A chat with Henry Rollins, Henry Rollins interview, National Geographic Explorer: Born to Rage?
Henry Rollins

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Here’s a dirty little secret of journalism: writers probably only spend about 10% of their day writing. The other 90% of the day is dedicated to reading E-mail from publicists and snickering at many of the massive number of press releases that cross our computer screens. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we’re pitched. Once in awhile, though, something turns up that makes us say, “This is the most awesome thing I’ve ever read, and I absolutely must cover it!”

And if you’re wondering, yes, that does kind of sum up my reaction to the news that Henry Rollins would be participating in an episode of National Geographic Explorer about the so-called “warrior gene.”

As soon as I received the press release about the program, I immediately dropped a line to the publicist to say, “If Henry’s doing phoners, I want in.” Just to cover my bases, though, I also dropped a line to Rollins himself, who promptly wrote back and, although he didn’t yet know what his schedule might be able to accommodate, was still kind enough to add, “If it’d help, I’ll be glad to answer a few questions for you by E-mail.” Before I could write back, however, I received an E-mail back from the publicist, letting me know that they’d just determined that they’d be able to get Rollins on the phone with me before the end of the week.

Although the first part of our conversation inevitably revolved around “National Geographic Explorer: Born to Rage?” (the program premieres on December 14, by the way), Rollins offered me a brilliantly organic opportunity to ask about his work on “Sons of Anarchy” as well. Okay, it was probably a coincidence. But bringing up his stint as a judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”? That was completely intentional…and all my doing.

Bullz-Eye: I’ve yet to actually see the “Born to Rage?” program, but I’ve seen some of the clips.

Henry Rollins: It’s pretty cool!

BE: Absolutely. I thought it was awesome that they managed to work some Black Flag footage into it.

HR: Yeah. I don’t know who they talked to. I mean, I don’t know who owns any of that stuff, but… (Trails off)

BE: Nice to actually see it, though.

HR: Yeah, but it’s weird. It’s always weird to see yourself back…whenever. It’s like a different person.

BE: (Laughs) So how did you get involved with this program? Did they approach you, or…

"The deal with me and National Geographic is a few years in the making. I wanted to work with them, and they wanted me to work with them, and finally schedules lined up and it all kind of came together. My boss over there said, 'We want your first thing to be really cool, so let’s, like, be careful choosing it.' And they ran through all these different things, and they picked 'Born to Rage?' They said, 'It’s interesting, you’re the perfect person for it.' And I agreed. So we did it."

HR: I’ve started working with National Geographic now, and…the first thing I shot with them is this thing. Basically, the deal with me and National Geographic is a few years in the making. I wanted to work with them, and they wanted me to work with them, and finally schedules lined up and it all kind of came together. My boss over there said, “We want your first thing to be really cool, so let’s, like, be careful choosing it.” And they ran through all these different things, and they picked this one. They said, “It’s interesting, you’re the perfect person for it.” And I agreed. So we did it. And it is a really fascinating topic, so it was really fun to be able to work on it, ‘cause…I ended up learning a lot.

BE: And like you said in one of the clips, it’s definitely a topic that hits home for you.

HR: Absolutely, yeah.

BE: So I guess you went through the whole DNA test as well, to see if you have the “warrior gene.” They sent me a kit as well, so I’m just waiting to get my results back.

HR: Oh, cool! Yeah, I did the DNA test, and when you watch this show, you’ll see a doctor actually give me my results.

BE: And did they surprise you?

HR: Well, either way – whatever the thing was – quite honestly, no, in that there’s nothing that I can do about any of this. So I was ready for the results, and I just went, “Yeah, okay.” No, I was not…anything. I just kind of took the information and went, “Well, now I know.”

BE: Since, again, I haven’t seen the program yet, how much of the gig was on location and how much was just straight narration?

HR: Well, I don’t do much narration in it. My role in this thing is basically…well, there’s a performance of me on stage, which we did specifically for this show, and then I interviewed people. Peter Coyote does the voiceover, so it’s mainly me being interviewed, me talking about experiences of mine, and me interviewing all of these different people: mixed martial arts fighters, doctors, lawyers, Navy SEALs, etcetera, and then our great production team went and got footage of this guy and that guy. I interviewed a bunch of bikers. There were lots of locations, but mainly my job was the interviewer, ‘cause me and all these other people, we’re all going to find out our results at the end of the show.

BE: As far as interviewing bikers, I would presume they were familiar with your work on “Sons of Anarchy.”

HR: Oh, yeah. There were a lot of…they all knew who I was, and they’re very, very cool to me. Which was good, because they were extremely terrifying.

BE: To speak of “Sons of Anarchy,” that was actually the last time I met you in person: at the TCA press tour, when you were promoting the second season. At the time, we hadn’t actually seen the episodes, but you gave a phenomenal performance, although there are many people, I think, who will never forgive you for what you did to Gemma.

Henry RollinsHR: Well, you know, there’s nothing like a character to act out. I…I got all kinds of the oddest mail from that show. People would write me in my character. Like, girls. Angry girls, because I had hit Charlie. “Look here, Mr. Weston, I don’t know you who think you are…” Uh, I think my name is Henry, and I think I drive a Subaru back to my house after the day of work is over in the Valley where we shoot this, you weirdo. (Laughs) It was just so strange. And, you know, some of these actors have quite a few fans, and there’s, like, websites devoted to them. And these girls are writing me, like, “Okay, I need the inside information on…” I’m, like, “Uh, no, and why me? Why do I have to give you information? Why am I this go-to guy for the skinny on these young, happening actors? What am I over here?” And what I am, as we all know, is a middle-aged man with a lot of gray in his hair. (Laughs) So it was a very interesting summer.

BE: I remember that you were kind of downplaying how you got the role at the time, saying, like, “I never get these things.” But I asked (“Sons of Anarchy” creator) Kurt Sutter about it, and he scoffed and was, like, “We had him in mind for a role all along, and I knew I wasn’t going to ask him to do anything that would be out of his comfort zone.”

HR: Oh, that’s cool. But, you know, with guys like me…I mean, that was still a big stroke of luck. Think of how many actors would’ve wanted to have that part. It’s, like, such a cool show. The part was…you know, he was an awful human, but it was a great part, a good bad guy, and so there’s a lot of very worthy, talented people in Hollywood – are you kidding? – and, you know, they would’ve done anything to get that part. And I kind of walked in and said, “Okay, here’s what we want to do. What do you think?” I said, “Well, let me audition.” He said, “Nah, I don’t need an audition. I know what you can do.” I went, “Well, okay, so what happens next?” He said, “Well, we’ll see you on the set.” (Laughs) And that was kind of it! And the next time I saw him was at the barbeque before the show started. It was at his place. And the next night, we’re shooting that thing! You know, guys like me…or me specifically…I have to audition. I get in the long line, I do the whole humiliating thing. A lot less now than I used to. Nowadays, like, it’s fairly…now and then. I’ll walk in and they’re, like, “Hey, we like you for this part!” “Uh, okay.” But quite I often I have to go in there and, y’know, do the work to get the part. But that was one of those great...you know, you wish it was all that easy.

BE: So with the character of AJ, when you went in for the part, how much of the character arc did you know at that time?

HR: What, as far as what was going to happen to him?

BE: Yeah.

"I got all kinds of the oddest mail from ('Sons of Anarchy'). People would write me in my character. Like, girls. Angry girls, because I had hit Charlie. 'Look here, Mr. Weston, I don’t know you who think you are…' Uh, I think my name is Henry, and I think I drive a Subaru back to my house after the day of work is over in the Valley where we shoot this, you weirdo."
HR: You got every script on the day of the table read. You’d walk in and you would read the whole script through…well, you know how they do it. But they do that the day before shooting. And that was a rule with Kurt. He wanted everyone in there. He would sit everyone down, and…even if you were working on the show, it would be on the lunch hour. Everybody would have to report in, and you’d read through it. And it’s just Acting 101, I guess, but it’s really helpful, because when you hear the other actors say those lines in their voice, it just…fits in your mind. And everyone gets their questions answered, and if you want to know about anything, Kurt Sutter’s right there, and most of the time he wrote it, so he’s the guy to talk to. And he would say, “Okay, is anybody mad about any of this? Is anyone thinking I’m pulling their character away from how it should be?” Which is kind of unheard of, for a writer to say, “Hey, how’m I doin’?” Especially when they’re that good. And I don’t think anyone ever had anything to say. It was, like, “Are you kidding? You’re Kurt Sutter. You’re good.” So it was a really cool working environment, and at one point, around Episode 10 or so, a few weeks before we finished, Kurt wrote me and said, “Okay, we have finally figured out what we’re going to do with you.” ‘Cause the rumor was that they were going to kill me in Season 3, and I was told to keep quiet, which of course I did. And at one point I came home from my radio show on a Saturday evening, and Kurt wrote me and said, “Okay, we’ve come up with it. You’re going to die. But you’re going to go out and…it’s going to be great. You’re gonna love it. It’s a great death scene, you’re going to go out as a warrior, and…that’s it. But you’re going out on the last episode. And don’t tell anyone.” So, of course, I did not. And every day on the set, “Hey, Henry, have you found out what’s happening?” And I’m, “Uh, I don’t know, man…” ‘Cause I don’t like lying, but I just kind of went, “Ah, well, who knows?” And then we all saw the script on the day of the table read and went, “Well, that’s what happens to Henry!” Or, at least, to AJ. And, you know, I got a cap gun thrust in my face – POP! POP! POP! – and I went home. And that was it.

BE: I’m not going to say that the character didn’t earn his demise.

HR: Yeah. He was an awful man who got what he deserved, I guess.

BE: So do you have any other acting gigs forthcoming?

Henry RollinsHR: No. No, what I’m hoping for is that National Geographic keeps me oh so busy. This is a job that I’ve wanted since I was about 8. You know, I grew up near the National Geographic building (in Washington, DC), I’ve had the magazine all my life. It’s National Geographic that first let me see the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and I always said, “I’m going to see those,” because I was inspired by them. And since then, I’ve been to the Pyramids a few times. And so to be able to be a presenter, a host on the National Geographic Channel, I can’t tell you what a big deal it is for me. Especially coming from music, where…you know, I could go out and sing those old songs and look like a damned fool, as so many of my peers sometimes do. They fall in love with their past, and they go up there, gray haired, and play. And…I don’t want to. I’m not putting down the people that do. I just want to do something else. And if you asked me what I’d rather do instead of going out and playing the same old songs, well, I’d like to work at a place like National Geographic. And it happened. Well, at least for now. You never know. But as it is now, I’m kind of in that “no way” phase of everything, ‘cause I really want to be there. They’re an amazing group of people, and documentary stuff is really what I’d like to…I’d be happy just doing that for the rest of my life.

BE: When you made that comment about being near the National Geographic building when you were growing up, it reminded me that, when I posted on Facebook that I was going to be interviewing you, a friend of mine said that I should mention her cousin to you.

(Writer’s note: Even though my friend offered up her cousin’s full name within a publicly-accessible Facebook status update, all you really need to know is that her name is Amanda.)

HR: Am I supposed to know that person? What’s the context?

BE: Ostensibly, you two dated at some point when you lived in the DC area.

HR: A girl named Amanda? No, sir. I dated a girl named Fran, and then…I joined Black Flag. I was kind of low on the girlfriend thing until I joined Black Flag. And then I met a whole lot of women. But, no, there was no Amanda that I was courting. And I was not high, so I have a pretty good memory. (Laughs) It was the Carter administration. There wasn’t a whole lot shaking. And I can’t think this girl has any wishful thinking. I’m not the kind of guy who engenders that kind of sentiment. So I don’t know. Maybe she likes too much Boone’s Farm, and she thinks I was yet one more man staggering through her bedroom. I have no idea. Maybe we met, but the name is not ringing true, and I certainly have not dated a gal named Amanda that I know of.

BE: (Laughs) Fair enough. Okay, I know we’re up against the wall, so let me just drop two quick ones on you to close. First of all, you did the voice of T. Sean Collins for the audio book of World War Z. Has there been any talk of you playing the role in the film version?

HR: You know, no one ever came back to me about that. That was a really fun character that I read, and they sent me a couple of copies of the actual audio book, but I never heard from those people again.

BE: And, lastly, how did you come to serve as a judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”?

Henry RollinsHR: Oh, RuPaul’s an old friend of mine. He used to practice the same place I did in New York. I’d see him all the time. He used to have a band, and I’d see him, like, three days a week. He’s a really cool guy, really funny and very smart, and he called me and said, “Hey, you want to be on my show?” I’m, like, “Oh, hell, yeah, I’ll do that!” And it was one of the… (Hesitates) It’s such an odd afternoon, just hanging out with these men who were women, and they’re, you know, coming on with it pretty hard. It was just an odd day, ‘cause you look at ‘em, and you’re, like, “Wow, that’s…pretty hot? Wait a minute. That’s a guy!” ‘Cause, you know, your primordial brain, anything with shaved legs you’re going to look at. And then you keep remembering, “That’s a dude!” And…I don’t know. It was funny. It made me laugh at myself, the simplistic creature that I am.

BE: Okay, I know we’re out of time, but it sounds like I might have a shot at speaking to you again soon. I understand you’re helping out with the promotion for Shout Factory’s reissue of Don Letts’ “Punk: Attitude” on DVD.

HR: Oh, yeah! Yeah, I told Mitzye (the publicist handling the DVD) that I would help. So, sure, anything you need on that, too. Just book it and we’ll talk.

BE: Awesome. We’ll call it “Another Chat with Henry Rollins.”

HR: Cool! Talk to you soon!

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