It’s a hot afternoon in Dallas, Texas, and a summons has just arrived to interview a robot. Mechanical men aren’t much for socializing, so an offer like this one is hard to refuse. The rendezvous is taking place on a downtown street, near a cluster of corporate highrises that proclaim this city the financial nerve center of the Southwest.
The robot in question is really Peter (Buckaroo Banzai) Weller, playing the title role is RoboCop: The Future of Law Enforcement, Orion’s new $10 million action/adventure. Although he’s known in the business as an actor of “James Dean” intensity, Weller certainly looks relaxed at the moment. He lounges in a barber chair inside the trailer while the two makeup artists hover around him.
“I’m putty in the hands of the masters here,” says Weller, pointing to makeup wizards Stephen DuPuis (STARLOG #104) and Bart Mixon. “I have my coffee, read my script, they go to work, and that’s it!”
Outside, it’s a blistering hot day with temperatures in the 90s, but inside the air-conditioned trailer, Weller is insulated from the rigors of the Texas climate. The actor is bare-chested, save for a towel draped across his shoulders, and the lower half of his body is clad in loose-fitting sweat pants. His feet are encased in loafers, the heels of which are propped against the metal footrest of the make-up chair.
But it’s Weller’s head, not his body, that gives the visitor pause. His facial transformation from human being to RoboCop is almost complete, and the overall effect is impressive. Once the full makeup, only his eyes, nose and mouth are his own; the rest of his head is covered in foam latex appliances. A maze of robotic parts potrude behind his ear, with metal conduits that inexplicably end in a wall socket plug! A “shaven skull” rises above his eyebrows, flesh-colored to simulate the pitiful remnants of a man.
The bald plate is perfectly smooth, save for the bullet hole in the right temple. A grim souvenir of his characters assassination, it looks like a miniature moon crater with fissures radiating star-like from its center. It may not seem possible, but Weller looks even more bizarre in his half-finished state. A curious white line encircles his countenance, the boundary zone between his actual skin and the latex appliances. As Dupuis and Mixon cover it up with makeup.
The set for today’s action is located on the 56th floor of the Renaissance Tower, a prominent downtown skyscraper. The makeup trailer is parked on a nearby street, dwarfed by the immensity of the steel and concrete canyons all around it. To get to the set, Weller must walk about 50 yards on a public street, enter the Tower’s lobby, then wait until an elevator is available to whisk him to the 56th floor. No attempt is made to hide his Robo features during the journey from trailer to set. Just what the briefcase-toting businessmen think about a robot walking the streets of their city-not to mention having to rub shoulders with one while waiting for an elevator-is unrecorded.
RoboCop provides Weller with a golden opportunity to showcase his acting skills. He has a dual role in the picture; at first, he is Murphy, a good cop and family man in Detroit. Then, in a gruesome experiment concocted by an all-powerful corporation, he is killed and turned into RoboCop, a cybernetic law officer. Technically, Robo is a cyborg, part human and part machine, enabling Weller to inject some subtle shadings into his overall screen portrait.
“I feel good about playing a robot,” Weller explains, “in that I’m playing a human being who has been transformed into a cyborg. Aside from the action-adventure, the corruption, corporate machinery gone berserk and so on, the heart of all this is a morality tale. It’s like Beauty and the Beast, or the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz. It’s a great little jewel of a human story.”
Weller didn’t have to audition for the part, a fortunate turn of events for the lanky actor. “Actually,” Weller laughs, “I haven’t had an audition for eight years! I’ve never been a good auditioner; I don’t ‘read’ well. I’ve more or less BSed my way into all the good parts I’ve done. Besides, anything I had to sit down and read for, I never got anyway!”
It was a meeting of minds, not formal auditions, that landed him the role of Robo: “I knew director Paul Verhoeven’s work, and he knew mine. Actually, he was one of the directors I had wanted to work with in the next 10 years. We sat down and talked, and his vision of the picture paralleled my own. However, arrogant as it sounds, I’m at the stage of the game where I don’t necessarily want to do a film if the director isn’t on the same wavelength.”
Working on RoboCop during the early stages of production was personally frustrating, physically taxing, and emotionally exhausting. The ink had scarcely dried on Weller’s contract before he plunged headlong into a grueling four-month preparation for his role. As he recalls, “I worked with a mime for four months. We wanted to take a human being and transform him into a robot, walking in a suit in such a way that was stylized, attractive, yet computerized and the mechanical without being ‘mimelike.’ In essence, we wanted to have some humanity breathe through this robotic thing.”
The filmmakers mutually agreed they needed a unique robot costume for Weller, one that could stand up to the rigors of an action-packed script. These intentions, of however admirable, almost killed the project. An expert team headed by Rob (Legend) Bottin (STARLOG #103) began work on the costume at once, but since they were creating something new, delays were inevitable. Originally, Weller was to have had a full month’s rehearsal in the suit before a single frame of film was exposed. It was not to be.
“It was almost a travesty, “says Weller with a grimace. “When the suit first arrived, not only were there complications in filming, there were complications in design. In fact, I had to get in the suit and shoot a scene the very first day it arrived, and I couldn’t move in it. They were tearing things out, making adjustments, and I got very despondent.”
The RoboCop crisis was now at hand. The film seemed poised on the brink of disaster, pushed there by overambitious plans and a crippling lack of time. As Weller remembers, “Truthfully, it came down to a matter of will. I thought, ‘Look-out of all this madness over whether the suit will fly or not, it’s going to be me in the costume. It’ll come down to me. With four months of preparation, and the wonderful wealth of talent we have available, we’re going to make it work!’ Well, they got Rob Bottin down here along with a couple of engineers who made the suit. We spent 10 hours one Sunday on the problem, and within a single day, we succeeded!”
When Weller is in costume, it seems all the effort worthwhile. As fully revealed, RoboCop looks like a cross between a medieval knight and C-3PO of Star Wars fame. Dark blue armor covers his chest down to his ribcage and also encases his arms and legs. His midriff is “bare,” revealing some of the cyborg’s inner workings (really a foam latex inner costume). The suit is literally topped off by an egg-shaped helmet that covers most of the actor’s face. The most medieval-looking item in the entire get-up, the helmet, is pierced by a narrow visor slit.
Over the weeks, Weller has developed a positive affection for his metallic alter-ego, and can scarcely remember a time when he wasn’t wearing a robot suit. “I really hated getting into the suit,” he observes. “The first five days, it was constricting, claustrophobic, and hard to work with. It was as much of a pain in the ass for these guys [DuPuis and Mixon] as for me.”
“But now,” he quickly adds, “it has become fun. I don’t know what life is like if I’m not in the suit. When I’m acting in it, I feel everything’s groovy, and my life is in order. I’m starting to feel like one of those prisoners who are used to life in jail, they can’t wait to get back!”
Despite his newfound compatibility with the Robosuit, there still have been some touch-and-go moments along the way. “Believe me, acting in this,” he says, pointing to his prosthetics-covered face, “is a dream compared to acting with the helmet. You should have seen me the other day. I had to walk down stairs into a disco through smoke and 80 extras, descending at a 45-degree angle with two inches of vision through the helmet! It was the hardest thing I ever did!”
Though he has appeared in only a handful of films to date, one of them, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension, has become a cult classic (which he discussed in STARLOG #86). Weller had the title role in the offbeat opus, portraying the half-Japanese surgeon/rock singer with a taste for daring-do. Though audiences and critics drove Banzai to box office hari-kiri, it has since gained a new life on video. The film’s growing popularity has caught everyone-Weller included-by surprise. “I wasn’t aware of the cult appeal,” he says with a shrug. “While we were making it, we were certainly in the middle of something bizarre. We didn’t know what it was-but it was fun!”
Weller pauses and as the memories flood back, his features stretch into a broad “Robosmile.” “I love the rock & roll scene in Banzai,” he exclaims, “and I love all the stuff at the pictures end. Christopher Lloyd [STARLOG #82] and John Lithgow [STARLOG #93] are old buddies of mine, though in that picture, they play my enemies. When I was in the Shock Tower, I never laughed so hard in my life! They had to stop the takes on that segment over and over because of the banter between Lloyd and Lithgow. Lloyd was filling himself full of Fritos, and Lithgow was spitting in my ear about shocks to my auditory synapses.”
Weller believes that poor handling, at least in part, was responsible for the film’s initial failure. “It just didn’t get the press or publicity it needed,” the actor observes, “and the picture got lost in the shuffle.” Weller would love to do a sequel to Buckaroo Banzai, but says the concept is “tied up in litigation.” He doesn’t explain further, nor does he have much comment in regard to Heroes in Trouble, the projected TV series reminiscent of Buckaroo Banzai. “Ohhhh,” he cries in mock anguish as he grips the makeup chair, “TV is stealing from us! It happens all the time!”
What about a Banzai sequel? Well, Peter Weller says, " I would like to see a sequel to Buckaroo Banzai, but I'm not sure it can ever happen. Look, the guy who owns the property is a friend, but he's probably going to jail. David Begelman, the producer, shot himself to death. Also, a sequel wouldn't be cheap. Just the above the line price for me, Lithgow, Goldblum, Barkin and Lloyd might be bigger than the budget of the original film. But, who knows? It could happen, and if the script were good, I would certainly consider it."
It’s nice to recall past pictures, but at the moment, RoboCop is the focus of all his attention. Sometimes when he speaks, Weller assumes the guise of Murphy/RoboCop so completely that you can’t tell where he leaves off and the fictional hero begins. It’s also hard to say if the actor is under the spell of a good makeup job or is merely flexing his Method-trained memory.
“I was raped, man!” he cries, a note of indignation rising with the volume of his voice. “They killed me on purpose and put me in this machine. It’s an emotional catharsis when I discover I once had a wife and a child and they’re gone. When Nancy Allen tells me who I once was-and it’s not available to me anymore…” Weller’s voice trails off into inaudibility, as if he is drained by the revelation.
Besides the action/adventure, RoboCop offers a subplot which serves as allegory about today’s corporate world. The main corporation in the movie, not only controls the police but also finances the crime that makes the robotic cops necessary.
“That’s the key,” Weller says forcefully. The guys that shot me are part of the military-industrial complex. These ‘powers that be’ manage the police force and are also behind the cybernetic cop idea. They are also the people who are feeding the drug wars, so they can build more robots and fight the drug wars they themselves created! All these people are guilty-not only the people who shot me, but the people who made me, too. When they realize that Robo has found out the truth about them, they try to kill me.”
He is pleased to be in a movie that offers more than formula action-adventure. As Peter Weller observes, “It’s a tight action adventure, and very commercial, but it’s very center, the core is discovery-the sadness that this guy’s life was taken away and he was instilled into a killing machine. But the wonderfulness is that he starts to discover what he once was, and he pursues it like a dream. In the end, to a degree, he wins it back.”