August 9, 2011
You know this gaunt growler. He lurks in the disreputable direct-to-video section of your local video store, if it still exists, or pops up on Netflix in a low-budget creeper rated with one reluctant star. He is, of course, Lance Henriksen, a tireless worker and a real character of a character actor. In his wild, circuitous life he’s compiled a trunk-full of anecdotes and chastened life lessons. With the help of co-writer Joseph Maddrey, he packed all of them into his autobiography, Not Bad For A Human. It lays bare his poverty-stricken youth and job-hustling acting career with a disarming lack of vanity and a rhythmic sense of cursing.
“‘You know, Lance, you’re not going to work much until you’re older.’ Why’s that Charlie? ‘Because you look funny.” – Charles Durning to Henriksen, on the set of Dog Day Afternoon
Henriksen had a face he needed to grow into. His Easter Island head needed the ballast of sagging cheeks and the proliferating slashes of wrinkles to ease his transition from awkwardly handsome man to sage and unsettling elder. The transformation was complete with the addition of a cigarette-scarred rasp to his low rumble, able to modulate between wise or psychotic with the turn of a script page.
One of Henriksen’s many forthright confessions is that he wouldn’t be able to read those scripts until he was thirty. He was born in NYC on May 5th, 1940 to James Henriksen and Marguerite Healey. James was never around, and Marguerite worked waitressing jobs to keep her kids fed. She flailed for stability, with “great dreams for her life, but she had no education and she kept marrying men for the sake of being taken care of.” She married five times. In between men there were financial troubles, and one way to make money was acting on television:
There was this talk show in New York where you’d go on the air and tell a bleeding heart story, and listeners would call in and make contributions. My mother got me on that show when I was a little kid, and we would tell these awful lies. It was like we were were a family of grifters…
Lance bounced between family members, but once his maternal grandmother Floss died, he had no reliable guardians to speak of. He ended up at an orphanage at Hastings-on-Hudson and, as Henriksen recounts:
They were impatient with me because I couldn’t read. I was just a little kid, but they got me up in front of the class and I couldn’t read, so they humiliated me. And that was the end of reading. I just thought, Fuck reading. in my heart, I just…turned it off. And school. Fuck school.
He worked as a shoeshine boy and lived on the streets of New York, only finding the sense of community he sought in the movies. His favorite at that time was Howard Hawks’ Western The Big Sky (1952). The love between Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin as they venture through the Grand Teton Mountains struck a chord with the lonely and adventurous Henriksen. When he watched it, he said he was a “Method movie viewer”, bringing a “knapsack, a canteen, a frying pan…and what I thought was a sleeping bag…. I brought all the stuff into the theater with me…and I watched the movie maybe eight times. I’d fall asleep for a while and wake up and watch it some more.”
After years of wandering, through San Francisco and a short stint in the Navy, he ended up in New York with a yen for acting. Still unable to read, he would have a friend recite his dialogue parts into a recorder, from which he would memorize lines. Eventually he taught himself to read, although he claims a nagging sense of inferiority at his lack of education throughout his career.
He was immediately drawn to the physicality of Method acting, and became a part of The Actors’ Studio community, although he was never an official member. Henriksen says Lee Strasberg simply, “wasn’t my kind of guy.” He also rejected studying with Sandy Meisner, who asked him to quit acting for five years if he wanted him as a teacher. Henriksen didn’t think he could afford to live under those circumstances and responded, “Yeah, okay, I’ll do it…but if you fail me, I’m gonna kick your ass.” Meisner declined to accept him as a student.
As with reading, Henriksen learned acting through osmosis and practice. His process was to immerse himself totally in his characters, building elaborate backstories not included in the script, and designing his own costumes and props that he would react to spontaneously in scenes. Inside of this invented world he would feel free to act instinctually instead of mechanically. Part of this process required playing his characters on and off set. When he was playing Wally Schirra in The Right Stuff, a good-hearted family kid, he went looking for his biological father and reunited him with his mother: “My mom really liked Wally. Here she had this son who was attentive to her, didn’t swear around her, took her out to dinner…I think she wishes Wally would have stayed around!”
The impressive thing about Henriksen’s ethic is that he applied it to every project, whether a prestige Hollywood item like The Right Stuff or a ridiculous action film like Stone Cold (1991). Henriksen has invented a useful vocabulary for the roles he would take on. There were the “fart-catcher” roles, which were essentially background players who would absorb the leads’ precious gases. Then there were the “alimony films”, which he took on after his two divorces, and the “jet-lag” gigs, for the low-budget Eastern European movies. For the latter, “I wouldn’t even get an eight hour turn-around before I had to start reciting all this shit.” The first of these was Antibody (2002), in which he plays an “FBI agent who gets injected into the bloodstream of a terrorist.” Henriksen has an extraordinary ability to compartmentalize his performance from the films he appears in. His method allows him to act the movie he has constructed in his head, which the final product rarely lives up to.
Stone Cold falls outside these categories, one of the few films in which he had complete creative control. A vehicle for NFL bust Brian Bosworth, the creative chaos on the set allowed him to finally act without restrictions. The original director was fired and Craig R. Baxley was hired to replace him. He was dissatisfied with the dialogue for his character, the villain Chains Cooper, and requested he be able to improvise all of it. Baxley agreed and Henriksen, “got so deep into the role that I’d just say whatever came into my mind.” He was given similar freedom on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which along with Aliens is one of the few films worthy of his talents. He told Jarmusch that “I don’t want to say one line that you’ve written for this character in the script. I want to improvise the whole thing”. The director trusted him, although Lance’s conviction went to frightening lengths. Jarmusch remembers:
He stayed in character a lot of the time, which was a little scary. Some actors can just walk off the set and become themselves again, but Lance puts so much of himself into a performance that it takes him a little while [to get out of character]. It’s always percolating. And like all really fine actors, he doesn’t act out the stuff; he reacts.
Henriksen is one of the great reactors of the cinema, even if the environment around him isn’t worth reacting to. On my last trip home, my Dad was flipping through the channels and found the direct-to-video alimony film Sasquatch (aka The Untold, 2006). His first reaction was, “any movie with Lance Henriksen has got to be good.” As I watched Lance on-screen, manfully staggering after a man in a rubber suit with wide-eyed desperation, grief over his daughter’s death doubling the carved lines on his face, it was clear my Dad’s dictum was correct. Lance Henriksen justifies the existence of any movie he appears in, however threadbare.
I’ll leave him with the last word:
If I get another script that says “The Sasquatch looks around the tree”, I’m going to go, “No way, leave me alone, man.”