Whether on stage screaming lyrics to a song, storytelling at a spoken-word show or helping Will Smith and Martin Lawrence take down white supremacists in Bad Boys II, it’s pretty clear that Henry Rollins is a take no prisoners, take no bullshit kind of guy.
It’s also clear that he’s one of the hardest working celebrities alive today. With a versatile career in a variety of different fields, it’s clear that Rollins can accomplish anything he puts his mind to. He recently took some time out his busy schedule to talk to us about his career, travels and experiences – and he certainly didn’t pull any punches in the process.
You are originally from Washington, D.C. Where do you call home now?
I am presently stationed in Los Angeles, CA.
People may not know this about you, but you went to a military school. Looking back, how did that affect you and what were you able to take away from that experience?
I went to a Navy Prep school. It’s not like one of those schools where you drill, etc. I was told to shut up a lot and many of my instructors were WWII, Korea, Vietnam vets. I got a lot of discipline from those years. It was not a good time but I learned a lot and a lot of what I got from there has helped me in other pursuits.
You’ve been friends with Ian MacKaye from Fugazi for years, going all the way back to when you two worked in a pet store together growing up in D.C. How did you two start hanging out and what’s it like when the two of you get together?
I met Ian when I was 12 years old, I think. I am a couple of weeks away from being 46, so it’s been a long time. I spent three days in D.C. a few days ago and saw Ian in that time and it was as always, a great time. We usually meet up with some of the others we grew up with, Fugazi and Rites Of Spring types, his brother, etc. These are all very fine people so it’s always a good time. Ian and I talk a lot about music, we always have.
As most people know, you were a fan of Black Flag before becoming the frontman for the band in the 1980s. Your experiences with the group are well-documented in Get in the Van, a collection of journal entries you wrote at the time. What is it like now when you think back on that period in your life and what did you take away from those experiences?
Those days taught me the meaning of work and made me see what it takes to get somewhere. They were trying times and not without cost. From those times I learned to do it myself, be as non reliant as possible and most of all, to hang in there.
Your trademark as a lead singer is appearing on stage without a shirt or shoes. It goes without saying that this isn’t really a look that works for everyone. How did you end up going with that look?
A look? It was function. I had one pair of shoes and hardly any clothes. It’s all about the sweat factor. That’s all.
Talk with us a little bit about today’s music scene. What bands or musicians out there today would you pay money to see and who do you wish would just go away?
I don’t care about the ones I want to go away, they are not my problem because no one makes me listen to them. I think there’s a lot of interesting bands out there playing and making records. Deerhoof, The Aquarium, The Evens, Soccer Team, The Blood Brothers, Yellow Swans, Gene Defcon, etc. There’s a lot of good music happening all the time. I would go see any of these people play any time I could.
You’ve had quite an eclectic acting career, including roles in Bad Boys II, Heat and Johnny Mnemonic. What roles stand out for you? What was the most fun to do?
I only do films for the paycheck and make no bones about it. I give it my all when I am on the set doing the work. It’s work. Some films are more fun than others, but it is between tour work that I go for. I believe that I should be employed at all times. Work is interesting, more interesting and challenging than not working. My favorite experience making a film was doing The Chase.
If we’re not mistaken, filming for Wrong Turn 2 just finished. What can you tell us about the movie and your character Dale Murphy?
I just saw it the other day and thought it came out really well. Joe Lynch the director is really talented and I thought all the actors were top shelf. In the film I play a retired Marine colonel who is given a reality show. We go to shoot it and as you would expect, everything goes wrong and all hell breaks loose.
What actors or directors out there would you like to work with down the road? And while we’re at it, who would play you if they were to do a movie based on your life?
I’ll work with anyone who is doing the film I managed to get in. I am not talented enough to pick and choose directors. I get what I can get and that’s it. I can’t think of anyone to play me in a film. I hope it doesn’t come to that.
In a lot of ways, your life is an open book. Your books and spoken word shows share personal stories about your life and your experiences. Do you ever worry about sharing too much and do you fear ever running out of material?
My life is my material so I am forced to keep it interesting. I don’t worry about sharing too much. It’s not like I am doing anything of importance, I’m just going for mine and reporting back, hopefully in a meaningful and interesting way.
We found an interesting quote where you said, “I have really no talent for writing, merely an obsession and some kind of strange duty I feel. Yet I never felt that I’m any good at it. I can’t even say I enjoy writing. I sometimes wish I could stop. Unfortunately I can’t.” What is it about writing that keeps bringing you back?
I have been trying to write for so many years now; it’s a place to go. It’s a certain space in my mind that I am now well acquainted with and it makes sense to attempt to tell the tale or depict something with all possible clarity. It’s of endless interest to me how some are able to take an experience and render it in such a way that it is as clear to the reader. It’s the hardest thing I have ever tried to do.
You don’t drink, you don’t do drugs, you’ve accomplished many different things in your career through hard work and determination and many young kids identify with you, especially your piece “I Know You.” Do you consider yourself to be a role model and who were your role models growing up?
I don’t think I am a role model but if I am to believe the letters I get, I have made some things that some people have gotten something from and that’s great. I have always admired Ian and Mohammad Ali.
Talk to us about The Henry Rollins show on the Independent Film Channel. Whose idea was it for the show and what sets your show apart from other late night talk shows?
It was the idea of a small production company. The show is in not much different than any other talk show/variety shows. Perhaps the questions to the guests are a bit different and more interesting than the usual Leno fare. The show is uncensored so I get to really let it rip, which is pretty cool.
Some of the guests that have appeared on your show include Oliver Stone, Ozzy Osbourne and Chuck D. Who has been your favorite guest so far and who would you like to have on the show down the road?
I enjoyed all the guests. The one I learned the most from was Stephen Gaghan. His travels with Robert Baer to research Syrianna were really interesting to me, right up my alley.
One person who probably won’t be appearing on your show any time soon is President Bush. You may have the best line we’ve heard since he took the office when you said, “Making fun of the president, the fact that he can’t talk good, it’s like punching out an eight year old – satisfying, yes, but nothing you want to make a career out of.” If you could be president for a day, what changes would you make and how would you run the country?
Well, you can’t do anything in a day, but I do think that we can use more transparency in this current version of government and certainly more accountability. If no one has anything to hide, then no one should have a problem with that.
Back in 2003 during the war in Iraq, you did a tour with the USO to entertain troops overseas, despite your personal opposition to the war and the Bush administration in general. What was that experience like and what kind of reception did you get from the troops worldwide? Can you share with us a story about one of your stops on the tour?
I have done seven USO tours. Iraq, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Honduras, Egypt, Turkey, Japan, North Korea, Djibouti and perhaps some others that I can’t remember at this moment. It’s always eye opening and gives me a lot to think about. I was with the troops on Christmas in Africa in 2006 and they were very happy that I was out there. One of the things that sticks out the most is the presence of KBR types and all the contractors. Its one hell of a business they have going out in these places. It seems at times, a bigger operation than the military.
You’ve toured in bands, done spoken word shows, written and published books, hosted a radio show and television shows, acted in a variety of different movies, done voice work for cartoons and you’ve traveled around the world. And if that’s not enough, you’ve even been a featured character in a video game – Def Jam: Fight for NY. Seriously, what’s left? Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you would still like to do?
There are still some places I want to go and things I want to know. As far as any one thing, no, I can’t think of anything.
Following up on that – since you have done so much, what would you like to be remembered for? What should your legacy to be?
I never really think about anything like that. Doesn’t really matter to me.
You seem like you are always on the move and always involved with various projects. How often do you just sit down and relax and what do you do to unwind?
I like to listen to music and look at the covers and stuff. I like reading and watching films. Most of the down time I have, I spend it alone.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I have no doubt that before I am dead, I will be back at a minimum wage job.
We’ve got one last thing for you. We are going to do a word association. We’ll just throw out a name and tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.
I don’t do them. But for you, I’ll do one:
Word association: Pointless bullshit.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, January 2007. The Henry Rollins Show airs Saturdays at 10 PM on IFC. For more information on Henry Rollins, visit his official site.