Viruses and X-Files and Bugs, Oh My!
"I'm genre, babe," declares Marshall Bell, who plays Woods in the much-anticipated Virus which finally opens this week. A veteran of dozens of science fiction films from Total Recall to Starship Troopers, with memorable guest appearances on The X-Files and Millennium, the actor's voice is instantly recognizable even if it takes a moment to place the name.
"I have this kind of abrasive, energetic personality sometimes - the guy in Total Recall was completely different from the guy in Twins, but I have this bad-guy image," he says cheerfully. "But in Virus, I'm a coward. I'm the helmsman of the boat, I'm an old crony of the captain's, and we're all a bunch of losers, which is why I love the movie. We're bums, in a very not-happy situation. It's gross! It's about as gross as anything I've ever seen!"
In the film, described by the actor as "a haunted house story on the ocean with total losers," Woods steers the salvage tug Sea Star into the eye of a typhoon and discovers another ship, a high-tech Russian science vessel harboring an alien life form. Having traveled across time and space, the mutating alien believes it has found the perfect home on Earth; now it must destroy the one remaining obstacle, the "virus" called humanity. Based on the Dark Horse Comics series, the techno-thriller also stars Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin, and Donald Sutherland.
Directed by Oscar-winning visual effects wizard John Bruno, who left James Cameron's Titanic to work on this project with his Abyss producer Gale Anne Hurd, the story follows the motley crew of the Sea Star as they pursue avaricious dreams of salvaging the Russian vessel, only to be menaced by creatures that, like Star Trek's Borg, want to merge human bodies with technology to serve their own ends. The crew must stop the ship to save the world, but they can barely take care of themselves under the best of circumstances.
"The comic angle in Virus is just that at about the time you're lulled into laughing nervously, you're going to go, oh no!" notes Bell, who gleefully describes his own character's fate. "I die paralyzed with fear. I'm not standing up. Poor old Woods, this thing is at the door and I'm going, no, no, don't open it, and I won't tell you what happens but it's REALLY disgusting. It's so disgusting that the studio was going to cut it out, but they put it back. My demise is a totally unpleasant experience...for you to watch!" Bell isn't sweating himself because the character's death doesn't exactly mean he's out of work. "If there's a sequel, I can't get into detail, but these characters can all come back no matter what state they're in."
Despite the bleak film noir aspects, Bell promises that Virus is actually very funny. "It has plenty of humor, extreme amounts - Donald is much more funny than you might think. Remember M*A*S*H? And Sherman Augustus, who's this new guy, is excellent, he's the guy I do most of my stuff with. You're going to laugh. There's wit in it, more than most of these - more than in Godzilla!"
Of course, the CGI and effects are greatly emphasized as well. Unlike many actors who shun roles which involve a lot of prosthetics, Bell rather enjoys them, though he has had attacks of claustrophobia while having his face coated in material for a mask. "I find it very, very invigorating and exciting - you got the job, which is euphoric, and then you have to start work right away because you have to go get measured. It's a challenge to me because it's a 50-50 deal whether I'm going to freak out. In the live cast on the head, it's drippy and it gets in your nostrils. For Virus they had to do two different ones, and the second one, I freaked. They had to let me have my eye holes."
Bell says he feels camaraderie with the effects people and is very much a fan of their work: "I think in this industry there's so much BS, and they're not BSing; they are making hands and intestines and everything else as best they can, and they work 25-hour days. The guys on Starship Troopers were there before anybody and left after everybody, picking bodies up. They're amazing." As far as wearing the effects, "you hvae to be a good actor to make those effects work real well. You have to take a long time in the chair to realize that this is actually going to be you."
The actor did try not to bring Woods home with him, since his situation is depressing. "I'm a coward, but there's so much more dimension in being cowardly - I definitely more than anybody do not dig the situation we're in. I'm not interested in trying to analyze it, I just want to be as far away from it as I possibly can, and I'm willing to let you stay and me go, if you get my meaning." He does have one slightly heroic moment, "I get pissed off and I make a stand, but then I lapse into cowardice again."
A lifelong fan of Westerns and horror movies - "David Warner's head spinning around in The Omen scared the pee out of me" - Bell grew up on '50s classics like War of the Worlds and assorted Godzillas (though he wasn't in any hurry to see the latest one: "I don't see how you can improve on the CGI that was done in Starship Troopers, whether or not anyone liked the movie is beside the point"). He came late to professional acting, having been thrown out of the drama society at Yale for what he describes as "being a bad boy."
Instead he became a cowboy, riding and working a ranch in Montana, but he married a celebrated costume designer and became friendly with many actors. Eventually, a casting director who was a friend of his wife's recommended that he read for a role in Alan Parker's Birdy. His character, Ronsky, received near-universal acclaim, and a new career began. Bell and his partner still have 350 head of cattle on their ranch, but he spends less time there now.
Between 1985 and 1990, Bell took classes, did two television series, and filmed several movies, including Stand By Me, Tucker, and Dick Tracy. "I thought, this is a lot better than doing what I was doing, and I was having a good time. I like to go to location, I like to take a role and try to make it work. It's hard, but it makes you feel as if you've accomplished something right away - the emotional rewards are kind of immediate." Twins was a pivotal role for him, both because it gave him status as a villain and because it marked the first of his collaborations with Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom he next appeared in Total Recall.
A friend of Warren Beatty's -"he let me push Madonna in Dick Tracy - Bell would like to work with him again, as well as with others he's had good experiences with: "I've worked with Jimmy Woods, he's busier than I am, I'd like to work with Donald all the time. I like working with Arnold a lot. And Jamie - Jamie is the Arnold of Virus. I'm a big fan of David Duchovny from when I did X-Files, I love his minimal acting. I actually called them up and said hey, Henderson's not dead, bring me back, and they said no - but then Chris called me to read for Millennium, and they put me in even though I didn't do a very good job. Then they named the episode after me!"
Bell also has a number of friends in the Canadian film industry. He appeared with Peta Wilson of La Femme Nikita in one of her first features, One of Our Own, and knew Mike Ironside from before Starship Troopers. "He's been a rival off and on, really, he's a little bit better established, but he's been a fan, and I'm really honored by that." Though he cites Paul Verhoeven as the director he'd most want to work with again, he adds that he'd work for Oliver Stone any time he called. "[In Natural Born Killers] I was in the prison for five weeks at Joliet, but the part, it was so over-the-shoulder, I was a guard with another guy, and we created pretty good stuff but it ended up getting cut out - they hacked about 40 minutes out of the movie. I was in the prison for five weeks so I was around Oliver a fair amount, you're just there all the time, where are you going to go in prison? He's got to give me a role that he's not going to cut out of the film!"
"I'd work for Ivan Reitman over and over and over again, and have," Bell continues. "I'd work for Chris Carter over and over again. I'd love to work for Alan Parker again, I'd love to work for Rob Reiner again, there's really not a director on my resume that I wouldn't want to work for again. I didn't have good experiences on everything, I got pretty depressed on certain shoots, but the movie turned out to be OK. I just like to have fun on a film. I just had an audition for Van Damme, it was a long haul, I haven't heard from them yet. In our business, really the work we do is to desperately try to get work. When work comes, that's vacation. So the dynamics are completely oddball."
He did another film last year called Black and White in which he plays a character named Toast, who's "an asshole - you don't mind that language, do you? I'm just a jerk in the police station where I kind of grab Gina Gershon's breasts and make fun of the other actor, and she punches me out. Wouldn't you? I still like her. Just a little comic bit. It's a hazing thing." He also did "an interesting genre pilot," Underworld, about a demon. "It was a bunch of people doing it without network control, so it was like an experimental film. Disney's looking at it."
Bell hopes Virus will be a blockbuster just for the opportunity to read more scripts and get offered "two or three really great roles a year, not necessarily big roles, and make a good living from it." He's not interested in stardom, however. "That's like Warren going down to Mann's Chinese and sticking his hands in concrete - that's another issue. I was already older when I got here, so I didn't quite expect that to happen. I'm never going to be a 22-year-old Warren Beatty walking out of that trailer in Splendor in the Grass."
His aspirations lie in producing and writing as well as acting. "I'm writing a screenplay right now, about a guy who's got a wife who's nuts like the Gena Rowlands character in Woman Under the Influence, he hires a guy to be her driver, and then he looks after her when he finds out she has acute leukemia. This guy was maybe trying to figure out some angle for how to rip off these rich producers in the first place, and instead he really likes her. I would like to be the actor - it's not too far away, say, if my character in Twins was retired from his present business, and he was just hanging around L.A. offering himself as a security consultant. If I could, I'd have them all walking out, sobbing, 'Marshall, I never knew you had that in you!'"
The funding, of course, could be a stumbling block. "But I'm very lucky in this town: I'm very blessed to have the friends I have. I might know someone who's a big shot who has a production company already. How nice would it be to have certain people executive-producing your movie, if you get my drift?"
And, of course, if Virus does spectacularly at the box office as Bell hopes it will, that can only help his fortunes. "If this movie did two hundred million dollars, I can guarantee there would be a sequel! It's just all about, can we kick some butt at the box office? If we do, we can all be back," he promises.