Michael Biehn Interview
Conducted by Simon Bland
Michael Biehn needs little in the way of introduction. Best known for his roles as Kyle Reese in The Terminator, Corporal Hicks in Aliens and Lt. Coffey in The Abyss, he has a career spanning over thirty years. Most recently he played the key role of Mickey in Xavier Gens' acclaimed post-apocalyptic chiller, The Divide. Michael was kind enough to sit down with HorrorTalk to chat about his experiences during filming.
Simon Bland: I’m aware that when you read the script [for The Divide] you wanted to change your character slightly. What was it that you wanted to change?
SB: So you were allowed to make up your own scenes?
MB: The movie was shot linearly - they wanted to shoot it in sequence so the script was always evolving. Things were constantly changing because during the entire process of making the movie we were still continuing to re-write the script and do improvisations. So what would happen a lot of times is you would come in to work one day and you’d think you were doing a scene that you thought was important to your character and while you were doing that scene somebody else was doing something else that wasn’t even scripted, you know, just improvising and then the camera would kind of drift over to that person which would cause a lot of angst amongst the actors.
SB: How did that affect the atmosphere on set?
MB: The actors started turning on each other because they felt they were loosing screen time to the people who were better able at doing improvisations and not just sticking to a script. You know, when you take somebody like me and Rosanne Arquette, Courtney B. Vance, Michael Eklund and you throw in a big chunk of meat into the middle of the arena and say ‘Go get it, whatever you get’s going to be in the movie,’ it gets pretty gnarly. So there was a lot of tension on the set, a lot of fighting on the set and the producers were always being called down. It was very, very intense.
SB: How was it working with such a diverse cast?
MB: Milo [Ventimiglia] and Michael were on diets, they were all on diets but Michael and Milo really went for it, both of them I think were very good actually. 35 years in the business I think it might be the best ensemble cast I’ve ever worked with. I was in Tombstone but that movie didn’t give people like Billy Bob Thornton a chance to show what he can really do, so I just thought from an acting stand point that everybody was spot on and there was a lot of it that I think was fuelled by anger and jealousy and survival of the fittest as far as your character went and I think Xavier planned that right from the very beginning. I think he knew what he was doing he just kind of threw us into this mish-mash and said ‘I’ll put on screen whatever I find most interesting’ so everyone was clawing away for their piece of character.
SB: Was it quite liberating to be able to make your own creative decisions?
MB: Yes, it was the most liberating movie I’ll ever be on, I’m sure. I fought many times with Milo and a couple of the other actors. There’s never, ever, ever been a movie like this before – first we shot it chronologically so the movie would start in one place and it would move off to where the next day's work wasn’t what you thought it was going to be and that day's work would turn the third day's work into something else. We knew we had to get somebody out at the end of the movie, but in between it zigzagged all over the place, it didn’t follow a linear script line at all, it just went crazy. People were just doing things off the cuff and during other people’s scenes and from an acting stand point it was as liberating as any movie I’ve ever worked on or will work on.
SB: How different was it from some of the other sets you’ve been on?
MB: I’m used to working with guys like Cameron and Robert Rodriguez and so on and so forth, who are great writers in their own right and if you want to change you really have to have some good reasons to come up and say ‘Jim, what do you think about this idea or that idea,’ and when you work in television over here in the United States you can hardly change a word without the producer on set not knowing if you can do it or not, for him making a call to the network and the network trying to make a decision and by the time they make a decision you’ve chopped the scene. So yes, this was without a doubt the most liberating feature I’ve ever been on. It was like taking eight actors, putting them in a room and saying ‘Do anything you want, what would your character do under these circumstances?’
SB: Do you think all the tension worked out for the best? Was it very much controlled chaos?
MB: Oh, without a doubt. There was pure hatred on that set. Everybody talks about ‘Ooh Jim Cameron’s so tough!’ or ‘Ooh Michael Bay’s so tough!’ and ‘Ooh Billy Friedkin’s so tough!’ and ‘I hear you’ve worked with Val Kilmer and he’s tough,’ but I’ve never been on a set before that had so much tension. Producers were called down to the set two or three times a day, fights were breaking out, it almost became physical at times, it was real, real, real angry people and very, very hostile feelings towards each other. It kind of broke into camps where one camp protected their own and the other camp protected their own and if you watch the movie you can see who and where those camps were but it was a very, very gnarly experience. Again like I said I think it was something that Xavier planned from the very beginning, but he definitely put the actors in a position right off the bat where they were going to be fighting for screen time and therefore jealous of people who were stealing their screen time and stuff.
SB: Your character Mickey seems very much at ease in this tension. Do you think the off-screen tension helped to form your portrayal of his character?
MB: Well the thing about Mickey is I think he was above all this. I think that the back story on Mickey that we get glimpses of was that he was a first responder at 9/11, lost all of his guys and he was the only survivor and maybe went through post-traumatic stress disorder, started drinking, lost his wife, lost his family, turned into this paranoid racist who built this bunker in case this ever happened again. The thing that happened with Mickey which was interesting was, because of this process that Xavier threw us into, Mickey really was the antagonist of the movie all the way through. My character really is a character who’s kind of neutral. He hates everybody so I was not part of the tension on the set, I was always kind of in the middle and if it got too nasty, Michael Biehn as the person would say ‘Okay lets slow down a little bit here’ but my character ended up being the only character I think in the movie that planted a little slither of the humanity that he lost. Everybody in the movie loses their humanity. Everybody. And my character is one who didn’t have any humanity to start off with but ends up with a little bit. It was not written that way at all. None of the 9/11 stuff was in there, he was just a prick right from the very beginning, a racist prick, cocksucker. He was just a real asshole and it ended up just being that way because of all the different rehearsals and improvisations and it’s where the story took us.
SB: There are a lot of people online wanting you to appear in The Expendables, would that be something you’d consider?
MB: Sure, I’d have to see the script. I’d be interested in just about anything until I read a script and when I read a script if its good then yeah sure I’d be interested in doing The Expendables. I just like acting and so I’m interested in just about anything that makes good sense and I saw the way Stallone on the Making Of - just how much passion he had for The Expendables so I could tell how badly he wanted to make that movie good and I would like to try to help a guy like that make a movie that he’s working on better because I was just blown away by how hard he had to work to get that first one done.
SB: Michael, thank you for your time.
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