Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Matt Frewer was born in Washington, D.C., raised in Ontario, and got his first acting breaks in the U.K. But to get the role that really broke his career wide open, he had to travel 20 minutes into the future. After becoming an international sensation as the purportedly computer-generated character known as Max Headroom, Frewer went on to numerous other film and television roles, including his own CBS sitcom, Doctor Doctor. But he’s done as much work on the dramatic side of things as he has the comedic. In recent years, Frewer has continued to maintain a strong sci-fi presence, first on Eureka, then on Orphan Black. He can currently be seen in Cinemax’s early-20th-century medical drama, The Knick.
The Knick (2014)—“Dr. Christiansen”
Matt Frewer: He’s extremely bright—a genius and a pioneer, but one who requires medication to achieve what he wants to achieve in a short period of time. When we find him, his failure rate is far higher than he would like. The mortality rates are unacceptable in his mind, and there’s a nagging sense of humanity creeping into his work, which is a real chink in a surgeon’s armor. In other words, there’s kind of a division between the heart and the head. Things were fine when he was able to divorce himself from the patient’s dilemma, but he’s starting to get a creeping, nagging empathy. [Laughs.] His humanistic side is catching up to him, and it’s a personal crisis. That’s never good when doctors have that crisis. They need to divorce the heart from the head. When those things come together, bad things happen.
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into the series?
MF: I actually auditioned for another role, the Captain Robertson role. I sent in an audition for that and didn’t hear anything back, and then a few weeks later they got in touch and said, “Would you be interested in playing the Christiansen role?” Of course, I jumped on it.
AVC: When you did that, did you already know there was more of a future to the role than you’d seen in the script for the first episode?
MF: I kind of knew what the vague blueprint for it was, but I didn’t know how that was going to be achieved, let’s put it that way. [Laughs.] I’m trying to be obtuse! But I liked what was there in the first episode. Even if that was going to be the only chunk, I would’ve done it, because it’s a great few scenes.
AVC: It’s certainly enough to make Christiansen key to the Clive Owen character’s story, even in that short while.
MF: Yeah, although all the ensuing stuff was pretty cool. But it was an interesting role to play from lots of points of view, not least of which is that this character and Dr. Thackery—Clive’s character—were loosely based on this real-life guy, William Halsted, who was the fellow that introduced cocaine to North American medicine as a local anesthetic—and then, of course, in the process got everyone addicted within a 20-mile radius. [Laughs.] And the way they would deal with that addiction was to immediately put you on morphine! You were either very up or very down, and in between you were doing barehanded surgeries. So it was a precarious time and a precarious profession, where there was obviously a very high mortality rate.
Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life (1983)—“Cornered Executive Who Jumps”
The Lords Of Discipline (1983)—“Senior”
AVC: Your first time in a film definitely seems to have been in 1983, but was it playing a senior in The Lords Of Discipline or a cornered executive in the “Crimson Permanent Assurance” sketch in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life?
MF: I think it was Cornered Executive. I’d just come out of drama school. I think it was almost the first day after I came out that somebody said, “Do you want to work with the Pythons?” I said, “Yeah, of course!” But I would’ve said yes to anything. “Do you want to do underwater hang-gliding?” “Yes!” “Will you stand in front of this freight truck?” “Yes!” [Laughs.] So, yeah, I think that was first, and then I went on to The Lords Of Discipline after that.
AVC: How was it working with the Pythons? Did you even work with anyone other than Terry Gilliam?
MF: Well, yeah, in a way. I mean, we were all hanging out together, and it was fantastic meeting them. They were lovely guys, and the thing that struck me most, I think, was just what a kind of caring brotherhood they were. They were very nice people, and very caring of each other. That’s what I remember most about it. It was a really nice time on set with them.
AVC: How was Gilliam as a director? That was still pretty early days for him behind the camera.
MF: Great. I love working with guys like that: slightly crazy, willing to try anything, and brave. Brave and very wildly creative. And a great guy to boot. It was a lot of fun.
AVC: How did you find your way into a career in acting in the first place?
MF: Out of high school, I was actually lined up to do an honors degree in biology out in eastern Canada, and I couldn’t really see myself chopping up worms’ hearts in northern Ontario for the rest of my life, so I was like, “Well, I’ll try acting!” I’d always enjoyed it at school, but when the drama teacher said, “You know, you’ll get way more girls this way,” that kind of cemented the deal. [Laughs.] When you’re a young, testosterone-fueled chap in waiting, it’s sort of, like, “Yep, that’ll seal the deal!”
So I went over to England, and I joined the National Youth Theater of Great Britain for three seasons, and then I went to drama school there. I went to the Bristol Vic School. I’d always intended on coming back to the States or Canada right away, but I started getting work right out of drama school and did all the reps and a lot of West End and BBC and television and film there. Then I got this Max Headroom thing, and that brought me out to L.A. So I arrived in L.A. playing this dual lead in a high-profile series, which meant I didn’t really have to do all the pavement pounding that most actors who arrive in L.A. do. I was very lucky that way.
Kissinger And Nixon (1995)—“Gen. Alexander Haig”
MF: It was great working with Beau Bridges and Ron Silver, God rest his soul. Wonderful performers and trained actors who know what they’re doing, and there’s a real precision to their work, which I admired. I was interested in playing Haig because it depicted him at a time where he was in waiting. That wasn’t the guy that seems to be the indelible image of him. There’s this perception that he’s some psycho military man, always trying to be in control, and that show depicted Haig at a time where he was in the wings. He was a man in waiting, and he was more of an opportunist than anything. The perpetual second-in-command. [Laughs.] And there’s frustration that comes with that.
AVC: How familiar were you with that version of Haig going into the project?
MF: A fair amount. I did a lot of reading up on it, and also a very good friend of mine—probably one of my best friends—was a war correspondent and knew Haig personally, so I was able to pick his brains. Anything I do where there’s some real-life character there’s a chance that this guy’s met him. [Laughs.] I’m surprised he still takes my calls!
AVC: Did you end up meeting Haig yourself at any point?
MF: No, I didn’t, unfortunately. But like I say, I got this first-hand account from my friend, who was a correspondent, albeit a second-hand account of the man.
Dawn Of The Dead (2004)—“Frank”
MF: That was the first of two times I’ve worked with Zack Snyder, a lovely guy. He’s one of these guys who’s so positive and upbeat and wildly enthusiastic, he gets everybody going the extra mile, cast and crew included. So it was a great experience. Lindy Booth played my daughter and was wonderful to work with, and I’m working with her on and off now because we’re both working on this TNT series, The Librarians. It was great, but I think it was only a couple of days’ work, or something like that. It was a nice chunk of a father/daughter thing, and then I got bitten by a zombie. I die so much on camera, I’m hoping to get it out of the way from real life! [Laughs.]
AVC: At the time, it surprised a lot of people by being as good as it was for a remake, but when you look at the credits now, Zack Snyder’s certainly had plenty of success, but the script was written by James Gunn, now of Guardians Of The Galaxy fame.
MF: Oh, yeah! How about that? And, look, I’m all for zombie movies where the zombies move quickly. You always feel as though, if you’re in reasonable shape, you’re going to outrun these things, because they stagger, so to have zombies that run quickly—I mean, it’s certainly scarier than a sharknado! [Laughs.]
MF: Ah! Well, once again, it was wonderful working with those guys. I loved working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was lovely in the role, and Phil [Baker Hall], who was my other cancer friend. [Laughs.] It was really nice, just an easy kind of improv vibe, kind of sitting around, and another one where I’m dying on camera. Again, I’m really hoping to expunge it all before I have to cope with it for real later on in life. But, yeah, that was sort of easy. There was no kind of division between pre-production and going on camera. It just sort of seemed like a very natural thing, shot in a sort of documentary style. It’s strange material, though, isn’t it? Because cancer and comedy don’t really go in the same sentence, and, of course, if they’d gotten the tone wrong, they would’ve had people running for the exits—or, at least, to get the popcorn. But they really managed to tread that line well. It was a very precarious balance, and a big part of that was Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s just a clever actor. I thought he did a wonderful job.
Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989)—“Big Russ Thompson”
MF: Yeah, with Joe Johnston, a lovely guy. If I saw him today, I think we’d pick up exactly where we left off. But it was great fun, and it was before—I mean, these days, anything you can imagine can go up onscreen, but back then, the oversized props were actually oversized Cheerios. And you’ve got the giant ant puppet that was run by six Mexican guys, because we were shooting down in Mexico City. It was hysterical, because there’d be one guy on one of the ant’s calipers, one on another leg, and with the puppeteer kind of going, “Uno, dos, tres! Uno, dos tres!” [Laughs.] But it made the giant ant look like it was a real giant ant. It was bizarre, but it was great fun. And Rick Moranis and I spent a lot of time together and just had a hoot.
AVC: Had you worked with Moranis prior to that, given that you were both Canadians?
MF: No, I never had. Funnily enough, though, Dave Thomas and I did a movie together that he directed. Intern Academy, I think it was called. It was a comedy. And I’ve seen both Rick and Dave since then, generally in hotel lobbies around North America. We’re all sort of popping up at the bar at some point in the morning. [Laughs.]
Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, though—I have very fond memories of that. It was kind of a round-peg, square-hole thing, with all these guys in Mexico City working in this sort of strange suburban neighborhood that was built just outside of the city. Whenever you felt homesick, you could just sort of walk down Main Street. You just had to try to ignore that the houses were just flats.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1991)—“Berlinghoff Rasmussen”
MF: I can’t honestly say that I was a huge Trekkie beforehand, but I became a big fan after doing the show. A lovely bunch of people, including Brent Spiner and Jonathan Frakes, who has since become this whiz-bang director and is directing a bunch of episodes of The Librarians, so it’s been amazing getting caught up with him again after all these years, so we could compare our receding hairlines and so on. [Laughs.] But he’s a lovely man and a hugely talented director.
The actual episode was a blast. I mean, just being on the bridge of the USS Enterprise, right? And we were having such a good time. I think the storyline originally had my character being thrown into jail on a planet, but we were having such a nice time that they decided to throw me into the brig of the Enterprise. I think I was still in custody when the episode ended, so I guess I’m still floating around the 24th century somewhere!
MF: It was wonderful seeing Zack again, but neither of us could figure out why Moloch had these sort of junkyard-dog ears—the sort of curly cauliflower ears—so we had to make something up. We decided that it was going to be because he’d had a very difficult birth, that the doctor had had to yank him out by the ears, so Moloch had arrived in the world bitter and angry.
AVC: That’s a decent enough excuse.
MF: [Laughs.] Well, there was no reference to it in the graphic novel, you know? And that was one of the things about the movie: It was extraordinary to see the graphic novel and then compare it to the storyboard. [Affects a dramatic voice.] It was lifted from the pages of the graphic novel! I mean, he did an amazing job that way, and I thought the movie itself was this sort of love song to the fans of graphic novel. It was pretty cool.
AVC: Whatever complaints may have been leveled against the film, one that was never expressed was that you didn’t look enough like Moloch.
MF: [Laughs.] I know, right? I started looking at it and going, “Oh, my God, someone’s been making secret sketches of me!” It was sort of creepy. [In a deep voice.] “I know what you’re wearing…”
Orphan Black (2013-2014)—“Dr. Aldous Leekie”
MF: Okay, that’s another one that—[Hesitates.] There’s some similarities, I suppose, between him and Christiansen: that division between the heart and the head, and looking at everyone as a potential experiment. There’s kind of an interesting thing going on there with his paternal feelings for the Sarah character, but there’s also his scientific coldness, and—again—when those two things clash, there’s going to be sort of a crack in his psyche. And that certainly happened with that character. It was fun to work on it, though.
I really like John Fawcett. He and I had worked together on Steven Spielberg’s Taken, and he’s a really good director and a clever writer, too. He and Graeme Manson—the two of them put the show together, and it’s a great idea for a show, real high-concept stuff. Obviously, Tatiana Maslany is doing wonderful work. They’re slowly but surely killing her. [Laughs.] Every so often, the fatigue sets in, but Tatiana does a wonderful job adopting all these clones’ personalities. It’s a real high-concept show, and long may it continue. And who knows, maybe I’ll come back. Maybe somebody’ll clone me somewhere down the line!
AVC: How did you feel about your departure from the series?
MF: If you’ve got to go out, what a way to go out. It’s very shocking, and you very rarely see that on TV. Usually murders are planned. It’s very rare that it’s sort of a clumsy accident like that. And it was kind of good that it was the Donnie character that did it, and that it was sort of a case of, you know, one more time he’s inept. [Laughs.] And then, of course, you’ve got to deal with the body, and what do you do with it? So I feel like I’ve got a storyline that lingers beyond the grave!
Doctor Doctor (1989-1991)—“Dr. Mike Stratford”
AVC: From one doctor to another…
MF: Very happy memories of that one. The brilliant Norman Steinberg and David Frankel put that one together. All the people on the show could’ve had their own show. I mean, they’re all kind of lead actors in their own right. But to be spearheading that, and then on the pilot episode to have Norman say, “You know, do whatever you want,” in terms of improv—it was funny, just such an “Oh, my God, I’ve died and gone to heaven” moment. [Laughs.] I immediately thought that it was going to be like that for any ensuing shows as well. But, of course, it wasn’t. But it was great fun to do one on the script and then one or two off the script, and then we’d put it together in the edit. It was a really unusual and happy experience. A lot of fun.
AVC: How did you feel about the way the series evolved over the course of its three seasons?
MF: Well, we never saw it in terms of it evolving, I guess. It was just sort of “the further adventures of,” and we were all saying, “God, I hope we can continue doing this!” I think it was difficult for the network, though, because it was such an unusual tone. It was almost Python-esque, I guess, but with the old “it’s got heart” thing. [Laughs.] Because you’ve got to say that in TV! But I think they found it difficult to know what to pair it with. My feeling was always, “Well, can’t it exist on its own?”
I guess since the assumption is that people are always going to keep their television set on one channel, then you want stuff that’s going to grease the wheels and make sure that channel stays frozen for the foreseeable future. I don’t know. But they kept shifting us around. I think we started out on Monday nights at 10:30 p.m., and then they moved us to Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., and then Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., and then I think it went to 6:30 a.m. Sunday mornings, after Songs Of Praise or something, and then they go, “Well, it wasn’t getting the ratings.” Well, no wonder! [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you ever heard anything about the possibility of the series coming to DVD?
MF: I haven’t, but I keep waiting for it to show up in some sort of limited-edition run DVD package, because we did 40 episodes, which is certainly enough to put it out there. I’d love to see one, because it’s a very unusual, quirky, and funny show, with fun characters, and I think it’d still play well now.
The Hound Of The Baskervilles (2000) / The Sign Of Four (2001) / The Royal Scandal (2001) / The Case Of The Whitechapel Vampire (2002)—“Sherlock Holmes”
MF: Every actor loves to play characters like that, who are the hippest guys in the room and 12 steps ahead of everyone else. The trick is that you don’t want to be 12 steps ahead of the audience. You want to be able to see this amazing mind work stuff out. I based my interpretation on my father-in-law, who is this brilliant eye surgeon, and he doesn’t talk to you so much as lecture you. [Laughs.] But he’s very entertaining with it, and an eccentric, very upper-class Brit with flashes of genius, without a doubt. Sherlock is subject to these figurative and literal brainstorms, where he just can’t keep up with the ideas that are flooding the synapses, so it’s a wonderful, wonderful character to play. You feel as though it’s sort of cerebral surfing, in a way.
AVC: How did that casting decision come about? Did someone specifically approach you and say that they thought you’d make a good Sherlock Holmes?
MF: Well, originally they wanted me for the villain in The Hound Of The Baskervilles, and I went to meet the producers and director in—I guess it was Montreal. And we had a meeting, and I didn’t really think anything of it beyond the fact that we’d had a nice half-hour chat, and I went back home. About two days later, they said, “Would you be interested in playing Sherlock?” And I said, “Well, okay, but I’m going to have to think about it. Yes!” [Laughs.] It’s a great character. Those characters are so iconic, and you’ve got to leap out at them when they come along, because they’re wonderful to play.
Hercules (1997) / Hercules: Zero To Hero (1999) / Hercules (TV Series) (1998-1999)—“Panic”
MF: Voice-over stuff is always fun, because you don’t have to spend so long getting pretty—which takes longer and longer these days, believe me. [Laughs.] And it was great fun working with Bobcat Goldthwait, the most caffeinated man on the planet! We had a blast doing it. I think everybody else was sort of doing their recording by themselves, but they thought it was essential that the two of us get in there, because so much of it is us bouncing off each other. It was a lot of fun. We had a great time.
And it was amazing working with the Disney animators. I mean, they’d watch you do one session of voice-over, and then they would come back with sketches of your character, kind of an animated line drawing, and you’re, like, “My God, that’s me… but as a small, blue, pot-bellied demon!” [Laughs.] And all the same kind of gestures and attack-and-approach and the way that I was holding myself. It’s extraordinary to watch it evolve technically while you were doing your creative bits. These guys are amazing.
The Pink Panther (1993-1996)—“Pink Panther”
AVC: You’ve done a nice mix of both comedic and relatively dramatic voice work.
MF: Well, as dramatic as voice work gets. [Laughs.] But, yeah, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of different stuff. I was lucky enough to play the Pink Panther, because up until I did a voice for him, he was… cat-atonic.
AVC: I see what you did there.
MF: [Laughs.] I’ve never used that one before! But, yeah, that one was fun to do. I’ve really been lucky over the years.
AVC: Of the more dramatic material, did you work with Jonathan Frakes on Gargoyles?
MF: Well, we were both on it, but I don’t think we ever did a session together. No, wait, hang on, I think we actually did. I think there was one where everyone was together. Yeah, I’m almost positive we did do at least one. But that was a long time ago, so I can’t completely swear to it.
Ishtar (1987)—“CIA Agent”
MF: [Immediately starts to laugh.] What do I remember about Ishtar? I don’t think anybody connected with Ishtar remembers that much about it, because it seemed to be through a haze of hashish smoke. We shot that out in Morocco. Watching it again, it’s funny how much of it is actually rather good. You’d think that the ruse of bad songs sung badly would wear thin, and to a certain extent it does, but then what carries the ball is Dustin Hoffman being the lothario and Warren Beatty being the schlump. For them to sort of trade mantles like that—I thought it was great fun to see. So there’s some good bits in that, I thought. I love the scene in the desert with them and the buzzards.
AVC: It’s one of those films that seems ripe for reevaluation.
MF: I think so. Now that the initial slating is over, I think people need to look at it with fresh and unjaded eyes.
PSI Factor: Chronicles Of The Paranormal (1997-1999)—“Matt Prager”
MF: Uh, yeah, that was… [Long pause.] That was okay. I mean, there were some good episodes and some bad episodes, and I was on the receiving end of lots of mail from people saying, “I have an alien in my back yard. Is there any way that you can come fix this?” [Laughs.] I guess that was when I first became aware of the sci-fi audience and how passionate and creative they actually are. They’re really quite sensitive and talented. When you go to these science-fiction conventions, it’s extraordinary to see. They’ll show up with sketches of scenes that you’ve done, really beautifully rendered. A lot of them are very shy and sensitive, but they’re very talented. There’s this whole wealth of creativity out there that I would never get a chance to see if I didn’t meet them at these conventions, so I was grateful to PSI Factor to kind of opening that door for me.
AVC: The greatest bit in the Wikipedia entry for the show is the revelation that, “in 1997, the Committee For Skeptical Inquiry, then called the Committee For The Scientific Investigation Of Claims Of The Paranormal, awarded [host Dan] Aykroyd a ‘Snuffed Candle’ award, for ‘contributing to the public’s lack of understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.’”
MF: [Bursts out laughing.] You know, you mention that, but—I can’t remember exactly how many episodes they did altogether—I think I did about 50 episodes myself—but in the first season of it, I think they said, “Ripped directly from the files of the Office Of Scientific Investigation And Research!” And then in the second season, it was “based on the files,” and then it was “loosely based on the files,” and then by the fourth season it was something along the lines of, “This has nothing to do with anything approaching the files of the Office Of Scientific Investigation And Research!” [Laughs.] “The Office Of Scientific Investigation And Research doesn’t exist! We’re making it up! We’re making it all up!”
AVC: At last, the truth can be told.
MF: That’s right. The truth is out there. Nowhere near here, but it’s out there! [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean, God, there’s a lot of two-headed pigs and stuff, I’m sure, but…what do you want me to say? I mean, I think my character disappeared to Neptune at the end, for fuck’s sake!
Eureka (2006-2012)—“Jim Taggart”
MF: Any character that is a dog catcher, essentially, but calls himself a biological containment specialist, I’m all for playing. [Laughs.] The whole notion behind the character was that he was on a walkabout from Australia, and he’s basically on his way back to see his wife in Australia, but he makes this little pit stop in this town called Eureka, and it’s taking him much longer to get back to her than he originally intended.
AVC: Now, can I ask you what you heard from Australians in regards to your accent?
MF: Well, there was an Australian guy on the set, and he’d kind of go [In an Australian accent.] “Ah, it’s perfect!” He loved it. And then I’ve heard other people say, “Oh, you’re butchering it!” But the whole point of the accent was that it was a guy from Canberra, but it was also a guy who had spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest, so it was sort of going to get softened a little bit. So people can criticize it if they want. I don’t really mind. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do with it, which was a softened Canberra accent, and they always talk in questions. Everything goes up. [Laughs.] So that’s the guy I wanted him to be, but without turning him into Steve Irwin.
Return To Two Moon Junction (1995)—“Cleo / Leo”
AVC: I’ve never seen the film, there’s no clip of it on YouTube, and since IMDB says that you’re “uncredited,” it might not even be true, for all I know, but were you in Return To Two Moon Junction?
MF: Oh. [Laughs.] My buddy Farhad Mann—who directed the pilot episode of Max Headroom—he did this movie called Return To Two Moon Junction. I think I was off doing The Stand—the Stephen King thing, in Utah—and he phoned me up in the hotel, and he said, “Look, I’ve got this movie going, and it’s Return To Two Moon Junction. Can I send it to you?”
So I read it, and I’m like, “Oof, not good.” But he says, “Is there anything you want to play in there?” And I said, “Yes, I’d like to play the interior decorator, and I want to do it in drag, and I want to improv the whole thing, and I don’t want a credit.” So there’s this long pause, and then he goes, “Okay.” [Laughs.]
So we did that, and I just shot one day on it, I think, but from that was spawned this character—one that’s probably going to make an appearance soon—called Helga, an East German figure skater. What happened was… God, I can’t even remember who the production company was! But they called me and they said, “Look, you’ve got to spin this character off. Can you write a script?” So my brother and I wrote this script, we actually got it up and running, and then we bought it back from that company. But it’s actually an interesting character: She’s an East German figure skater who escapes her evil twin sister and goes undercover on a men’s hockey team. So it’s a guy—me—playing a girl playing a guy.
Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996)—“Jobe Smith”
AVC: So when Farhad Mann had you on set for Return To Two Moon Junction, did he just say, “So, look, as long as I’ve got you here, I’m also going to be doing this other sequel…”
MF: Yes, and I wasn’t able to leave quickly enough. [Laughs.] No, actually, that was fun to do. Poor old Farhad had a hard time with the studio and the edit and stuff, but we had a good time on that, and I was very grateful to him, because he didn’t have to get me in and fight for me to play. But he did, and it was very sweet of him to go to bat. It was fun working him, and I loved working with Patrick Bergin, too.
The Stand (1994)—“Trashcan Man”
MF: That was my first of many forays down the Mick Garris road. He’s been a great friend and so loyal to me over the years. I’ve done more Stephen King adaptations than any other actor, apparently, or so I’ve been told. Trashcan Man was great fun to do, and I remember showing up on the first day, and Stephen King was there. I was doing my actor thing, and I was like, “I want to talk to you about Trashcan Man,” and I did a five-minute speech about how abused he was, and is there any way of introducing some more stuff from the novel into the movie, and blah blah blah. I just went on and on, and he’s listening very politely. And once I’d exhausted myself, he goes, “Yeah, yeah. What bands do you like?” [Laughs.] I was like, “Okay, okay, I get it!” But he was very great, and Mick Garris became a great friend. It was a long shoot, though. I would disappear back to L.A. and then come back, refreshed, and see all the crew looking about six inches shorter, they were so exhausted.
Alice (2009)—“White Knight”
MF: You know, one you haven’t brought up that I really liked was Alice. Kathy Bates was the Queen Of Hearts and I was the White Knight. Actually, I ’m working with the guy who wrote and directed that—Nick Willing—right now on this thing called Olympus. It’s about the ancient Greeks, and it’s pretty cool. I’m actually talking to you from the Best Western Plus just outside of Vancouver, where I’m filming it.
In Search Of Dr. Seuss (1994)—“The Cat In The Hat”
MF: Again, an iconic character, and great fun working with Kathy Najimy. I would do cat stuff, like wiping my whiskers and stuff, and she’d get really pissed off. [Laughs.] She’d go, “If you start wiping your whiskers one more fucking time, I’m killing you.” And, of course, I’d do it twice as much then! Oh, it was a blast to do.
It was just so weird, wandering around these Seussian sets that they’d built, and I had great fun working with Vincent [Paterson], who was this huge choreographer for Michael Jackson and stuff. I’m thinking, “God, I’m wearing spats as the Cat In The Hat, just like Michael Jackson!” And I ended up doing a moonwalk! Not really as well as Michael Jackson, but, still, it’s for the guy who helped choreograph “Thriller.” [Laughs.] So, yeah, that was a blast to do. I had a lot of fun doing that.
Max Headroom (1985 & 1987-1988) / The Max Headroom Show (1986)—“Max Headroom”
AVC: So how did you get the Max Headroom gig?
MF: [With mock pretentiousness.] Well, I was a young actor over in London, England… [Laughs.] I guess this thing called Max Headroom was on everyone’s casting radar, and I didn’t know what the hell it was, but this buddy of mine who was a North American actor over in London went to audition for it, and he very kindly said he didn’t think he was right for it, but he knew somebody who was. I mean, how often does that happen? Never!
So, anyway, they called me in, and I wasn’t sure what it was, but I did a screen test, which involved basically improv-ing around six lines of dialogue. I was thinking, “What the hell is this?” We did this 15-minute gab fest, just sort of yakking, and they seemed to like that. I was making them laugh and stuff. And then they said, “Okay, now can you screen test for the other character?” You know, the Edison Carter character, this telephoto-journalist guy. So I did that, and then I got it, and I was still going, “What the hell is this?” [Laughs.] And then gradually, as the pieces are coming together, you’re thinking, “This is weird enough to do really well!” Because it’s just very strange.
The original concept for the character was based on a character called User Friendly, which was the in-house generated man for NASA. Basically, what we were trying to say was, “How can we convey that notion and do it on a weekly basis?” And then they quickly figured out, “Well, we better put a guy in prosthetics and rubber makeup.” That was me! [Laughs.] Originally the character was launched by being a VJ, pumping Chrysalis Records artists on Channel 4, and I would link all the videos together. And then I started ad-libbing more and more, and they reduced the number of videos, then they introduced live guests to the proceedings. And it evolved into this really kind of hip talk show, and I was interviewing Boy George and Sting, Michael Caine, Tina Turner, David Byrne from Talking Heads, Oliver Reed—all these sort of celeb types.
It was great fun, because what would happen was that they’d come on the show under the understanding that they could pump their next film or most recent album in exchange for being roasted by Max. Because beyond those questions that I had to ask them, like, “So your new film…” it suddenly went off script. And some coped with it really well, and others didn’t. [Laughs.] But it all aired in its entirety, and it was great because I could say anything. Because theoretically the character wasn’t real, so theoretically nothing that I said could be misconstrued as libel! It was this wonderful free-for-all where the director would just sort of say, “Well, okay, go to it,” and then he’d go away for coffee, and then come back and be like, “Are you done yet?” “Not yet! Have one more coffee!” It was really fun.
AVC: And how was the dramatic series?
MF: Well, first we shifted over to the U.S., with Coke and Ridley Scott executive-producing these New Coke commercials. And, by the way, I think we sold two whole cases of the stuff! [Laughs.]
And then that kind of segued into the ABC show. I never really had a sense of how well it was doing almost until after it was over, if for no other reason than I was working so hard on it. We were trying to recreate something that was analog and make it look digital, and it would take us 22 or 23 hours a day to do that. Of course, nowadays any kid can do it on a laptop in five minutes. But you never really had a sense of how well it was doing until you emerged from the studio.
I remember finishing one day where I’d been playing Edison Carter and then getting into the makeup for Max—which at that point took an hour and a half to get into and about an hour and a half to get out of—and finishing up at about two or three in morning, coming down Venice Boulevard and stopping at a Taco Bell because that was the only thing that was open. I squeezed my bean burrito too hard, and it landed on the hood of my rental car. And I kept it there as a hood ornament for the rest of the show. [Laughs.] It was like this little bean turd. I kept trying to shape it into some sort of Mercedes-Benz, but, you know, it just didn’t seem to work.
But then all of a sudden, the whole thing ended. There I was on the cover of Newsweek, and then the show was canceled. It was bizarre.
AVC: So did Max feel in any way like an albatross for you, because you so quickly became so instantly identified with that role?
MF: Well, yes and no. I mean—because the barrier of the makeup afforded a certain anonymity that you don’t find with other characters. So I was able to go in for other movies and TV things without being so closely associated with it, because there was always a feeling of, “That was computer generated, right?” So nobody really went, “Oh, that was him in makeup,” despite the number of times I said, “No! I want the credit!” [Laughs.] I’m obviously extremely grateful, because like I said, I arrived in L.A. not having to do the conventional pavement pounding. There I was, playing a dual lead in this high-profile series. So I’m very grateful.
AVC: Has there been any talk of you reprising the role?
MF: Yes! We’re talking about that right now, as a matter of fact. It’s in the middle of this sort of massive legal logjam of who owns what, with rights here and rights there and all the rest of it. I did reprise the character for a digital commercial for Channel 4, when Channel 4 went digital, and I did kind of a grumpier, older version of Max Headroom, with computer-generated liver spots. [Laughs.] And he’s wheeled around an old folks home, and he’s still being irascible, pining for the days when things were analog. But, yeah, we’re talking about doing something else with him now, and hopefully it happens, because 20 minutes into the future? We’ve arrived!