When making a genre movie in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were a clear set rules that had to be adhered to in order to make it a success: hire Arnold Schwarzenegger as the hero, cast Sharon Stone as the femme-fatale and as for the bad guy? Well, there was only one guy you needed to call and it seemed that back then, everyone had one particular actor on speed dial… Michael Ironside.
“Total Recall was one of those great gifts that was given to me,” Ironside says with a warm smile, speaking from his home. “I’d just come off V, which had garnered a lot of heat and there’s a lot of crossover between Richter and my character in V. In V, I constructed someone that couldn’t give affection and couldn’t receive affection and that character actually helped build the foundation for the character of Richter. Paul, I think wanted a much more in-depth, much more specific emotional character and we worked on that. I worked on that very hard.”
While 1990’s mega-budget sci-fi blockbuster Total Recall was arguably Ironside’s biggest mainstream exposure, it certainly wasn’t his first foray into the genre, or for that matter, the hearts of sci-fi fans around the world. It was in 1981 that the Canadian-born actor exploded onto the scene (literally) in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, followed by a string of appearances in film and TV, predominantly as the bad guy.
“It’s my experience that you don’t pick your type,” Ironside says when asked about the uniformity of his on-screen roles. “It’s an old story that if you hit an old lady with a shovel and people make money off it, then that’s what they want you to do. I’ve used this metaphor the last 23 years; the shovel may become gold plated and the lady may turn out to be Diana Rigg, Sophia Loren or whoever, or the shovel may become an Uzi or a stick of dynamite. Millions of dollars are invested in this, people take risks on you. It’s very hard to get hired if you haven’t shown what you can do. And once they’ve made money off you it’s very hard to get somebody to say, ‘Well why would I get you to do this when that guy over there does it and I make money off of him doing that. He kisses the ladies and you kill them’. So what I do is I make a lot of money playing ‘heavies’. I’ve done it over my career and actually still do quite a bit.”
The life of a well-paid film actor is as far removed as you could imagine from Ironside’s humble beginnings. Hailing from east of the Don river in Toronto, Ironside was the eldest of six siblings and lived in a house just twelve and a half feet wide that he also shared with his grandfather and various pets. “Where I grew up there was no privacy,” Ironside explains, “There was always somebody from the neighbourhood in the house so it was always very crowded. So privacy was in reading and writing and I would create my own things when I was writing.”
It would be Michael’s escapism through literature that would prove to be the stepping stone towards his later career, although it would take the intervention of someone that believed in him to kick start it. “I was writing my autobiography when I was 13 years old. And this student teacher named Judy Millen saw what I was doing and she said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m writing my life story’. She didn’t laugh and she asked if she could take a look and I let her take it home. She came back and she said, ‘Your dialogue and your characters are absolutely brilliant but your descriptive narrative is shite’. So I asked what she meant and she said, ‘Have you ever thought about writing plays?’ At that time all I knew was basically Shakespeare and the stuff they touch on at High School in a working class background and she gave me Ibson and Strindberg. Strindberg would go on for two or three pages with description, he was such a control freak. So I asked, ‘Why would I do this? I can’t do my whole life’, and she said, ‘No, take one episode’.”
“There was an episode that had happened to me when I was 13, before I started writing this, where there’d been a fight at home and I basically ran away for two days. I stayed at a Salvation Army shelter downtown. I was big enough and old enough that they let me stay and I saw some stuff there. There was an old fella who was trying to get me to kill him, he had me almost convinced that he could give me super powers if I killed him. Because he was crippled and he couldn’t get out and he didn’t want to live anymore. We tried to convince me to suffocate him. There was a guy who got beaten to death in the shower and the attendants didn’t give a shit because they didn’t want any trouble. There was 180 guys sleeping in three different dormitories. So she says, ‘Take that, it’s one set, maybe two acts, maybe three’. So I did it, she gave me some editorial choices and stuff and I handed it in after the summer and she said, ‘Wonderful’ and I went away and carried on writing. She went ahead and entered it into a Canada-wide contest for University students and I knew nothing about it. She was a bit of a champion in the sense that she wanted more money spent at a grass-roots level in education. She was from a fairly literate family, she and her sister moved into the neighbourhood because they believed if you’re gonna teach in the neighbourhood you have to live in the neighbourhood. She thought money should spent on children in education not on the finished product in Universities. So to make a point she didn’t tell anyone I was in Grade 9 or 10 at the time, she entered it and it won first prize.”
The incredible win would wind up setting Ironside on a path towards the arts, which was as far removed from the life his family knew at the time as he could possibly imagine. He just didn’t know it yet! “I had a full time job at night as a young teenager, I was painting factories at night and then going to school in the daytime. I came home one day and there were all these suits in the kitchen with their hats on so I thought it was the police. They were all talking to my Mom and I remember hiding thinking, ‘Fuck, what have I done? I haven’t done anything wrong’. And I heard my Mom say, ‘We can’t send our kids anywhere physically but we can send them there in books’, and I thought, ‘What’s she telling that to the police for?’ So I buggered off, went to work and came home later that night about 12 (I worked about 5.30-12/12.30, if I skipped lunch I could come home early). Now my father always went to bed at 11.30 as soon as the news was over. That man worked three jobs for us to make ends meet. He’d come home, dinner was at 5/5.30, sit at the table and talk until 6 and then he would go doing what he did, fixing things in the basement and things until 11, watch the news and then go to bed at 11.30. I came home at 12.30, the light was still on in the kitchen and he was still awake. I thought, ‘What the fuck’. So I go in and I said, ‘Dad I didn’t do anything’, he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘I saw the cops were here’, he said, ‘No, no they weren’t cops they were reporters. Evidently you won some contest. Who’s this Judy Millen?’ I said, ‘She’s my teacher in school, she’s been helping me with my writing,’ and he said, ‘Ah. Well she went ahead and entered this in a Canada-wide University contest and it won first prize so you get a chunk of money (either $5,500 or $7,500) and you get to have your play produced anywhere in Canada. But there’s a huge stink because you’re not in University, she’s making some political statement’. He said, ‘They’re trying to figure this out and I’ve got an idea for you’.”
In retrospect, Michael admits that it wasn’t just Miss Millen that helped make the right choices for him. “I get emotional when I tell this because I didn’t realise until I was well into my 40s what my Dad did”, Ironside says. “He said, ‘If you give up the money, they can split the money half and half between second and third place and you get to see your play produced.’ So I said, ‘Okay’ and he wrote it up and I signed it. They agreed to it, they got the money and I got my play produced. It didn’t hit me until I was in my 40s, that my Dad had never seen that kind of money in his whole life. This is a man who’s worked three jobs to make ends meet and he says, ‘Give away the money and you get the chance to see something you wrote’. The gift of parenting, when parents understand stuff.”
Winning the competition and seeing his play produced (by a small Canadian company called Factory Lab) gave Michael the boost he needed to find his feet in the creative arts. His second play, East of the River was picked up by the Toronto Workshop and while he was writing, he began taking acting roles to help enhance his understanding of the process from their perspective.
“There’s an old saying,” Ironside explains. “If a dog shows up in the same place enough times, they’re going to give it a screen test. It’s not whether you get the screen test, it’s what you follow it up with. You have to be constantly moving forward. There’s no standing still in this industry. You’re either going backwards or you’re going forwards. You’re either learning and progressing or you’re going backwards and then you’re forgotten. So it’s not getting a break, it’s what you do with the bloody break. What you follow it up with.”
As time would tell, Michael Ironside followed up his successes with a string of TV and film appearances. But while it would be Scanners that would put his face on the map (literally all over it in little pieces) it was roles in successful shows such as The A-Team, Hill Street Blues and most importantly, the alien drama V that would begin to make him a household name.
“The original story, I’m told, was that that was a lot like the Man in the High Tower,” Ironside reveals. “What if America had lost the war. And the Networks were like, ‘This is bullshit, who’s gonna watch this?’ so he went off and made all the Nazis aliens.” V would be the springboard that propelled Michael to more mainstream fair, including the likes of Top Gun, while it would be the role of Richter in Total Recall that would firmly cement him as a genre favourite. His follow up, as General Katana in the often-lamented sequel Highlander II would be no exception. In fact, no sooner had we begun chatting than Ironside spotted my replica Masamune samurai sword from the first Highlander film sitting behind me. “Hold on a second”, Ironside says with a grin before disappearing off camera. When he returns, he’s waving his screen-used sword from The Quickening. “You wanna go?” It’s a moment that would make any fan of either Highlander or Ironside grin from ear to ear. “I’m a huge fan of Japanese history and storytelling,” Michael expounds. “My father took me to see The Seven Samurai. I was very, very young. I actually got to show that to my daughter about 10 years ago - she’s now 24 - and that’s the basis of The Magnificent Seven. I remember in an interview with Kurosawa they asked, ‘do you feel abused or feel like you’ve been stolen from when people take your material?’, he said, ‘No, it’s not what you steal it’s how you steal’. It’s that whole thing of how all movies are about six or seven plots. I think it was D.W. Griffith who said ‘There are only really eight storylines out there and six of them are Westerns’.”
Today, Ironside continues to both act and write, “I’m a morning writer, I’m writing right now,” although these days he has the luxury of being able to pick and choose his roles. “I do large films where I get to affect distribution and I have a bit of say in things,” Michael explains. “And then I’ll go out and do small independent films where I’ll play the father, grandfather, damaged son or someone who has a certain amount of empathy about them. I do things that make me stretch. I got offered a job last year to do a film in Chicago and it was another psychopath, ageing paedophile motherfucker that they’re hunting down. They offered me a lot of money for it and I just told them that I’m not interested. I told my agent that the little boy in me just wants to go home after three days if there’s nothing there for me to reach for. Instead, I went and did this little independent film with no money in Upstate New York and had an absolute ball. The larger films allow me to put my daughters through college and make sure they’ve got a car and can pay for their vet bills and stuff. Then the smaller films I get to experience growth and learning. I don’t need the profile. Some work and some don’t.”
As we wrap up our chat, we turn our attention back to Total Recall and his time working with director Paul Verhoeven, not once but twice. “Of all the directors I’ve worked with, Paul is in the top five of what I would call true directors,” Ironside elates. “He’s in absolute charge of everything, he knows exactly where he wants everything and where he wants it. He’s a true craftsman. He said about a year ago, ‘We should do a third one’. Quite a few years back he said, ‘I’m going to do Speer, Hitler’s architect, I would like you to play him as an older Speer, the man who gets out of prison’. So he sent me over a book on Speer and I read all this stuff and this sociopathic character, such an amazing character, despicable human being. But he couldn’t get money for it. But he does say he wants to do a third one.”
And for that, we wait eagerly.