An interview by Michael-Oliver Harding
Don’t get us wrong. At this point, nothing the former Black Flag/Rollins Band frontman takes on will ever come across as ‘against type’. This restless jack-of-all-trades performs spoken word, espouses political causes, hosts radio and television shows and the list goes on. But with the deadpan He Never Died – the eminently quotable punk-rock icon’s first leading role in a feature film – Henry Rollins can now add “darkly comedic cannibalism thriller” to his resume.
In this Toronto-shot criminal delight, writer/director Jason Krawczyk makes shrewd use of the actor’s intimidating presence, while subverting our expectations of what Rollins as a biblically-old, bingo-binging, socially inept anti-hero might play as. In the lead-up to our February 20 In Conversation event and film screening, we reached out to Henry to chat about immortality, normal folk and pulverizing all expectations.
Your character, Jack, buys blood packs on the black market to temper his cannibalistic urges. It brings to mind Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston's sophisticated vampire lovers in Only Lovers Left Alive, or even the self-aware, sensitive zombies in recent romcom Warm Bodies. Do you think our recent embrace of more nuanced depictions of 'monster' figures says something about the world we live in?
I think that one of the reasons the vampire/undead theme works well decade after decade has a lot to do with the one thing we all have in common, which is mortality. The idea of beating it, of immortality, is interesting to a lot of people. It would be an ultimate power. I don’t know if the embrace is all that recent. It plays into some religions as well, Heaven, Hell, reincarnation, etc. I think all of that plays against the idea that all people will eventually pass. Jason [Krawczyk], He Never Died’s creator wrote the screenplay off the idea that all these vampire types were so good looking and their problems were kind of cool. His idea was to make someone who can’t die somewhat ruined by eternity, an unattractive character. That’s Jack.
Your character may be a vegetarian who neither drinks nor does drugs (to the disenchantment of his estranged daughter), but he's also done with worrying about the fate of the world. He's been around for centuries and has seen it all—wars, plagues, famines. A recent column of yours for The Guardian leads me to believe you relate to Jack's hopelessness...
Absolutely. In both serious and unserious ways. Humanity is wonderful of course but also ruinous, violent and pathetic. There is a lot to like about people and a lot to despise. This can lead to someone feeling like Jack now and then. Jack can’t get out of it. When I read the script, I laughed through a lot of it and many of those moments come through in the film.
He Never Died marks your debut lead role in a feature film. You fully commit to your character's beastly behaviour, as in a particularly memorable scene where your character laps up blood off his kitchen floor like a wildcat way past the point of starvation. You strike me as someone who always goes above and beyond, fully investing himself in the projects he takes on. Where does that come from?
It comes from a few places. I think that when you show up to do something, you either go at it full on or don’t show up at all. I am determined to exceed all expectations and make those who hired me glad they did. It’s how you pay back the trust that someone has put in you. Also, and this is a large part of every single thing I do—is vengeance. Almost every teacher, parent, person I went to school with, grew up with, was in bands with—I am looking to pulverize them, over and over. When I think of things that way, there is hardly anything I won’t go after.
After writer/director Jason Krawczyk offered you the part, you apparently checked in with him every few weeks, curious to know whether the project was really moving forward. Why the apprehension? Have you seen many passion projects self-combust over the years?
Mainly because they were using me to gather funds. I can’t see anyone with money wanting to put it into a project with me as the principal. I am still surprised they raised dollar one. And yes, I have seen really great projects like He Never Died, scripts that should have really been made, TV shows that should have been made, go nowhere for all kinds of reasons. It’s crazy sometimes when you see what doesn’t get made and what does.
You've travelled to many festivals with He Never Died and have described horror fans as your favourite crowd. Why is that?
Because they are intense and have showed up for an extreme experience and want to have fun. This is not necessarily the Merchant Ivory crowd. When a film goes hard, the audience appreciates it. They are like a great rock audience. When the band goes off, they are gratified. I like being around this kind of person. They are not clogged up.
In the film, Jack counters the comment that he's "out there" with a caution: "It's the normal ones you have to be careful about." Based on your experiences, would you tend to agree with Jack?
Yes. They often think small and that can be dangerous. Normal people buy into normal patterns; they fear change and anything they don’t understand. Those are things I run toward.
It’s been reported that Krawczyk has written a full season for a TV miniseries based on your He Never Died anti-hero. Any developments on that front? Should we expect to find Jack revisiting centuries of human despair on the small screen any time soon?
He has. I have read two episodes and they are pretty amazing. I don’t know what they have achieved as far as securing a future for the story but hopefully, they will include me if anything goes forward. I think it would be great to return to that mindset.
He Never Died screens on February 20 at 6:30 PM.