INTERVIEW: MICHAEL ROOKER
Rooker talks about his new film Cell 213 and the 25th Anniversary of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Interview by Kier-La Janisse
Character actor Michael Rooker – much beloved to genre fans from his debut in John McNaughton’s controversial Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) – has been a fixture in the genre world lately, with turns in Rogue River, Hypothermia, Cell 213 and a regular role on TV’s The Walking Dead all in the last year. Canadian prison scare flick Cell 213 stars Eric Balfour (TV’s Six Feet Under) as an overconfident young lawyer who is wrongly sent to prison for murder. Sent to the titular cell 213 (incidentally Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment number), he must work through his myriad inner demons as supernatural powers fight for his soul.
A soft-spoken but menacing figure who can command attention in even the smallest roles, Rooker easily outclasses the material here as prison guard Ray Clement, who is in a position to help Balfour’s character but has his own reasons for throwing the cocky lawyer under the bus. With Cell 213 just hitting theatres as of this writing, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year, Spectacular Optical was able to sit down for a few brief moments with Rooker (via Skype!) to rap about the trajectory that led him to the genre and back again. After 30 seconds, the serious questions were thrown out (you’ll see why in a moment).
MR: Michael Rooker here.
KJ: Oh my god. How are you?
MR: Where you at? I don’t see your video yet.
KJ: Oh, I don’t have a video, I don’t have a camera.
MR: You don’t have a video? I was gonna ask you to show me your tits, right away.
KJ: Oh my god.
MR: That did it, woman. I am so disappointed. (laughs) Hi, how are you.
KJ: I’m alright, how are you? Nice introduction!!
MR: Ha ha, I’m OK. Hey, don’t worry about that, no one ever takes me up on it anyway.
KJ: So tell me about Cell 213.
MR: It’s quintessential Rooker, kicking ass, just brutalizing whatever actors are there on set, and having a good time doing it.
KJ. Tell me about your character, you’re a prison guard.
MR: I am a prison guard. But our prison is a very special prison. Our prison was built upon a site on our earth that is a portal between heaven and hell. Have you seen the Harry Potter series?
KJ: I’ve seen the third one.
MR: OK, so you know about the sorting hats?
KJ: The what?
MR: When the kids first come to the school, there is a sorting hat that they place on their heads and it tells them what house they live in. Well we don’t have a sorting hat, we have a sorting ‘cell’, and that cell is cell 213. And that cell sorts your ass out. Basically you go to heaven or you go to hell. My job as the guard is to make sure whoever gets placed into the cell 213, and that is all dependent upon their doings in their life. And most people who are placed in that cell are deserving of going straight to hell. And my job is assisting and being influenced by that portal.
KJ: So your character is aware of all this stuff.
MR: I’m unaware, completely unaware. I just know that this person has to go to hell, and it’s my job to make sure they go there. Unbeknownst to myself, I’m being influenced by the cell as much as Eric [Balfour]’s character. He is reliving and reaping what he has sown in his life.
KJ: Is this a classic ‘God and the Devil’ kind of supernatural, or…
MR: It is a morality play, plain and simple. It’s a beautiful piece, it’s beautifully done, it’s quite spooky and scary at times…I have a feeling people are really gonna dig it.
KJ: If it’s a morality play, what do you think having it set in a prison does to exaggerate elements of this?
MR: Well, the motherfuckers can’t leave! Once they get into this haunted house, this haunted prison, this crazy place, in the cell – he can’t leave, he is stuck.
KJ: So it’s kind of like a purgatory metaphor.
MR: Totally, yeah. It’s pre-purgatory. There’s a line in the piece where I say “Welcome to your own private hell”. So this really is his own private hell, where he has to sit and think about all the rapists and child abusers and murderers that he has turned loose on society. Because he is such a fuckin’ awesome lawyer.
KJ: So is the film kind of a statement against lawyers?
MR: I hope so, I hate those motherfuckers.
KJ: Because every lawyer does that.
MR: Every lawyer does that. I don’t know too many of them that would not sell their soul for money.
KJ: What was your working relationship like with Eric Balfour?
MR: I loved him, he was awesome, He was quite a sport – he loved being brutalized and hit hard. He just wanted me to hit him harder and harder. So I was like, “of course!” I can oblige him on that, but I didn’t want to completely crush his ribs, so I said “How about if I just make it look like I’m hitting you harder, Mr. Balfour? I’ll try acting before I break your spine.” We had a good time doing the show.
KJ: It’s the 25th Anniversary of Henry. It was your first film, even though it didn’t come out first – you had like ten other films come out in the interim. What’s your take on why Henry was delayed so many years before it came out?
MR: Nobody wanted it.
KJ: So that’s it? Nobody wanted to pick it up?
MR: that’s right, yes.
KJ: That’s insane. Joe Coleman did that amazing painting of the poster art…
MR: Oh god, did he ever. Wow!
KJ: So your debut on the scene is having this amazing portrait of you by Joe Coleman, which has gotta be such…
MR: An honour. Completely. I tried to get that painting from John McNaughton but he won’t let me have it. He won’t even sell it to me. He’s an asshole! (laughs) I don’t know if I could hang it up in my house – I have daughters – but it’s just an amazing, amazing piece.
KJ: how big is it?
MR: It is about 1 ½ X 1 ½ ft. Not too big.
KJ: If Henry had actually come out in 1986, do you think it would have changed the path of your career at all? Or do you think it helped you that you had other kinds of films come out before Henry?
MR: I know for a fact it totally helped me.
KJ: It helped you that it was delayed?
MR: Because it was delayed, yes. Because I had the opportunity to do other things – I did a few TV shows, guest starring, I did Mississippi Burning, Days of Thunder and Eight Men Out prior to the release of Henry…and a little tidbit: Henry was released and in theatres at the same time Days of Thunder was released and in theatres. And if I’d had a press agent at the time, I would have been way better off. I mean, to have those two extremes released at the same time, Days of Thunder – which has become this great piece of work in its own right – and Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer in the same theatres at times, it was just phenomenal, when I think about it.
KJ: What do you think would have happened if Henry had come out first? I mean, is it usually considered a curse to play a serial killer as your first role?
MR: I don’t know if it’s a curse – it was a blessing for me, because it was such a tough role. I learned so much from that. It was an amazing piece to have been my first piece – crazy.
KJ: And people talk about how you play bad guys all the time but Henry is actually surprisingly sympathetic.
MR: Henry is sympathetic. And I disagree with people who say I play bad guys. I’ve never considered any of my roles bad guys, and I don’t play them as such.
KJ: Well that’s what I mean. If people are trying to boil it down and simplify things, maybe, but you always bring this humanity to these characters.
MR: I agree. We all have a little good and bad in all of us.
KJ: What kinds of reactions have you been getting to your role on Walking Dead?
MR: Oh, phenomenal. People are all over it. They love Merle Dixon.
KJ: What do you think they relate to about that character?
MR: I think they love the fact that they hate my guts. They think I am a sexist, racist, motherfucker asshole, redneck, cocaine-infused idiot, and they hate me. And then they realize that ‘I may hate this character, but I kind of feel sorry for him now”. So it’s pulling and tugging at their morals. And that’s in the writing. And I was very fortunate to be in this piece and have that role, because that’s kinda the shit that I do. I like to give them some depth and stretch ‘em out a little.
KJ: I just wanted to ask you one last question before you go, about character actors. Who are your favourite character actors…of all time?
KJ: Because I love character actors, I love the faces.
MR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. (laughs) Oh my god, there’s just too many. Too many, hon! How about the guy who says “What we have here is a failure to communicate”.* Who is that guy, right? But he’s awesome! And what’s that other guy with the sunglasses, in the same movie?!** Oh my god.
KJ: Well that’s part of the thing about character actors though, right? It’s always like “that guy!”
MR: (laughs) That’s for sure! And I’m very proud to be that guy.
* Strother Martin and ** Morgan Woodward in Cool Hand Luke (1967)