Michael Rooker on ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place in 2011.

Actor Michael Rooker appeared at the Egyptian Theatre for the 25th anniversary screening of the film in which he made his acting debut, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Even with the passing of time, it remains as infinitely disturbing as it did when it was first released. Rooker discussed how he got cast and of what went on during its making. He also told the audience this was the first time he had seen the film since it first was released back in 1986.

Rooker said he started out as a theatre actor in Chicago after graduating from the Goodman School of Drama. At the time casting began for “Henry,” he was in a play called “Sea Marks,” and the director was doing the prosthetics for it. Rooker said he didn’t care if the screenplay was good or bad because he just wanted to do a movie. Doing “Henry” was a test for Rooker to see how working while shooting out of sequence would work for him.

For research, Rooker said he read several books about serial killers which were written by doctors, but he found them to be “mostly crap.” He ended up getting more from the Texas Rangers who interviewed the man this film was more or less based on, Henry Lee Lucas. Also, the director, John McNaughton, asked him and the other actors to write character sketches. Rooker said he did not want to do that though because he did this endlessly in college and was now “sick of writing stuff down.” Instead, he recorded an audio tape of himself speaking in character.

During shooting, Rooker said he tried staying in character all day long. This led to a lot of strange times on set as actors and the crew were not sure if they were talking to him or Henry. McNaughton also got him a room for him to hide out from the actors and crew, and it was filled with mirrors which Rooker later covered up with trash bags. He stayed in the room all day until he was called to set.

The budget for “Henry” was a mere $120,000 according to Rooker, and the guy selling him cigarettes towards the film’s end was the one who financed it. Being an independent film, the filmmakers had no permits and had to hide whenever the cops were in the area. Once they were gone, the crew went right back to filming. They did, however, get busted during a pivotal scene in which Henry is shown throwing a body into the river. While shooting, four police cars came out of nowhere, and one policeman got out and asked, “Are you throwing bodies into the river?”

Once they looked in the bag Rooker was about to hurl over the side, they started laughing uncontrollably and ended up leaving the crew alone.

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” opened up a lot of doors for Michael Rooker, and it even scored him a role in John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out.” His terrifying performance is still embedded in the minds of so many who dared to view it either on the silver screen or on their own television sets, and they still cannot get it out of their heads. Since then, he has had a great career which has allowed him to play both good and bad guys with relative ease. Michael still has many great performances left to give, but don’t count on him doing a “Henry” sequel unless he can be convinced it can be turned into a musical.

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