Legendary Character Actor Michael Ironside On His Ghostly Role In 'Knuckleball' [Fantasia Film Festival Interview]

Michael Ironside has been a great friend to genre works over his acting career, which spans more than 40 years and includes undeniably memorable performances in such film and television works as the original V series, Scanners, Top Gun, Extreme Prejudice,Total Recall, The Perfect Storm, and Starship Troopers. In 2015, he starred in two terrific science-fiction films, Turbo Kid and Synchronicity, both of which played at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal.

A proud Toronto native himself, the 68-year-old Ironside is always happy to help out Canadian filmmakers, like those who made Turbo Kid and his latest film, Knuckleball, which received its Canadian debut at Fantasia.

The film concerns 12-year-old Henry (Luca Villacis), whose parents drop him off at the remote farm belonging to his grandfather, Jacob (Ironside), whom Henry barely knows. The parents' relationship is strained, and they're trying to jumpstart their ailing relationship while leaving Henry with gramps for a week. Henry and Jacob seem to get along, especially when they focus on Henry's great passion, pitching — the kid is a natural. The farm is rather isolated and a big winter storm is approaching, so claustrophobia sets in right away, especially when Henry meets the closest neighbor, Dixon (Murno Chambers, in full creep mode), a younger man who seems to share a strange bond with Jacob, which reveals itself to be something quite dark and unexpected.

It's not exactly a spoiler to say that Jacob dies the first night Henry is in the house, leaving the boy trapped in the house, with a doozy of a storm approaching and a freak for a neighbor. What happens next is a cat-and-mouse game between Henry and Dixon, with Henry showing survival skills around the house that are impressive. Think Home Alone, but with much higher, more terrifying stakes. What's particularly chilling about Knuckleball is that Ironside's Jacob appears as something of a guiding vision to both Henry and Dixon as they outsmart each other, giving helpful tips to his grandson, while giving murder advice to the warped Dixon.

Knuckleball was directed and co-written by Michael Peterson, who made the very funny 2011 LARPing comedy Lloyd the Conqueror, and has crafted a very different beast with this film. As yet, the film does not have a distributor or release date in the United States (although it is scheduled for release in September throughout Canada), but it's just beginning its festival circuit run, and it will likely have such an announcement shortly.

This interview with Ironside took place in Montreal shortly after the Fantasia premiere, and /Film spoke to him about his very personal connection to the story, working with these much younger actors in an almost Shakespearean ghost capacity, and why genre films mean so much to him.


Based on you discussion during the Q&A last night, there was something about this screenplay that really seemed to pull you in and struck you in a personal way as a family story. Could you talk me through what you remember about reading this the first time?

When I look at scripts, and I get about four or five a week, what I look for is depth, something that has more than one layer or one message. For example, V was originally a story about what would have happened if America hadn't entered the war, and the Nazis had taken over Europe and isolated North America. So you would have had North America and part of South America as a democracy, and Europe and Asia and everything else fascist. At that time, the networks and other people said "Fuck that. Nobody is going to see a movie about that." So very cleverly, they went off and turned the Nazis into aliens, made the divide by climate, and made a political statement in series about fascist conservatism. And that's what I look for—things that have got an underlying story. And when I read Mike's script, I saw what he was trying to do. He was talking about the lack of communication, familial or in life.

We met for the first time at a restaurant by the airport—he flew in and I was in between projects and I met him there for about two hours—and right from the very first conversation, we both said the very same thing: never have we had more ways of communicating in the history of humanity and so little it being said. There seems to be a repeat of soundbites. The politics of the United States is a good example of that. You can take something said on a Monday, completely spin it on a Tuesday, spin it again on a Wednesday, and by Thursday, everybody is eating popcorn and has an opinion about it. That's what this film is about, how the lack of communication in a family creates destructive and fearful consequences. That's why everybody identifies with this story on some level; most people can look at their family and say "God, there was something in that that reminded me of when I was growing up." Everyone I've talked to, there's something in that about the effect when you don't have communication between the generations.

I've seen more and more horror films do this lately, including Hereditary, which was such a critical hit. There are these family dramas at the center of these horror stories. And without that family dynamic, it doesn't work. In the case of your film, if you don't buy that there's this breakdown in the family, the rest of it doesn't work.

The line that I love is when the boy says, "Well, mom says this, this and this," and I say, "Yeah, well everyone's got a story." It's the truth. When I played the character, I didn't play what's happening at the end of the film as a reality. I had to build and play three different characters in the film—[Dixon]'s concept of what a father is, the boy's concept of what a grandfather is, and the shame and guilt and misfortune of raising a child that you can't communicate with. And all three personalities are housed in the same character, so whenever I'm with individuals, I tried to play the variations, and it works emotionally that way.

The versions of you that we see after you're dead...

We should be clear, I die in the first act but I'm there through the whole thing.

Right, and the version of you we see, you're not a ghost, but he's very Shakespearean in the way he visits and advises these two younger characters.

Absolutely, it's Lear, it's Hamlet.

He's saying things that the character might not have actually said, but in the minds of these two, he's saying what they need to hear and reinforcing their mindsets in the process.

And we use a statement from my real life. After my mother died in 1972-73, my father had a heart attack six months later and moved up to a small town in mid-Ontario on an acre-and-a-half of land, and we built a house up there, and he spent the rest of his 22 years alive finishing it. There was a funeral of his best friend, my Uncle Jim—my mom's older brother—and I was concerned about my dad, and I went to hang out with him for about a week. My dad had a huge workshop in the basement, and one of my nephews said "Granddad, why are you fixing that chair if you're just going to...," and he realized what he was about to say and he stopped. The boy had just experienced death for the first time with my Uncle Jim's funeral. And my dad said, "You mean die? That's like life. If you're born, you're lucky and you get some stuff. Most of it's going to break down, you fix what you can, and then you die. That's what life is all about."

My brother and I were like "He's really fucking sick; we've got to get him some therapy. He's probably having a nervous breakdown because his best friend passed." It took me two days driving back to Montreal, and I pulled the car over and started laughing so hard, because what my dad said to that little kid was the absolute truth in a simplistic form. Now, Mike Peterson took that and gave it to all four characters in the film. And with that statement, the way they conceived it and butchered it gave us an insight into their personalities. You see Munro's characters say "You're born, you get some stuff, sometimes you use it, you steal what you can, and fuck 'em." He never got any of it. Then you get the mother's idea which is tied to abandonment. You know what I mean? We used that very simple, organic statement about life and used it for all the characters, and that's one of the reason I think Mike is going to become an incredible director. We made this film with next to nothing, and I'm very proud of it.

The other truth from life in this film that struck me is that the grandparents get parenting more right with the grandkids than they did with their own children. It's like they get a second chance.

While we're watching film, we're also watching the subconscious of human beings. The only person I touch or hug is the grandkid. I never touch my own daughter or son-in-law. But the first thing I do with the kid is put my arm around him, and the last thing I do before I die is hug him and kiss him on the forehead. Those are deliberate choices by Michael and me, right down to the wave at the end. "This is life; have a good time."

That's a powerful final image of you.

Yeah, and a subtle one. Mike treats the audience like it has an intelligence and sensitivity. So much of entertainment, especially film, is being spoon fed to people. My daughter and her friends came out of a film recently, and her two friends said, "I didn't like that film; it made me feel things." And my daughter looked at them like "Holy s***." They wanted to go to a film, have something that fills there head with noise while they text at the same time, and I'm not even putting that down.

You should be putting that down.

But that's a 1984-like prophecy from the '40s and '50s in sci-fi magazines and novels. Be careful. We're being turned into the walking, mumbling hordes. When the Berlin wall came down and the Russian archives were open for about five years, we got a whole section of Lenin's stuff. The CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] hired me to do something called "Interviews from the Past," and I got to play Lenin. And I got my brother, who's a complete computer nerd, to dig up everything he could on Lenin, and he got all the stuff from the archives. Lenin didn't give a fuck about people. The great communicator said, "I want people just educated enough to read and follow directions." All he wanted from taking power was the avenge his brother's death; once he got there, he didn't give a s***. The basis of control is a lack of education and information, so if you control information and the the way people assimilate it and get it, you control the people.

I want to talk about the house where you shot this movie, because it was someone's real house with an actual lived-in history. Did you make any adjustment once you got in there?

Oh, the house was a personality unto itself. And that's not a comment on the owners; they may have been a very private family. By the way, the actual house where Munro's character lives is right next door, but you can't see it in any of the shots. We wanted it to seem further away. But my house as you see it is pretty much the way it was when we went into it. To me, it had a sad, loud emptiness to it—an echo of a family that was no longer there. As soon as you walked into it, there was sense that everything was here but humanity, like the absence of something. A lot of those pictures on the wall were there's. There were so many, we actually had to take some down. We allowed ourselves to fit in with the house.

There were a couple of room upstairs that were locked, and one of them, I got the door open, and it literally had the feeling like the air was thicker, like jelly, and I walked in and went, "This is wrong," and I closed the door. I don't know what that was about; I didn't want to get preoccupied with it. But yeah, the house becomes a personality in the film. And I love the fact that Mike chose to wedge the door open as a defense when the kid jams the thing in the door. There are subtle, little metaphors like that all the way through the film.

There's a beautiful use of no dialogue for long stretches of the film. There's always the temptation to fill that silence, which Mike did with things like the sound of the storm. But no talking for that long in the film makes people uneasy. How was that for you to exist in a quieter space at times?

Not only that, but it was accurate, because the lack of communication is a type of communication. The absence of information is information. I'm not trying to jerk you off with that answer, but it's true. Sorry, I'm no usually this foul-mouthed, but I'm working on a character right now for this thing called American Desert [directed by Adrian Bartol], which I'm getting ready to shoot next week, and the character keeps popping out. Back to your question, the silence is very important; it's a character in the film. Why talk when it isn't necessary?

You were here a few years ago with two films, including Turbo Kid. What does this festival—and genre films in general—mean to you?

I think people think I'm trying to manipulate them in some way. The truth is, I was raised on science fiction. My grandfather was part of the original sci-fi club, with Aleister Crowley and all of those authors. I read Dune out of a shoebox that was the manuscript sent to my grandfather. I read it in 1958 or 1959, I believe. On the top of the first page, it said "Have a look at this. See if you can find any bugaboos," with the author's name [Frank Herbert] under it. I read all of my grandfather's friend's novel. The original Sci-Fi magazine [I'm guessing he's referring to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction] was an in-club publication because nobody would publish these guys.

We're from a working-class family, but my grandfather spoke seven languages and had all of these international connections [because of science fiction]. For me, it was my way of being able to get outside the wall of that working-class house and feel special and have some kind of connection with my grandfather's world. It gave me the sense that there's more to life. And sci-fi was always understood to be politically based. It's a way of setting up a political message in a format that people can digest. If you tell somebody "That person's a liar," they can say, "No, I saw him last week and I trust him." But if you make them a reptile and give them the same information, they'll say, "Yeah, he's a reptile. They all lie." That's the great thing about sci-fi.

It was a genuine pleasure to meet you, Michael. Thank you so much.

Thank you too. I hope this made sense.