Over his 50-plus year career on film, Lance Henriksen has amassed over 250 credits and become a highly recognizable actor. As Bishop, the benevolent android in Aliens, he was iconic. He’s also had standout roles in cult films like Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western Near Dark, and Walter Hill’s deeply underrated film noir, Johnny Handsome. On television, Henriksen was thrice nominated for best actor by the Golden Globes for playing Frank Black on X-Files creator Chris Carter’s Millennium.
Still, nothing in Henriksen’s history as an actor can quite prepare you for the character of Willis in Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, Falling. As a relentlessly bitter man suffering from dementia, Henriksen gives the bravest and, to my mind, the best performance of his life. Willis is insufferable to his kindly son (played by Mortensen) for being, among other things, gay. Willis is a man who does not want and cannot receive help and compassion. Falling is a most difficult ride, because it does not ask for your sympathy, only your understanding. And Willis is such a difficult person, that the effort to see him as more than the man spitting anger and epithets will be a challenge to the audience. But through the extraordinary work of Henriksen and Mortensen, you come to realize that forgiveness is valuable, even when it is not accepted.
Lance Henriksen and I talk about his journey through not only this film, but also through the arts, and nothing less than life itself.
Awards Daily: How did you come to the film?
LH: Viggo and I met on a movie called Appaloosa, which Ed Harris directed. We got along great – I kinda hit it off with him. I loved being in the movie because I like westerns – especially if they have a good story and structure. Viggo, on his own, was writing the script (for Falling) and finished it about three or four years ago. He was trying to figure out who he would get to play Willis, and he thought of me – I was very touched by that. I said, why don’t you come up to my place and let’s talk about it. We started going over the script, and it was a terrifying script to read because how do you act that? How do you act dementia? Everything I’ve ever seen is (like) people standing in a fog. That kind of thing didn’t appeal to me.
I don’t think you can actually act dementia. One of the things that happens is that you’re not confused. The people that are helping you, that are part of your family, they’re confused by your change-ups and the directions your mind goes in, and they would like to correct you so that they’ll feel better – not so much so that you will feel better. They want to see you like you were, not like you are. I can’t say that I had any of that in my family (to draw on). Or if I did, it was thinly disguised. I looked at it as me thinking, you’re just treating me like shit, and I think I’ll take a walk for awhile. [Laughs] The intricate nature of human relationships is so vulnerable. We’re not fish that swim in a school – we’re all individuals. All this stuff with racism – that’s dementia of a society. To do that movie – it’s the best film I’ve ever worked on. It’s so complex. There’s so many brutal battles going on. It’s more like life than we’re willing to admit.
AD: You mentioned being directed by Ed Harris, who, of course, like Viggo is also an actor. So, two part question: 1) Is there any real difference in being directed by someone who has been an actor for so long, and 2) Did you have any reticence taking this on knowing it was Viggo’s first film as a director?
LH: No, no reticence. The reticence, in my case, came from the fear of getting caught acting – I didn’t want to do that. That was my fear. There’s something wonderful about working with an actor who knows what we do – what our frailties and strengths are. There are other directors who are supreme planners – I don’t feel as comfortable with them. I feel like I have to survive by absorbing everything they say to me and I try to deliver. It’s a different thing when it’s an actor.
AD: This film asks you to go to some very dark places with your character.
LH: I had to go back to a wretched part of my life, which was my childhood. There were some events in my life that were pretty scarring. The arts brought me out of the coma I could have gone into for the rest of my life. When you get the love and affection of other people in the arts, and you give it back, you are, in essence, reborn. You are accepted, even with all of your eccentricities. If you don’t get the healing of understanding, and you stay in the cocoon of your misery, you don’t develop as a person. I actually only had three years of grammar school – I hated school. I’m 80 now, almost 81. Fuck, it’s going fast. [Laughs] When I was five-years-old, the war was going on, and then I was in foster homes. Had I frozen in that, and that became who I am, there’s no doubt it would have led me down terrible roads. The arts gave me hope. Everywhere I looked around me, there was hope. Willis is frozen. And so, how do we unravel such a complicated person? Because any other actor who would have played Willis would have done him completely differently, and it would have been a different movie.
AD: Everyone around him is trying to fix him, and he doesn’t want to be fixed.
LH: You just used the key word: Don’t try to ‘fix’ me. I love my life. I have a farm. I have horses that I’m crazy about, and he’s been working that way his whole life. The intricacy of having love, and having a wife, and having children are difficult for him, but his real drive is I can fix anything myself, I can build anything, and I’m a contented man. But when you poke the alligator, what happens? They snap at you.
AD: A lot of the time when you see a film about a character with dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s about how it changes them as a person – they become more difficult to deal with. In regards to Willis, he’s not all that easy to be around in the first place, and the dementia – while it affects him cognitively – doesn’t really change him behaviorally. He’s self-destructive, he’s been lucky enough to find two nice women in his life, his kids grew up to be good people, but he still blows everything up before he gets dementia. Although he does have moments of kindness, they aren’t sustained.
LH: Like with Monica, the granddaughter. On one hand, I’m bitching at Viggo for being gay, but he has adopted a child that sees me as ‘grandpa.’ She has no judgement, she’s not fixing him, and that’s a natural event – dementia or not. It’s a wonderful relationship that I have with that little actress (Gabby Wells), who is so wonderful. She gave me the relationship. Handed it to me on a silver platter.
But yeah, he’s a hard one. This is not a highly educated guy. He may look at the occasional book or watch television, but the rest of the time, he’s out working. He’s a worker. And you see it in a lot of films – ‘the poor old guy.’ And they do the scene and it’s to get sympathy – that would have been the death of it for us. The dementia is almost ineffectual as it relates to his personality. I have this long scene with Viggo in the kitchen, where I ask him, ‘Did they know you were a f*g in the army?’ Viggo responds, ‘I was in the Air Force.’ And I respond, ‘Well, did they know?’ In a strange way, Willis is trying to take an interest in his son. His love is just…tough.
AD: There are some really lovely scenes in the film too. In particular, when Willis wanders off alone to the beach in Los Angeles and just takes in the beauty of the waves and the sunset without ever speaking a word. It’s very moving.
LH: That was some of the last work we did. We escaped Toronto and the snow and went back to L.A. There’s inspiration that comes out of a price you’ve paid. You can’t start out blank doing a scene. You really prepare. At that time, I (as Willis) felt like, no one’s trying to fix me, no one knows who I am or where I’m from, and it suddenly became all about the nature. For the first time, I got away from all the nagging, the demands, and everything else. I’m sitting there on the beach and I just felt alive and I wanted to walk into the ocean and just keep walking, and look at that sunset. I didn’t have to act. It was more like discovery. To do that you have to be in an environment that allows for that. Working with an actor who is directing, they know what you are going through more than anybody because they’ve been through it on every level. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small scene, riding horses, shooting guns, whatever it is. In the 50 years I’ve been an actor, I’ve done a of lot of things. Things that were demanded of me that come natural now. I have a library in my head and in my heart – more in my heart than my head. That’s what I have. I think as you get better at it, you become it. That’s the whole point.
AD: Through most of the movie, everyone around Willis is trying to manage themselves around Willis’s behavior to keep things from escalating…
LH: That’s exactly what’s going on.
AD: And it all leads up to the scene where you are in your living room, sitting in the recliner, and Viggo’s character can’t take it anymore and the two of you just unload on each other in a way that was so raw and powerful that it made me almost pause the movie because I didn’t know how much more of it I could take. I felt so in the scene that I practically wanted to step in and separate the two of you.
LH: Like a referee.
AD: Exactly. I’m just wondering how you and Viggo worked yourself up to that scene. It’s so real it’s unnerving. Even though the scene is big it doesn’t feel like it’s overdone in that “big movie scene” sort of way. Maybe that’s because you both just seemed so present.
LH: We were. It had to be that. We were working on it and we knew it was coming. We tried it and at first we weren’t happy with it because it was just adequate. I remember Viggo saying, okay, we started it, let’s take a day away from this scene, go back to the hotel, relax, and I’ll shoot some other stuff to make use of the time because we had a short (shooting) schedule. When we came back to it, we were so ready because we took the time to personally and individually understand what the stakes were. I remember we finished the scene and I walked around the corner where all the different departments had screens to watch the scene from, and they were all so devastated – some of them were crying. And then I thought, I guess we did it. You can second guess a movie. You can not be willing to go there.
AD: It sounds like you had a close-knit crew on set.
LH: We had a great international crew from Sweden, Denmark, Canada, America, from all over. Viggo took 4×5 flags of each country where everyone was from and strung them between the trailers. When the crew came in the next day and saw that it was so cool. Not only that, but in our makeup trailer, which everyone would end up walking through to get coffee and just get warm for a minute because it was freezing up in Canada, Viggo had put up all these photos of his family on the mirrors and the walls. And then the rest of us started putting our pictures up. What you ended up with was this all-encompassing event that brought everyone together. Even though we never talked about it. I’ve talked about it since the movie, but at the time, you could see it on their faces – that’s my flag and those are my photos. When I walked around that corner (after the scene) you could feel that. These people were a part of it. They would end up telling us stories about their family.
AD: Everyone has family stories of an ailing loved one or a difficult relationship.
LH: Yes. In fact, my daughter from my first wife, her grandmother has fallen into terrible dementia and is dying from it. She said, I can’t see the movie right now, but I’ll see it some other time. I said, I understand, baby. And when you’re ready, we’ll make sure you see it. Every relationship, all the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, we all have something in common. This story isn’t looking for sympathy We never intentionally gave the audience a break. We were all living these roles. I love Viggo. He was so complimentary. He kept saying, I’m doing these scenes with you, and I’ve got the best seat in the house! [Laughs]
AD: The other thing the movie doesn’t do is give you that moment that most films do when portraying a difficult family relationship, which is provide a catharsis – some sort of meeting of the minds. Willis stays true to character. Even in the scene at the kitchen table where you and Viggo exchange that knowing look while working on the crossword puzzle together, it never leads to Willis saying, “I’m sorry,” or “I love you.” I think it’s brave.
LH: I’m so glad you picked up on that. That’s exactly what we wanted. We didn’t want a wrap up. We didn’t want a ‘I love you son’ or ‘I’m sorry’ or any of that shit. Instead it’s about, I should have fixed that. He doesn’t get close to anything like an apology. Instead he says, I should have fixed that overflow valve (after Viggo’s character lets the bathtub water run over). That’s as far as Willis will go. When Viggo solves my puzzle, I remember sitting there feeling, really on the verge of tears rolling down my face because I (as Willis) was so relieved that it wasn’t another hostile moment. We had (just before) had that huge fight over food in that kitchen. Don’t tell me what I can eat, you fucker! I’ll kill you! [Laughs]
AD: Watching the film, Willis seemed to be like a person who could receive love at times, but couldn’t sustain the reception of love.
LH: You’re right. It’s a foreign creature, love. The split between Willis and Gwen (his first wife, played by Hannah Gross) was why do you have to drive 100 miles to take drawing lessons? He couldn’t release her. He couldn’t free her. He couldn’t let he be whatever the fuck she wanted to be. It’s a tragedy. I’m sure a lot of people go down the tubes that way – you’re surprising me, you’re scaring me, stop it.
AD: Right. Willis was suffocating to the people around him, but he also suffocated himself.
LH: Sure he was. There’s a great moment when Sverrir (Gudnason), the actor from Finland, who plays the younger version of Willis, and he’s at his son’s birthday party and he feels like an isolated man – that he’s not part of it, and he says ‘Fuck this.’ And at that moment, you got all of it – that he’s isolated. Again, these things are not “acted.” In Viggo’s movie, you pay a price for everything you do – each character.
AD: You’ve had an incredibly long and diverse career, but I’m willing to bet that you’re particularly proud of this movie. I have to say, I’ve never seen a character quite like Willis onscreen. It must feel great to have gotten the opportunity to play him.
LH: No, you haven’t seen Willis before. You know, we’ve done about 50 Zoom interviews, Viggo and I. For places all over the world – Slovenia, Belgium, France, England (Falling has already opened in Europe). It was an incredible opportunity to try and explain the unexplainable. All these Zoom meetings kept demanding of me that I focus and tell the truth. In doing that, in having that opportunity, I what happened is I realized how good the movie is. When I finished it, I said, I gotta disappear for a little bit, Viggo. I’ve got to heal. Then, when I finally saw the movie, I was so happy and just stunned by it that I couldn’t even talk about it. We left the theatre when we did the first screening with the agents and the producers and some friends, and I walked out into the street and I was speechless. If anyone had asked me a question at that moment, I wouldn’t have been able to answer…anything. It was so full. And I think audiences are going to get that if they put a seatbelt on. I think it resonates because it’s truthful. It’s a piece of art, that’s what it is.
I haven’t been offered that. I’ve played a lot of characters, bad guys, stupid guys, cowboys, killers, and some good guys. But if you don’t get the challenger, with the offer, and with the conspiracy required to do a good movies, these opportunities don’t happen. There will be things that you see that the minute you leave the theatre, you’ll forget it. It won’t stick to your ribs at all. This thing, if you have the courage to sit through the movie, and allow you to relate it to your own life – which we all do when we watch a movie anyway – I think you’ll find it’s really something.
AD: It definitely stuck with me. I found it remarkably easy to write questions for this interview immediately after I finished viewing it. I barely had to think about it.
LH: Werner Herzog did a Q&A with us. And the first thing he said was, I go to movies, I walk away, and I don’t remember anything about them, and this is not a movie I feel that way about. God, he was so complimentary to Viggo and I and everybody in it. And he’s a brilliant guy. He really is.
There was a little fear in doing Falling. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. My nature is not like that in any way. But the demands were what they were.