Vilos Cohaagen was a really fun character to play. Paul Verhoeven, the director of RoboCop, and I had gotten along famously when I was playing Dick Jones in Robocop, so naturally I was thrilled when he wanted me to play the “Dictator of Mars” in his next project, Total Recall, which we started shooting in 1988.
Most people don’t know this, but things could easily have worked out much differently with the movie. Total Recall had gone through several different incarnations before Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger became attached to it. First of all, it had been in “development” for fourteen years. Every studio loved the story, but couldn’t figure out how to make the movie and stay within a manageable budget. Several actors, William Hurt and Richard Dreyfuss had, at one time or another, been considered for the lead role and directors like Ridley Scott to film it. I had been told by one of the screenwriters that production had, at one point, actually begun in Australia with Ridley Scott directing and with Patrick Swayze set to star. My understanding is they only shot for a short time before producer Dino De Laurentiis shut down production. So when we started shooting in Mexico City, the film was already six million dollars in debt. By the time I got onboard, Total Recall was fast on its way to becoming the then most expensive production in the history of film.
After the plug was pulled in Australia, it was decided to shoot the movie at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, clearly as a penny-pinching exercise. Even though, at that time, it was the most expensive film ever with massive sets, the production company tried to cut so many corners they made it feel like the lowest low budget film I’d ever been on. I remember getting a call to ask me, “Ronny, the actors have agreed to fly coach down to Mexico. I know we’re supposed to fly you first class, but would you agree to fly coach too?” Dumbfounded, I replied, “Are you telling me that Arnold Schwarzenegger has agreed to fly coach?” There was a pregnant pause: “Oh, well, not Arnold”… I said: “Well, no – not Ronny!” I also heard the production team actually called some of the actors to say with a wink… “Listen, we’re gong to be shooting on x and x dates. If you happen to be here in Mexico, there’s a good chance we’d hire you.” Actors were literally going down to Mexico on their own dime and they weren’t receiving a per diem – a daily rate – or lodging. And on the days they weren’t working there was no compensation. Talk about cutting corners!
There were certainly no shortcuts for me with this picture. I literally faced the longest commute you could imagine. At the same time we were shooting Total Recall, I was also making Captain America in Yugoslavia. So, I was flying back and forth between Mexico City and Dubrovnik, Croatia. Ironically, in Captain America I played the heroic, honorable, and patriotic President of the United States…(perhaps the nicest man on earth)… while in Total Recall I was the meanest man on Mars… (perhaps in the universe). It sometimes felt like I had to look down and see what I was wearing to remember who I was playing.
My haircut threw an expensive monkey-wrench into the works of their budget. I was called to Mexico a week or so before most of the other cast arrived. They needed me for a couple of days of preliminary shooting: Cohaagen addressing the citizens on Mars TV, and those well-known scenes of him barking out orders on the monitor to Richter… simple scenes that required only me and since they were close-ups, and a very simple background…. not much of a set. Here’s the deal, when we shot those scenes I had a fairly normal hairstyle, not slicked back like, as Mary used to say: “the Lizard King look”, that ended being how I looked in the final version of the movie. And that haircut caused me no small amount or trepidations, which I’ll explain later.
When I returned from Mexico the production wanted Rob Bottin, (the special effects make-up genius) to do a prototype full head mask of me for the film. ***I’m sure you’ve heard of people who have a photographic memory? Rob, has a photographic memory with his hands. He can sit with his pad and paper and draw a photographic likeness of you, or mould an absolute likeness of you in clay***. Arnold and I spent an entire day distorting our faces in every way we could imagine (our face muscles were sore the next day). They were for the scene when Arnold and I were on the surface of Mars (my dramatic death scene at the end of the movie when my eyes pop out of my head). Rob created exact masks of Arnold and me, and from those beginnings he put air bags at strategic spots inside the masks. He could then take our expressions and make them more and more grotesque. Which, on film, paradoxically is both exaggerated and fairly realistic at the same time.
It was a long monotonous and scary process making those masks. They completely covered your face with latex. I’m claustrophobic, it was torturous, being completely closed in with only straws in your nostrils for breathing tubes. I was pretty freaked out. Anyway, they slicked back my hair with gel and Rob took photographs of me to document the project. When I saw the photographs with my hair slicked back , I realized that was what Cohaagen should look like. But there was one big stumbling block: I had already shot two days of scenes in Mexico with normal looking hair.
I didn’t know how best to approach Paul …. as we all know, his reputation for having volcanic temper when things go South is well deserved…. as well as being well documented.. So, you can imagine my dread of how he might to react to my creative suggestion. Particularly in light of the fact that he was under increasing pressure over the budget. But I took a deep breath and said. “Paul, I want to show you something. I know we’d already shot a couple of scenes, but look…….. ,” I showed him Rob’s photograph.
He glared at me for a long time: “I’m angry at you Ronny!… you know why?… “Because I’m going to have to shoot those two days again!” he had an impish smirk .
An interesting sidelight about the look of Cohaagen… when I was at Churubusco for those first couple of days of shooting, I’d walk from the make-up trailer to the set and no one ever paid any attention to me. We had a huge multi-national crew… but most of them were Mexican. There were a gazillion actors, so obviously we were unknown to the crew. But… once Paul had settled on the “Lizard King” look for Cohaagen… whenever I walked from the make-up trailer to the set… all the crew guys would stop as I passed them and make some gesture, nod submissively and say, “El Jefe”…….