Lance Henriksen on Acting, 'Aliens', and Why He Hates Mirrors


Between dozens of film projects in development, voice work for videogames and Verizon's Droid campaign, a rally to bring Millennium's Frank Black back to television, and a young daughter, Lance Henriksen's dance card is more than full. You can add author to that list too, as his new biography, Not Bad for a Human, publishes this summer. Henriksen spoke with me about the book and what it means to be human.

Nightmares in Red, White and Blue writer and producer Joseph Maddrey knew the perfect person to narrate his documentary about the evolution of the American horror film was genre icon Lance Henriksen. Both men hit it off almost immediately, which sparked a series of conversations about something you wouldn't expect from the intense, gravel-voiced actor: pottery. Henriksen's filmic legacy as a tough guy who has battled aliens, Pinhead, Predators, and Pumpkinhead is well documented, but his experiences as an accomplished artist were the inspiration for an unusual kind of project. "Pottery in America is almost like a dead art," Henriksen explains. "It's a little bit like an antique. People take it for granted and all that. I wanted to do a reality show with a potter buddy of mine, Tom Coleman."

Maddrey's openness to the idea excited Henriksen, who continued telling the director stories about his life. "Joe's enthusiasm for a new idea, or a different kind of idea is contagious … and then he got a hold of me and said, ‘Lance, why don't we do a biography? Your biography?'" Henriksen avoided the idea of a biography for a long time and confides that his gut reaction was, "Who the hell am I? What have I got to offer on that level? … I didn't know what the book was going to be." The actor was wary of his story being construed as narcissistic, or symptomatic of a "giant ego." But as the title evolved, Not Bad for a Human became the exact opposite. The duo's collaboration is a fascinating, often humorous, and poetically moving tale about Henriksen's life as a wild child and the onscreen experiences we've grown to love him for.

Maddrey wanted to dig into Henriksen's cinematic oeuvre to uncover the unexpected, so he really did his homework before writing the book. "The amazing thing Joe did was he got every movie I've ever been in and watched them all. Even I couldn't do that. Half the time I don't watch anything I'm in," Henriksen joked. The soon to be 71-year-old star has hundreds of titles credited to his filmography, but some of his earliest roles were difficult to tackle. "I was in utter chaos when I first started acting. I was so full of fear, and I felt like an orphan," Henriksen recalls. "My earliest thought was, ‘If I could just stop being nervous, I would be a good actor.'" His ramshackle childhood -- which often left him homeless and hungry -- and his inability to read until his 30s were some of the major roadblocks that Henriksen struggled with. This chaotic upbringing adds a gritty and theatrical dimension to the book, which includes anecdotes about each of his films, including Henriksen's career-changing role as the android Bishop in James Cameron's Aliens.

"In the script, Bill [Paxton's character] says, ‘Bishop, do the knife trick.' Right before we shot it, I went up to Jim and I said, ‘Rather than just a casual demonstration, what if I put my hand over Bill's hand as I do this?' Jim said, ‘That's a good idea.' So we did it … That one act tells you everything you need to know about Bishop. I put my hand on top of Bill's, because I was protecting him. Bishop wouldn't hurt a fly. He wouldn't hurt anything that's alive."

Henriksen's uncanny ability to immerse himself in the life of a character is something he took to extremes for Stuart Gordon's The Pit and the Pendulum. His preparation for the role of the sadistic monk Torquemada is disturbingly detailed in Not Bad for a Human and found the actor living a strange lifestyle that chillingly altered him physically and emotionally. "Your intuition and inspiration guide you. I start gathering tiny pieces of things about a character, or about where I'm headed … I'm not going to be spoon-fed anything, because they didn't hire me for that." These are the kind of challenges Henriksen thrives on: "If I'm working with a director, the minute I walk on that set I'm trying to get a sense of what the restraints and limits are and how far I can push him. I don't mean, push him in a way that's provocative. I really am looking for that adventure."

This explorative spirit is what drew the actor to work with 30 Days of Night writer Steve Niles, who will be publishing a limited edition of Henriksen's biography under his Bloody Pulp Books banner -- which he runs with graphic designer Alex Lodermeier – on May 5 (Henriksen's birthday). Not Bad for a Human will also feature original artwork by Eric Powell, Tim Bradstreet, Mike Mignola, Ashley Wood, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Tom Mandrake.

"We looked into photographs for the book from movies, and they bore the shit out of me because everybody's seen them -- they've been everywhere," Henriksen said. Being a comic book lover, Maddrey suggested using comic illustrators, which Henriksen instantly connected with: "I thought what a stroke of genius that is, because for me it made it more accessible … because they're a translation of reality, it sets the tone for the book." It also reminded the actor of his past: " … When I was five-years-old, the only time I saw my father, we went to a hotel and we'd go to the movies all day long. He'd buy a stack of Tales from the Crypt comics, and we would go to a hotel and just sit there with candy … " A softcover edition of the book will be published by Alexander Henriksen Press and distributed through Ingram Book Company.

The book's perspective, Henriksen elaborates, is an inevitably subjective, expressionistic view of a life many will have only glimpsed through slivers of celluloid. "What I'm offering is a translation of my reality … and again, I never set out to do that, but that's the way it turned out. There's an interesting thought I had today. If you look in my house, there are no mirrors … that's an external life. That's looking at it from the outside. I live my life on the inside. I don't need to see my reflection to know I'm alive."