Original-Cin Q&A: Michael Ironside talks Knuckleball, Verhoeven, cancer and re-creating his dad's death

By Jim Slotek

I suppose I should preface with the usual words, SPOILER ALERT! In the thriller Knuckleball, Michael Ironside dies. 

I maintain this isn’t a spoiler per se, since it’s in the first few seconds of the trailer and every synopsis of the plot - his grandson (Luca Villacis) discovering he’s now alone in his weird granddad’s isolated farmhouse and must defend himself against a psychopath (Munro Chambers).

Hence the thumbnail description of Knuckleball as Home Alone meets The Shining.

(Also, it isn’t the last we see of Ironside in the movie. That’s all I’ll say about that.)

But after more than 300 movies, the Canadian acting icon still puts a lot of thought into things like being discovered dead.

Michael Ironside as Jacob, the secretive, hermit-like granddad in Knuckleball

Michael Ironside as Jacob, the secretive, hermit-like granddad in Knuckleball

“When he finds the grandfather in the bedroom, that’s what my father looked like when my sister found him,” the Toronto-born Ironside says, on the phone from his Hollywood Hills home. “He’s lying on his back with his one leg cocked to the left towards the window. And that positioning was really important to me. I look very much like my father in that film.” 

Age and aloneness are the defining characteristics of Jacob, the hermit-like character he plays in Calgary filmmaker Michael Peterson’s taut and claustrophobic film. Despite often playing formidable characters, usually villains, Ironside allows his health has been an issue. 

“I’ve had cancer three different times, and it’s just recently in the last six months that I’ve found out how to lose weight. They’ve taken all different things out of me over the years. 

“But when I constructed these characters, I wanted the enduring steadfastness of my father, and at the same time, capture that sense everyone feels of being alone, different, afraid.”

I note that Knuckleball won the Audience Award a few months back at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival for genre films. “These are your people,” I tell the guy who stole scenes in Total Recall, Starship Troopers (both by Paul Verhoeven) and David Cronenberg’s Scanners.

“My people,” he repeats with a laugh. “My people are fans of good movies. I don’t see this as a genre or horror film. I see it as a movie, a straight-up movie about people and relationships and inability to communicate.”

As it turns out, Peterson (Lloyd the Conqueror) won a kind of lottery getting one of the most familiar faces in movies to co-star in his movie. 

ORIGINAL-CIN: How did you decide to do this?

IRONSIDE: “This script was sent to me by a mutual friend of Michael Peterson’s and mine. I sometimes get as many as 10-15 unsolicited scripts a week. 

“One out of 50, I’ll talk to somebody, and if the conversation goes well, I’ll take it further. Michael Peterson and I met for breakfast a couple of years ago and we hit it off immediately.

“We had the same idea about what the underlying metaphor was and how we wanted to treat the genre and stuff like that. It’s about miscommunication and the lack of communication, on an intimate level and on a global level.

“Never in the history of humanity have we had more opportunities and vehicles for communication whether it’s computers, cellphones, Twitter. And nothing of substance is ever being said. It’s being used as a place to hide and send disinformation.

“In the first five minutes, the metaphor of the film is set. We come down on the barren landscape, family car going across it. And in the car, there’s a husband who’s messing with the radio and talking and nobody’s listening, a mother who’s taking anti-anxiety drugs, and the son in the backseat playing his video game on his cellphone.”

OC: As scary as the film is, your scenes together with Luca are touching. You have to create that relationship in a hurry because things kind of go South quickly. How was it, creating that relationship.

IRONSIDE: “The first show of affection in the movie is when I put my arm around that boy and say, ‘I see a full grown man here.’ If you look at it, the only true emotion in the movie is when I put my arm around him and when I kiss him goodnight.

“Luca was found by Michael Peterson and Munro Chambers, who I worked with before, he came on board immediately. 

Ironside in Starship Troopers

Ironside in Starship Troopers

“We all talked, we all made choices and Michael, being the great personality that he is, allowed us to communicate.”

OC: it strikes me that an isolated farmhouse has always been a scary setting, but more so now if it means there’s no wifi or even a phone, and you’re disconnected from the hive.

IRONSIDE: “But the hive doesn’t really support you. It’s an illusion. Communication is the sharing of ideas and the ability to make people feel safe and comfortable together.”

“I mean I’ve done 300-some-odd-films, and the best experiences I’ve had is when there’s communication by everybody. 

“There’s only maybe five directors I’ve worked with over the last 45 years, who I’d call auteurs. People who are absolutely in charge, people like Paul Verhoeven, who have their very specific vision, they’ve done all their research. Your job is to align yourself with them. They are the painter.

“Most films are not like that. They don’t have the size and money and time. They’re all dependent on a communal approach.

“I’ve been on films where the director doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground, or her ass from a hole in the ground. I was on one where the director would say, ‘Okay, let’s go to the next set-up.’ And the crew would go left and the director would go right.”

OC: When people approach you, do they mention particular films, or do they say, ‘Hey, you’re that guy!’?

“Usually you can tell the age of someone by what film they talk about. If they talk about Top Gun or Total Recall, they’re usually late 30s early 40s. if they talk about things like The Alienist (the TNT period series, now on Netflix, in which he has a recurring role as billionaire J.P. Morgan), they’re either young or not getting out that much.

“And if the go back to (the 1982 horror film) Visiting Hours or Scanners, they’re in their 50s or 60s. But with the advent of movies on the Internet, I’ve had people come up to me and go, ‘You’re Michael Ironside? What happened to you? I just saw you in such and such and you looked way younger!’

“And I say, ‘That movie was made 35 years ago.’ And they’re like ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’”

OC: As a character actor, I assume you have a lot of freedom in the roles you play. And you’ve played opposite some pretty major stars, like Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Do you get the sense that a movie star trades in some of that freedom for their persona?

IRONSIDE: “I don’t know about that, I can’t speak for them. I try to do a film every year that allows me to be able to support another ‘name’ actor. I am not able to support a film by myself. But when they get one name, then maybe they call me. So, I try to get one of two projects a year, like The Alienist, that keeps up my TVQ, so people say, ‘Oh yeah, you still exist!’” (Laughs).

OC: What’s next for you?

“I think the Alienist is up and running again in January. I have a couple projects I can’t talk about now, a miniseries. Until the money’s in the bank, I usually don’t talk.

“Michael Peterson and I are aiming about doing another project next year, about an aging hitman whose past comes back to haunt him. It’s a really wonderfully thought-out script, and we’re talking about how to get these metaphors forward, foreign policy, how the world is alienating itself. I think it’s a message of the times.”

OC: So, you and Michael hit it off.

IRONSIDE“Michael is a friend. He has this ability to instil respect and allegiance from everybody. It isn’t, ‘Let’s spill some blood and get out of here.’ He’s earned his respect.”

“I’ve also got to pack a lot of boxes. My wife and I are moving after 32 years, and the house goes on the market next week. Our girls are off, one’s in Nashville and the other’s in Montreal (attending Corcordia University). Packing for the last six weeks has been a joyous and celebratory trip down memory lane.”