With his gruff voice and bald pate, Michael Ironside has been a stalwart character actor over many decades. With roles ranging from blockbusters to indies, he's managed to instill his brand of gravitas into many a project. From Cronenberg's Scanners to Top Gun and Total Recall, he inhabits his characters in ways that remain iconic, while his work in The Perfect Storm or The Machinist showed off his remarkable range.
His latest project is Turbo Kid, a fun, Mad Max-on-BMX romp. His role as Zeus is certainly over-the-top, yet Ironside manages to take something overtly silly and imbue it with a sense of purpose. His involvement in the film elevates every scene he's in, and while there's plenty of pomp and circumstance, there's an implausible believability to his take on the film's baddie that's to be applauded.
We sat down just before the film's hometown debut at Montreal's Fantasia. Our conversation began with him commenting on, of all things, my Frank Zappa t-Shirt.
Michael Ironside: Zappa. You're going to make me cry.
Yeah, I'm thinking about my daughter. The other day I was upstairs, and she was playing piano. Since she was 5 she's had a lot of classical training. She had this little acoustic a friend of mine gave me -he gave me this Gibson Blueshawk that had seen better days and I got it restrung and rebalanced it. I come home one day and I'm upstairs in the bedroom getting changed and I hear [Zappa's] "Peaches en Regalia" on the fucking piano; I come down, and she's got her iPhone up and she's playing along. I just started crying. Two days later, I'm in the garage and as I come out, I pass the piano and she's playing Brubeck's Rhonda LaTurk. I sat down, I'm going out of my fucking mind here, this is my childhood, you know what I mean?
So anyway, yeah, Zappa, Frank, who died of prostate cancer, which I survived.
Because you got checked.
And he didn't.
One of his great quotes is "always get a second opinion." Let's talk about TURBO KID because otherwise, I'm just going to be talking to you about TOP GUN all day.
I usually don't support films unless I care about them, and I do care about this. I was with [producer] Claudio Luca who we did Last Chapter 1 and 2 with. We were at the Toronto Film Festival - I had flown into town, I had been off somewhere, and he said I've got to go to this Quebec finance meeting party. I went over there and I met the Turbo Kid directors there. It was one of those circumstantial things as I was only in town for 2 days.
They were so infectious and so over the top I said, alright, I measure everything by the script, send me the script. I think I was in Belgrade shooting a film and I remember because the Wi-Fi was so bad in this place, I had to go up to the top of this house we were staying in to get the Wi-Fi, and I talked to them on Skype and got their enthusiasm.
This is kind of hard, I'll ask obvious questions of directors, especially young directors, that are contrary to the good of the film, and I'll ask them, what about changing this? They were right on top of it and said no, we need this and this and this. And they were very comfortable saying no, which is not always true.
So your test to a director is to ask them something that you know if they say yes to, you don't want to do the project?
I don't want to do it.
Can you think of an example? I don't want you to name names, but can you think of an example on this film that you would have asked for them to change?
I think it was the entrance of Zeus, that whole thing where he comes on with the trike where he's pedalling and the stuff is over there. I asked there any way we could have that motorized so that he's getting, and I knew it was wrong. I said "because I know you're doing a whole road warrior thing, but is there any way we can get him elevated so that gives him a bigger entrance and more powerful?" They said "no, no, we want to stay within the genre and within the limitations of our world", and I went "right answer." I started laughing and they said what are you laughing at, and I said, I'll tell you one day. And so I got to tell them, but that was one of them.
Also, I said all kidding aside, there's some things I want to talk to you about changing and we talked about it and they considered it and they said yes to about 60% of them. They said that they want to take the envelope and push it. They wanted almost to the point of satire.
I actually wanted to play him slightly gay, slightly effeminate, and they said no, no. If we do a remake, if we do a sequel, that model may come back. Not to make fun of it, but again to pass on like. This Laurence character, she's doing a metaphor of sexuality the way women are treated and stuff like that. We took all of these metaphors and tried to push them as far as we could. That's their fearlessness. And I keep telling everybody. You give them $400k, they'd be over the moon, making a $400k film. If you give them a million and a half, they'll be over the moon, they'll make a million and a half dollar film. You give them $10 million, they'll give you the best $10 million film you can get for that. You give them $`100 million, they will give you 10 $10 million films because they know that with every million dollars after $10 million, another personality comes that will take away their freedom, tell them what they want and how to package it and they know that.
You've had an incredible career, but the scope of your projects has been both big and small, you obviously have no problem working within this world, but you've also worked on mega productions. I'm just wondering if you could talk as a performer, obviously the paycheques are different, but more importantly, in terms of the creative, especially as somebody, you're declared to be a method actor, I don't know if you consider that to be accurate, is there something more that you can bring to a smaller project without dominating it, making your personality and your baggage as a seasoned performer overwhelming the project?
That is difficult, and I think there's a lot of films that I'd like to have done but there's no way for me to do it. There's no way I could work with Tom Cruise again because of Jester. Now that I'm getting older, maybe. Now they're talking about doing Top Gun II, finally. Some of the iconic characters and stuff.
The other thing, Munro Chambers is not some green kid. He's got five years on Degrassi Street, two years on another drama before that, Laurence is no green kid. She's got close to 80 films, French Canadian and CBC productions under her belt. The rest were not, they were the green kids, they were smart, they brought people who could hit their marks and say oh, fuck, we've got to move this whole thing this week because we're losing the sun or that rock's got to be rolled over here. If you saw some of the way we shot this, you needed actors who could look after themselves and they did that.
Now, to address that question, I kind of pride myself on trying to fit into a production. Can't always be done. You have to have filmmakers who know what they're doing, you have to have talent you're working with,
You have to have patience to let them fuck up and learn from their fuck-ups.
Well, that's not the case. You've got to trust, once you're on board, you're on board. Once the ship sails, you're on board.
But you're never halfway through, thinking . . .
I only tell the truth. I'm trying to find a great way to say this... Look, I've been paid in the past to look after directors. I had producers and stuff in the States paying me an extra $50k to keep an eye on the director. To go up to them and say look, how many shots have you got today? Well, they've got 82 setups and I say 82 fucking setups? It's now lunch, and you've only done 14. Now, let's look through this.
Now that might be an exaggeration, but not far off. First time directors get very enthusiastic with stuff like that. Or you'd walk on set and you'd go to the next shot and the director's looking that way, and the crew and everyone with experience is looking the other way and they say let's have the next shot and you go and try to protect them so they won't get embarrassed or hurt. I pride myself on being a pro.
My job's to make something work. It's not about me. It's not about me, it's about, look, I've said this 10 times today because my daughter pointed it out to me, I can't sleep the last night before a film starts, whether it's a two day part, or a six month part. I can't do it. My oldest daughter, Adrienne said to me the day you sleep before a production, probably you'd better hang it up.
And I went you know, and I got all emotional when she told me that because it's the absolute truth. I love what I do. I love being in the circus, you know. And method I am, and not the misunderstood idea of method. I know how to find an emotion, find the emotion, find the behaviour with that emotion and recreate the behaviour. A lot of people never went that far with the method. They only know how to find the emotion. And if you don't get it, you have to wait and get it because they can't recreate.
My job's to find the behaviour through the emotion, then recreate the behaviour over and over again. Because sometimes you don't get that. Take Total Recall There's a couple of times there we did scenes that were six months apart. We do that whole entrance to Mars. When you turn around, the other side of that world didn't exist, for three months, we had to build the other side of the sets, so you come back three months later, turn the cameras on, you've got to have emotional continuity to do that.
But if you're doing that, you also need to have some sort of grounding.
If you're pulling that out of your ass on the day, you're not going to be able to do it over again.
But presumably, the other person on the other side of the shot is not giving that to you, you're having to derive it from yourself.
But when you've got Paul Verhoeven, and he boards everything and he wants everything, you've got to have your shit together. I don't make my work dependent upon someone else.
Even the director?
Even the director. You usually know right off the bat when you're on something whether somebody's falling down. Then my job's to go to the script to support the story. First thing's always the script.
Which is why you're always choosing based on the script?
The script's always got to be there. Then, the interpretation goes to the director. I don't really believe in the auteur theory. Unless it's a Paul Verhoeven or a Walter Hill.
Or a David Cronenberg?
David Cronenberg, absolutely. David and I have only worked together that once, we had a falling out about five or six years later, over a discussion. It was over the twins film with Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers. We were talking one day about it and there happened to be somebody listening and I told him I thought it was misogynistic horseshit. You start sticking odd objects inside of women and pass it off as drama. I said if you've got to work out your goddamned shit, why do you have to do it at the expense of the audience? And he said you're full of shit and we got in to it, and I still hold to that.
Have you seen the film?
And you think it's misogynist?
I think I'm accurate. I do. It was after having seen the film that we had the discussion. And I know a little bit was going on behind the scenes too because a couple of the actors that were involved. Jeremy Irons is a bit of a cunt, you know? I don't know, I've never done a film with him, I just know what was going on behind the scenes and some of the shit and whether he gets locked into character and starts acting out in that character, I don't know. I'll reserve that.
That is one of the things that sort of, those who are not actors think of as sort of excess as a method.
Sort of. I don't know. I've never worked with him. I'm not like that. Look, my daughter's, my oldest daughter's been on film sets with me since she was 5, and she calls it binkie, it's a raincoat I throw over the characters because if I walk around in character, it's not going to be very useful. And people come up and ask me questions, it's quite true, on set, I can't remember shit, because I feel, evidently there's a sense of humor, that she goes, somebody comes up and said where's blahblahblah, and she says don't ask him, that's binkie you're talking to, binkie doesn't know shit.
Never make your character the responsibility of somebody else to have to deal with. Your job is to go in there and be a professional, find some way, whatever horrific thing you're working on, not to let it spill over. It shouldn't be the cameraman's responsibility to have to deal with you or the directors or something like that. That's hysteria, that's not fucking acting, that's not craft. So I throw this raincoat over the misogynistic character or over the bloodthirsty, and they're all derivatives of me. You take the checks and balances out. The social checks and balances out in the process and you come up with some pretty bizarre personalities.
What is the character closest to you that you've played?
A film called Chain Dance, way back when. Not enough money, not enough time, but there's a couple of scenes in that are right out of my life. There's a scene with Brad Dourif where he plays a paraplegic in the bathroom where I'm reading poetry to him and he slips into this bathtub and I reach in and pull him back and say you're going to listen to this or not when he's almost drowning. This is pretty close to my relationship between my brothers and I.
I think they're all a little piece of us, I'm not going to sit here and fucking toot my horn, it's, very rarely am I going to get hired to play what I would like to do some days is probably a massive production. Do I want to get in to Shakespeare here? No, maybe not. I just think that my take on things and stuff the way I was, the way I grew up and the way I first read it as a child, being this precocious little shit from the east end of Toronto who lived in books.
I was raised at Pape and Queen, but before it was gentrified, our house was 12 and a half feet wide. The Danforth Odeon right there, The Palace and The Danforth, right at Danforth and Pape, was where I saw my first big movie, I saw 2001. I used to go to the the local movie theatre because we could never afford to see stuff first run. I remember going up and seeing it with my dad. My dad was working class and we walked up to the Danforth to the Odeon to see 2001, he said, there's a film I want you to see.
I remember coming out of there because I was a bookworm, so was my dad, he had a grade 3 education, self-taught. My mom and dad read voraciously, we were allowed to read anything that was on the floor because they read from on top of their little dressers beside the bed and they would put them on the floor, so I would, I read everything from Candide and Lady Chatterley's Lover through all of the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Martian Chronicles, Dostoevsky, I think Anna Karenina's one of the fucking greatest books that have ever been written, I've read it 4 times.
So I went and saw 2001 with my dad, he walked me up and back, slash forward 40 years, I take my 15 year old last year to see Interstellar at the Cinerama Done. My wife says don't you want to wait for one of the screenings, I said no, let's go to the Cinerama Dome. Go in there and see a 70mm print. We go in, we see it, it's a gorgeous film, we come out, I say, I've got to go to the washroom.
I go pee, and my 16 year old, who's quite good looking, sitting against the wall, totally blown out by the film. I come out and guys are bumping into themselves trying to notice her and I stop and I look at her - I'm going to get emotional - and she's totally lost in the movie. She looks over at me and I smiled and I went back to 2001, my dad went to the washroom, I was standing in the lobby, he came out of the washroom and saw me and I felt like I got a visit from my dad that moment. I went right back to seeing 2001 with my dad and I'm, and it was like thank you, you know what I mean, I had that moment with my daughter.
And considering INTERSTELLAR is a father daughter movie about immortality . . .
It was like one of those magical click moments and she said are you alright, and I said, I told her, I said grandad and I saw 2001, I think I just got a visit from granddad. [Ironside visibly tears up.]