It’s one of life’s great mysteries why Michael Biehn isn’t a household name, considering he starred in some of the most iconic action films of the 1980s. If the picture on the left doesn’t trigger any memories for you, perhaps the name Kyle Reese will, as Biehn portrayed the original time traveler who helped to thwart a robot apocalypse in The Terminator. In fact, Biehn was a favorite of James Cameron, who tapped him twice more for the roles of Corporal Dwayne Hicks in Aliens and Lieutenant Coffey in The Abyss. But Biehn’s accomplishments don’t end there, as the underappreciated actor went on to work with William Friedkin, Michael Bay, and Robert Rodriguez and featured in films like Tombstone, Planet Terror, and The Rock, not to mention his extensive work on television.
This week, Biehn appears in The Divide, a bleak, post-apocalyptic psychological thriller helmed by Xavier Gens (Frontier(s)) and starring Lauren German, Milo Ventimiglia, and Rosanna Arquette. RT was fortunate enough to sit and chat with him, and we were spontaneously joined by his lovely wife, actress Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, who also has a brief cameo in the film. Biehn gave us his Five Favorite Films, then went on to talk about the mounting tensions on set, Xavier Gens’s fluid, anything-goes directorial style, and his own first outing in the director’s chair (The Victim, which was, in fact, picked up by Anchor Bay on the day of this interview). So, without further ado, here are Michael Biehn’s Five Favorite Films!
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976; 98% Tomatometer)
The first film that really inspired me… When I came out to L.A. to be an actor, I wasn’t really taking anything very seriously. I thought, maybe I’ll be a model, I could do some modeling, or maybe some commercial acting or whatever, and I thought that would be a career. Then I saw Taxi Driver. Taxi Driver is a movie that changed my life and made me a serious actor. Scorsese and De Niro. I give credit for anything that I’ve ever done as an actor.
Were you impressed more by Scorsese’s direction or De Niro’s performance?
I think they go hand in hand. The whole movie, really. Harvey Keitel, even Scorsese in the back of the car. The whole thing is fantastic.
Next, Biehn talks about tension on the set of The Divide (the anger is real, people!), working with legendary directors, and his own directorial debut.
Biehn continued from his Five Favorite Films to mention a few other choices he could have gone with:
Michael Biehn: Now, having said that, too, I would also say the greatest horror movie — we were talking about all these horror movies earlier — is William Friedkin and The Exorcist. I also think he did the best buddy cop movie ever in The French Connection and, you know, the best car chase, and so on. And I got to work with Billy so that’s kind of my group of films that I can watch over and over again. And funny enough, on the lighter side, on the fun side — I call it the “bubblegum side” — I like to watch The Buddy Holly Story. I love The Buddy Holly Story because Gary Busey is so brilliant in that movie. You know, he does all his own singing and all his own music and everything, and the rest of the movie is kind of thin, but his performance, I think, is brilliant.
I read somewhere that you were a big fan of Sean Penn…
MB: Sean Penn is, I think, maybe the greatest actor… Jack Lemmon is another great one. It’s hard to say who’s the best, but yeah, he’s right up there in the top five actors of all time in my book. When he goes from playing Milk, and he plays that very thin, kind of light kind of character, you know, Harvey Milk, gay, the whole number, and plays him brilliantly, wins the Academy Award, and then you see him in Fair Game. All of a sudden you see this guy, he’s got a f***in’ gut, he’s got three chins, glasses are down, the hair is out like this, and “Just because you yell louder than me, does that make you right?!” It’s f***ing brilliant! Just incredible. I have so much respect for him.
I wanted to mention that because it seems like a lot of your favorite films are very much actor-driven and benefit a lot from really outstanding performances.
MB: Yeah, absolutely.
Well, let’s talk about The Divide. Just to start at square one, can you tell us a little about how you came to be a part of this project?
Well, Xavier [Gens] called me up and wanted to know if I’d be interested in it. He sent the script, I read it. The script was okay, the character was okay.
So he called you specifically for the role of Mickey, the landlord.
MB: Yes, for Mickey. I asked him if I could make some changes. He was like, “Well, you can make any changes you want. You can do anything you want with the movie.” So I said,”Okay, I’ll do it.”
So I got involved with the movie, and then I realized once I got up to Canada to shoot the movie that we were, as actors, able to do anything we wanted. Rewrite characters, rewrite scenes. So the Mickey that is in the script that I originally read bears no resemblance to this Mickey that we ended up putting on film. I wrote Mickey with Eron Sheean, and Eron was basically a writer who was on the set to help all the actors rewrite scenes that they weren’t happy with or rewrite dialogue that they weren’t happy with. I worked with Eron for a week or two; I would send him stuff, he would send it back, I would send it to him again. He finally said, “Michael, you just write it.” So I basically created that character and wrote him and created the backstory of 9/11 and all that kind of stuff.
It was a very exhilarating movie shoot because it’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. It was completely like, you can do anything you want, you can improv anything you want, you can write anything you want, you can say anything you want in a scene. And the movie is the only movie I’ve done… In 35 years as an actor, I’ve never shot anything consecutively, day one, day two, day three, day four. So the script started out here, but all of a sudden, Michael Eklund’s improvising, so now we’re over here someplace. Then it went over here, and it just got crazy. Nobody kind of knew where they were headed or where their characters were headed; we were writing them as we went. I mean, Mickey was the antagonist in the script; he was the bad guy, he got it in the end. That was the original script. And Michael Eklund created his character out of nothing. There was no character there; there were four or five lines in the script, and Michael Eklund made that character come alive by improvising things and writing stuff and doing such interesting stuff.
Jennifer Blanc-Biehn: Xavier just couldn’t handle it. Xavier was in love with it. He was like, “My God! More, more!” And Milo [Ventimiglia] too.
MB: Milo was so committed, and Rosanna [Arquette] was so committed, and Lauren [German]…
JBB: Lauren, and Ashton [Holmes], and Ivan. Ivan Gonzalez doesn’t get mentioned but he’s a ridiculously talented actor that lives in France. And Michael said it best when he said it takes a very talented actor to play a weak man.
I want to come back to that collaborative experience in just a bit, because I know you have a history of working with your directors in that way. But it’s interesting that you essentially rewrote your character, and that he was originally intended to be the antagonist, because at first, you sort of hate Mickey because he’s such a jerk. But as the film continues, you begin to sympathize with this plight; he’s providing food and shelter for these ungrateful strangers who have invaded his private space and they’re just…
MB: B****ing and moaning, yeah, and not listening to me when I tell them not to leave.
Well, it’s interesting because by the end of the film, your character, Mickey, and maybe Lauren German’s character to a degree, are the only ones who — I don’t want to say you remain unchanged, but you two are the only ones who don’t go completely insane.
Well, I wanted the audience to think that I had changed, you know. The backstory on Mickey, which we created, was that he was a 9/11 survivor. He went into one of those buildings and when it came down on him and his team, and he was the only one left standing. So he ended up with PTSD, you know; his life falls apart and he starts drinking, loses his family, loses his job, gets paranoid, and turns into what he turns into, and that’s who he is at the beginning of the movie. But because of what transpires during the movie, he ends up kind of finding his humanity again. So, towards the end of the movie, you know, you see him put that coat on Ivan’s character, right, and when he goes out, he goes out kind of like… I tried to play him like he goes out with a kind of smile on his face, like, “This is the way my guys went out, and this is the way I want to go out, looking at the woman that I love.” And that character transformed from being a prick, a selfish guy — understandably so.
And that backstory is revealed pretty economically through just a short series of photos that Mickey keeps around…
JBB: Xavier felt that was enough to soften the character.
MB: Yeah, I mean, we shot the whole scene where it was all explained and everything. I shot a whole scene like that in The Terminator that was cut out, too, that I thought was going to be my big scene. And Sigourney [Weaver] shot a big scene in Aliens, too, that was her backstory with her daughter; that got cut out. That stuff gets cut out, but still there’s remnants of that, and that stays with you. You don’t need to be told every single detail.
Going back to the collaborative filmmaking process, I have a multi-tiered question for you. I’ll start by asking what the filming conditions were like, in terms of the physicality of the set. Were you all really stuffed into a basement?
The reason I ask is because some of those scenes felt eerily real, and I have to wonder if the cramped space and the freedom to improvise made for some touchy situations. Was there a lot of tension on the set?
MB: Yes, there was a lot of tension. Yeah, yes, yes. People hated each other so much that the producers had to be called down constantly because actors were fighting because they thought other actors were trying to steal scenes from them. There was a lot of physicality on the scene, and some actors thought there was too much. Yeah, they hated each other. They hated each other.
I’ve worked with Friedkin, I’ve worked with Jim Cameron, I’ve worked with Michael Bay… I’ve worked with these guys, and there was more tension on this set than any other set that I’ve ever worked on in my life. And Xavier set it up that way, where he would bring an actor in — it was going to be their big day — and all of a sudden, he would start shooting something else, and that would piss off that actor, and he’d be mad at that actress, and this actress would be mad, etc. It was crazy. I thought it was going to get violent at times. It was really close.
That really comes through in the movie, because there are a couple of scenes when, as I was watching them, I pictured what it must have been like to be there as they were being filmed, and I think I would have been frightened. There’s that scene when you’re being tortured, and you guys are spitting at each other, and I remember thinking, “This anger feels genuine.”
JBB: That was a genuine day. [laughs]
MB: [laughs] That was a genuine day. What’s not even in there is, the way Michael was holding me, he was holding me like that because originally, he was standing behind me and I was hitting him like this [whips his head back repeatedly]. I hit him a couple times like that. He got a bloody nose, and you know… That was me and Michael. Me, Michael, and Milo would do anything.
You look at that movie, and you watch them try to bring Rosanna Arquette down those stairs. You watch that, and that’s her fighting, biting, clawing, doing everything she can, and they shot that three or four times. Those are some committed actors. [laughs]
So what was it like working under that sort of directing style?
MB: Well, that directing style is something that will never happen to us again, because here in America, if you?re doing a TV show or something like that, and you go, “Listen, can I change this ‘a’ to a ‘the?'” And it’s, “Oh, we’ve got to check with the line producer.” This was the most amazing, open, fun experience for an actor that I’ve ever been involved in.
You’ve worked with some legendary directors like William Friedkin and James Cameron, but you’ve also worked with newer talent like Robert Rodriguez and, with The Divide, Xavier Gens. Do you sense a noticeable difference between the two generations of filmmakers, between how things are done now and how they were done 30 years ago?
MB: I think every director’s different. Every director’s got his own style. I mean, when I directed, I basically just screamed for eight hours a day, twelve hours a day. “We gotta f***ing go, we gotta move! We gotta move! Shut the f*** up! We’re shooting, we’re shooting!” And other people like Ron Howard can just make a brilliant movie and be just as nice as can be. I think everybody’s different. You look at Eastwood, you know; supposedly he’s just as calm as a cucumber. You look at Cameron, and he’s, you know, he’s an intense guy, and Friedkin’s an intense guy. Everybody’s different.
You’re actually one step ahead of me, because I was going to ask you about your directorial debut, The Victim, next.
MB: Yeah, I’m like a madman. [laughs] I was described by somebody who was on that set as a cross between a raging lunatic and something else.
Was it Robert Rodriguez who sort of gave you that extra push you needed to go ahead and move into directing?
MB: I guess it was… You know, Jim Cameron has always told me that I should try and be a director, or try directing. And Jim has said to me about Robert Rodriguez, “One of the brilliant things about Robert is that Robert just doesn’t realize that he can’t do something, and he just does it.” He just goes for it, you kow? He doesn’t care. He just goes for it; he doesn’t care about anything. And when I worked with Robert, I got that from him. He just doesn’t care what people think, you know? I do, but he doesn’t, and I got that from him. And then, when I was shooting The Divide with Xavier, I saw a guy reading [Robert Rodriguez’s book] Rebel Without a Crew, and I said to myself, “You know? F*** it, man, I’m just going to go do this.” So that was kind of the genesis of me saying “I’m going to make a movie,” and then boom, it was three weeks preproduction and twelve days shooting.
JBB: It was an original story by Reed Lackey; we wrote [the film] in three weeks. Lorna [Paul] and I and Ryan Honey put everybody together and we shot it in twelve days. It was a lot of fun.
What were your takeaways from working with the various directors you’ve collaborated with over the years?
MB: You know, truth, man. Story. You have to have a good story to tell; that’s the most important thing. That’s what Cameron always has. That’s what Friedkin always has, or usually has. It’s having a good story to tell, and telling it honestly, trying to be as honest as you can. That’s really the best way I can describe it.