English actor Clive Mantle played prisoner William in David Fincher’s Alien 3 and went on to a career in British television. He’s perhaps more familiar to viewers as the Greatjon Umber in HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation. In 1992 Mantle spoke to Starlog magazine about Alien 3, Fincher, Sigourney Weaver, and his prisoner cohorts.
The neatly-groomed, down-to-Earth Englishman sitting in a restaurant in London’s Covent Garden doesn’t much look like a shaggy medieval peasant or a bald-pated inmate of a deep-space prison colony. It’s only when actor Clive Mantle stands that his uncommonly tall frame calls to mind Little John, the part he played for three years in Robin of Sherwood, or William, his character in Alien 3.
His two roles are worlds away from each other, literally and figuratively. Little John, despite his outlawry, was a model of kindness, but in Alien 3, Mantle says, “I’m playing a heinous criminal. In fact, there are about 12 or 15 of us, the last remaining prisoners on a prison asteroid, which is hurtling through space. It was a hard labor prison, which is about the best place to send all your hardened, nastiest pieces of work. We’re not nice people.”
Mantle’s path to that prison planetoid began at age 17, when he was accepted into the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. A stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art followed. “I was an actor who needed drama school. I used to be so excited about being on stage that I would just run down to the front and shout; they had to knock that out of me. Physically, just being six-foot-five-and-a-half, I’m not one of life’s gazelles. But having said that, I was made aware that I can be gazelle-like if I so choose. If I hadn’t been to drama school, I would have just slouched around and bent over double and apologized for my height.”
Mantle heard through the grapevine that “they were looking for ‘bald monks’ for Alien 3. “Some 10, 12 years ago, I had my head shaved while I was at RADA for a play, and I had some photographs taken and they were very good. So, I got my agent to send some of these photographs to the production office.”
Mantle describes the then 28-year-old Alien 3 director David Fincher admiringly as a “whiz kid. We used to call him Doogie Howser. He was controlling four units – main unit, second unit, the action unit and the computer unit. How his head didn’t explode, I don’t know. He was amazingly capable.”
According to Mantle, Fincher told him, “You’re the audience saying, ‘Oh god, it’s coming for me next.’ You’ve got to represent the feelings of the common man were he to be in this situation.'”
“In other words, he [William] blows with the breeze,” Mantle laughs, “he changes his mind in as many situations as he’s confronted with and quite willingly will go back on something he said half an hour ago. So, I think I’m largely there to represent what ridiculous things people are likely to do when faced with those sort of dangers. I’m probably overcomplicating it. I was only a very small cog in the scheme of things.”
More often than not, the Alien menacing Mantle and his fellow cast members wasn’t physically present on the set. How does one play opposite a monster that isn’t there? “To be honest with you, it’s no different than exercises you do tucked away in small rooms in drama schools. Someone tells you you’re a tree. You suspend your own disbelief, let alone the audience’s, and say, ‘Yup, that’s it. I accept that, I’m a tree.’ Or, ‘There’s an Alien over there’ – yup, there’s an Alien over there. That’s where I’ve got to look, that’s where that Alien head is. Okay, fair enough.’ There’s no point approaching that from a sort of Method standpoint. I mean, you can recall many horrific memories from your own life to help you, but ultimately when someone’s putting a bit of blue gaffer tape on a wall and saying, ‘OK, that’s where it is, react to that,’ you get up there and boogie.”
“The rest of the actors were new to Alien, so Sigourney Weaver was the continuing theme. Obviously, you respect and admire her work from the first two, and what she said went. She would bring her knowledge to bear – she didn’t bring force, just common sense or humor to bear: ‘Actually, I can’t react like this because in I and II, I reacted like that.'”
Unlike Robin of Sherwood, life didn’t actually reflect art – ie Mantle and company only look like quarrelsome toughs on screen. “I don’t know what your experience of people who get parts like this normally is, but it was such a bunch of gentlemen, it was ridiculous,” Mantle smiles. “I mean, we all looked pretty ferocious, but if you could have seen our matches, you would have a very different idea. I’ve never had a better laugh than with these guys, except for Robin of Sherwood.”
Originally printed in Starlog magazine, June 1992.