A chat with Michael Ironside, Michael Ironside interview, Hardwired, Top Gun
Michael Ironside

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Bullz-Eye has racked up its fair share of interviews with character actors over the years, but Michael Ironside is surely one of the most recognizable in the bunch. Though it was arguably his role as Jester in “Top Gun” that really kicked him into the familiar-face category, he’s has also appeared in such classic films as “Scanners,” “Total Recall,” “Starship Troopers,” “The Perfect Storm,” “Terminator: Salvation,” and, yes, even “Free Willy.” Ironside’s also gotten a bit of a resurgence of recognition in recent weeks for his role as Ham Tyler in the original “V,” so when Bullz-Eye had a chance to talk with him about his latest film, “Hardwired” (now on DVD), we jumped at the chance to quiz him about some of the aforementioned credits as well as the oft-forgotten ‘80s sci-fi flick, “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.”

Michael Ironside: Hello, Will!

Bullz-Eye: Hello! How are you, sir? It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

MI: I’m good. Thank you very much.

BE: Excellent. Well, I checked out “Hardwired” last night…

MI: Yeah, I still haven’t seen it, so I guess…we probably shot that 18 months ago.

BE: It’s fun. I enjoyed watching it.

MI: Oh, good!

BE: How did you come into the project? Because my first instinct is to think that (director) Ernie Barbarash was a big fan of “Scanners.”

On his role in "Hardwired": "They originally offered me (Val Kilmer's) part, but I passed. I said, 'Nah, I don’t really want to do that.' And then they came back and said, 'Well, take a look at the other character.' I’ve spent most of my career being dangerous, y’know, and having an edge. But playing a curmudgeon…? I worked very hard at making that guy look as dumpy, frumpy, wide, and squat as possible."

MI: I’m not sure. The script was sent to me, and I kind of got enamored with the subject matter, the idea of being victims of corporate control. That idea…it’s like “The Matrix” on steroids, that sort of thing. That people have to be more responsible with their choices. If you want the convenience of the situation, of a certain service, then you’re going to have to give up a certain amount of freedom to get that. I kind of liked that subject matter. Like I said, I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know how it came out, but…the other thing that attracted me was playing a curmudgeon. (Laughs) I think they had originally wanted me to…they were interested in me playing the head of the corporation, but I passed on it. I think they ended up getting Val to play that. Val Kilmer…? Is that correct?

BE: It is.

MI: Okay. How was he? Was he okay?

BE: He was good. He’s a pretty consistent actor, I think.

MI: Yeah, he is. But, anyway, they originally offered me that part, but I passed. I said, “Nah, I don’t really want to do that.“ And then they came back and said, “Well, take a look at the other character.” And I liked the idea of playing somebody who…I mean, I’ve spent most of my career being dangerous, y’know, and having an edge. But playing a curmudgeon…? I worked very hard at making that guy look as dumpy, frumpy, wide, and squat at possible. (Laughs) How did I come across?

BE: I think you nailed it.

MI: (Laughs) So I actually looked dumpy, frumpy, wide, and squat…?

BE: Absolutely. In fact, I think it’s possible that some people might have to do a double take to realize that it’s you. You did pretty well.

Michael IronsideMI: Well, thank you very much. (Laughs) I try to take on roles where…I mean, granted, I’m much older now, and…well, I’m not that much older, but I’m playing more like the father or the uncle of the characters that I use to play. I dunno, I’ve just gotten tired after awhile of sort of hitting the same marks, and trying to investigate the same character territory. It’s interesting, because…I did a small thing for Jennifer Lynch on “Surveillance,” and it was funny playing the same kind of character. I was playing a character that isn’t physically threatening, that doesn’t necessarily have an edge to him, who doesn’t carry that kind of weight on screen. And it’s a nice acting exercise, because I naturally kind of carry a certain amount of physicality with me.

BE: Having brought up “Surveillance,” I interviewed both Jennifer Lynch and Bill Pullman when the film was originally released, and I really loved that movie.

MI: It’s a good film. It was interesting because…Jennifer asked me if I wanted to be a part of it, and I said, “God, if I can kind of hold my place in the cast and not be a physical threat, but at the same time be a bit of a red herring…” I enjoyed that. She’s a very talented young lady. It’s amazing that she survived the debacle over “Boxing Helena” and getting her head handed to her. She just ended up doing a Bollywood murder musical in India… (Laughs) …and I can’t wait to see that!

BE: With “Hardwired,” I didn’t know anything about the film going into it, but the reason I figured that Ernie was a big “Scanners” was that, in the first few minutes of the movie, a guy’s head explodes.

MI: Someone else mentioned that to me. I haven’t seen it yet, though, so I don’t know if it’s an homage to “Scanners” or not. But they’re remaking it, you know. Eli Roth’s doing it. I think it’s Eli Roth. It’s either the “Hostel” guy or the “Saw” guy, but I figure that, either way, we can expect a lot of gore in that one.

(Writer’s note: Actually, it was Darren Lynn Bousman of the “Saw” franchise who had been attached to the “Scanners” remake, but it seems to have been mired in development hell ever since David Goyer submitted his screenplay.)

BE: Have they called you for a cameo yet?

MI: They did, and I passed. I’m not interested. I always feel uncomfortable…like, I remember when I saw…what was the one with Robert DeNiro and Nick Nolte in the Florida Keys? With Jessica Lange?

BE: Oh, “Cape Fear.”

MI: Right. It brought back Robert Mitchum from the original, and…I’d rather not cross those two worlds together, you know? I’d rather have those characters stand on their own side. It’d be like having Julie Harris or Russ Tamblyn or Claire Boone do a small part in “The Haunting” or something. Just leave it alone. And there’s a dignity with those characters that you create. They’re out there in the electronic ether of entertainment, and I feel kind of a responsibility to let them have their peace.

On appearing in remakes of his earlier projects: "I’d rather not cross those two worlds together, you know? I’d rather have those characters stand on their own side. Just leave it alone. There’s a dignity with those characters that you create. They’re out there in the electronic ether of entertainment, and I feel kind of a responsibility to let them have their peace."

BE: So I guess that answers my other question, which was whether or not they’d contacted you about being in the new version of “V.”

MI: There was talk of it earlier, but, again, I wasn’t interested. I liked that character, and I left the show so that I could do “Top Gun” and stuff like that. I took the opportunity to get out of the original “V” because it was starting to get routine and mundane. I liked Ham Tyler, though, and I liked the fact that I got to choose where he was going at the end. I sent him to Chicago. (Laughs) But, no, I’m not interested in reprising roles like that…unless it’s some sort of historical character, but I’ve never really gotten the opportunity to play one of those. How is the new “V,” by the way? Have you seen it yet?

BE: I’ve seen the pilot, and I enjoyed it. I mean, I went in with high hopes, anyway, just because special effects have come so far since the original.

MI: Oh, God, yeah. We were dealing with puppets and mechanical stuff. It was a bit kitschy. But, you know, I did a film earlier this year called “TheJazzman” where I worked with one of the actresses who was going to be on “V” afterwards. Is it…Vandervoort? Laura Vandervoort, I think. A very good-looking blonde young lady, anyway. She kind of gushed and laughed and said that she was doing “V,” but then she that she’d watched it when she was a kid, so I didn’t know whether to hug her or not. (Laughs)

BE: Well, you’ll probably have the same reaction now, then, because when *I* was a kid, I had a real soft spot for “Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.”

MI: Oh, that was fun. God, that was a lot of fun. I think that was Molly Ringwald’s second film. She’d just done “Tempest,” and then she came and did that. Yeah, we actually shot that in 3D.

BE: I’d forgotten that!

Michael IronsideMI: Yeah, that was a 3D film. When it got delivered to home video, it was in a flat-screen format, but it was originally done in the 3D process. That’s another one that’s really kitschy. But that was with Rob Burman doing the make-up. The Burman boys. It was four and half hours of make-up every day!

BE: I’m sure that was a blast.

MI: You know, it was, actually. You get real close to the people that you’re working with when you share something like that.

BE: You were in “Terminator: Salvation” with Christian Bale, but you were also in “The Machinist” with him, which is a really underrated film.

MI: Yeah, I like “The Machinist.” I think we all went to that because of the script.

BE: What were your thoughts on the “Terminator” film, as far as how it turned out?

MI: I haven’t seen it!

BE: Oh, really? Well, how was it to work on?

MI: It was great to work on. It’s a big, sprawling picture, and I played a really colorful character. I know when I went in to do some of the voice looping and stuff like that that some of the scenes had been changed and cut up, so I presume part of the work has changed, but I have no negative memories. It was fun to work with Christian again, and it was fun to work with McG. He has a lot of energy and a lot of technical ability that makes you feel safe within all that technology and with all that blue screen stuff. We had a pretty good time. But I was only on the film for…they were shooting for something like five or six months, but I was only there for three weeks, so that’s all I can speak to. (Laughs)

BE: What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

"One of the young production assistants (on 'Terminator: Salvation') stepped over to my chair and said, 'Mr. Ironside, are you any relation to the Ironside who was in ‘Top Gun’?' And I said, 'I am, yes.' And she grinned and said, 'I knew it! Talent must run in your family!'"

MI: Hmmm. Well, I don’t know. That’s a tough question. Probably…Jesus, I think maybe “Starship Troopers.” When we did that, it was meant to be a satire and to take a shot at totalitarianism, the idea that…I know that when I asked Paul (Verhoeven), “Why are you doing this, it’s such a right-wing book,” he said that if he stood on a soapbox and told the religious right that their way of doing things was unnurturing, they wouldn’t hear him. “So I’m going to create a perfect fascist world,” he said, “but it’s only good for killing bugs.” And I remember liking that. So we set off to do a satire based on Heinlein’s book, a satirical look at totalitarianism, and a lot of people didn’t get that. They thought it was anti-Semitic, they thought…I mean, I was, like, “God, don’t journalists do their homework anymore?” Paul comes from a place that was ravaged by the Nazis – the Netherlands – and…well, they just missed the point. A lot of the press, a lot of people. It’s one of those films…I looked at it again recently, because my daughter wanted to see it. I have a 10-year-old, so we looked at it together, and I thought, “God, it still stands up.” It’s very sarcastic, it’s very satirical, and I actually enjoyed it. I think it’s something that’ll be revisited maybe ten years down the line, and people will go, “Oh, my God.” So that’s one of them, I guess.

BE: Lastly, how do you feel about viewed as kind of a “cult actor”? Because you’ve definitely been in a lot of movies that didn’t necessarily set the box office on fire, but they have huge cults.

MI: Geez, you know, I don’t know if I am a cult actor. I think I’m just…I’m just grateful to be viewed in any situation, no matter what it’s called. (Laughs) I remember someone referring to me in an article somewhere as “an old B-movie legend,” and I felt like Ray Milland, for fuck’s sake. I mean, this was seven or eight years ago. I’m, like, my God, this guy really has to get out of his basement, you know? But I don’t know. In an industry that often can take people and throw them aside, and things often don’t have too much longevity, I’ve been at it for over thirty-some odd years now, and I’m very grateful for that. I’ll tell you a nice story that happened on “Terminator: Salvation.” I was sitting in Video Village with all of the directors and producers, and we’re waiting for a scene to be set up, and while it was being lit, one of the young production assistants who’s standing there with her headphones, she stepped over to my chair and said, “Mr. Ironside, are you any relation to the Ironside who was in ‘Top Gun’?” And I heard all of the producers’ and directors’ chairs kind of creak behind me, because they got uncomfortable, wondering how I’d react to this. And I said, “I am, yes.” And she grinned and said, “I knew it!” I said, “You did?” She said, “Yes! Talent must run in your family!" And she walked away. And all of the producers and directors kind of looked at me uncertainly, and I said, “What are you guys so uncomfortable for? That’s an incredible compliment. I do look like the father of that guy, for Christ’s sake! The fact that she doesn’t recognize that that’s how I looked 25 years ago, the fact that she thought that these are two guys who have a lineage of talent…I think that’s an amazing compliment." And she was so enthusiastic, too. I mean, it was, like, “My God, talent must just run in your family!” (Laughs) So, anyway, I thought that was pretty cool.

BE: (Laughs) That’s awesome. Well, Michael, it’s really been a pleasure talking to you.

MI: And what a great way to end the interview, huh? (Laughs) I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone in the press that story before, but I think it’s pretty cool.

BE: Most definitely. Thanks again, Michael.

MI: You, too, Will. You take care.

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