Michael Berryman Interview

By Vyeto Malesh
With a career spanning thirty years at the time of this writing, Michael Berryman has proven to be one of the most enduring character actors in the business, starting with a small part as the coroner in Doc Savage: Man of Bronze and most recently as Clevon in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. Michael is probably best known for his terrifying, pitiless interpretation of the character “Pluto” in Wes Craven’s The Hill’s Have Eyes as well as his numerous television and movie appearances, unnerving viewers with his characteristic bald pate and penetrating, unsettling gaze.

I met up with Michael on Friday, where he agreed to an interview after a dinner of beer and barbeque ribs. Fully expecting to be devoured in an orgy of stoic and implacable blood lust, I sat down at Berryman’s table where he gave me a few moments of his time between signing autographs for eager fans where instead we discussed his career, politics, censorship, and insane asylum raves.

Vyeto:

Alright, here at Twisted Nightmare Weekend, I get the sublime pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Michael Barryman and I gotta be honest with you, I was a little disappointed when I first met you ‘cause it turns out you’re genuinely a nice guy and fun to hang out with. I was hoping you’d be as disturbing and creepy as you often are in the movies.

MB:

Well, I can do that you know, it’s not in my contract that I can be a monster then I ain’t gonna be a monster, but, thank you actually, that’s a nice compliment. Yeah, it’s fun to be somebody you’re not, to bring a character to life.

VM:

What got you started acting in the first place? You were telling me great stories the other day about your non-acting jobs but…

MB:

Yeah, yeah, I actually had a non-acting business; I had a plant shop in Venice Beach (CA), a customer walked in and it happened to be George Powell from Warner Brothers, and he produced War of the Worlds …{He was} a Real classy, classy, traditional Hollywood producer, and he was gracious enough to give me a two-day guarantee so I could get into the Screen Actor’s Guild and gave me some good lines, and a nice scene in Doc Savage: Man of Bronze and…I just thought It would be some spare change, I didn’t think it would be much of anything I could do after that having not had a family…my Dad was a doctor, my Mom a nurse and we did know other actors; we knew, um, oh gosh…I went to grammar school with Red Skelton’s son, the Lawford’s kids went there, Paris Hilton’s dad was in my class, the Montgomery’s, Tony Caruso…gosh, there was a whole bunch of people from Television, mainstream Television, Walt Disney stuff like that. So I was around it but never ever thought that I would do that for a living. I was getting ready to homestead in Alaska…I wanted to move up there because…

VM:

It’s beautiful country.

MB:

Oh yeah, it’s beautiful country, I love nature, I’m a big…if you say ‘animal rights’ they think you’re a wack, but actually I wanted to be a veterinarian but my hands are kind of crippled so I couldn’t really do work on animals, that other stuff so I kinda got involved in the arts and when I went to college art was my major. I took a break from college because I actually put myself through and started a little plant shop hoping I could make a living at it but then George gave me an opportunity and the casting director from Doc Savage was casting for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so I got a phone call …”Do you have an agent” and they said “come and meet Michael Douglas” and I did, so next thing you know I was doing work on this wonderful film for like four months, then I got an agent

VM:

And now here we are.

(Michael takes time out to sign a copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for a fan)

MB:

Jack still had hair and was a lot younger there. Heh. That was just fantastic because I started to realize … I was curious about how … I realized that there was going to be two weeks of rehearsal for major scenes with camera, lighting and stuff to get a feel for it…Everybody was hand-picked basically. It was incredible, we were kind of hoping Ken Kesey would show up …

VM:

So Ken Kesey didn’t have anything to do with the production of the film?

MB:

No, I understood that when Michael Douglas told me that ken was upset because the movie was not through the eyes of the chief, it was McMurphy who was the main character, well, it bothered him and Michael said that Ken wrote a screen play and it was Voluminous, I think that’s the word…it was a lot of words.

VM:

Really big.

MB:

Really big! Ha…you’re a writer? And it was…they couldn’t use it, he didn’t know how to write a screenplay and I guess his feelings got hurt or whatever, and we were really hoping he would (show up) because it would have been just fantastic to have Ken come by the set.

(Michael signs another autograph for a fan, who asks how much)

Ten bucks, and (to the recorder) yes, I do pay my taxes.

Anyway, he never showed up.

As we got more and more involved in the film, we realized that…we were filming at Oregon State hospital, the doctor was the administrator of that hospital, the patients were (real) patients from the third floor where we went up, where Jack went up to get electro-shock; those were all real patients, and the guards were real patients. The kid looking through the window was an arsonist who had torched a church with people in it. During our time, we had to spend an hour at a time with different inmates and, and they would lock us in the room with them. We were on the criminally insane ward for a while, then we would go to the geriatrics ward, and then to the kids, so there’s a whole culture at the hospital.

They even had tunnels underground so when the weather was bad or you had a lobotomy that didn’t work on you they would transfer you through these tunnels; well they became where the kids would party and the patients would actually sneak away and try to have some semblance of human culture. It was a real thought-provoking, emotive, “what is humanity”, how do we treat one another … like Ronald Regan let all the people who weren’t incarcerated in the institution be able to sign themselves out and they became our homeless in California; and it did no service, it did no justice. So the movie was more than just, just making a movie. It was about life, it was … and that being my second job that just caught my interest profoundly, so I thought maybe it would be great to play other roles and the next story I got to do was Pluto; it went from a fantasy, pulp, Doc Savage two-day job to four months, Cuckoo’s Nest, winning all the Oscars having people show up from all over the world, dada this, dada that, and next thing you know I’m running around, a cannibal, the best Drive-in feature ever, thank you Wes and Peter.

We were kind of winging it, it was kind of cool. Especially as we got into the movie we had…the wihitebread family and Dee and everybody, they would have their meals separate from the cannibal family, Janet and the rest of us, and it just became this strange splitting of the seed. We had two elements going on and it really played well in the rest of the picture.

VM:

Sounds like you were all really into your characters, even keeping that up around the set.

MB:

We would invite them over, but we would tease them because they were like TV actors, where you come home at the end of the day, you’re at your house and you can clean the grit off; well this was like camping in the desert and you’d go back to the hotel but you still…it was a gritty experience, not the typical Hollywood experience so much.

(Michael takes a break to pose for pictures and sign autographs for fans).

MB:

Strangest question (referring to an earlier interview): Do you really eat babies?

(Laughter from fans)

VM:

Well come on buddy, answer the question!

MB:

I says no…but I do have Doggie Flashbacks. Besides, you should keep them for a while until they get bigger.

VM:

Yeah, you get more meat that way.

MB:

Yeah, that’s right.

VM:

You say you have the fondest memory of working on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Gimme a close second.

MB:

I got to work with Michael Landon, one of the best professionals in the business.
VM:

Well I told you how you scared the _hell_ out of me with your role as the devil in Highway to Heaven.

MB:

Right, the hoagie Sandwich one.

VM:

Yeah.

MB:

Well, Michael is imposing in the manner of his professionalism. He’s been doing this for a long time, Little Joe and all that, and he really knew the shots, knew what he was doing. He liked to start a day and get done, no overtime, and everybody go home and so there was a lot of pressure to hit your mark, say your lines, and do a perfect job and not cause a take two, take three…

VM:

Sure.

MB:

There was a scene we were having in the first version, the first guest appearance, where it’s Anthony Zerbe, Michael, and Victor French and we’re all having this dialogue, it’s like three pages of dialogue, and you know everybody’s lines you’re kind of waiting, playing it in your head, you’ll say this I’ll say that, and as you study or overstudy sometimes your mind just goes blank and I’m like “Oh my god, I just had a complete lobotomy, I just forgot everything, and everybody’s doing a perfect job and I’ve got about 2 seconds to kick it in or he’s gonna yell cut, and before he…”

(Michael answers a question about a picture, one of him in “revenge of the rock and roll aliens” with Pia Zadora)

…What really was important was the script lady had the script right in front of my nose with a pointer and saying the lines before my line, so in other words Bingo, what does an actor need to know, he needs to know his cue line and his own, and Michael goes “It’s okay, we all forget our lines once in a while” and because Michael had to say “forget our lines” I actually felt bad, but it happens to everybody and he was so nice; he didn’t harp on ya, he just said “well, let’s do it again, are you set” and the gal was right there with the script and I go “well how professional, to have somebody there to help you get through the day” and we got through the scene and went right on to the next scene and at the end of the day, everyone goes home. Michael was just the best, a shame we lose some of the best people like Brandon and Michael.

(Michael signs yet another autograph)

VM:

Tell me a bit, if you would, about working on The Devil’s Rejects.

MB:

I haven’t seen it yet. It was great working with Rob because Rob’s a good director; he knows what he’s doing. He’s a nice guy, a little shorter than I thought he was.

VM:

I hear he wears tall shoes.

MB:

He does. But he walks tall, has a big shadow because the guy really puts the stuff together, you know?

VM:

Yeah, he’s kind of an Icon for us.

MB:

I was very happy to meet him, his wife was lovely, and he knows how to tell a story. His camera shots are well thought out, they’re gorgeous, regardless of the subject matter, you still have to look at it as an art form.

In LA I was watching At the Movies with Ebert and Roper, it was, nice to see them differentiate between the subject matter and the art form of making the film, and they both gave it thumbs up, and I was kind of pleased at their honesty as far as reviewers go. It wouldn’t’ help if they said it shouldn’t be seen by anyone, you know?

VM:

You have to have that separation between cinematography and diegesis, sometimes, or you get someone looking at the total package and ignoring what they could get out of the whole by being offended by part of it.

MB:

Censorship is a strange situation. There was times when people would burn books because they didn’t like what people were doing.

VM:

They still do…if you go to our site, our editor wrote an op-ed piece regarding the burning of a whole bunch of Harry Potter books, down I think In the deep midwest (Note: Southwest, actually)

MB:

And because, he uses magic?

VM:

Yeah, because they think it’s ungodly and anything ungodly is bad, sort of a…

MB:

Well wait a minute, how come they’re not burning their draft cards? Because I thought war and heinous crimes of murder and torture were ungodly. How about that?

VM:

I’m sure it has something to do with the impressionable minds of children or some such bullshit.

MB:

I agree, I agree, see; there’s a very brilliant line in a folk song by Joan Baez, the album was called Baptism, and her husband went to prison because he didn’t believe in killing someone but he would, he said “Look I’ll be a medic” and they said “No, you must kill or you go to prison” and he said “take me to prison because I object. I think there’s a better way to handle international relations” and it’s called Pay-per-View: You go in a cage and the president from that country will go in a cage, and we’ll all sit at home, have a few beers and holler and win or lose, oh well.

I have very strong feelings about the fact that … my philosophy in a nutshell is this: Do no harm to our environment because it’s our home, it’s our planet, and if you say the environment they think you’re a hippie or a tree hugger or a whack or whatever and those are just stupid words to even describe people. We all live on the same planet, it is our only home, so…we used to rotate crops back in the day and, you know, who cares if you’re going to make a profit if everybody’s too dead or glowing in the dark to be able to purchase anything.

So my point is, don’t breed, don’t have children unless you’re going to give them a future and the only way you can set about that quest is to have communities that are safe, schools that are safe, schools that actually teach them, they need to eat good food, need to get fresh air and exercise, and they don’t need to be going to war. Sending our youth to war is wrong.

And religion causes most of the problems, war, and economics of course, and study your history or you’re going to repeat it; and if you’re burning a Harry Potter book you need some serious counseling, you don’t get it, you’re missing the whole point. If your religion is better than mine and your opinion, you have a real problem. You’re not living on planet earth, not dealing with your brothers and sisters which are all people, and God, Jesus, whatever name you give it, I believe, traveled the whole world and said we are all “made in the image of” so get off your high horse and take care of your family, your community, and make a future for your children. That includes not cutting down the rain forest, and stop polluting the ocean because once we kill the coral reefs and the rain forest, this earth is toast.

And pray, really hard, like I do that they don’t push the frickin’ button.

VM:

Well said.

(Michael, yet again, signs an autograph)

The line for you is getting bigger and bigger as we talk here, so before I let you go whattya say you tell me a bit about what this Absence of Light poster is about?

MB:

Well that is a film by Patrick Desmond, and we’ve been working on it bits and pieces actually filming it at some of the hotels that the actresses stayed in, and it’s fun, I’m hoping it will be released soon on DVD because they’re just in the final editing at this stage, but it kind of deals with the New World Order, government, aliens, issues and the conspiracies and stuff like that

VM:

Sounds like our kind of movie. You’ve got my card, get in touch with me when it comes out!