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Exclusive Q&A: Lance Henriksen Opens Up on “DAMIEN: OMEN 2”

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Lance Henriksen: the name alone evokes many memorable performances and epitomizes the sheer essence of a versatile, dedicated and downright brilliant actor. From his portrayal of a renegade desert-dwelling bloodsucker in NEAR DARK to doing his bit in eco-horror gory glory in PIRANHA 2: THE SPAWNING to his iconic performance of the android Bishop in ALIENS to even giving a voice to the patriarchal formidable silverbac Kerchakk in Disney’s adaptation of TARZAN, Henriksen is quite simply a force of swaggering, hyper-masculine talent.

But before those aforementioned films, Henriksen played Daniel Neff, the secretive and sinister military academy sergeant who looks after the young anti-Christ Damien Thorn in the criminally underappreciated sequel to THE OMEN, DAMIEN: OMEN 2. But, much like the original screenwriter/director from DAMIEN: OMEN 2, Mike Hodges, Henriksen had mixed feelings about his experience working on this fan favorite sequel, as he explains to FANGORIA…

FANGORIA: Were you a fan of Richard Donner’s THE OMEN? When you found out that there was going to be a sequel, what were your initial thoughts?

LANCE HENRIKSEN: Well the first film was groundbreaking for the time; it was an instant classic. As a rule, I’ve always felt that sequels normally don’t work; they are almost always the lesser of the two. But when I found out that William Holden was in it and the wonderful Lee Grant, who is an amazing actress and director, I thought “Well, this could be good!”

I have always loved William Holden! I love his work and loved that he was a man’s man! And the film also starred the likes of Lew Ayres and Sylvia Sidney, who were all icons in their own distinct way. So once I found this out, I was happy to jump on board.

FANGORIA: How did you get the role of the Sgt. Daniel Neff?

HENRIKSEN: I auditioned for it, and I instantly got along really well with the original director of the film Mike Hodges. I really liked Mike! I remember he and I sitting in a hotel lobby, looking through pictures of paintings that he wanted to use for DAMIEN: OMEN 2. I knew about his films like GET CARTER, and I always knew he was a great director and very personable guy, but the weird thing is he got fired from this movie. To be honest with you, it really pissed me off. In fact, I was ready not to do the movie! I was ready to quit!

After Mike was fired, I had a week before we started shooting and the new guy they bought in, Don Taylor, was, as far as I’m concerned, more like a traffic cop! He was like a clumsy non-artistic stunt man who was supposed to be directing! I also don’t think Don really liked me at all, but he was stuck with me because Mike had already hired me. So that atmosphere of mutual disdain was on set while we shot my scenes.

FANGORIA: What were your thoughts about this character and his relationship with Damien Thorn?

HENRIKSEN: With Mike, there was a great flow of creativity. We used to have talks about my character. I would tell him, “You know Mike, if I was the devil’s protector, there would be powers that would blow me off the battlefield and come running to that kid to guide him and teach him.” At that time, the Vietnam War was winding down and I told Mike that I wanted to play it like I just got back from fighting in that war. I wanted my character to have that sense of urgency, to leave this horrendous war and to arrive at this school to welcome the young anti-Christ into the military academy.

Mike liked it! He knew it would make my character a different breed, because when you have that engine going on in your body, you deliver much more! I never served in Vietnam, but I could imagine what it does to people and how the violence of war changes people. Mike was cool with all this and so he went with it. That’s what I drew upon for my characterization of Neff and his working relationship with Damien, but sadly, Don Taylor didn’t capture that at all! He totally missed the point and unfortunately, all of my scenes were shot with Don directing, not Mike.

FANGORIA: What was your working relationship with young actor Jonathan Scott Taylor like? Did he look to you for advice on taking on the complex role of Damien?

HENRIKSEN: Not really, no. He was a young kid; his parents and other relatives were there and that’s the nature of the industry, since you have to have elders on set to look after these kids. And it was his family who kept him busy, working with him, so he didn’t really need my help. Jonathan was a very bright and very good kid, and it’s strange how he just slipped into obscurity.

Of course, one major thing that was happening at the time we were making the film was this overwhelming hysteria from the press, public and industry itself telling all involved that “You will be cursed if you make a movie about the devil!” We used to get told that we wouldn’t make another movie if we did this film! And in a way, there maybe is a truth to that: the subject matter is so taboo that it might frighten people into not doing anything after taking on such an intense role, like Jonathan did doing Damien Thorn.

But in response to bonding with Jonathan, that never really arose. However, I had a strong bond with the kids at the military academy where we shot just outside of Chicago. Those kids at that academy were real life students and they were great! A lot of them were dumped there by their parents, so it reminded me of the Catholic school that I went to as a young boy, which was really more like an orphanage.

I remember before I left I bought them a nice big color television for their recreational room, because I saw what they were used to which was a tiny little fuzz-infested black and white TV. I did this because I felt connected to these kids, we had a lot of laughs and they opened up to me, telling me all about their lives. That was amazing and I’ll never forget it. Plus, they had so much fun making a movie!

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FANGORIA: Sgt. Neff is one of Damien’s “protectors”. DAMIEN: OMEN 2 has a few protectors unlike the first film where Mrs. Baylock was the only one. Did you take anything from Billie Whitelaw’s performance in THE OMEN to feed your distinctly super creepy portrayal of Neff?

HENRIKSEN: No. I drew on the idea that Neff was a hardened military guy that got “chosen” to be a protector to Damien. The problem with Neff as opposed to Mrs. Baylock in the first film, is that he just disappears; he is given no closure at all! That drove me crazy! There was no distinct arc, no complete challenge that he could fight. I felt like he was written off as just someone there to remind you that there were many protectors of the anti-Christ. I would have loved to have seen what Mike Hodges originally wanted, which was seeing why Neff was chosen to be a disciple and teacher to the devil.

FANGORIA: What was it like working with screen legends such as Lew Ayres, Sylvia Sidney and William Holden? Even though you didn’t share much screen time with these people, are there any stories to share?

HENRIKSEN: Oh, William Holden was a legend! I sat there and had ginger ale with him, and we talked for hours. It reminded me of when I worked with John Huston in Italy on a shoot and got to hear him tell stories about old Hollywood that I just ate up. And these people, like Lew Ayres and Sylvia and William, these are great people to be around; they are ultimately perfect professionals.

FANGORIA: Did you all feel that DAMIEN: OMEN 2 was going to move things forward and get you more great roles?

HENRIKSEN: No. Not this film. For me, the real seminal moment was playing Bishop in ALIENS. That was something that just opened all doors.

FANGORIA: What is your most fond memory of shooting DAMIEN: OMEN 2?

HENRIKSEN: Becoming friends with Mike Hodges and dealing with my own personal grievances concerning religious themed films. As a kid, I was brought up in Catholic schools and I didn’t like it. I mean, they had all those horrible rituals: they had all of us kids in a line kissing the remains of a saint that was kept in a glass box, and having to do mass was grim. It always felt more like a cult than anything spiritual and as I’ve grown older, I understand what spiritual means; you feel it and you know it.

But the Catholic rituals are very frightening to kids and I was only like six or seven and it all stuck. I also went to the Vatican once while I was shooting a movie in Rome, and when you look at the amount of art that they’ve collected over the many years, it’s all terrifying depictions of torture and hell, all for the sake of people to become better people. It’s crazy.

But I went in and met Mike and we talked about it. His vision was very personal. It was meant to be a personal film for him and from hearing him speak about it, I dropped all my prejudices about all the ritualistic overtones about the film and approached it from a realist point of view. If this was the living devil coming back to take over the world, it would be good to be on the winning side.

FANGORIA: Many people, including myself, feel that DAMIEN: OMEN 2 is a stunning picture and completely underrated. What does the film mean to you?

HENRIKSEN: It’s not one of my favorite films at all. I don’t really like movies that deal with religion. I just think that it’s a fantasy on top of a fantasy. I prefer movies that deal openly with spirituality. There’s a great line, I’m not sure who said it, but it goes, “Organized religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for people who have been already been there.”

Let me just say in terms of the world, the religion of fear is very prevalent. There is a oppressive cult of fear in the world right now which is all based on certain things, like the terrible economy we’re facing, the lack of work and on top of all that, the medical industry itself, an industry we’re supposed to trust and rely on, is putting out so many ads on how you need certain pills or prescriptions to stay healthy; this paranoia gets fed by overwhelming fear! They’re making the global fears extremely personal fear. Politics is based on this fear and that’s what a movie like THE OMEN and DAMIEN: OMEN 2 tap into, this marriage between political oppression and ancient demonic evil.

Corporations are way too powerful and frightening, they can squash you like a bug and that was all explored in DAMIEN: OMEN 2 with the controlling of the food supply. The producers used to feed into this fear also. They would said things like, “Oh you got a flat tire today, see? That’s because we’re dealing with the devil!” So they played on this fear to feed the creation of this film. I don’t believe in the OMEN curse at all, I think people are in charge of their own destinies and if you’re gonna find a mythology to believe in, one of the only ones that rings true is this: if you go through life unaware of your surroundings and disrespectful to others and nature, it’s gonna come back and bite you in the ass!

You can follow Lance Henriksen on Twitter: @lancehenriksen.

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About the author
Lee Gambin
Lee Gambin is a Melbourne, Australia based playwright, screenwriter, film and theatre essayist and journalist. He has been working as a writer for Fangoria magazine since 2008. He has worked in independent theatre for many years as well as Artistic Director of his own independent theatre company. His rock musical OH THE HORROR! was a major success in its initial workshop run in 2009. He has lectured for numerous film societies and film festivals including the Melbourne International Film Festival. Gambin runs Cinemaniacs, a film society in Melbourne that present genre favorites. Gambin’s play KING OF BANGOR was published by Stephen King associative publishing house The Overlook Connection and MASSACRED BY MOTHER NATURE: EXPLORING THE NATURAL HORROR FILM, a film analysis book, is published by Midnight Marquee Press and has had widely positive reviews.
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