Every year as part of their Festival of Fear, Rue Morgue screens an iconic horror movie accompanied by a special guest. This year, we were treated to a screening of what may be the perfect vampire film, Near Dark, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, with Lance Henriksen (who plays Jesse Hooker) in attendance.
Near Dark is one of those movies that, forgive the cliché, truly improves with age, much like the vampires it portrays. It is even more relevant now than it was when it was originally released in 1987. Back then it was not exactly box office gold, although it has grown in both critical and cult status since.
Having just witnessed Lance Henriksen on screen as the somewhat terrifying Jesse Hooker, it’s a bit of a shock to see him ascend the stage with short grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He shows off his forearm tattoos in an attempt to look tough and then breaks into a grin and laughter at the attempt.
When emcee Richard Crouse starts asking questions, we hear Henriksen’s unmistakable, deep, gravelly voice and there is no doubt that the man before us is the same who has inhabited so many iconic, and frequently chilling, characters: Bishop in Aliens, Ed Harley in Pumpkinhead, and Frank Black in the much-cherished TV series Millennium
Lance Henriksen is a natural and gifted storyteller, though the word “raconteur” seems far more appropriate. Crouse pulls selected quotes and stories from Henriksen’s recently published biography Not Bad For A Human and asks him to elaborate on them, which he does at length, frequently spinning off into tangents, such as when Crouse asks him about a commercial voice-over gig he turned down early in his career. The pay was $50,000 but Henriksen claims he didn’t want to do multiple takes because he just didn’t want to hear his own voice that much. He interrupts himself and stands up to tell another story about his life, then looks over at Crouse: “I’ll just rattle on for a second.” The crowd laughs.
Although film fans may find Lance Henriksen creepy on screen, he’s utterly charming and witty in person. Still, there is that edge, like when he lowers his voice an octave to emphasize a point, or responds with a deadpan expression before smiling and laughing. Or when towards the end of the night, a patron got up to exit and Henriksen pointed him out: “”Don’t leave. I’m coming up to the best shit yet. God, I hate it when people walk out. Anything I can do for you? Would you like some wine?” The crowd cracks up and Crouse tries to assuage his fears: “I think he’s coming back.” Henriksen turns to call his bluff: “No, he’s not, you’re lying to me.” Crouse: “I’ve never lied to you before, and I won’t start now.” It’s like some sort of dark-humored stand up routine with Crouse as the unwitting straight man.
Where was I? Oh yes, Lance Henriksen’s stories . . . even though he tells a lot of them, he’s no gossip hound; he doesn’t name names, saying that he has “no axes to grind.” In fact, he admits, “everything that happens for real, I put in a movie.” As the discussion of Near Dark eventually reveals, he always creates a background reality for his characters.
It is not just his training as a Method actor that prompts this; it’s Henriksen’s self-identification as a “primitive.” “You know in your heart if you’re a primitive or not,” he states. He tells us that he goes to great lengths to convince himself that he has the intelligence, strength, and creativity to play a certain role because he has neither education nor trust. “The script only gives you the narrative and the words; they don’t tell you how to do it,” he reminds the audience. He needs that information to play the character so he’s not “just acting.”
Many of us were surprised by the revelation that despite his appearance in over 150 movies since the early ’70s (and years of theater, including Broadway productions), Lance Henriksen did not learn to read or write until he was 30 years old. “Why do you have to do something that you have no need for at the time?” he queries, then pauses. “That’s my agent [in the audience] laughing.” He continues, “Nobody ever asks an artist, ‘Why did you cut your ear off?’ No one asks, they just ARE.” In fact, Henriksen started off designing theater sets. He’s also created giant mural paintings and has been making pottery for decades now. “There are people who think in pictures,” he says, “and people who think in words . . .” Henriksen says he just wanted to BE the characters.
And although he did graduate from the Actors Studio (in his thirties), Crouse wants to know if the years Henriksen spent on the road were another kind of acting school. “I’ve worked with as many people as are in this room . . . and every one of them gave me something. I’m influenced by mentors on all levels.”
Could one of those mentors have been James Cameron? Henriksen tells the tale of a “very sophisticated writer” who interviewed him and asked how James Cameron has changed since Titanic and Avatar (Henriksen appeared in Cameron’s much-lambasted Piranha II in 1981). “Jim Cameron was Jim Cameron when I met him. He’s the same guy; he’s just got more money and more opportunity to express himself [now].” Henriksen continues: “We were back in Jamaica with a $300,000 budget [filming Piranha II] and [Cameron]’s up in his hotel room making rubber fish because they didn’t give us enough money . . . and then [we were] in the parking lot making models and stuff to blow up.” However, he is quick to add that, “he paid me to do that. I wasn’t his friend. Yet.” Then he laughs.
Crouse tells the story of how Canadian director David Cronenberg was offered to direct Flashdance and turned it down saying it would’ve been a huge failure. What if Henriksen had played the title role in The Terminator as James Cameron originally envisioned? “It would have been a huge failure,” quips Henriksen. “Arnold [Schwarzenegger] was a big bulldozer; he was perfect for the role. If you’re gonna have a giant . . . anything to do with hydraulics, Arnold’s perfect.” He pauses. “Look at what he did as a governor.” The audience bursts into laughter.
He goes off on a brief tangent about California being the most taxed state on the planet but when Crouse asks him why he stays there, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Arnold.” And the audience erupts into laughter again. Henriksen shows more of his dark side when he refuses to talk about politics, saying he gets “vicious.” Based on his Sea Shepherd T-shirt, though, I’d actually love to hear more of his political views.
A film Henriksen actually did appear in, though just barely, was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “I was the fart-catcher,” he tells everyone, then elaborates: “You know the guy with the big part who goes (here he adopts a phony ‘actor’ voice and points out into the distance), ‘So, is that the sun setting?’” Then he mimes holding something up with his arms and puts on a goofy smile and subservient posture: “And I go, ‘Oh shit, yeah!’ And I catch the fart. ‘Oh, that’s a great line, and you’re so great’.” He blows a raspberry. “Oh, now I caught it.”
But there’s more to the story. “I was making scale plus ten for six months which is a lot of money, and I learned how to fly. My rationale was this character would know how to fly.” He laughs. “It’s a good excuse, even for the IRS.” He drops into a “serious” voice: “My character needed to know how to fly.” Then he adds, “I was going to jump out of the plane in a parachute and Spielberg sent people over there and said, ‘Lanc,e you’ve gone way over the limit. You know, flying is okay, but jumping out of a plane . . . you know, we might need you’.” Beat. “They never did . . . but they thought they might.”
So what about Near Dark? Henriksen praises director Kathryn Bigelow as “matriarchal,” detailing the tale of seeing her at an early screening of her 2008 film The Hurt Locker. “It was years and years ago that we did [Near Dark] and she still looked the same. I asked her, ‘Are you a vampire?’ and she just smiled. And I said, Ohhhh shit . . . ”
Henriksen and fellow actor Bill Paxton (who played Severen in the movie) were “obsessed” with where their characters came from. Henriksen explained the backstory he developed for Jesse Hooker: he was in the Southern Navy hundreds of years prior and after losing a battle at sea, he and the survivors drifted through the marshes until harpies started feeding on the dying. He didn’t call Jesse, Severen, or the other characters “vampires,” because “you can’t play a vampire; you only play a nocturnal nomad that is thinning the herd. . . ” At another point he says, “I hate Twilight, man” and the crowd applauds and cheers. Yet he praises 30 Days of Night, saying, “it tested my masculinity.”
Back to Near Dark: before they started filming, Henriksen picked up a hitchhiker who, at about 220 pounds, was much bigger than he was. “I said to him (adopts creepy Jesse Hooker voice), ‘Roll me a cigarette’.” So he rolls the cigarette and he gives it to me, but it looked like shit so I threw it out the window, ‘What the fuck is that?’
“And he’s looking at me like (warbly voice), ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Try it again. Put some mood music on.’ I’m ordering him all over the fucking place. . . . And I said, ‘What kinda music is that? It’s shit, turn that shit off.’ I take one puff and I go (spits), ‘Oh fuck this.’ He’s so nervous because of my staring at him . . . like he was a meal . . . ‘I wonder if I should take his face, his ear, what do I do? Do I rip his throat out?’ You know all those thoughts were going through my head, but in an artistic way.” Everyone laughs hysterically.
When they finally approached some lights, the hitchhiker pointed them out and said, “That’s where I get out. That’s where I’m going.” So they pulled over and there was no one around. Feeling bad, Henriksen asked him why he was hitchhiking and he replied, “Well, I’m broke.” Henriksen: “I took all the money I had in my left pocket (I had more in my right pocket) and gave him the money . . . I felt so guilty, for torturing this bastard for probably 70 miles, 70 miles of real Jesse Hooker horseshit. And so that was my voyage to go to work.”
At the end of the night, Lance Henriksen addressed us all and said, “I’m grateful that you saw [Near Dark] and enjoyed it. Let’s leave each other wanting.” Based on his discussion of a potential Near Dark prequel in comic form, we are definitely wanting more. According to him, Dark Horse asked him to write a comic after several comic artists contributed illustrations to Not Bad For A Human. Since he and Bill Paxton started writing a prequel script “the minute we finished shooting” Near Dark because they were “so enamored with each other and the movie,” this could be excellent. Henriksen says he has asked Kathryn Bigelow for her blessing.
I’ve tried to give a taste of what it was like to watch and listen to Lance Henriksen tell stories, but it’s hard to capture it in words on a computer screen, so there is much I’ve omitted. You can watch some clips of the event on YouTube here (thank you Vandelay77!), but I’m going to guess it’s also worth it to check out Not Bad For A Human.
The evening could be summed up, however, by Richard Crouse’s opening quote from the book, which was Henriksen’s assessment of his decision to turn down that $50,000 voice over job. “They probably thought, ‘This guy is an eccentric fuck.’ And they were right.”
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