March 2, 2012

Let Off Some Steam: An Interview with Vernon G. Wells

Having grown up watching Westerns at his local cinema and being raised by a mother who was a musician, Australian actor Vernon G. Wells was exposed to the arts at a very young age, which led to him pursuing a career in the entertainment industry - first as a male model and then as an actor in television and theater. It was during a stage performance of "Hosanna" that Vernon caught the eye of director George Miller, who promptly cast him in his first feature-length film role as a character that would go on to become an icon of genre cinema, MAD MAX 2 (a.k.a. THE ROAD WARRIOR). Vernon's strong presence as the mohawked maniac in what many consider to be the quintessential Post-Apocalypse film got the attention of Hollywood, and it wasn't long before Vernon was working with the likes of John Hughes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Joe Dante just to name a few. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the last thirty-plus years, Vernon has secured a spot in film history as a notable character actor who's played his share of bad guys and "heavies", and I recently had the privilege of asking him a few questions about his career.

The Death Rattle: According to your bio on your website, you grew up watching Westerns and developed a fondness for cinematic villains. And, of course, you're now known mostly for playing some great and memorable villains in films. Once you started acting, was there a conscious effort on your part to seek out those types of roles, or did it all just fall into place for you?
Vernon G. Wells: I never purposefully looked to play the villain. Unfortunately, being 6’1” and looking like I do, I tended to get put into that role. I actually enjoy playing the villain. Most villain roles are a lot more fun than playing the hero. There are no rules to the villain. You get to enjoy yourself. I am very happy to have been fortunate enough to have portrayed a couple of villains who have become, in the eyes of fans, classics.

Vernon as one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's most memorable on-screen foes, Bennett, in COMMANDO. In the past, Bennett has been affectionately referred to as "Freddie Mercury on steroids".

Death Rattle: What led to you getting what would be your most iconic role to date: Wez in MAD MAX 2?
Vernon: I was working in a stage play in Australia called Hosanna which was about two guys in a relationship. It was one night in their lives. At one of my performances, George Miller’s then girlfriend, Sandy Gore, saw the play and suggested that George speak to me about playing the role of Wez. After I was cast, I asked George why he had cast me, and he said he loved the fact that was I was big and scary, but I had a childlike quality of innocence that I can bring to the character. Fortunately, I worked with one the best directors ever, and MAD MAX and the character Wez were an international phenomenon.

Death Rattle: MAD MAX 2 was apparently first feature film after doing television and theater. What were your first impressions once production started? Was it overwhelming for you in any way?
Vernon: MAD MAX 2 was my first film. I had done quite a bit of television and some stage, but nothing on the scale of MAD MAX. Just being on the set with all of the costumes, characters, and vehicles was just amazing. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I just wanted to play with everything, get on everything and do everything. And damn it, that’s exactly what I did!

Death Rattle: Amongst other things - and as is the case with a lot of Australian genre movies - MAD MAX 2 is known for its insane stunt work. In regards to the stunts, what was the craziest thing you saw (or did) during the shoot?
Vernon: Everything in MAD MAX was raw and unique, including all of the stunts, all of the vehicles, and a lot of the things that I did I am sure gave George Miller mild heart attacks. In fact, he stopped me doing some of the stunts I really would have been happy to do in case I was hurt. As he told me, they still needed me to finish the film. Probably the most insane thing I did was when I was on the back of the snake truck, with one foot on it and one foot on the tanker, crossing to climb onto the tanker, and the snake truck veered away from the tanker to avoid hitting it and I nearly became a wishbone! But alls well that ends well.

Death Rattle: How did you get involved in WEIRD SCIENCE, and what are your memories of working on it?
Vernon: WEIRD SCIENCE came about after MAD MAX was released. Joel Silver contacted my Australian agent to see if I would do a send up of my character from MAD MAX. I was actually not interested in reprising the role and certainly not interested in going to America. It took four months of my agent begging me to take the offer and leave Australia and go do the film in America. I was stunned by the over-abundance of everything on that set. I couldn’t believe what they had! In Australia, we could have made four films for the price of one of their set pieces. So you can imagine, I was a little country boy totally lost in the big, bad American world. My fondest memory was walking across the set and having one of the girls tell me that I had a great looking “fanny,” which confused the hell out of me because in Australia a “fanny” is generally referred to on a woman and is definitely not her ass.


Death Rattle: If you don't mind, I'd like to dig deep into your filmography and ask you about some of your genre films, as well as some actors and directors you worked with. Let's start with Cirio H. Santiago, who you worked with on at least three films that I'm aware of (NAM ANGELS, ULTIMATUM, STRANGLEHOLD). What was he like as a director and do you have any particularly fond memories of working on any of those films?
Vernon: I loved working with Cirio. He was like my surrogate father. Before his untimely passing, I managed to do a few films with him over in Manila. I loved every one of them and loved working with him. He was a gentleman, his crews were wonderful, and he always gave me something when I finished—a little holiday in Hong Kong or a little gift for working with him. And it was just amazing to work in Manila. The scenery and the places we went to shoot were just wonderful. I will always fondly remember him and the great times I had working with him. And, of course, all of the wonderful actors who came over there to be part of the film as well.

Stuart Gordon's KING OF THE ANTS

Death Rattle: What about Stuart Gordon, who you worked with on FORTRESS (1992), SPACE TRUCKERS, and KING OF THE ANTS? Also, what are your memories of working on those movies?
Vernon: Stuart Gordon—or Uncle Stu as my wife calls him—is an amazing director, writer, and wonderful man to work with. I have done two of my best films with him as director. I remember getting my first role with him in a film that was shot back in Australia called FORTRESS. There wasn’t really a part for me in the film, but Stuart was so impressed with the fact that, in my audition, I managed to throw him through the plaster wall of his office. So he wrote the character of 999 into the script. When we were doing the death scene, we had so much fun (Christopher Lambert and myself) that when it was over, Stuart was wondering if they would have enough film to ever die. I was supposed to just get zapped and fall off the catwalk, but we had this wonderful little thing of me putting my hand through my body and slowly looking up at Chris, and falling to my ultimate doom. Ah, the good old days when you could squeeze every last morsel of angst from a scene.

Death Rattle: You've worked with some interesting character actors and genre-film actors throughout your career, like William Sanderson, Charles Napier, John Saxon, Cameron Mitchell, and William Smith to name a few. Did you get along particularly well with any of them?
Vernon: Every actor I’ve worked with in my career, I am very happy to say, I have had a wonderful time with and got on well with and, to this day, am still friends with most of them. William Smith and his wife are dear, dear friends. In fact, many people have commented that they thought I may be William’s son. That I would accept being. William Sanderson, the late Charles Napier—all wonderful actors, as was John Saxon and Cameron Mitchell. I have been fortunate to have worked with some of the best in the business on both sides of the camera, and hopefully I will continue to be just that fortunate with every film I do.

Death Rattle: You also worked with Ringo Lam on UNDECLARED WAR. How did you get involved with that project, and what was working with Ringo Lam like?
Vernon: Ringo Lam—I was so fortunate to be cast in UNDECLARED WAR during the Writers Strike, and I got to work in Hong Kong, China, and Hungary. It was amazing! The only small problem was that in each country, we had a minimum of three languages—Chinese from the Chinese crew, American from the lead, Peter (Liapis), and then the language of whichever country we were working in which sometimes made deciphering directions for a particular action a hell of a lot of fun. We had a couple of close calls, but as Peter once said to me, “If, when it’s over, you can laugh about it over a cup of coffee, it wasn’t so bad.” And, you know what? I wasn’t so bad.

Death Rattle: I'm very curious about the CIRCUITRY MAN films, in which you played the rather imaginative character of Plughead. How did that role come about for you, and in general how were those experiences as far as wearing makeup and playing such a strange character?
Vernon: The most fun you can have without it being illegal! I loved those films. I loved my character. And I had a ball doing it. My God, who wouldn’t love to be able to control women with their mind? And to think I worked with some of the most beautiful women as either my play things or rivals. Thankfully, Jim Metzler got me the original script and the directors were willing to go with me. The makeup was a lot of fun. It took around four hours a day to put me into the full face makeup, and I used to sit in the makeup chair and sleep until the girls had finished doing it all. It took four hours to put it on and it would take me about five minutes to rip it off after we finished filming. I always remember being put into my makeup with all of those tentacles coming out of my head which were worked on wires from the grid above me. Unfortunately when I was made up in that particular costume and makeup, I was stuck on the set for around six hours. Basically I was tethered to the ceiling. So as you can image, one could not drink or eat during that time. Thankfully, those scenes only took a few days to complete.

Death Rattle: In the early 2000's, you did a lot of work on POWER RANGERS as a villainous character named Ransik. Again, how did this opportunity come about, and what was the overall experience like for you?
Vernon: I was asked to audition for POWER RANGERS when they were casting their first human villain in the history of POWER RANGERS—Ransik. The first morning I came to the audition, I walked into the room, looked around, and saw about two dozen of the biggest names on television and promptly wondered what the hell I was doing there. With a little luck, I was able to go through to the second round. When I returned, there was less famous people and me. I guess knowing the stunt director may have helped as I had worked with him on a Stuart Gordon film. Against all odds, I actually got cast in the role. The 12 months on the series were a lot of fun. As you can probably tell, I have a helluva a lot of fun in everything I do! I am still very close to most of the cast from that series.

Death Rattle: POWER RANGERS, in a way, opened the door for you to do voice work in animated features and video games, which is still something that you do to this day. What sort of preparation goes into doing voice work, and are there any major differences between doing voices for animated features and video games?
Vernon: While doing the series, I was asked to do the voice on a couple of games that came out for the series which started my love for voiceover. And I have been very fortunate since to voice characters in many games, including the smash hit Darksiders and the Ultimate Spider-Man. I also voiced a character in the animated movie DRAWN TOGETHER: THE MOVIE. The difference between voices for animated features and games is that the dialogue in games is directional, i.e., it’s telling the player what to do or it is telling one of the characters in the game what to do. Whereas in animated features or cartoons, it’s more like a film—the character has a life and goes on throughout the show. But the process for both is basically the same as doing any acting job in front of a camera. You only get out what you put in.

Death Rattle: Is there a single character that you enjoyed playing the most?
Vernon: I think that most of the characters I’ve played I have enjoyed immensely. Most people feel that I should say my character of Wez or the character in COMMANDO, Bennett. Believe it or not, I think one of my most memorable characters was one I played in a little film called CIRCLE MAN. He was a retarded boxer. The other was the character I played in KING OF THE ANTS, a redeemable villain. But, like they say, any character I’m paid to play is a great character!

Vernon as "Igoe" in Joe Dante's INNERSPACE

Death Rattle: Did you prefer playing the antagonist, or were you more fond of the occasional role where you played the "good guy"?
Vernon: As I said way back at the beginning of this interview, playing the villain is a lot of fun because there are no boundaries. The villain can basically do anything and people accept it. And all good villains perceive what they do to be right. They’re not doing anything wrong. They consider the hero to be a villain because he is trying to stop them. That said, playing the hero one has to be very aware that heroes abide by certain rules. There are things that are expected of a hero. So, yeah, I love playing both, and now I get to play the good guy much more than the villain, but I always get a little twinkle in my eye when someone asks me to play the villain.

Death Rattle: If one were to look back on your films and television credits, they'd find a large variety of projects that range from horror to comedy to Sci-Fi to family entertainment. That being said, is there a character you've played that you'd consider to be the closest to the real Vernon Wells?
Vernon: If one considers the real Vernon Wells to be a sadistic, unfeeling bastard, who would kill his own grandmother for 20 shillings, then I guess that’s pretty close to who I am. However, I think the closest I’ve ever gotten to being myself is a film I did last year in which I play a small town sheriff. I always feel that when you play the good guy, a little piece of who you are in real life goes into the character. When you play the villain, it’s generally all fantasy…except for the character of The General in a wonderful internet series called WESTERN X. I guess if anything, he could be close to the real me.

Death Rattle: Are there any films you've done that you think deserve more attention than they've gotten, or maybe lesser-known films that were overlooked?
Vernon: I think I’ve mentioned a couple of the films that I feel should have gotten more attention than they got…CIRCLE MAN I feel was a very well put together film. KING OF THE ANTS was beautifully done by Stuart Gordon. A little film called TRU LOVED is another one. And possibly, if we had more space, I could list another 20 or 30 films I’ve done. The last three I’ll mention…SILENT NIGHT, ZOMBIE NIGHT, a film that hasn’t been released yet called ALIEN HUNGER, and NOWHERE ELSE.

Death Rattle: Aside from acting, what are you up to these days?
Vernon: Actually, still acting, voiceover, and being the little bum boy at my wife’s company. I love producing and enjoy getting involved with people I know and helping them put their projects together in any way I can. Currently, I am on the board of directors with a wolf and wolfdog rescue that helps at-risk kids called Wolf Connection. This is one of my passions—working with the animals and kids. I’m also about to embark on a little career change by working with a Japanese/Korean company with new 3D technology.

Death Rattle: Finally, is there anything you'd like to say to your fans out there?
Vernon: Firstly, I’d like to thank everyone who takes the time to rent or buy a DVD or go to a cinema to watch a film I’m in. I’d also like to thank all the kids who buy video games that I’ve voiced characters in. I would just like to say I love meeting the people who enjoy what I do and I’d like to invite everyone to keep their eyes open for a convention in a town near you that I will be appearing at and signing autographs at because that’s my one chance to find out what you think about what I do. But mostly, without everyone who enjoys my work, I would not have a job. So thank you all very much!

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