Michael Biehn Talks Iconic Roles and Set Strife on The Divide: ‘The Actors Hated Each Other’
In a career spanning three decades Michael Biehn has notched a number of iconic roles in beloved genre fare, from future freedom fighter Kyle Reese in The Terminator to Corporal Hicks in Aliens to one of his personal favorites, Tombstone villain Johnny Ringo. And that work has borne him witness to his share of tense, chaotic sets under some of the strongest personalities in the business. But no shoot of Biehn’s was as intense as the friction-filled production of this week’s The Divide, Xavier Gens’ bleak horror tale about strangers trapped in a basement after the apocalypse, which Biehn says was fueled by the “hatred” and “bitterness” of combative actors turning on each other under claustrophobic conditions.
“The actual film shoot was absolutely brutal… the actors hated each other,” Biehn admitted to Movieline in Los Angeles, describing a set atmosphere seemingly designed by director Gens, Biehn says, to encourage conflict among performers. (Among Biehn’s castmates: Milo Ventimiglia, Lauren German, Rosanna Arquette, Courtney B. Vance, Ashton Holmes, and Michael Eklund, who play an assortment of neighbors in an NYC apartment building that quickly lose their humanity, and their sanity, down below.) Bickering over script changes, on-the-fly adjustments, and dueling egos all factored into the strife, which got so heated the actor says producers had to be called to intervene. “I’ve worked with [William] Friedkin, I’ve worked with Michael Bay,” Biehn said pointedly, “and there was more tension on this set than any set that I’ve ever been on.”
Yet it all worked out in the end -- at least for Biehn, who’s proud of the film and happy that Gens allowed his actors to help shape their characters extensively, even if that’s what led to clashing interests on set in the first place. For Biehn that meant having the freedom to give his bigoted antagonist character Mickey a 9/11-themed backstory and a shot at redemption -- not to mention a relatability in the face of what Biehn perceives as real-world terrorist threats. (“I think something like this could happen very easily, in my lifetime, where something bad happens… I mean, go on YouTube and look at the video of what they were doing to Qaddafi.”)
And ultimately, Biehn says, the final film was satisfying enough that all the bitter infighting, stress, manipulation, and conflict was worth it. “It worked,” he smiled. “I think it worked -- and I enjoyed it.”
You’ve played so many iconic characters over the years, but at any point did you feel like you needed distance from Kyle Reese or Corporal Hicks? What’s your relationship to those characters now?
I didn’t realize they were really iconic until recently. I now have 15-year-old boys and girls that approach me and go, "Johnny Ringo is my favorite character of all time," or "Hicks is my favorite character," or "I’m in love with Reese" –- and they weren’t even born when I made the movie. So I’ve come to realize that those three movies are, call them what you call them, they’re classics. My son, who is eight years old, and his boys the other day, at school they were playing The Terminator! One was the Terminator, one was Kyle Reese, one was Sarah Connor. And he went over and said, "My dad was in The Terminator!"
Does that mean he automatically gets to call dibs on Kyle Reese?
[Laughs] Yeah! It’s just kind of rewarding to have a young kid come up and say that, so it’s not something that I shy away from at all. They’re great movies and I owe a lot to Jim Cameron and I’m proud to be in them, and they’ll always be around.
Do you have a favorite?
I have two favorites, and that’s Kyle Reese and Johnny Ringo. Kyle Reese to me is the great hero because he not only was a hard-fighting tough guy, he was also a lover at the same time, so much in love with Sarah. And Johnny Ringo to me was just the best antagonist that I’ve ever played, because I played him as a guy who has a death wish and had done everything that he wanted in life. As far as he was concerned, a gun fight was about as exciting as it was going to get. There’s this moment I have with Val [Kilmer] at the end of the movie where he says he’s serious, and I look at him and say "All right," and there’s a look in my eye which I think is one of my best moments on film. Like "Oh, this is exciting. This is going to be fun." It’s not sitting around a bar drinking, it’s not cows, it’s not women, it’s just excitement.
From that great antagonist to your latest, your character in The Divide is the firebrand who ratchets up the tension from the start – and this is a movie that gets intense immediately, from the start, as doomsday erupts outside this apartment building. How do you view your character in moral terms?
First of all, Xavier [Gens] let us do whatever we wanted with our characters, so I wrote that character.
What was on the page to begin with?
A bad guy, a crude guy, a racist who’s racist against all creeds. Very negative, cursing all the time. Just a pig who ends up being the antagonist and ends up doing bad things to other people and so forth. Xavier basically brought all of his actors together at the beginning of the making of this movie and said, "You can do whatever you want. This is a sandbox for you to play in." You could do improv, you could write scenes, you could change your characters -– you could do anything you want. I made that character go from a guy –- everybody was losing their humanity, and I wanted to take this character who originally had no humanity and try to give him back a little humanity. That’s what I tried to do. Basically I wrote with a writer that was helping all the actors write for about three or four days, a week or so, and I kept sending back material. He finally said, "Michael, just write it yourself." So I basically kind of wrote the character, created the whole back story of the wife and 9/11 and the firemen and all that kind of stuff.
That’s an element that I feel is significant, because we open on the New York cityscape being destroyed in a fiery attack. From the very first seconds the film triggers a visceral familiar reaction, and then we find out that Mickey’s a former NYC fireman who’s lost his way.
Yes. Basically it’s post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a guy who took one of his teams into the Twin Towers and it came down and he was the only one left standing. He loses, like a lot of men do who are under such wartime circumstances, and he loses his wife and children and starts drinking. He loses his job and turns into this paranoid survivalist and that’s where we find him at the beginning of the movie. You have some understanding of why he’s a racist and why he is the way he is, because of what happened to him. That was his back story, and he is a guy that really down deep was a good person but circumstances just destroyed him.
Do you see The Divide as a bleak film, ultimately?
Yeah, it’s bleak! It’s about as bleak as it could possibly get. I call it dark, I call it a psychological horror movie. I think what we’re looking at in life right now is bleak. I think everybody should open up their eyes, because this country and this world is not the same one that I grew up in. There’s a lot of stuff going around that is scary, and the world is getting smaller and smaller. I think something like this could happen very easily, in my lifetime, where something bad happens. So I think people should be aware.
Is there any way, do you think, to truly prepare oneself for what would happen if placed in the situation characters face in the film?
No. No, not really. You could move to Idaho and build yourself a bunker but sooner or later somebody’s going to get you and your family, or your children or your grandchildren, or your grandchildren’s children.
It’s crazy to think how entirely possible it feels for human beings to devolve so extremely under circumstances like these.
It is, and I think we’re this close. I mean, go on YouTube and look at the video of what they were doing to Qaddafi.
I can’t even bring myself to do that.
Well, it’s pretty nasty stuff. When you see that, you see what mankind is capable of. That was in the spirit of anger pent up for years and years and years, but they were raping him with a fucking metal rod and shit. Mankind, you know. And it’s not just there; it’s Afghanistan, it’s Pakistan, it’s Africa, it’s in a lot of places that stuff’s going on. And North Korea -– who knows what’s going on with that situation.
Do you feel like films like these are a necessary reflection of life?
I think that they’re not necessary, but to look at a movie like this and go ‘My God, that was horrible – nothing like that would ever happen’… I think something like that could happen very easily and you have to be prepared to know how you would react, and try to go out with a little bit of humanity.
Did the actual film shoot mirror this sort of tension?
The actual film shoot was absolutely brutal. The actors hated each other.
Why? Was that a product of the filming environment, being stuck in a bunker for so long?
It was a product of the fact that Xavier basically said, "If you want to improv something, you can improv something; if you want to write something, write something." Basically, people would do improvs and somebody would be doing a scene that they thought was their scene for the day and somebody else would be doing an improv and the camera would move over on them and the other actors would get mad. Some actors were more physical than other actors and the other actors were upset with that. Some people felt like their roles were being taken away from them, that they were being upstaged, and they absolutely hated each other. They broke into groups. I’ve worked with [William] Friedkin, I’ve worked with Michael Bay, and there was more tension on this set than any set that I’ve ever been on. Producers were continually called down to the set to break up fights -– not fistfights, not real fights, but it got close.
Were you involved in any of this?
Well, no. The thing that was good about me is that I didn’t take sides. I didn’t have any sides, I was my own person. So basically I as an elder actor on this set tried to keep some peace between the other actors, and said, "Listen –- just fucking calm down, it’s just a movie." But there was a lot of hatred and a lot of bitterness on that movie. It was nasty, and we were working in a confined space and everybody stayed in that space because they wanted to be there. These guys, like Michael [Eklund] and Milo [Ventimiglia], they went for it, man. They lost weight; they lost 20 pounds because they didn’t eat, they didn’t shave, they didn’t shower. And they were, you know… you look at Milo’s performance and it’s out of this world, I think, to see the breakdown of his character. And Rosanna [Arquette] is so good in it. It’s just the best ensemble movie I’ve ever been in.
So despite the chaos, do you think the final film was worth all of that trouble?
Yeah, I do. I think that basically Xavier was smart enough to set it up that way. I think he realized from the beginning that if he did this, he was going to piss off some actors and turn some actors against other actors. I think he knew from the very beginning that the actors weren’t going to get along very well and it went downhill from there. The producers kept having to be called down to set… it was crazy.
As a performer, how do you feel about that kind of directorial manipulation?
It worked. [Smiles] I think it worked, and I enjoyed it. I was given full freedom to take a character and do anything I wanted with him. He basically said, "Michael, if you don’t like what’s written you write what you want to write," and I wanted to show a guy that was not just a bad guy all the way through. Michael Eklund, who basically didn’t have hardly anything in that movie -– there was nothing really written in the script for him, not much, maybe a few lines here and there –- was so good that he ends up kind of turning into the bad guy. That was from doing improvs, from writing stuff, and from Xavier just loving his work so much that he ends up turning into the antagonist. Then I was able to take my role and turn him from being the antagonist into somebody that had kind of redeemed himself. And it happened while we were shooting -– I mean, the movie was moving off in different directions as people were improvising and doing different things, and nobody knew what was going on from day to day.
That’s somewhat fascinating as a deliberate choice on Xavier’s part, but it seems like it might be scary…
It was scary! It wasn’t scary to me, but there were people on set that were scared, that’s for sure.
Did you ever worry about how the film would end up?
Well, I never worry. It could be either good, or it could not be so good. People like it or they don’t like it. But I’ve done like 60 to 70 movies, and some are good, some aren’t. This one I’m pretty proud of.
I like the comparison of the Divide set as being more tense than any you’ve been on, considering the directors you’ve worked with.
Yeah, and that’s Billy Friedkin. That’s Jim Cameron. That’s Michael Bay!
Speaking of directors, you’ve recently made a foray into directing. What’s the latest with your film The Victim?
We just got picked up by Anchor Bay today, so we’re real excited about that. We were talking to a few different companies for a while and negotiating, then Anchor Bay stepped up and they gave us a deal we’re really happy with. We’re going to release the movie on 50 college campuses; every college has got a movie theater. It’s getting a lot of attention!
Congratulations! You’ve described it as a sort of grindhouse movie. Can you elaborate?
It’s basically a little grindhouse movie I shot in 12 days, wrote it in three weeks, and did pre-production, cast it, crewed up, went to the Screen Actors Guild, did locations -– did all that stuff in three weeks while I was writing it, then we rolled it into a 12-day shoot. And we got The Victim! I think we got lucky, people seem to be enjoying it. Now we’ve got people that are going to sell it for us, and that are happy to sell it for us.
Lastly, I’ve wondered -- of all of the iconic and memorable roles that come up for you with fans, does anybody ever bring up Coach [Biehn's 1978 starring debut, about a high school athlete who has an inappropriate love affair with his lady coach]?
No! I mean, people talk to me about Coach, but not as an iconic piece.
Well, consider this a first. There’s something about Coach that is so great, so of an era…
[Laughing] These days, she’d go to jail for that!
The Divide is in limited release this Friday.