Rutger Hauer:
King of Genre

by Michelle Erica Green

Rutger Hauer has one of the most distinguished resumes in genre performing. The Dutch-born actor has created romantic knights and brutal sociopaths, heroic soldiers and lost souls. The roles for which he is best known are so different that it's impossible to type him; he's starred in art-house movies and action flicks, historical epics and low-budget thrillers. "I wish I could play all the parts I didn't get to play," he said while in Los Angeles recently to loop dialogue for his upcoming miniseries Merlin. "But there's more than enough left, I guess."

After making waves in 1973 with his second major film - director Paul Verhoeven's Turkish Delight, which received an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film - Hauer came to the attention of U.S. audiences in 1980 in the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Nighthawks. The next year he played the tortured android Batty in Blade Runner, a role which alone would have secured his place in the genre pantheon.

In rapid succession, he then starred in the dark medieval tale Flesh and Blood, the romantic fantasy Ladyhawke, and the horrific road movie The Hitcher, playing an arrogant tyrant, a cursed knight, and a vicious psychopath, respectively. Each of these critically acclaimed performances furthered Hauer's reputation, as have several award-winning characterizations since.

Though he's played similar parts before, Hauer was drawn to Merlin because of the superb cast and crew - the miniseries features Sam Neill, John Gielgud, Helena Bonham Carter, and Miranda Richardson, with whom Hauer had worked previously in Fatherland. "I thought the role was funny - I loved the script," he said, noting that he is also interested in the historical period during which the drama takes place. "Vortigern, the character that I play, is a big king, he's been a king for 25 years, and he has no qualms about it - in those times, you didn't become king by voting, you became king by grabbing the crown!"

Hauer said he researches his roles, but Lord Vortigern was difficult to find accurate information about. "It was kind of rough, because there's not a whole lot written about that period. At the same time, there are seven different versions of the same events." He read up on the various legends and met with director Steve Barron so that together they could come up with the most interesting version of the character. "It was very nice to see how much craft went into it - into the costumes and the horses and the sets and all that kind of stuff. Everything had to be built, of course, and it was very nice; I think it's going to be great," he added.

In scriptwriters David Stevens and Edward Khmara's version of the story, Vortigern became ruler by beheading King Constant, the grandfather of King Arthur who brought Christianity to England. In the ensuing civil war, both the Christian churches and the sacred sites of the old religion were defiled while the belief systems as well as the political factions struggled for survival. Vortigern earned the wizard Merlin's enmity by taking him prisoner and delivering him to his enemies in order to protect himself from the sorcerer...a decision which ultimately cost Vortigern his power, and his life.

"Miranda Richardson's character [Mab] is sort of the queen of the old ways - she's a wizard in her own right. She gives me a teardrop when we say goodbye, which is really sweet - I think it's going to be very interesting to see how the audience is going to take it," Hauer revealed. He had not seen the finished film until he went to record dialogue, and only met the actor playing young Arthur in the looping studio long after shooting had completed. "I saw Helena Bonham Carter and Miranda and Sam Neill, and that was about it; the cast were all working only part of the time. Which is great, because you sort of carry the whole piece together rather than just a couple of people. But I didn't get to see anybody."

How does he prepare to play someone like scheming Lord Vortigern, or like tyrannical Martin in Flesh and Blood or vicious John Ryder in The Hitcher? "A lot of fantasy, a lot of imagination basically. It's not personal to me, you're making something, you don't take it home - I don't take it home, at least!" He was trained as an actor in Europe, where Method acting is not widely studied. "As far I can see, it helps some people, but I think you don't need to go that far. It's more a way of making yourself available to the part than trying to do anything specific with the part. It's just a different sort of concentration."

For Hauer, displays of histrionic affectation fail to impress: "I hate acting when I see it. I don't want to feel it, I don't want to see it, I want to be taken away with the story - I don't want the actor's ego in front of me. That's what I try to live when I do the work." The actor would like to perform more comedy despite his ongoing interest in meaty dramatic roles - in addition to the parts already mentioned, Hauer won acclaim as a homeless man in Ermanno Olmi's The Legend of the Holy Drinker, for which he won the Best Actor award at the Seattle Film Festival after the film itself won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. He also starred in A Breed Apart, Mariette in Ecstasy, and The Call of the Wild.

"The tongue in cheek stuff is sort of my favorite, but it doesn't come along that much. I didn't do a lot of comedy, and I think I could handle the romantic side - it's underdeveloped still," he noted. Blind Fury was one of his favorite film roles because of its humor. He also starred in the goofy futuristic prison escape movie Deadlock with Mimi Rogers, in which the two had collars around their necks that would explode if they moved too far away from each other. "It's nice to have [the humor] in the story, rather than just adding it to it," Hauer added.

While he said he's "not uninterested" in science fiction and fantasy, the actor insisted that he's drawn by good stories, regardless of their themes. "It's drama that I'm interested in, it's the craft that I'm interested in," he explained. "To me, every movie we make is fiction - even movies about Van Gogh. It's all make-believe, even if some of it is based on truth; some movies are based on another kind of truth, one that we imagine."

Hauer has played a variety of historical and history-based characters. His first appearance on U.S. television was as high-ranking Nazi Albert Speer in Inside the Third Reich. He received a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of a Russian lieutenant in the television movie Escape from Sobibor; he also received a Golden Globe nomination for the 1994 television movie Fatherland, an alternate history in which Nazi Germany survived into the 1960s. The same year, he played navigator Fred Noonan in Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight.

"It was more of a kinder role than I'd done, and to work with Diane Keaton is something that I wouldn't pass up," he said of his decision to play Earhart's doomed partner, whose historical appearance and bearing were markedly different from those of the 6'2", blonde leading man. "What draws [me] basically is the story and the people who do it. You get your inspiration and your experience from the good people you work with, so there's no 'vehicle,' as far as I'm concerned, when it comes to movies - it's just work, and you do it the best you can."

What does he think directors see in him? "I don't know, you'd have to ask them," he said seriously. "I guess power, humor maybe, intelligence maybe directors have their own reasons for picking you, and oddly enough, it's not always the director who picks you for the role - it's the producer. In America it seems to be the producer who decides who's going to play what, which I think is stunning. I think people ask me for a role because they have confidence that it will make sense, and then I do it and I always seem to surprise them."

One of the stars of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, Hauer produced a documentary on the making of the movie called Kill the Camera. "I was a co-producer, and co-producership mostly happens because they can't pay you - no joke," he said. "With actors, they give you a back-end sort of a deal. I should check into that, see if they owe me something!" Despite his involvement in the film, the success of the franchise on television took him by surprise. Though he has produced a few other documentaries, Hauer shrugs off the title of producer: "It's a craft that I don't have. Sometimes you can't [get a project done] any other way, you have to do something for very little money and hope that maybe if it's successful you'll get something later. That's sort of how it works. But I have no ambition to produce."

He does, however, want to direct, and has written two screenplays. "There's a sort of fairy-tale love story that I'm working on right now, and there's a thriller that I wrote, but the thriller I've had for twelve years now - it's a script that I like, and I hope to direct at some point. I'm waiting for the right people to come along. Both screenplays are adaptations from material that I liked. I like writing, I've always sort of done that a little bit."

Hauer played a role in the shooting script of Blade Runner, a film he was very proud of and gratified to see become a cult favorite: "It's sort of fun to see that it's a people's movie, it's become a success because it went underground and people kept asking for it." He edited Batty's final speech and wrote the last line, "'All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain...time to die." Though he's not particularly immersed in cyberculture, Hauer said he has toyed with the idea of writing a novel on the Internet.

The actor, who usually spends part of the year in the United States and part in Europe, is planning to take some time off to travel across America and to have knee surgery. He has completed two films which will be released this year, Hemoglobin, which is likely to go direct to video, and Bone Daddy, which does not yet have a U.S. distributor. "I did some really funky things in the past few years, and some of that doesn't come out right away because it's so low-budget, but that doesn't bother me," he said. "I take quite a bit of chance, I think one-third of the films I did overall were with new people. I'm going to do another film in June which is called Simon Magus, with a new director. I try to work with new talent so we support each other a little bit."

What does he look for in roles? "I'm looking for things that I haven't done, things that might be fun to do. It's that simple. The more I do, the more specific I can become." Does he regret any of his way-out youthful roles, such as the full nudity in Turkish Delight? "No. I think I've done pretty well for myself. Probably five percent of the movies that I've done overall, you can trash, but after that it gets very entertaining, and some of the movies are really good."

"You have to do things in order to learn," he concluded. "There are all these people we don't really know yet, they haven't really done it yet, but they're going to."

It's no wonder Rutger Hauer keeps getting cast as a king in genre.

Get Critical