Interview: Henry Rollins

words by Asher Ellis | photo by Allison Dwyer
| Friday, July 7th, 2006

Henry RollinsOriginally published in Verbicide issue #17

If you ask Henry Rollins how he makes a living, you’d better have some free time. Introduced to America as the final front man for one of the world’s greatest punk bands, Rollins has since explored almost every form of media as an author, actor, spoken word performer, radio show host, and even as a video game character. The former Black Flag vocalist’s latest way to pay the bills is now as the host of the Independent Film Channel’s “The Henry Rollins Show,” which premiered last year as “Henry’s Film Corner.”

For the first time in four years, Verbicide was able to catch up with this self-proclaimed “workaholic” and distract him from his busy schedule just long enough to hear his take on his new show, what he thought of this year’s so-called “Best Picture,” and why he doesn’t watch “Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton.”

I’ve read that you feel the Independent Film Channel [IFC] is treating you well, but if you had the chance to switch to a more basic cable channel and reach a larger audience, would you take that chance? Or would you just stick with IFC?
Oh, good question, but quite honestly I don’t have an answer for that because I don’t really think like that. I don’t know how many people watch the show, and I’m not trying to make a move in the television industry. I would be afraid of taking the show anywhere because one, no other station would give a damn, and two, [the tradeoff to reach more] viewers is that someone would say, “Oh, that thing you did — we don’t like that. You can’t do that at this station.” I’m enjoying the freedom I’ve been given. I’ve written what I want, said what I’ve wanted completely, and not once has anyone from IFC said, “You have to cool it.”

Well, the reason I ask is because as a fan of your show living on a college campus, I would always miss your show due to the fact that students had access only to a basic cable package. Are you aware that many of your younger viewers are probably missing out in that kind of situation?
Oh, I’m sure they do, but I have no idea how many people see the show…at all. I just don’t think like that as far as, what can I do to get a better viewing audience? I’ll bet my manager does! But I’m just trying to make the show really kick ass.

It definitely does. And when you were preparing for your premiere season last year with “Henry’s Film Corner,” did you do any homework before starting this new venture? Did you look at James Lipton or Jon Favreau’s “Dinner for Five,” or any other interview/review shows that are similar?
A lot of the guests we’ve had are, well, not exactly friends of mine, but people I’ve either worked with or have met before. People like Oliver Stone — I’ve hung out with Stone a few times, Chuck D I’ve done shows with, etc. Before they come into the studio, I make sure to listen to the new record or see the new movie or read up, so when they walk in and say, “Oh, I just did this,” I don’t go, “What’s that?” and be ignorant. I’d never met PT Anderson before — I’ve seen all his films probably a few times, so I felt pretty ready to go — but I did some reading up. Any topic I’m going to talk about, I do my research.

Past that: no. I’ve never seen that Lipton show past, like, you know…watch it for a couple of minutes and keep remote channeling on. I’m not putting the guy down; it’s just that it’s not an interesting show to me.

Speaking of your guests, Jeff Bridges was recently on your show. Have you seen his latest work, The Amateurs?
No, but I want to because he’s got like three films coming out at once, and that’s one he’s really interested in. He’s out there promoting Stick It right now, but The Amateurs amused him the most.

I actually just caught it.
Was it good?

Oh yeah, I think you’re really going to like it. It’s hilarious.
Oh, cool. I did a film with Jeff, and the guy you see — you know, really laid back and not full of himself — that’s who you get. He really is that guy. And so when we called him, he said, “Oh man, I’ll do that! No problem!” He’s a real cool dude.

Well, he’s great in The Amateurs, which I actually saw at the Sarasota Film Festival. Do you make it to many film festivals?
No, usually I’m working. I tour a lot and I haven’t been within hundreds of miles of one where I wasn’t obligated to be on stage. For the last couple of years, IFC has wanted to send me to Sundance, and thankfully I’ve not been able to do it. I just don’t like those cluster-fuck things. And I know it’d be really cool, and I’d probably see a bunch of killer documentaries which would have me at the edge of my seat, but all those people…it’s a lot of a humanity for me.

Since you mentioned documentaries, you were quoted in a Washington Post interview saying that documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog is one of your “film heroes.” Who are some of your other film heroes, either living or dead?
Well, let’s see. Mainly directors, just because that’s where most of the vision comes from. I mean, there’s a lot of great actors, of course, but to me it’s the people who see the whole thing, and that would be directors — David Lynch is a hero of mine, Akira Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick. Bigger guys, but also PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, people who are doing interesting stuff on the slightly more indie side of things. And it’s the directors who I’ve enjoyed talking to the most, for the most part. Having Herzog in the studio — that was a big deal for me. I just thought that was so cool.

Have you ever considered using what you know of film to direct or write a screenplay of your own?
No. I don’t have any big ideas for movies.

Well then returning to your show, if scheduling or availability weren’t an object, is there somebody who’s at the very top of your list that you’d love to see on “The Henry Rollins Show?”
I would like to have Al Gore on the show. I think it would be fun to have someone like Joe Biden on the show. Writers or politicians. Ahmed Rashid, Robert Bear I would like to have on the show, just to speak very candidly. Cathie Kotowski, an Air Force person who left the Department of Defense in disgust and sounds off pretty loudly about the Iraq War. People like that, bomb-throwing (not literally), just people who are pissed off and are mouthing off about the Bush administration. I would love to be the lightning rod for right-wing anger.

You’ve managed to get some pretty big names on your show. But considering it’s on an uncensored station like IFC, and you’re known for speaking your mind, do you think a lot of people in the film industry — or any industry, really — would be intimidated to be on your show?
I doubt it. I don’t think anyone with a stable intellect would be [intimidated]. I was talking to Bill Maher about this the other day. I [mentioned] someone like Ann Coulter, who I probably disagree with on a lot of stuff — like, she’s probably against Roe vs. Wade, and I’m for it. I said, in a debate or on TV she’d probably whoop my ass, and [Maher] said, “Yeah,” because these people are really on their game — you can think what you want, or say you don’t like a guy like Sean Hannity, but on his show he’s gonna beat your ass. They know how to get you to hang yourself out there; they get your chin exposed.

So I don’t think anyone who’s on their topic — even if it would be in opposition to me or my point of view — would have any fear of getting knocked off their game. I just can’t bring it. I’m not fucked like those people are, basically. You know what I mean? I’m not coming with some ill intent — so you can kind of take me out to the cleaners no problem.

You seem to hold your own, though — and not just on your show, but as an actor as well. In 1994, you had a larger role as “Officer Dobbs” in The Chase, and since then the majority of your film appearances have been quite smaller or just cameos. Is playing smaller parts a personal choice so you can have time for other projects?
No, Hollywood just isn’t running after me. In ‘94 I was way more fab. First off, I had way less gray hair, I was on a major label, reasonably popular, and right around that time, ‘94 to ‘95, I’m in Heat and these other movies…just because you’re in a different kind of press league — you’re in US magazine, and different people are looking at you going, “Hey! What about that guy?” And so they saw, they tried, and you’ll notice the bigger parts didn’t come because I’m not an actor.

Even more brutally, I can’t act. I’ve never really tried. Well, I try when I’m on the set; if you put me in your movie, I’m going to do my damnedest to rock that movie. I’m not going to be a stiff for you and [I’m] gonna try to make you think it was a good idea to hire me. But, for me, I really am just trying to stay employed. Film work has never been more for me than employment. I’m not trying to sound like a hack, I guess I just come from an older school of…I just think one should be employed. I think that you should work. That’s what I try to do. And every once in awhile, it’s a movie and I’m happy for the job. People go, “How come you always play a cop?” It’s the part they give me! “How come you were in that movie that sucked?” Because they hired me!

It was so great doing “Dinner for Five” with Luis Guzman, who’s a great actor — I mean, who doesn’t like that guy? But he will take [a role in] Free Willy 3 because he’s got a bunch of kids and the guy works for a living. We were talking about Australia, and he goes, “I was there once,” and I said, “Oh, why’d you go?” He was like, “Free Willy 3,” and he just looked at me without any irony, [as if to say], “Yeah, I know. I got some work, I did it.”

And for as many bad films that I’ve been in — and I’ve done a bunch of straight-to-DVD movies; not like porn stuff, just stuff with B and C teen actors — everyone on the set knows what it is. Sometimes, some of the younger actors think they’re on their way, and they probably are so they treat you like it’s an honor for you to meet them — which is funny, but everyone else who knows a thing or two are just happy for that month of work. Like, the director will sit down and go, “Okay look. We’ve got no money. Catering came in today in the back of a station wagon, wardrobe is the clothes you’re wearing, and the script isn’t Citizen Kane, so let’s have fun and make this thing rock.” And everyone’s like, “Yeah! Let’s just work our asses off and make this work.” So there’s this earnestness to it that’s very refreshing. People aren’t up there going, “This thing sucks, what the fuck.” They’re happy to be there, and it’s really better than waiting tables. And as much as I’ve, quote, “achieved,” I still have that minimum wage, happy-for-the-work mindset. And I don’t think I’ll ever get out of it.

I guess that explains why you’ve appeared in these big Hollywood movies like The New Guy and Jack Frost, but as a well-heard voice for counterculture and cultural criticism, and as a poster child for “do it yourself” work, do you ever criticize yourself or take flack from anybody for taking part in such mainstream Hollywood-based projects?
No. Well, I take shit, yes. Every once in awhile, some guy who still lives with his mom and doesn’t pay taxes and hasn’t gone into the cruel world will say, “Sellout!” And I go, “Umm…no.” Or, “You’re not punk rock!” and I say, “Maybe I never was punk rock.” “You sold out!” Maybe I never bought in. Because to me, selling out is [when] you make a record and they go, “You know, we really want a keyboard on that,” so you put a keyboard on and you remix it. Or you don’t do what you want because you’re afraid of someone saying you sold out.

I do exactly what I want. I came to Los Angeles from Washington, DC with a duffle bag of clothes that was immediately stolen from me. And I know where America is going — I can be a big help to you there. By the time you’re 65, there’s not even going to be a pot for you to piss in — so you’d better start saving for your adult diapers now, is what I’m saying. I am.

Yeah, there’s a lot of work I’ve turned down: voice-overs for Guinness, band tours that were sponsored by Skoal tobacco, where it’s like, “Here’s 50 grand a night for five shows a week for six weeks.” I passed it up. Iggy took it. And he made maybe one of the biggest summers of his life. I passed on it just because I don’t want to go there with “Big Tobacco.” All it was was a recruiting ground to connect young people with Skoal Bandits, which they were handing out by the fistful, and I said, “No. No fucking way.” I basically work for a living, and sometimes it comes as voice-over or movies, but I rarely say no to work. And if someone wants to say, “You sold out,” I say, “Tell all your friends that I suck, spread the word, because I sure am not gonna lose any sleep over anything you’re going to do.”

I know one of the things you didn’t pass up was appearing in the video game “Def Jam Vendetta II: Fight for NY,” where you’re beating up well-known hip-hop artists. What’s it like seeing yourself as a video game character?
I have no idea. That was 90 minutes of my life the night after my New York show. They said, “Hey, voice-over?” I went, “Yeah.” You know, here’s 10 [or] 15,000 bucks to be in a video game with a bunch of rappers, and I went, “Cool! I’m happy for that work.”

I’ve played it and it’s pretty cool. If you ever get the chance, check it out.
Yeah, a lot of guys I meet in the Army and Marines say they like beating my ass in that, or having me beat someone’s ass. And for me it was gainful employment which I was really, really grateful to have.

Backing up to a few months ago, what was your take on this year’s Oscar picks?
I didn’t watch the Oscars. I really don’t care, but I’ll do my best to hang in with you. I don’t even really know who won.

Well, did you see Crash?
Yes.

Because that won “Best Picture.”
It did? God, I hated that film! I’m like the only person in America who hated it. Well, I didn’t hate it; I think the actors were great. I just don’t need my morality handed to me, and I don’t need to be told that there’s racism in America.

Exactly.
I grew up in Washington, DC. By [the time I was in] third grade, I was punched in the mouth for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. like five days a week, so it’s not like there’s something I didn’t know. What I did like about Crash was all the really good performances. Like Matt Dillon…and who’s that amazing actor who was so good in Hustle and Flow?

Terrence Howard?
Oh my god! How great is that guy? Great in Crash, but like ridiculous Oscar velocity in Hustle and Flow. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Ludicris, fantastic. Everyone [in Crash] I thought was great. Well…maybe not the lady who married car dude Jesse James. Her and The Mummy guy.

Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser?
I think those are people who make big movies, so when they get to be themselves they kind of overdo it. That was the feeling I got with those two: “Oh! You get to cuss in this [film]! Boy, you’re gonna love saying ‘fuck’ for three weeks.” But past that, those scenes with Matt Dillon and his father, I thought that was really good work. Really believable.

Are there any films you’ve recently seen that you would recommend to our readers?
Not recently, just because I’ve been on airplanes or on stages, and most of the time on a Friday or Saturday night I’m usually that eight o’clock feature myself. I’ve been doing a lot of shows, so no, I haven’t seen that much this year. All my references are probably stuff that came and went last year — like Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, things like that. I don’t get out to the movies very often. I go to screenings when I can. It’s just that when I’m not out on the road on the weekends, I usually will work straight through the weekend — I’ll write ‘til like three in the morning. And if someone said, “Hey, let’s go the movies,” I’m too much of a workaholic to sit in a movie theater and stay away from the computer for that many hours. And no one calls me to go to the movies.

You wouldn’t consider movie-going as a form of work? Perhaps as research for your show?
Oh, absolutely! If it was show-specific, yeah. But so far, anything I’ve had to see for an interview, the film has been loaned to me. Like The Devil and Daniel Johnston, or Who Killed The Electric Car? That’s what happens most of the time. If I am truly interested in something, yeah, I’m going to go. But it’s hard for me to stand in lines with people. I’m very self-conscious in public. It gets to me.

I hear you’re starting a new film next week.
Wrong Turn 2, man! And everything’s gonna be fine for me until the zombies eat me. I think I get eaten by some flesh-eating zombies. That’s happened to you, right?

Yeah, all the time.
I’m going to be working on and off for a month in Vancouver. The parts are cool, the lines are cool. I’m looking forward to it. I really like the director; he’s got a lot of energy — a younger guy, and we hung out quite a bit the other day just going over the character. It’s a reality show where “Dale” — me — I take people into a post-nuclear holocaust world and they have to survive. And, unfortunately, we go to West Virginia where there’s an inbred family of flesh-eating freaks.

Naturally.
And I turn them loose in the woods and have many cool Rambo-esque moments where I have to try to battle zombies and make nuclear reactors out of, like, wood and semen. Stuff like that. So I went down for a meeting for the part, and I liked them and they liked me, and [with] no audition they said, “You want the part?” and I went, “Yeah, I do. I think I can do well.” Four weeks of work. I’m honored, glad, and breathing a sigh of relief. So I’ll be in Wrong Turn 2. Apparently, the “Fangoria crowd” loves the first one, and our director is a total horror film guy. I’m looking forward to having him turn me on to some really great horror films. And I’m all-ears.

You’re not currently a horror fan?
I’m not the anti-fan. I just don’t go to any of those Halloween movies or whatever, the guy running down the street with all the knives in his hands. I’ve never seen any of them. And I don’t think he would recommend any of those to me. He said, “You know, there are some directors you’ll want to check out, there are some really cool moments here and there, some interesting plot lines.” [As] with any genre, there’s more to it than your casual dismissal of something. I mean, these are people really burning lean tissue, so I’m going to respect that.

And what about your appearance in The Alibi? Isn’t that coming out soon as well?
Well, we shot that two summers ago, so it’s not that new. I think it’s just one of those films that’s so low on everyone’s priority scale that it took this long for it to come out. Apparently it’s doing well in Europe. It’s Rebecca Romijn and Sam Elliott, they star in it. And me, and a guy named Jim Cody Williams, a name you might not know but a face you’ve seen. He’s in everything. He and I are the bodyguards for Sam Elliott, who’s an underworld guy called “The Mormon.” Selma Blair’s in it, and she’s really fantastic. It was really fun, but it was literally 22 months ago we shot that.

Well, the cast sounds great.
And the script is funny, and I saw all my scenes in post [production] and I don’t suck, you know? I nailed it. I did my thing, I did my lines, and everyone liked me and I liked everybody. It was one of the better scripts I’ve ever been involved with as far as a smart little movie. What’s his name? Steve…

Coogan?
Steve Coogan, yeah. That’s the main reason I went hard for the audition. I really admire him. I’m in England a lot where he’s kind of a bigger name. He’s been doing comedy stuff for years. And in Britain you see him a lot on TV, and in many tour buses there are at least five of his videos in a drawer somewhere. So when somebody said, “Oh yeah, it’s a film with Steve Coogan,” I was like, “Oh! Damn man. I definitely want to check that guy out and rub myself against him and see if I can get a little bit of his funniness.” And he was a wonderful guy. I loaned him books, and he is a very smart dude. It was a fun month of work for me, shot it all here in town.

Nice. Well, good luck with your upcoming projects, and thanks for taking the time to talk films for a while.
Ain’t no thing.

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