As the 12-gauge-toting vagrant in Hobo With A Shotgun, Rutger Hauer lends a strange sort of gravitas to a film that grew out of a Grindhouse trailer, a pervasive weariness shadowing him as he pushes his shopping cart through a dystopian city ruled by giggling gangsters. Hauer’s career began in his native Holland, where he and frequent collaborator Paul Verhoeven created some of the most popular movies the country had ever seen. (Turkish Delight, their first feature, still tops polls as a favorite romance.) Their string of memorable and often brilliant films ended with the difficult production of 1985’s Flesh + Blood, but both Verhoeven and Hauer continued to work in the States. With the indelible exception of Blade Runner, English-language films have rarely furnished Hauer with roles as rich as those in Soldier Of Orange or Spetters, but Lech Majewski’s The Mill And The Cross, due out later this year, is an exception, an experimental journey through the paintings of Dutch master Pieter Bruegel. During a break between what seems to be an endless string of projects, Hauer talked to The A.V. Club about his “film father” Verhoeven, the unusual genesis of his role in Blade Runner, and why he can’t seem to find time to retire.
The A.V. Club: What was the Sundance première like for you? A movie like Hobo With A Shotgun almost demands to be seen with a midnight audience.
Rutger Hauer: I had two films there that were the extreme opposite of each other, The Mill And The Cross and Hobo, and we had a distribution deal in place. But I never saw this film necessarily going anywhere, and it didn’t bother me. We just felt we had to shoot this movie together, and to hell with the rest. We weren’t trying to please anybody. I’m having six films come out in the first four months of this year, and they’re all really different, so I wasn’t afraid of anything. I felt completely comfortable. But I was taken, of course, completely by surprise to see such a wonderful, crazy audience who took to the movie like silk. They were at home, the film was at home, and even this wonderful crazy short [The Legend Of Beaver Dam] that paved the way—what a great night.
AVC: What convinced you to sign on to the film? It’s an unknown director, and some extreme subject matter that could go very badly if not handled right.
RH: It was sort of a gamble, but it was basically done because Jason [Eisener] and I got on Skype together, and we got along so well that we decided right then that we were going to make the movie, no matter what. I think one third of my work is with first-time directors because I think I should, you know? Really, the difference between a first-time director and a second- or third-time director—I mean there’s no director who makes enough movies anyway—but if they’re talented, they have it. And there is no movie that is perfect. We would make a movie differently next year. But it’s good fun, and you have to do it, I think. It doesn’t matter who’s directing, or who’s doing the movie; there are a ton of things that can go wrong, and they do all the time. So you just have to figure out how to get through it, and then how the director finally puts it together, and then see what the audience takes from it. That’s the most important thing to me.
AVC: Looking backwards from Hobo With A Shotgun, it seems you’ve often worked with directors who are aren’t shy about representing violence, from Sin City to your films with Paul Verhoeven. Is there something interesting for you about exploring that aspect?
RH: It’s just that I think a story needs to be told. If the story is a love story, I’ll give it as much love on the screen as I can. If it’s The Hitcher, I’ll give it just as much love. I’ll just translate it in a different way. But I’ll make it. I’ll make it as good as I can. For me, none of this is about any violence, or giving it a name. Movies are like books, just another way of telling a story, and even if I’m reluctant, I still have to look at it again. There was a pedophile that they wanted me to play once, and I thought, “Should I give this my full effort?” And you go, “Of course you should! If you think you can do it, of course you should.” There are many stories that need to be told. There are people who are like, “Oh, it’s violent.” It’s a movie, for Christ’s sake! When are we going to stop thinking that all of this is real? It’s an illusion. And I like it there; I live there. I like the horror of the illusion and the beauty of it too.
AVC: Looking at the series of movies that you did with Paul Verhoeven at the beginning of you career, it was such a fruitful collaboration for so many years. Do you look back on that period in the same way as well?
RH: Paul was my film father, and we basically started careers that we didn’t know were going to go anywhere at all. We were making movies, basically with whatever we had to give to it. How do you say… we were babies. We were starting something and we didn’t know what it was. It was fantastic; wouldn’t want to miss it.
AVC: They were some of the most popular movies ever made in Holland at the time, right?
RH: Yes. And funnily enough, two of them still are. Holland is a small country. Dutch is a language that very few people speak, and I remember looking at the different newspapers after the first feature that we made, Turkish Delight—a film that had a lot of nudity. When it had a moment of release in the States, they called it pornographic. This film, it ran in Europe in a ton of cinemas for a year, outrunning Cabaret and Last Tango In Paris. It was incredible, and what was so amazing about it was that it was subtitled in English. You know, it was in its own language, and I don’t think that ever happened, before or after.
AVC: You mean that most of the foreign language movies would have been dubbed if they were running that long?
RH: That was later when they started dubbing them. But before this time, they would subtitle the movie in German if it was in Germany or if it were in Italy, it would be in Italian. I mean, Ladyhawke, let’s say for instance, or Blade Runner, they’re all dubbed, so you can see Spanish, and Italian, and Russian versions…and it can be very funny. [Laughs.] You become like an alien or something.
AVC: Why did your relationship with Verhoeven fall apart?
RH: Well, it didn’t really fall apart all that much. We had a rough shoot on a film we did in Spain, Flesh + Blood. It was a period, and it was shot too early and the budget was three years old. Still got an interesting movie out of it. It was a bit raw, let’s say. I had dinner with him two weeks ago and he’s not done yet. But RoboCop, I didn’t see that happening. There were several movies that he did that he sort of nibbled at me. Black Book, he asked me to do one of the characters and I thought it was boring. So you know, what are you going to say? I basically said, “The German is interesting.” But I think the German was already cast when I came into the picture. So we just haven’t found the right material.
AVC: So you still talk about working together? That’s interesting.
RH: Yeah, if we live long enough, we’ll do another film, I’m sure. I think he’s 72. And it’s not easy. That’s the funny thing. People always think that if you have a position—if you can have a position at all—and Paul does have one. He has a cult following, and so do I, and if we put our heads together, you would think, “Okay, no problem.” But the projects that we take on are never that easy. We’re not going to show you the same stuff you’ve seen before. That’s our promise, I’m sure we’re not going to do that.
AVC: You’ve never settled into playing one kind of character.
RH: Well, of course, every actor’s limited, and I am the first one to admit it, in all honesty, when I think that I’ve hit the wall a bit. I’m not ashamed at all, I think it’s a process that you have to go through. That’s how you learn. I don’t think I should do a musical. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are there things still you would like to do that you haven’t done?
RH: Why would you think that? Why? Is this like a mid-life crisis idea? Or a pension plan? It’s so funny. I guess people don’t know, or some people know: The profession that I have is so much fun. You’ve been to Sundance—how much fun do you think that is? There’s nothing better for an actor than to be right there with an audience that goes berserk because of the story. You know, okay, you helped the story because you’re a character in it, but I’m not the movie. That’s Jason. I’m a part of it; I’m a big part of it. And it’s just brilliant. If you have moments like that every five years, you can live forever on it, until you die. So there’s a ton of things that I love, and I’m doing a short music video with another director; I’ve been wanting to do that for a while. I’m doing three films; two are back-to-back, and the third maybe right after. It’s ridiculous. [Laughs.]
If you’ve done what you need to do, you need to go bury yourself, because what else are you going to do? I think that that’s where life stops. If I’m going to retire, I’m going to give a press conference—if I can get it together. [Laughs.]
AVC: In The Mill And The Cross, you play the Dutch painter Bruegel, which could hardly be more different from a hobo with a shotgun.
RH: No, absolutely. It was fun. At first I was an action actor, and then I became too old for that, and I really think I was ahead of myself, because in America they allow you to be an action actor for a long time, but I didn’t want to go there. Then I became a character actor, I guess. And if you’re as old as I am, then the parts are smaller. There are very few movies that are driven by an older character. In The Mill And The Cross, we had five days of shooting to create a character that would hold and have some sort of shape in front of a green screen, or a blue screen, so that’s a sport. In Sin City, that was two days of shooting, and the same sport: “Can you do something in the two minutes of screen time that will hold the audience enough?” That’s the whole game, and I love it. Most of the time, I can make it work. I did my shortest performance in—oh shit, what was the film called? He was an inventor of black powder in the Middle Ages… Nostradamus! There you go. So I said, “This guy needs both his hands when he’s inventing this black powder,” and then he ends up blowing up the monster to save Nostradamus. That was the stretch of the character. And I said, “Can you make me a crown, you guys? And put like seven candles in there, so I can see what I’m doing?” That crown, it’s like a halo, a Jesus thing, and it was visually so stunning. That’s was my character’s 60 seconds in the story.
AVC: So no matter the size of the role, you find something to fill that space.
RH: Well, I’ve always felt that one doesn’t necessarily bite the other, and I know it’s not your conventional way. But I’m not here to follow those conventions. If I had listened to that, I wouldn’t be here, I don’t think.
AVC: It wasn’t at all the usual thing for a Dutch actor to go on to a career in Hollywood the way you did.
RH: It’s funny, you know. It’s kind of after the fact, and when you look back, you can sort of think about it differently. One-third of my movies are probably turkeys, and they pay for the experiments of the other third, in a way, and then the middle part pays for the rent. You know, I don’t know how I did it, but I did it, and I can look back at it now.
AVC: If you end up being known for one performance, it would be as the android Roy Batty in Blade Runner. Is that a special role to you as well?
RH: One of the first things Ridley [Scott] said when we finally started to talk about what he was looking for from me as an actor, he said, “I want everything and more, because that’s what makes a human.” So the first thing he says is poetry—that’s not strange, because it’s sort of in the character. He has a few moments where he recites poetry, and I love the fact that he has no clue what it means, but it comes out of him. So I said, “Can I do a sense of poetry, and maybe a sense of beauty, and can I have a soul, or sense of humor, or be a seven-year-old? Can I love my sister? Can I be sexless but sexy at the same time? Can I be wicked?” Of course, wicked was very, very important to Ridley. It was the first role for me where I could make a recipe together with Ridley and say, “Okay, these are the ingredients. All of them are very human; let’s make them as real as we can make them. And then, if we can, add one side that is completely unexpected, which is redemption.” I only figured this out a couple of months ago, because people said that Deckard redeems himself. I don’t think Deckard redeems himself, because he never gets to the plate. He never fights, he never stands for anything, he just keeps escaping and then he gets saved. But in the moment Roy saves Deckard, he redeems himself, if that’s at all possible, because he gives Deckard the life that he wants most. He knows he’s not going to have it, and he also pretty much knows that Deckard will not value it as much as his, the motherfucker. So that’s pretty close to redemption on batteries. Fuck, I love all that stuff.
Why Blade Runner makes me smile is that there’s so much—I don’t know if it’s called irony—but every other moment, there’s so much pleasure in the character. Here’s the other thing. I did a big film in New York with Sylvester Stallone [Nighthawks] before that. That was my first moment ever, and it was not a happy shoot. Then two minutes later, I refused to be interested in Das Boot, a film that they were going to shoot, and that it so happened they also made a TV series out of them, and had I been on it, I would have been on it for 14 months. In those 14 months, this where Blade Runner was shot. So I said, “Nah, I don’t like this story.” And then Blade Runner came along. And then I danced through this movie. It was hard work. But I had such a connection with Ridley, such a connection with the story and the tone and what he wanted, and I owned the film, in the end. Not because I wanted to, but because my character was just so alive. And the audience wasn’t ready for it. Did I give a fuck? No, of course not. The irony is that 25 years later, the audience understands perfectly what was going on. We just had to wait for 25 years. Roy’s half of me. The other half is Ridley. I flew with Ridley, and he’s still flying. There’s things that are indescribable. These cuts are so deep, they cut you for the rest of your life. And the audience is with me on that.