Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. This interview has been long in coming, but I think the end result was worth the wait. Michael Biehn was so open to talking about his career that what you’re going to read below constitutes a part one of a two part interview. The full interview is well over 16,000 words and was two and a half hours worth of interview.
The interview covers as much as I possibly could, from The Terminator and Aliens to working with William Friedkin (wait until you read those stories), Tombstone, The Abyss, Grindhouse, Deadfall, Megiddo, his near-miss at being cast in Avatar and his move into the director realm on his first feature film, The Victim, which is playing tonight in Houston at the Landmark River Oaks theater at 7:30pm with Michael and his wife, producer and star Jennifer Blanc-Biehn in attendance.
We start with Michael’s inspiration to become an actor and his early efforts, including a bit part in Grease, and work our way up to Michael moving behind the camera and discuss his fairly… intense… directing style.
There feels like a million great stories here and Michael never holds back on his opinion. Find out what his bottom five films he’s appeared in are, find out the truth behind a legendary Abyss filming story involving Ed Harris and James Cameron getting into it, find out what prompted him to physically threaten William Friedkin, find out when he told David Fincher to go fuck himself and much more!
Enjoy this chat with Michael and a few special appearances by his lovely wife Jennifer!
Quint: If we are going to start at the beginning, what made you want to be an actor?
Michael Biehn: Girls.
Quint: (laughs) Girls?
Michael Biehn: Yeah, my parents had me involved in a lot of different activities when I was a kid: sports, the YMCA, tennis programs, and one of the things that my mother suggested that I try was community theater. So I went to the community theater and I noticed there were a lot of pretty girls hanging around that place and ever since then I’ve always kind of wanted to be an actor.
I did a lot of community theater when I was in Lincoln, Nebraska and then we moved to Lake Havasu, that was in 1970, and there wasn’t much of a theater there. It was a town of about six thousand at that time and so I kind of fell out of it, but I was doing a play in High School and the dean of the Drama Department from The University of Arizona happened to be there and saw this play. Dark Side of the Moon was the name of the play, and he offered me a drama scholarship to The University of Arizona. It wasn’t a big scholarship, but it was books and tuition and I kind of needed a direction to go and so I took the scholarship.
At that point in my life I didn’t really think, “Okay, I’m going to go over to Hollywood and become an actor.” I thought maybe I could do theater and I also wanted to coach because I like sports a lot and so on and so forth.
So I went to school, but I didn’t really have any study skills. I was a little ADHD when I was a kid, you know, and I couldn’t pay attention, didn’t do well in school. I had no study habits, so I like to tell people, “I went to The University of Arizona from 1974 to 1974.” (laughs)
So I left, dropped out of college. My dad’s a lawyer, my mother’s a doctor, my other brother is a lawyer and dropping out of college and coming home with my tail between my legs just wasn’t going to cut it, so I told them that I didn’t like college instead of telling them that I was failing at college because I was partying too much with girls, again. Girls, girls, girls!
I basically said, “I’m going to move to LA.” I called them from The University of Arizona and said, “I’m not happy here. I’m not learning about acting.” I had had a history of theater and stagecraft classes. They wouldn’t let any of the freshmen or sophomores be in any of their productions… So I told them that I was going to move.
So, I worked 80 hour weeks for about three months and saved a couple thousand dollars and moved to Los Angeles, took a couple of small jobs… my dad had a friend who had an import and export business and I was able to work there and when the time came, when I was able to go up for meetings and interviews and stuff like that, very early on modeling, commercials… He would let me go.
So, that’s kind of how I got started, basically because I dropped out of school and I needed an excuse to tell my parents other than the fact that I was flunking out at college. I spun it more like “I want to become an actor and I want to move to LA.”
I also felt, looking back at it, that I knew that I could go to LA and if I wanted to be an actor you really couldn’t judge whether I was going to be successful or not for two, three, four, or five years. Nobody goes out there and is just an overnight sensation, so it was basically kind of a whim. Once I got out there, I hit the pavement and took acting classes right away and went out and tried to find agents and got agents right away, well not right away, but pretty quickly.
Quint: I know that that always seems to be the first giant hurdle when you’re trying to break into the business: convincing an agent or a manager or a lawyer or somebody to represent you, legitimize you.
Michael Biehn: Well, first you get the acting teachers and then you get an acting teacher that likes you and sometimes they will have connections and sometimes you will do scenes for their agents. I got a modeling agent very quickly and a commercial agent very quickly and started going out on those things and started to make a living. After about a year and a half of being there, I started making a living doing modeling, which was not like runway modeling, it’s like ones that made company ads in the LA Times and kind of silly print ads and stuff like that. The paid me sixty dollars an hour, which to me was like “Wow.”
Robert Rodriguez was talking to me yesterday about how when he was making El Mariachi that he was just down there thinking “Okay, well I can make a movie for five thousand, sell it for ten, and I can just do this the rest of my life.” If somebody had told me “You can go to LA, make a living modeling and doing commercials for the rest of your life and make a good living,” I would have sold my soul for that at that time. What’s happened has far exceeded my expectations to say the least.
Quint: I noticed you have an uncredited appearance in Grease.
Michael Biehn: Yeah, I’m in Grease. What happened on Grease was I went up and I read for the role that Lorenzo Lamas played and I probably read two or three times. I didn’t get the role. Randal Kleiser, who is a really nice guy, and Allan Carr I think felt sorry for me, so they threw me a bone, which was a day’s work.
So if you look at Grease I’m in two scenes. One is when John Travolta is trying to impress Olivia Newton-John by playing sports, he’s playing basketball and he punches a kid in the stomach… that’s me. There’s another scene where Kenickie is doing something with a frog in the back of the (classroom) and there’s a tracking shot that goes across the front of a couple of students and I’m one of those students like full frame, my head… It was basically extra work, but I got paid as an actor.
It’s a great movie. It’s a great, great musical. I mean, I think the best maybe? I can’t think of a musical that I enjoy more watching. Travolta was just great.
Quint: It’s interesting how in most jobs you have to kind of work your way up to a position to where you want to be, but with acting a lot of that is documented, so you will find bit roles like that for most actors. You did some TV too, right?
Michael Biehn: Yeah, I got my Screen Actors Guild card by doing a commercial for Budweiser, which is a story in itself, but I did a lot of modeling and I did one or two commercials, maybe three. I was never very good with the commercial thing because I think that underneath I kind of really didn’t want to be doing commercials and I think that that kind of showed through when I would go in and audition.
My first job was one or two lines on a pilot for a television series called Logan’s Run, which was based on the movie which I hear they are remaking…
Michael Biehn: Yeah, my first lines were (In an almost robotic voice) “Alert, runner headed toward Quadrant 4. Alert, runner headed toward Quadrant 4.” That’s about how well I did it and so that was my first job and then I started working a little bit in television. I got a television series for Quinn Martin, who was a big guy back then and had all of those shows like Dragnet and all of that kind of stuff, called The Runaways. I did a year of that, 20 episodes. I did an ABC Afternoon Special. I did like an episode of Family, that thing with Kristy McNichol, and I did a couple of “Movie of the Weeks” and a silly one was called Zuma Beach with Suzanne Somers, but Timothy Hutton was in it, Rosanna Arquette was in it, Tanya Roberts was in it and you know, so I started working.
Quint: You had done a few features before you ended up on Terminator, right?
Michael Biehn: Yeah, I did a movie called The Coach, which was a youth sex exploitation movie which was a Crown International movie. They did The Van.
Quint: I haven’t seen that one.
Michael Biehn: It’s kind of a fun movie. It’s basically about a female basketball coach who falls for a basketball player and that was played by Cathy Lee Crosby. It is what it is. It’s a little sex exploitation movie you know. Softcore.
Quint: Was it around the time Porky’s hit? Was it in that era?
Michael Biehn: Yeah kind of, but it was basically just… You know, Cathy Lee Crosby plays this woman who comes in to coach the basketball team and we all deride her as players “That’s a woman!” We end up having an affair and winning the championship game, just silly stuff.
So I did The Coach and I had done… Let me see, before The Terminator I think I did Lords of Discipline. I did that one with Franc Roddam and Bill Paxton was in that, David Keith was in that… I did The Fan, which was going to be my big break because that was a role that a lot of actors wanted. It costarred Lauren Bacall. James Garner was in that, Hector Elizondo. That was going to be my big break. That came out about the time that the Pope was shot, Reagan was shot and Lennon was shot all within this six month period of time when that movie came out. It’s not a great movie anyway, but I think that if it had any hope to be a hit it was kind of dashed by people being tired of movies with somebody stalking a movie star and shooting them or trying to kill them. So that was going to be my big break and then The Terminator came along. But I had like 20 credits before that.
Quint: Let’s talk a little bit about that. How did you first meet Jim? Did you audition for the role of Kyle Reese?
Michael Biehn: Yeah, I auditioned for it. I’ve told this story many times before, but I was auditioning for Jose Quintero for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in downtown LA and I auditioned all morning for him, didn’t end up getting that role. That was a theater production. But when I went in and I read for Jim, I guess I kind of kept some of that southern accent; it stayed with me. So, Jim called my agents and said “We really like him a lot, but he’s a little too regional for us.” They were like “What are you talking about?” “Well, he’s Southern.” They were like “No, no he’s from Nebraska.” “Nebraska? He sounded Southern…” So, they brought me back to read again and I auditioned again for them and I got the role. I read with Rosanna (Arquette) once and…
Quint: Was she up for Sarah?
Michael Biehn: Yeah, and I read with Linda [Hamilton] and we got the roles. Then what happened was Arnold’s option got picked up on Conan 2, so he went off to shoot the movie and we waited around for him to come back. In the meantime I was hanging around with Jim Cameron all of the time and he would take me down to Stan Winston’s workshop.
They basically showed me the monster and their sketches and what they were working on and then he showed me how to hot wire cars and we would go out in the desert and blow things up with all of these guns and these automatic weapons and stuff, you know. He hired a karate guy to teach me to move and get into shape for the movie, so I got to spend a lot of time with Jim during that three month period of time and got to see all of the sketches and all of his ideas.
When it was originally presented to me, it was presented to me by my agent and they said to me “Well, here’s this movie. It’s called The Terminator” and I hadn’t read it yet and I said “Okay, well who’s in it?” They said, “Arnold Schwarzenegger is in it.” “Okay…” At that time Arnold Schwarzenegger was not regarded in the same way he is now.
Quint: He was a body builder, yeah.
Michael Biehn: He was a body builder and he had done Conan and he was not considered an actor by any long stretch of the imagination. Most people thought he wouldn’t have a career because he could never really speak English and say things like “California” very well. Nobody really thought he was going to have much of a career.
So it was like “Okay, Arnold is in it. Alright, well… what’s it about?” “It’s about a robot that comes back from the future to kill a girl who works at a Bob’s Big Boy and you play a character who comes back to try to stop this robot from killing this girl.” I’m thinking to myself “Okay, well… Robot… Time Travel… Okay, well who’s directing it?” “Jim Cameron.” “Okay, well what’s he directed?” “He was directing Piranha 2, but he got fired. He’s worked a lot with Roger Corman.”
None of it sounded good. Then I went in. I met Jim and auditioned for him and I got the role and I knew very quickly that Jim was special. I mean, I didn’t know he was going to make a movie that we would be talking about thirty years later; that there would be four sequels to, or that it would become so iconic, but that’s how I got involved in it.
We shot it and Jim would show us different things cut together while we were working and the more we saw, the more we liked, the more we thought it was going to do pretty well.
The thing about The Terminator is everybody thinks of it as this big, big hit and it was to a certain extent. It cost $6 million to make and it made $40 million, but to give you some perspective the same year Karate Kid II made $90 million, so it was a hit, but it wasn’t like this huge, huge hit. 1984 is when it came out, that’s when most people started getting their VHS players and I think that that’s really where that movie took off. Everybody saw it on VHS.
Quint: And they could revisit it. It was one of the new movies out, just like I remember when DVD came out everybody had a DVD of The Mask because it was one of the first DVDs released. Yeah, it seemed to hit at the right time. As a movie fan, what I love about film is that indescribable, unrepeatable lightning in a bottle that you can get. You can have all of the best people doing their best work on the best script and it doesn’t work. And you can have those same elements come together in just a slightly different way and it somehow becomes a classic.
Michael Biehn: That’s absolutely right.
Quint: That’s fascinating to me with cinema as an art form.
Michael Biehn: It usually has to do with the script. Sometimes things get thrown together and the script isn’t there. If you have a good script, it will attract good actors and you have to be a pretty bad director to screw that up.
Quint: There’s a saying “You can make a bad movie from a good script, but you can’t make a good movie from a bad script.”
Michael Biehn: Right. There’s a book out about Brian DePalma when he made Bonfire of the Vanities (Quint note: Pretty sure he’s talking about The Devil’s Candy) and I love that book because it shows that you never quite know if the movie you are working on is going to be brilliant or is going to be like what that turned out to be; not successful.
Quint: So, when you work on something like The Terminator or Aliens you don’t get a sense that you’re working on something that’s going to work more than your average film?
Michael Biehn: Well, by the time we did Aliens Jim had already done The Terminator, so there was a lot more confidence on the set of Aliens than there was on Terminator. I mean we were confident that The Terminator was going to be good, but we didn’t know it was going to be as good as it was. There was more confidence because by that time he had already put one in the can and then you would watch him working and again he likes to invited his cast to watch dailies and watch things cut together and so on and so forth. And the script was really strong.
Quint: Do you think that helps you as an actor, watching dailies?
Michael Biehn: Yeah, I do. It used to be this whole thing of like actors weren’t allowed in the dailies because they would freak out and it would change their performance, which is such horseshit. It helps inspire you as an actor if you see a scene cut together. I mean working with Robert Rodriguez, what he basically does is he’s got his editors on the set and he shoots his movie and he’ll do like six or seven shots and while you’re setting up for the next shot, they are editing it together. So he can basically edit the scene while you are shooting it and at the end of the scene, take his iPod and throw in like a song underneath it and show it to you. Now it’s a rough cut or whatever and he’s that way, too. He’s inclusive. Guys like Quentin Tarantino are inclusive. Guys who are confident are inclusive. Guys who don’t have confidence are frightened and don’t want to include or don’t want you to change any dialog or don’t want you to show them up that like you’ve got better ideas than they do when it comes to like dialog and stuff like that.
If I come to Jim and I say “You know Jim, maybe if I say this just a little bit differently, like this, for this reason…” He’d rather have his movie be good than be wrong, so he’ll say, “Yeah, go ahead.” He’s let me fiddle around with his dialog over the years.
Quint: But you felt that the script for Aliens was particularly strong.
Michael Biehn: Yes, very strong.
Quint: I’ve read the script, actually. I’m fascinated with Cameron’s writing style. I can see how fresh it was even on the page and sometimes you don’t get that. Sometimes scripts feel like a simple blueprint, but I guess because this was so character-heavy it felt different while reading it.
Michael Biehn: Special effects and monsters never really make a movie per se. It’s really… I can’t say that, though… I mean look at Transformers, but usually you need good characters to make a movie work, a good story and good characters. Action and/or special effects, they just don’t cut it by themselves.
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: Jim Cameron always has a good story.
Michael Biehn: And he’s got good dialog. I mean Sigourney [Weaver] was nominated for Aliens, the first time any kind of actress was nominated in that kind of a genre movie and if you look at his performances… look at Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss…
Quint: I definitely want to hit The Abyss because that that’s my favorite performance of yours, but to spend a little more time on Aliens, it’s pretty well known you came to the project late.
Michael Biehn: Yeah, I did. James Remar was doing it and he got over there and got into trouble, got kicked out of the country and they needed a replacement for him in a hurry and so Gale (Anne Hurd) called me on up on Friday, asked me if I had a passport that was up to date, and I said “Yes.” Monday morning I was on the set of Aliens.
[Quint Note: Below is a rare shot of Cameron working with James Remar as Hicks before Biehn stepped in]
Quint: (Laughs) Do you remember what you were shooting?
Michael Biehn: It was something inside of the armed personal carrier. I don’t remember exactly what scene, but I think it might have been like the scene where I take the gun and put it in the aliens’ mouth and say, “Eat this.” I think that might have been my first day.
They shot that in reverse because it was hard for him to come in and me to get the gun in, so they shot it in reverse. Jim’s crazy about doing that kind of stuff.
Quint: Now as an actor though, do you think that that kind of hectic feeling might have actually helped you in the role? Hicks isn’t as social with the squad as some of the others. Hudson, for instance, seems to float among the different cliques within the squad. Your character is kind of the quiet guy in the back and I love how that chemistry works with Ripley as a character. Do you think that the fact that you came in late helped that?
Michael Biehn: Well, I think the fact that I came in late was great for me because I didn’t have to go through that fucking three weeks of bullshit rehearsal. They had to learn how to march and hold a gun and go through wardrobe and the rehearsals that never really take place because Jim’s too busy doing other stuff.
I just don’t think that you need to prepare necessarily, unless you are doing something physically, that hard or that long for any role because once you get out there, you just shoot maybe thirty seconds of movie and then I have that evening to think about (the character) and then the next day and the next day. So, I’m out there for a week, I’ve got three minutes of film down, but I’ve had that whole week to kind of think about the character.
Jim said to me that I was playing (Hicks) differently than Remar because one of the first days of shooting is when I reached out for Newt and I say “Come here, Honey. Come here” and I’m smiling at her. He said that James was playing it harder, but that he really liked that kind of smiling thing.
Quint: That’s what separates you from the other guys in the unit; everybody else is playing it hard.
Michael Biehn: Right. I like the humility of the character that I think Jim and I created when Sigourney says to (Paul) Reiser, “No, you’re not in charge. He’s in charge.” Instead of saying “Yeah, that’s right.” It was like “Oh… fuck. Yeah, she’s right. I guess I’m going to have to be. I don’t really want to be in that position.” It’s kind of the humility of what you would really kind of maybe feel, the responsibility of all of this coming down on your head. I’m just a grunt, which is what he says. “No offense,” “None taken.”
Quint: It’s easy to look at that movie and see the bigger characters and to see the amazing work that Sigourney did in it, but I think what you do is actually really subtle, just little inflections that show your warmth as a character. Like whenever Newt’s touching the grenades and you are like “No, dangerous, Honey.” It comes across as very fatherly.
Michael Biehn: I’ll tell you something about that. That was originally “Don’t touch that.” That’s the way it was written, “Don’t touch that.” And I said to Jim “Jim, can I say “Don’t touch that, they are dangerous.”? And he said yes. Otherwise I’m like “Don’t touch that,” it just sounds like I’m being a prick, you know? When I say “They are dangerous,” then you can understand why he’s doing it and that’s where Jim would go like “Okay, I understand why you want to add that line to it.”
Quint: By doing that, you turn it into a little bit more of a familial unit, where you almost have the mother and father there with Hicks and Ripley and Newt as their child.
Michael Biehn: Right.
Quint: That warmth is what makes Hicks stand out to me. Plus you’ve got some great little moments in the movie. You mentioned the “None taken” moment. It’s perfectly timed beat. I love seeing actors take something that’s a really small moment and use that to define their character. When you look at a script like that, is that what you try to find? Those moments?
Michael Biehn: I think those moments just happen. I play myself usually as an actor. I try to do some research on the military and hang around military guys and talk to them or whatever, so get an idea of what it’s like to be in the military or a cop or whatever I’m playing and then I just play myself in that situation.
When I looked at that script, did I go “There’s a moment there”? No. I didn’t look at that script and say “Right there, when she says it’s his responsibility” that that’s a moment that I can show some humanity. It just happened because I just had a general take on the character, which was one of somebody that… You know, he is a soldier. He is told what to do. It’s the same thing with the character in The Abyss. Give me an order, I march up a hill, I do it. You give responsibility of something much larger than I’m used to and I’m out of my comfort zone and so those moments just occur when you are like playing a character and you are connected with the character.
Quint: I have to say that it’s a testament to how well the movie plays and how good you are in it that despite the fact that David Fincher brought a crazy amount of visual style and tried to do something different with Alien 3, I can never really enjoy that movie because I feel like from the very beginning by killing off Hicks and Newt that it kind of takes all of the emotional investment that I had built up in Aliens and throws it out the window.
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: A lot of people feel that way.
Quint: It almost feels like it nullifies everything that they do in the second film. I know early drafts of the third Alien film involved Hicks. William Gibson did a draft where it was on a space station above Earth and it was mostly Hicks, Bishop and Newt’s story and they were trying to get to Ripley as the Xenomorphs overrun the space station. Now, they didn’t go that direction, but were you ever involved at any point on Alien 3?
Michael Biehn: No. The only way I was involved was I was shooting another movie in Los Angeles working with a producer named Raffaella De Laurentiis and Raffaella took off during our shoot, went over to England and came back and she said to me jokingly “I saw you over in England” and I said “What do you mean?” She said “I was at Pinewood Studios and I saw you over there.” “What are you talking about?” “Your character, Hicks, I saw him. He was over there.” “What?!? Really?” She said, “Yeah, it’s you…” They had done a face cast on me because they had to do those burns on my face you know… “And it’s you and your chest is burst open and obviously the aliens have come out of your chest.” I’m like “Oh really? I didn’t know anything about that.”
So I called my agent up and he called up Fox and said, “You can’t use Michael’s image.” They said, “Okay, we’ll get back to you.” I got a call from David Fincher saying “Please, can we just… We’d really like to use your character.” And first of all I was like “Fuck you for not putting me in the movie.”
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: Did you say that to him?
Michael Biehn: Probably. Yeah, I was pretty pissed off and “Fuck you for even calling me, so go fuck yourself.” Now I wish I hadn’t, because now he’s (laughs)… Now he’s “David Fincher,” but I was upset at the fact that I was not in the new movie. What I said was “Fuck you for having that happen to my character.” There was no way I would ever let that character have a monster come bursting out of his chest, so you can forget about that happening. Jim wasn’t happy about that either, so they dropped that idea and then they came back and they said “We want to use your picture” and I said “Okay, you can use my picture. It’s going to cost you and it’s going to cost you a lot.”
So they paid me a lot of money to use my picture in that movie. It was really probably the most disappointing moment in my career when I look at like “Jeez, I could have been a part of a franchise that went like four or five deep and made a lot of money and really had been able to…”
Quint: With a genuinely interesting character.
Michael Biehn: Just to kill him off. I never saw the point in that because that’s what you want. You want the characters from the first ones to be in there, that’s what people identify with, but I don’t know. Somebody didn’t like me.
Quint: We have to touch a little on The Abyss. There are rumors about just how crazy everything was on that set. There’s the well-circulated story about Ed Harris punching out Cameron, for instance.
Michael Biehn: What? (laughs) No, no, no…
Quint: That never happened?
Michael Biehn: No. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that.
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: What’s the story?
Quint: The story is about the scene when he has to swim from one port to the other without the mask and when Harris got to the other end somebody had moved the respirator from where it was supposed to be, so he freaked out.
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: Do you remember anything like that?
Michael Biehn: Yeah, I remember the incident happening and Ed being upset, but he didn’t punch him.
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: It’s interesting how “telephone” it goes, like from him being upset because something was moved to punching out the director. (Laughs)
Quint: So, the story is exaggerated. What I love about Cameron is that he’s able to do these amazing movies and show things that haven’t really been seen before. The Abyss is one of his best attempts at showing us a world we’re unfamiliar with, but I understand that at times by doing that things can get heated…
Michael Biehn: Let me tell you something about Jim. I’ve done three films with him and granted they were his early films, four if you count Terminator 2, but they were his early films, so he was more like a kid in a candy store, okay? I never saw any behavior of Jim Cameron, including when we did The Abyss, that I considered abusive in any way at all ever, but he will do things and he will say things to an actor like this: I’ll do a shot and he will say to me “That’s exactly what I don’t want.” Now if you call that abusive, you can call it abusive, but I look at him and I go “Well, what do you want, Jim? Obviously you can’t fucking do it yourself, so just give me a line reading and I’ll do it like that.”
Now I can’t speak for Titanic. I can’t speak for True Lies. I can’t speak for anything, but I never saw Jim abuse anybody. He got frustrated with the process, but I’ve never seen him abuse anybody. That has been my true experience. He doesn’t treat actors like they are Gods, he treats them like the rest of the crew. “You’re supposed to be here, you’re here. You are here all day, from six in the morning to six at night. You can’t leave town because we might need you…” He doesn’t coddle his actors.
Quint: Obviously you would know because you’ve actually worked with him and I’ve just talked to people that have worked around him, but my understanding is that he is very well known for knowing every aspect of filmmaking, at least on the technical side, and he’ll probably know the job better than the people doing it, so he doesn’t suffer fools and excuses.
Michael Biehn: I’ve always said that. He doesn’t suffer fools and he does everybody’s job better than they can do it because you know he started out building miniatures and sets and stuff. He’s an artist, he’s an engineer. I think he was studying to be a physicist at one time and he can do everybody’s job. The special effects guys would come in even on The Terminator and he would tell them how to run their machines and this machine would break down and he would fix it and so forth. I‘ve always said about Jim, thank God he can’t act. (Laughs)
I also never remember anybody ever getting fired off The Terminator or Aliens or The Abyss. I never remember anybody getting fired. I think those stories about Jim are highly exaggerated. I think he gets a bad wrap. I think that he is just not as friendly as Ron Howard. I think he’s a little bit more reserved. I don’t know what he was like on Titanic.
Quint: I was at a Q&A where somebody asked Jim “Where’s Michael in Avatar?” And he was like “There was one perfect role for him and I ended up casting Stephen Lang.” You look at that and that role almost seems like a continuation of The Abyss character in a lot of ways. Was there ever any discussion between you and Jim about being in Avatar?
Michael Biehn: I went in and I met Jim for that and I talked to him about it. He gave me the script, I came back in with my take on it, he got excited about me and took me down to show me what he had shown Fox to get the movie made. I could tell I really excited him, but he didn’t cast me right away and he’s kind of hard to get a hold of because he’s so busy and so we would check in with (producer)Jon Landau kind of week by week and month by month as it progress and Jon Landau, the producer, would always say “Yeah, he’s really interested.”
Once he cast Sigourney, then he felt… I ended up hearing this though my son, because my son went to school with Jon Landau’s son, he felt that there’s too much of that Aliens connection and he didn’t want the Hicks-Ripley thing to be a part of that movie, so once he signed on Sigourney then he went with Stephen Lang. I like Stephen a lot and I really think that he’s been around for a long time and I was really happy that he got he role if I didn’t get it.
Another thing that I’ll say about Jim Cameron not casting me in that movie is what am I going to say? “Hey, you made a mistake.” I mean, really? (laughs)
Quint: “You would’ve made three billion if you’d cast me!”
Michael Biehn: Obviously he made the right choice because he always makes the right choice and he always has reasons to do what he’s doing and I consider him a close, dear friend and sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t.
It was a long process of waiting to find out. It was difficult for me because your guy Harry Knowles started posting that he had heard from various sources that I was being cast in the movie and there were leaks coming out on other websites, but they weren’t coming out from me. They were coming out from like visual houses that Jim was working with and stuff, so obviously I was the choice for a while. Then I went out to do the Grindhouse tour to talk about Grindhouse and that’s all they wanted to know about was Avatar and I was like “I don’t know guys, it’s been ten months, and I still haven’t found out yet.”
And when I read your stuff, I was like “Oh my God, look what Harry is saying.”
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: We were like “They know. That’s it.”
Quint: And then we fucked it up, I’m so sorry. (Laughs)
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: No, no. It wasn’t you. There’s two more (Avatars) coming out, so you never know.
Quint: And now Sigourney is gone…
Jennifer Blacn-Biehn: She died, right?
Quint: There’s a rumor that she could be back as Na’vi since her soul was connected to the spirit tree.
Michael Biehn: How about Stephen Lang? Can he come back?
Quint: Oh I think he pretty well dead, but who knows?
Michael Biehn: I’ve already heard (Lang) saying something about… what do you call it, the forensics… DNA! There’s DNA left, he said in some interview! (Laughs) I love Stephen. He’s great. I was disappointed that I didn’t get the role, but was happy that Steve got it because he has been around for a long time and never has quite gotten his due and he’s a wonderful, wonderful actor. He was Ike Clanton in Tombstone and did a great job in Tombstone, but he did A Few Good Men on Broadway and played the Nicholson role and of course Nicholson played it in the film.
Quint: Tombstone is another movie that I’m quite fond of. I think that you work very well in the western as a genre. You haven’t done many westerns, right?
Michael Biehn: That’s right, I haven’t. I did a television series called The Magnificent Seven which was a western and it was really a pretty good show, really good production value. Ron Perlman was in it, Eric Close who ended up doing the Anthony LaPaglia show, I forget the name of it, but he co-starred on that for years and years, but it was a good show. It was a western. We did like 22 episodes, so I was kind of used to the genre. We did that after Tombstone, but Tombstone was a great time, one of the best roles I ever got. Johnny Ringo was a great role and I play him kind of with a death wish. We just had a lot of fun on that movie and I kind of was doing a Johnny Ringo on and off the set.
That was one of those things where people go like “Are you always in character?” I always laugh like “No, it’s so ridiculous to be always in character….” But I was living Johnny Ringo the entire time I was shooting that movie. (Laughs) I was Johnny Ringo on and off the screen.
Quint: You must have not been very pleasant to be around.
Michael Biehn: Well, it all depended on who you were I guess. (laughs) Yeah, that one kind of followed me around. The cast was great and you know it was an odd movie, because Kevin [Jarre] left the movie after about four weeks of working on it and he wrote the whole thing and then they had to go in and then rewrite and change things and then they brought in George Cosmatos to shoot it and it only worked because Cosmatos knew stuff visually very well. He had done Cobra and Leviathan that looked great, but he had no story sense.
But visually he was very good and the script that Kevin Jarre wrote was very good and the actors were very good. A guy by the name of Jim Jacks (producer), along with Kurt Russell, held that movie together and we finally got it made and I’m really proud to be in it. I think out of the last 30 years, I think it’s one of the top two or three westerns.
Quint: It’s a fantastic movie and it’s the kind of film that when it’s on you have to watch it. You might go “I’m not really in the mood to watch Tombstone now,” then you watch 30 seconds of it, then you’re in.
Michael Biehn: Right, right.
Quint: So how is it as an actor, when you are on a project where the captain of the ship is traded out? I have to imagine it’s a little awkward. How do you roll with something like that?
Michael Biehn: I’m going to sound like one of these guys who plays for the New York Giants whose coach has just been fired and that is “I’ll play with the new coach and I’ll do the best I can. I basically know what I’m doing anyway, but if he wants me to play differently… I’m here for the team and if anybody needs anything from me I will help them out the best that I can, but I’ve got a pretty good take on what I’m doing and probably if you just stay out of my way you won’t have much to worry about when it comes to Johnny Ringo.”
That was all I was concerned about. I mean we were all concerned that the movie was going to get shut down and it was only because of Kurt really, who by the way is just a tremendous guy, and Jim Jacks… Everybody decided that some scenes had to be cut, because we didn’t have time to shoot everything and everybody got together and decided “Okay, well that scene is gone and that scene is gone…” Well those were like my scenes or those were Sam’s scenes or those were Bill’s scenes and Michael Rooker’s scenes and Priestley’s scenes and Billy Zane’s scenes. Everybody kind of had to take it and everybody did. I was proud of everybody.
Then when Cosmatos got on it… he was directing it, but it was kind of more Kurt and Jim Jacks by that point, I think, together that really made that movie. I’d say it’s a combination of Kurt and Jim Jacks making the choices.