He Never Died: Q&A with Henry Rollins

Written by Amy Young Category: Culture Issue: December 2015
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He Never DiedThough he's widely known as a punk rock icon, Henry Rollins, former frontman of California hardcore band Black Flag, also wears several other hats: writer, humorist, spoken word performer, publicist, DJ and actor, to name a few. Regarding the latter, Rollins is currently starring as lead character Jack in writer/director Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died, a horror flick chock-full of sharp comedy and gore.

An outcast and a loner – who also happens to be an immortal and a cannibal – Jack tries his best to stay isolated in order to keep his inner demons at bay, for the good of both himself and others. Rollins brings Jack’s layers to life, smartly and subtly emphasizing his complexities, allowing us to fear him, laugh at him, and care about him, simultaneously. Rollins tells us about his involvement with the movie, and how he knew that becoming Jack was a perfect decision.

How did you get involved with He Never Died? Did you and Jason have a prior relationship?
The script was sent to my office. I was in New York, about to start a run of shows and the woman, Heidi, who runs my office, said “Read this. Read this right now. Drop what you’re doing and read this – I think you’re gonna love it.” She was right. I read it, I loved it. I sat alone in the freezing backstage area of the venue where I was having a show and laughed and laughed.

So that’s all it took for you to get on board with the project?
Yep. I wrote her back three hours later and told her that I read it and thought it was incredible. She told me the director and producers are in New York and wanted to meet with me. “And there is no audition,” she said. “They want YOU for this. Jason was writing this with you in mind.” That was hard for me to believe, that anyone would write anything for me, besides, like, a parking ticket. I met them the next day, and they were really cool, funny, interesting people, and I said “I don’t wanna be rude, because maybe I misread this, but I laughed my ass off throughout reading this.” And they said, “Exactly – you got it.” I said, “It’s funny, right?” And they said “Absolutely. Left, right, and center.” The humor was a big part of what drew me to it; I could just see the scenes playing out in my head.

And the deal was sealed?
I told them I was in and they said, “Great, let’s start raising some money.” And I thought “Oh great, this is never gonna happen.” I’m just so used to cool things like this never leaving the ground, but miraculously they were able to assemble the money needed to make the film and 11 months later we were in Toronto and shooting away. I was amazed that it came together because I’m used to quite the opposite happening.

Was some of that money raised from a crowd-funding initiative?
I don’t know how they got their initial funding. They said they were gonna gamble my name out there as part of the efforts to help get more funds and I said, “Okay, that’s good for about a dollar fifty, then what are you gonna do?” Then, they got the script to some potential contributors who liked the idea of me starring as the main guy and could really see how that would work. This is all Zach Hagen’s (producer) miracle, I really had nothing to do with it. I told them to let any potential contributors know that I’m going to do everything I can to be great in this movie and hopefully they’ll give us a moment. We did some crowd-funding to move things further down the road, but I’m not sure of all of the details of that.

Jack is a pretty complex character. What stood out about him, to you?
Jack is trapped in life, where you and I are working through it – we’re transitory. Jack is stuck like a fly in a chunk of resin that’s 20 million years old and he’s not going anywhere. Everything is boring, he’s seen it all before, heard it all before: A guy says to him “I’m gonna kill you,” and his response is matter-of-fact: “Yeah, sure you are. Some guy said that to me 700 years ago.” There’s really nothing in life’s rich pageant that he’s not dealt with, like, as many times as you’ve gone to the grocery store. Everything for him is utilitarian and pedestrian. And that’s how you see him – he lives in his underwear, he is always sleeping or watching TV. He kind of emits the lowest possible pulse and stays away from himself because being aware only enhances the misery of eternity.

Reading the script, what parallels, if any, did you find between Jack and yourself?
For me, I feel my mortality quite urgently, which is why I travel the way I do and work the way I do. I don’t work for money or fame. I just work because I want to do stuff because I realize one day I’m gonna keel over, so okay then, I’m here to crank it up. Jack is almost the complete opposite of me, yet I love the idea of how he is both bored and, well, violent. It’s hilarious and terrifying at the same time, and I love walking that line. When I read the script, I said, “Oh, he’s funny and violent at the same time, I want in,” I knew I could do it.

You’ve done a lot of acting, but this was your first leading role, right?
Yeah. I think there’s one amazing day that I wasn’t on set for a two-hour time period, while a stunt was getting shot, otherwise I was on set for every scene.

Was the idea of carrying a whole film at all intimidating?
No, I wasn’t intimidated in the least. Not because I’m some tough guy or anything, but just because I knew I had this guy cold. I had 11 months to work on him. Jason and I talked continuously over that time period. He told me to change anything, or rewrite it, “Whatever you wanna do,” he said. “This is your guy.” I didn’t rewrite anything, I just asked a ton of questions. I wrote on every page of the script and I showed Jason my ideas. We sat with every idea I had, knee-to-knee, facing each other in this microscopic production office in Toronto, and we fine-tuned Jack down to every facial movement, down to each aspect of his physicality. I wanted to show his boredom, and his utilitarian gait, like how he’d take out a group of people: “Boom-boom-boom, thank you, next.” Kate Greenhouse, who plays Cara the waitress and who’s just phenomenal, she totally got what I was doing with Jack, so she and I worked very hard on all of our scenes together. Especially because our characters have a really weird relationship. Like, she doesn’t exactly fancy Jack, but he’s like the one guy, a regular that comes into the diner who piqued her curiosity. He’s not mean – a little weird, but tips well and is friendly enough.

It was interesting to see her try to cross the line of waitress-customer relationship with him.
Yeah, she puts herself out there. When she asks him, “You busy tonight?” she’s trying to open the door to Jack asking her out and he doesn’t get it because he’s dead, but not. He shut her down without even realizing it. We worked on that scene so I could give her the right way to bounce off of that and show her humiliation, while Jack has no idea that he has committed a faux pas. Where someone else might make an excuse, “Oh I have to go to somewhere, or I’m really busy,” it was just a solid “No.” She played it marvelously but we worked on all that stuff a lot.

As a writer yourself, was it hard not to rewrite parts?
Jason’s such a good writer, I didn’t really feel that need to rewrite anything. Sometimes we’d do a take, his take, and then he’d ask me if I had any ideas. I’d tell him if I did and then he’d let me try it out. Sometimes it would just be some of the blocking. Fairly often, we’d end up going with my idea. He was always open to seeing my version and then we’d go from there. If he didn’t like the way I was going, he was open about it and it was fine with me – the best idea is the best idea, and I have absolutely no ego in it. I’ve never been given so much room. I have never been asked by a director if I had any ideas. I was really blown away by that. We worked on some specific scenes to make Jack ridiculously funny where he has absolutely no idea that he’s being funny. There are some scenes where Jack does not at all get why people are terrified; it doesn’t even enter into his mind, and we really played into that aspect of his nature.

Was this role an opportunity for you to pay homage to any of your own cinematic styles or heroes?
No. I just went at it. I don’t watch a ton of movies; they are hard for me to sit through unless I’m on an airplane, trapped in seat 80 J in the fetal position in the economy section, where a movie is a relief. At home, though, I don’t have a TV, don’t have a monitor, and I watch DVDs very infrequently. I go to the theater about once or twice a year. I’m not anti-movies, but I’m more interested in making them than I am in watching them. If someone recommends something to me, I will watch it with great interest. I’m more interested in listening to five albums in one night. I’m not really a movie theater guy, I’m more of a go to the gig and watch the band play guy, but what I tried to bring to the film wasn’t inspired by other films, it was trying to get a unique lead on perhaps a fairly often used theme. Jack’s a vampire, or that which cannot be killed. He’s immortal, so the bullets bounce off or have to be extracted by hand. How can we put a new twist on this? That’s what I tried to do, make it different…and funny. There are all of these great moments to emphasize the humor, some of which were right in the middle of violence, which were great opportunities to bring in that comedy. That’s something that Bruce Lee did in Enter the Dragon, take those moments to kind of give a wink to the audience. I wanted to add some moments like that.

Have you gone to the theater to see the movie?
I’ve actually seen the movie three times at the theater. No one knew I was there, I sat in the back. To watch people cheer and holler made me realize that people got it and liked it. They laughed and cheered. In my mind, we pulled it off. It’s a sturdy little effort. It’s not Streetcar Named Desire, but I’m not Marlon Brando, so that’s cool. Hopefully some people see it. It’s not even a small-screen production, it’s a tiny-screen production. It’s a humble effort, and hopefully some people will pick up on it.

I read that this may be turning into a series. Is that true? If so, would you be involved?
That’s the intent. That’s our great wish, and Jason, our overactive director, has actually written a season of a TV version. I’ve read a few of the episodes and they’re just wild, they’re completely crazy, in a wonderful way that made me think, “Damn man, we should do this!” We’re pitching our little guts out to make someone see it our way. How that goes, I’ll know when I’m on a set and we’re shooting, but we are going after that very ambitiously. Actually, the series was always the idea. The film is almost, in a way, a hyper ambitious pilot.

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December 18-23
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