A Conversation With Michael Berryman

When I was first introduced to Michael Berryman it was most likely the same way many other metal head purists from my era had first met him: by seeing his performance as the mean principal in the Mötley Crüe video for the song: “Smokin’ in The Boys Room”.

He was the ideal fit for the foreboding and intimidating figure that roamed the school halls and scared any would be malcontent. Someone you’d never want to meet in a dark alley let alone a principal’s office because a dog ran off with your homework.

Mr. Berryman has built quite an extensive resume of portraying these frightening and intimidating characters. From a mutant biker in “Weird Science” to even the devil himself in an episode of the 1980’s television show “Highway to Heaven“.

He’s been a part of the Star Trek franchise and is also a favorite of director Rob Zombie, having appeared in his films “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005) and the soon to be released “The Lords of Salem”.

But Michael is quite the opposite of the types of characters he portrays on-screen. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that he’s a strong advocate for the environment and leaving something behind for future generations to enjoy.

And here’s something else you might not know: the second film Michael was cast in just happened to be “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson that went on to win five Academy Awards including Best Picture.

But the role Michael is probably best known for is his portrayal of Pluto in the 1977 Wes Craven Film “The Hills Have Eyes”. Considered a cult favorite among horror enthusiasts the film has spawned two sequels (one in 1985 and the other in 1995) and two separate remakes (2006/2007). The original film also ranks #41 on Bravo’s list of 100 Scariest Movie Moments.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Michael and get his thoughts on the Hills as it turns 35. We also discuss the Mötley video, the importance of preserving the environment, his thoughts on working with film legend Jack Nicholson and his newest thriller,
Below Zero“.

goJimmygo (gJg): Hi Michael, this is James Wood, how are you?

Michael Berryman (MB): Pretty good James!

gJg: It’s good to talk with you.

MB: You too!

gJg: Did you ever think that after 35 years people would still be talking about “The Hills Have Eyes“?

MB: Oh gosh, has it been that long? <laughs>

gJg: Isn’t that crazy?

MB: That really is. <laughs>

gJg: How did the role of Pluto come about for you?

MB: Well, I had just gotten home from my second gig which was Cuckoo’s Nest. We had worked 127 days on it and I had really learned a lot. So I came home to Santa Monica and actually had no idea what was going to happen next.

Then one day my agent called me and said he had a part for me to look at for a movie called “Blood Relations”. That was the name of the company but was also originally going to be the title. He said there was a producer named Peter Locke and some director named Wes Craven he wanted me to meet with. So he set up a meeting and I went and met everyone and was handed the script.

They told me it was going to be about a three-week shoot out in the desert north of Los Angeles. I told them that I was already familiar with the area. The temperatures there were always hot in the daytime and cool at night.

So a few days went by and they called my agent and offered me the role.

gJg: Any interesting stories from the set?

MB: I remember the day I went into wardrobe. I met a gal there who was also working on a degree in anthropology at UCLA. I guess you’d say she had some knowledge of the kinds of things a cannibal family might wear.

The necklace she gave me had some cool things on it: a pair of dentures, some bullets. My bracelet was actually comprised of real human teeth that she had gotten from a friend of hers who was a dentist.

We were going for realism and I guess they just figured I had the look for it. <laughs>. They discussed the premise and I said “Ok, let’s have some fun with it.”

gJg: Were there any accidents on the set? I look at the rocky terrain it was filmed on and I could just imagine people twisting their ankles on it.

MB: I was familiar with that area so that wasn’t really a problem. The worst part though was climbing those mountains. No one got hurt but it was very precarious.

One of the biggest issues though as far as people almost being hurt was probably the day we had the rattlesnake on the set. It wasn’t just your typical diamond back, it was a Desert Mojave Green and they are as deadly as a cobra. I mean really, really dangerous.

I remember we were all sitting in the ravine one day having lunch and I noticed that people were jumping out-of-the-way of something. I looked over and saw that the snake had some how gotten out of the cloth while the animal handler was getting something to eat.

Now here’s the scary part: one of the actresses actually picked it up and handed it back to him and he almost fainted. Wes and Peter were freaking out.

Fortunately, what the handler had done was taken some thin line and looped it through the jaw of the snake over the bone so it couldn’t get its jaws open far enough for fangs. But still…

gJg: Still scary!

MB: Yes it was. So he took care of that and then I asked him: “Why a Mojave Green?” and he said, “Well, its actually my pet.”

So I knew right then that he was a whack job. <laughs>

gJg: Do you see anyone from the movie anymore?

MB: Well, I actually have. I ran into Janus (Blythe who portrayed Ruby) a few years ago. Once in a blue moon I’ll run into some others.

I saw Peter Locke (producer) a few years ago in LA when they were getting ready for the first remake of The Hills Have Eyes (2006). Peter told me he’d see me in Morocco. The only problem with that was the director didn’t want me. So I’m not sure why they even bothered to call me in.

gJg: Anyone else?

MB:  I’ve run into Dee (Wallace, who portrayed Lynne Wood) at a few conventions over the years. Ken Horn (make-up artist) is the curator of the Hollywood Wax Museum. I bump into him every once in a while.

gJg: Now your character, Pluto, supposedly dies in the original film when the dog attacks him. Was that the way it was supposed to be or did they leave it open-ended for a sequel?

MB: No, originally we didn’t think there was going to be a sequel so I was pretty much dead. But in part two I explain how I managed to get patched up after the dog attack.

The one thing I really liked about Part 2 was the fact that we used a different type of film so it has a real vintage look to it.

About the only thing I wasn’t too thrilled about was the “Reaper” character. I just didn’t feel that he was a very complete character.

gJg: And then that damn dog got you again (the same dog that supposedly killed Pluto in the first Hills movie pushes him off a cliff in this one).

MB: <Laughs>… Yeah well, what can you do?


Michael on the Mötley Crüe Video:

gJg: What was the story behind the video for Smokin’ in the Boys Room?

MB: My first agent was still with me when I got the video. He called me up and he says, “Hey, there’s this band called Mutley…uh, Motley Crew and they want you for their video.” So I said, “Sure, I’ll go do it”.

So we went into this high school auditorium and all hung out in a make shift green room they had set up behind the curtain. They were all super nice guys, very down to Earth.

As we were sitting there making small talk we started bouncing around ideas on how to make my character silly. That’s when we came up with the idea for the wig, the bow tie and eventually, the ear wiggle.

gJg: Ah yes, the ear wiggle!

MB:  You know, there’s actually an interesting story with that. I told Mick (Mars, guitarist for Mötley Crüe) that I could independently wiggle my ears. Well once he and everyone else in the band saw me do it they loved it and wanted to use it. So the ear wiggle was put in at the very end of the video right after they snatch off my wig. It must have worked because the video was number one on MTV for quite a long time.

Well one day people started calling me up and telling me that they had noticed that the ear wiggle scene had been taken out of the video. Apparently, “someone” didn’t care for it and had an editor go into work one day and remove it.

But I guess over time enough people complained about it so they went back in and put my ear wiggle back into the end of the video..

So you know, it’s a cute rumor.

Years later I’m working on a voice over for Penny Dreadful, and low and behold the guy who was doing the editing for the film comes up to me and says, “Hey, a long time ago I used to work for MTV as an editor and one day I had to put your ear wiggle back into the Mötley Crüe video”.


So it’s a full circle kind of thing.


Michael on his newest thriller, “Below Zero”:

gJg: I see that you have a new movie out now, Below Zero.

MB: You betcha.. Below Zero.

gJg: What’s the premise of this film?

MB: It’s a thriller. Eddie Furlong plays a screenwriter who can’t meet a deadline. So he arranges to be shipped out into the middle of nowhere, locked inside of a freezer at a slaughterhouse. He’s got everything in there he needs to work. He just can’t come out until he has a finished script. And all during the process you don’t know if what you see is something he is writing or if it’s real.

I play the part of Gunnar who is the guy who runs the slaughter-house.

gJg: Oh, so Gunnar is a real character. He’s not part of his imagination. He’s real?

MB: Well, no he’s not….but then again….(pause)…maybe he is….. <laughs>

gJg: How did I know you were going to say that? <laughs>

MB: The movie leads in three directions and the cinematography is exquisite.

gJg: The trailer for it looks great!

MB: We’re all very proud of it. We filmed it two years ago in Canada. People can go check out the Facebook page or the official website to learn more about it. I know they’ve been playing the trailer most recently. It’s got a great musical score and is doing very well at festivals all over the world.

I’m saying that probably by summer it should be out for sale. I think its going to do really, really well.

gJg: Just from what I’ve seen of it so far I’d have to agree.

MB: It’s really, really good. I actually have a DVD copy of it and I’ll watch it every once in a while. The cool thing about it is that every time you watch it you enjoy it again, freshly. It’s not something you watch once and then put away. It doesn’t lose any impact over subsequent viewings. It’s really strong and I’m proud of it.

In fact, if you want to know the truth, I think it’s my best work yet.

And why?

Because it was my last work. And every time I work I do a little bit better.<laughs>

gJg: Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it.

MB: Well, you try. <laughs>.


Michael on giving back:

gJg: I noticed the tattoos they gave you for this role as well.

MB: Oh those aren’t fake, those are real.

gJg: Really? Wow, those are really colorful.

MB: Yes, they are. The one on my right arm is the sunset with the moon rising and mountains in the background. The one on my left arm is of a mother wolf and a pup. I actually lived at a wolf sanctuary for ten years.

gJg: Oh really?

MB: Wolf Mountain Sanctuary.in Lucerne Valley, CA. It’s run by my good friend Tonya Carloni. She rescues wolves and gives them a descent place to live. What she does is a very noble cause.

We also teach people about habitat preservation and the importance of preserving what we have before it turns into something like Joni Mitchell said: “Paradise turned into a parking lot.” We really need to leave something for our children to enjoy.


Michael on working with Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“:

gJg: Michael, I just can’t end our interview without asking you about what it was like working on Cuckoo’s Nest with Jack Nicholson.

MB: I get asked quite a bit about Jack and I tell everyone that I found him to be such a down to Earth regular guy.

He told me one day, “Michael, if I was as tall as you I’d be an NBA star right now.” (Michael is 6′ 2″). Jack was very athletic but just didn’t have the height for it.

He was just a real, honest, wonderful guy and a terrific talent and I was just tickled that he won an Oscar for it because he just threw himself into that role.

gJg: Well Michael it’s been so great talking with you. Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing?

MB: I just want to wish the very best to all of my fans. May you all have a peaceful, wonderful life and when you wake up tomorrow, make it a great day.

gJg: Couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

MB: That’s the plan I’m keeping.

Article first published as A Conversation With Michael Berryman on Technorati

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