If you can’t involve the threads of humanity
in your story, I think you wind up with
more of a formula…
I hate to break it to you, Bastards, but despite playing every type of freak, mutant, and psychopath under the sun, Michael Berryman is actually one really nice dude. I had the privilege of having a lengthy conversation with Pluto a couple weeks back, and this is how it went down…
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: What is the first movie that changed your life – that made you think, “This acting thing – I need to get into this?”
MICHAEL BERRYMAN: Oh, wow. Actually, there was never a movie that made me say that to myself. I got into acting by coincidence, but I’ve loved film my entire life. The most significant film probably, from the earliest age – let me think here – I would have to say WAR OF THE WORLDS, FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, and the early Karloffs. Then, when episodic television came about, I was just enamored with Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. I actually had the joy of meeting Rod Serling one night, and he was so cool. He just hung out by his car, smoked three cigarettes, and we talked for 20-30 minutes about some of the stories from The Twilight Zone series.
DG: The man always struck me as brilliant.
MB: Oh, very brilliant. That guy was sharp as a tack. He understood human nature and the world condition so thoroughly. It was quite astounding how he put together his stories: the hen-pecked husband with the thick eye glasses, then there’s World War Three. He always goes to read in the vault – he works at a bank – and he gets caught reading and his bank manager’s really mad at him – nobody seems to understand or appreciate. Those kinds of elements in a story I think run real deep. If you can’t involve the threads of humanity in your story, I think you wind up with more of a formula: ‘Well, what would fit for this TV schedule time slot? And make sure your story dovetails around these certain interests so that the product placement is enhanced,’ I don’t like that. I like art. I’ll do that because I’m a professional, but I appreciate art. That’s why I’m still gassed up from being at the Calgary Film Festival.
DG: Burgess Meredith was so great in that role, too. That is a classic episode of The Twilight Zone.
MB: One of my all-time favorites. As an actor, I’ve been doing this for my audience – and thank you for being a fan, number one – for three and a half decades. Burgess Meredith was an incredible talent. There’s a scene where his glasses break, and he puts them back on, and the glass falls out of the frame. For you photographers out there and wannabe cinematographers, I think Mr. Serling had it on probably an eighty-five lens. Real close. It wasn’t a dolly shot. It wasn’t focused in. It was just a beautiful, beautiful shot. And he goes, “That’s not fair.” Burgess Meredith is sitting on these steps going up to the beautiful library, and he has piles of classic books that represent time well-spent for the remaining years of his life. So – yes – humanity in a story, relevancy – you can still make it very interesting. You don’t have to go the SAW route, so to speak.
DG: I always thought that Serling was good at putting out a good story, and at the same time, having a message he’s not hammering you over the head with.
MB: That’s correct. He was very subtle and light-handed. He allowed the viewing audience to discover the message. That’s the best, because it’s not preaching.
DG: Could you tell us a little bit about your experience on ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’s NEST? And at the time, I’m wondering, did you realize that you were involved in something special – something that would resonate over the years?
MB: Well, let’s take that as your first question, and thank you for asking. I was discovered by George Pal in Venice Beach, California, around 1973. He put me in the movie DOC SAVAGE. He gave me a two-day guarantee and I got a SAG card. I never studied acting. I’d been a singer and I studied art. I got a degree in art history and used to read a lot. I was going to homestead in Alaska, be a nature photographer, and try to do some conservation efforts. Just sort of stake out a little chunk of the earth, make it as beautiful as I could, and enjoy my life. Well, when I did DOC SAVAGE, the production office had some people attached to it who were the casting directors. They were very prominent. George Pal was very prominent. George Pal, for you readers, produced WAR OF THE WORLDS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (editor’s note: THE TIME MACHINE), and many, many more. So, they had a photograph of my face. They said, “Wow. Your face looks like someone who could be a lobotomy patient in a mental institution. Let’s find out who his agent is.” I didn’t have an agent, at the time. I was discovered by the producer and hired on the spot. I pick up the phone one day and there is a woman and a man on the phone and they go, “Hi, I am Micheal Fenton and this is Jane Feinberg” – two of the most prestigious casting directors in that era.
DG: And it was a positive experience? Working with the likes of Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito?
MB: It was awesome. We’re talking top-notch. Everybody’s very, very professional. It was a wonderful family for 127 days. I worked six days a week. I was on the set every day, because I wanted to learn.
DG: Excellent. Well, I’m sure we have a lot of aspiring filmmakers amongst our readers. I know you’ve collaborated with Mr. Wes Craven on a few of your projects, including DEADLY BLESSING and INVITATION TO HELL. Of course, most people will recall your iconic turn in THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Like CUCKOO’s NEST, when working with Mr. Craven, did you have an idea at the time that the films would become such cinematic landmarks?
MB: No. That particular thought never entered my mind. I just finished working 127 days on the only Oscar-winning film I’ve worked on to date, and I get a call to meet Wes and Peter Locke. We had one van, and a couple of vehicles, and we went out and we just made a movie. It was challenging, and actually a lot of fun. I had some surgery under my arms. Over a period of 6-7 weeks, as we were making the movie, I had bandages and stitches. In the middle of production, I had to go back to L.A. to get carved on, then came back out. That’s why I’m wearing the hides – the skins – that go over my shoulders. They looked great for the wardrobe, but we also designed them to cover my bandages.
To this date, I can’t find a single frame in that movie I would change. When the father goes to the gas station, and Grandpa’s trying to hang himself, and they had that long conversation. He goes, “How’s your family?” “Oh, they’re fine.” “Like hell they are. There’s something you ought to know.” Then he tells a story, and at the very end goes, “So I took a tire iron, and I split his face wide open.” The father goes, “Well, how bad was it?” That always made me laugh. Then the camera pans down to the floor and you see the stuff that Ruby was going to use for food. The father goes, “What’s this?” John Steadman says, “Oh. Oh, that’s just –“ and right about then is when Papa Jupe breaks in the window. We over-cranked the camera, and he in slow-motion pulls him back into the darkness and kills him. They put that line in specifically to relax the audience for the sting. It’s brilliant. It really works as a transitional element from one scene to another. It gets you from two fathers talking, setting up the premise, to – ‘Holy crap! He just killed this motherfucker, and I gotta get back home!’ But, of course, he doesn’t make it.
DG: Kind of catches you with your pants down a little bit. You let your guard down, suddenly they go for your throat.
MB: Exactly. Exactly.
DG: Now we’re going to jump genres entirely. I would be remiss in not asking you about your work with another legend. What was your experience with John Hughes and WEIRD SCIENCE?
MB: John Hughes was laid back, comfortable to be around, very youthful, and he knew exactly what his teenage target audience needed to go see when they went to see his film WEIRD SCIENCE. He had it down to a tee. When we went to leave with Vernon Wells, after we trashed the house and they get the drop on us with the gun, he runs up to me while we’re setting the camera and says, “Michael, we’re going to close on you.” I know a good director when they tell me what the camera and lens are doing. Is it moving? Are you racking? What are you doing? I am a still photographer. I have an art degree. I go, “OK.” And he says, “Say something funny.” I go, “What?” He goes, “Yeah. You’re pushing the bike, then you look at the camera, and think of something just totally brilliant.” I’m going, “Uh . . . OK…” and I was thinking of twenty things at the same time.
DG: He didn’t put you on the spot at all.
MB: “Let’s work on this together, could we John?” He goes, “Yeah. How about – what if he’s a teacher, and the kids bug him all day long, and this is your chance to get back at them?” And I go, “Oh, OK. I’ll run with that.” And I did. I learned as an actor – for all you aspiring actors out there – I was starting to realize that you could be on the editing bay floor. And your brilliant efforts go unappreciated because no one sees them. So I was like, “How can I do this really wonderful moment and make sure the editor and director can’t cut me out?” While I’m pushing the bike – one step, two step – turn to the camera and go, “Can we keep this…between us? I’d hate to lose my teaching job…” rotate my head straight and exit the frame. Now, he loved it, because it was an homage to my dear friend Red Skelton. I went to school with his son Richard. If you notice, it’s never cut out in any version of WEIRD SCIENCE I’ve ever seen. John really liked it. He left us too soon. He should be making movies today, but what are you going to do?
DG: You can’t cut that scene out. It’s iconic. Well, now that we’ve tackled a few of the staples in your filmography, is there a film you feel fell undeservedly under the radar? One you’re particularly proud of that maybe doesn’t quite get the accolades or attention it deserves?
MB: That’s a really good question. There was a movie made years ago with Sean Patrick Flanery, Dina Meyers, Fred Koehler, and myself as Cadaver. It’s called THE STORYTELLER. It was written, directed, and produced by Andrew Getty. Brilliant, wonderful film. He’s just got a little bit more to do. It’s been five years, but it’s really ambitious. That sort of is a fudge on answering your question, because he hasn’t released it yet. I would have to say, DOC SAVAGE. I think it just came out at the wrong time. I thought it was really, really cool. And maybe GUYVER.
DG: Actually, I have a lot of friends who are fans of GUYVER. They love that movie.
MB: AUNTIE LEE’S MEAT PIES. The Larry character, with Pat Morita. It was one of Pat’s last films, before we lost him. We became very, very good friends. But the character Larry in AUNTIE’S LEE’S MEAT PIES – I really liked that character. These are all independent, smaller films, so they’re not going to be mainstream, as far as everybody knowing about them. And then the film BRUTAL. It could have been edited into a stronger film, but I loved the chance they gave me to play Leroy, a cadaver dog-handler; a little OCD, but he could get the job done.
DG: Over the years, you’ve played different characters in several renditions of Star Trek, including THE VOYAGE HOME, THE FINAL FRONTIER, and The Next Generation. Is this all coincidence, or are you a big Trek fan?
MB: I don’t think it was coincidence. I think once I had a chance to do THE VOYAGE HOME – Leonard was terrific – and I really think the executives at Paramount were very pleased with the graphics display. To mind, I had some of the most beautiful prosthetics I have ever worn. That make-up was astounding. To play Captain Rick in the subsequent Next Gen – come on! How often do you get to meet Patrick (Stewart) and the rest of the gang? I’ve always been a huge Star Trek fan. Matter of fact, they had a retrospective the other day on the telly about the historical significance. It was kind of like, what’s more important: Star Trek or Star Wars? It was kind of fun. But again, going back to Rod Serling and good storytelling, Gene Roddenberry is right up there with him. To be involved had a lot to do with how I look physically, but also when you put on some really good prosthetics and finish my make-up – I’m a chameleon and I can morph. I can become all kinds of characters. That’s a fortunate advantage with the way I look. So I’m grateful. As a kid I didn’t dig it too much, but oh well.
DG: Now you laugh, but that’s a bit of a hot topic subject amongst us nerds: Star Trek vs. Star Wars. You know how some people say you’re an Elvis man or you’re a Beatles man? Well, in our circles, you’re either Star Trek or a Star Wars and there’s very little crossover. So, you don’t have a preference yourself, sir?
MB: It’s not allowed? I like them all.
DG: I think that’s the mature answer. I agree with you. Can’t we all just love science fiction together? Come on. There doesn’t have to be any dissension.
MB: If you love Elvis and you want to stretch out a little bit, go see BUBBA HO-TEP.
DG: Yeah. That’s a classic. I love that movie.
Your work with Rob Zombie is, in my mind, reminiscent of your earlier affiliation with Wes Craven – him being another promising filmmaker, just kind of reaching his prime. Working with the likes of other genre legends like Ken Foree, Sid Haig, and Lieutenant Callahan herself – Leslie Easterbrook, did Mr. Zombie pretty much hand you all a script, turn on the camera, and just let you do your thing?
MB: No. It was a scripted scene. I’d never met him before. He was great. Him and Sheri are awesome. What’s a professional? Show up on time, hit your mark, sign out on the sign-out sheet. Yes, we had scripted lines, but we were really allowed a lot of leeway as far as if we had something better. He was like a little kid – short, little Rob Zombie – he would say, “Ok. What do ya got? I love it, I love it. Just do it. Just do it.” There was a lot of ad-libbing.
DG: Well, when you surround yourself with veterans like that, I would think – as a filmmaker – I would try to use that to my advantage. I mean, you’ve all been around the block. You’ve all taken swings at the piñata – you know what you’re doing.
MB: I love working with my friends. We’re all professional; we’re all like a big family. And knowing each other’s natures makes for better chemistry. You can help stretch each other’s performance and bring something new to the surface, which is always appreciated by the fans – and the actors themselves. I couldn’t play the same role forever and ever. But if the money was right . . . maybe.
DG: What the last great movie you saw at the theatre? Is there anyone in mainstream cinema you like in particular?
MB: That’s almost an unfair question because we like to watch movies at home, and maybe have some pizza. I don’t go out to the theaters that much, but the most recent film that I saw – the last one that really kind of grabbed me – I loved AVATAR and ZOMBIELAND.
DG: That’s a great one. ZOMBIELAND. I really enjoyed that, too. Crafty veterans aside, you’ve also worked with aspiring legends – new faces along the lines of Lee Demarbre, who directed SMASH, and earlier, JESUS CHRIST VAMPIRE HUNTER. In your opinion, who are some of the names to look out for in the future of the horror genre?
MB: That’s a good question. I think Michael Berryman needs to make a horror film. So, watch out. I’d like put a shout-out to my buddy Joe Hollow, who did the movie CUT, with Tony Todd, myself, and Kane Hodder. Joe’s a really, really energized, hardworking director/writer/actor. Let’s get it done and do the best we can – a lot of energy there. I would say Joe Hollow.
DG: Can you tell us a little bit about your work with Justin Thomas on BELOW ZERO?
MB: Absolutely. Thank you. My dear friend, producer Signe Olynyk, and her writing partner Bob Schultz put together this story that Signe had an idea for. She googled slaughterhouses in Canada – she’s from Canada – and in Alberta, she found this family who said, “Yeah, we have one. We’ll let you have it for fifteen days. What do you want us to do?” She said, “I want you to lock me in your freezer, with things that I need, for five days and don’t let me out, because I have to meet my deadline and get a script done.” Well, that’s the premise for the story. Eddie Furlong is the writer – Jack the Hack – and that’s what happens to him. He gets dropped in the middle of nowhere. He gets picked up by the gal that owns the slaughterhouse and gets taken to the place. He says, “Well, what if I change my mind?” and she closes the door on him. Then he tries to deal with issues and demons. He starts to write and you see different versions of the film as he comes up with ideas. You gotta see the movie. It’s really, really good. It’s beautifully shot and the music is excellent. Very Alfred Hitchcock-ish. And we filmed it in fifteen days. I’ve watched it about 30 times and every time I get something more. So I’m a big, big fan. It just had its world premiere at the Calgary Film Festival just a few days ago. We had two screenings and the audiences loved it. If you go to Facebook, to BELOW ZERO, you can sign up as a friend and maybe win a chance to be at one of the premieres as it gets distributed. I would say BELOW ZERO is one to be looking for.
DG: We will promote that. Maybe we’ll get in contact with Twilight Films and try to get some material to put on the site.
MB: They’ve got still shots, absolutely, and they’ve got trailers. They’ll help you out. Please give them my regards.
DG: I will do that, sir. I wanted to get away from cinema a little bit. I read about your extensive work with various charities, and your love for animals, organic gardening, and the rainforests. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that – about the Michael Berryman people don’t know, as opposed to the characters they’re used to seeing on screen.
MB: Thank you very much for that and I’ll cover as much ground and be as succinct as possible. We have a beautiful, blue planet and we have every responsibility to keep it a beautiful planet for our children’s future. That includes clean air, clean water – these are basic, basic things that should never cause division amongst humans as far as making decisions. It’s precious. Oh golly. I’ve volunteered at a wolf preserve, I’ve worked with various children’s organizations through many wonderful sponsors, including Paul Newman, for children having their faces reconstructed. I’ve done mentoring programs for school districts on Choices for Children. What I’m trying to say is: every moment, every breath is precious. If you have a love in life, do it. Let your passion be your career. Go off and make a difference. That’s kind of the Michael Berryman that my fans, who really know me, understand.
Special thanks to
for her transcription services!
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