He’s an actor of many changes – whether an anecdotal cop facing a formidable Terminator, a nocturnal nomad prowling Near Dark, or an innocent android battling Aliens.
For Lance Henriksen, who portrays Bishop, the “artificial person” in Aliens, his role as an android was an interesting and challenging one. “I had two months before I started filming, so there was plenty of time,” Henriksen says of his preparation for the film. “I used it all, believe me. If there was more to Bishop, more of a story about him, you would find out incredible things.
“My biggest problem was having to follow two exceptional performances of androids. Rutger Hauer [as replicant Roy Batty] in Blade Runner was excellent, and I loved Ian Holm’s work as Ash in Alien. We didn’t have the same problems. Holm had to give the audience tips so that it all added up at the end. That’s a terrible spot for an actor to be in.”
With Aliens, there was some question regarding how to present Bishop to the audience. “Jim [Cameron, writer/director] and I talked for a month on the phone -he was already in London- to try to figure out the best way to introduce Bishop,” Henriksen explains. “We had an idea about him being alone, while everyone else was in hypersleep, tending to meters and buttons and doing a thousand, thousand push-ups. You see this lonely figure in this ship by himself. We realised that doesn’t do much storywise, and then we came up with the knife. I practised that quite a bit. Then, when we got onto the set and finally were ready to shoot the scene, I dragged one of the other guys into it [Bill Paxton]. I said, ‘Jim, this is a little bit stagy, why don’t I put my hand over somebody else’ hand and that involves more people. It makes it an event.'”
Henriksen, reflecting upon Bishop’s position with the Colonial Marines, observes, “I see him as somebody who is basically a servant without being a servile; a companion of labour. At this time in history, it would be demoralising for a human to be around someone who is being subservient. That’s why they call Bishop an Executive Officer, which is just a fancy title for planetary maneuverer. He’s not a Marine, he’s part of the ship, the Sulaco. He doesn’t carry a weapon, there’s no way. Because if you give an android a weapon, you’re getting into another area entirely. You can make a weapon that can shoot itself, like the smartgun, but you don’t give an android a weapon. There’s a vast difference.”
However, Henriksen is quick to point out that Bishop can take charge if necessary. “But only in a life threatening situation,” he cautions. “It would only be for a moment, like the scene where Ripley was going to move Hicks and I stopped her and said, ‘no, we have to get a stretcher.’ Bishop finds a way to get around things. It’s like saying, ‘Look, there’s a fly on the ceiling,’ and while the guy is looking, Bishop just goes ahead and does it.”
As an artist who never stops learning about his character, Henriksen was fascinated with the way Bishop, a non-organic being, saw the world. He discussed these insights with James Cameron, the writer/director of Aliens. “I told Jim, ‘Anything that’s really organically alive is fascinating to Bishop. There’s no good or evil – just this ultimate respect for anything living.’
“I read a couple of books,” Henriksen remembers. “One was Mockingbird [by Walter Tevis]. There’s a bit in it where the android knew how to play a piano, but didn’t know why. He didn’t know what music was, but he kept hearing it. It was part of his builder’s input that hadn’t been completely erased. That image stuck in my mind, and what it translated to me was that there were feelings that Bishop didn’t understand, like a joke.”
The actor also realised that his android character was not without problems. “For him, the world is xenophobic. He’s an alien to anything alive. He must be as careful as, say, a black man in South Africa, where you make a mistake and you’re out. You’re either replaced or you’re destroyed.”
Bishop had an innocence that intrigued Henriksen. “I felt that he was only 10 years old, mechanically, so I gave him the emotional life of a 14-year-old,” Henriksen notes. “I was basically playing myself at that age. There’s the knowledge that you have your whole life ahead of you to learn, yet there’s always that vulnerability to the powers that be.”
Vulnerability is also one of the realities of an actor’s life. Henriksen muses ruefully over the numerous times his part in a film has ended up on the cutting room floor. “The lag is the problem,” he says. “If you’re doing a play, you get some instant gratification, or if you’re winning the World Series, it’s happening right at that moment. But with a movie, you do it and then you wait six months or longer to see it. When you realise you’ve been cut out, it’s a stun. I worked for three months on Close Encounters, then got cut out.” The same thing happened when Henriksen portrayed Wally Schirra in The Right Stuff. “Which was,” he explains, “A great movie to work on. I loved it, but the result just wasn’t there.”
Henriksen received more time on screen in Nightmares, Jim Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning, and Choke Canyon, none of which were box office or critical hits. And he enjoyed his role in Terminator, Cameron’s earlier hit, as Vukovich, the cop who never gets to finish telling a story. “Oh, God, that was so much fun! Paul Winfield (Lt. Traxler) and I joked that the relationship between those guys would make a great TV series. They’re going to do a second Terminator,” Henriksen reveals. “You never see me die, so I was telling Jim Cameron that it could start in the hospital with me covered with scars saying, ‘Look, if this guy came once, he’s gonna come again…”
With the success of Aliens, 20th Century Fox is also eager for another sequel. The way was left open by Cameron’s deft touch at the film’s very end. “You can hear the facehugger scampering across the screen. Cameron did that on purpose,” Henriksen says, noting that there is a possibility that Bishop could return in a sequel. “If there’s a good script, I would love to do that part again. There’s so much more to do. I would like to get into the whole concept of how and why androids are made. Bishop is not biological, he wasn’t built in an organic way. If you can imagine your own nerve synapses as being silicone – more of a plasmatic gate to conduct the electrical impulses. The synthetics are very advanced, buy they aren’t organic yet. Jim and I were talking and we realised that although Bishop is very advanced, we don’t see him as the end-all in terms of an android. Jim loves the whole concept of androids. If you could ever put psychology into an old form, building a human would be it.”
Aliens reunited Henriksen with Stan Winston, who won a special visual effects Oscar for his work on the film. Winston created both the Terminator cyborg and the effects for Mansion of the Doomed, a film Henriksen laughingly characterises as “a movie I don’t talk about.” Henriksen will be starring in Pumpkinhead, a horror film co-scripted and directed by Winston. Winston’s effects for the Alien Queen’s attack employed, “Every technical device you could possibly use in a movie, from oldest to things never before used. I never saw so much talent being exercised on the same soundstage,” Henriksen says, slightly awed by the memory.
“The last scene took almost two weeks to shoot. It was like being in the center ring at Ringling Brothers Circus. There I was, cut in half, lying on the floor, covered with milk and yoghurt, looking up at the 15-foot Queen. Above me and behind me, this big dropship is smoking. The only thing missing was a guy on a trapeze swinging down!”
Feeling at home with his craft, Henriksen literally metamorphosises into his characters. “A director friend calls me ‘the chameleon’ because, somehow, depending on what’s happening with the person I’m playing, I really change something. I do it organically. Sometimes,” he muses, I see my own films and say, ‘God, I don’t know who that guy is.’ I’m trying to keep instant recognition at a distance as long as I possibly can. I don’t want the audience to be taken out of a movie because they know who I am. I would hate to become as familiar as cornflakes because it hurts your storytelling a little bit.”
“The weirdest thing is happening. Even when I have a beard, people recognize me as Bishop. So, I’m in big trouble now. I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this one.”
Having interacted with strong female characters in many of his films, Henriksen affirms that he likes competent woman. “I like the idea of a matriarchal system, which, by its nature, is pretty good for men. It provides a natural nurturing process, which works, especially in acting, and I think there’s a lot of room for women directors in this business. My last film, Near Dark, was with a woman director, Kathryn Bigelow, who co-wrote it with Eric Red [The Hitcher]. It’s produced by Steven Jaffe, who is a real gift to the industry. But Kathryn Bigelow – that’s a name to remember.”