The Rat Stuff
BY G. NOEL GROSS | March 21, 2003
STOW YOUR GEAR AND TAKE A KNEE YOU SORRY SACKS OF GRAB-ASSTIC CIVILIAN PUKE!!! CineSchlocker idol R. Lee Ermey goes man-o y rat-o in an ambitious remake of the critter revenge classic Willard! In this exclusive interview, the ol' Gunny talks rodent s@#%, the squared-away Crispin Glover and why THIS is his best role since Full Metal Jacket. Plus, the perve antics we probably WON'T see in the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre! From Marine drill instructor, to technical adviser, to Golden Globe nominee, to veteran character actor, Ermey's distinguished career continues to command respect. So much so, that the retired Staff Sergeant's beloved Corps recently presented him a rare, honorary promotion to Gunnery Sergeant. Today, alongside his big-screen pursuits, the Gunny keeps America safe from rampaging watermelons on The History Channel's "Mail Call" -- truly one of TV's funniest and informative half-hours. But enough jaw yapping ...
I'm having way too much fun with my Little Ermey motivational figure. Because of which, I now realize "I AM THE A@#HOLE IN CHARGE OF MY OWN DESTINY!" And I've also been working on my war cry around the office. Although, my colleagues would much rather I didn't.
R. Lee displays his OTHER 12-inch motivational tool.
There you go! [Laughs.] Due to popular demand, I'm coming out with an extra-extra salty version. That's the one where he rips off your head and s@#%s down your neck. He gouges your eyeballs out and does something nasty to you. [Laughs.] On my website, guys have emailed saying, "Come on, Gunny! Put out the one that REALLY talks like a drill sergeant!" But the toy company was a bit skeptical about laying it on too heavy with the first one. They wanted the motivational figure to go in Toys R Us. If we do this new one properly, it sure won't qualify for Toys R Us.
Having played Willard's boss, you'd know better than anyone. Just what IS this guy's major malfunction?
Burroughs also co-starred with rodents in Food of the Gods II.
Willard's a very polite, soft spoken, shy individual that really can't maintain eye contact. You've met the little fidgety types before. While my character is that of the strong hand, the adversary that hits him everyday when he's late for work. After awhile, this poor recluse, all he does is hang with his little rat friends where he discovers he can make them do things to get back at his enemies. Your heart goes out to Willard because I'm getting him at the office and his mother is getting him at home! [Laughs.] I really can't say enough about Jackie Burroughs. She's the Canadian character actress who plays his mom. Whenever she came out of makeup she was one evil bitch! [Laughs.] Hers is probably the stand-out performance of the entire film. She just jumps right off the screen at you.
- She's not the only one! How'd you land the Mr. Martin role?
I worked with James Wong and Glen Morgan on the pilot for "Space Above and Beyond," so they knew how I operated and called me onboard. I told them I'd square this character away. That I'd design them a great character. I wanted him to be just totally EVIL! And I didn't want to compete with Ernest Borgnine from the original film. The only way not to compete with Ernest was to do it completely different. So, I just designed him to be so evil that he hangs right up there with Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Hitler. All those people that Satan saw fit to put on Earth to hold down the population. I felt that the more evil that I could bring forth in my performance, the better it would enhance Crispin Glover's character.
You really do create a clear contrast there. What's Crispin like?
Ermey doesn't flinch at locking peepers with creepy Crispin.
You've heard all the stories: "Crispin's weird! He's strange!" Crispin is simply eccentric. We all know what eccentric means. You don't follow along the straight line. You deviate. Crispin is an absolute gentleman. He's VERY intelligent and he's one of the best actors I've ever worked with.
- That's saying a great deal given your career.
Absolutely. I did most of my scenes with Crispin. And when I looked into his eyes -- Crispin was NOT in there. It was Willard! Crispin doesn't act. He IS the character and he IS in the given situation. When I work with actors that don't have to act, I can pull strength from them. Hopefully, they can take advantage of me as well in that area. But Crispin was a breath of fresh air to work with. Over the two month period I was up in Vancouver shooting this show with Crispin, I found I really like him. He's very polite. He IS eccentric. There's no question about it. But he's not strange and he's not perverted or weird.
That's a kind characterization. What was it like working with your more diminutive co-stars?
In Hollywood, even the rats get air-conditioned trailers.
New Line bought these rats when they were just little, baby puppies. Just the size of my thumb. Pink little guys. They hired wranglers to be with them every day. They gave the rats their shots and were medically certified. They fed them a solution of baby food and peanut butter with some rice and grain dropped in there. They were handled on a daily basis. They were bathed every day. These rats were just totally, absolutely docile. But they eat their own body weight each day. That all has to go someplace. I'll tell you were it goes! It comes out at the other end of that rat. And when it does, it has an odor to it that's just overwhelming! It completely spoils the air quality.
I must say, out of the three months of shooting with 500 rats, not one person got bit. And not one rat got hurt. That's our claim to fame! Even during the scene where I was on the floor of the elevator and they dumped 300 rats on me. Because I had to move quite a bit to sell I was in the throes of death and these rats were eating me, my greatest fear was the simple fact I might hurt one of them.
- Come on, now! You weren't REALLY concerned you were going to hurt the rats, were you?
Yeah, I really was! We actually had the PETA people on set, so if one rat got hurt, well, we had a problem. They could shut us down. Everybody was very careful. I not only thought about PETA, but I also thought, "I don't want to hurt one of these rats." But I think I sold the death scene pretty well. There was only one problem. After each two-or-three minute take, the crew would have to come in and sweep up all the pellets! Then I'd lie back down and do it again. The stench was overwhelming by the end of the third take. It was NASTY! But the rats were polite. They cooperated. I can't recall one scene that was blown because of them. They did their job. I imagine these rats are probably bona fide members of the Screen Actors Guild now. [Laughs.]
Something I've noticed about your career, and I wonder if there's some sort of psychology at work, is that many of your characters meet especially unpleasant ends. Gunnery Sgt. Hartman. Mayor Tilman in Mississippi Burning. Even the Anti-Christ punched your ticket in Omega Code 2.
Full Metal Chorus Line: "This is my rifle! This is my gun! ... "
- You know what the directors and producers in Hollywood call that? Viewer satisfaction! [Laughs.] Let's face it, I play a lot of pretty tough bad guys, but I also play compassionate people. Dead Man Walking for example. There's one thing I'd like to point out. I've been in this industry about 30 years. I've done 75 feature films. Out of the 75, this is the sixth film I've actually agreed to do the press junket on. If I don't believe in the show. If I don't 100 percent think it's a delightful, entertaining piece of work, I won't bother to go promote it. I won't come and lie to people and say they should go see the show. The ones that I have done have been, of course, Full Metal Jacket. Dead Man Walking. The Frighteners. Saving Silverman.
- You were hilarious as the closeted coach! Such a sly contrast to other roles you've done.
I enjoyed the show. I thought it was very slapstick. But slapstick works in that show. Anyway, I told New Line that I didn't even want to see one frame of Willard until it was edited and ready to go on the big screen. They called me down about four weeks ago. I picked up my manager and we went by the studio and they put it on the screen for us. Well, we left with smiles on our faces. What a wonderful little film! I think this film is just superb. I think it's great. And I honestly believe this is the best performance and the best role that I've had since Full Metal Jacket.
- I think I'd go along with that. You've met some unpleasant ends, but how do you fare against Leatherface in the Saw remake?
[Laughs.] You heard about that, huh? New Line, having come into a certain amount of wealth from Lord of the Rings, decided to take the money they have and invest it in resurrecting some of these wonderful old horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I've worked with ol' Tobe Hooper twice now. What a breath of fresh air HE is. What a STRANGE individual! You talk about STRANGE! In Willard, I play the most EVIL character I've ever played, and in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I play the most perverted person I've ever played.
Perverted in what way?
Well, sexually. Just totally perverted in every aspect of life. New Line's raving about Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I won't look at it until it's ready and then I'll make my decision whether it's good. But they're raving about it, so hopefully, it's a good show.
- Do you actually duke it out with Leatherface?
Oh, no! Leatherface is my beloved sibling. Me and Leatherface are tight! [Laughs.] I told you he's PERVERTED in every way. My character is an old sheriff. There's one scene where he's inside of a van wrapping up a really sweet, good-lookin' young lady's body with Saran Wrap. He's got one of the kids in helping him and he tells the boy, "You know, back in my days as a younger man, I used to love doing this, because I could kinda cop a feel every now and then." And I reach up and squeeze her boob, right? [Laughs.] Then after that, he's wrapping down below and he says, "Wooooo-we! She's awful wet down here. You boys have been having some fun with this sweet little girl, haven't you!?" Then he takes his hand out of her crotch and runs it under his nose! He wipes a little of that wetness on his upper lip and says, "I used to do this, and you know, it lasts the entire day!" Oh, he's perverted alright!
- Now, do you think that's REALLY going to make the final cut?
Well, no, I don't think THAT is going to make the film. But it certainly tells you something about the character! It's the first time we meet him and you've gotta make your grand entrance these days! You don't just gradually become perverted. You start out there! It's the strangeness of the character that I think will sell the role. I look at it from this angle: the director, producer and writer have 15 or 20 different roles to concern themselves with. When I get a character to work on. It's just me and the character. I can spend ALL of my time, every waking hour, thinking about what I'm going to do with this role. Well, obviously, I'm pretty good at designing characters, because I don't get a lot of critics coming down on me. I just concern myself with my characters and it generally works.
- That's truly lent to your longevity and it's part of what makes you one of my favorite character actors. With you, there's always something interesting in store for the audience.
I certainly do like to think so. I'm fallible. Once in awhile I play a character I'm not pleased with after I look at the show. But I do the best I can. I feel I'm pretty creative in my particular genre, so I just keep going.
I imagine you're VERY proud of "Mail Call." It's become one of my favorite shows and I've found it really helps de-sissify me after watching something like "Trading Spaces."
Samurai Ermey really, really HATES lippy watermelons!
It brings back the TEST-TESTER-OWN! [Laughs.] The ol' Gunny on "Mail Call" just has fun. I have SO much fun with that show! It's my show. I run it. I call the shots. We spend a lot of time with the military. We get to go on the base and see 155 mm Howitzers. I get to drive tanks and go out on the Navy's LCAC, which is "Landing Craft, Air Cushioned." It's a HUMONGOUS thing! We went up and played on that ALL day. When I wake up in the morning, I can't wait to get out of the rack and do another "Mail Call," because I consider each one another exciting adventure. After five episodes, it got the highest ratings of any show on The History Channel and it has stayed there. The last information I got, after 18 episodes aired, the ratings are twice as high as the next rated show on The History Channel.
- Do we have 18 more coming our way!?
We've done 26 and we just got an order for 26 more! So, I keep telling people you're going to have to put up with me until I die! I'm gonna ride this little goldmine, this little fun show that I have, for the rest of my life.
- Well, sir, I really appreciate the time you've spent with me. Is there anything else you'd like to say to your fans out there?
You bet! Tell everyone to visit my website. I try to respond to as many emails as I possibly can. I especially like to hear from the young people. Semper Fi!
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.