Michael Ironside – Not Such a Bad Guy
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
Not Such a Bad Guy
By Jay S. Jacobs
If you feel just a tiny bit of unease when you see Michael Ironside, well you can blame Hollywood for that misconception. The long-time character actor has often played villains and creeps in a series of big-name movies, but that is not who he really is. Actually, when you get to chat with Ironside, as I did recently on Zoom for nearly an hour, you find out that he is charming, candid and funny guy who is obsessed with hockey and reading – and of course, with acting.
In fact, a bad guy isn’t even who Ironside is as an actor. It’s just one instrument in his toolbox, but most of his better-known performances have shown that side of his talent. However, take a look at his latest film, the somberly moving indie Skipping Stones. In it, he plays a dad. Just a dad. A good, sturdy man who is dealing with all the problems life has to offer – from empty nest syndrome to the tricky issues of depression, grief and alcoholism affecting his college-aged son – in the best ways that he knows how.
It was a small, intimate project. As director S.J. Creazzo said in the press kit for the film, Skipping Stones was made “with a cast and crew of less than 15 people, an all-in-budget of less than $75K, and 16 shooting days.”
Yet even on a tiny do-it-yourself production like this, Ironside was all in. And his entry into the project actually stemmed from one of his long-ago Hollywood successes.
“A decade and a half ago, quite a while back, I did seaQuest,” Ironside recalled. “We had a lot of fun with that for one season. Some pretty good numbers before they canceled it. They’d kill to get those numbers now. I met Patricia Charbonneau on it. She was one of the cast members when I joined. We became immediate friends. I always tell people when I met her it was like, buddy recognition. There was just comfortability there. Her and her husband and my wife and I, we're all good friends. She's a total pro I think – very, very talented. Over the years she gave up acting about 10-15 years ago and went into another profession, real estate, which she is really good at.”
The opportunity came for Charbonneau to dip her toe back into acting. She had received a copy of the script for Skipping Stones. Intrigued by the story, she bounced the idea off Ironside. She thought she was going to give it a shot. She gave him a copy of the script. He agreed, it was a good script. And he was up for just about anything to help Charbonneau’s return to film. So, he agreed to be her husband – on film, at least. Mr. and Mrs. Travers are the parents of the disturbed young lead character of the film, David (played by a fairly new lead actor, Nathaniel Ansbach).
“I think she was the first one Steven (director S.J. Creazzo) approached,” Ironside said. “Then she [brought] me in. We had other pieces fall in afterwards. The great thing about this project is that we all looked at the material and said, ‘Yeah, this is something that's worth bringing to life and investigating.’”
Investigating is something that Ironside has always been fascinated by. After all, he has played plenty of roles in famous films over the years – everything from Top Gun to Scanners to Total Recall to Starship Troopers to last year’s surprise hit Nobody.
“I've done countless films,” Ironside admitted. “I do very large project projects that make a lot of money, make a lot of splashes, so I can go off and do what I want to do. The script and the work and the people involved, that's why I do it.”
Hollywood tends to look at Ironside when they are looking for a heavy, a bad dude who has ice water in his veins and is mad, bad and dangerous to know. While Ironside is very good at those roles, it is still selling his talents way short.
“My standard line on that is if you kill a dog with a shovel early in your career, and somebody makes money off it, that's all they want you to do,” Ironside laughed. “It's not the most guaranteed way to invest money making movies… They don't really want you to stray away from what you've done before…. So, I go off and do these very large films. I've made tons of money for people playing opposite Arnold (Schwarzenegger) and everybody else.
“I really refer to myself as a garnish name. [There are] a few of us in the industry to call,” he continued. “[A large star] may be the steak. I'm the potatoes and asparagus on the side dish. That's been great…. [It] allows me to go off and bring some distribution strength to a small project.”
It is in these smaller projects that he has been able to really stretch out. Ironside is a method actor who can do just about anything – when he gets the opportunity.
“I've played priests and teachers and grandfathers and musical instructors and all that,” Ironside said. “But that kind of project doesn't get wide distribution, doesn’t get seen a lot. People see the Top Guns and the Free Willys and the Total Recalls and Extreme Prejudices and all these other films. Whether people know it or not, I'm very well trained. I spent five years studying my craft before I ever did my first job. I came into this business as a writer, took acting lessons to help my writing and ended up as an actor. I'm very well trained. I’m not tooting my own horn. I had a very good teacher.”
Therefore, as an actor who has been working for over 50 years now, having played in nearly 300 film and television projects, it is always interesting to find some new shades to play with. Ironside had found that in Skipping Stones.
“There were aspects about the character, Mr. Travers, I'd never played before,” Ironside explained. “Playing somebody who has to express his love by being reserved. My dad used to refer to it as the maypole. The center of the family. You get to stand still. Everyone dances around you. You get to be that point of reference to stay steady, so that everyone else can go a little bit off kilter. Whether you're crazy or not, you don't get to express it. That's the way I see Mr. Travers.”
In fact, it was Ironside’s father which inspired much of his performance in the film.
“I chose to emulate my father in that role. I’ve done it a couple of times, but not as much as in this one,” Ironside explained. “I have the scene where [David]… my son… comes to me and wants to talk about his mother having that inconsolable emotional breakdown affair. That one time with the neighbor, the husband across the street. That was the best I could come up with, the best representation of the way my father would have handled that.”
In the film, Mr. Travers refused to speak with his son about the fact that years earlier his wife had a weak moment. Instead, he stood up for her, acknowledging that he knew what had happened and they had reconciled it much earlier, and it wasn’t the young man’s place to judge what she had done in a time of personal conflict.
“My father would say things like, ‘I love your mother, your mother loves me. I don't doubt that.’ There's no doubt in that whatsoever. She's the one that needs attention. She's the one that needs support. She's the one that needs concern. The way that was handled, that ‘whoa, whoa, wait a second. I don't want to talk. That's off the table. You have no idea what you're talking about.’ That's my father. You have no right to question what he’s chosen to do emotionally in the past.”
Which is kind of tough, because Slipping Stones is all about questioning emotions from the past – about living with grief and guilt and trying to deal with it. Mr. Travers has found peace in himself and his life.
“The aspect in that scene I wanted to show is a man who is not insecure about his home and his relationship,” Ironside said.
His son, on the other hand, is a bit of a mess. It all dates back to his childhood, when David witnessed his best friend’s death due to a tragic accident which is left somewhat hazy throughout much of the film. Now in his 20s, he has returned home from New York after dropping out of college, dealing with depression and a sense of isolation by drinking heavily.
It’s all rather disturbing, but it is real.
“That's what life is all about, isn’t it?” Ironside asked. “It's about how we react to the emotional, spiritual, physical stimulus that comes into our relationships in our life. You can only have so many car chases and shoot so many people. I think so many major films have turned into video games, rather than being emotional documents.”
The two lead roles in Skipping Stones are played by actors who have had limited experience in front of the camera. Nathaniel Ansbach was playing his second feature film role, his first lead character, as the Travers’ son David. (He’d previously been in several short films and had a supporting role in the feature Inner City Rats.) Gabrielle Kalomiris, who plays the younger sister of the long dead friend who now becomes David’s confidant, is making her film debut.
Ironside didn’t really have any screen time with her, but he worked closely with Ansbach. And even with Kalomiris, Ironside still got to know and respect her on the close-knit shoot.
“I got to watch a lot. We're all kind of in the same bathtub together. We had 15 or 16 days. You get about 25 minutes a scene that way to do it,” Ironside laughed. “Everyone's basically sharing everything.”
The young actors impressed the old pro with their dedication to their craft and the story they were telling. Therefore, Ironside tried to be there for them if they needed him.
“Their enthusiasm, their energy coming to it, we were kind of like the bumpers, the guardrails of everything,” Ironside stated. “They want to try some stuff. You’ve got a whole bunch of very well-worn veterans around. Nathaniel asked me some advice a couple of times. It was simple stuff. I'm not the director. I'm not about to puppet somebody emotionally. Acting for me is completely different. It’s a horse of a different color. I’m method trained. A lot of people don't know that. I pretty much get my work together, what I'm going to do in my emotional toolkit, before I come into work. I try and get up about an hour and a half before call, shave, get myself ready, sit down and go over my notes. Try and do any emotional memory I need for that take, and then go to work.”
The film was actually made a couple of years ago. In fact, the filming was completed, “just as the pandemic was of rearing its head on the horizon,” Ironside said. Of course, COVID slowed everything down in filmmaking, from big studio pictures to tiny indies like Skipping Stones. It’s taken nearly two years for the film to get a wide release. Therefore, it is nice for him to see their labor of love finally reaching the people.
“I like the fact that it's getting seen,” Ironside stated. “I've actually ran into a few people and had friends and families that have seen it on some of the delivery services like Amazon and stuff. The comments are basically: ‘Well, I didn't know what to expect.’ Then they’d get hooked on. They really liked it. They get emotional. They get confused. They get disgusted. It's one of those films. I have a friend that said that they watched it with their teenagers. They wandered in and sat down and watched it with my friend, who is a writer, [while] he was watching it. He said it was discussed. He says it was a three-day film. Three days at dinner, it was discussed at the table. I think that we address the lack of communication in families. We address the idea of what's going on underneath the surface. Not all as well in the American dream.”
Another film that Ironside made recently, that took a different twisted angled gaze at that dream was last year’s cult favorite film Nobody, where Ironside played the overbearing father-in-law of Bob Odenkirk’s faux-everyman character, a boring middle-management exec who harbored some deep dark secrets which resurfaced in a spectacularly violent way.
It was a simple choice for Ironside to sign on to the film. “They basically asked if I do it and I said yeah,” Ironside acknowledged. However, the film changed a great deal from the planning stages to the point when it was released.
“The film that's there is not the script I got originally,” Ironside explained. “It was a tongue-in-cheek comedy, kind of a Walter Mitty character that on the way to work one day on the bus has this daydream about himself. We shot a whole bunch of stuff about family life. Me with my wife and the kids, playing his father-in-law. Dinner and comments about Bob's character and stuff like that. I think if you get the DVD, there's a whole bunch of our scenes that didn't make it into the film from the other film that it was going to be.”
Instead, the film became a blood-soaked action/comedy, and definitely not light or tongue-in-cheek.
“About 2/3 through the film they changed direction on it, which is a very bold and I think, very successful thing,” he continued. “Bob knows what he’s doing as a producer. He knows how long his arm is. They decided to turn the other way with it. It was fun. It was fun to do. We shot it in winter in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In Canada, we call it ‘winter pig.’ It's a brutal place to shoot.”
Of course, with a long and busy career, Ironside has shot all over the world, in all kinds of circumstances. Another film that Ironside filmed in his native Canada (although this time in Montreal and Toronto) was Scanners, a cult hit sci-fi horror film which not only helped to jump start Ironside’s career, but the film also made a star of its director, David Cronenberg. (Ed. Note: Just because I mentioned Scanners was the first time I remembered seeing his work, Ironside was able to accurately guess my age within a few years. He said he can always tell how old someone is by their introduction to his films.)
The funny thing was, Ironside’s character, which ended up being on the posters to the film and playing a huge part in the plot, was originally supposed to be a much less important part of the film.
“Originally, I was only hired for one day on that film,” Ironside explained. “There's a black and white flashback sequence where the character is in a medical interrogation and he kind of blows up a bit. In the original script – and I'm sure David and other people don't have the same memories I do of this – but that's what I was hired for. David rewrote the script on the run. He made me a larger, more root character, I guess you might say.”
“The thing that always amazes me is people go Scanners made box office. We made it for under a million and a half and made like $110 million worldwide, or some ridiculous amount. Pre-video, that's insane amounts of money. I was paid $5,700 and change for that film. I was on a one-day actor contract, which I think those days were $175 or $185,” he laughed. “They never restructured my contract. I was hired from day to day to day on that thing. It was a good. It was a wonderful experience.”
A big part of that experience was working with Cronenberg. It was not the director’s first film – he’d previously done much work in television as well as the cult horror films Rabid and The Brood. However, it did open the door for Cronenberg in Hollywood, setting him up for his next three films, Videodrome, The Dead Zone and The Fly.
“David's material, in my experience, is very bizarre,” Ironside said. “But he makes the set perfectly safe for you, to feel safe enough to attempt things. It gives you that sense that you're in a perfectly private, safe place to try some outlandish things, or to bring some outlandish behavior to life, to make it real.”
Ironside recognized the outlandishness of his character, but he also recognized the humanity in the man as well.
“I play Darryl as a political activist,” he explained. “I was raised in a social democratic family – the NDP [New Democratic Party] in Canada, labor unions, workers’ rights and all that stuff. I read a lot of Che Guevara and some of these people when I was younger, and what was going on politically around the world. I played Darryl Revok like a political activist. There's a line in the film where my character says, ‘Just because you made me doesn't give you the right to kill me,’ which is a very political statement.”
In fact, this kind of thing has been pretty standard in his career. While Ironside has been in a lot of science fiction and horror films and series like Starship Troopers, Total Recall, V and seaQuest DSV and he has played a lot of extreme characters, he always makes sure that none of it is superfluous.
“I try and be as responsible as possible when I'm playing a character,” he stated.
Movies and literature were always a place of escape for Ironside, going back to his childhood. Growing up in a small home with a big family, it was one of the only places he could find total privacy, and also be transported to another world, another time, another lifestyle. In fact, Ironside recollected his mother speaking with a teacher about whether or not the family traveled. Because they were a rather poor family, they could not, but his mother explained patiently that her children saw the world through books. And, of course, through film. It is a feeling which has stuck with Ironside his entire life.
“I like that idea of walking into a dark place,” Ironside mused. “The lights come on, and you get told the story. I think that's intuitively in our nature as human beings. I think storytelling goes right back to the beginning of time. There's a fire, the sun goes down, it's dark, and somebody gets stands up in front of the fire and tells a story to everyone sitting around before they go to sleep after dinner. That was the way stories were told. Tradition was passed on. You teach moral, ethical, spiritual stuff – lessons to the to the tribe or to the family.”
The ability to tell those stories is a gift, but it is also a responsibility.
“That's what movies were to me,” Ironside concluded. “They were a safe place where I can go in, the lights go down and up comes up comes this visage in front of you. You walk out with a richer or broader sense of some subject, or the world. That's the way I see movies. I try to honor that. As bizarre as some of the situations and characters and films I've been in, I've always tried to honestly portray what I think is a moral, ethical statement. There's a lot of films I’ve turned down because, believe it or not, I think they're just too gratuitous. They had no moral ethical base to them.
“Most of the characters that I've played that were brutal, they're the portrayal of a broken, damaged person. There's a base for that. There's an emotional history. There's been a victimization before this person showed up. Everyone has a story. I've always played violent characters that [show] violence doesn't work. I'm one of those ones that believes you're born from a place of love. Fear comes out of love.”
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