Praying For Time – George Michael
I may have too much but I’ll take my chances
Because god’s stopped keeping score…
Listen Without Prejudice was released in September 1990 and this was the first single from the album. We listened to the LP all that winter 90/91, and I don’t think George Michael has ever bettered it. Cowboys & Angels, Freedom 90, Heal The Pain, lovely cover of They Won’t Go When I Go. And Praying For Time. “tune”
Listen Without Prejudice – 1990
That autumn I was doing a play called Earwig by Paula Milne at The Pit, somewhere under The Barbican in London with the RSC. Then I got a call from the agent for a meeting in Pinewood studios for Alien 3. This was terribly exciting. I adored the first Alien film, and was less keen on the second, but devoured it hungrily nonetheless. The combination of horror and science fiction was thrilling and brilliantly done. I gleaned a few details before the meeting – it was going to be set on a prison planet with no women except Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver. It would directed by a young first-time director called David Fincher. Much to the irritation of the RSC I had my (pretty long) hair shorn at Fish in D’Arblay Street – a number four if I recall. I’d been going to Fish since I’d done West at The Donmar Warehouse in 1983, and they’d been close-up witnesses to the disappearing head-fur since then. Anyway, I got offered the part of Aaron, or to be more accurate, Fincher recalled me and asked me which part I fancied playing. HOW COMPLETELY THRILLING !! (I thought) IS THIS WHAT MY LIFE WILL BE LIKE NOW??? I chose Aaron. The 2nd in command. The survivor. Good part. Or so I thought. This is an extract from my diary at the time – an actor at his first Hollywood barbeque, getting burned. Nobody explains what it’s going to be like, and even if they did, I didn’t listen. Who does ?
Alien 3 – Paranoia in Pinewood
The six stages of Film Production : as seen carved into the wall in Pinewood, Studio Five, by someone presumably better-versed in the industry than I :
- Wild enthusiasm
- Search For The Guilty
- Punish The Innocent
- Reward The Non-Involved
17th Jan 1991.
Well. After a heavy day’s filming on Scene 55 where Golic, (played by me old china plate Paul McGann), is brought to the infirmary, I return to my dressing room to find rewrites have been pushed under my door. Rewrites for the end of the movie. I read them. Disaster. My character has gone from the everyman-yuppie-type-who-survives to something completely different : the thick-coward-type-who-gets-his-throat-cut-while-hiding-from-the-alien. I feel like a horse has kicked me in the guts. I march up to the director, David Fincher’s office, and demand a meeting with the writers, Walter Hill and David Giler, to discuss the part. Having already filmed two scenes and therefore committed my character to celluloid, these changes are un-nerving to say the very least. Fincher says he hates the rewrites, and don’t worry, it’ll be all right. But he’s just the director. Walter and David are also producing along with Sigourney herself. I express with great and foolish bravery to Fincher that I need to know what I’m playing, and I need to know NOW. We arrange a meeting for lunchtime next day.
At 11.am I get a call cancelling the meeting. Panic. I call my agent Michael Foster, the poison dwarf of Oxford Street whom I love dearly. His advice : Don’t rock the boat, keep your head below the parapet, wear a tie and vote conservative (remember, this is 1991). Above all, he advises, Do Not Upset Walter Hill, writer and producer of the film. There are major Hollywood politics going on and I’m simply caught in the crossfire, my character being one pawn among many in a power game between the Giler/Hill axis and the Fincher/Fox camp. It’s the moody stark Alien (1) vs the populist wham-bam Aliens (2). I know what I prefer but evidently can’t afford to express my feeling to the wrong people.
At 2pm I get a call inviting me (since I’m not filming today) to the Halcyon Hotel in Holland Park – a car will be round to pick me up. This is where Walter Hill and David Giler are staying. The drive is smooth and tense. I go up in the lift to Room 50, and Walter greets me at the door wearing mirror shades.
Walter Hill, director of The Long Riders, 48 Hours, The Warriors, The Driver and more
By now I am shitting maisonettes but staying outwardly cool I hope. Something to drink Ralph ? I ask for tea, so we all have tea. We chat, and Fincher is mentioned. Non-committal words are exchanged. Body language is tense, nervy from Hill, open, receptive from me. I smile in what I hope is a relaxed fashion. I’m wrong about one thing (probably more than one – Ed) – Walter Hill talks about going back to the simplicity of the first Alien movie, which cheers me up a bit. So, Ralph, what about Aaron? Well, I say, I’m here to ask for your help. Hill doesn’t believe me. Careful Ralph. Be careful. Be honest. I talk about Fincher’s version of the character and how it conflicts with the rewrites. Hill shifts his weight and considers me. “Aaron is a working class stupid guy, who is funny“. I agree. This is my bargaining position I say : I have no bargaining position. Hill laughs. He knows. Is there anything I don’t like about the script? Well, I say, can’t Aaron fight with the Alien?? If not at the end, then in the middle sequence with the fire? Astonishingly they agree with me and I gain a point. But I can’t fight at the end. And I have to be an 85 IQ – like Muhammed Ali or Danny from Withnail (they bizarrely console me with). OK I say. Fine by me I say. Thrilled to be in your movie I say. No heroics for me, and this will affect any Hollywood career I am to have, if indeed I am to have one. “We all gotta serve the movie Ralph” says Walter Hill. who is getting paid something in the region of a million dollars serving the movie. “I’m prepared to sit here til midnight until you’re happy with the way the character should be played…”
I leave one and a half hours later, shaking hands. I press the lift button. I can still hear them and strain an ear down the corridor – what are they saying? “Fuck the guy – get him off the picture” ? I don’t want to hear it anyway. I walk out through the lobby feeling as tight and tense and screwed up as a piece of wire. I feel like vomiting. I am driven home, feeling shaky and weird. Meet my brother Paul and go to see Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda at Screen on the Green – flawed but good (Brian Cox was excellent) – with the memorable line : “Rule One : Look After Your Own Balls”
Afterward to the pub and drinks and I start to unwind. I am now paranoid about being cut from the film (like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter had gently reminded me earlier – I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you. Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright…) She was the one who cried a lot. I suddenly remember that an actor was sacked after four weeks filming on Aliens because they found out that he was on acid or something (!) and so they re-shot all the scenes he was in. So even after a month’s filming you’re not safe. Damn.
David Fincher & Sigourney Weaver on the set of Alien 3, Pinewood 1991
Meeting with Fincher the next day. Hi dude how was your meeting? Walter and David said you’d reached a compromise. Oh, that’s what they called it? I felt as if I’d been taken slowly from behind. I informed Fincher that although I loved him spiritually, I had in fact (sad to say) sold him down the river (still some quiver when I deliver) and that I had accepted the working-class thicko comic character idea to save my own balls (see Rule One above). Fincher says “The fight’s not over. Remember we’re working for 18th century Fox here”
The rewrites come through. As I expected. Well, we all gotta serve the movie. Fear stalks the set. Everyone is applying Rule One. And as we shoot mangled remains of Alien victims in dark corridors, the Gulf War is being prosecuted with extreme prejudice, and as Brian Glover soberly remarked, we could go to Baghdad and see the real thing.
my old mate Danny Webb with Sigourney on set
Someone steals a continuity photo of Sigourney with head shaved and sells it to the Today newspaper. A mole on the unit. Someone from props gets sacked. We’re all looking over our shoulders.
Picked up from Archway Road by Bill my driver who informs me that Jordan Cronenweth, legendary DP who shot Blade Runner had been replaced by Alex Thomson over the weekend. Brian Glover is picked up in Fulham Road and gets severe wobbles for the rest of the day. “It’s a portent Ralph, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film doesn’t get finished“. Jordan’s disappearance has the opposite effect on me. I finally reach my long-lost fuck-it level. And I think : FUCK IT ! In the next scene I have only my vest and long johns, so my chest is showing. Nick in make-up takes a long look : ” Ooh no, it’ll have to go” What will? “The chest hair love. It’ll have to come off” Jesus Christ. I go all queenie for a second and flounce back to my dressing room to ponder my pectorals. Shaved chest? Never in all my born days….
Fuck It. I don’t even phone Jenny to moan at her, because as soon as she hears my anxious paranoid actor’s whinge she’ll just search for things to say which won’t upset me. No. It’s my decision and I’ll shave the fucker. Jesus Christ ! I’m an actor!! Actors do all that shit! It’s for the part, and the money. Aaron shaves his chest. I suddenly saw, for the first time since I was 15, what my body actually looked like. I have to report that it could have been better. Went straight home to the bench press and weights That Night. But it was a liberating shave, a plunge into Fuck-It-Dom which released much of my tension and anxiety about the film. FUCK IT !!!
The canteen sequence. Rewrites still coming in. An IRA attack on Downing Street provides a fitting backdrop. Sigourney is taking no prisoners today. First it’s the hair: “Your hair is too long Ralph, we should put some lice in it” Then an hour later it’s the costume: “How come Aaron gets to wear a nice clean shirt, while we’re all in dirty crap here?” “It’s vanity pure and simple” says the deep Barnsley burr of Brian Glover. Thanks mate. “So the stupid Aaron 85 looks really cool then” says Sigourney. “Mr Normal”. She stonks off. I feel really weird now. All my paranoias confirmed ! I think she is anxious about having a shaved head, but she has successfully managed to dump her insecurity onto me.
spoiler : Brian Glover is taken by the Alien in the canteen
McGann wanders over and I tell him what has happened. Sigourney walks past us : “Oh look – a little tete-a-tete between Mr Sublime and Mr Ridiculous. I’ll leave you guys to work out who’s who”…. Paul turns to me. “She’s going the right way for a smack in the mouth”. At the tea break another actor tells me that Sigourney didn’t want any stars in the film and doesn’t speak to Charles Dance. I am reminded of having my close-ups cut from Buster, and Phil Collins’ performance on Wogan, when he was asked who was playing Biggs (me) and he replied “Oh some new younger actor”. You’re nobody in this town ’til everybody thinks you’re a bastard.
I’m being made up on set as Sigourney glides past. “Don’t make him look too pretty I have to walk past him”… ‘Trust your image Sigourney’, I reply. She hovers, so for something to say I tell her that my death has now been re-written FIVE TIMES so far, including : Alien eats me, Golic cuts my throat, I fall into lead mould, Company machine-gun me. “I asked them to kill you off on page ten” she says. A couple of hours later she pokes her tongue out at me. Hey! It occurs to me, perhaps she wants to fuck me !
She should be so lucky.
Years later I discover that Walter Hill has an eye condition that means he had to wear protective shades even indoors. That Jordan Cronenweth was too ill to finish the shoot even with his son Jeff assisting him due to Parkinson’s. After the premiere, Sigourney apologises for being mean. Fincher encourages me to move to Los Angeles or LaLa as he calls it, so after our wedding in 1992, we do. And later still. Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #135) gets to sing with George Michael on two world tours. One night he sang Praying For Time. I still think it’s his best song.