Portrait of a Serial Actor
Lance Henriksen discusses Millennium with Fangoria.
Lance Henriksen discusses Millennium with Fangoria.
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David Hughes / Fangoria Magazine.
This is a cast interview with Lance Henriksen.
Lance Henriksen is exhausted. It's not that he has just come off the Vancouver set of Millennium at the appropriately ungodly hour of 3 a.m., although that is undoubtedly a factor. It's more that he has been working virtually non stop since July 1996 - when the first episode of Henriksen's very first television series was filmed - having given up his hiatus to star in the title role of Lincoln, a TV movie based on the book The Day Lincoln Was Shot.
This month, when Lincoln is broadcast, critics may well say that Henriksen's physical features - the face that looks like a relief map of Arizona, the voice so deep it sounds like his batteries are running down - make Abe Lincoln the role that the 59 year old actor was born to play. Those who have followed Millennium, however, are likely to disagree. Frank Black, they will argue, is the role that Henriksen, veteran of such genre films as Aliens, Near Dark and The Terminator, has been waiting for.
Henriksen himself tends to agree, although it wasn't always easy for him to get a handle on the part. So what does he believe was the key to unlocking the character for Frank Black? "Experience," he states simply, his sonorous voice rumbling like the idling engine of a muscle car. "I had to have experience. We took a lot of time over the pilot, and it was very restrained, very well thought-out and very focused. And at the end of the shoot, I literally looked at Chris Carter and said, 'What was my contribution to this thing?' Because I don't know - I had no idea at that moment what my contribution had been, because the whole thing was so restrained."
Henriksen found it easier to relate to Frank Black the family man, having a wife and young daughter of his own. But given the subject matter of the pilot episode, this made it all the more uncomfortable. "It was very painful to do", he admits, "a very difficult piece of material. Don't get me wrong - this is not a negative at all. I loved it, but I had gone through something, and at the end of it I was sitting there kind of dazed, saying, 'What did I do?' "
If Henriksen though making the pilot was heavy going, the actor soon found that having to visit those dark places week in, week out was even more gruelling. "When it got picked up as a series, I came back to work like, ' Here we go, we just started,' " he recalls. "We did a lot, all that year - an insurmountable amount of work, because we were treating these all like movies. Some of them were 60 pages - 30 more pages and that's a feature." Not that Henriksen is any slouch when it comes to hard work, having made some 60 films in over two decades as an actor. " I think the most movies I ever made was four in one year," he says, "and I thought, 'This is not possible - I don't think I can do this.' But then when I did the series, I realized, 'Oh my God! The amount of material we did was equivalent to twelve movies!' "
Nevertheless, the hard work has paid off. It has even brought him mainstream acclaim in the form of two consecutive best actor nominations at the Golden Globe awards, in which he was pitted against David Duchovny from that other Chris Carter show, The X-Files. Although both were ultimately beaten by ER's Anthony Edwards this past year, Henriksen claims to be surprised he was even nominated. "I was shocked," he admits. "I didn't expect it. You get so busy working that you don't even think anybody's noticing." He has a point: Henriksen's portrayal of Frank Black is generally - with the notable exception of certain scenes scripted by Darin Morgan in one episode - played in an even lower key than the mournful Mark Snow music which accompanies it.
But people are noticing, not least the fans who have boosted Millennium's ratings from its unspectacular premiere season to its slightly more successful sophomore run. "The good thing about our first year was that we tried to find this character and this world which nobody had ever done," he says. "I'm not saying nobody had ever done it in a movie or anything, but we had never done it. So we were trying to find out, what are the limit's here? How restrained can we be? How much can we refine it? It was a difficult year, because we weren't sure what direction we were going in." And of course, having episodes being broadcast even as one is feeling one's was around his character and the situations can be like growing up in public. "It really is. We needed that break between the first and second year to see what we had done, because once this train leaves the station, you're doing it. There's no longer a chance to step back and say, 'How was that show?' Because you're already into the next one.
Indeed, the actor reveals that he did not have a chance to watch every episode until the first season had ended. "I looked at the questionable ones, or those I was worried about, but other than that, I didn't watch them until the end of the year." Looking back in this way, he did find that there were some standout shows in the initial batch. "I liked 'The Thin White Line' and 'Wild and Innocent' " he says. "There were certain shows where everything worked - the director and the script were good, and I thought my work was alright." Of course, in episodic television, you can't expect a 100 percent hit rate, especially not the first time up to bat. "it's a gamble," he agrees, "because you start a show and you wonder, 'Are we as a group gonna find the metaphor somewhere along the line? Are we gonna make it work?' Because every you go out, in order for it to be really good, you have to find something on the screen, while it's happening."
The second season saw Carter, busy with both The X-Files fifth season and the first feature film, take a secondary role. Into his executive producers shoes stepped former X-Files alumni Glen Morgan and James Wong, who had found themselves available after their own pilot for Fox, The Notorious 7, was not picked up. Henriksen says that he immediately knew that the second season would be superior. "These guys," he says with a shake of his head. "I really like them a lot. Their energy; their focus - they really made an attempt to open things up and say, 'Look, can we survive if we go this far?' They're almost diametrically opposite of Chris Carter, although they're not kidding around when it comes to [making sure] that we do not trivialize issues, but that we become more artistic about it."
Some Millennium fans felt that the first episode under Morgan and Wong's aegis, "The Beginning and the End," solved almost all the show's problems. First, it resolved the story of the Polaroid Man (Doug Hutchison); second, it allowed Frank to become more closely involved with the Millennium Group; third, it separated him from his wife and daughter, which in turn meant opening up the show beyond the borders of Seattle, WA. And Henriksen subscribes to the point of view that, just as Frank Black believes that one man can make a difference, a single episode can do the same. "Oh, absolutely," he says. "Even for Megan Gallagher - the idea of playing my wife, and only being able to be in that situation... I think it's better that there's conflict. Anybody who has ever been separated from their partner will honestly tell you that they had more to do with them separated than they ever did when they were together." Besides, conflict is the very basis of drama. "yeah, and without it you're in trouble."
Talking of conflict, Henriksen addresses the issue of whether Carter - with whom the actor was said to have clashed with several times during the show's first year - still has an influence on the show, even though his executive producer credit is largely a courtesy rather than a reflection of his actual duties. "He still looks in," Henriksen confirms, "but I haven't seen him that much. I've seen him maybe two times the whole year. I've been so busy, and he's certainly hanging from the rafters." He notes that while Carter had a stronger presence during the first year, it still wasn't overwhelming. "We'd talk, but only when we needed to," Henriksen explains. "There's a giant sense of economy with this guy - our conversations would last about 12 seconds. I'd ask a question, get an answer and say, 'See ya.' "
Henriksen remembers one exchange distinctly, however: the one in which Carter called to tell him that the show had been renewed for a second season. "I was on location," he recalls. "I think I was talking to some girl on a horse in the scene, and we were one show away from finishing the season. So I got a call and Chris said, 'Lance, we just got picked up,' and I said, 'Ohhhh...' " He lets out an exhausted breath. " ' For how many?' and he said, '24.' And I was like 'Oh my God!' It was like getting hit in the face with a hot pie - I just climbed Mount Everest, and you're telling me we're gonna go climb K2 tomorrow?!"
Henriksen admits that Morgan and Wong's influence has meant, as the second season has progressed, a slightly greater emphasis on the supernatural. "But only in a spiritual way - it's not all like witches and spooks," he notes. This, he adds, has little to do with MillenniuM's symbiotic relationship with The X-Files, although on one occasion a bona fide crossover did occur. "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense", the first episode scripted by Morgan's younger brother Darin, made a more explicit connection with The X-Files by bringing back Chung (Charles Nelson Reilly) for an encounter with Frank. "That was a wild one," Henriksen says. "When I got that script, I was shocked, and I'm sure that everybody involved with the show down at Fox was shocked, too, because it read like we were absolutely gonna destroy the show. And then I got in there and started doing it, and did a few scenes, and realized - wait a minute! When I was a young actor, I thought, 'Hey, I want challenges, I wanna be flexible, and I wanna do all these things...' Then I got a Darin Morgan script, and I realized how rigid I'd become. I gotta tell you, though, man - once we started that show, we really got into it. It was a challenge, it was different, it made us all sweat a lot but it was a lot of fun."
One has to wonder whether the network would have OK'ed "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense" if Morgan hadn't proven himself on The X-Files. "I had a feeling that the network put their trust in the people doing it," Henriksen says diplomatically. "they're hungry for talent, because they eat it up like a good meal. That's not a negative," he adds, "it's just that they have so many demands made on them. So...I think they were grateful. Scared always," he allows, "but grateful." Henriksen reveals that Morgan is set to deliver another show - episode 21 - before the second season closes. "the script hasn't arrived yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing what he's gonna come up with."
Overall, Henriksen says he is "a happy man," comfortable and confident with the way things are going on the series. "We are doing a show right now which is just terrific. I don't want to tell you about it, but it's called 'Sirens', and it's this incredible script by Jim Wong. We're just really in great shape." Good enough shape for guarantee renewal for a third season, even though Glen Morgan and Wong have announced their intention to quit the show at the end of the year? "I have no idea," he says. "I don't want to make any assumptions, even though we've only got six more shows to do before we're done." Let's put it another way then: If Millennium were to be renewed, would Henriksen be confident that, even without Morgan and Wong, the show still has places to go?
"Absolutely," he says. "Oh, God, yeah. I'm not bored yet! I mean, you'll never see me just walking through it. No chance. I take this on as a real opportunity to grow as an actor - I don't want to end this series and just be this old guy!" He laughs, "I want to keep the muscles going, try something adventurous." But not something as adventurous as writing or directing an episode himself. "I don't know, man," he chuckles. "When it comes to television, directing is a very masochistic kind of situation. I used to think I was masochistic when I thought of films, but I'm looking at [TV] now and going, 'Wow, this is another step!' These guys are working their brains out, and I'd really rather not do it. I've got enough work on this thing - I don't want to go behind the camera as well!"
While not exactly a method actor, Henriksen's technique - learned at New York's famous Actor's Studio - involves a degree of improvisation and, in some cases, going further than the actual part requires. Stories abound about his Method-ish approach, from the speech he improvised in John Woo's Hard Target - "Right in the middle of the scene, I suddenly came up with this story," he says. "I said, 'When a hunter is killed in Africa, they bury him sitting up with his head to the surface. And when the first maggot climbs out, the grieving family goes home.' That just came to me" - to the $1000 tattoo he had painted on his back for the 1988 actioner Hit List, even though he had to pay for it himself.
Asked if he had been moved to go to such lengths for Millennium, he pauses a moment. "There's something more serendipitous going on with Frank Black," he ventures, before alighting on a good example. "when I was going to do the pilot, my wife and I went to a jeweller and found a watch that was perfect for the role. It was an Omega, a Speedmaster Professional - the one they went into space with. It was, like, $5000. And I said, 'What if the pilot doesn't go? We're spending our last $5000 on this watch! Are we crazy?' So we didn't do it. Instead, I bought a lesser watch with a big face on it, which was still in the ballpark for Frank Black. But in the second season, without me ever saying anything to them, Omega came to me and offered me this watch to use [on the show]. And guess which one it was?" The same one? "The same one. That was very serendipitous, and that kind of stuff has been going on all the way through it."
He even claims that there hasn't been anything he or the writers have wanted to do but haven't been able to do. "it's going exactly the way it should," Henriksen says, "and next year there's a very good chance we're gonna look at this year and say, 'Wow - that was the way to go,' and have more confidence. The whole thing is a growing process," he adds. "And if we stop growing, all of us will just quit, because those are the demands people are making of us, and if we suddenly become mediocre, they're just gonna tune us out.
David Hughes / Fangoria Magazine.