Crimson Celluloid: One of your very earliest films was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was it intimidating working alongside Jack Nicholson that early in your career?
Michael Berryman: Cuckoo’s Nest was my 2nd day working as an actor and when I wrapped, it was day 127. Needless to say, I was totally thrilled to be given the role and opportunity to be a part of film history! Jack was very open and straight-up honest and genuine. His charm is one of wit and passion. His frankness was disarming and relaxing, at the same moment in time. Jack made me feel an equal member of the incredible family that the cast and company became. One day Jack told me that if he was as tall as I was, that he would have become an NBA player. If you notice, during the basketball scenes, he was very poised and skilled. The same must be said of his acting. He was McMurphy.
What did you learn from working on that film that you carried throughout your career?
While we were rehearsing for 2 weeks, there were set aside periods when the actors would spend time one-on-one with real patients. The film was shot at Oregon State Hospital. The Dr. Spivey, (Dean Brooks) was the acting head doctor at the time. We became immersed in the day-to-day lives of the hospital routines and staff. With permission, we interviewed patients and became aware of the life in such an institution. The good and the bad. For instance, we learned that state budgets are minimized at times by using more drugs, rather than having more resources for therapy and outdoor activities. As an example, I asked Dean Brooks “Why don’t you have gardens to raise healthy food for the patients and let them get exercise and fresh air and perhaps earn a few dollars“? He told me that the hospital used to pay patients .25 cents per box for picking strawberries. However some people heard of this and demanded that the hospital pay minimum wage. There was no budget for that and the .25 cents per box was voluntary and meant to let the patients earn something, if they wanted to. So, the result was to bulldoze the garden and end the controversy. I learned that the criminals in prison have more rights and protections than mentally ill people.
Humanity was pretty much under-funded.
The film was a great success, what impact did it have upon your life?
I was on the set every day, even on my days off. I asked lots of questions. The camera/lighting department was of keen interest to me. I learned about F-stops, depth of field, coverage, eye-line, close-ups, lenses, how to move, speak, with diction and amplitude….and on and on….! I was learning from the world’s best. I was in heaven! Many of the young actors I work with these days know so very little of such skills. I knew from the get go that making a film IS a group effort, and everyone is on the set for a reason. So, any actors reading this…listen up: LEARN YOUR CRAFT!!! Cuckoo’s Nest helped me set my bar to carry on for decades. Thank you Saul Zantz, Milos, and family! Being in a top Oscars winning film in only my 2nd job, forever impacted my approach to the work/art that I love!
You’ve long been a genre-favourite. One of the few actors that I’d actively seek out the films of. Are you actually a horror movie fan? If so, what are some of your favourites?
I have enjoyed Horror and Sci-Fi from my earliest years. From the Universal classics to Hammer and beyond. In my youth and even today, I enjoy comic books too! Some of my film fav’s are The Wolf Man, Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Scifi… This Island Earth,The Omega Man, Soylent Green. The reason I love these, are the themes, storylines, the ability to thrill and even more, is that in such realms, the human condition can be explored and a moral lesson can be in the mix, without being ‘Preachy’ …Art should (and always has) give hope to this world.
You haven’t stopped working since the 1970s…surely one of the hardest-working actors out there. Aside from a steady pay-cheque, what keeps you going?
Ever since George pal gave me my break, I swore that his kindness and vision would always be honored by me. I told him that because of my medical issues, I had to leave other areas of careers. Acting can be very challenging but we also can accommodate the actor with the needs they may have. I can pace myself and get through a long day (12-14 hour days.) What keeps me going, is the chance to bring a new character to life. No one role that I create is like any other. I love it! Especially when the fans tell me at a convention or from my many fan letters I get from all over the globe. Actors…respect your fans!!
Given your medical condition, how do you prepare physically and emotionally if the film is going to be especially grueling?
Having a healthy life style is key to this industry. Getting wasted at a party impresses no one! Besides, you’ll look like hell on camera later. Not a great idea.
You are well-known and loved for your work in The Hills Have Eyes, what memories do you have of working with Wes Craven?
Wes Craven is one sharp-witted fellow. Hills was hot in the day and cold at night. We had very little amenities and the team just rolled with whatever we had before us. I never ever saw Wes raise his voice. He is very calm and is always thinking ahead. Hills 2 was a bigger budget and yet, the end result was marred by bad make-up on the Reaper and we had some very serious issues with a producer that almost got the company expelled from the hotel. That producer almost went to jail…I was ready to send him to the hospital, myself! I’ll explain more in my book I am currently writing. But Wes, he is still the same great guy he always was. Wes called me back for Deadly Blessing and Penny Dreadful (a pretty darn good film).
You’ve also worked with Ruggero Deodato on Cut and Run, how do Craven and Deodato differ as directors?
Ruggero is very different. He will give you a script and change dialogue and and scenes when you arrive on set, (usually in some wonderful remote location). Very non-Hollywood approach. Hell, he is Italian you know!! I love the Italians! Art is the passion. Well, Ruggerro does have his personal demons that he willingly shares with you, but it somehow seems to be alright. He is complex, where Wes is more available for communication, in a scene. If I have a question for Wes, he gives me a distilled response. Ruggero gives you a look and a gentle Italian curse, mumbled while he pulls on your ear!
Of all your performances, is there one you are especially proud of and think “man, I really nailed that!!!”?
You bet!! Check out Below Zero and my X-Files episode (Revelations season 3). Love it!
Given all your experience have you contemplated making the move to directing?
I get this question all the time. I am getting closer and it will be written and directed by me…more later.
As I said before, you are a great favourite with genre movie fans. You’ve done the conventions and I’m sure have met your share of fans. Any weird experiences?
Sure, many, …from marriage proposals to requests to sign breasts!! I chose the latter…I have lot’s of great moments with the fans. They are family and they know it. Read any postings about me. I am very proud of who I am and I SO appreciate what the fans share at the table and when we have time to relax at the hotel bar. The conversations run the gamut…from sad to joy…come to a convention and be part of it!!
From all I have read you’re extraordinarily grateful for the film career you’ve had…all I can say, without a hint of condescension, is that it is WE, the movie-going public who should be grateful.
Thank you again for this opportunity to share and your kind words did not go unappreciated. Now go out and make the world a little better place!!
If you like, please check out on YouTube: “Watch what you ask for“ by Suze-Lanier Bramlett…and “Hell’s Kitty #10“….Dig it!!