Everyone has secrets, especially Jack. The protagonist of SXSW Midnighter He Never Died is good at keeping things to himself, not least because, if anyone gets too close, he eats them. Bizarre as it may sound, his cannibalism is the smallest mystery about him, and star Henry Rollins wants to keep Jack's deepest enigma under wraps until its world premiere. That's been tough, considering the actor is also a columnist for LA Weekly. "I have to give them a thousand words a week. So I'm talking about the making of the film, but yet I couldn't divulge what I was doing."
Rollins has done it all: punk icon, poet, author, publisher, raconteur, globe-trotting photographer. In recent years, he's established a strong reputation as an actor, playing roles like Sons of Anarchy's neo-Nazi enforcer AJ Weston, and The Legend of Korra's superpowered anarchist Zaheer. But He Never Died is his first leading role. He was in New York in December 2012 when he was handed the script, and the next day he met with writer/director Jason Krawczyk and producer Zach Hagen. Rollins said, "I sat down with them and went, 'I don't want to offend you, but this is a comedy, right? ... Parts of this are laugh-out-loud funny.' And they were relieved. They said, 'Oh no, no, no, you got it.'"
So Rollins signed up for what he called "a weird existentialist comedy with blood," but there was an additional surprise before filming began. "Jason said, 'I wrote it with you in mind,' and I said, 'Oh come on.' Because I didn't want to call him a liar, but I don't believe anyone writes anything for me except a traffic ticket."
Krawczyk's original inspiration for the script was his visceral reaction to the Twilight franchise. Krawczyk explained, "If you lived forever, and you couldn't die, would you be this sleek, sexy, confident person, or would you be this miserable, detached man? Probably the latter." He even had a specific idea what he wanted Jack to look like, and that was Rollins. "He's this gritty guy with a huge jaw, kind of angry, and his face is engraved with history. I went, 'OK, that's the kind of guy I want.'" So when casting agent Adrienne Stern handed him "a list of really confident forty-something male actors who could do it well, I went, 'OK, this is cool. There's some guys in here I like, but just for young, ambitious me, can we throw Henry Rollins in?' She said, 'OK, let's give it a shot', and a day later he called."
Superficially, the character and the actor could not be more different. Jack spends his time enduring the bare minimum of human contact. Rollins said, "Otherwise, he'd probably just sit in that apartment and watch TV in his underwear for centuries at a time." By contrast, notorious workaholic and polymath Rollins can't stand still. "The one thing I fear is boredom," he said. However, both Jack and Rollins deal with Sartre's mantra that hell is other people: "When I'm on my own, I'm rarely bored, because you can think. If you have a note pad, you can start creating your next plan. But when you have to endure other people, Sartre is right."
While Krawczyk called Rollins "the visual reference" for Jack, he also nods to writer Garth Ennis' violently satirical comic The Punisher, and the dark immorality of John Hillcoat's The Proposition. Krawczyk said, "The weirdest inspiration for anything I do always comes from the polar opposite. As Good as It Gets, Jack Nicholson, was a huge inspiration for Jack. Just this character who has a lot of mental anguish, but doesn't know how to deal with it. He finds himself in a routine, and he can either break from it and potentially slip, or he can stay on it and just stay detached."
Cut to November of 2013, and Rollins and Krawczyk found themselves freezing on the nighttime streets of Toronto. The Canadian crew told the director it would be just like shooting in his native New York, to which he responded, "You guys have never been to New York." The cold was so intense that Rollins' jaw muscles locked up between takes. "Henry just wanted to stay in character, and at some point – I didn't yell at him, but I said, 'Henry, put on a fucking jacket.'"
When the shoot finally moved indoors after three weeks, Rollins said, "Everyone cheered from inside their Parka sleeping bag they were sleeping in." However, he still had to contend with Jack's cannibalistic dietary habits, including drinking endless gushes of fake plasma and chewing on fake human flesh. To show solidarity, Krawczyk ate a finger. "It wasn't bad. Minty, with a pretzel in the middle. Then I drank a glass of blood. Henry's been drinking it all day, and hasn't complained. If it's anything like the fingers, it's fine. Then I drink it, and it's horrible, and just sits in your stomach." The delicious recipe? "Red dye, corn syrup, a little bit of water, KY jelly for consistency, and just a little bit of soap, so it doesn't stain your teeth."
At least there was one positive to the taste sensation. Rollins said, "The variety that our special effects guy came up with was chocolate flavored."
Henry Rollins will also take part in A Conversation With Henry Rollins on Tuesday, March 17, 12:30pm, Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD.
He Never Died Tuesday, March 17, 11:45pm, Stateside Wednesday, March 18, 11:30pm, Alamo South Lamar Friday, March 20, 7pm, Alamo South Lamar
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