One cannot deny that the horror genre has a very bizarre relationship with the actors who occupy its films. Whereas the genre has become known, especially within the past 30 years, to not compliment the work of actors who otherwise serve as vessels for special effects artists to shine, the genre has also become a haven for character actors to become idols, and to give B-movie stars and Scream Queens the long-lasting adoration not guaranteed to the Hollywood A-list. However, even that fame can be a bitter pill, often at the expense of high maintenance latex masks and make-up effects that define their career.
However, few have gotten fame from their natural look within the horror genre to the extent that Michael Berryman has ever since becoming the iconic figure most genre fans associate with Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. But even beyond that role, Berryman has proven to be a dependable and varied genre actor, when given the opportunity to shine beyond his unique and distinctive look. It’s with this history and a healthy appreciation for the genre that birthed his career that Berryman comes to the Calgary Horror Con this year, hoping to speak to and meet with fans that often miss the opportunities to meet with these horror legends. Gratefully, Berryman spoke to Diabolique about what has been, what could have been and of course, what lies ahead…
DIABOLIQUE: So, what brings you to this year’s Calgary Horror Convention? Have you been to Calgary in the past?
MICHAEL BERRYMAN: Well, #1, I love Canada. My great grandfather spent a lot of time in the Hudson Bay Area; he was a doctor from Germany and knew the North American indigenous people and worked in a hospital in Winnipeg. But I’ve always thought it was such a beautiful country and the people are wonderful. My wife and I are thinking of retiring one day in Canada, but also, I’ve been in the area before and it’s beautiful, so I’m just tickled to have been invited. It’s always nice to go up there and meet the fans, and also be able to meet the press from the area.
But I can’t wait to meet the regular people who love what they love, and it’s been a delight every time I’ve been up there. Last time I came to Canada, I was in Edmonton, and my wife told me I had done a small thing on their local television where I had thanked Canada for Joni Mitchell. [laughs]
DIABOLIQUE: You’ve had a storied career, having worked in both comedy and horror for almost 40 years now. Is there any role that you would like to play that you’ve never had the opportunity to perform?
BERRYMAN: Yes, I do! I’d love to do a love story. That’d be a lot of fun. I’d love to direct, eventually; I’m writing my life story right now. That’s going to be very interesting. I love futuristic roles, too. I did an opening for a movie called Apocalypse Kiss, and that’s set in the future. [Apocalypse Kiss] is about two aliens that come to Earth, and they bring with them the ultimate weapon. It’s a time in the future where everything’s owned by global corporations, and it’s a throwback to Soylent Green as it’s about what choices we have as humanity and what society is like as a civilization.
That’s an interesting premise to me. I also like the idea of doing roles that are a historical throwback; for instance, Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford. I’d like to take an audience back in time to a simpler time, so they can compare [that to their current time], and figure out what kind of dynamic they’re living in within this structured society. Supposedly, we’re allowed to make decisions that affect how society is, but I like themes and stories that are dealing with [that concept]. I love Science Fiction for interest because the humanitarian-social element of the story, seen through the eyes of the main character’s, but also, how we deal with technology and how [technology] affects us. How much do we embrace it? How is it manipulating us? Does it limit our choices?
I love that kind of stuff. I love horror and sci-fi mixes, and I loved Star Trek but even before that, I loved Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. All that stuff really gets me going. Surfing movies too! I grew up in Los Angeles, and I was a surfer my whole life and love scuba diving. So I love where water meets dirt, in terms of a location. That’s always been lovely.
DIABOLIQUE: As an icon of horror cinema, what attracts you to the roles you’ve taken within the genre? Is there anything in a project that you’ll seek out consciously in a role?
BERRYMAN: Yes, there is! For example, Chad Verdi, of Verdi Productions based out of Rhode Island, made a movie called Army of the Damned, with Tony Todd, Joey Fatone, Sully Erna and myself. I really liked that role because I played a retired police officer who understands the history of a particular house and how it is a portal that allows the ultimate evil to have access to creating an army of the damned to take over the world. So when things get gritty, I’m the one who has the secret, and these paranormal investigators are having trouble with this house, they call the police department who sends the SWAT team, and not to give too much away, but I try to help them.
To answer your question more directly, I like a character that is his own man and has his backstory and is important to the main storyline that’s not involved in every scene from the beginning until the conclusion. It somewhat parallels that earlier roles in my life where I was maybe typecast as the scary guy, creepy guy, misunderstood guy or the monster. That’s aside from roles I’ve done which are comedic, which are always a lot of fun. But since I have a unique look, I’ve had an advantage to portray a role where the audience goes, “Oh! There’s this guy!” I mean, [the character] looks unique, so you expect something unique. So if the role has a matching uniqueness, it engages the audience to a level where they go, “What makes this guy tick?”
That’s why I can get creative with directors and writers, although especially so with directors. It allows me to give my characters some nuances, which sometimes gets lost when there’s X amount of scripts, X amount of cast, X amount of time and X amount of money. But those roles are a little more inviting since they’re more intriguing for me. I hope that answers your question.
DIABOLIQUE: Considering you have a loyal and ardent fanbase from horror roles of your past, how would you define your relationship with your fans? Do you think it’s difficult for them to be objective towards you as an actor in terms of trying out new or non-genre roles?
BERRYMAN: That’s a great question. I’ve always answered the fan mail for 30 years now, and I always do my own responses. Some are pretty straightforward, like, “Please sign this. I’m a collector.” But I also get wonderful, wonderful letters from all over the world, like Poland, France, Sweden, Australia, Portugal, you name it. They’re just tremendous. Some of them I’ve kept over the years and have in a scrapbook, because it’s actual a fun way to travel. I’ll write back and ask, “What’s it like where you live?” I’ve been sent brochures and travel guides and whatnot. This one lady from France sent my wife and I a care package with cookies, Langostino in a jar and chocolates from the Netherlands; just delightful stuff.
That’s always very nice and interesting, but sometimes they’ll make a comment, like for instance when I did The X-Files. It’s the Season 3 episode, “Revelations”, and at first you’re like, “Oh, it’s the scary guy!” But as it develops, you learn that I’m actually a guardian angel and that this other person is trying to get at this young kid who is hiding away at my house and whom I’m trying to protect. And the fans will see that performance and they’ll mention it in the letters they write or in some of the blogs that I read.
I appreciate that the fans are a lot smarter than actors give them credit for, and they do enjoy seeing you stretch and get emotionally connected to your character. Just yesterday, as a matter of fact, there was a review on a movie called Brutal, originally entitled The Blackwater Valley Serial Killer, with Jeffrey Combs. Ethan Wiley wrote and directed it. They gave it one star, and rightfully so, since it could have been so much better. But [the review] mentioned the films’ weaknesses and clichés, but at the end, they say, “By the way, there’s Michael Berryman, and to see someone who is pretty much typecast in these roles embrace his role and bring some humanity and emotional depth to it.” That makes me smile because I work very hard, even if it’s a crappy role or a mediocre film.
If a scene has merit, and I can see that merit, when that camera rolls- I know my lenses and composition, since I work with my camera people and focus pullers- but I give it my all and sometimes people go, “Wow. That was really, really nice.” I like doing that. The movie Below Zero, with Eddie Furlong (which is playing at Calgary Horror-Con with a Q+A afterwards) is an excellent example of my abilities to get really emotionally involved in a fear role and bring that emotion forward.
I also have a video on Youtube from Suze Lanier-Bramlett, who was the original Krissy on Three’s Company and was Brenda in The Hills Have Eyes. She happens to be my neighbor here in LA and she’s also a musician, and she released a cautionary song about the dangers of online dating. It’s called “Watch What You Ask For,” and also on Youtube, I’ve gotten a lot of good notes for a comedic web series called Hell’s Kitty. It’s about a guy with a possessed cat, and I show up on Episode 10 as Detective Pluto, and we have a lot of fun with it, and it’s getting some buzz. It’s nice to work with some younger, creative people that are up-and-coming because it’s exciting, and it helps keeps me young.
DIABOLIQUE: You’ve worked with an array of filmmakers over the years, including Milos Forman, Wes Craven and Rob Zombie. Is there anything you’ve noticed over the years, in terms of professional workmanship, that has changed between the filmmakers you worked with at the beginning of your career and the filmmakers you work with now?
BERRYMAN: That’s a very excellent question. I’d say yes. These days, a lot of those independent directors pay homage to the genre, firstly. Secondly, the financial backing who fund these movies and allow these people to be creative sometimes harm their efforts. By that I mean they want to get too much done in too short of a period of time. I think a lot of filmmakers these days work on modest budgets but don’t realize they have to invest the money in pre-production time. I can’t tell you how valuable that is. They need to bring in their crew, set up a lot of shots and make those technical decisions before you bring in your actors. Then, when you’re ready, maybe spend a whole day on just blocking and maybe have a basic discussion on blocking and how you’d like to make a couple of scenes look; maybe have some storyboards so that your crew can have a visual.
One or two days to do that with your actors is like sitting down and having a readthrough, although they don’t do that anymore. [Pre-production] creates a much better film, and you’ll make your money back on the day of shooting when you can count on your crew and having set up everything a day prior, you won’t have anyone sitting down and scratching their head. All of the ideas for shots and angles and the look of the scene should be kicked around at least once [before shooting], and that would raise the bar tremendously. So many times, I’ll see films that are so worried about how the special effects are going to work or how the film is going to sell in different markets for distribution, and there’s been times where directors are too focused on special effects but don’t give it enough time to practice them, so they don’t come off right well enough. Then, those directors go, “Oh well, you only gave me so much money for one of these.”
So pre-production will save you a lot of money and can give you a better project by the end. I’ve seen it many times over the decades and it’s been a major problem of mine when people take a good script and dumb it down and not spend any money on pre-production, so you end up with a weaker film.
DIABOLIQUE: Aside from the Calgary Horror Con, what else are you looking forward to in the future? Do you have any projects that are either in development or awaiting release?
BERRYMAN: Yes! I’m awaiting the release of Army of the Damned. I just heard that the dailies are looking great, and that was a fun project. I’ve also worked with a filmmaker out here in Los Angeles named Landon Williams, whose production company is called Primitive Minds. That film is called SuperZero, and it’s about this loser who wears a Superman costume and lives in this rundown apartment, and I play the apartment manager. But we took out some guerilla cameras and went out to Hollywood Boulevard, and we filmed a few scenes. It’s a short film but it’s tremendous. Landon’s ability to put so much into a scene, even without dialogue, and have you feel the emotion from his choice of colors and textures is amazing.
I’ve got a stack of about 12 scripts on my desk here, and they’re not really greenlit yet, so I can’t really say too much. But there’s one called Monster School, and Gunnar Hansen is going to be involved in that. But I’d say watch out for SuperZero, “Watch What You Ask For” and Hell’s Kitty. Also, there’s a DVD called Hollywood Insider Secrets – Horror & Special FX Make-up that I do the wrap-around for, and I do the whole, “Hello, I’m Michael Berryman! I sound like I’m from another planet!” But there’s some really neat stuff when they do the special effects, so look for that. Otherwise, I’m working on my life story in my book, and that’ll be very interesting. I grew up in LA, and my father was a surgeon stationed out in Nagasaki, but he came home, had a child, which was me, and I had major birth defects. Gee, is there a connection? You betcha. I’ll also be talking about some other stuff that’ll be interesting to your readers.
You can see Berryman alongside his Army of the Damned co-star Tony Todd as well as Tom Savini, Cleve Hall, Patricia Tallman, Jessica Cameron, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Linnea Quigley and Bill Moseley at Calgary Horror-Con which takes place from Saturday, August 3rd to Sunday, August 4th at Hotel Blackfoot in Calgary, AB. For more on Calgary Horror-Con, and to purchase tickets, please visit the con’s official website, and you can visit their official Facebook and follow them on Twitter: @YYCHorrorCon. For more on Calgary Horror Con, keep checking back here at Diaboliquemagazine.com!
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.