Monday, May 02, 2011

"I'm Hoping I Never Get Caught Acting:" The Tao of Lance Henriksen

Welcome to the Lance Henriksen Blogathon!

I want to kick off the celebration here today by considering a few of the reasons why Mr. Henriksen has proven so popular, durable, and well-loved among a remarkably diverse set of admirers. 

Just think about it.  This coalition of Henriksen fans includes:

1.) Horror aficionados (myself included), who view Henriksen as one of the great modern screen icons, and heir to the legendary likes of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price.  

In his genre roles, Henriksen can play a monster (Near Dark [1987], The Pit and the Pendulum [1991], Man's Best Friend [1993], or a hero (Pumpkinhead [1989], The Horror Show [1989], Jennifer 8 [1991]) with equal aplomb.  Cushing, Lee and Price arose from a more artificial, theatrical age and yet exuded dignity, humor and menace in spades.  Henriksen displays the same timeless virtues, but does so in a far more naturalistic, realistic age of movie-making.  That's not an easy task.

2.) Western fans, who adore Henriksen as a kind of old-fashioned but absolutely authentic "gritty" presence. 

Henriksen and the Western fit together like hand and glove.  There's something about his very look and sense of powerful physicality -- his sharp, laser-like eyes and that leathery skin -- that makes Henriksen an absolute natural in the rough-and-tumble frontier world of over a century ago.   Henriksen seems like a guy who has been through a rough spell or two, and weathered it.  He carries the mileage of these experiences on his shoulders, and in his face.   

You can readily detect this tough, bracing -- often-wolfish and sometimes world-weary -- Henriksen quality at work in such productions as The Quick and the Dead (1995), Dead Man (1995), Gunfighter's Moon (1998), and Appaloosa (2008), among others.

3.) Cult-tv admirers, who will never forget Henriksen for his singular contribution to that form: the profiler Frank Black on Chris Carter's much-missed Millennium (1996 -1999). 

Today, forensic investigators and serial killer hunters are a dime a dozen on network television, and often draw attention to themselves with histrionic and silly character "quirks."  Under Henriksen's and Carter's stewardship, Frank Black was determinedly the opposite.  He was low-key.  He was the stillness at the center of chaotic terrain.  He was our weekly anchor as we swirled around some very dark worlds and unpleasant characters.  Frank wasn't trying to pick fights.  He wasn't trying to "win" for any particular team.  He wasn't selling anyone on anything.  People could accept or dismiss Frank's advice as they saw fit.  He was the voice of reason and humanity in an often unsafe and insane world.

Also, Henriksen's Black wasn't needlessly angst-ridden or overly dramatic about his life and circumstances.  Rather, we clearly recognized him as one of us.  Or rather what we hope we could be like in such grave and disturbing situations: a committed family man facing the dark so the rest of us wouldn't have to. 

So  that's the landscape, or the "coalition" that goes into an appreciation of Lance Henriksen; that fuels such passion and admiration for this talent.  But what is the firmament underneath this landscape?  What's the "tao of Lance Henriksen?"

I believe we must commence with something the actor said to me in a telephone interview back in 2003. After affirming that for him, films were a kind of love affair or fling -- a passion that burned white-hot while he was in a role -- Henriksen also said, almost off-hand, something else of import:  "I'm hoping I never get caught acting." 

Rather, he said, preferred to "channel" a character, a person.

I submit that this is Henriksen's Tao as a screen artist: his ability to channel people/characters in a fashion that feels authentic to audiences, and lacks what you might term shallow Hollywood bullshit. 

Here are a few elements of that Tao, as I see them.

He doesn't "play" characters as heroes or villains. 

Henriksen makes each and every role he takes on about the person, without standing back -- away from the performance -- and transmitting some sense of moral judgment. 

His characters may do heroic things or they may do evil things, but Henriksen commits to each and every performance in the same detailed fashion; excavating that person's soul based on his understanding of the story, the dialogue, and the given background.   He leaves the judgment for us to suss out.

This is a remarkably efficacious process because, at times, it can generate that wonderful quality of ambiguity at just the right moment.  I see this aspect of his acting aesthetic clearly in one of Henriksen's most famous roles, as Bishop in Aliens (1985) and in Alien 3 (1992). 

In the case of Aliens, we have the tradition of a malfunctioning android, Ashe (Ian Holm) from Alien, and thus share Ripley's early fear that Bishop will turn out to be equally duplicitous.  Mid-way through the film, Bishop stands at a microscope and discusses the face-hugger's "magnificent" nature, a clear resonance of Ashe's description of the alien as a perfect life form. 

Yet Henriksen plays the line in a fashion that works two ways simultaneously.  As essentially, a wonder-struck child (a facet evident in Bishop throughout the film), admiring "life."  But also as, possibly, a machine with a malevolent, ulterior motive.   In short, Henriksen is Bishop, responding as Bishop would, but he leaves the judgment of Bishops' verbal response to the audience.  He doesn't telegraph any easy answers for us.

He accomplishes much the same task in Alien 3, portraying the android's human maker, also named Bishop.  This character says all the right things -- all the things the audience wants to believe for Ripley -- before showing his true colors.  In this case, our memory of the Bishop android is ruthlessly exploited.  We suspected him initially, but he turned out to be true blue.  In this case, we expect Bishop to be a friendly face, but his motives are actually suspect 

But again, Henriksen doesn't play the villainy as such.  His Bishop -- overtaken by the possibility of having a Queen alien as a specimen -- asks Ripley to consider all the things that they could learn from the beast. This line reveals that, after a fashion, he he is pursuing his own (dark...) path to further human knowledge.  He even says, again, that the alien is a "magnificent specimen."  This is a wonderful, and twisted reflection of the Bishop android's sense of wonder about alien life, as seen in Aliens.  Like father like son?  Not hardly...

What we see here is Henriksen playing each character with shades and echoes of each other, and without superficial, easy "tells."  This is critical to the fostering of suspense in both films, and Henriksen doesn't play the scenes in gimmicky or obvious fashion.

He makes authenticity a starting point. 

One example of Henriksen's demand for authenticity is plain in his westerns.  Case in point, The Quick and the Dead.  

As flamboyant Ace Hanlon, Henriksen had to appear absolutely comfortable, and more than that, deft, with gunfighting.  After all, the character was supposed to be "the best." 

Not only did Henriksen train with guns (sometimes firing thousands of rounds a day) in preparation for the film, but Thell Reed, his trainer, put double springs in Henriksen guns so the actor would have to work extra hard to pull the hammers back.  Then, once on  set, Henriksen did the movie with lighter springs in the hammers, so when he fired his guns, it was like lightning.  Voila, the fastest gun in the west was born.

Similarly, Henriksen did his research, and made certain to wear his guns high, as they were actually worn in the Old West. He made an effort to live, breathe, dress and behave as Ace Hanlon would have believably lived, breathed, dressed and behaved, and the results are impressive. 

Why is any of this background detail important?  Well, we quickly believe in Henriksen as Hanlon in the film, and when he does some gun-slinging there's little visual trickery or cutting necessary because he bothered to research and prepare for the part, a process Henriksen terms "gathering."  He adopts the skills of his characters, such that it is possible.  And again, this approach makes for tremendous authenticity.  Other actors do it as well, of course, but with Henriksen one senses this is a critical component of "channeling" a character.

He really goes for it. 

You can see in Henriksen's work that he isn't afraid to shoot for the moon. 

Henriksen plays some very hardcore, tough characters (think Chains Cooper in Stone Cold), and takes them as far as they can possibly go.  

Yet in a lot of action movies, you can detect actors playing villains "lightly" or for fun.  They're playing themselves, not a character. It's all a lark.

This happened sometimes in the James Bond movies, circa 1970 - 1985.  "Celebrity" villains came on board to menace Bond, but there was no real sense of menace because some of those actors were "performing," not channeling.  They were having a good time, not acting authentically as their characters. When Henriksen plays a role like Chains Cooper, the sense of menace is tangible because he has literally become that guy.  Henriksen doesn't walk through any role. 

And that's why his performances are always rewarding, even if the movies he stars in are not always so.

He is  (sometimes...) the Dad we all love

I should add, as well, that -- subjectively speaking for a moment -- I have a favorite Henriksen "mode." 

I almost universally find Henriksen the most affecting when he is portraying a father. 

Pumpkinhead (1989) always brings me to tears because of those first scenes in the film involving Ed Harley (Henriksen) and his young, golden-haired son (Matthew Hurley).  This father-and-son share a small, simple house in the desert, and spend their days together, just the two of them.

For a time, this duo seems to exist in this perfect bubble of slowed-down time.  There's a gentleness and patience and real love evident in Henriksen's performance in this portion of the film.  And Pumpkinhead remains absolutely heart-breaking because of it.  His performance serves the narrative purpose ably, too.  After losing that boy, it is understandable that Harley would make a mistake of rage, of passion.

Henriksen brings the same sense of quiet tenderness to his role as Frank Black, father of Jordan (Brittany Tiplady), in Millennium.  Again, it's a kind of silent but omnipresent  sense of love that he wordlessly offers.  He's not over-the-top or schmaltzy. He's just a Dad who really, really loves his child, and feels a bond with that child.  Frank sees the value in children, and he sees the humor in children too, as you can plainly see on his face in Millennium's "Seven and One," which opens with little kids dancing (very amusingly) at Jordan's birthday party.

Not to get too personal here, but in his fatherhood roles, Henriksen always  reminds me a great deal of my own dear Dad, and other boomer fathers I know.  Frank Black is not effusive like me and fathers of my generation.  Instead, his love is this patient, steady, yet powerful thing that makes itself known not necessarily through words or a show of overt emotionality, but through a touch here or there, or a look in the eyes.   Long story short: you always feel "safe" in his presence.

It's amazing that the same guy who plays Chains Cooper can also channel this parental ideal so convincingly.

And again, that's the Tao of Lance Henriksen.  Whatever role he takes on, you believe him in it one hundred percent.  You never catch him acting..


  1. Hi JKM;

    I'm glad you mentioned Lance's Western work 'cause that gets the short shrift sometimes. His screen presence reminds me of Klaus Kinski's in spaghetti westerns - high praise. It's a shame that westerns, particularly the pasta variety, have largely disappeared, because Henriksen would have ruled them. Oh well, we'll have to settle for him merely ruling horror and SF.

  2. Wonderful tribute, JKM. And also a great way to kick things off. I like how you mentioned that Henriksen quite often does not play stereotypical good or bad guys but ones that are shades of grey. That are elements of both in many of the characters he plays. And I think that gives many of the characters he plays an authenticity that people respond to.

  3. Great post! You're absolutely right about the two Bishops, and the ambiguity of the reprisal in ALIEN 3... although this may not have been entirely Henriksen's doing. Apparently there was a lot of indecision about the Bishop II character... even the writers, it seems, couldn't decide whether he was a human or a robot. If I remember correctly, the novelization (based on an early draft of the script) says he's human, but Lance says he played him as an "advanced model" synthetic.

    Your description of "boomer fathers" is a beautiful insight.

  4. Boy, your summation of the man was really terrific.

    I really connect with your description of the man in #2 and your points about his calm at the center of the storm in #3.

    I guess I've been channeling you a bit over the course of the last month no doubt.

    You're right.... he is authentic and he plays even the smallest part with complexity. That's one of the things I love.

    Anyway, excellent examination of Bishop- spot on regarding the dual nature of the character.

    Excellent summation on the gunslinger world and his ability to embrace and research a project. It shows.

    He never dials it in and that is why he adds so much to even weak material.

    Finally, as I've discovered recently, his role as criminal profiler and father is perhaps his greatest achievement. He is stunning in Millennium.

    Your essay on the Tao of Hennriksen was perfect. Excellent as always and a great way to kick start the week!

  5. Hi everyone, thank you for the great comments here on "The Tao of L.H."

    DLR: I totally agree with you that Henriksen is a potent force in Westerns. He seems like such a natural in that genre; and in another time, probably would have been one of the biggest star the Westerns had ever seen.

    J.D.: I thought long and hard when putting together "The Tao," and like you, I kept coming back to his sense of authenticity. Even playing an android for goodness sake, he seems real. But you're right, he offers shades of gray when many actors are satisfied with black and white.

    Joe: Glad you enjoyed this, my friend. That's interesting background about Bishop in Alien 3 (especially Henriksen's choice to play an advanced synthetic). And I think you and I see L.H. very much the same way in terms of Boomer fathers. There's something very familiar -- and safe -- about him when he's in "Dad" mode.

    SFF: Thank you for the kind words about this piece. I'm so glad you've had the chance to watch Millennium, and see one of Henriksen's mostly finely achieved and nuanced roles. He really is stunning in that program.

    All my best to all!


  6. Hi John,

    This event has started off nicely and it is great to learn so much about Mr. Henriksen. I'll sure check out some of the movies you review here, even though horror is not exact my thing and I'll sleep with the lights on for a couple of weeks.

    You and your guests are doing a great work. I just wish I could join in. Next time, maybe :)

    All the best,

  7. Claudiu,

    Thank you for your lovely comments, and heck, join us, join us!

    We're open all week with the L.H. Blogathon, and anything you'd like to add, we'd be happy to include, my friend!


  8. A very well and thoughtful written insight in the Tao of Lance Henriksen. I agree in every aspect of it. Respect, JKM. It's almost as if you can read my mind.

    I also would like to add something to this blogathon- even though my English might not be perfect. I will post my thoughts on my (mostly) German Lance Henriksen fansite and hope to "see" some of you there.

    Where shall I send the link when the content is online?

  9. Hi Dominik,

    By all means, send me that link! We'd love to read your thoughts on L.H.

    Send it to my e-mail address, which you can find on my blogger profile page (under contact info).

    All my best,

  10. Love this! Your breakdown of why Lance Henriksen is so damn great is razor-sharp, John. And I cannot agree with you enough about and the extent of LH's father roles. Man, your piece was exceptional till you reached that segment... then you raised it even higher. One damn fine read. Thanks very much for this, my friend.

  11. Hi Le0pard13:

    I'm glad you enjoyed my "Tao of LH" piece, my friend. I'm also happy you found value in my comparison of Henriksen to "father figures" as well. He really strikes a powerful chord with me in that mode. He always gets to me, but as a Dad (in Pumpkinhead and Millennium), he really gets to me. A figure of strength and safety.


  12. i'm glad some one else has the same thoughts i do as to mr. h's portrail as a father
    i believe that he excels when portraying a father
    probably comes from being 1 himself
    although i love all his work some of those are my fav
    especially in millenium as a father to -jordan- it was almost as if you could see & feel the tenderness in his eyes

    with great admiration

  13. i happen to agree
    some of mr. h's protrails as a father (to me) are when he is playing a father
    just look at him when he interacts with his "daughter " jordan in millenium
    makes you believe
    probably comes from being a father himself



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