A man who made the '80s a good 27 percent more menacing with his growly charisma, Michael Ironside is still going strong on the big screen. About to add to his 230-odd IMDb credits with a project that'll take him to central Europe, he cut his teeth in a decade that found a place for him in a variety of awesome character roles playing no-nonsense types who often met spectacular ends but still lived long in the memory. "I knew I was never gonna be Tom Cruise or the leading man," he tells Empire. "I was gonna be the guy that's either going to try to kill him or catch him when he falls."
Safe to say, in the '80s the Canadian was doing more of the former than the latter, playing an evil Scanner for David Cronenberg, Total Recall's psychotic Richter and a rogue soldier in Extreme Prejudice. Oh, and he was also Top Gun's hard-nosed ace Jester. There were a solid ten years when you really didn't want to cross him. The roles, while often a little mellower these days, have kept coming. "A lot of actors say that they reach a point in their careers where the phone just stops ringing," he reflects, "but that hasn't been the case with me. I plan on doing this as long as I can!"
You grew up in Toronto, which was where David Cronenberg shot Scanners. Did you know David before he cast you as Darryl Revok?
I didn't. I was actually only hired for one day's work on that film, which was the flashback sequence, and David started rewriting because he didn't have a full script. The longest I had [between receiving the script and shooting] was five days, for the subway sequence. But that Revok was pretty much made up on the run, with David very much in control. I just had to show up and trust the storyteller, and he's a master.
Were you involved in Total Recall when Cronenberg was attached to it?
No, I wasn't. Paul Verhoeven and I are good friends - he wants us to do a third movie - but I'd turned down RoboCop. Peter [Weller] and I went up for the role of RoboCop but I was too big. (Make-up effects guru) Rob Bottin said, "If we put him in the RoboCop uniform, it'll look like a Sherman tank." So they offered me the killer. I was just in the middle of (Walter Hill actioner) Extreme Prejudice being slaughtered over four days of special effects and blood torpedoes - Walter Hill was getting into his Peckinpah mode on that one - and they asked me if I wanted to play that drooling drug addict killer that gets blown to pieces and I said no. Then when Extreme Prejudice was over, of course I sat down and thought, "Why the fuck am I not working with Paul Verhoeven?" I was already a fan of his. So I actually called him and apologised. I told him I should never be allowed to make decisions for myself.
What was the audition process like for Total Recall?
Paul had heard that I might be difficult to work with, so it was an extensive process. I still have the old VHS tape of it. He was holding the camera and ended up on the floor on top of me while we were doing this [action] sequence. Right in the middle of it he dropped the camera to the floor and said, "You're not difficult to work with!" Paul's great, a true storyteller.
Anyone who looked at the original Total Recall and thought it was just pyrotechnics and make-up is out of their bloody mind.
They remade Total Recall, obviously...
Oh, god yes. Anyone who looked at the original Total Recall and thought it was nothing but pyrotechnics and make-up, they're out of their bloody mind. Paul has a very, very strong sense of story. It's like the trunk of a tree that you hang everything on: if it's not there, he doesn't want to do it.
The character of Quaid made the 2012 remake but there was no sign of Richter. How did you feel about that?
Actually, a friend of mine was hired to play that character. They shot it all, he went to the premiere and found that none of the scenes were there. They'd recut it about a month before releasing it. He called me and said, "I did all the press, went to the premiere and I'm not in the film." He was horrified. Sometimes I think accountants and not storytellers make decisions.
At the time Total Recall felt the biggest movie we'd ever seen. What are your memories of working on it?
The temperatures on set got up to 110 degrees shooting in Churubusco in Mexico City, because you'd need to keep the windows closed for the green screen. I'd be in jeans and a leather jacket, so you'd do one take and have to change your clothes. We'd have five sets of clothing being constantly recycled. But I have nothing but fond memories of that film - I made some lifelong friends. The stunt co-ordinator Vic Armstrong, Paul [Verhoeven], Arnold... great people.
You had a great death scene. Did you get to keep the arms?
(Laughs) No, I didn't. I've actually got the head here sitting on the piano. Rob Bottin did a full body cast for each character and he had them all on the shelf in his studio. When we were doing mine I took an extra pair of socks and stuffed down the front of my leotard. I said, "If you're going to stick me up there, let's give them something to talk about." He called me about two years later and told me that the only person who'd made a comment about it was Jack Nicholson. He'd looked up and said, "Hey, who's the stud?"
When's the last time someone shouted "See you at the party, Richter" at you?
Oh god, I still get that. I heard that one last week. I get "Jester's dead" a lot too, with the Top Gun anniversary. On Terminator Salvation, a young production assistant came up to me and asked me if I was any relation with the Michael Ironside who was in Top Gun. I said I was and she said, "I thought so! Talent must run in your family," and walked away. It was a wonderful compliment.
Top Gun has a timeless quality. Did you have a sense that it would be a big hit?
Everyone knew we were on to something but we just didn't know quite what. I was aware of how well (producers) Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer protected the set. They'd just finished Legend and people felt it was unreleasable at the time. Jerry did a masterful job of keeping the press away from us. I talked to Tony [Scott] one day and he put his fingers about half an inch apart and said (puts on English accent), "Michael, the script's only this deep. It's all in the visuals for this film." He literally carved up the sets with light. At first I felt trapped because he orchestrated everything so specifically, but once you realised where your light was he gave you a lot of freedom.
Does it feel like 30 years since Top Gun?
It really doesn't. You blink and things go flying past. I saw Tony Edwards (Goose) and his wife recently, and I looked at him and said "Jesus Christ!" He said, "I know! You should see you." (Laughs)
Jester: not dead.
Tell me about that Jester / Viper dynamic.
Well, originally that was one character. Jerry told me that. They were uncomfortable with the idea of Tom Skerritt playing an authoritarian character and with me playing a paternal character, so they split the character in two. We both initially read for Skerritt's character.
There's been talk of a Top Gun sequel featuring drone warfare. What do you think Jester would make of that?
I have no idea, really (laughs). I get to play all these massive violent characters and I'm very much a dove.
The dogfight between Jester and Maverick is still a very cool piece of cinema.
The flying sequences were nothing that the pilots don't do on a daily basis; all Tony did was just lowered by 20-30,000 feet so you can see it in relationship to the ground. A couple of pilots quit after seeing the screening. They'd never seen what they did on a daily basis and didn't feel comfortable doing it anymore.
I get to play all these massive violent characters but I'm very much a dove.
Why do you think Jester flew below the hard deck in that dogfight?
I don't think he did (chuckles wryly). I think originally it was to see if they'd still chase him down and fire below the hard deck as a test on Maverick but that got lost along the way.
Did you keep Jester's flying helmet?
No, but I keep a lot of jackets to auction off later. I gave that one to a recovery centre to auction and they got $11,000 for it. I try to bring a memento back from every film.
The '80s was an amazing period for make-up effects. You mentioned Rob Bottin on Total Recall and you also worked with Dick Smith on Scanners. What are your memories of the final scene?
Dick Smith was hired after the fact. David [Cronenberg] wanted to shoot a different ending using his effects and Dick said, "I've got these bladders we didn't used on Altered States to make it much more visceral and organic." The original ending had the back of his head exploding and sparks flying, but it ended up with those classic veins running across my face.
[License Revok-ed: coming out second best in Scanners' climactic mind battle.
You also had a cool leather jacket phase in the '80s.
Oh god, everything was dark leather and high-heeled cowboy boots for chrissakes.
Was V's Ham Tyler a character that was close to your heart? You were a sci-fi fan, weren't you?
It was. It was the first big American job I got. I was a staunch Canadian and wanted to stay in Canada after Scanners and Visiting Hours but I was broke. If I wanted to make a living I had to go to LA where the money was. When we did V I remember thinking how slowly they were moving, doing seven or eight pages a day, compared to low-budget Canadian films.
What did V mean for your career?
Nobody knew me in the United States – they just knew me as "that Canadian actor" – so it was my introduction, and I went from that to doing Jo Jo Dancer with Richard Pryor. Then came Top Gun and Extreme Prejudice.
As V's leather-clad freedom fighter Ham Tyler.
Somewhere along the way you were involved in none-more-'80s TV show, The A-Team.
Oh god, that was insane. I've not drunk or used drugs in coming up on 33 years but that was near the end of my drinking period. I drank so much in the evenings that my make-up wouldn't stay on because I was sweating so much alcohol. I don't remember what happened to my character but I remember meeting Brion James on that show and we became buddies.
Michael Ironside and Brion James in the same episode of The A-Team?
Yes, he was one of the henchmen in it.
That's a pretty formidable pair of bad guys.
(Laughs) I know! I do remember standing there, a bit hungover, thinking, "I hope nobody ever sees this."
What do you look for in roles these days?
Usually, just something I haven't done before. And I like working with new people, because I got a lot of help from a lot of people when I was starting out. My dad once said "You ran away and joined the circus," and it really is the truth. I've been trying to do one large studio picture a year to keep my distribution in place and then I can go off and travel the world. I'm going off to Romania and Bulgaria to do a tongue-in-cheek ghost story with the working title The Jester Of Translyvania. I also did a film in Canada called Stegman Is Dead. I bought into this circus hook, line and sinker 45 years ago or more. I just love working.
How do you look back on the '80s? You worked with Tony Scott, Verhoeven, Walter Hill, Cronenberg...
It's like cars you've owned and are fond of. My favourite projects are the ones I'm about to do. The others are like great cars you know you've enjoyed in the past but now they've become classics.