I’ve squandered much McLean-time trying to decide on a witty and engaging collective huddle of words on the subject of Lance Henriksen. Oddly, my musing seemed to revolve heavily around nudity gags. Alas, such lazy jokes didn’t seem to quite fit the tone of the piece, so rather than continue laboured forced imagined “hilarity”, I figured I’d write this au naturel myself – nude. There – it’s no longer a joke, it’s a fact.
Amused? Repulsed? Well if I’ve got you past the opening paragraph, I really don’t care which ballpark you decide to sit in – you’re still with me, hopefully for a little longer. So where was I? Ah, Lance.
This attempt to coax, drive and pen alphabet letters into something more dignified than a swill-and-spit word mouthwash of sentences will be coherent – I promise. While focusing on Lance it will cling to me in that particular way my clothes currently do not: My personal history with Mr Henriksen.
Before Back To Frank Black and the drive to bring Lance’s Millennium character back to our screens, I will have to admit not to being a massive follower of Lance. That sounds a terrible thing to say, but it’s an honest one. Naturally I was a big fan of his work throughout Millennium, but before that my experiences of Lance were relatively slim – though nevertheless significant.
I first blindly encountered Lance in Terminator, but my real memory of him first comes from Aliens. Despite my penchant for the macabre as a child, having been brought up on darker British comics like 2000AD and Eagle from five upwards, I was oddly sensitive to particular horrors. There were a couple of ideas that seriously creeped me out, and I remember being told about Alien in the playground when I was just six, and that just stuck with me. I still have dreams of being six years old and the near hysterical fear about a film I had never seen – I actually dream of living that fear as a child; of what Alien could be like through the eyes of six year old me… dreams of a film I’ve seen more than a few times – even played the game and read the book. If that’s not an example of what a stupid berk my brain is, I don’t know what is.
But in that very human way, we are drawn to what scares us. And I remember seeing Aliens when I was in my teens. Now, I know many don’t consider Aliens “horror”, but the general template of a lot of horror (in my humbly arrogant opinion) is the “star” is the antagonistic force, not the protagonist; the people you care about aren’t as important as the force that scares and kills them. However, in Aliens there are actually a host of protagonists you could actually care for a great deal – these weren’t the usual canon fodder dressed up with mild personalties, food for an unstoppable enemy. For me, the starring protagonist wasn’t Ripley, it was the synthetic android, Bishop.
Bishop was captivating – a fusion of counterpoints. Henriksen’s synthetic Bishop played off a warm innocence against the character’s cold artificial intelligence. His eyes were kind, filled with youthful honesty, set upon the face of a mature man. In the midst of the frantic horror, he was the calm in the storm. On first watch his role isn’t quite as assuring given the uncertainty of synthetics in the franchise – thanks to the memorable portrayal of Ash in Alien by Ian Holm. However on repeated watches, knowing Bishop isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he grows on you and in a sense you feel so comfortable with the character that you believe in him – thanks very much to such a unique and memorable performance from Lance.
Bishop was, in fact, a perfect compliment to the film’s survivors of Hicks, Newt and Ripley. This dynamic was so strong, they took this quartet into comic form – until Alien 3 came about and severed this partnership (in which the comics then hastily reissued the past stories with this team re-casting them as an identical group of people who weren’t Hicks, Newt, Ripley and Bishop, but looked like Hicks, Newt, Ripley and Bishop – oh, the wicked web of comicdom).
The lack of Bishop in Alien 3 disappointed me, but Henriksen’s work in the franchise had left its mark – he had me spellbound by his performance and his face was firmly etched into my celluloid memory archive.
That being said, I still didn’t follow Lance like so many of you have done. I guess my viewing consumption didn’t really flow with his output. I saw him in Scream 3 in the 90s, I don’t remember catching him in anything else until… Millennium!
When Millennium came along and I saw his face on some promo photos, Lance sold me on watching it. And the promo pitches I saw were good, a nice blend of images that informed me so much of what this character was about – the sympathetic eyes of Bishop were there, but there was something deeper, something, conversely, human about this character – and this was proved true in the show itself. For if Bishop was an example of how humans ought to be in a broad utopian sense – selfless, honest, informed with a gift of kindness, Frank Black was what humans should be in a real contemporary world – once again, honest and to some degree selfless, but carrying human imperfections – some knowingly, some not so – burdened with flaws and experiences that, if we let them, can consume us. In Lance’s portrayal of Frank Black I saw an actor who could carry this weight in a single look; an expression that told me this man had experience – he wasn’t artificial, and he was deeply, tragically human, filled with uncertainty, hope and love.
And now I’m in a very fortunate position to know the man behind these two characters. And as Frank is different to Bishop, Lance is different to both – yet in some respects imbues facets of the two. There is a natural honesty to Lance that he carries in both of these characters – but compared to Frank or Bishop there is a really raw energy in Lance Henriksen, an unstoppable urge to get things done, to find solutions and to make the most of a situation. He doesn’t let himself dwell on the negatives in life, but he doesn’t ignore the pain and suffering that he knows is present – and is always willing to contribute in anyway to fight such real horror. Perhaps in that respect, you can see shades of Frank, but if with Frank there’s a passive dedication to hope, with Lance it’s an active pursuit. And unlike both those characters, he is a man of great wit and humour – he can seriously make you laugh. He is opinionated and informed – he will say what he thinks and in his art he puts his all into the roles he plays. Moreover, he loves his fans and followers – he watches his Facebook page avidly, never taking the support for granted – in fact, I sometimes suspect slightly bemused at why he’s worthy of such support at all. I don’t think it’s a question he lingers on. He is very much a man of the moment who simply enjoys the fact the interaction is there.
So this is where I stand today, working along side the man for Back to Frank Black and very honoured to be his friend as much as a co-worker. But while this piece is very much about my perception of the man, I hope it can be something to you, the reader. So often we are spellbound or seduced by such powerful performers on our screen and left wondering whether that thespian mask hides a man worthy of respect. Do we see any of the artist within his art, or is his art a true deception? In the case of Lance Henriksen, I hope I can assure those who do weigh up such a question that this man is firmly in the former category. Behind the many diverse roles Lance has played is an artist who you can watch knowing he’s worth your respect – and he is a man who will always wear your respect as a badge of honour.
So happy birthday to Lance this week, an actor whose honest creativity deserves such an honour roll. And with that, I bid you goodnight – I’m off to put some clothes on.
– James McLean