SFX Issue 11

April 1996

Interview

Matt Frewer

Matt’s reliving the heady days of computerised smart-arse Max Headroom (see SFX 10), the man-caught-in-a-computer-system, who starred in assorted TV vehicles for a brief three-year period, and ended up an icon of the late ’80s. (“Icon of the ’80s? Sounds like a brand name for aluminium,” Frewer muses bizarrely.) With two interview series (one on either side of the Atlantic), a career as a VJ, a US action series and an appearance on the cover of Movieweek, Max was, for a time, everywhere.

“It became kind of hip to come on and get trashed by Max,” Frewer remembers. “It was great doing these performance interviews with people like Harry Dean Stanton, Jerry Hall and Doctor Ruth, with Max as this wonderful kind of Orwellian image, looming over them. But he was at his best when was ripping apart all these pretentious actors and singers that kept coming on to plug their latest products.”

One of the most famous things about Max, of course, was his trademark stuttering. How was that done?

“It depended. If a piece was prerecorded, we’d do a little bit of frame-grabbing and play around with it. But if it was a live show, we’d simply do it with a Vocoder. I’d say something like, ‘I like your tie… tie… tie… tie… tie!’ and then they would play the notes on the Vocoder and it would go, ‘I like your tie… TIE… TIE… tie… tieeeyyy!’ It was,” he says adopting a deep mysterious voice, “all smoke and mirrors.”

But his impression of the “treated” voice is so uncannily near to the final effect, you can’t help feeling that all that smoke, and, indeed, the mirrors were pretty redundant. By his own admission, Frewer loves the chance to go wild...

“I like to get into situations where the director is going to, if not necessarily let the reigns go, then at least slacken them up a bit. Certainly, [director] Farhad Mann did that on Lawnmower Man II – all the stuff in the Virtual Reality sequences was ad-libbed, and it was a lot of fun in that respect. When I’m allowed to roam a bit I can bring a lot to the dance.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the Max Headroom connection that got Frewer the part of Jobe in Lawnmower Man II, a role he takes over from Jeff Fahey, who played the retarded-gardener-gone-mad in the original. However, you can sense that Frewer is not entirely happy with the way the movie turned out...

“What we designed was something that was sophisticated and an interesting take on the character. Unfortunately, they cut a lot of that out. The idea, I think, was to try and make it appeal to a wider – and younger – audience.”

One favourite scene of Frewer’s that was cut from the final edit involved a dance sequence: “The character of Jobe doesn’t have the use of his legs and he only has the use of one arm, so we decided that what he would want first and foremost in virtual reality – aside from anarchy and megalomania – was mobility. And because of that, combined with a kind of a romantic love that he had for his nurse, the Dr Platt character, we decided to have a dance sequence, a real Irvin Berlin top hat and tails number. But they cut the whole thing. It was a real shame.”

Frewer’s SF credentials don’t end with his two “virtual” roles. Far from it. There was, of course, his appearance in the season five Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “A Matter of Time,” as well as the pivotal character he played in the TV mini-series version of Stephen King’s The Stand. More recently, he played the principle villain, Trash, in the pilot of Generation X, the X-Men- meet- Beverly-Hills-90210 project based on a Marvel comic, which premièred in the States in February.

Not that he minds playing villains; they offer him plenty of leeway to go wild. Indeed, at the moment, he reckons Trash is one of the best parts he’s ever had.

“I play the big corporate bad guy who goes up against this new generation of X-Men. It’s shot kind of like Dick Tracy – lots of cock-eyed angles and wonderful bright colours, which people seem to like. It’s certainly done well over here. The nice thing for me is that they really let me go for it, and, as the canvas was so broad, there was loads to play with.”

One last question remains. Matt Frewer is obviously a glutton for punishment – after being encased in plastic make-up for nigh on two years as Max Headroom and shaving his head and sticking his legs through holes in a chair to play a paraplegic in Lawnmower Man II, is there anything he wouldn’t do for his art?

“Nah. I actually cut my legs off for real to play the Lawnmower Man, you know? I’m a lot shorter now, but luckily the producers of Generation X didn’t seem to mind...”

Suddenly it seems safest to get out of this conversation while the going is good...