Sometimes the Words Get in the Way An Interview with Sid Haig By Mike White. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down for drinks and discussion with Sid Haig at the 2011 Blue Water Film Festival in Port Huron, MI...
I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down for drinks and discussion with Sid Haig at the 2011 Blue Water Film Festival in Port Huron, MI. In town to support the Michigan premiere of Douglas Schulze’s Mimesis where Mr. Haig plays Alfonso Betz, a director discouraged by the way in which horrendous crimes are blamed on horror films.
Mike White: I understand you started off as a dancer. How did you get from dancing into acting?
Sid Haig: Through music. I started playing drums when I was nine. A year out of high school I got a recording contract with Keen Records which, at the time, was Sam Cooke’s recording company. I realized pretty early that the music business was full of thieves and that I was never going to make a dime. I was working my ass off. We were doing one-nighters all up and down California and I wasn’t making any money. So I said, "Nah, this is not the way to go."
MW: What was the name of your band?
SH: We had three transformations but we recorded under The T-Birds.
MW: Are there hard core fans that come up to you with T-Bird records to sign?
SH: This is amazing. I was doing a convention at Cinema Wasteland in Cleveland. This kid comes up to me, early twenties, and he said, "My buddy and I said that we always wanted to go to a horror convention and when we found out that you were going to be here we said that this was the one we were going to." And they had taken a bus from South Dakota to Cleveland, Ohio to get an autograph. I went, "Can I buy you a sandwich or something?" I mean, this is extending yourself.
A month later I’m doing another convention and this guy comes up to me and asks, "Do you remember a kid from South Dakota?" And I said, "Yeah, Cody," because you remember people’s names when they extend themselves like that. He goes, "[Cody] heard you were looking for this and he bought it and he wanted you to have it." And, it was a 45 of my singles. I had been looking for it for forever. He’d found it and bought it, and sent it to me.
Then, I was doing another convention in Milwaukee and a woman came up to me with the same record but it was a variant. It had the label for the A side on both sides of the record. The one is worth at least a dollar thirty five.
MW: When did you decide to make the switch from music to acting?
SH: A friend of mine and I were standing outside my parents’ house trying to figure out what we were going to do with our lives and he said, "You know, you ought to go to the Pasadena Playhouse." I said, "What’s that?" And, he said, "It’s a theater college." I sent away for the brochure, the application, and I got my letters of recommendation, sent all the stuff in and I was accepted.
At the Pasadena Playhouse, this is where guys like Robert Young, Robert Preston, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Charles Bronson, all those guys graduated from there, okay? When you start, everybody is on probation for the first six weeks and then you present a two minute comedy, two minute drama and a two minute classical piece. Based on that you get the invite to stay or, if you don’t get the invite, you just go away. It didn’t make a difference if you were getting straight As in your academic classes or not. If you weren’t cutting it as an actor it was just time to go find something else to do.
We started with a class of 150, graduated 32 two years later, and, of the 32, two of us became working actors.
MW: Who was the other guy?
SH: Stuart Margolin. And, he and I were roommates in Hollywood. When we graduated we just moved in together and fought the war.
I was working a month later. A month after graduation I did Jack Hill’s student film at UCLA, The Host.
MW: I have yet to see The Host but I hear that there are a lot of similarities between it and Apocalypse Now.
SH: It’s a direct steal. The third act of Apocalypse Now is The Host.
MW: What role did you play in that?
SH: I was the lead. I was the Martin Sheen character. In The Host I stumble into this Indian village and they had just killed the priest who had been there because they took everything literally and when he taught them communion drink of my blood and eat of my flesh that’s exactly what they did. And, I was the next guy on the menu. There was a confrontation between the Spaniard that was in the village and myself and I won.
MW: I have to dig that one up. I know it’s on one of his DVDs but I don’t remember which one.
SH: It’s on Switchblade Sisters.
MW: That’s one of the few Jack Hill films you weren’t in, right? Because you were in Coffy, Foxy Brown, The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and you were in a lot of other Philippine films while you were over there.
SH: I think I did ten films over there. I was there for six months at one stretch, and living like a king. There was a revolt. The Roger Corman formula for films in the Philippines was "Nine Naked Women and Me." Somebody had to do it.
At one point when we were doing The Big Bird Cage we were staying at this converted insane asylum. The girls revolted. They said, "We all have the other half of our plane ticket. If we have to stay in this motel one more day, that’s it, we’re out of here." So, Cirio Santiago, who was the co-producer, got us in at the International Hotel at Makati. Makati’s like Beverly Hills. It’s in the financial district, it’s modern, five star hotel. Those were the hotels that were built by Pan Am. They had a hotel in every city in the world that they went to.
I knew, because I’d been there for The Big Doll House, kind of how things worked and how to grease everybody. When I showed up, I had a fistful of five peso notes and to anybody in a uniform, I just started passing out money. I never had to lift a finger for anything. Every day a guy would come to my room and shine all my shoes. I never had to make out a laundry list. They just came in, washed everything, folded everything, and put it back in the drawers. I had fresh fruit and flowers in my room every day. I had my own table in the coffee shop. I’d just go in and as soon as my butt was in the seat my paper was there and coffee was in the cup. They learned what I liked for breakfast so, after a while, they just brought me food and I never even had to order. When I left, six months later, the staff threw me a party.
MW: What have been some of the most fun that you’ve had in a film?
SH: Almost everything I did in the Philippines. Of course, the films that I’ve done for Rob [Zombie] have been a lot of fun. Working with Quentin [Tarantino] was a lot of fun. I’ve tried to have a good time with everything that I’ve done because when you’re happy, you work better.
MW: You’ve had such a career renaissance over the last few years but was there ever a point where you weren’t working at all?
SH: Yeah, when I quit.
I was tired of playing the same old stupid heavies. I said, "If you guys can’t figure out that I can do more than just point a gun in somebody’s face, I’m out."
MW: You’ve done so many different things...
SH: Over 350 television episodes.
MW: Wow. I’m talking just the breadth of roles you were playing in your early career, from Spider Baby to Pit Stop; you were unrecognizable sometimes with just the way your physicality changed. You did so many different types of roles, as well; comedy and horror, action and drama. But at some point you realized that you had been typecast as "the guy who holds the gun." When was that?
SH: ’92. I left at the age of... I think I was 58. I took out a student loan and went back to school and became a certified hypnotherapist.
MW: How long did you do that for?
SH: I’m still doing it. I went to school; I put in about 1,700 hours, which is about a thousand hours more than normal to get certification, because I don’t do anything half way. I went through my internship and set up my practice.
MW: Why hypnotherapy? Why did that interest you?
SH: I had done a lot of home study in psychology in order to build a character from here [points to head]. That was attractive to me. I heard about this place and I checked them out and they checked me out and I had to take a test to make sure I wasn’t nuts. And I passed!
MW: Was Jackie Brown your comeback?
SH: Yes, it was. Quentin called me I don’t know how he got my phone number but when you’re Quentin Tarantino it’s like you’re in the CIA. "Get me Sid Haig!" Okay, boom. He said, "I get it, you don’t want to play any more stupid heavies. I’ve written this role for you, it’s a judge, you’ll play it; you’ve got no choice." I said, "Okay, boss!" I went in, and to show you what kind of film fan he is, for the entire day he repeated any line I ever said in any movie I ever did. I couldn’t even remember some of the stuff he was coming up with.
It was a small part in the beginning of the thing but I thought, "Maybe something will come of it." So many great, crazy things happened after that that it was forgettable. I thought, "Okay, that was nice." I went back to my hypnotherapy until one day I got this call to go down and pick up a script. Read it, and if you like it, the part is yours. That was The House of 1,000 Corpses. And that’s when everything went crazy.
MW: You were so intense in that; funny and scary, and just creepy as hell.
SH: I discovered a long time ago that as an actor if you can get people laughing, you can get them to do anything. You can make them feel happy; you can make them feel sad; you can make them angry; you can scare them. You can get them to do whatever you want if you get them laughing first. And, that’s what that film was. Ha ha ha ha BAM. It’s like, "When are you going to stop playing on the tracks because every time you do, you get hit by a train."
MW: How did you find that character inside of you?
SH: I work organically and within everyone is every personality type there is and you just have to find that personality type in yourself and bring it out. Just make sure you put it back at the end of the day! That’s just the way it works. I found that craziness in myself and just went with it.
MW: Would you consider yourself a method actor?
SH: Yeah, I would. I hate that term, but yeah. I just prefer to say I work organically.
MW: Let’s talk a bit about Mimesis. It’s one role out of, gosh, I don’t know how many you’ve done since House of 1,000 Corpses because you seem to be working constantly now.
SH: I just finished my sixty-eighth film and I think I’ve got two or three more schedule before the end of .
MW: Was Mimesis the first time you’d been to Michigan?
SH: Yeah. I didn’t get a real sense of what was going on because I flew in for one day, did all my stuff, and then I left. I’m flattered that people want me to be in their films but they assume that they can’t afford me so they write me a little cameo kind of thing so they can get me in and out in a day but they can get me in their film. I don’t want to be known as "the cameo guy" because that’s the end of your career right there. Now, if I do a cameo role in a big film like playing the grave digger in Halloween, that’s a different story. That’s a major release. But for ultra-low budget films to do cameo after cameo after cameo, that’s cutting your own throat.
MW: Right, you don’t want to become Lloyd Kaufman or Conrad Brooks. What kind of roles are you looking to play that you haven’t done yet?
SH: I haven’t played a hard-ass cop. I have this dream film. It’s a buddy film. A salt and pepper cop show with Katt Williams. I think Katt Williams and I can tear it up. I think that would be very funny.
MW: I would love to see you play more leads. Even with the amount of screen time you had in House of 1,000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects, I wanted to see more.
SH: I want to give more. See, the thing that people don’t realize is that I’ve got a lot more inside of here that I haven’t even shown anybody yet. I mean, I even have a "chick flick" in my head that could be done with me in the lead. But people think I could never do a romantic comedy or whatever. Well, of course I can! I’m a romantic guy!
MW: I know you said before that you were once typecast as the heavy with the gun. I hope you haven’t been typecast again as the lunatic.
SH: Well, I am. I’m on the verge of being there. Mimesis is good because it wasn’t that. It was the exact opposite of that. I did a film called Infliction where I played a psychiatrist who wasn’t crazy. I did a film called Zombex in which I played a Special Forces commander. It was a little sinister but, still, it wasn’t Captain Spaulding. Everyone is looking for me to be Captain Spaulding in every one of their films (without the make-up but it’s still there). I mean, in Creature I own the store and that’s where everything bad happened. I sent them off to this place to find the monster.
MW: How many scripts come through for you that are Captain Spaulding?
SH: A lot.
MW: That’s kind of a shame but I suppose it’s good that you’re being thought of.
SH: Oh, yeah. I appreciate the thought but a lot of times they’re not only carbon copies of something that I’ve already done but they’re just not very good scripts.
MW: With some of these ideas that you have, have you started doing the writing end of things?
SH: Yeah, I need somebody else to do it. I am patting myself on the back. I’m a really good rewrite guy. I can find a hole in a script in no time at all and figure out how to plug it up. But, to sit in front of a blank computer screen?
MW: What scripts have you done rewrites on?
SH: Just a whole lot. Jack Hill used to look at me to do that. I’d say, "Jack, how about I say this as opposed to that?" I don’t think he’d do this thing because in this other scene he does X-Y-Z which is the direct opposite of what this is. "Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s fine. Just do it."
MW: Did you ever come to a point in your career where you felt like you couldn’t voice that opinion?
SH: I always do that. It’s all about making the film good. And sometimes it even means cutting a scene of mine out but it’s the right thing to do.
MW: I figured you must have run across directors who are very tied to what’s on the page.
SH: That happens in television. I was doing one of my nine episodes of Mission: Impossible I’m very proud of that, no other actor had done that many and I was doing something and the director said, "Sid, I get what you’re doing but I don’t have time to cover it so just say the words." Okay, boss.
That’s the one thing I didn’t like about television is that you never had enough time to get any character development going. It was always, "I need twenty-one set-ups a day; I don’t care what you get."
That’s kind of like what the situation was surrounding Pit Stop. Jack Hill went to Roger Corman, as everybody did when they needed work, and Jack said, "I need an assignment." And Roger said, "Great, because I’m looking to do this film. I got it into my head that I want to do a stock car film." And Jack says, "I hate stock cars. I want to do an arty film." And Roger says, "Well, I’m paying for a stock car film." Jack says, "Can it be an artful stock car film?" Corman says, "I don’t care, as long as cars go fast and somebody dies." So, that’s how Pit Stop was born.
Principle photography costs? $35,000. There wasn’t one piece of stock footage in the entire film. All the racing, all the cars, all the figure eight stuff, all that, we shot ourselves.
MW: Did you drive yourself or did you have a stunt driver?
SH: I took four laps in a very controlled situation. It was a situation where, "Okay, I got $35,000 to make this film. I can’t shoot in color because the technology isn’t there to shoot color at night in these conditions. So, the announcer at the race track was the guy who owned the race track. The doctor was played by the guy who owned the clinic where they took all the drivers to when they got banged up. The bar where everybody, literally everybody, goes to after the races, we got free because we made the owner of the bar the bartender. We got George Barris’s custom car shop because we gave George Barris a part in the film. We got the cars and their drivers because we said, "How are we going to get all these cars and drivers and not pay them?" "Hello, Coors? We’re doing this movie and there are five party scenes..." It didn’t have to go any farther than that. "Where do you want the truck?" So, we had a refrigerator truck full of beer and that was the enticement for the drivers. And that’s how that film got made.
MW: You had such an amazing cast in that one. You also had a great cast in Galaxy of Terror.
SH: See, that was another one that Roger Corman wanted me to do. I said, "I’ll do it on one condition." He said, "You know you’re not getting any more money." We had this relationship where he’d send me a contract and I would sign it and work or not sign it and not work. No hard feelings. I said, "I don’t want any more money. Well, I do but I know I’m not going to get any more." He asked, "What’s the condition?" I said, "That I do it silent." And he asked, "Why?" And I said, "Have you read that shit?" And he says, "Oh, yeah, okay. Yeah, it’s fine. Do it silent."
MW: Between that and The Forbidden Dance, you got to do a couple of silent roles. I’m not trying to blow smoke up your ass but it’s really a testament to you as an actor that you can do these roles without dialogue.
SH: Sometimes the words get in the way. That’s why my band was an instrumental band primarily.
MW: Was The Forbidden Dance another one where you disliked the dialogue?
SH: No, they had this special South American dialect they wanted me to speak only nobody ever taught it to me. So I said, "Guess what? I’m not saying anything. I’m gonna do this silent." And then, being the shaman of the tribe, presumably I taught everybody this dance. Nobody taught me the dance. I just watched and said, "That’s simple." Basically, it’s vertical fornication; I think I can do this.
Here is a case where people in my business are basically stupid: Menahem Golan wanted to do a sequel and he wanted to shoot it in Rio (that’s a plus right there). And, stupid kids, the two leads the male and female leads wanted a million bucks apiece to do it. Be happy you’re working and that you’re going to get an amazing working vacation. Just shut up and go do the job. And it wasn’t a case where [Golan] was going to be really cheap. We were going to make fairly decent money on the deal.
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