THE ALIEN RESURRECTION OF LELAND ORSER
by Michelle Erica Green
If you have any interest in science fiction film or television, you know who Leland Orser is, even if you don't recognize the name right off. He's one of those faces you see and ask, "Now, what did I just see this guy in?" Orser has had featured roles on Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and The X Files; he was in Independence Day, Escape from L.A., Lifeform, and Seven. After Alien Resurrection, it's likely he'll be widely known to general audiences, but right now this actor's resume reads like a genre fan's fantasy list of projects.
The Alien films made Sigourney Weaver an action hero, but Orser doubts very much that the newest installment will do the same for him. His character Purvis is more of an anti-hero; according to Orser, "he's a victim - like Newt, I have no gun, I have no flamethrower, I have nothing to protect me but these other people." The character, a mine worker with the misfortune to be cryogenically frozen on a ship which is intercepted by aliens looking for test subjects for a grisly experiment, joins with Ripley in an attempt to escape. This being a science fiction series, Orser has hopes of returning for a sequel - though he won't reveal whether his character lives or dies, he points out that if Ripley could be cloned, anyone can return!
"As you know from the other Alien films, people will meet their fates, and it's just interesting how each one of those takes place. I do get a heroic moment eventually, though we won't get into that," he demurs. "It's a terribly frightening thing - there are people in the group, who, once they find me, don't want to have anything to do with me, and there are others who stand up for me, and take me in. But once I become a part of the group, I'm a part of the group; their lives depend on mine, now, because I'm a part of the group. So for better or for worse, we're all stuck together."
That feeling applies not only to the characters in the film, but to the actors, who started filming last year with the much-hyped underwater sequence. After several weeks training in swimming pools with scuba equipment and underwater sign language, the cast commenced shooting inside a soundstage converted into a hundred-foot by hundred-foot pool, fifteen feet deep.
"The normal hookah situation when you're scuba diving is, you'll have the breathing apparatus attached to you - here, the trick was to learn how to take the breathing apparatus, get as much air as you could off it, on cue, and then swim from it to the next breathing apparatus," Orser explains. "This is all well and good rehearsing in a brightly-lit, outdoor swimming pool in the Valley, where you can see the sun shining down through the top of the water - without wearing all of your entire costume as well as a weight belt to keep you underwater. To have the technical difficulty, once you're underwater in an indoor set, and once they have put the lighting under and above water as well, once you take off your face mask, you're virtually blind. Our stunt doubles became our underwater safety divers."
One day Orser's stunt double, who was also one of the stunt coordinators, had to be out of the water to check the monitors. Orser was assigned a new safety diver, and after he completed a shot in a very confined space with no air hoses, he discovered that she was nowhere to be found. "The set was covered, so once they filled it up with water, you couldn't swim to safety - you couldn't swim to air above. It was safer to stay underwater and get a hookah," he reports, explaining that he had been told to stay where he was in the water and his diver would find him. "I waited, and I waited, and I made the sign where you make a strangling motion to your throat, which means that you're in danger and you need air - luckily, Raymond Cruz and his safety diver saw what was going on, and I shared the hookah with them, we passed air back and forth until somebody brought another tank!"
In addition to the air problems and the visibility problems, the performers had to contend with remembering to act as though aliens might be lurking behind every post. The crew put strips of neon lighting at the bottom, so that the actors could follow the lights to their marks. But once the cast watched the rushes, they realized that they were just swimming, focused on the lights, rather than looking around in fear for potential hazards. "You had to look back and forth, you had to act underwater, while in the meantime, you're really just thinking about staying alive - in real life!" he exclaims of the stressful shoot, in which the actors rather than their stunt doubles did ninety-nine percent of the work, even underwater fights and falls.
Even after the underwater work was completed, Orser describes the work conditions as intense and emotional. "It's a very, very emotional film - what happens to all of us is very upsetting," he warns. "How do you react to that, how do you react to death, how do you react to friends and family and colleagues dying around you, how do you react to danger, how do you carry on when your best friend dies right in front of you? It's like war, it's like disease, and those things bring out very big issues. Every day, somebody else was in the hot seat - somebody would either be confronting their deepest fear or their greatest grief."
Still, the high stress levels were well worth it to the actor, who says he greatly enjoyed the previous three movies. On the first day of shooting, while still somewhat traumatized over having had his head shaved, Orser walked down to the soundstage where crewmembers were painting alien eggs. "They're big, they stand as high as your lower chest," he observes. One of the soundstage doors was propped open and the sun was coming through so that the final coat of paint could dry. "I remember walking in and going, 'Oh my God! Look! Now I'm going to be in this! And there they are, the real thing!' It was a really weird moment, to see that fantasy and reality had sort of come together."
Although he's the son of a serious science fiction fan, Orser never set out to work in the genre, but he's delighted with the path his career has taken. "I mean, Escape From L.A., with John Carpenter, even just the opportunity that I was going to go in and have a reading for him was an exciting prospect for me!" he enthuses. "I came into the room, and there he was, shoes off, sitting behind his desk, we hit it off and then I got to go work with him and Steve Buscemi and Peter Fonda and Kurt Russell! Things could be worse!"
Orser was also lucky to be on The X Files just as the show was taking off, at the beginning of the second season in "Firewalker," the episode about strange deaths in a volcano. "I had a blast, I love being up there, I love Vancouver - I love sushi, I love all the brewery beer up there, I love the native Indian art," he gushes of the experience. "And of course doing the show was great. David and Gillian are just very, very nice, good, hardworking people. The budget on each production is very high." He was only on the set for two weeks, before the show became a worldwide phenomenon.
Though he was not initially a Trekkie, Orser has appeared three times on the two current shows. On Deep Space Nine, he played one of the husbands of a polyandrous, matriarchal leader on the second-season episode "Sanctuary" - one of the first roles he got after moving to Los Angeles - and he was invited back to play a military officer the next season in "The Die Is Cast." This fall he was featured on Voyager in the episode "Revulsion" as Dejaren, an alien hologram who murders the entire organic population of his vessel.
"If you wanted to write an ideal fantasy part for yourself, this was the part," Orser nods. "There was so much meat to this character. Here was this guy who had basically been locked in the closet for his entire life. Who knows what that crew did to him, and used him for?" Dejaren expressed disgust with humanoid bodily fluids and secreting enzymes, leading the actor to imagine that he might have been sexually abused. "I thought it was a perfect study in some kind of psychiatric and psychological abuse - you know, behind every person who commits a crime, there's a story," the actor adds.
Most of Orser's interaction on Voyager was with Roxann Dawson, who plays the chief engineer whom Dejaren tortures when she realizes that he's psychotic, and with Robert Picardo, who plays the holographic Doctor with whom Dejaren bonds. Orser describes Picardo as "a treat" to work with. "He's a television legend, he's been on what, three of his own series, China Beach, and Wonder Years, wasn't he? We had a lot of fun playing back and forth, and a lot of laughs about where we could be taking this stuff - which we won't touch on! Think of Picardo and Dejaran off in the galaxy, discovering new worlds, if you know what I mean!" the actor laughs.
The story of Dejaren shared screen time with a B plot concerning new crewmember Seven of Nine, whom Orser refers to as "the woman with the astounding profile." He jokes, "Come on, it's all for the art!", but adds that he has the utmost respect for the cast and crew of the series. "[Picardo and I] had to fight each other - he had to throw his bag at me, and I had to try to hit him with a hammer. You have to film it with the other actor not standing there, so if you try taking an honest, macho swing into mid-air, anybody's going to look like a sissy. We would just stand there and try not to humiliate the person who was in front of the camera."
A stage-trained actor who grew up in San Francisco and has lived in Italy, Europe, and the U.S. northeast corridor, Orser tried to work for an international bank and pursued traditional jobs. He jokes that it's a good thing he gave that up, or he'd be a psychological wreck today. Of his difficulty in settling down, he says, "I was actually assuming many of the roles which I would later play, so finally when I found a safe place to build a nest, then I could bring all those characters out in my profession. There's times where you're acting and there's nobody around you, you're staring at a white dot on a camera frame, because they need to get such a tight close-up. That's the time when you need to dig inside yourself, find the reality."
The process of filmmaking seems to bemuse Orser, who wonders aloud, "If somebody were to come from another planet and walk onto a movie set, and see an actor standing in front of a camera that's eight inches from his face, with all of these people standing around with microphones and lights, staring at this person who's staring at this white dot, laughing hysterically or whispering viciously, wouldn't it be a wild sight?" He had some shots as Purvis which required that he act to the camera, and is working on a film right now which requires a lot of off-camera acting, so that the actors who are being filmed have the strongest possible on-camera reactions to the dialogue. The film is written and directed by Peter Berg from Chicago Hope, and features Christian Slater, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Stern.
"It's about five really good friends, one of them's getting married," the actor explains. "They go to send him off in Vegas in the usual American way, and Very Bad Things happen. It's about how they hold onto their souls through all of that. I'm the quietest one of the five, I'm a mechanic, very even-tempered, and you get to see what I'm really made of - do I hold it all together or do I fall apart?" Orser has another film in the can, Steven Spielberg's much-awaited Saving Private Ryan, about a group of soldiers looking for a lost comrade.
If Orser sounds proud of his recent work, it's because he believes that the filmmakers he's working with have captured the essence of good storytelling. "I think what you find in most movies is a journey, either with a hero or a group of heroes - like in Marvin's Room you have a family coming together, and in Saving Private Ryan you have a journey of a group of soldiers. It's what happens to you on that journey, who you meet on that journey and what lessons you learn, what directions you take and what corners you go around, how it changes you as a person or as a group when you reach your final destination, if in fact you ever do - if your final destination is the one you originally intended. I think any great story follows that format - Alien Resurrection most certainly does. Action movies take that [theme] to the extreme: the journey is a very intense journey."
Orser was thrilled with the script for the fourth Alien film, and thinks director Jean-Pierre Jeunet was a perfect choice to direct. "He brings this incredibly bizarre, offbeat, circus-like sensibility to the table, and I mean circus in the best way," the actor says, citing the director's previous films, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, and adding that Alien Resurrectioncontains many similar elements: similar themes, similar characters, even underwater.
Jeunet had also worked previously with Alien Resurrection castmembers Ron Perlman and Dominique Pinon, who were in City of Lost Children. Orser describes the latter as "an incredibly visual film," but says that Alien Resurrection takes that visual gift and adds it to "an amazing story, you have the thrill of the action." He feels sure the result will be the best film yet of the series. "It's great to look at, it's exciting, it's interesting to listen to, it's scary and it's sad and it's funny, and there's aliens in it!" Though he has not seen the completed film yet, Orser has heard that the test audiences raved about it, and those whom he worked with who have seen the movie told him they "never felt this proud to be a part of a film."
For the past two years, Orser has been on a set just about every day of the year, which is both wonderful and very draining. "At times, in order to keep it fresh and real and instinctive, you don't know where that final push is going to come from, that's going to propel you into that moment where you're going to tap into some extreme form of rage or joy," he says. "I think the same with writing or painting - you can know what colors look good together, you can know what words will describe, what metaphors will come across as credible, but you digest all that stuff and you regurgitate it out in whatever manner it comes at that moment. It may be colder, it may be hotter, it may be wetter, someone may be standing closer to you." He shuns labels like "Method" for his acting, claiming that the process takes place very much in the moment, and different methods work at different times.
"Everything that I do now is a challenge, and as soon as it isn't challenging any longer, I'm going to have to find something to challenge me," he adds. "Because without a challenge, you're lost." Orser notes that he can't be the kind of guy who gets up, goes to the office, takes the subway home. "If I were, I'd have to be in intense therapy!" he jokes. Then he turns serious. "I don't want to go into therapy, because I don't want to solve all of those things that feed what I do. That's what keeps it all scary, and scary is alive."