This was for an Empire special celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Alien franchise in 2009. The achievement here – which I was quite proud of – was to track down and interview every single surviving actor who played a colonial marine in Aliens (plus Lance Henriksen and Paul Rieser, who weren’t marines but were along for the ride). Bill Paxton and Michael Biehn had already been rounded up by my colleagues Nick De Semlyen and James Dyer, but the rest of the interviews in this feature – Henriksen, Rieser, Al Matthews, Jenette Goldstein, Ricco Ross, William Hope, Mark Rolston, Colette Hiller, Daniel Kash, Cynthia Scott and Trevor Steedman – are mine.
After publication in the magazine the feature was recycled online, but since the overhaul of the Empire website in 2015 it has disappeared again. So I’m reproducing it here.
The Colonial Marines of James Cameron’s Aliens seem unstoppable when we’re first introduced to them: muscly, heavily armoured and totally gung-ho. But then they meet an enemy completely outside of their experience and, frankly, completely outside their capabilities. We talked to all the Marines about their characters, their fates and the experience of working on Aliens. WARNING: This includes Aliens spoilers, since we list when certain Marines buy the farm.
A. Apone / Actor: Al Matthews / Rank: Sergeant
Lasts: Until the Alien attack at 01:12:24
Al Matthews, a genuine Vietnam vet with 13 combat awards, was a shoo-in for the role of Sgt. Apone: “I asked James Cameron how long it took him to decide to cast me. Thirty seconds!”
Contrary to the claims of his co-stars, Matthews is unconvinced that the Marines would have worked as a real unit. “Jim asked me to train them, and the main thing I had to teach those guys was never point a weapon at somebody, and never walk around with your finger on the trigger. We use blanks, but they can do some damage.”
Some learned quicker than others. Frank Oz was filming Little Shop Of Horrors on an adjacent stage, and Matthews recalls that James Remar (before being replaced by Michael Biehn) “blew a hole in Frank’s set! With a shotgun! I said, ‘Where the fuck did you get live ammo?'”
The sprightly 67-year-old, who now lives in Spain, describes his technique as “not acting, I just do my thing, man” but that hasn’t limited his film appearances. He has 64 roles under his belt (from Yanks to Tomorrow Never Dies), plus various stage appearances and stints as a radio DJ (he was the first “black voice” on BBC Radio 1). A lifelong musician, he has a band but rarely plays anymore, although he has categorically not retired.
D. Spunkmeyer / Actor: Daniel Kash / Rank: Private
Lasts: Until 01:20:22
Daniel Kash is still disappointed at being the only Marine to die off-screen: “It would’ve been awesome to get skewered.” Aside from the dirty jokes whispered by a stuntman while “driving” the loader, what he most remembers about Aliens is fear: not of xenomorphs, but improv. “It was totally different from theatre,” he explains. “People weren’t sticking to the script. I was losing my mind. I’m actually impressed that I got my lines out, because I was shitting bricks.” Still acting, next up is the new Camp Rock. “Where I want to burn the Jonas Brothers down!” he laughs. “I’ve done 85 movies, and Aliens is the only one people give a crap about.”
(No disrespect to the others, but Daniel Kash was a brilliant interviewee, and I always thought it was a shame that I’d only got to use a fraction of our conversation. So a few years later, as Prometheus arrived, I got the unexpurgated Spunkmeyer published at Den of Geek.
Dietrich / Actor: Cynthia Scott / Rank: Corporal
Lasts: Until the Alien sneak attack at 01:11:02
Dietrich is the first of the Marines to check out… or is she? “I am not!” protests Scott. “I get grabbed, and later they realise I’m in a cocoon!” When she was cast, she was forging a career as a singer, so a sci-fi action movie was a culture shock: “Every piece of me hurt. I trained like mad, and they had us taking supplements like extract of spleen. Jenette (Goldstein, Vasquez) was a competitive bodybuilder, she was what I aspired to.”
Scott left acting some years ago, and is now a sculptor, currently with installations in two different cities. “Every art has its own measure of tedium, like downtime on set,” she explains. “But repetitions in sculpture are meditative. To make what’s in your head is as close as you can get to Jim Cameron!”
Carter Burke / Actor: Paul Rieser / Rank: Weyland-Yutani suit and total bastard
Lasts: Until the Alien attack at 01:53:24
The affable Paul Reiser had more experience as a comedian than as an actor when he was cast as the odious Carter Burke. “I’d done both Beverly Hills Cops, big films, but I was only a tiny part,” he recalls. “Aliens was a whole new level that made me understand what it’s like to be in a hit.”
As a non-Marine, Reiser wasn’t required to participate in the long hours of fitness training, but laments missing out on decking out his character. “They all got their weapons and gear, and I got a stupid suit – 200 years in the future and all we’ve come up with is the collar goes up. And I got a Filofax to carry into battle. I had to have something!”
He chuckles at the idea that everything that transpires in Aliens is his fault. “I was just following the corporate manifest, but at the premiere my sister punched me in the stomach. I thought, ‘This doesn’t bode well for the public.'”
Reiser fronted the sitcom Mad About You for years, but since the birth of his youngest, has been “kind of retired”. He’s had a new idea, though: “A show about a guy who should be doing something, but is happy not doing anything.”
Drake / Actor: Mark Rolston / Rank: Private (Smartgun-wielding)
Lasts: Until he’s melted by acid spray at 01:14:58
Mark Rolston is not ashamed to admit that he blagged his way onto Aliens. “Actors have to tell white lies at times. I had just done Revolution, and I made it sound as if I had the next-best role to Pacino!”
He remembers James Cameron as “extraordinary”. “He told us all to decorate our gear, to bring our own individualities to each role. I’ve never had that since. I asked for that scar!” Mark remains busy as an actor, having just finished shooting Saw VI and signed to do VII, although that doesn’t mean he survives. He’s pitching a TV series, the East-meets-West Zen Cop, to the studios, and hopes to start a movie, that he co-wrote and stars in as a Marine in post-Katrina New Orleans, later this year. Does that mean he needs to be back in Aliens shape? “Well, I’ve had to go back to lifting weights, which I don’t enjoy!”
T. Wierzbowski / Actor: Trevor Steedman / Rank: Private (non-speaking)
Lasts: Until he’s ‘taken’ at 01:11:40
Trevor Steedman is a stuntman rather than an actor. In fact, he’s so hard that he turned up for work on Aliens the day after donating bone marrow to fight his brother’s leukaemia. Lots of TV work followed, “anything apart from Coronation Street“. As Bomber Harris in Snatch he headbutted Brad Pitt, and you might spot him in Children Of Men firing an M50 from a tank.
We only ever catch fleeting glimpses of Wierzbowski, and we don’t see him die: he’s dragged off screaming after Dietrich’s flamethrower torches Frost. Fan mythology has it that Wierz is still out there. “He is!” Steedman assures us. “I just played him in a fan film by the UK Colonial Marine Corps. He runs special ops for Weyland-Yutani.”
Bishop / Actor: Lance Henriksen / Rank: The “synthetic” science officer
Lasts: Until the end, but torn in half at 02:17:40
It’s several years since UK cinemas have seen a theatrical release featuring the craggy icon Lance Henriksen, but he remains obsessively busy. He received a Lifetime Achievement gong at this year’s Saturn Awards, and he’ll next be seen in Independence, playing a judge. “The whole movie is about the thin line between assumptions and justice,” says Henriksen. “I helped write it and I’m starring in it. We’re putting together the financing right now. I didn’t want to sit around and wait for people to give me work all the time.”
Henriksen’s early roles saw him working with the likes of Sidney Lumet and John Huston, but he remains best known for his collaborations with James Cameron in The Terminator and Aliens (and, er, Piranha 2): “I appreciated at the time that Aliens was something special that would never happen again.”
Henriksen felt that it would be a tough gig following Ian Holm (Alien) and Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner) as an onscreen android. But he also had an instinctive idea as to how to tackle the part. “I decided I wanted to play Bishop as a very innocent 12-year-old who took pity on adults because he knew he was going to outlive them,” he says. Some of his more inspired contributions fell by the wayside, however: “I thought maybe when Bishop got alerted to something, two pupils would appear in his eyes, and I had some contact lenses made up. When Jim saw the dailies he said, ‘Jesus, we can’t use that. You’re more frightening than the Alien!'”
With Bishop ripped in two at the climax of Aliens, Henriksen was replaced by a puppet for his initial scenes in Alien3. But the later appearance of a second Bishop (or was it?) caused some confusion. We know, post-Alien Vs. Predator, it was an android, but was that always the plan? “They weren’t sure,” he admits. “They wanted to leave a doubt, and they came up with the scene where I get hit on the head with the pipe very late on. They hadn’t prepared for it, and the make-up is actually a Jack Nicholson ear left over from the Batman shoot. He’s got a lot smaller ear than I do!”
And despite largely negative fan reaction, Henriksen was pleased with what he felt was a dignified final (so far) franchise appearance as the original company man Charles Bishop Weyland in Alien Vs. Predator. “I was a lot older than when I played Bishop,” he says, “but the younger-looking robots in the earlier films are a tribute to that original, who’s dying and on his last hurrah. I was very happy about it.”
Vasquez / Actor: Jenette Goldstein / Rank: Private (Smartgun-wielding)
Lasts: Until she goes out in a blaze of glory with Gorman at 01:56:10
Jenette Goldstein is still performing. She appeared only last year in the cult horror Autopsy, alongside her Terminator 2 co-star Robert Patrick. But these days, she has a sideline… “I run a bra store for small gals with large assets! It’s a new venture I just started, prompted by my own need. I saw a large, round niche: a really specific market. Nothing smaller than a D-cup. There was a lack of really nice shops in Los Angeles, if you can believe that. I knew it would be a hit.” She signs her emails “in support”.
The diminutive tough girl came to the Aliens set in better shape than most of her colleagues, but she laughs off Cynthia Scott’s suggestion that she was a professional bodybuilder. “That story will never die. I was just an out-of-work actress who went to the gym, and I enjoyed getting into shape and I just sort of fell into going to the British National Whatever and placing fifth or something. I’d never been in that kind of shape before and will never be again!”
Jenette made lifelong friends during the shoot, and even introduced Mark Rolston to his future wife: “He can blame me!” She remembers the smartgun less fondly: “It was a huge process to get in and out of, so Jim made us stay in them. We had special stools. There’s a famous picture of me, and you think I’m in character. But I’m on that damn stool, feeling mean and angry!”
R. Frost / Actor: Ricco Ross / Rank: Private (APC driver)
Lasts: Until he’s flamed by Dietrich at 01:11:07
Ricco Ross answers Empire‘s call on the basketball court – surely constituting a technical foul. He says he rarely thinks about Aliens, since the memories get supplanted by recent work: he’s just finished TV pilot The Average American Marriage, as well as the feature film The Apocalypse… According To Doris, as a journalist tracking down a scarily accurate medium. But he’s always happy to talk about his xenomorph-fighting days. “The fans keep that excitement, and when you talk to them it’s contagious.”
Ross, now resident again in LA after many years in the UK, could have been forgiven for not taking the role of Frost at all. “I’d just gotten cast in Full Metal Jacket, which overlapped with Aliens by a week,” he explains. “Jim Cameron said that if Stanley Kubrick released me on time I could start on Aliens a week late, but Kubrick was known for going over schedule and wouldn’t let me go. I had to make a decision. It was hard!”
Promises from Cameron of rewrites giving him “some nice lines” helped with Ross’ tough choice, but being able to see the script at all was the clincher. “Kubrick wouldn’t let anyone read Full Metal Jacket,” he says. “You just got pages. So being able to read Aliens, I just got a feeling that it was the right choice. I don’t know why Jim went that extra distance for me. I guess I was confident, I looked the part, I had other things going on.”
C. Ferro / Actor: Colette Hiller / Rank: Corporal (Dropship pilot)
Lasts: Until the Alien attack at 01:21: 00
“It was a long time ago! There’s only a certain amount one can say,” admits Colette Hiller. “I’ve met some incredible people through Aliens. I just wonder, ‘Who are these people who know my lines better than I do?'”
Her strongest memory of the shoot is a diva moment in protest at having to shave her head: “They told me, ‘It’s okay, look at Jenette!’ and I just bawled… I was going to get married shortly afterwards so I made them buy me a long, blonde wig! I don’t know what came over me! I never actually wore it.”
Hiller went on to spend a decade as a journalist and BBC producer, but has recently put her talents to philanthropic use, organising the Sing London festival. “It’s to make the city feel more intimate,” she explains. “We put 200 pianos on the streets of London and booked 250 musical events, which involve the audience. We followed it up with 100 ping-pong tables!”
W. Gorman / Actor: William Hope / Rank: Lieutenant
Lasts: Until his heroic kaboom at 01:56:10
William Hope’s dance card has been fully stamped recently, with black ops thriller Legacy; a BBC drama in which he plays the president of Lehman Brothers before their spectacular demise; multiple Tank Engine voices on Thomas & Friends: Hero Of The Rails; and best of all, a role in Guy Ritchie’s blockbuster, Sherlock Holmes. “I play a freemason who kidnaps Robert Downey Jr.,” explained Hope, before seeing the finished film. “It’s not a huge role. I’ve got four or five scenes with Robert, but these kinds of blockbusters and action movies always need to cut to the chase, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of them get lost along the way.”
Not so with Aliens though, which Hope describes as so tightly written that, at least in the Special Edition, everything made it to the screen. “That extra stuff is pretty expository, and not necessarily crucial to the narrative, but in that longer version, what you see is all that Jim wrote. And drew!”
Like Ricco Ross, Hope was already in Marine shape having jumped ship from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He’d also just finished a comedic theatre run as a “Marine who had his genitals shot off and went a bit psychotic” (Pvt.Wars by James McClure), and was initially up for Hudson, before Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd decided to “try a different tack”.
Hope concedes that the role of the cowardly and ineffectual Gorman doesn’t gain a lot of sympathy, but doesn’t mind at all, pointing out that Gorman is ultimately redeemed in his blaze of glory with Vasquez (although he still dies with “Asshole!” ringing in his ears). “A friend of mine did two tours in Vietnam, and he was furious,” Hope recalls. “He saw the movie and said, ‘You call yourself a fuckin’ Marine?!’ But my passion is acting. I couldn’t care less about that American obsession with looking good. Scripts of that creativity and vision and immensity don’t come along very often. I was just thrilled to get on it.”
T. Crowe / Actor: Tip Tipping / Rank: Private
Lasts: Until he’s blown up at 01:11:21
This is the lost Marine. A stuntman like Trevor Steedman, Tip was tragically killed in a parachuting accident in 1993, aged just 34. “We all got very close with him,” says Ricco Ross. “When I heard what happened to him it really shook me up. But if he was gonna go, what better way to go than doing what he loved?”
“He was a great guy; I really liked him,” says Lance Henriksen. “He was just full of that can-do attitude.”