Michael Rooker Talks HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER On Its 30th Anniversary

Jacob chats with the legendary character actor about one of the most infamous horror pictures ever made.

As far as first film roles go, few are as infamous as Michael Rooker portraying serial killer Henry Lee Lucas in John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Shot for a mere $100,000 in and around Chicago, Henry is a blunt force, unflinching look at the day to day life of a drifting psychopath, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake as he moves from city to city. The movie was so successful in its ability to unnerve audiences that the MPAA informed the writer/director he would never get anything less than an ‘X’ rating, no matter what changes he made in order to try and appease them. This led to Henry being shelved for half a decade, its mythical status growing with each year that passed as it collected dust.

In the meantime, Rooker cultivated quite the rep as a character actor that has since blossomed into renowned status by itself. Working with John Sayles, Oliver Stone and Tony Scott, he became a regular “that guy”, appearing in classics and B-movies alike. Now he’s become something of a household name thanks to The Walking Dead and Guardians of the Galaxy  mainstream megahits a far cry away from the borderline industrial film that kicked off his career thirty years ago.

We were lucky enough to get a chance to chat with Mr. Rooker about Henry, and what followed was a candid conversation regarding film’s legacy, and just exactly what he thinks about the ratings board that attempted to damn McNaughton’s movie…

BMD: I have to admit – Henry played a large part in my development as a horror fan.

Michael Rooker: I’m glad to hear that, man. I’m glad you had such a pleasurable experience with the film.

BMD: I’m not sure “pleasurable” would be the word I’d use to describe it. I saw the movie entirely too young. I was probably fourteen and had a local video store at the bottom of the hill from my house that would rent me all the tapes I wanted and not tell my parents. Henry was mixed in there with one of those stacks and I actually got in trouble because I hid it in my closet after I watched it. I didn’t want anyone else to see it because I was so disturbed by it. The store ended up calling my parents when the tape didn’t come back for three weeks and I was in deep shit.

MR: Man, how great is that? I had an audition for Eight Men Out, and I had given the casting director a tape of Henry. She didn’t even watch the whole thing – just the first five minutes or so. Then she took it out of her cassette player and locked it in her desk drawer. Just refused to show it to the director. The only reason she ended up showing it was because they weren’t going to cast me if they hadn’t seen anything I did before. So she was like, “well, he has done one thing…” John Sayles ended up loving the movie and I got the role.

BMD: Now when you were making Henry, was there any indication of just how much of a lasting impact this movie was going to have on people and horror in general? Or was it just your first gig and you were trying to do anything at that point?

MR: Definitely the latter. Actually, I had done a few other bit roles and a TV show…

BMD: You’d shot Crime Story with Abel Ferrara, right?

MR: Yeah. That was the first. But Henry was a great role and I’d never had an opportunity to play anything quite like that. Nobody involved with the production expected anything to come of the movie, really. It was just one of those little movies I was going to do for the experience and the fun of it and to get my feet wet in the film industry. But boy oh boy, everybody brought it, man. Tom Towles and Tracy Arnold – all of us were deeply involved with this movie and when that happens you give your all and you don’t really know how it’s all going to turn out. We were just really fortunate to be involved with something so memorable.

BMD: You were 24 when you did Henry and performing in plays at the time in Chicago. How’d the audition come about?

MR: I had been doing a play and the director, Steven Segal, was doing prosthetic makeup work in the movie and had turned me on to their casting hunt. He told me they couldn’t find the lead yet and suggested that perhaps I should go over there and check it out.

BMD: And you watched videos of (real life serial killer) Henry Lee Lucas in preparation for the role?

MR: I watched a couple videos of his interrogations, because as you probably know he ended up confessing to over 500 murders or something like that. And I watched this special he did with Barbara Walters. I thought he was full of shit when I was watching it. He was just saying all sorts of stuff, and you could tell he just got off on that, and I didn’t know if I believed even half of what he was saying. But I ended up taking away a little bit of body language and some of his vocal rhythms. That helped a lot – certainly a lot more than any of the books that were being written about psychopaths and sociopaths at the time.

BMD: There’s a severity to your performance that’s really remarkable. How did you maintain that level of intensity the entire time?

MR: Whenever I went into work, I tried to stay in character as long as I could. I really tried to stay immersed in it all, and that led to large amounts of isolation from the other cast and crew, only to resurface at the end of the workday. I accomplished that by having my own little space. They prepared a space for me, and I would disappear into my room between scenes until they were ready for me again. Many of our sets were tiny rooms and it was very distracting for me, as it would be for any actor, and I tried to not let that creep into my performance. I just needed to get away.

BMD: Did you find it hard to turn it off and on, or even step away each day or when shooting wrapped? Was Henry a hard character to shake or was he just like any other role?

MR: Once shooting wrapped, it was done for me. I was ready to go home by then. [laughs] It was a pretty intense piece, as you know.

BMD: In regards to this isolation you describe – what’s remarkable about the film is how organic your relationship with Tom Towles’ Otis is on screen. How did you create that rapport while simultaneously keeping yourself focused on Henry’s lone wolf nature?

MR: Tom was such a great actor. We were all from the theater and theater people bond with no problem. We’re all actors and artists and, in the end, it’s a job dude. You just do it, man. There are actors who work together when they’re on set and can be the most believable lovers and then fucking hate each other as soon as the director yells “cut!” You turn it off and you turn it on, and that’s how we all got through that film. Because if Henry was influencing my normal day-to-day, my God we’d have some problems there, right? That would’ve been horrible. But with the other actors, we just hooked in like we’d known each other for a hundred years already.

BMD: John McNaughton was making industrial films and documentaries in Chicago before he did Henry. What was his style of direction like? Was he just setting the camera up and letting you guys do your thing?

MR: Oh dude, he was an awesome director. He was a very soft-spoken guy, and was just one of these types where I got along with him right away. He could just say a few words and it would speak volumes, and then I would just do my thing.

For me, acting’s very much like getting a racehorse ready in the stall. John would lead me into that stall and let me know what I would need to do, and then he would open the gate and let me go. A lot of the great directors do that. They don’t do a lot of “directing”. They hire the right people and then let them work and bring it. Now, if they go way off course, that’s a different problem. Sometimes you gotta let an actor go way off course and then pull them back in order to get what you need.

But for Henry, it was a lot about relationships and a lot of internal work. Actors talk a lot about internal monologues, and internal struggles. Henry Lee Lucas was a very internal, intense role with that type of thing. There’s not a lot of action in that movie – no car chases or bullshit like that. There’s some physical stuff, but not a lot.

BMD: But that’s what marks the movie as being so interesting. When it went through its troubles with the ratings board, it was all about tone. I remember reading one time that the MPAA once came back and said there was no way Henry could ever achieve an R-rating.

MR: We were given the weirdest push back. John asked the question “well, what do we need to cut to get rid of the X-rating?” And one woman came back to him and said, “there’s nothing you can cut. We disagree with your whole concept.” They were upset because there’s no redemption in the movie; nothing that they normally want to see.

You know, the MPAA are forcing filmmakers even today to pre-edit their styles before making their movies in order to avoid trouble. And this isn’t a ratings board – they’ll ban your movie, pretty much. If they could ban movies, they would. If people would put up with a ratings board banning projects, then the MPAA would ban certain projects. Because there are movies being made today that are compromised from the way artists want to make them, and it’s all because of the MPAA. Because many filmmakers are pre-rating their films and editing their content around those guidelines. They’re filming to make that happen, and that’s ridiculous as far as I’m concerned.

BMD: Isn’t one of the biggest myths about Henry that the rating caused the release delay? Didn’t the producers dislike the movie as well?

MR: Nah, the producers liked the movie. They were fine with the movie. They just didn’t want a fucking ‘X’ rating!

BMD: That’s what’s amazing about Henry, too – the movie’s become so legendary and there are so many myths about its creation that you need to separate them from the actual facts. Because I’d read that [Executive Producers] Malik and Waleed Ali hated the movie at first because it totally wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted T&A and violence.

MR: Oh, that was early on. They wanted something that was just gonna make some money. That’s what any investor wants. You can’t blame them for that. They wanted to release the damn movie, but it was a fight with the MPAA that took years. On top of that, nobody wanted to release the movie. Dude – nobody wanted their name on this movie. This movie was distributed by a grassroots distribution technique. Maljack [Productions] was a video distribution company and they printed up hundreds of tapes of Henry in order to get it out there. They gave it to casting directors and producers and people all over the industry. That’s how people saw the movie for the first time – through a bootleg or a copy that was found in the trashcan of a distribution company. They’d pick it up in the mailroom and go “what the hell is this?” and take it home.

BMD: And what a fucking night those unsuspecting people had!

MR: Yeah! But then they’d copy the tape and send it off to other people. That’s how Henry’s reputation began – as a word of mouth campaign that we didn’t even know about while the movie was in limbo. I got recognized on the streets in LA for Henry before I’d gotten recognized on the streets for anything I’d done that’d been in theaters! And I’d already done Eight Men Out. There was some guy who pulled me aside like “hey man! I saw your movie!” I thought he was talking about one of those, and he was talking about Henry. Henry wasn’t even near being distributed yet. He’d seen it from a tape in a fucking mailroom. [laughs] There’s what really happened. The fans made this movie. They were horror fans who wanted to see something different and didn’t know what the fuck to do with it, and that blew their minds.

Later this week, BMD will run an interview with John McNaughton, detailing the many stories behind the scenes of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Stay tuned!