Interview: Michael Ironside, ‘Turbo Kid’

Michael Ironside’s been a captivating presence in film for 35 years now, first coming to real prominence with David Cronenberg’s Scanners and excelling in a variety of menacing roles ever since. His latest role, the unassumingly-named Zeus in Turbo Kid, sees him employed in full villain mode by a trio of filmmakers who grew up on his films during the binge-watching rental era of the 80s and 90s. Playing as part of the NZ International Film Festival, you can read our interview with the filmmakers here.

Like them, Ironside didn’t want to go into details so as to not risk spoiling Turbo Kid‘s surprises, but if you’re reading this, you want to know more about the legendary performer from V, Top Gun, Total Recall, Starship Troopers, or perhaps Free Willy… And who are we to get in the way?

FLICKS: People must try to cast you in stuff all the time.

MICHAEL IRONSIDE: I get offered a lot of cheesy shit. Every month someone wants me to rip the head off a baby so they can sell tickets. But the script for Turbo Kid, and the way they wanted to do it, that was it. This film I’m on now, The Space Between, I had one of four films to go to and this was paying the least – but it was the best script. I’m alright, I’m old. I’m in my mid-60s now, so I can make decisions based on what I want to do.I get those offers quite a bit, but I don’t do that. I took that one strictly on the script and having met the directors.

When I looked at Turbo Kid I thought it was going to be a huge challenge to play a parody of where I’ve been, and what I’ve done, in the past, tongue in cheek and keep it on that edge – be someplace for those other actors to bounce off. It’s a lot of fun it really is. It’s a little over the top in all areas, but played realistically rather than tongue in cheek. I’m the most cheesy in the whole thing, I think, in terms of being tongue in cheek. It kind of takes a bunch of clichés and reinvents them. I’m being dragged around on the back of a BMX bike, it’s just wonderful, it really is. It’s like a poor man’s Mad Max on BMX bikes.

I read one review saying “one more time Ironside’s playing a two-dimensional heavy blah blah blah” and I just laughed my ass off, because he has no idea what’s going on in that film. I was amazed, the three directors were absolutely fabulous to work with. I think you can safely say it’s worth watching, worth seeing, without getting your dick slapped or anything.

We wouldn’t want that. I heard there’s a good story about how you were approached for the part?

I was at the Toronto Film Festival for some other project, one of the larger American ones I’d done, and happened to stop in to a Canadian/Quebec finance party and the directors happened to be there, they’d been hoping to grab me to pitch me. They walked up and said “we’ve been looking for you, we have this script”. And I said “is there violence in it?” and he said “Oh yes!” I said “I’m born again”, though I didn’t say Christian, I said “I’m born again and I’ve decided to do more nurturing, loving characters”. They stood and looked at me and I lost it, I couldn’t keep it going anymore because it looked like I’d kicked them in the nuts.

And so you ended up being Zeus. That’s a pretty good character name! He’s got a sweet costume too. How does Zeus compare to some of your other favourites?

I don’t think you really get too much higher than that. We kind of threw the wardrobe together on the fly. We went to an army surplus store and bought some old stuff and started adding to it. The character was basically a servant at one point, who had a problem with authority, and now he doesn’t have to serve anybody – except the odd human being…

Darryl Revok [Scanners]…. That’s the one that sticks out the most. What I do like about names is it’s got to have an edge to it.  If you’re going to play a character where you announce yourself, you want to be able to have an edge to it. I don’t think I have too many awesome character names. [Oh, just Katana, Rasczak, and “Wild Willy” to name a few – Ed.]

Which characters of yours do people bring up the most?

It’s interesting the age groups of different people who’ll come up to you – “you were great in Top Gun” or “you were great in Total Recall” or “You were great in Free Willy”, “V”. I can always tell someone’s age basically.

It all depends. I remember one time I was in an airport with my wife, they’d just destroyed our luggage. All this shit was coming down the conveyor belt. And this little kid came up to me with this little Barney doll under her arm, she was about six or seven, with her brother, who was about two years older. She said “do you really hate Willy?”, meaning the whale, and I said “no, no, no”. Then I saw my underwear coming down and she goes “are you sure you don’t hate Willy?” and I said “I hate that whale!” She burst into tears, her mother came over saying “you’re a horrible man”. She went off at me, the mother did, and I said “you’re the person who sends their children over to strangers in the middle of a fucking airport, expecting them to be amenable”. And then I went off on Barney, saying her idea of creativity was having a purple lump of plastic with it these oversized eyes on it. Then I hear “honey, what’s going on?” and this oversize six foot six guy is running towards her. I thought I was going to get done in over Barney, he said “what’s going on?” and looked at me and went “Oh my God, it’s Jester [Top Gun]. Can I have your autograph?”

You picked me as someone who grew up watching ‘Total Recall’, so we’ve gotta talk Paul Verhoeven.

He’s interesting. Basically after doing Spetters and all those films, everyone in America wanted him and everyone in Europe thought he was wasting their money. He came over and did six or seven blockbuster films here, which everyone forgets because you’re only as good as your last film, and he says “now they hate me in North America and love me in Europe!” He’s been back in Europe doing a couple more films. I just saw Paul, I was at the Antalya Film Festival. He had me come down, he was the head of the jury, and wanted me to come down and do a lecture on working with different directors. It was funny, he was saying it would be hard for him to get 60 to 80 million dollars together for a film in the States but people in Europe are throwing it at him.

I like working with him. He knows everything that he wants to do. He said something that was interesting on Total Recall, he said “if you have a change, let me know a week ahead. Because if it’s not a week ahead, it’s not going to happen.”

I think he’s got a film in the can right now, and he wants to do the story of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. He had the rights to this huge interview that a reporter did with him in Spandau Prison. He wanted me to play him later in life, and sent over these three huge fucking books that could choke a horse, I read through them, but I think that’s on the backburner.

He says “we should do one more, everyone should have three shots at each other”. I’d like to.

Why didn’t Americans get ‘Starship Troopers’?

He originally had Matt Damon, they’d offered him Matt Damon for the lead, but he wanted, I think, three and a half millions dollars, and Paul said he’d rather take an unknown person and use that money in production. Not to piss on Casper Van Dien, because Casper is what you see. He gives you 100 percent, but sometimes that 100 percent is two dimensional. We were walking away from the set one day and Paul said “I may have made a mistake”. I asked what he meant, and he explained “I think this film is that large it needs somebody to anchor it that can hold that anchor position, that weight, and I don’t see Casper having it”. We were halfway through shooting at that point and I asked “what are you going to do?”. Paul shrugs and says “so, we do what we can, huh?” And that was the only time he ever mentioned it. I that that was a mistake. I think he would admit that, they should have had a recognisable name at the centre of that because there was so much going on.

A lot of people thought it was a horror, but its really a political document. He’s taking on all the fascists all over the world. I asked him when he was doing it, I remember reading Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, Heinlein was a total Nazi, a total right-wing American Nazi. Paul was somebody who grew up running around in Belgium, a war rat. So I asked him how he could do something so right wing. He said “you’re questioning me?!” but I just wanted to check before I signed on. “I tell you one time” he says “If I stand on a soapbox and preached to the people of North America and Eastern Europe that your way of doing things might be un-nurturing they won’t listen to me. So I’m going to give them a perfect, fascist, right-wing world. But it’s only good for killing bugs!”

Hopefully you get to do something else with Verhoeven again soon. But what else are you up to?

What kinda frightens me is also how I’m choosing films now. Can I do this without looking like an idiot? Give them what they want, and keep a real edge to it. Right now, I’m playing a grandfather in a very nice familial-type film, who’s dating his daughter’s best friend’s mother who’s decided to become a stripper. And it’s a brilliant fucking script.

I’m not going to be around or doing this much longer. I’m nearly 65 years old, I’ve got a decade at best. I’m looking at directing. I’m trying to cram in as much as I can before I settle down and watch the Toronto Maple Leafs hopefully win a Stanley Cup sometime in the next 15 years.  I remember in the old days I used to think I had all this ambition but I didn’t have the skill set to do it. Now I’ve got the skill set I don’t have the ambition or the storylines that I want to do. I do real well working with other people and helping them do their stuff. Myself? I’m not sure what I want to do, I don’t really have an axe to grind. But that might change…

Where and when to see ‘Turbo Kid’ at NZIFF