It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Rutger Hauer became a cultural icon. The Dutch actor began his career with a series of successful TV shows and films in his home country, often working with his friend, director Paul Verhoeven, which put him on the map. And his performance in Blade Runner as the poetically inclined killer replicant Roy Batty is now legendary, but that film was initially a flop. Despite having appeared in his share of acclaimed art films, Hauer’s appearances in violent genre flicks in the eighties may well have been what cemented his status with a generation of moviegoers. The next couple of weeks will show the still insanely prolific actor at his full range: He’s got two movies at Sundance, including the much-buzzed-about neo-grindhouse flick Hobo With a Shotgun, as well as the drama The Mill and the Cross, about a Brueghel painting. Hauer also appears in this weekend’s The Rite, an exorcism thriller co-starring Anthony Hopkins. The actor took some time with us to go through his epic filmography, and give us his thoughts and impressions about some of his best-known (and not so well-known) performances.
“A big start for me, absolutely. But it was a complete and very beautiful success that nobody expected. We weren’t making the film for the world, we were making it because we found the money and the right people were available.
It’s one of those films that starts one way, and then it sucks you in and it goes a completely different way. It’s based on a very popular book in Holland that was basically literature, very well known. The movie, when it came out, was banned for a while — but the kids had the book on their reading lists at school! And when you ban a film, it tends to help the film. This was a big hit in Europe, and in the most conservative countries it ran the longest. In the U.S., there was some mention that it might be nominated for an Oscar, but then the Academy members found out it had all this nudity and people started to get worried. But thanks to this film a lot of people in Europe knew who I was, who Paul Verhoeven was.”
“Paul Verhoeven starts from scratch every time, and I admire him for it. He’s a very faithful man, but he’s also very honest in terms of what he wants. He doesn’t necessarily always work with people he worked with before. For this film, he didn’t call me. I called him and I said, ‘Do you not think I would have a chance for this?’ And he said, ‘I must say, I didn’t think of you, but if you want to come in, do a screen test and we’ll see.’ And I guess whatever I did in the screen test he liked.
I became friends with the man whose life it’s based on and who wrote the book. I did go out of my way to see if we could make it more of a human movie than a war movie. It’s about six young characters who try to survive and fight under the boot of German suppression. It was exciting to make, and it was the movie that really got me noticed in America.”
“It was my first American film, and I played this very deadly terrorist. The terrorist thing was very new — not so much to Europeans, because we’d had quite a few incidents before that, but definitely to Americans. The whole concept of the terrorist in that movie is that he’s not stupid — that was kind of a new idea, too. In American movies back then, the bad guys often had to be stupid; otherwise, they were too dangerous. And I thought it’d be charming to make him as dangerous as he could be. Most of the real bad guys in the world are people like you and me; they’re not stupid, and you can’t smell their horns. That’s different now. We are very different now in terms of our conception of what’s dangerous — that’s completely changed.”
“You really can’t say enough about Blade Runner. For that movie to have such a long life — you can’t describe what a beautiful feeling that is. Initially, the movie was out of theaters in something like two weeks. But the people that wanted it back — the fans — they really saved it. I do remember that the film kept showing up in different versions and different formats — video, laser disc, DVD, etc. — and finally, 25 years later, in Venice, I got to see it as Ridley meant it to be. There’s a great documentary about it called Dangerous Days, and it’s almost as good as the movie itself.”
“I worked hard to get rid of my European accent for this film. Sam Peckinpah was wonderful — he directed with his eyebrows, in a way. He didn’t say, ‘Can you do it a little more like this?’ or whatever. He just looked at you with these smiling eyes, like, ‘Is that all you can do?’ And you’d say, ‘No,’ and then you’d go again. He would fuck around with you. I liked that game. It didn’t bother me. Not everybody liked that, though, because it didn’t help them. He was always challenging you to do better.
What Sam was trying to say with that movie … he was so goddamn ahead of his time. This is a movie about when somebody in the middle of the TV industry realizes that the news is just a show for the commercials. So everything serves the commercials and money. I don’t know, though, that Sam managed to make that statement, in the end.”
“Paul Verhoeven and I had started out years ago doing this series Floris that was kind of set in the Middle Ages, but this was about as different from that as possible. This was a much darker look at that world. It was actually inspired by a book by Barbara Tuchman called A Distant Mirror, which basically said, ‘Do you think these are hard times you’re living in? Let me take you back to the Middle Ages and tell you stories about how hard it was. And then you make up your mind.’ That was the real basis of the film. It was all about survival. Not dying from an open wound in your leg, ‘cause there’s no penicillin. Dying from hunger and plague. But that’s Paul — he likes to dig for other things.”
“I remember talking to Dick Donner over lunch in L.A. He said, ‘We have this beautiful story, and we’d like you to play a part in it.’ I thought the lead role of the knight was a great part, but they’d already signed Kurt Russell to do it. And they asked me to do the part that Ken Hutchison eventually did — a nasty fucker, basically. I said to Dick, ‘I don’t know, there are a lot of people that can play that. If you want to think of me as a knight, then let me know.’ And he called me eight months later, and asked, ‘Are you still interested in that role? I’m in Italy, I’m in the middle of production, and I just found out that Kurt Russell and I can’t quite get it together, and I need a new lead.’ And I said, ‘Dick, I can be there in three days.’ And I took my trailer and I drove to Italy and I parked it in front of the studios there, and I said, ‘I’m here. Let’s go.’
It’s a very special, very strange movie. The sword fights, the work with the horses, the sweet love story with Pfeiffer, this very strange fairy tale with photography by Vittorio Storaro. They hadn’t shot sound much in Italy before that, so it was really a nuthouse much of the time, because you couldn’t hear yourself talk. They had to really shut people down: ‘Come on, we’re recording sound here, please be quiet for a minute!’ But it was great. I got to travel in Italy for the first time. It had so many different styles in it. Matthew Broderick was very modern, and then Pfeiffer hardly said a word but was amazing, and then I had to speak in a kind of knighthood language.”
“It’s a fairy tale of the darkest kind. I guess you can call it a nightmare. I had this memory of a Grimm fairy tale about a guy who went out into the world to learn about fear. And I feel like my demon in this film was basically around to teach this kid about fear. Not to teach him to be a man or a gunslinger or a killer, mind you — just to teach him fear. The script was amazing. It was very tight — you couldn’t change a word. Robert Harmon was a first-time director, and we had great chemistry. We wanted to make it more haunting, and also more funny, in a way. It’s still one of my favorites. I didn’t see the remake. It didn’t seem to have the magic of the film we made.”
“A lot of people like this movie. It’s kind of a silly movie, but I loved doing it. These were some very physical films I was making around this time, like Blind Fury, Salute of the Jugger, etc. Up to this period I was a very physically fit guy. Physically, Blind Fury was the hardest one to do, because I had to be so fit to do all that stuff. It was also the last action part I did, because I got injured and just felt like I couldn’t do these kinds of parts anymore. I was getting too old for them. I’m not a fan of movies in which older guys go around kicking people’s asses. I thought maybe I should try and find other things to act in. So I had to make the cross from being a European action movie actor to a different kind of actor — that was not so easy.
There was this long period when I was making a lot of shit. I don’t even remember all of it. Let’s see … [begins clicking through his filmography on his computer] … The Prince of the Desert, that was a piece of shit. The script was so bad, and every day we worked on it it got worse. Wedlock, that was kind of fun. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that was great fun. Surviving the Game, Blind Side, those were fun. Mr. Stitch, that was a piece of shit. Omega Doom, not so great. Precious Find, bullshit. Blast, bullshit.
There was this movie called Jungle Juice that never got released, because the director didn’t know what he was doing. But I loved working with Christopher Walken on it.
Mirror Wars, bullshit. Minotaur, okay, for the rent. Hunt for Eagle One, that was for the rent … “
“Total shit. I’m not even sure if this one got released. The film got stuck in the claws of the producers. As we’re making the film, you realize that it’s not working. You point at the director, you point at the story, you point at what they’re trying to do. You see that some of the actors are doing something completely different. It doesn’t make any sense. The whole thing becomes a comedy.”
“Jesus, I love that film. Robert Rodriguez and I hit it off right away. I’m in this story where Mickey Rourke’s character is looking for the killer of his one love. And I played this wacky gay fart called the Cardinal. Together with Elijah Wood, who is his boyfriend, they basically eat homeless hookers. Making a character like that fly was not so easy. I asked Robert if I could do it sort of as a wink to my all-time favorite actor, Marlon Brando, in Apocalypse Now. Then I had to work with Mickey Rourke, who had basically shot his part eight months ago. It was an interesting way of working. I loved it. I basically had to do an extended monologue. Robert did something amazing on that film. I mean, he really put what was in his head on the screen, and all these actors came and danced with him and helped him realize it. All that bubbled on the screen. And then for the film to take the audience by storm the way it did — nobody saw that coming.”
“In the same year I was doing two big cartoon movies — Sin City and Batman Begins — that were my first two hits in a long time. Christopher Nolan and I talked about the character a bit, and I said that I’d like to play him like a captain on a big flight. This is a big corporate guy who’s not used to losing. He’s a winner. He’s confident. And in a way, when the Christian Bale character turns things around on him, he kind of admires that.
Watching Christopher Nolan work was delightful. It’s great to see how much a director can bring to a set. He’s probably the director I admired the most of the ones I’ve worked with. He is so gentle and so knowledgeable and so focused. You feel completely at ease in his arms.”
“It is one wacky piece of material. They made the film as an excuse, because they wanted to make the film in Halifax, and they found a producer, and they put all their friends in the movie, because they all loved the movies. First-time director — we got along so well. I met him on Skype and decided right then that I would do it.
It was a physical role — cold streets, I’m homeless, what do you expect. It’s a Western at heart, but it’s also a Cirque du Soleil kind of crazy town that it’s set in. The place is full of assholes, everybody’s on drugs and stealing. And this hobo character decides he’s going to clean up the town, and starts shooting them one by one. It’s a graffiti movie, but it’s also like opera. Every scene is like a little opera, but without singing. It’s so over the top.
Nobody ever thought it would find a release. We thought maybe we’d put it out clip by clip and then people can put it together themselves. But for it to get a spot at Sundance — that’s heaven. It’s a disgusting movie, and people will know it. It’s very honest, it’s very funny, and it’s very angry. Some people will love it, and some people will hate it. On the other hand, I have another movie at Sundance called The Mill and the Cross, and it’s about one painting by Brueghel.”