Michael Biehn
Futuristic Hero

He was a "hot-wired rat in an urban maze," trying to stop "The Terminator." Now, he's hunting bigger game: the monstrous menace known as "Aliens."

By Adam Pirani

Lean, tall, muscular. Street-smart, battle-worn, sensitive beneath. In his SF movie roles, actor Michael Biehn has exemplified these qualities. As Reese, the android-seeker in The Terminator (Starlog #88), he risked time travel, the disbelief of 20th century law enforcement authorities and the trust of the woman he had come to protect - as well as a long night shoot on the streets of Los Angeles - to hunt down the unstoppable Terminator, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It's surprising, therefore, that Biehn confesses a liking for playing "bad guys"—psychotics, racists, weirdos and other "nasty, nasty characters."

But the bad guy roles will have to wait. Because the latest stop on the 29-year-old actor's career route is another courageous hero in a movie for Terminator director James Cameron: Aliens, being shot at Pinewood Studios in England.

As Corporal Hicks in Aliens, Biehn is one of the Marines who accompanies Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) back to the planet that her crew first discovered in Alien—a planet which has now been colonized by humans, while Ripley was drifting through space in hypersleep. "He's just a steady hand, he's the calming effect on the group," Biehn says. "There are many different personalities, that are all sort of clashed, and this is a guy who has been through it a few times. He has been in a few firefights, seen a few aliens, and 'stomped a few bugs,' as they say—that's what the Marines call the Aliens, 'bugs.' He has been around a while, and he takes things very slowly, and listens to people, and he's the one you can always count on in a bad situation, he'll be the one who doesn't lose his head; really a quintessential hero."

After his Terminator role ("I've never had as good an experience working with anybody as I have with Jim"), Biehn was eager to appear in another Cameron movie. "I don't know exactly what happened on this project," he says, "but they called me very late in the game: Gale [Anne Hurd, producer] called me up and asked me if I would come in and play the role. I had read the script two or three months earlier, and I liked it a lot. So, when they called and asked me if I wanted to do Aliens, I just said, 'Absolutely, yes.' I got on the plane three days later and was shooting a couple of days afterward." Principal photography had already commenced when Biehn joined the movie: James Remar (Starlog #104) had been playing Hicks for a few days, but left the production due to "artistic differences" with Cameron.

Quintessential Hero

Biehn had originally read the script when it went out to agents in LA for casting purposes. He was curious to see how Cameron's follow-up to Terminator would compare. "I was just floored by how good the script was," he notes. "I just couldn't believe that Jim could come up with something as good as it is. The people who liked Alien will like this picture because it just takes off where Alien ended, and explains a lot about the Aliens—and it's a different kind of movie. Alien was more of a suspenseful picture. They were always looking for the Alien. And it was scary because you knew that it was out there some place."

"In Aliens, we find 'em! It's dealing with them when we find 'em. So, theirs was a suspense picture and ours is an action picture, and even though they're two completely different kinds of films, if you liked Alien and its characters, themes and ideas, I think you will find the story here holds up very well. There aren't any missing pieces, so someone who saw Alien would say, 'Wait a second, how did that happen?' It falls into place very well."

"One good thing about Jim is that he loves working in film so much, and he loves other people knowing about film. He's very open as far as actors seeing dailies or coming into the editing room. He just loves to talk about film; he's like a teacher who loves telling you about it, explaining camera, lenses and shots. I knew it would be a very interesting thing, just to watch him make a movie."

"I would have done Aliens anyway, because I like Jim and Gale a lot, and if they ask me to do a movie for them, I would do it, for what they've done for me. But there are also many plusses. The only negative thing was that the characters were similar. When we got together, we talked and we decided about how we could make it different."

With Hicks modified slightly to differentiate him from Reese—Biehn notes that his Terminator character was "this grungy sort of guy from the future," whereas in Aliens, he portrays a "a likable guy, the guy next door"—the actor's enthusiasm was up to 100%.

Biehn observes that director Cameron's own enthusiasm and tireless work inspires this 100% approach from his cast and crew. "Jim has an incredible drive as far as making movies goes," the actor says. "The best example of that goes back to The Terminator. We had finished principal photography, and the following day after we finished, I went to the production office in Hollywood, and they had cut together some bits of the movie The Terminator, and it was going into theaters as an early trailer."

"I walked in the office, and Jim was sitting there; it was about lunchtime, and he had a pen in his hand, and paper all over the place, with notes that he had written, and he was writing away. He said, 'Hi Mike!' and just kept writing, and I said 'How you doing, Jim, I came in to see the—' 'Yeah, yeah, the trailer's right over there,' and I asked, 'Jim, what are you doing?'"

"He said, 'I've got to get this treatment of Aliens '—or the first draft, it was something like that—'done by lunchtime,' and he was eating these cheese snacks—'I don't have time for lunch,' and he was just hauling ass!"

"This is the day after we finished The Terminator, which was, by all accounts, from a director's standpoint, a very gruesome three-month schedule where you're getting up at six a.m. and then watching dailies until 8:30 or 9 p.m. Most people would take a week or two off, and fly to Bermuda, and rest on their laurels a little bit. But, no, Jim was absolutely consumed with it."

"I think that Jim Cameron has film in his blood and just about nothing else. He enjoys it immensely, and he's the kind of guy who will always be consumed with it. I really feel that Jim has the same sort of talent as Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. And only time will tell. When I was being interviewed for The Terminator, I said, 'This guy is extremely talented,' and I feel it even more so now."

"Hot-Wired Rat"

If the Cameron-Biehn collaboration as director and actor sounds like a fated crossing of paths, the reality is that their working relationship on The Terminator came about in a purely routine manner—and almost didn't happen at all. "I just came in as an actor and read for the part," Biehn says. "I read for Gale, and then for Jim—I read for Jim a couple of times actually: I was trying out for a play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in Los Angeles, and these interviews were going on at the same time, during the same couple of weeks. So, I kept coming in to read for The Terminator, and I had a southern accent. I was playing this character Reese, with a southern accent, because I was working so much on the other deal. They kept saying to my agent, 'Well, we like Michael a lot, but we don't want to cast somebody who's southern.' And my agent said, 'He's not southern, he comes from Nebraska! And he has lived in California for 10 years! We don't understand.' So, when they finally said something to me about it, I said, 'Well, it's because I'm going from this interview to that interview and back again.' Once they realized that I could speak without a southern accent, I guess that decided it."

And The Terminator was a trip in time the actor enjoyed. "I was very eager to do it," he says. "I spent a lot of time with Jim before we started filming; we would shoot guns, and really fun guns, like Uzis and sawed-off shotguns, all the stuff we used in the movie—we would go out onto the rifle range and just blow everything down. We talked about the character a lot, and by the time we started that movie, we were just ready to rock & roll!"

Biehn's enthusiasm for the film increased even during production. "I knew that the action stuff was going to be really good, because you can just see it when it's being filmed—I got more and more excited about it. I started watching dailies every day, and I can remember watching the movie's last two reels for the first time, mixed together, and I went home, and I couldn't sleep for two nights, because I just knew that this film was so exciting, and people were going to flip out over it. Which they did."

"I'm also very proud of the fact that—nobody really talks about it much, and it didn't get much attention—but the film had, I think, a very beautiful love story. Everybody thinks of The Terminator as Arnold running around, chasing me, and blowing up. But when I see that movie, it breaks me up in the end: her with my baby. To me, it was like a sweet, very passionate love story. And I was very proud that in a movie that was basically sold as an exploitation, Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-em-up, that Linda [Hamilton, who portrayed heroine Sarah Connor] and I were able to bring across a human aspect to the story. It was overlooked quite a bit, and, as people look back on it in the future, they'll see that there was a very human element to The Terminator, it wasn't all machines and mechanics."

Nasty Guy

Biehn's exuberant description of working on Aliens and The Terminator slows down, and he pauses. The actor, who is married and lives in Los Angeles, first moved there in 1977 after a drama scholarship at the University of Arizona. His first screen role consisted of two lines in the Logan's Run TV pilot, and he later appeared in Operation Runaway, James at 15, Police Story and Family, and co-starred in the TV movies Fire in the Sky and Zuma Beach. Other movie roles include Hog Wild and Coach.

"The only two heroic roles I've ever played have been in Jim Cameron movies," Biehn states, and begins to discuss the other side of his career—and his personality—the bad guys. "I did a movie years ago, The Fan, with Lauren Bacall, where I played this psychotic young guy [the title role]—it wasn't a very good movie. Then, I did a movie here in London called Lords of Discipline, where I played this racist, terrible, terrible young cadet at a military school. And I did a four-hour TV movie in the States called Deadly Intentions, where I played a schizophrenic doctor who was emotionally abusing his wife."

"I find those sorts of characters to be absolutely fascinating, and I've been very lucky that Jim has cast me in a couple of heroic roles. It's funny, because even after The Terminator, I would go up for good guy roles, and directors, producers and casting people were saying, 'Well, no, Michael is too intense, too this, too that,' because they've seen me play all these bad guys, these crazies."

"Somehow, in The Terminator, the character was—Jim had an expression that I remember reading in the first script, that I thought was a perfect description of Reese: 'A hot-wired rat in an urban maze.' So, I always thought of that as I was making the movie, and I guess he was a little rat-like, and real lean, and scarred and everything. But to me, he was the best hero role that I saw come along in a long, long time. I thought Reese was a great hero, but somehow people don't think of him as a nice guy, and I guess he wasn't a nice guy."

With all these contemporary bad guys waiting to be portrayed, Biehn's career as an SF hero may be an intermittent one. "I've never been that big of a science-fiction buff, myself," he admits. "It's very physical, all this action, and this movie [Aliens] has been very difficult to make. So, I'm looking for something a little lighter, and/or to play another bad guy. It would be nice if I could go back and forth playing bad guys and good guys—of course, my agent wants me to play only good guys from here on in, but that'll never happen," the actor laughs.

"You can never really expect anything from this business: when you start expecting something, it never happens."

"I've done a few movies in the past that haven't done too well, so, I'm not the kind of person who gets excited every time I make a movie, and says, 'Oh, this is going to be a big one,' and, 'This is going to be a hit,'—because I've been in a lot of flops."

But, I was excited about The Terminator, and I'm equally excited about Aliens," Michael Biehn says. "I think Aliens is going to be one of the big pictures of 1986. I have every confidence in it."

This article has been transcribed from Starlog, Issue #108, July 1986 and allbiehn.com. This information has been shared here for your information and reading pleasure, however this material remains copyrighted by Starlog.

Note: Details on how to order back issue #108 are available at the Starlog website http://www.starlog.com/.

Special thanks to Kay and Brie for the article!