Veteran Actor Michael Ironside Reflects on a 40-Year Career, from 'Scanners' to 'Starship Troopers' to 'X-Men: First Class'

Michael Ironside-recent
Michael Ironside-recent

Ironside at a Screen Actor’s Guild event in Burbank, California, June 9, 2014

With more than 200 movies (and counting) to his name, cult character actor Michael Ironside is a living legend, whose four-decade filmography captures the past, present and future of genre cinema. Renowned for his steely onscreen presence, the 64-year-old actor has worked with such storied directors as David Cronenberg, Paul Verhoeven and Walter Hill, while also collaborating with a number of up-and-coming filmmakers.

Ironside fans new and old can check out the actor in the Vicious Brothers-directed film, Extraterrestrial, which premieres on VOD today, and opens theatrically on November 21. We caught up with Ironside at the New York Comic Con for an expansive trip back through his life and career, from his early days working for peanuts in his native Canada to battling aliens in Extraterrestrial.

Coming of age in Canada (1977-1983)

Frederick Reginald Ironside was born in Toronto on February 12, 1950. The eldest of five children, he was drawn to the arts early on, writing his first play at age 15. He later attended the Ontario College of Art, where he became interested in acting, appearing in a student film and on a TV production of Look Back in Anger. Along the way, he changed his name from Frederick to Michael.

My dad used to say that I ran away and joined the circus. All my life, up until I found show business, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I always felt that my arms were too short or too long, or my waist was too big or too small. But then I met all the other broken toys in the land of broken toys, and I realized that we weren’t broken. When I started out, I did crew work to survive. I acted in a couple of films in the ’70s, and then I did between nine to fifteen more behind the camera, as a grip, gaffer and craft services. I even did laundry. I was just terrified to leave the circus.

Michael Ironside-Scanners
Michael Ironside-Scanners

Ironside gets into a poor victim’s head in David Cronenberg’s ‘Scanners’

Scanners (1981)

After years of working steadily in Canadian television and independent features, Ironside landed his first breakout role in David Cronenberg’s (literally) mind-blowing sixth feature, playing Darryl Revok, a telepath who turns on his corporate makers.

David’s a phenomenal storyteller. I got hooked on him with The Brood; viscerally and organically, that’s one of the most disturbing films in his library. He told me that The Brood came from an image he had after he and wife separated, where she was giving birth by herself and had these huge blisters on her body. Then those blisters opened and sent off these children to wreak revenge on her ex-husband. He’s an exceptional film and storyteller. I don’t always agree with his take on material, but I generally like it when he does other people’s material—I like Spider and A History of Violence. I remember on Scanners that I got less than $5700 for playing that character. It was a daily rate of $140. Meanwhile, Jennifer Neal made, I think, $350,000. I made less than her per diem on the film! But I was grateful to get that job, so I’m not complaining.

Related: Is Julianne Moore channeling Lindsay Lohan in David Cronenberg’s (NSFW) ‘Maps to the Stars’ clips?

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)

One of many attempts to cash in on the success of the Star Wars franchise, this 3D science-fiction action movie starred Peter Strauss as a Han Solo-like space jockey battling a band of space pirates. A pre-Brat Pack Molly Ringwald also appears as a teen thief who becomes his unwilling accomplice. Ironside is hidden underneath elaborate make-up to play the film’s heavy Overdog, a bloodthirsty cyborg with chrome teeth and metal claws.

The Overdog make-up was designed by Rob Burman and was made of latexes and adhesives. I also had these chrome teeth and they’d drop me into a kind of large vase with mechanical arms and moved me around the set on a lift. I’d get into work four hours before the crew got there, then I’d walk onto set in make-up and I’d be there an hour-and-a-half after everyone left, to get it taken off. So nobody ever got to meet me. I even ate lunch in the make-up room because I had to be careful about the costume—it was a lot of liquid lunches. Then crew people started coming in and talking to me while I was in this outfit. The teeth were taken out [during lunch] and I looked like some wizened Buddhist monk, so they’d come in and start confessing things to me. They’d say, “I f—-ed around on my wife last week,” or “I hit my child at Christmas.” And I was just sitting there! One day, Rob Burman was taking a nap in the corner of the room and afterwards he looked at me, and asked, “How fucking long has this been going on?” And I said, “Almost everyday. It’s the quality of your work—they see this as a real person that they feel safe talking to.” It was very f—-ing weird.

Spacehunter was directed by Lamont Johnson—he was the voice of the Lone Ranger on radio, and had been around forever. He never met me out of makeup, either. Years later, I was in a shvitz in Los Angeles, and Lamont came in. I said, “Oh, Hi Lamont!” And he said, “Excuse me, do I know you?” And I went [in Overdog’s voice]: “I lieeed.” And he went “Oh Michael! How are you?” It was so funny. We sat at this steam bath in the nude, talking for two-and-a-half hours going over the history he had with the film.

We shot Spacehunter in Vancouver at the old bus station where First Blood had been filmed. They’ve turned it into a studio now, but there were still buses parked there when we were shooting. It was also shot in 3D, which they f—-ed up, because they had the wrong lenses. So when people went to see it, it was out of focus. But as a flat production, it works. That was Molly Ringwald’s second film; she kept taking the make-up sponge when nobody was looking, and rubbed it in the middle of her chest to give herself fake cleavage. And Peter Strauss didn’t want to be there. He was fulfilling an obligation to one of the studios, where they owed him a job and this is the job they gave him, take it or leave it. He took it, and missed the boat. He should have put a little more commitment into the character, as much as the rest of us did.

Coming to America (1984-1987)

Frustrated with the limited career options in Canada, Ironside migrated to Los Angeles, quickly landing work on television, including the hit alien-invasion series, V, where he played resistance leader, Ham Tyler. Breaking into movies, though, took a bit longer.

I tried very hard to stay in Canada, but I wasn’t making enough money, which was a big problem. Canadian actors were getting paid scale, while American actors who were coming up were getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. I went to a meeting for this one Canadian film called Weeds, about the smuggling trade. They offered me the lead, and I asked how much money was in it. They told me, $17,000 — and the budget was $7.5 million. I said, “I’m playing the lead, and you’re giving me $17,000?” And the producer said, “If you were any good, why are you still here? Good people leave!” I literally packed up, and left for Los Angeles three days later. I thought, “If I’m going to make a living, I’ve got to go where the living’s being made.”

Within two months of being down here, I was on V and did other TV work. I was represented by a company called DHKPR, which later became Triad, and they said, “You’ve arrived on TV in the U.S., but even though you’ve done all these films in Canada, the [movie] people down here don’t want to try you, until somebody else tries you.” People had seen Scanners, but until you worked with Americans and an American crew, people were uncomfortable, because when you hired somebody, there was a lot of money and energy at jeopardy. Make a mistake in casting and it’s like, boom. At the time, Richard Pryor—who was a friend—was directing Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling and he called me up and offered me a role. And while I was shooting that, Paramount called and said, “We’ve got this script about fighter pilots…”

Michael Ironside-Tom Skerrit-Top Gun
Michael Ironside-Tom Skerrit-Top Gun

With Tom Skerritt in ‘Top Gun’ — the movie once had a single character that fused both their roles

Top Gun (1986)

The top-grossing movie of 1986, Top Gun cemented Tom Cruise’s status as the world’s No. 1 movie star, and launched the careers of director Tony Scott and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson to new heights. Ironside plays stern flight instructor Rick “Jester” Heatherly, the bad dad to Tom Skerritt’s good dad, Mike “Viper” Metcalf.

When I went in to read for Top Gun, there wasn’t a Jester and a Viper—they were the same character. So Tom and I read for the same part, and then I went off to a golf tournament in El Paso with my buddy Mickey Jones from V. Tony Scott called me at the tournament and said, in that English accent of his, “Hey Mike, c’mon you gotta do this film! I’ve created a character for you. He’s not the character you read, but I created one.” And I said, “Let me tell you what you’ve done; you took the one character, and you split him into two because you don’t trust Tom to be hard-ass enough, and you don’t trust me to be parental enough.” There was a big pause on the other end of the phone, and he said, “Is that a bad thing?”

So I said, “Show me how you’ve written the shower scene.” They faxed down the pages and in that version, Viper is the one who yells at Maverick in the shower and then softens up. I said, “I will do it if you leave that scene intact, and don’t fuck with it—it’s my scene.” And Tony said, “It’s yours, matey!” Then, about a month after we’d been shooting, we went to do the shower scene, and he came up to me and said, “You’re going to hate me.” And I said, “I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to take the front of that scene where I’m a hard-ass, and then somebody who you have to humanize is going to do the back end—probably Val [Kilmer, who played Maverick’s rival, Iceman].” And he said, “Fuck man, you’re right on the money. I’m sorry.” I told him, “It’s okay, go ahead.” If you remember, I play that scene right up to the point where he tells him never to leave his wingman and then Val walks up and goes “It’s not your flying, it’s your attitude.” It’s a wonderful sequence and his character needed more humanizing than I did.  

The Paul Verhoeven experience (1987-1997)

Danish director Verhoeven landed in Hollywood around the same time that Ironside did, and the two became friendly, launching a collaboration that encompasses two of the actor’s most fondly remembered characters.

I was doing Extreme Prejudice with Walter Hill, and Paul wanted to see me about playing RoboCop. Peter Weller had also been in to see him, and it was down to the two of us. I went in to see him and the costume designer, Rob Bottin. I was in pretty good shape in those days and the consensus that if I played the character, he wasn’t going to look like a robot—he was going to look like a fucking Mac truck. Rob said, “I don’t know how to make this [for you].” Peter was able to lose a whole bunch of weight, and still had problems with the costume.

So then, Paul asked me if I would consider playing Clarence Boddicker, who Kurtwood Smith eventually played. He designed that role for me. I said, “Paul, they just took four days to kill me on Extreme Prejudice. I played this covert, slaughtering machine guy—I don’t want to play that again right now. I’m kind of morally and spiritually drained.” Then literally, a week after I finished Extreme Prejudice, I was working out in my swimming pool at home and I thought, “What the fuck did I do?” I’m kind of in-character when I’m on films, so it was really the wrong time to ask me to make a decision. I heard that Kurtwood, who was kind of an unknown at the time, came in and did a fucking great read on it. And Paul already had drawn Clarence on his storyboard with my short hair and glasses, and he said, “Not only is the guy good, but be looks like the guy on my storyboard! I don’t want to re-do my storyboard.” It was great for Kurtwood, because he got an entrance [into Hollywood]. And he’s a fabulous actor. I’ve never met him, so I don’t know if he knows that story.

Michael Ironside-Total Recall
Michael Ironside-Total Recall

In ‘Total Recall,’ Ironside played a sadistic Mars-based official who held a grudge against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hero

Total Recall (1990)

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven were both in the prime of their careers when they teamed up to make one of the all-time great sci-fi action movies. And after RoboCop fell through, the director found Ironside a small, but memorable role as lethal enforcer, Richter.

After I turned down RoboCop, there was another film that somebody offered me, that I also turned down because it was not well written, but there was a big name attached. Then I went to see somebody for a trial drama about a rape—I want to say it was the Jodie Foster movie [The Accused]. It was a great script and I really wanted to do it, but the word came back that I was difficult to work with. That was based on me turning down RoboCop,and that other piece of sh—. So I went off and did some films in Europe and Canada and when I got back, Paul was casting for Total Recall and said that he wanted to see me for the film, but the studio behind it was very nervous. I met him and said, “I want to dispel this rumor that I’m difficult to work with. Why don’t you get a camera and we’ll work together?”

So he got a video camera and I started acting out one sequence from the movie while he gave me direction. He shot the whole scene, and then he told me, “Do me a favor—do something where the character is dying from food poisoning, and he has remorse.” So I went “Uuuuuuh,” and collapsed to the floor, saying “How could you fucking do this to me?” Then he said—and you can hear it on the tape—”Yah, yah, you’re not difficult to work with!” I’ve got that video at home, because I wanted proof. Years later, I found out the rumor was started by one of the RoboCop producers. After I turned the movie down, he came in and threw the script against the wall and said, “What the fuck are we supposed to do? Why can’t actors do what they’re told?!” Somebody heard him mention my name and thought that I had done something. So that’s where the genesis of the rumor came from; that one guy being terrified that he couldn’t find someone to play the part [of Boddicker].

Michael Ironside-Starship Troopers
Michael Ironside-Starship Troopers

Ironside recalls asking Paul Verhoeven about the director’s seemingly pro-fascist approach to ‘Starship Troopers’ 

Starship Troopers (1997)

Freely adapted from the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, the movie upends the book’s relentless jingoism for a bold, bloody satire of wartime propaganda —and combat movies in general. Verhoeven tapped Ironside to play “real nut-buster” Lt. Jean Rasczak.

I went into meet with Paul about Starship Troopers and I told him, “I have to ask you one question.” And Paul is very controlling—he’s a wonderful filmmaker and friend, but you don’t question Paul. The man is more devoted to storytelling than anyone else, so you’d better have a good reason to question his way of doing things. He said, “You ask me what?” I said, “I’ve read Heinlein and he’s a right-wing fascist. Starship Troopers is a right-wing fascist take on what happens if the Communists take over the world. And I know you; you’re not a fascist. So I want to know what your take on this super right-wing material is.” And he said, “Okay, I tell you this one time. If I stood on a soapbox, and told the world that war and race-based hatred is killing us, nobody would hear me because I’m on a soapbox. So I’m going to create this beautiful world where the men and women are perfect—but the only thing they’re good for is killing bugs! Now don’t question me again.” And that was the satire! I remember doing the press tour and people saying that he was pro-Nazi. And I was like, what? Do you know who you’re talking about? Ignorant a--holes.

Michael Ironside-Terminator Salvation-2009
Michael Ironside-Terminator Salvation-2009

With Sam Worthington, seated, in 2009’s ‘Terminator Salvation’

The Workaholic (1998-present)

Whether it’s on movie or television, and in live action or animation, Ironside remains in demand. He’s appeared in TV shows like Desperate Housewives, Justice League and Community, and in movies like The Perfect Storm and Terminator Salvation. Gamers know him as the voice of Sam Fisher in the Splinter Cell series, a role he held until 2010.    

Top Gun was almost 200 films ago; I’ve been averaging about 5 to 7 a year since. I just love acting. I get lots of offers, and if the scripts work and the role challenges me or is something I haven’t done before, I’ll do it. Sometimes it’s a financial condition. There are two out of those 200 that I did for money and I wanted to fucking die on them. I felt like the biggest piece of sh—. I remember calling my wife, and saying I just want to jump out the fucking window. It was a drag.

These days, I usually finish my work, go home, play golf and attend my family. I was never going to be Clark Gable, and now that I’m in my 60s, it’s guaranteed. But I’ve been able to build a career by breathing life into these misshapen, broken people, which is a phrase my dad always used. He’s passed now; he lived in Northern Ontario, and I got him a widescreen TV and satellite hookup so he could see what I did, because he didn’t really go to the movies too much. One time, I brought up a while bunch of my films, and when I checked in with him, he said “I’m proud of you. You’ve been able to breath life into these misshapen, broken people and give them humanity.” That was better than any f---ing award.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Amidst the star-packed X-Men prequel, Ironside pops up as a battleship captain who bears witness to some mutant action.

[X-Men producer] Lauren Shuler Donner and I did Free Willy together, and she called me up and asked me to do a favor. She told me she had a three-day part in the X-Men movie, and I always get nervous around comic books. She said, “I want you to come down and play an admiral. The director hired this other actor to play the role, and two other actors to be his adjacent officers, and they’ve been on the scene for five days and it’s going nowhere. It’s backing everything up; we’ve got to get the set out of there, because we’ve only got so much space at the studio. I’m going to pay you very well; when you go on set it’s going to be very tense because you’re representing my choice over the director’s, and you’re replacing three actors. Nobody is going to f—- with you.” So I got fitted for my costume that afternoon, and was on set the next morning. And the director was obviously miffed that I was there; he ignored me for a bit, so I thought, “I’ll just pace myself.” At one point he was talking to the DP about a shot, and I came over and [made a suggestion]. I saw his back stiffen, but [when I finished explaining] the DP said, “That would work.” We finished the scene in a day, the same scene they had been f---ing around with for five days.

Michael Ironside-Extraterrestrial
Michael Ironside-Extraterrestrial

For his latest role, in ‘Extraterrestrial,’ Ironside plays a paranoid Vietnam war vet

Extraterrestrial (2014)

Ironside makes a killer entrance in the Vicious Brothers’ genre-hopping sci-fi picture, playing a military veteran whose latest conspiracy theory happens to be true.

This film is quite good. I got the script, read it and couldn’t believe it was that good. I saw the fine cut without special effects, and was knocked out by the film. I’ve been using the analogy that the Vicious Brothers sent me a Ford, and turned it into a Cadillac. And they didn’t have a lot of room [for error]. There’s a mistake that’s made with low-budget films where the director will shoot a very artistic master, and they’ll be no time to do the proper coverage, so they’ll jump right into close-ups. You always feel like they had too much money, but they f—-ed up. Here, you don’t get that sense. They took their time and picked their spots.

My character’s a Vietnam vet, and he’s paranoid, delusional and smokes a lot of dope. I have a couple of friends who were in Vietnam and one of them ended up living in a cave in the Santa Monica mountains for a few years. He had seen and witnessed some horrific things, and the trauma of being part of something like that gave him these delusions that he had to aim somewhere. Delusions like the government putting chemicals in airplane fuel, so that when planes go over our neighborhoods, they’re dropping this chemical. So I saw a hook I could use to bring some dignity to this character. I’m coming up on 65 years old, so there’s not a lot of roles that come your way that have a lot of meat on the bones. You’re usually there to slow-pitch to someone else so they can knock it out of the park. But this character had an integral part of the story. It was fun to do.

Extraterrestrial premieres on VOD today, and opens in theaters on November 21

Photo credits: ©Getty Images, ©Everett Collection