In roles that span a career of over four decades, Michael Ironside has inhabited characters with fierce intelligence and empathy, exposing the darkest corners of the human condition to shepherd them safely into the light. 

If you enjoy bizarre cinema, you’ve probably seen Ironside on the big screen. The Canadian actor, writer, and director has worked on some of the most surreal and iconic films in recent memory: David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981); Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986); Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997); Brad Anderson’s The Machinist (2004); and modern cult favorites like RKSS’ Turbo Kid (2015). 

Ironside’s career shows no signs of slowing, and this fall, he appears opposite Munro Chambers and Luca Villacis in Michael Peterson’s slow-burn, single-location horror-thriller Knuckleball. The multi-hyphenate method actor sat down with MovieMaker to share 10 keys to a cast-iron career, gleaned from his 40-plus years on both sides of the camera.

— As told to Jennifer Blair

1. To write and not understand acting is arrogance—like writing music and not having an instrument to play it on. That’s why I studied acting. The problem is that after a few years, people forgot I was a writer and started hiring me as an actor. It’s like writing music, learning how to play the piano so you can understand the structure of the music, and then being hired as a piano player rather than as a composer. It was a form of acceptance that I really enjoyed.

2. Be prepared to fire people if they don’t treat the set with respect.

3. Every set needs both quality and safety, and if your crew can’t figure that out, they shouldn’t be there. If you’re doing a film that involves rape, for instance, you’d be very protective of the set and the actress and the person who’s playing the rapist. You’d want everyone to be as polite and protective and careful as possible, because it’s very emotional and difficult stuff to do. If you’re doing a genre picture, you’re in the same place: You’re asking somebody to take a risk. You’re asking somebody, either with dialogue and behavior, to pretend that they’re from another planet, to pretend that they’re mentally ill, you name it. People like David Cronenberg and Paul Verhoeven create sets that are as austere and emotionally safe as if you were doing Shakespeare.

4. Acting is play. That’s why kids are wonderful to work with: They’re more willing to play. Kids also know how to lie convincingly. They commit themselves to it all the time with their parents, which, of course, is acting. 

5. When you do things only for money, that’s not love—that’s a commercial venture. Three times in my career, I took jobs just for the money, because I didn’t know how to turn down that kind of money. And twice I was almost suicidal. I felt like, “What the fuck am I doing here?” There’s a reason certain projects offer so much money, and it’s because the people who worked on them were not moviemakers. Those people should not have been making a movie. 

6. If you feel resentment toward a project, you won’t be able to do it. I get up to five scripts a week, and I try to read everything and do the best with what writing is offered to me. I set a base price for films—which is usually much lower than what my agents ask for—so that I can do them without feeling any resentment. And most of the time, what I get is way above my resentment level. 

7. During auditions, give actors a direction that is contrary to what the character calls for, just to see if they can do it and shift gears. This gets them involved in the process so that you can cast well, trust your actors, and make sure they’re directable.

8. Acting in genre film only works if you completely give yourself over to it and believe in it. It takes emotional commitment.

9. Settle for what’s real—not what’s intellectually comfortable for you.

10. Do not put yourself on a pedestal as a director. I don’t believe in the auteur theory. I’ve done 300-something films, and I’ve only worked with maybe four true auteurs. Most of what we do as moviemakers is a communal process, and it’s very important that you involve other creative energies. When I’m directing, and we have to do five setups for the scene in an hour and a half, I turn to everyone and say, “Anyone got any ideas?” You are only as good as how well you can communicate and how well you can make other people feel safe to take risks. MM 

Knuckleball opened in theaters and on VOD October 2018, courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media. This article appears in MovieMaker’s 2019 Guide to Making Horror Movies, featured inside our Fall 2018 issue. Featured image: Climb the ladder, but don’t look down on your indie peers, says Knuckleball star Michael Ironside. All images courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media. 

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