“Total Recall was one of my favourite experiences. When was it released? 30 goddamn years, my god.”

Michael Ironside may not immediately remember just how long ago it was that Total Recall was released, but few have been able to forget Paul Verhoeven’s slippery sci-fi action blockbuster since it came out in 1990, nor his memorably intense performance as Richter. The primary heavy in this adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It for You Wholesale’, Richter is in constant pursuit of amnesiac protagonist Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) across both Earth and Mars, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake.

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One of Canada’s most prolific actors, with more than 260 screen credits to his name, Ironside is perhaps best known to a certain generation for various antagonist and authority figure roles in fondly remembered films from the 1980s and 90s, including Verhoeven reunion Starship Troopers (1997), Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986), David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) and Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994). 

Ahead of the release of a new 4K restoration of Total Recall, Ironside spoke to us via Zoom about both Verhoeven collaborations; his own lifelong affinity for science fiction; the on-set experience of making one of the last massive-budget movies based around mostly practical special effects; and how he thinks Cronenberg’s scrapped adaptation of the story might have turned out.

Almost RoboCop

Robocop (1987)

I actually auditioned for Paul for RoboCop (1987). It was down to between me and Peter Weller. And [make-up effects creator] Rob Bottin, who was doing the actual creation of RoboCop, said: “If we were to do it on Michael, he’d look like a Mack truck.” Peter was a much slenderer build. So, Paul offered me the head bad guy on RoboCop. I was actually just shooting the death scene of my character in Extreme Prejudice [1987], Walter Hill’s film, and I’d literally been shooting all day covered in blood in this fountain. We still had another day to go. I cleaned up and jumped over to another studio to go meet Paul. And I told him, “I can’t play another violent, slaughtering character. I can’t.” And he said, “Well, I’m sorry about that.”

I went back to the set, finished the shoot. And about a week and a half later when we were finished with the film, I thought, “Why the hell did I say that?” When I’m playing a character, I drop all reality. I don’t become the character, but I find it very hard to consider other things when I’m working. 

If I had to do it over again, I would absolutely work with Paul. Paul’s an amazing filmmaker. I actually sent him a letter after RoboCop where I was saying, “I apologise, I should be on this film with you. I should never make decisions when I’m in another character.”

Auditioning for Total Recall

I had to audition because – and I might be telling tales out of school here – I think people weren’t happy with the idea of me playing [Richter]. Paul said, “Well, let’s audition him.” So, Paul went in and videotaped me. He had a video camera on his shoulder and he said, “I want you to play somebody who’s emotionally upset.” He wanted to break the character down in some strange way. And I ended up on the floor acting, crying and emotional with him on top of me, practically straddling me with the camera in a close-up. 

Michael Ironside as Richter in Total Recall (1990)
© David Appleby/David James

He gave me the tape back, actually; I have a copy. You can see him pull the camera away, so he’s on camera going, “Yeah, yeah, I think I can play with this man. Yeah, I think he’s good. Yeah, yeah, this is good.” And then he smiles and he shuts the camera off.

I think that was more because he wanted me and he had to prove to somebody else that he could work with me. But we got along quite well. We did Starship Troopers together after that. We’ve actually been looking for a third film. At one time, he wanted me to play Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. He was going to do a whole thing on Spandau.

Family links to sci-fi legends

I’m a Philip K. Dick nerd, actually. I understand sci-fi as a way of telling a storyline in a format where people can gently consider the subject matter. If you want to talk about racism or neo-Nazi conservatism or whatever, if you put it in the future it’s a little more palatable for the audience. There’s more of an education possibility there. I remember D.W. Griffith or somebody saying there’s only 6 stories out there and 4 of them are westerns. And that’s all sci-fi is – they’re just futuristic westerns in a lot of ways. The good guy, the bad guy, the townspeople, the girl in jeopardy or the boy in jeopardy or the family in jeopardy; it’s heroic storytelling.

I was also raised on sci-fi. My grandfather was a part of the sci-fi club that had about 100 members, including [Aldous] Huxley if I remember right. I read Dune out of a shoebox. My grandfather said you might enjoy this and he handed it to me. Sidney Ironside, his name was. He was born and raised in Aberdeenshire actually, where the great orange pumpkin put a golf course. He was an electrical engineer and was very into sci-fi and all that stuff. 

How Cronenberg’s Total Recall might have been

Total Recall (1990)

David is a very deft storyteller and filmmaker. Total Recall was one of Dick’s shorter stories. And David, I think, would have probably gone more into the paranoia of it. He has a way to work that’s more cerebral. I’ll get slapped for this one by everybody, by the director as well, but I think Paul has a tendency to take a more socio-political position on storytelling, take an overview of things. Where David, if you look back over his career, I think really takes on a kind of interior [storytelling]; social paranoia, social impact on the individual, the individual against the masses.

Working on one of the most expensive films ever made at the time

It was cutting edge technology on set. Paul’s a great user of whatever is available to him at the time. It was an adventure to go to work. And being in Mexico City where we shot it, at [Estudios] Churubusco, one of the oldest film studios in Latin America – Tyrone Power’s Blood and Sand [1941] was shot in that studio. We took over completely, all the barns and stuff like that. 

When we did the chase sequence in the car, where we’re going from one city to the next through the tunnels, these tunnels actually connected the 2 sets. Paul wanted the possibility of doing it all in one shot. When we were shooting, we’d start off in the one city on Mars and start firing at each other and head into the tunnels, and come out into the other city where the cast and crews were all in place. At any given time, you’d have close to three to four hundred extras working, some of them in full prosthetic makeup. It was a fantastic experience.

What the story means

God, I remember when I read it, my grandfather talked to me about it being a political metaphor for the world as it really is – that the world as we see it is sometimes fabricated through news and through lack of control and we’re at the whims and fancy of people in power. At least that’s the way it was pushed with me. And knowing Philip K. Dick’s penchant for paranoia and his fear of being watched, I think that might be a big chunk of it.

Reuniting with Verhoeven for Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers (1997)

[Robert A.] Heinlein, to me, was a super paranoid, politically paranoid [writer]. After he wrote Starship Troopers, he wrote the citizen’s handbook on how to survive in a very liberal society [Take Back Your Government: A Practical Handbook for the Private Citizen]. He really did have huge paranoia about the way the world was. 

When Paul offered me the part, I said to him, “Why are you, with your background, doing a book which is a super right-wing manifesto, about how people should not be allowed to vote unless they’re willing to fight and die for their country? Where if you’re not willing to go into armed services, you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” Paul looked at me and said, “You question my political, social beliefs?” And then I went, “When it’s from a political paranoid, super conservative guy like Heinlein, yeah! I’m just asking because I don’t want to support that story.” 

He said, “Alright, I’ll tell you my take on the book. I want to create a perfect society. I want to create a society where everyone is beautiful. The men are beautiful. The women are beautiful. Everything works perfect. Everything is clean. Everything is immaculate. And this whole incredible structure that they’ve built for themselves is only good for killing bugs!”

He basically said to me, “If we tell the story and go up against it, we’re dealing against people’s prejudices. We’re dealing with people’s inflexibility. What you have to do is tell the story that takes exactly what they’re pushing to extremes so they can see it the way it is.” And I smiled and I said, “I’m in.”

I like both those films. Jost Vacano is on camera – they’re pretty much the same crews. Going on Starship Troopers was like going home. They were very comfortable sets for me. Wonderful cast, wonderful people. I’m not waxing on and kissing your ass here; I really mean it. I’m very happy with the product and the people I made that with.