To call Henry Rollins’s career multifaceted is almost to engage in understatement. While he may have launched himself into the public consciousness by more or less grabbing the microphone at a Black Flag show in New York in 1980 and not putting it down until the band’s breakup in 1986, the decades that followed have taken him from music to a career in poetry, stand-up comedy, acting, television and radio show hosting, modeling, political punditry, and more. In 1994, he won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording and performed with his Rollins Band in the awards ceremony broadcast; he’s published over a dozen books with his 2.13.61 imprint; more recently, he’s been busy hosting documentaries for National Geographic and continuing to tour the world as a spoken-word artist.
But in the lobby of the downtown Austin Hilton during SXSW, Rollins seems slightly anxious. He’s sitting in an overstuffed chair in the packed room with a bottle of water, and he’s laser-focused on talking about his new project, a horror film that’s set to premiere at the Stateside Theater later that night: He Never Died, in which he plays a bored, ageless vampire who’s drifting through an excruciating existence.
“I knew I could carry it,” Rollins says of Jack, his character. “I’m not thinking I’m anything great, but I felt so in tune with a man who can’t die who drinks blood and kills people. I know this guy. I can do this. I walked in with all confidence.”
He Never Died, directed by Jason Krawczyk, marks Rollins’ first lead role in a movie. He’s been acting for years–he first began appearing in short and independent films in the late ’80s–but Hollywood didn’t really discover him until 1994, when he took a series of roles in films of varying renown: the Charlie Sheen/Kristy Swanson vehicle The Chase, the Keanu Reeves cyberpunk flop Johnny Mnemonic, and Michael Mann’s critically adored crime thriller Heat. Since then, his roles have typically been supporting ones–he’s been a familiar face popping up to shout a lot in movies like Bad Boys II, and he had a memorable recurring role on Sons of Anarchy as white supremacist AJ Weston. But this time, he found a script he believed in, and a project he wanted to do.
Talking about his film career in the past, Rollins has been careful to distance himself from the job of “actor,” but as he discusses He Never Died, he seems to embrace it.
“I felt no pressure–I just couldn’t wait to get in there every day and do it,” he says. “If I’m prepared, if I’ve really put the time in, I can’t wait to show you the work I’ve done. I don’t like being nervous about stuff–life’s too short–so I just burn hours and hours of time in preparation. I saw this script at the end of 2012, and we started shooting at the end of 2013, so I had a year to prepare. By the time we hit it, I was just telling the director, Jason, how I think my guy should be. ‘Man, you’ve done your work–go. Don’t ask me, just hit it.’ I had really worked my ass off to prepare, so I’m not dragging the team. It was a joy.”
Rollins isn’t a classically trained actor–he says he’s never taken an acting class–and his approach to getting ready is rooted in eliminating whatever weaknesses may emerge from being underprepared. For him, that means memorizing not just his own lines, but every word of the script.
“I memorize the whole page, so I just act in the totality of that moment. I want to be aware of everything that’s going to happen–how I’m sitting, where my shoulders are going to go. If you watch a film, you can tell if the actors aren’t familiar with these lines because they’re telegraphing. ‘You’re not at ease with your character! You just did that with your head, you don’t know what you’re doing!’ I don’t want to be that guy, so I go in trying to know every tree in the forest.”
Everybody’s creative process is different, and “fear of screwing up” is a powerful motivator.
Rollins is cagey about whether he’s been offered lead roles before, but it’s clear that He Never Died is the only one he was passionate enough to pursue. Film financing is a tough business, and he signed on to the project well in advance so the producers could fundraise off of his involvement.
“With films like this, it’s a miracle they get made at all. These tiny, cool, bitchin’ indie films, everyone has three of them, and none of them get made because that’s the money that’s the hardest to find,” Rollins acknowledges. “But the producer, Zach [Hagen], said, ‘I can do this. With your name, I can do this.’ Rarely do I look at a script and go, ‘Wow. Drop everything–I want to do that.'”
The script came to Rollins through his longtime assistant Heidi May (with whom he also cohosts the recently launched Henry & Heidi Podcast), who read it while he was on tour. He read it on her recommendation, and immediately met with Hagen and Krawczyk in New York.
“I said to them, ‘Jason, Zach, great to meet you. I don’t want to offend you guys, but I laughed all throughout the script. It’s funny, right?'” Rollins recalls. “And they said, ‘Finally, someone gets it!'”
Rollins explained his interpretation of the character–which is that, rather than being a violent monster, he’s mostly just bored–and says that Krawczyk was relieved when he saw that interpretation.
“I think this is just insanely funny, to undersell everything, so I have to Botox my entire emotional system, and Jason said, ‘I wrote this for you,'” Rollins says. “I said, ‘Dude, nobody writes me anything but traffic tickets. So who did you really want?’ He said, ‘Henry, I wrote it. It’s the glove. You’re the hand.’ I was in.”
Krawcyzk has written several episodes of a TV version of He Never Died, and the possibility of taking this role beyond the big screen and to your television is one that excites Rollins. He’s made a living working in most of the creative roles a person in 21st century Western culture can–he’s appeared in Gap ads and been the voice of Infiniti cars, he’s done work for video games and movies, he’s had a career as a musician and one as a stand-up comic, he’s run a publishing company and a small record label, he writes columns for LA Weekly and hosts documentary series on the History Channel and NatGeo Wild. But when it comes to the creative steps he’d like to take next, after decades of singing for his supper, the idea of digging his teeth into a role like Jack on a long-term basis holds a lot of appeal.
“I’m 54, and I’ve been winging it for dinner since I was 20,” Rollins says. “It’s all until the deal is up–I’ve never had a sure thing except my audience, and they can leave at any time. If they see something brighter, shinier, younger, they can be like, ‘Hey man, love ya!’ And I hear you–thanks for everything. My life is a big maybe, and you have to be looking up for the next vine to grab and swing from.”
That realization hit Rollins hard when he was filming his recurring role on Sons of Anarchy, which–spoiler alert–was not a character who survived the show’s seven-season run. Suddenly, he saw the rest of the cast building their career plans around several years of the show, and he drove home from his final day on set wanting what they had.
In person, in the chair in the Hilton lobby, Rollins still talks much like he does onstage–extemporaneously, free-associatively, and at length (his shows are known to stretch as many as three hours). And in those shows, he’s keen to talk about how he doesn’t like to spend time at home. His tour schedule backs that up: For much of his career, Rollins has been on the road more days of the year than he’s been at his Los Angeles office, sometimes by wide margins. So it’s surprising to hear him talk about yearning for stability, coworkers, and the opportunity to see the same faces every day. How does that jibe with the guy who spent years singing lines like “I look at my watch and it always says it’s time to go”?
When I ask him about it, Rollins starts by offering another free-flowing jam about the confinement of a middle-class existence: “I like moving around, what I don’t like is another day at the office. Another day of ‘I’m going to the grocery store again, Starbucks every Friday night to write something for LA Weekly.’ It’s a rut. I might as well work at Staples. I’m not putting that down, but also–just get a cubicle, start breeding, get all normal? I don’t wanna. If I can’t do anything else, I get my passport and I leave. I travel. I’ve been to 86 countries. Last year, Thanksgiving, the whole entertainment industry is all going to a sunny beach, so I can get up and go, no one wants me for anything. I write for LA Weekly, I can dial that in from anywhere. The radio shows are done in advance. I went to Central Asia and kicked it in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for a month and a half, saw a million mosques, and froze my ass off. But I’m on the move and I’m taking photos, I’m talking to people, I’m interviewing people about arranged marriages and Stalin and Islam and how all that comes together, and it was fascinating, amazing. It’s not sitting at home. ‘One more episode of Scandal!’ That, to me, is like–” Rollins simulates a barf sound.
All of this makes sense–Rollins has been extolling the creative virtues of traveling and breaking routine for decades. But, he says, he’s got a different perspective now–maybe in years past, the creative process was partly a means to a lifestyle. But now, creation for the sake of creation holds its appeal.
“Showing up on a set at some obscene hour of the morning and getting your ass kicked by Ron Perlman, like having to really burn lean tissue? That’s as good as being on tour or traveling, because you’re engaged every day in burning lean mineral tissue making something, and that’s what I truly crave,” Rollins says. “I love those moments. If I had a Sons of Anarchy-like TV thing, I’d take it. Maybe 20 years ago, I would have said, ‘I’m rock and roll, man, fuck you.’ But I did rock and roll. I murdered it. I can’t do it anymore. I did as much as I could with it, and now I want to do some other things. I like something where I can keep coming back to build something–it would be great to have done parts two and three of a film, or three seasons of a TV show, where you’re like, ‘I did that, man.’ It took three years to realize that.”
It’s possible that “other thing” could be a TV version of He Never Died, where he continues his tenure as a disaffected immortal, cursed to wander an earth that holds little of interest to him, forced to interact with people who need him more than he needs to be left alone. The reviews of He Never Died out of SXSW were strong, and the film currently enjoys an 8.1 user rating on IMDB. It’s also possible that the next thing will be something else entirely, of course–but either way, the man seems to have some different ideas about what creative fulfillment looks like at this point in his life, and however he achieves it will likely lead to some interesting places.