Michael Biehn can be an intense guy. I’ve interviewed him once before – for his upcoming directorial debut The Victim – and it took some time for him to warm up to us, but, during a recent jaunt to the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles, this writer found Biehn all smiles. It was a good day for him. The Victim was picked up by Anchor Bay Films for distribution; also fueling his amiable vibe was the fact The Divide, also arriving from Anchor Bay, was being released, putting Biehn back in the spotlight.
The actor – who we have, of course, seen in The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss and many other favorites – plays “Mickey” in the upcoming film from Xavier Gens (Frontieres, Hitman). He’s joined by Lauren German, Milo Ventimiglia, Rosanna Arquette, Michael Eklund and Courtney B. Vance.
The Divide begins at the start of New York City’s destruction. Residents of a Manhattan tenement barricade themselves in a bomb shelter – Mickey’s bomb shelter – and hope to wait things out. But like the crumbling foundations of the building around them, these survivors begin to crack and Mickey becomes the source of hatred and suspicion.
For Biehn, The Divide is an opportunity for this screen vet to chew the scenery and he does it well, thanks to the freedom that came with the job. Freedom that came with a price, however, as the actor hints at on-set tension. Here is our short and sweet, but nonetheless honest and revealing, chat with Biehn.
Shock Till You Drop: Does your character fit within some grey zone where he’s neither a villain nor a hero? Do you even see him that way?
Michael Biehn: Basically, what we did – Xavier came to all of us, and came to me, and send, Here’s the script, you can throw it out and you can do anything you want with it. I would write as we were shooting. We had the luxury of shooting in sequence which, in the 35 years as an actor, I’ve never done before. My performance would change as the movie moved on and as the story changed. The story changed – people would improvise, or do certain things, or having alliances with people they didn’t have alliances with before. For me, what we did was take the bad guy in the movie – the antagonist, period – and we gave him 9/11. We showed a guy who was crushed by 9/11 and how his life fell apart – and this is all back story shit that we shot, it’s not in the movie, but we shot it. He’s somebody who goes out in a way where he feels good about himself again. I don’t know if that comes across that well, but in the end, in the movie I take a fire coat and put it over this guy, and I’m looking at a photo of my family and I’m thinking, I’m going out like my guys went out in 9/11. My back story was I was a guy who went into one of the towers, all of my guys except for me and I’ve always felt guilty about it. So, I created that character, and it was a lot of fun to build. To be able to have that kind of freedom is unheard of.
Shock: Well, I liked that while you might be able to predict how everyone will unravel or behave through the film’s scenario, your character is the wild card, you didn’t know what arc he would take. He has good dramatic peaks and valleys.
Biehn: I’d like to say I planned it that way, sometimes the movie just took us that way and I would have to write something that reacted to what had happened during the day’s shooting.
Shock: What was the energy like on set with that cast?
Biehn: It was bad, man. Nasty. They fucking hated each other. Michael Eklund and Milo Ventimiglia are both incredibly dedicated and very passionate about acting, and I’m very passionate about acting myself. I recognized in the two of them aspects of myself. I think they’re both fucking – I don’t want to use the word brilliant – but they are awesome in the movie. Milo’s disintigration especially. You have to remember, Michael didn’t have that big of a role in the movie. He had a little line here and there, but because he was so good and improvised so many things, Xavier just thought it was great. Oh, Michael wants to put on a dress? Good. That’s all Michael. That was the fun of working on this movie, the freedom and because we had that freedom we had the responsibility to make things real. Michael and Milo lived it, man. They both lost 20 pounds.
Shock: You speak of freedom and improvisation, but was there a particular day you couldn’t wrap your head around creatively since you were tasked to come up with things?
Biehn: Well, I do a scene where I talk about my past and 9/11 and my family. I break down and start crying. We shot that all day, but of course, it got cut out of the movie. But that was perhaps my most trying day. Xavier kept going over it. We must have done 30 takes, I was exhausted. It doesn’t belond in the movie. That’s what [James] Cameron used to do. In The Terminator, you get back story on Kyle and there’s a scene Sigourney [Weaver] has in Aliens which is her back story with her daughter. And he cut those both out. What I felt was my biggest scene in The Terminator, he cut out. I think both of us were stunned those scenes got cut. I remember her reaction when her scene got cut in Aliens. And I was definitely hurt that what I thought was my best scene got cut. But what happens is you play those scenes and then you don’t need them because it just sort of bleeds into the character. You don’t really need to tell the audience this is exactly what happened to them because if you play it enough, you just feel it. And that was Jim’s brilliance in knowing that. Xavier is the same way, I think.
Shock: How nasty was that soundstage you shot in by the time you guys wrapped?
Biehn: Yeah, and it was dark, dirty and musty. All of us, we would stay in it. We were so committed to it. We had our trailers and production offices, but we would all just stay in it and be in that gloom – just for the smell. And there was so much tension on that set. I’ve worked with [William] Friedkin, all of these guys, and there was more tension on this set and more upset people than I’ve ever seen before. But we had fun, Michael, Milo, Lauren and Rosanna will probably tell you it was one of the most exhilirating experiences of their life because we were having a blast with that freedom.