Henry Rollins has stayed insanely active since more-or-less leaving music. The former Black Flag/Rollins Band singer has written books, he hosts a History Channel series, he does spoken word, he speaks for LGBT rights, and he’s acted in projects like Sons of Anarchy and David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Regardless of the volume of his work, Rollins doesn’t take anything lightly.
So when you realize that his just-released latest film, He Never Died, is his first starring role, you know the movie must be something… different.
Melding elements of crime, revenge, the supernatural and — most importantly — dark-as-hell and dry-as-a-desert comedy, He Never Died is a wry, bloody tale of a man’s reluctant quest to save his daughter from mafia clutches.
Okay, “man” isn’t accurate — He Never Dies never explicitly states what Rollins’ Jack character is, but with a resume that goes back centuries and a knack for taking down assailants with the ease most people apply to browsing an iPhone, it’s clear something is different with Jack. In fact, the only time he seems to lose his temper is when he lets loose, goes ahead and eats one of his would-be killers.
In New York to promote his film and drum up interest in turning the low-budget but high-quality indie film into a TV series, Rollins sat down with Billboard from the 11th floor of a Meatpacking District hotel to discuss how he got involved with such a bizarre film, why he can relate to his character’s world-weariness, and why he would happily take a bullet for his pal and fellow punk veteran Ian MacKaye.
At first I thought this film would be a sort of revenge-action film, but actually it’s very funny, although some people might not realize it immediately. What was your first reaction when you read the script?
I laughed. I laughed at all the parts you would laugh at in the movie. I was at Joe’s Pub before a show in the Lower East Side, and the woman who runs my office sent me a PDF and said, “I just read this, stop what you’re doing and read this — it’s amazing.” I read the script and agreed. I wrote her back and said, “This is hilarious, terrifying and I’ve never read anything like it. It’s really cool.” And she said, “They love you for Jack, they want to give you the part, the director and producer want to meet you tomorrow, they’re in New York.”
I said hell yeah. Met them — Jason [Krawczyk], the director and creator, and Zach [Hagen], the producer — 24 hours later. Just cool people, honest people, and you know they’re going to get it done. I said, “Was I supposed to laugh at this part, this part, this part”? And they said “yes” and I said, “Okay, we’re on the same page.”
I said, “I really want to do this.” And Jason said, “Well, I wrote the part with you in mind. And I said, “Gee, thanks Jason, a monster who eats people with no morality whatsoever — thanks a lot. So you see what I do and that’s what you get from it?” He said, “No, I knew you could understand the violence and funny part at the same time.” I said, “Yes, that I totally get, I’m in.” And Zach went about getting the money and troops to get this done.
Every few weeks he’d check in and I’d say, “Am I really going to do this?” Because I’m used to getting pitched on stuff that’s really cool and then it never happens — just my luck. He was like, “No, we’re doing this, so stay in harness.”
So I prepared 11 months for this part. I read the script over and over. By autumn of 2013, we were casting, and I helped, and helped with some of the soundtrack. And it was like, damn, this is gonna go. And before you know it we’re in Toronto and I’m fine-tuning Jack’s character, working with the stunt team. Jack is a guy who’s been fighting for years, so everything is really efficient. Everything he does is real small. You pull a knife out, he’ll walk up, take the knife and break your neck. And so it’s all close quarter, highly efficient. He’s not into killing you. He just wants you to leave him alone. Break your neck, maybe eat your arm.
Like with any indie film, everyone works until they’re cross-eyed with exhaustion, and this was no different. Thankfully the crew and actors and actresses were fantastic. The two female leads, Kate [Greenhouse] and Jordan [Todosey], the waitress and the daughter, were amazing actresses and good people. And so much is demanded of them. It was a joy to show up every day. A year later, the damn thing is all edited and sweetened up. And I’ve watched it three times, which his different for me. I usually don’t watch anything I’m in. I don’t want to watch them — I want to make them.
Even when I use to make records, the only time I’d listen to them was when I’d produce them. So I gotta listen to it 80 million times mixing and mastering, but past that, I’m not interested in anything I do. And I write books, and that’s years of making the book and editing. And then one day, it’s in your hand, and it’s like, “Damn I started this four and a half years ago.” We get it back from the publishing company, I look at it for a minute, put it on the shelf, and the next time I’ll touch it is when I’m signing it for someone. But with this one I’ve watched it a few times and quite liked it.
You host a History show called 10 Things You Don’t Know About and you’re a big history buff. Part of this character is that he’s lived through centuries of human history.
Totally. He made it.
Is that part of what made this character so appealing for you?
Oh yeah, it informed his physicality and the way he speaks. He’s a weary monster. He’s been around for centuries. You know what it’s like — you’re in New York for two days and it’s like okay, I can’t take it. He’s had centuries of humanity. War, famine, plague, incarceration — you heard his job description in the movie, “a lot of war, a lot of jail time” — and so humanity has worn him out. That’s what informs the way he talks, kills, sleeps. He’s just a thing. He takes his carcass, throws it in a chair, makes it watch TV. Because eternity, for him, sucks. He was done a thousand years ago. But he can’t die. He’s furious, he wants to go, and that’s his existential crisis and what appealed to me most about the character.
So when I met Zach and Jason I said, “So he’s bored, right?” “Oh, intensely,” they said. In the violent scenes, I wasn’t like, “I’m gonna get you.” It was “gun has to go, neck goes.” It was utilitarian. He’s killed people for hundreds of years. There’s no heat involved. To me all that’s hilarious.
Everyone around him is very much alive — they’re excited to live. Like the guy who wants to talk to him who gives him the blood [played by Booboo Stewart] But Jack is like a junkie, he scores his blood and he’s gone. He’s like that with everybody except the waitress and the daughter. He’s a 99 percent monster. He kills people with no emotion. But he realizes his daughter is in trouble because of something he did, and this waitress at the diner is a good person who needs a break. And he can help her. He has a drawer full of hundreds.
So he turns his whole life upside down for these people. For maybe the only time in his life, he does the right thing. Rescues the girl who’s been kidnapped and changes the life of the life of a good person who’s always nice to him and never judged him. I’m not saying there’s hope of Jack being redeemed, I love the fact that he’s just horrible, but the 1 percent that is analog is drawn out of them by the two women, the two strongest people in the film. The 99 percent awful is what draws you in to the movie, but what makes it go is the 1 percent not-so bad. It forms the drama of the thing. Rarely does a guy like me get a script as interesting as this.
This was your first starring role in a movie. Did you have any trepidation about that? And have you been holding back on starring in a film because you were waiting for the right role?
No, across the board. I had no trepidation, but let me defend that. Not because I’m some big deal and can do anything, but I had 11 months to prepare. I’m used to small parts. However, everything I do, I do with the same amount of intensity. If I do an interview, I’m present — I’m not high, I’m right with you right now. If I do a talking show, I want that to be the best show I’ve ever done. If I’m in your movie for two days, I’m giving it everything I’ve got. If I walk in and die for 7 seconds [in a movie], I’m giving you everything I got.
So by the time it was shoot day, I was Jack. I asked the director so many questions. For me, I loved showing up every day. When you’re supported by such great acting talent, Jordan and Kate, I was in their jet streams. The mortals in the film have to carry it.
Jack is very weary of the world. Can you relate to that?
Absolutely. I don’t give up on humans, but I travel a lot. I’m recognizable. And a lot of people I don’t know talk to me — a lot. And that’s fine. I’ve been signing autographs and going, “Yes, I’m shorter in person, that’s why you didn’t immediately recognize me” since I was 18. I’m 55. And I get talked to in every hotel lobby, every airport, most restaurants. Even in airplanes, the pilot will come out, [whisper] “Hey you want to come into the cockpit?” I’ve had a life of going to the grocery store and it’s “hey man!” I’m not trying to impress you. I come from punk rock where anyone wants to meet you, you meet them. I’m not thinking I’m a big deal.
But people have confessed war crimes to me, people have confessed murder to me, they’ve told me about when they were raped, how they cleaned up. I’ve met famous serial killers throughout the mail. All kinds of people have told me all kinds of things, and that can really tire you out on humanity. People have really pulled down their drawers, said “Here’s what I did,” and you’re like, “You’re an awful person.” And some of it is quite upsetting. I’ve seen a lot of… did a lot of USO work. Iraq, Afghanistan. I wasn’t in danger — talent they keep hundreds of miles out of danger — but I did do a lot of visits to Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital. You walk into a room and it’s, “Alright, half your face is gone, good to meet you, glad you have a right hand to shake” “Leg gone, but hey, at least you got the knee.” You do that for four hours at a time, which I did for years, and it’s hard to get yourself off the floor after that. So Jack struck me as someone who’s seen way too much.
But Jack screwed up. He shouldn’t have invented murder. He’s one of those original sin guys, got in on the ground floor. His character’s story line is he screwed up in a huge way and gave us the misery we endure today, as far as the Bible says.
Part of the movie is that Jack has just found out he has a daughter. But you don’t have any kids.
Nope, I have no kids.
So how did you prepare for the idea of suddenly finding out you were a father?
I snapped back into the fact that I do have some human responsibility. I do have employees who I really like, some have been with me for 20 years and they’re very good people. And I have a best friend, Ian MacKaye of the bands Fugazi and Minor Threat, we’ve been best friends since he was 11 and I was 12. He’s just an amazing person. He cannot only have half of anything of mine, he can have all of it. If there’s a bullet going through the air toward him, I will gladly step in front of it. My God, please let it be me. He’s got way more going on than I do.
I live alone, I’m not that close to people on a day-to-day basis, but there’s people I care about. That’s what I tapped into to consider I have a daughter. That’s the 1 percent of Jack that’s not so bad.
And you guys are hoping to turn this into a TV show, right?
Jason, our wonderfully creative writer and director, has written a full season. The way they always wanted to do it was to shoot a really amazing pilot, this movie, and go, “Okay, you like the movie, now give us the budget for a TV show.” We — me, Jason and Zach — have been pitching this as a TV show until our little arms are sore. We’ve finished a ton of pitching. The initial meetings, either everyone is being polite or they really like it. A season is written, I’ve read two episodes, and it’s insane. It’s wild and I want to do it so bad. Since you have all of human history to work with, go nuts. I think people would dig it. But we’ll see.
He Never Died is in theaters now.