make a movie, buddy, it better be good. But that’s the limit of the risk. If you’re doing a low-budget film, and you’ve maxed out your card and you have a wife and kids to take care of, that’s a risk of an entirely different kind. That’s putting your money where your mouth is. And I have nothing but respect for that.