|I'm a great nemesis. I'm a con, I'm an ex-junkie, so I know how to con people. I do it in a healthy way, I don't do it self-serving.|
|interview by Louis Paul at the Chiller Theatre Convention, August, 1999
LP: Is it true that you were influenced to become an actor because your father had owned a movie theater in Beaumont, California?
BJ: Totally, absolutely. No question. I was watching movies in the theater in Beaumont since 1947, by the time I was two years old.
LP: I had read somewhere that you became an assistant to the famed acting teacher Stella Adler ...
BJ: I was her servant and I cleaned her house in exchange for acting school.
BJ: Slave, cook, bartender, drove the car, cleaned the house. Tim Thomerson, his ex-wife and myself. Three California kids. We were slaves in exchange for school, which was like $5000 a year.
LP: How did that come about?
BJ: When I got there, Tim and his wife were serving servants for Stella and when I came, they were my best friends. We all did a lot of acid and pot. But then, I just came to New York with $100 bucks. So she busted us in the kitchen, and she said "you're staying aren't you". I said "Yeah". She said "So what can you do?". I said "Well, I'm a good chef, I can do this, I can do that ..." It was wild, Tim and his wife were all middle class kids from California and she was an aristocratic Russian Jewish woman who took her class seriously. I never knew anything about fucking classes until I lived with Stella. And she taught very good classes as well. She taught us everything from god down through her classes. Tim and his wife were crazy they were screaming and yelling and fighting, and Stella would go "Please darling I can't ..." She and her husband were dressed like in the nineteenth century, and he wore an ascot and everything. So, it was like the Oscar Wilde's meet the Stanley Kowalski's. It was insane there, but it worked somehow. I was so lucky. I met everybody there. I met (Leonard) Bernstein, I met everybody in New York.
LP: I found a credit that listed a West German crime film called Johnny Banco ...
BJ: Johnny Banco. Robert Zemeckis directed a miniseries. There were eight shows, eight hour shows...
LP: What year was that?
BJ: 1987. I played an Italian hit man named Tommy Testorone. It was the only time I played an Italian.
LP: Your first really memorable appearances were in films like NICKELODEON, HARRY AND WALTER GO TO NEW YORK, BLUE SUNSHINE, and KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK. Of those early pictures, do you think that any of those roles, even though they were small roles, and some were just walk-ons, were the kind of roles that started getting you more attention from filmmakers?
BJ: Absolutely, work begets work.
LP: What do you recall about your role in SOUTHERN COMFORT?
BJ: It was the hardest movie I ever made as far as being physical. It was cold and freezing in that swamp. Carradine and the other ones, they wore wet suits under the clothes, I never wore one. I was miserable, but it worked for the movie. I played a local Cajun trapper. It's the only accent I ever had to learn. I'm a parrot. I can pick up an accent and just do it. That one I had to study, and a real Cajun taught me how to do it. So, I did this Cajun patois, bastardized French. It was very different, it was like a southern black French.
LP: I have heard that Walter Hill, the director of that film was known as a taskmaster.
BJ: We called him the emperor. He's the most loyal guy in Hollywood. He hired me for that, and for other films. Walter Hill's one of the most loyal guys in town. Not too many guys do that.
LP: So, you believe that the role of Leon in BLADE RUNNER was responsible for getting you a lot more exposure?
BJ: The role of Leon launched my career, and now I'm a cult figure, and have been for eighteen years since that role. All these kids have seen it, its' well received, it's been studied in almost every film school in the world. So it suits me that young directors study the film, then want to work with me. A director who was nineteen then, is now thirty-eight and say's I want you in my movie. So, I did the sci-fi thing into the nineties, so work begets work, and I don't fuck up, so I get more work. I'm always better than the piece. I'm a character actor, so I don't take the hit if the movie's bad, the lead does. So, I don't want to be the lead. He takes the hit, I don't. I did fifteen films last year.
LP: In the two 48 HOURS films, there looks like there might have been more footage of you, some that was left on the cutting room floor, was there?
BJ: The first one, no. In the second one, I was the third lead. I had ten scenes. They destroyed me.
LP: Was that because they had to cut it down?
BJ: They didn't have to, they turned chicken shit.
LP: So why was the footage cut from ANOTHER 48 HOURS?
BH: TOTAL RECALL came out a week before ANOTHER 48 HOURS that summer, it made twenty-five million. The studio panicked. My stuff was in there until one week before the film opened. They cut twenty-five minutes out of that movie, a week before it opened. It went from around 140 to down around 95 minutes. They said cut all the behavior, action, comedy, done. I lost every major scene I had. That's the last time I ever cared about a movie because I went to the press screening and it was like getting kicked in the stomach, seeing what's not there. I'm the third lead and I looked like a dressed extra. All the stuff that they had in the set-up, stuff in the trailer, all those scenes were gone.
LP: Well it looked like that your footage was gone ...
BH: Well, it was.
LP: You are an important character actor and you are very recognizable and you are not in the movie unless there is a reason for you to be in the movie...
LP: Then all of a sudden ... where are you?
BH: Dressed extra. That's the time I realized that I can't care. I'm a hired gun for these studios. I had to shut that off because it chilled me. So, I said I can't do this anymore. So, I fuckin' came into independent movies because I am in control of my performance, won't change it. The stuff's still there. That's the way I do it now.
LP: What do you remember about CRIMEWAVE, the Sam Raimi film?
BJ: I was out of my mind on drugs. I got sober not long after that.
LP: That was the film where you had the weasel-like voice ...
BJ: I was the rat man. So, I played it like a rat, I moved like a rat, and did something with my voice a little bit. I took over a lot of Paul Smith's scenes. They didn't really like the way he did them, so they asked me and I said O.K. So, I did the scenes and I made them funnier.
LP: That was a very physical film for you as well...
BJ: Yes, very. Three months in Detroit, which was where we were. Murder City. I was really sick, I was doing a lot of drugs, but I told Sam Raimi, put me on, but don't say cut ... let me go. He did and I went and basically I had the show. At that point, which came after BLADE RUNNER, they put me on a blacklist, because I wouldn't be in the union, and when I came up for that, they said you can't do the movie. They said "we've got to have Brion James". They said "no, he's not working for us." Finally, they said "look, he's the only guy we want". They said "fine you can have him, but we're not paying our part". So, they paid they're part I worked like ten weeks and twenty-five hundred. You know they say, don't make waves, so I learned my lesson.
LP: Don't make waves...
BJ: Yeah, well that's what they do. So I didn't want to make waves, and I didn't want any more troubles.
LP: THE HORROR SHOW, was that designed for sequels?
BJ: Yes. They wanted me to be the next Freddy Kreuger. I read the script, it was bad. Lance Henricksen came and he saw it. We spoke to each other and I said I'll do it if you will, and vice versa. We told the producer Sean Cunningham, that we liked it, so when are we doin' it. And he said "O.K. So we made it a horror-fi. I made this guy intelligent, evil. In the script he was a mindless slasher, there was nothing to it. It was evil for evil's sake. So I made the guy a person with a history. Child of seven, molested by his mother, child of thirteen kills his parents. That way the audience can see that 'Max' was not a regular child and that's what fucked him up. I'll always show and tell something, to the people, about the guy, how sick he is. It was just fun, having fun playing a maniac. We had a lot of fun on that film, and it became a video cult hit.
LP: But not enough of a hit to generate a sequel?
BJ: No, thank God. Because I don't want to do that kind of a role. One time's enough.
LP: Any comments on RED HEAT?
BJ: RED HEAT. I told Walter Hill I'll do a walk-on for you, or a starring role, I don't care. He made me a film actor. He's said fine, now you're a film a factor in SOUTHERN COMFORT, and it was one of the best roles I ever had. I told Walter, I'll do anything you want, just tell me. In RED HEAT I had one good scene. I played this guy like a white Negro, 'Snitch'. So I processed the hair, wore those shoes, I made him like a real street guy. Walter Hill, he loves it.
LP: He gives you a lot of creative freedom?
BJ: Yes, because he knows I can bring the stuff in. So he gives it to me. I give him ideas, and he goes great, do what you want. He knows I got it. He's a smart director, and in that role, I made that guy look good.
LP: Well, that's one of your specialties ...
BJ: I held my own with all of these guys, I make them look better. I'm a great nemesis. I'm a con, I'm an ex-junkie, so I know how to con people. I do it in a healthy way, I don't do it self-serving. So, I can work myself into other things in a movie.
LP: TANGO AND CASH.
BJ: TANGO AND CASH, I had two scenes when I started the film. Konchalavsky wanted to work with me for years, he worked for Cannon, they couldn't pay me, so I couldn't work for them. He wanted me to work with him on RUNAWAY TRAIN. Finally, I get to work with him and he calls me in and I meet Stallone and Russell and they say yeah, he's great. I just had two scenes with these guys, they chase me around, and I get beat up and that's it. So, I get there and I'm acting with Stallone and made my character have a cockney accent just to add something . I said I'm in a movie with all of these guys, how am I going to chew the scenery with all of these fuckers? So, I created the cockney, I'm not just another hit man from Cleveland. They loved it. They played off of it, they got into it. So Stallone started re-writing the script, the script wasn't really ready, but they were there to go, so when you got to go, you go. The script was ready, and when it was not, he would fix it. The film was twenty million dollars over budget and I wound up being on the film for fourteen weeks. My part went from a few days, to much bigger. So, I became the main bad guy, and not Jack Palance.
LP: Konchalavsky lost that picture, didn't he?
BJ: He did a great job, but Sly got him fired. Sly is very protective about his film. He got his own DP in, and the film went twenty million dollars over budget. So the studio had to justify it, and fired him, saying it was the director's fault. It wasn't his fault. They didn't have a script. I was even re-writing at the end of the day, over and over. They only had three weeks left and they bought in Albert Magnoli. He did rock videos and a Prince movie (PURPLE RAIN). They gave this guy three quarters of a million dollars to do three weeks. By the time he got there, I was like don't talk to me, stay back. I knew this character for weeks, I know what I'm doing. It wound up being a great film, that eventually made a lot of money. Its one of the biggest pirated video in the history of Russia. There were 80,000 pirated copies. Warner Bros. was crazy not to market it properly, but that film was huge. I went to the Ukraine when I was shooting another film, and I was mobbed. I was in the Black Sea and I had no idea that people even knew who I was.
LP: You pretty much get yourself your own parts, how did THE FIFTH ELEMENT come about?
BJ: That guy's a genius, the director.
LP: Luc Besson.
BJ: Since he was nineteen he said that he was studying movies that I was in, in film schools over in France. He said come to England to be in my movie. But, he didn't tell me anything about it. I went over, I was in a locked room, I read the script. I signed a contract saying that I wound't tell anybody about the movie. When I looked at the script I saw there was comedy in it, which I was excited about. You know stand-up comedy is where I pretty much started out. And he knew every beat of that film. He wrote that story when he was sixteen years old. The first two weeks were tense, they didn't know if it was going to work. He had a lot riding on his head, man. But, it did well, it made about ninety million, so it was a big hit. After about two weeks, you would see the dailies and say, yeah, it looks O.K., everybody relaxed. We had a great time. We laughed. Luc Besson, he operates the camera, he makes perfect movies. That's why I wanted to work with him, he was on my wish list. LA FEMME NIKITA, THE PROFESSIONAL, perfect movies. I saw the long version of THE PROFESSIONAL, have you seen that?
LP: Yes, it's quite a film.
BJ: He showed it to me. I went wow. It was like a dream working with this guy. I very seldom give myself up entirely to a director. For him I said, do what you want. I trusted him, because I knew he knew what he was doing.
LP: What was your favorite movie?
BJ: Of all time, it's hard to say, but SOUTHERN COMFORT, it was one of the best parts I ever got. Of course 'Leon' in BLADE RUNNER, it was a great role. What I shot for 'Leon' you don't see. There was a lot of stuff...
LP: That was cut out?
BJ: Yes, but there were scenes in other movies too.
LP: What do you attribute your success to?
BJ: Hard work. You gotta' study, man. It's like any profession. I did eight years in theater. I studied two years in school in New York with Stella Adler, the best teacher in the world. I studied under Nina Foch, I did theater, I learned my craft. You got to learn how to build a character, there's a way to do it. Everything I ever did was different. I did 125 films, and over 100 television shows, and you've never seen the same character twice. I think now, in my fifties, with Duvall, Finney, and Hackman, those guys are getting up there in their sixties, it's my time. And, I'm making sure that I push myself into their slot. So, my best work's coming.
The contents of this interview are © 1999 Louis Paul