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Tom Skerritt on the 40th Anniversary of Alien, Collaborating with Ridley Scott and More

Sitting down a few weeks ago to talk with veteran actor Tom Skerritt during his visit to Chicago to attend the Chicago Critics Film Festival (an entity that I do work for) and participate in a Q&A following a 40th anniversary screening of the 1979 classic “Alien,” I found myself filled with a slight degree of apprehension. This had nothing to do with Skerritt himself—throughout his career, the man has been a part of any number of memorable projects, including “MASH” (1970), “Thieves Like Us” (1974), “Big Bad Mama” (1974), “The Turning Point” (1977), “The Dead Zone” (1983), "Top Gun" (1986), “Steel Magnolias” (1989) and “Contact” (1997), so it wasn’t as if I was going to run out of things to talk about. My problem was that since “Alien” was by far the most famous and influential film he's been in, I couldn’t imagine asking a question about it that he had not heard a million times before. Worse, I couldn’t imagine a question that would not inspire some kind of boilerplate answer inspired by years of answering the same queries over and over. This kind of overly familiar give-and-take might have satisfied all the requisites for an interview but I can’t imagine that it would have satisfied either him.

Happily, he did not give the same kind of rote answers that one might hear on a less-than-inspired talk show experience. Instead, he would use the questions as launching pads for fascinating thoughts on both “Alien” and the artistic process in general. At one point, he admits that “I don’t know how to answer a question straight anymore” but trust me, he has nothing to apologize for. If more subjects were as candid and open in their thinking as Skerritt proved to be in our short time together, the entire concept of the celebrity interview would be a lot more interesting and exciting than it usually turns out to be.

Throughout your career, you have done a number of films that would fit into the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres—obviously “Alien” but also things like “The Dead Zone,” “Contact” and “Poltergeist III.” Were those genres that of particular interest to you even before you became an actor?

No. When I was in high school and going to movies, I was going to the wonderful European movies that were coming out. I remember these wonderful films coming from England that were so dryly humorous with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers and all these other wonderful straight men doing these bizarre comedies. The idea of perhaps writing for film appealed to me but I never really thought about acting per se. I was shy and self-conscious, which is a genetic thing. I was a major in college at UCLA and I saw “Citizen Kane” and I wanted to write and direct to that level—I set my standards rather high there. How I ever got to acting, I don’t know. I thought I had to feel what it was like to be an actor in order to write for one. If you want to know what “hot” is, you have to touch it. It isn’t an intellectual thing. Some guys wanted me to be in a little $1.98 movie they were making with a few other guys (1962’s “War Hunt”) , one of whom was Robert Redford and another was Sydney Pollack, back when he was still a wonderful actor. I was very impressed with these two guys—I didn’t know how to act in movies because theater was what I knew at that point and it was helping me to get over the shy thing and giving me a sense of how to write. If I could get a job as an actor, it would give me the opportunity to work on a set and know how to address the humanity around good films. That was the first thing that I got out of it.

At the same time, I met a TV director who lived in the neighborhood near UCLA who invited me to come over and watch him work and I did that for several years. I didn’t know how outstanding his teaching was and the mentorship was beyond anything that I had—in retrospect, he is the reason that he is in the business at all. He called me up one day and asked if I would be in a film that he was going to direct—the film was “MASH” and he was Robert Altman. I was getting these breaks and I happened to meet a guy named Hal Ashby, who was then an Academy Award-winning editor-turned-director and what a wonderful guy he was. Mentoring with Altman and Ashby in the early Seventies—one of them would be in pre-production or post-production and I would be there, not so much to watch them make the movie but to see both the early presentation and how it would end since the last rewrite comes during the editing. Ashby taught me that and he also taught me about the rhythms of music. That was another thing that led me to films because even as a kid, I always loved music—I even wanted to be a trumpet player, though that never happened.

Now I am looking back on all of this because I have done films like “MASH,” which is brilliant comedy, “The Turning Point,” which is the archetypal movie for ballerinas to look at, “Alien,” which I have been told is the film that people have watched more than any other movie, “Top Gun,” which is an entirely different kind of genre, “A River Runs Through It,” which is yet another type of genre, and “Steel Magnolias,” which is this kind of dominant women’s film. All I can think of is the fortunate luck that has allowed me to do all of that—not because I thought of myself as a good actor, because I think I have a long way to go for that, but because I am loving what I am doing. There is just such a difference between just taking a job for money and taking one because you really love the writing and the storytelling. I am trying to do that now in my life because I have all these things that I have stored up over the years that I haven’t yet had a chance to do.   

It is not hyperbolic to say that “Alien” is one of the most influential titles in the history of sci-fi/horror filmmaking—it literally helped to revolutionize how future generations of filmmakers would themselves approach the genre in regards to everything from the visuals to gender dynamics. Therefore, I was curious to hear how you sort of pictured it in your mind as you were reading it for the first time and how that initial vision you had compared to how the final film turned out.

When it first came to me, it was a film that had a two million budget and no one else involved. I don’t know why I got it first but I did. I read it and saw that it was a solid screenplay but it is what comes off by way of the director that makes the difference. For only two million bucks, I didn’t think it could come off the way that it felt and you can’t quite describe what you feel sometimes. At two million bucks and with other actors that I don’t know about, this is a film that could have been directed by Ed Wood. I was uncertain about it because my training with Altman and Ashby had proceeded me, so I had that approach that I had absorbed from watching those two guys going about their work. Prior to reading the script, I had seen a film called “The Duelists,” which was Ridley’s first film, and I thought that it was a masterpiece. The way that it was framed, the way it was shot, the lighting, the depth of field—all of these things about it. I just thought that I needed to remember this guy’s name because he was so good and this was just his first film. I didn’t know who he was except that he was one hell of a director. A couple of weeks later, after I kinda told them that I was sure if I wanted to do this, I got a call from the producers telling me that it now had a $10 million dollar budget and it had this director named Ridley Scott and I agreed on that basis.

The more that a writer puts into making a solid screenplay, that inspiration goes to the director and goes to the creative people and everyone becomes engaged with it. It isn’t one single thing—it is the harmony that happens on a set and that goes back to Hal and Bob. They would say, “That’s a good suggestion. I don’t know if I am going to use it but because you said it, you made me think of this other thing.” There is no right or wrong about this. It is what you listen to and how you separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. That is just an instinct writ from the experiences that you have had. I have had the mind-boggling opportunity to do some significant films and those were because of the filmmakers—they gave it to us. You cannot tell creative people how to paint a portrait. You can’t tell them that you want a particular color to suit the image that you have—you can’t do that. If you do, you don’t deserve the artwork.

I don’t know how to answer a question straight anymore—this is just how I feel.

Although the chest-burster sequence in “Alien” is easily the most famous scene in the film—it is one of the most famous scenes in screen history, in fact—the scene that is almost as shocking is the one in which you go into the air shafts in order to flush out the creature and in standard alpha male hero fashion, quickly realize that you are in way over your head and then get killed. At the time, this was an incredibly radical move on a couple of fronts—not only did it kill off the most obvious heroic type with nearly half the film left, but the demise of Dallas made way for Ripley, the Sigourney Weaver character, to take center stage and essentially rewrite the rules regarding female characters in genre films.

When I read the script, one of the things that I liked most about it was that the woman becomes the hero. I loved that. There is something about the rise of women in influential positions that we sorely need right now in this country but because film is the most influential of all media, the sight of women being in positions of strength and fortitude to make the right connections and decisions was what appealed to me. I experienced that as well in “Steel Magnolias” with the women in that. I liked the idea of women being tough and strong and influential and that is what I saw in the script. With that particular scene, all I really remember is that it was really uncomfortable—I was grunting. Ridley was operating the camera and so there was a lot of preparation because I was following him around and watching how he was doing everything.

That is what you do with great movies—you cooperate with each other. If you are going in there with any idea or preconceived notion that you live by, you are probably not going to do very well. It is spontaneity and impulse that make the difference and that is what I felt we had with “Alien.” Every one of us had that immediate rapport with each other. The respect that I had for the other actors and the respect that they had for me. We were all working on the same level and trying to survive through this film, which was very hard to make. There were days where you didn’t work at all and you were just sitting around. You apply that to something that is then going out of control, such as dealing with a creature that bleeds acid and which doesn’t seem to die. I had a flamethrower—why didn’t I shoot it? You don’t see what happens, although there was a scene at the end that they had to take out because it broke the pace. A lot of all this is about rhythm. She is pulling out electronics and disengaging them and the ship is going to blow up in a certain amount of time. She has got to get the hell out of there and you want her to get out of there as well, If she stops to look for the cat and then has a conversation with me as I am being eaten up by this cocoon on the wall where I am saying “Kill me” and she is pondering it—you can’t do that and I remember talking to Ridley about that. It took two days to shoot that scene but he was paid to do it, to shoot as close as he could to the screenplay. He obligated them and did that but he then properly cut it out.

Credit: Deirdre Hayes

Of course, Ridley did end up putting that scene back into the film for the restored version that was released in 2003.

I think that I am more inclined to be a storyteller. Writing is a rhythm thing. In “A River Runs Through It,” the kid brings three pages of writing and if my character approves of it, he can go out and fish. I keep sending him back and he eventually turns the three pages into a paragraph and then I tell him that he can go fishing. With any type of creative thing, you know that you are going to have to pare it down but you have to start by going way out. In rehearsing a play, you can go way out and then come back down to something closer to what you intended to do in the first place. You have all this inclusion of the experience of trying to work everything out so that there are no doubts about what you are doing, or at least less doubt.

Earlier in your career, you had been in films that were very successful, such as “MASH” and “The Turning Point,” but none with the kind of worldwide impact that “Alien” had maintained since it originally debuted in 1979. For you, was there a particular moment that you can recall when it dawned on you that “Alien” was going to be such a sensation?

I felt that pretty much from the beginning when I met Ridley Scott and when I saw his work, there was no doubt about it. I had serious doubts when I read it, as I said, and I couldn’t verbalize it then. When you have a director who can take the inspiration that is there in the screenplay and find their own inspiration, which may not necessarily run parallel to what the intentions of the writer were ... I knew that right from the beginning from this guy and you just have to put your foot down and go with it. If you have hesitations, those are challenges that you have to face every day. If you are hesitating, and introverted, you have to go on and get out of it. That is something that I still can’t get over. I’m still a blue-collar kid off the streets of Detroit, so to have the gift of working on a film like “Alien” with Ridley Scott—just those two things were enough. Then I saw those massive sets at Shepperton, which at that time was the world’s largest soundstage, and thought, “This is something special.” Being able to see all the little things that went into it—the movements, the framing, the tapioca that they used on Ash—everything that I saw in “The Duelists” was being done here. When I asked him what he was trying to do, he said, “I am going to scare the shit out of them.” 

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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