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Not Bad for a Human: The Life and Films of Lance Henriksen

To even the most casual genre fan, iconic performer Lance Henriksen is an instantly recognizable figure. His rugged features and gravelly voice, along with his steadfast commitment to the roles he’s embodied, has gained him fans across a broad spectrum. To some, he’s Bishop, the wise but wide-eyed android in James Cameron’s Aliens. To others, he’s the steely but drained Frank Black of Chris Carter’s sinister TV series Millennium. Those are only two roles in a remarkable career spanning seven decades and culminating in over 150 films and television appearances.

Fans and peers see Henriksen as more than a method actor—one who’s inhabited roles as diverse as a vampire patriarch (Near Dark), a rogue biker (Stone Cold), and a survivalist father figure (Survival Quest). Not content with simply memorizing lines, he actually becomes the character by tailoring his lifestyle—however temporary—to that of the persona. It’s the total immersion that sets Mr. Henriksen apart. And while it’s a tactic that’s been an asset to his career, it’s often been a detriment to his personal life. What’s exceptional about Mr. Henriksen’s biography—appropriately titled Not Bad for a Human–is the emphasis on his real life as an influence on his onscreen work. Told in conversational anecdotes, the work is a collaboration between Mr. Henriksen and noted entertainment creator and analyst Joseph Maddrey (Nightmares in Red, While, and Blue). Readers are welcomed into Mr. Henriksen’s world by his refreshing candidness. He spins yarns with brutal candor, whether or not his stories paint a picture of him in a positive light.

Readers may be surprised by the tumultuous life the self-possessed thespian led. His history is one filled with familial neglect, poverty, and survival despite staggering odds. Through his tales, Mr. Henriksen exposes the rawest nerves in a self-deprecating and yet self-assured manner. It’s a fascinating duality of character on display. This dynamic privileges the book over typical biographies that skim the surface of their subjects, highlighting the successes and lamenting the obvious failures. Henriksen not only mentions his lowest moments, but submits to dazzling self-reflective discovery in analyzing them.

Among the many revelations of his early life, he alludes to a large portion of his youth spent floundering in orphanages, boarding schools, and foster homes. The time spent with his own blood relatives were either devoted to running “cons” with his mother, or staving off temptation by his uncles to shoot up methadrine. At age seventeen, he spent time in the brig at the Portsmouth Naval Prison for going AWOL. These are moments he recollects not with dejection, but as examples of useful life experience.

Mr. Henriksen reveals that he’s lived his life as a bit of a chameleon, adapting to whatever the environment threw at him. The obstacles he’s overcome, and the manner in which he’s dealt with those circumstances, translates directly to his onscreen work. He admits to difficulty transitioning back to his own life once a shoot is over, a feat that often renders him incapable of returning to himself without proper recovery time. In the book, Henriksen confides: “The predominant feeling I have at the end of a job is that I don’t know who I am. It’s a distinct feeling of not having any identity at all. None. This has been the biggest problem in my life, especially in relationships with women.”

When speaking of a particularly challenging role as Torquemada, the high priest of the Spanish Inquisition in Stuart Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum, a historical figure whom Henriksen describes as “as bad as Hitler”, the actor says a lack of decompression time after the shoot led to the dissolution of a relationship with his then girlfriend. Director Gordon described Henriksen as a “fearsome presence” both on and off the screen during filming.

Aside from his huge body of work, Henriksen’s real life exploits are numerous and worth noting. A true renaissance man, he’s worked as an artisan (pottery is a passion for him), served in the military, and held every type of theatrical odd job imaginable. Through acting, however, Henriksen developed a sense of purpose in his life. He shows deep appreciation of the breaks given to him by directors like James Cameron (Terminator), Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark), and Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff). He savors the moments he’s been granted freedom to improvise, a technique he relishes when creating a character. This autonomy in style, which he refers to as “The Method”, allows him to take all the accumulated negativity and channel it into a performance based on undiluted personal emotions and memories:

“The Method is a little bit like body-mind therapy,” says Henriksen. “What it does is allows you to open doors to certain emotions and memories, and say ‘let’s see what happens if I revisit that.’ I have an accumulation of memories from my life what will somehow inevitably apply to some part I’ll do.”

The passages relating to Henriksen’s filmography are accentuated with his sometimes tragic, often profound stories and philosophies. These are taken from interviews with Mr. Henriksen, and placed skillfully in context by Maddrey. Always straightforward, Henriksen is quick to point out his mistakes and indiscretions. He confides, quite surprisingly, that he was illiterate for much of his life. One heartbreaking chronicle tells of how he was made to stand in front of his class, ridiculed by teachers and students, because of his inability to read. Overcoming that deficiency was the first step in him achieving more confidence in realizing what he could offer the film world.

When speaking of his transformation into a well-rounded performer, or how he puts it “no longer creating characters out of my defects,” Henriksen says, “Either you can keep hiding, or you come out as a thinking, feeling human being with some balance…”

As stated previously, Henriksen recounts his struggles returning to “normal” life after living for a time in the psyches of damaged characters. It’s these glimpses into his admitted frailty that gives the book emotional potency. However, there is never a doubt that his fortitude is unwavering. None of his sincere self-reflection ever comes across as weakness. As he puts in the book: “The miracle of my life (is) that I was able to hang in there long enough to outlive my bad behavior.”

The stories of Henriksen’s troubled past are balanced with insightful and entertaining anecdotes from his acting career. He recounts a humorous story of he and co-star Bill Paxton being awakened, hung over, in the early hours of morning to reshoot the famous Bishop’s Knife Trick scene in Aliens. These anecdotes break the tension of harrowing accounts of divorce, estrangement from family, and imprisonment.

The book also includes a bevy of fantastic artwork from the likes of illustrators Mike Mignola, Tim Bradstreet, Eric Powell, and more. Each artist’s work decorates a chapter, and showcases a stunning likeness of Henriksen’s most iconic figures. The book is nearly all-encompassing, covering as much of the work – great or small – that bears Mr. Henriksen’s name. It’s this level of detail, along with easily graspable language that makes Not Bad for a Human an essential addition to any film fan’s bookshelf.

Ultimately, this collaboration between Mr. Henriksen and Mr. Maddrey is nothing less than fascinating, and nothing short of moving. It’s the unexpurgated history of a man who’s built a sturdy stronghold on a foundation of sorrow. Not many people live up to the term legend bestowed upon them, but Lance plays the part gracefully, modestly, and with a marked appreciation for life’s little gifts.

By Chris Hallock

For more information, visit the book’s official site

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About Chris Hallock

Chris Hallock is a screenwriter and film programmer in the Boston area. He has contributed to VideoScope Magazine, The Boston Globe, Paracinema, Shadowland, ChiZine, and Planet Fury. He serves as a programmer for the Boston Underground Film Festival and the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival and is a former Co-Director of Programming for Etheria. He is currently writing a book on the horror genre for Midnight Marquee Press. His other passions are cats, drumming, and fiercely independent art.

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