Some actors spend their careers avoiding tense situations. Michael Biehn is a performer who seems to plunge head-first into them when frequently given the chance. From his first major role as Lauren Bacall's psychotic stalker in The Fan, to his true breakthrough performance as The Terminator's future commando, Biehn has brought ferocious commitment to his heroes and villains over a prolific career. Giving equal relish to both Hollywood blockbusters and eccentric indies, Biehn's roles ranging from The Abyss' alien-hating Lieutenant to the valiant leader of the Navy Seals and Stiletto's pain junkie, even writing and directing for himself in the process with The Blood Bond and The Victim.
However, Biehn's oft-apocalyptic charisma has rarely gotten an unforgettably brutal workout like it does when thrown into The Divide's bomb-shelter-from-hell. Ironically, his character, Mickey, is the architect of his own destruction, having built a seeming safe haven from the nuclear bombs that have just struck Manhattan. But in a scenario that makes Lord of the Flies' barbaric breakdown seem as civilized as English teatime, the war above soon becomes a pitched battle for survival inside of Mickey's abode. And a survivalist who took pride in being lord and master of his terrified charges (with a cast that includes Courtney B. Vance, Milo Ventimiglia, Rosanna Arquette, and Biehn's real-life partner Jennifer Blanc) gets the tables turned on him. It's a dangerous, and haunting performance that commands The Divide's moral inferno with a character capable of being both monster and savior in the face of a hopeless future. Now, the distinctly genial Biehn reveals the method to that madness, and a production on the edge of it.
Daniel Schweiger: This is one of the few movies I've watched where I found myself wondering if you had a safety word on the set that could cut the action when things got too intense for the actors.
Michael Biehn: Nobody stopped. I've worked with William Friedkin, Jim Cameron, and Michael Bay, but there was more tension on this set than anything I've ever worked on before. That was because our director, Xavier Gens, told the actors that they could do anything they wanted to, from improvising action to changing their dialogue and the direction of their characters. The man I played here was not the person in the original script at all. Mickey was originally the antagonist until the very end. So what happens is someone comes in, and they think that day is going to be about them and their scene. Then someone starts improvising right in the middle of their dialogue. The camera moves in on that actor instead, and the first person gets pissed off. So the actors end up f***ing hating each other. There was hostility, anger, bitterness, and fighting. We broke up into two groups, and the producers had to be brought down over and over again to separate them. We'd go back to our hotels at the end of the day muttering, “That motherf***er…” It was tense! But my character didn't take sides. So as the elder actor on the movie, I tried to keep people from actually hurting each other. But I think Xavier set that all up just to create that tension. I think he planned it all along. And he got what he wanted.
DS: It sounds like life imitating art, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, for that matter.
MB: Yes. We also shot the film in sequence, and I ended up writing my character's dialogue. I don't think any of Mickey's lines from the original script were left. It was a process of shooting for a day, and having the improvs we did change the action the next day. So you never knew which character was, or who wasn't on your side. It was a crazy, wild, fun, exhilarating experience as an actor, especially because I could take someone who was written as a racist bad guy and turn him into someone who may have started out as a villain, but ends up finding his humanity by the end.
DS: What's so interesting about The Divide is that you end up hating the characters that you expect to like, and vice versa.
MB: Again, that was not in the script. Some actors liked to stick to the script and were freaked out when people improvised with it. But Michael Eklund, who played Bobby, was able to use that creative freedom to take a character that probably had no more than ten lines of dialogue, and created a real person from doing improvisations with the writers. Xavier loved what they came up with, as he did with how Milo Ventimiglia changed his character of Bobby's brother Josh. But no matter what people felt, everyone was committed to this film. It was the best ensemble cast I've ever worked with.
DS: Did you ever find yourself wondering how long you'd actually last in a doomsday bunker like The Divide's?
MB: The Divide didn't make me think about it any more than I would normally. I play a tough guy in movies, but I think I'm more bark than bite. So I don't know what I would do in a situation with a group like that. Because Milo used to be a wrestler, I think he'd be the alpha dog. He could take me. I'd likely be the third man to die in that group!
DS: Victim was just picked up for release by Anchor Bay Entertainment. It's a grindhouse movie where things also got so intense that you actually got knocked out during the shoot.
MB: I asked a guy to put the LAPD chokehold on me. The department used it for many years when Daryl Gates was the police chief, and they ended up killing people with it. So the police went to stun guns instead. But the guy I was working with was a cop, and I told him to do it to me. I reasoned that I could tap out if I got a little woozy. But that happened a lot faster than I thought! So I tapped out, but I tapped out a little bit too late.
DS: One of my favorite films you've done is an action film called Timebomb that's finally coming out through MGM's on-demand video program.
MB: It's been twenty years since I made it, so I don't remember that much about it. But I definitely had fun working with Patsy Kensit on it!
DS: Where do you think your level of onscreen intensity comes from?
MB: It basically comes down to what I can draw from the story, especially when I have a good one. I'm a passionate person and a passionate actor. I care more about acting than most actors. Milo and Rosanna are passionate in that way too. This is more important to us than anything else. When I watch Sean Penn and Robert De Niro, I see that those guys have f***ing passion for their work. I'm certainly not comparing myself to either one of them. But like them, I also do my best to live the character. And I want to. It's not even like I have to try. The most joyous thing I can do is act in a scene, do it convincingly, and make people feel a certain way. It's the best thing going, except for Jennifer!
DS: Do you think there's a moral to The Divide?
MB: No. I think it's a cautionary tale, and I think it's coming a lot sooner than we think. Look at society now. Look at what they did to Gaddafi. Look at what mankind is doing around the world in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Africa. So I believe we're a lot closer to The Divide than people think we are. Mankind would break down in this country just as fast as it has in the Middle East if an attack happened here. People would turn on each other pretty fast.
DS: It seems that people almost want the world to end in 2012.
MB: There does seem to be that fascination. That priest came out last year and said the world was going to end. Now there are commercials on TV saying this is the year it happens. I don't get it. The world that I grew up in is so different than the way things are now. Pakistan used to be unreachable. No one went over there to film. Now its nukes can hit our country. It's scary because we're all within reach of each other. And with what goes on between the Muslims and the Jews, I think it's just right around the corner. I'm scared to death for my children and grandchildren.
'The Divide' opens Friday, February 13, 2011 at the Landmark's Nuart Theater in Los Angeles. Michael Biehn will be attending the midnight show that night.