“I had no deathly ambition to become super famous. I just want to work. I want to be able to put a roof over my head, and make great films, and also create a path for me to make movies as a director.”
Friendship and a strong work ethic are core values for Sarah Connor Chronicles star Lena Headey. The Bermuda-born actress, who was raised in the working-class town of Huddersfield in the North of England, has come a long way, but she remains very down to earth.
Since her film debut opposite Jeremy Irons in Waterland back in 1992, Headey has built up a lengthy list of credits. Her breakout role didn’t arrive until 2006 however, when she played the heroic Queen of Sparta in director Zack Snyder‘s highly stylized retelling of the story of the Spartan’s epic battle with Persia. Having worked to protect her husband, the King of Sparta, in 300, Headey was then called on to protect her on-screen son, John Connor, from the Terminator in The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
While working on the Fox TV series, Headey forged a close bond with special effects guru Robert Hall (whose credits also include Buffy, Angel and Pineapple Express) and his partner in slime, producer and actress Bobbi Sue Luther. So when Robert and Bobbi decided to branch out and make their own blood and guts genre horror flick, Headey was more than happy to jump on board.
Though made on a beyond-low budget that was supplemented by friends and favors, Laid To Rest, which was the first film to be shot on Panasonic’s new HPX-3000 high-def DV camcorder, has a polished analog look despite its bargain digital price tag. Shot on location at a deserted psychiatric hospital in Maryland, the film exemplifies the DIY methodology of Hollywood’s next generation filmmakers.
With Season 2 of Sarah Connor coming to a close, and the fate of a follow up season still hanging in the balance, Headey ultimately hopes to join their ranks. Over the past couple of years, during downtime on the SCC set, the actress worked on her own project, which she describes as a “quirky ensemble comedy.” Having penned and prepped it, and with The Chronicles behind her for the time being, she now hopes to direct and produce it. If all goes Headey’s way, she’ll soon be the one making calls to friends for favors.
I caught up Headey while she was enjoying a rare moment of rest, surrounded by her dogs, on the couch at her Los Angeles home.
Nicole Powers: I wanted to start at the very beginning, because you’ve had an interesting life, I mean you were born in Bermuda…
Lena Headey: I was. I was there till I saw five.
NP: Do you have any memories of Bermuda?
LH: I don’t really. I look at books on it, photographs, and I do that thing like everybody, it’s that sort of edited memory where you think, I sort of remember, but you don’t really have a physical memory.
NP: In a way it might be a good thing, because going from Bermuda to Huddersfield might have been I bit of a shock.
LH: Yeah. Quite traumatic! My mom and dad were in the [police] cadets in Yorkshire, and I don’t know what it was about Huddersfield and Bermuda, if it was a twin town, but they took trainees out for a year to Bermuda. They went out there for a year and I came along as a treat midway through.
NP: I can imagine, if it was a twin town thing, no disrespect to the North of England, because I’m from there, but I think someone maybe got a raw deal there.
LH: Yeah! Huddersfield! [laughs]
NP: So your family moved back to Huddersfield and you were there until you were seventeen?
LH: Yeah. I moved to London and worked and lived on various sofas in various houses for about two, probably three years. Then when I was twenty I moved properly down with my friend and we got a flat, and I lived there until two years ago when I moved out here.
NP: Couch surfing being an important skill in any actor’s early career.
LH: Yeah. I was a really good couch surfer, but thankfully I had lots of lovely people who really looked after me.
NP: Did you develop a preference for any particular kind of couch?
LH: I liked to have a couch with a dog. I stayed with one friend who had three animals, so I quite liked staying there.
NP: Your online bio says you were in a school play at the Royal Nation Theatre, and someone spotted you and you ended up in a movie opposite Jeremy Irons.
LH: That’s actually the truth!
NP: So what kind of school production was it?
LH: Well they did this thing at the Royal National Theatre every year — I hope they still do it because it’s a great opportunity — where they take youth theater groups and high schools… and they pick about nine to go and do a performance over three nights. So three schools a night get to perform on the Olivier Stage which is pretty magnificent for people who come from a normal high school. And that’s what we did. We did this play, which was a fabulous idea from my drama teacher who was like, “Let’s do a musical about Vietnam.”
NP: A musical about Vietnam?
LH: [laughs] Yes. Fabulous! And that begun my illustrious career.
NP: You have to tell me about a couple of the musical numbers from Vietnam: The Musical.
LH: We were all kind of running around with guns, and then we would stop and sing sad songs about lost sons and weeping mothers. So it had a good sentiment.
NP: Was there any tap dancing involved?
LH: No tap dancing. Just lots of sort of kneeling and singing earnestly about death.
NP: So that makes the story about you being spotted in this production all the more remarkable.
LH: I wasn’t spotted in the production… You had to put pictures of the cast up in the foyers, and [my drama teacher] took pictures of us all at school kind of standing around. A casting director called Susie Figgis, who cast Waterland, which was my first film, saw the picture and though, “Oh, she can come and read.” And that was it. It was kind of bonkers. It was a little Kodak print picture, and that’s how it started. It was mad.
NP: Since then you’ve worked a lot. You’ve got a really impressive résumé that was, for the most part, under the radar.
LH: It’s not been constant. I wish it had. I’ve had a couple of years when it’s been scary, but it happens to everyone. It’s not the most stable career… It’s such a weird thing acting. There are jobs you do for love and, I always thought that would be the way, and then you get a mortgage and you get responsibilities and sometimes you’ve got to do something that will pay the bills because it’s too stressful.
NP: So what would you consider your breakthrough role?
LH: I think it was probably 300. If you’re talking about something that changed things, I guess it was 300 because it was so huge…
It’s a funny thing, I had no deathly ambition to become super famous. I just want to work. I want to be able to put a roof over my head, and make great films and also create a path for me to make movies as a director… I consider myself a working actor and not a famous actor.
NP: In 300, as with Sarah Connor, you’re the woman behind the man, working to protect the man, and fighting alongside the man. Does it frustrate you that there’s so few strong roles for women?
LH: Sometimes. Sometimes it’s frustrating. But throughout Sarah Connor, I’ve been writing a lot. It’s inspired me to write pieces for me and other women and men I know who are great actors who don’t necessarily get the chance to do the things they’re capable of. I just think it is really frustrating that the great roles for women are given to the top cream of actresses. But that’s just the way it is. If you are famous and a great actress, and you bring money in, that then allows you to get the cream of the crop in terms of scripts and characters.
NP: One of the reasons I like the part that you play in Laid To Rest , and also the part that Bobbi plays, is that although it’s a genre horror movie, neither of your characters dissolve into the usual pathetic girly hysterical archetype.
LH: Absolutely. I think Rob’s a really smart filmmaker. He’s just beginning, and I think he’s super capable. And I love with Bobbi’s character, with the amnesia and kind of really not knowing what’s going on, that she was never like a dizzy fool. I enjoyed that, and also they’re my mates — number one — I’m up for doing anything creative with friends. It’s always really good fun and satisfying.
NP: Did you talk about the character beforehand and make the choice that you didn’t want to be archetypical screaming girlies?
LH: Well I didn’t. I’m sure Bobbi and Rob talked about it for a long, long time. I know Bobbi was nervous about doing it and she pulled it off amazingly well, and I think she’s great in the movie.
I’d just done a movie in Rhode Island, and then flew the night that I finished to Rob and Bobbi in Maryland to the mad fucking psycho ward they were filming in. And we just did it. I mean they were shooting for 28 days and nights, straight through pretty much, and I just walked in and did it. It was fun for me. It was a character, instead of playing some pretty girl or someone’s girlfriend or something. It was nice to play this woman who was simple, and wanted to take care of someone, and that’s really all she was.
NP: How did it come about? How did they convince you to do it — because it was a very low budget independent movie?
LH: Well, friendship goes along way with me, especially good friends. And I’d seen Rob’s first movie he did called, Lightning Bug, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It really charmed me as a film. I just think he’s got great potential as a filmmaker and Bobbi’s amazing, and can convince anyone to do anything. She’s got a producer’s persuasion down pat. And then we’ve got a group of mates and everyone does their own stuff, and then they go, “Do you mind coming in to make cups of tea?” And I’m like, “Absolutely.” That’s what it’s about for me. You can go and make your money and do all of that stuff but then you get back to basics, and it’s really exciting and it fills a void perhaps.
NP: I understand that originally you were begging Robert to give your character an eye patch.
LH: Yeah. It’s kind of an obsession.
NP: Why the eye patch obsession?
LH: Well, it started a long time ago. I read a script, like ten years ago, and it never got made. Maybe this is why. It was about this crazed, inbred woman, who has one eye and she wore an eye patch. It was a black comedy, and I loved it. I’d love to play her and go full hog with prosthetic teeth and all that. I’ve been obsessed with having an eye patch… But sadly this wasn’t the role for the eye patch.
NP: Hopefully one will come. So you’re in Maryland, in an old mental institution, running around with piles of gore. It must have been surreal.
LH: Yeah. I mean the night when I arrived, I got picked up at the airport and we drove to the location, and, honestly, it was quite amazing this place, really bizarre, and kind of interesting and weird. This mental hospital was fucking huge, like vast. As we drove in, there was this massive thunderstorm. It was pitch black, and then lightening would go, and it would light up the entire place. There were two kind of big buildings and then tons of outbuildings where the staff would live and the patients would live.
It was so strange. Just sort of being in that place. There was a morgue downstairs, though I don’t think any bodies were in it anymore. But it was the place where they would keep people. They also performed lobotomies until just before it closed, so it’s got a huge history. Being there — I’m a complete believer in other beings being here — not aliens obviously…
NP: The supernatural?
LH: Yes. So, there were a couple of times when you were sitting there and you’re not being used, and you’ve got a couple of hours, and you’d just go and sit in the main wing of the hospital. It was a long corridor with lots and lots of rooms off it. It was really weird — really weird. I had my little dog with me, and she would run up the corridor to a certain point, and I would throw a ball and she wouldn’t go and get the ball. Every time she’d stop at a door. It was a closed door… And it kept happening.
NP: Where you glad to be out of there by the end?
LH: I was, but I tell you, to make a film of that genre, it’s a great place to be. If you’re making a horror movie and you’ve got somewhere like that, it’s pretty fantastic. You’ve got millions of rooms you can dress any way you want. Everything’s there for you and it’s got a definite tense feeling about it.
NP: Having seen the end result, with all the effects completed, what surprised you the most?
LH: I think it’s always surprising when you’ve got no budget. No budget filmmaking can look very basic when you’re watching it being done. I just think visually it’s really incredible. All the big crane shots they did outside. I love that one shot where the crane just keep moving and it’s all one take, and the guy runs out of the barn, and keeps going, and the mist is curling around — things like that I’m just impressed by. I think there’s no right or wrong in filmmaking. I think you can’t really judge too harshly. People are laying out their brain and their heart and experimenting, and it’s a complete lesson to try and make movies and see your mistakes and learn. I just think anyone who gets up and actually makes a film deserves some respect. It’s a tough thing to fucking do, to pull off.
I think it looks great. I think Bobbi’s really great, I think she should be proud of herself. It’s a smart horror movie, and there aren’t a lot of those, even though I enjoy all of them.
NP: You’re working on producing now?
LH: Yes. I’ve got a script I’ve written that’s a comedy. I’ve had it for a year, and I’ve now finished Sarah Connor so I’ve got time. My head’s opened up a little, which is nice. I finished my script, and I’ve got a trailer which I shot and I’m editing that, and I’m gong to send them on out and see what happens.
NP: What kind of comedy is it?
LH: It’s a quirky ensemble comedy about a group of slightly mad but connected people in Los Angeles. It’s kind of a caper with slightly odd romance. Everyone’s very strange but very amusing. It’ll be easy on the eye, and it’ll hopefully make people laugh.
NP: And your were writing this while you were doing Sarah Connor?
NP: Wow. You got John Cleese!
LH: I did. I somehow managed to persuade John Cleese to come hang out and be silly, and, as always, he was wonderful.
NP: Did you know him prior to that?
LH: I did Jingle Book with him years and years ago. He’s a lovely man and we became friends. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, and I rung him and I just said, ‘Would you do me a huge favor.’ And he said, ‘I don’t usually do this, but for you I will.’
NP: I notice the cool people, who are like that, are the ones that continually work. You can do something that shoots you into superstardom, but at the end of the day, if you’re not a pleasant person to be around, people aren’t going to want to work with you moving forward.
LH: Absolutely. It’s true, it’s true. That’s what I mean about being a working actress. This is my job. I don’t see it as a bestowance of greatness. This is just what I do. I pay a mortgage with it, and I also have immense fun and enjoyment in it. When you come up with people that you like and support you, and you can pay that back to other people who want to make movies and help them out, it’s a really cool way to live.
NP: Hollywood divas exist, but often only for a very short time in the grand scheme of things.
LH: I think that divas do exist, because people who bring in money box office-wise, they’re allowed to behave like that. There is a sort of tolerance for it because it equals money. It’s a tricky one. I just hope I can stay in the industry and learn as I keep working either as an actress or, god willing, be able to make my own movies. It’s an amazing arena to be in, and yet it needs to be treated with respect. You’re always learning, you can never think, “Right! I’m done. I’ve done it!” There’s always things to do, and always people to learn from. All the directors I’ve worked with — it’s the best university in the world.
NP: Coming from the North of England too, there is this real Northern value of “being down to earth.” There’s no greater compliment that you can pay someone “up North,” than saying, they’re great, cause they’re “really down to earth.”
LH: It’s very true. Also, I was brought up with a massive work ethic, like nothing comes for free, and you do it, you commit, and you do it. I still believe in that.
NP: When you stop working, what do you do for fun?
LH: I drink. I do a little bit of that. I’ve literally just finished, Monday I finished work at 10 p.m., and it’s been pretty much two years of my life. I’m tired but I’m also so excited about what potentially could happen in the next few months. I’ve got four dogs, and so I’m walking them, and I’m hanging out with my husband, and seeing mates, and just sort of enjoying my house, which I love. It’s sort of a holiday for me. When you don’t see something a lot of the time, it’s just enjoyable just living instead of just working.
NP: We’ll you’ve traveled so much with your career, I’m sure you’re enjoying having a holiday at home.
NP: I understand that you have quite a lot of body art.
NP: You don’t really see it on Sarah Connor.
LH: Well no, because they hate that I have it. The powers that be say she would never have them… So they cover them up. I don’t really mind them doing that because they’re my tattoos, they’re not Sarah Connor’s. It’s just part of being an actor.
I personally love them. I find them charming and I feel that they’re part of me. A lot of people don’t like them, especially in the industry, but everybody has them now. I tell you, if you could find the perfect chemistry for covering up a tattoo, you’d be a billionaire.
NP: What do they use on you? Just heavy foundation?
LH: There are lots and lots of products for tattoo coverage. It’s a very laborious process to get them done, to get them covered. I know people are constantly working on ways to do it quickly. If you can find the right ingredients so the skin doesn’t wrinkle and it doesn’t go dry and it doesn’t change color, I’m telling you that’s the secret billionaire’s ingredient. If you can get that, you’re fucking laughing.
NP: What’s your favorite tattoo?
LH: I like them all really. I’ve just had my back piece finished and I love that. It’s a big piece on my back with peonies and swallows. It’s got a lot of movement in it, and it’s just something I’d always wanted to do. It goes from my lower back, it sort of curls around my womanly shapes, and then it just comes up around my shoulder.
NP: Where did you have that done?
LH: I had that done in Brooklyn in New York, by a friend of mine called Chops who has a shop called Hold Fast. He’s now moved to Portland, but he came to stay with us, and he finished it off for me here in Los Angeles.
NP: How many hours under the needle was that?
LH: I’d say seven, on and off. But I fell asleep during the last one. I find it incredibly relaxing.
NP: The pain doesn’t bother you at all?
LH: Sometimes, on various bits, on various parts of my body it does, but Chops is really wonderful. He’s very fast and he’s one of the most lovely men in the world. He did Rob’s arm, and he did a couple of tattoos on Bobbi. We all went round to Bobbi’s for dinner and he brought his tattoo kit. We had dinner, and then we had a little bit of ink.
NP: I told our Twitter followers that I was going to be chatting to you, and I got some questions from them that I should ask you. @clairaudience wants to know what scares you about the future and technology?
LH: I’m already scared by technology because I’m rubbish at it… That’s what’s funny about it. Literally, I’m rubbish… That’s why it’s called acting — I’m so far from Sarah Connor it’s not even funny.
NP: Next question from Twitter: @trevor31u wants to know how you feel about following in the footsteps of Linda Hamilton?
LH: Like I say, I don’t consider my legacy, or anything like that. I did my job. I did my job as best I could and I committed to playing her and that’s it really. It’s not rocket science. I can’t explain anymore than that.
NP: I think because you make things so simplistic, that’s why your characters are so real. You don’t have this formal training that says you need to walk in certain ways and project your voice, you’re not putting all these things on top of what you’re doing. Your MO is that you just want to make it believable.
LH: Absolutely. I think for example, you take Sean Penn in Milk and you take Mickey Rouke in The Wrestler. Two brilliant performances, but very different ways of acting. I mean Mickey Rouke, very real, very raw, a very honest performance, and moving and open. Sean Penn became this other person. It was like he inhabited someone else’s body, and it was a fucking amazing performance. So there’s lots of different ways of acting, but for me, I’m not playing a historical character, I’m playing a mother who is a single parent, bringing up a teenage son, who also happens to save the world — as a byline to her life. And the way I would play that is someone who’s passionate and scared and angry and a mother, all these things. So I approach that just trying to be honest within the boundaries of her… There are different ways to be angry, and there are different ways to show excitement, and different ways to show lust, and all these things, and I just think, with all these people, how would it come through them.
NP: The final Twitter question is rather bizarre, but here we go: @bob_hope wants to know if you like pound cake?
LH: What is pound cake.
NP: It’s one of those generic spongy things.
LH: Not really a massive sponge fan to be honest. Do you know what I love? My friends bring it out — Angel Delight! As bad as it is, on those cold mornings I think, Oh, I’m going to whip up a bowl of Butterscotch Angel Delight. It is the most pikey, white trash desert you could ever have, but occasionally that’s good.
This interview was first published on SuicideGirls on April 2, 2009.