You know him, you love him and if you're a movie fan you’ve more then likely come across him more than once. As one of the most daring, harrowing and prolific actors of his generation, Michael Rooker has made a career out of playing some seriously tasty bad guys. From his star-making debut in the jolting John McNaughton horror outing "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" to Al Pacino’s foe in the sexy "Sea of Love," from Sylvester Stallone’s ailing buddy in "Cliffhanger" to a man with a serious bee sting problem in "Slither," Rooker pops up in the most interesting places and always adds an air of cool charisma to every role. His latest work (besides a little series called "The Walking Dead!") is a loving homage to the creature features of old called "Hypothermia" (out on DVD Oct. 2 from Dark Sky Films) that features Rooker and his family battling a deadly and mysterious half man, half creature in a frozen paradise. We recently got a chance to chat one-on-one with the funny and magnetic Rooker and we took full advantage to walk through some of our favorite pieces of his work. (A little Rooker goes a long way, but a long career interview still kicks ass!) So in one of the biggest pieces we’ve ever done (this interview went way over an hour – sorry Michael we do love you!) here’s a rare, insightful and incredibly thorough look at the career of one of our favorite actors – welcome the great...
What was it about "Hypothermia" that made you interested in coming on board?
Michael Rooker: My buddy from Henry produced the project. So I spoke with the director over the phone and it was a great little project up in the wilds of upper New York State. I’m a big "Creature from the Black Lagoon" fan from yesteryear and this was kind of a tribute to that. The director is a very cool guy and he’s a really big fan of the genre and we chatted a bit and I ended up hopping on board.
There’s an authentic family connection in the film, especially between you and Blanche Baker – was there an instant chemistry between you all?
MR: Blanche and I had known each other before, so it ended up being really good stuff. And I don't get a chance to do a lot of family things – my guys are usually independent brokers! (Laughs) You don't know if they have family or not or sometimes it’s obvious that they don’t. They’re just plain lone wolves and that kind of guy. I don’t get that many opportunities to have that mom and dad and siblings kind of thing to do – it was a fun departure from my normal fare.
The conditions in the film looked cold – what was shooting like?
MR: Cold! (Laughs) The conditions were cold. We were out on the ice and it was freezing. I got a chance to wear my huge expedition jacket that I had purchased when I was up in Toronto doing a project several years ago. The only time I’ve ever worn it was basically when I worked on this project. It’s this huge parka that has little heating devices that go inside the jacket next to your kidneys. That’s how prepared this jacket is for the freezing cold up in the tundra. It helps keep your internal organs warm and it was interesting that I got a chance to wear that jacket again.
What, if any, were your encounters with the famed "Hypothermia" monster?
MR: (Laughs) Our monster was great! The guy in the rubber suit was a cool guy and the monster was very scary. The first time I saw the monster he was set up in the corner of the special effects room. I went down into the basement, it was all dark in there, and that’s where the microwave oven was. I went down to heat a cup of coffee or something and it was there in the corner. It was the first time I saw this thing and it was taller then me because it was on stilts and stuff. So I saw this object out of the corner of my eye and I turned around and went, ‘What the f#ck?!’ Scared the shit out of me because it wasn’t there the night before when I went down – that was my first encounter! (Laughs) My most memorable was when I saved his ass in the swimming pool. We were down in the water and the monster was supposed to grab me. I go under the ice with all my clothes on and everything and part of it was filmed in a local swimming pool. It was about an eight-foot pool and he was down there and he was supposed to grab me and pull me under. When he reached up instead of a tug I felt this little scratching sort off like, 'Hello, I’m here!' I looked down and he was trying to grab my leg and unbeknownst to myself it was hard for him to see mostly because water was filling up into his mask and he couldn't breathe. The cat is drowning and I immediately...(laughs)...jumped into action. You know, 'Rooker saves the day' - I was a lifeguard for three summers! So instead of the monster getting me, I saved him!
So I guess the three summers of being a lifeguard paid off!
MR: (Laughs) They definitely paid off!
Past Work - How did you become involved in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and what made you decide to take that role as your film debut?
MR: It really wasn’t a big thing at the time. I was doing a play and the director of the play did the prosthetic head and all that stuff for the film and he was saying to me you should go and audition for the main character because they can’t find this cat. I said, ‘Cool – thanks I will.’ So he set it up for me, I went over and met everybody and the rest is history. I ended up getting the role and it was my first real movie with any sort of through-line, so it was quite a challenge for me. That’s how I saw it – as a challenge. I had mostly done theater prior to Henry and had done little gigs here and there, but no real through-line. Just little day player stuff that every actor does in the beginning, but this was my first real serious piece. I was scared shitless because I didn't know if I could do it or not. But I came through the door, I met John McNaughton and went in to do the audition real quick and then go to work. At the time I was cleaning office buildings, so I was in my work clothes – and that’s what I wore for the movie. He saw the outfit and when he cast me he asked if I could wear that stuff for the role and I was like, ‘Sure, I could. But I can't get the jacket bloody or anything, okay?’ So whenever you see me killing anyone in Henry I’m always taking my jacket off. I took my jacket off so I wouldn't get it bloody, but it ended up being a wonderful character trait. So when Henry’s jacket comes off you know shit is going to happen.
What did you do to prepare for the role – did you do any research play Henry?
MR: You know I did, but it really didn't help me that much. Back in that period a lot of the stuff that was being written was by doctors or a third person, but it wasn’t being written by guys behind bars. So it was always somewhat analytical and medical it terms and it didn’t help me. What really gave me a nice handle was a video that I had seen of the real guy Henry Lee Lucas talking to Barbara Walters and also I saw a video of him being interviewed by the Texas Rangers after they had arrested him. So that was quite interesting. Not what he said, but how he said it and his body language – that I tuned into.
There is some harrowing stuff in the film – the family invasion especially. What was that scene like to shoot?
MR: The tone on the set was intense because you basically catch us in the middle of all of it. I think we shot maybe only two takes of that scene and we did it all in one shot basically. So we’re in the middle of this action sequence and basically that’s what it was, a very well orchestrated action sequence and it was intense. It was this extremely physical and very intense little scene that ended up being a major scene in the movie where people just couldn’t take it. The first time we showed the thing at Telluride we lost about fifty percent of the audience – people got up. And not quietly, they were like, ‘F#ck this shit – this sucks!’ And they stood up and walked out.
Did you have any idea that John McNaughton would make such a raw and controversial film – that it would even receive an NC-17?
MR: Oh my god, it was awesome. We tried to keep it as real as possible, no car chases, and it was very cool. Literally the very last shot of the movie as we finished I drove the car back to the production office – the Henry mobile. The car ran out of brakes on the way back and I couldn’t stop the car. So I’m driving this car down the Boulevard and I’m praying that I don't encounter a red light or anything that gets in the way because I can't stop the car. I coasted and the car came to a rest right outside the production office. I got out, closed the door and never saw it again. That was crazy strange. I had driven the car a lot in the movie and remember the scene with me and Becky in the car talking? We were on the damn highway with the cinematographer, the director and everybody in a little mini-van in front of us with the back open and we’re two feet from them. What if the brakes had gone out then? It was the most stressful filmmaking I’d ever done driving that close.
I loved the pivotal role you played in "Sea of Love" – what are your memories of that film and even though Pacino was still popular did you know that film would turn out to be such a good resurgence for him?
MR: I didn’t even know that he needed a resurgence – he was still really cool after to me! (Laughs) But it did end up being a very popular movie. I did one of my scenes and the next day they sent me home. Then they put me on hold and I was on hold for about a month and a half, more maybe before I was called back into work and I was being paid every week. So I’m sitting at home and I’m supposed to be on this movie and I’m calling Michael and Marty Bregman and I’m going, ‘What’s going on – am I still in the movie?’ They were like, ‘You’re good man, just hang out, you’re cool.’ So I did my first scene at the beginning of the movie and then I didn't work again until the end of the movie. But it was a major pivotal role and what I found out later on was that’s why they didn’t want me to film anymore until the end of the movie - because it was so pivotal. At the time of the filming the studio was going, ‘We don't need this, we don't need that.’ So they were nipping and tucking as they were filming and the producers I found out later did not want any of my stuff cut. So they just didn't film any of it until the studio just cooled their jets and let the guys do their film.
You played the role of Bosco in an early TV version of Michael Mann’s film "Heat" called "L.A. Takedown" – what was working on that film and with Michael Mann at the time?
MR: It was crazy – we would work eighteen hours a day. It was nuts. It was also awesome; I met a lot of great SWAT guys and interesting cops. An amazing experience and I really enjoyed it. Michael was a madman - he just worked and worked and worked. It was one of my first TV jobs and unfortunately it wasn’t picked up, but it was a cool piece. And then later on of course it ended up being "Heat." The same script, same dialogue, same characters. (Joking) I was like, ‘What the f#ck?!’ - I already did this! But I wasn’t called in because they didn't want any of the actors associated with the TV show to be associated with the movie. They were afraid we’d be going, ‘Hey, you know Al did you realize that this was a failed pilot?’ (Laughs) They didn’t want any of the big boys to know that I don't think.
You made "Days of Thunder" with the late, great Tony Scott – what kind of a director was he?
MR: Tony was one of my favorite directors. Out of all my work I think Tony is in the top three along with Alan Parker and a bunch of directors I’ve worked with that just really touch you. Tony was one of those guys. Exuberant and excitable and when he’s talking about what’s going to happen he got you ready. He’d motivate you so by the time he was done explaining stuff, you were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ Very cool guy and all of us are saddened by the fact that that happened.
Loved the sullen character you played in "Cliffhanger" – what was that film like to work on?
MR: Dude, that was like a vacation. It’s a lot of eye candy stuff. I mean there are some really good scenes in there, but it’s really just beautiful. I mean you walk down the street to get a coffee and it’s like postcard shit – the town is like a postcard of a vacation resort area. And that’s what it was and it looked like it. We had a great time doing that film and we’d be up ten to eleven thousand feet. The hotel was about eighty-five hundred feet and we’d take helicopters up to the set everyday.
There’s a ton of on-set stories floating around about "Tombstone" including director changes – what was your experience like on that film?
MR: It was a dream come true. You’re riding horses, shooting guns, you’re wearing your rig on your hips all day long for several months and by the end you going home and you feel wrong. You feel naked and you can’t understand why and then you realize you don’t have your guns on. It felt wrong walking around without my guns! Truly I felt incomplete and I really enjoyed having the pistols at my side and it was an awesome experience. I’m an avid shooter and I still have my single action pistols from that movie. Of course, the whole directorial change and stuff like that, that’s behind the scenes. They don't ask us. If the footage that they’re getting back in Hollywood is not what they want they basically have the option of releasing the director – and that’s exactly what they did. I gotta tell you it was fun for me. I enjoyed the first director, I enjoyed the second director and enjoyed shooting the movie.
"Mallrats" marked a turn to comedy for you – love the chocolate covered pretzels – after playing so many heavies was it fun to just play for laughs?
MR: I really enjoy, and I don't like to beat my own drum, but I think I’m pretty good at comedy. I really enjoyed "Mallrats" and I enjoy physical comedy – that’s my forte. I’m not a sitcom guy and I don't see myself that way, but I do like a good flying can over the head scene. That’s my kind of stuff. (Laughs) Physical comedy and low class, low-rent comedy.
What’s interesting about "The Replacement Killers" is it was an American debut for Chow Yun-Fat and first film for "Training Day" helmer Antoine Fuqua – what was it like working with them early on?
MR: Chow Yun-Fat was a wonderful man – I got along really well with him. Antoine was one of my favorite directors because we ended up starting that film without one singularly approved script. I think there were two studios involved and each had their version that they liked. There was not a single version that was agreed upon. So Antoine was contractually obligated to start this movie on this date and so he did. He decided to start the movie whether he had an approved script or not and my role kept getting cut more and more out of the movie. I became like the third wheel. So I’m talking with Antoine and I’m like, ‘What is going on - this role is becoming nothing.’ This was before we started filming and we had these conversations and I was like, ‘This is not what I signed on for – this is not what I agreed to do.’ The role was nothing. And he promised me that the role was something and that the role would still be there no matter what script we were reading from that day. And I said, ‘Okay, I’m still in.’ So we literally re-wrote all of my work the night before, put it back in the movie and shot it the next day. That’s how that movie was for me – it ended up being a really good role. Antoine was the one that kept me in the movie, otherwise I would have been out. They would have paid me the money and I would have walked.
"Slither" had you in a ton of tasty make-up – what was the process like getting into all that stuff?
MR: Slither was an awesome project, but it took like seven hours to put on. Then they got it down to about six hours maybe and about two hours to take it off. It was a very painful process and once I was in it, it was not fun to be in. Crazy stuff, but it was a great product. I though it was a very funny, very weird love triangle comedy. But the studio and the PR people thought it was a horror movie and that’s why it was hard to place in the marketplace.
What made you take the role of Merle Dixon in "The Walking Dead" and did Frank Darabont being on the project have an influence on your decision?
MR: Of course it did – he was the main guy on the project. He and Gale Anne Hurd were approached by the casting people who thought the role of Merle was perfect for me. I was lucky and I was very fortunate to end up getting the project. I think it was just one or two episodes, quite honestly I think that’s all it was. I call it my karma project – "The Walking Dead" was my karma project. So I ended up getting involved and then my role was exploding on the screen and people hated it and loved it. Merle was up on the rooftop shooting zombies higher then a f#cking kite and not giving a shit about anybody or anything. So when T-Dog comes up there and yells at him to stop it, T-Dog could have been anybody. It didn’t matter that T-Dog was black, Merle doesn't give a f#ck. Whoever told him to shut up was in for it – it just happened to be T-Dog! (Laughs)
Your character then disappears for a while, with the exception of a mirage in the head of weary brother Daryl – did you think you were gonna be in the series more?
MR: That scene I did on the rooftop where it’s just me and the zombies are coming and I cut my hand off – that scene ended up being a four and a half minute monologue. That was the most fabulous piece of writing I’d ever read - and that scene didn't happen until Frank Darabont and the other producers saw my work. As soon as they saw my work in the first scene, they flew back to LA and wrote that scene. Is that a kick in the ass? I was getting ready to go home and they were like, ‘No, they’re bringing you back.’ I mean the scene wasn’t there – there was no scene at all. All you see at the end of the episode was my hand, but there never any monologue at the beginning of that episode. I was flabbergasted and I was the entire teaser for that episode and it was phenomenal.
What are your thoughts on fan excitement of wanting you back in the series and what can we expect from a seemingly reappearing Merle Dixon as seen in the Comic-Con trailer for Season 3?
MR: That’s exactly what happened – the fans went crazy for Merle. After that first episode they were so crazy for the character but in like a 'who the hell is this guy' and a lot of negative stuff too. Then I did that monologue scene and who they thought Merle was was not who Merle was. So the monologue was Merle’s saving grace on "The Walking Dead" – Merle won people over. As far the trailer the words are pretty explicit. “How’s about a hug for your old pal Merle?’ He’s a friendly gentlemen – he just wants a big hug! (Laughs) A little Merle loving!
Well, thanks so much for taking so much time to talk with me!
MR: You know what we forgot though? The film that got my career really going – a John Sayles movie...
Of course, the great "Eight Men Out!"
MR: If it wasn’t for "Eight Men Out" I would not have gotten my agent and I would not have gotten "Mississippi Burning." Without my agent I would have still been in Chicago doing theater. Not that that is bad, but because of "Eight Men Out," me landing that role of Chick Gandil when the production company had been looking all over the country and I came walking in off the street practically, I landed the most coveted role in the film. Chick Gandil was extremely pivotal for that movie and I was so blessed and lucky to have landed that.
Did a lot of it have to do with John Sayles?
MR: I got the call from my house in Chicago and they wanted me to tape and send it to Indiana where the production company was. And I said, ‘I’m gonna be down there this weekend, why don't I just pop in and see them when I get there.’ And they were like, ‘Okay, we’ll set it up.’ So I’m like, ‘Here’s my agents number, call her and she’ll set it up.’ And of course I didn't even have an agent, I had fired all my agents. I had fired every agent I had in Chicago because they were doing nothing for me. So when that phone call happened I’m thinking in the back of my head I don’t have an agent – what am I going to do? Anyway I basically gave them a number to an agent that I knew of, but didn't really know who she was. I didn’t even know her and I gave them the number and then I immediately hung up and called this lady. I said, ‘Hey, you’re my agent. John Sayles movie "Eight Men Out." They’re gonna call you – all you have to do is set up the meeting.' (Laughs) And I landed an interview with John Sayles.
Awesome - congrats on everything Michael!
"HYPOTHERMIA" IS OUT ON DVD OCT. 2 FROM DARK SKY FILMS.