Eric Spitznagel: On The Shield, you play a dirty cop named Vic Mackey who follows his own rules. As far as you know, do policemen like the show or do they think you’re giving them a bad reputation?
Michael Chiklis: Cops love the show. At least the ones I talk to love it. I think it’s a guilty pleasure for them. They face a lot of challenges in their job, obviously. In many ways, cops today feel like they’ve been hogtied. They can’t function properly because everyone is taking videos of them and watching their behavior so closely. It’s very difficult for them to do what they have to do. I think they appreciate that the show, unlike any other cop drama I can think of, is ambiguous about the realities of law enforcement. The show doesn’t moralize. It doesn’t say whether Vic Mackey is a good guy or bad guy. It clearly depicts how difficult it is to be a cop, but without any moral judgment at all. One guy said to me, “If it gives any insight to people that being a cop isn’t black and white, then that’s helpful to us.” But they can’t always come out and say that, y’know? It seems to me that the rank and file really loves and appreciates the show, but the brass loves it privately and denounces it publicly. It’s sort of a PR nightmare for them. But privately, they think it’s great. I just spent two weeks on vacation in Italy, and even the cops over there are big fans. I was in The Colosseum, being a total tourist with my wife and two children, and a guy and a woman in plain clothes came over to me and flashed their badges. They spoke in broken English, but they basically told me, “We’re detectives and we really, really like your show.”
Doesn’t it freak you out when a cop flashes his badge at you? Even if he’s just being friendly, that’s enough to make most people break out in a cold sweat.
It’s happened to me so often I guess I’m just used to it by now. Sometimes I get freaked out when somebody says, “Vic Mackey is my kinda cop.” That’s a little weird. “Really? You do know he’s a scumbag, right?” But 99% of them are like, “I’ve known cops like that. You got it right.” They find themselves rooting for this guy even when they know they shouldn’t. It’s cathartic, and as a said, a bit of a guilty pleasure.
You play gritty and tough very convincingly. Have you ever taken a slug in the gut?
No, nothing like that. But I grew up in a pretty rough and tumble environment. In my younger days, when I was a teenager, I’d mix it up now and again. But I hated fighting. I could always handle myself, but I never started anything and I’m not a tough guy at all. I learned very early in life that fighting hurts. Even when you win, it’s somehow very unsatisfying. I haven’t been in a fist fight since I was a teenager. I am convinced that, with very few exceptions, you can defuse almost any bad situation with comedy. I’ve had a couple of incidences where I was at a club and some drunk guy decided that he wanted to kick Vic Mackey’s ass. I basically turned it on him and said, “Yeah, man, there’s no question you could kick my ass.” I just gave it to him. What good would it do to tell him he’s wrong? See, I’m a parent now, man. I’m a husband and a parent. I don’t need to be coming home with black eyes.
After a long week of police corruption and dirty deals, how do you like to relax on a Saturday night?
Saturday night is when I get to spend time with my wife and go out on a date. It’s really important, I think, that we have that time for she and I. Because the rest of the week, we’re dropping off the kids at school and just being parents, or I’m on set doing my job. So once in a while, you need time with your gal, to go out to dinner and be grown-ups.
Does she ever ask you to put on your Thing costume from the The Fantastic Four movie and wear it to bed?
(Laughs.) No! Are you kidding me? She hates that costume. My poor wife is such a claustrophobe. When she saw me in it for the first time, she nearly passed out. She was just like, “Oh my god, can you get out of that?”
Were you happy to get back into The Thing’s latex costume again for this summer’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, or did it take some convincing?
Well, we were all contracted for three sequels, so I was always gonna do it. But there were some very serious conversations about the suit. The filmmakers really made an effort to redesign the costume and make it more livable. For the first film, once I put on the costume, I was locked in all day. I couldn’t pee, I couldn’t do anything. It was misery, man, hell on earth. I pride myself on being able to take on any challenge, but this was the first time I ever thought, “Oh my god, I have to quit!” I didn’t, and I’m glad I stuck it out. When I first got the job, I was having dinner with Brad Garrett and he told me, “Chikie, you sure you want to do this? After five hours in that makeup chair, wrapped in latex from head to toe, you’re gonna want to slap an orphan.” But for the sequel, we made some big adjustments to the suit. This time, I could take it on and off between takes. It was a huge difference, not nearly as torturous.
Were you a big comic book fan as a kid?
Absolutely. I still remember the day when I bought my first comics. I was 10 or 11, and my parents used to bring my brother and me up to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire for the summer. There was this place called Weirs Beach which had all these arcades, and my father would give us each a roll of quarters and we’d go nuts in the arcade for about an hour. It was something we always looked forward to. One day, dad gave me the quarters and I went flying into the place and there was this new little booth with all these magazines and comic books. I think they were like a quarter a copy, so I ended up buying two Fantastic Four comics and two Spiderman comics and I think maybe a Thor. It was funny and cool and perfect for a 10-year old boy. Kids are so lucky these days, because it’s not just about the comics anymore. They can go to a movie and see their favorite superheroes on the big screen, with all of these great special effects. Everything that Stan Lee created in his wildly imaginative mind can now be achieved on film. That wasn’t the case when we were kids. They tried to make a Fantastic Four movie before, but it was just a cheap thing. They couldn’t do it. But the new films, it must be amazing for a kid. You get all these amazing special effects…
… and Jessica Alba in spandex. What more do you want?
It doesn’t hurt. Or maybe it does.
For those of us who’ll never have an opportunity to work with Jessica Alba, what is she really like?
She’s like my kid sister. She’s a very lovely, sweet, wonderful girl. I don’t have a negative thing to say about her. She’s almost motherly. She has that sort of maternal instinct. She’s not a wild child, which is really nice. It’s nice to see a girl in her position, who is as lovely as she is, with a head on her shoulders. Yeah, she wants to be a big star, I’m sure. But it seems to me that she wants to do it in a particular way, which I happen to admire. She doesn’t want all the trashy stuff. I think it makes her much more appealing.
There’s something about The Thing that the ladies seem to love. He isn’t exactly the most attractive dude, but women adore him.
(Laughs.) Yeah, I know, isn’t it great? That anyone thinks The Thing is sexy is a little crazy.
What’s the secret to his sex appeal?
Well, in terms of his physique, he’s Herculean. Let’s face it, the guy is a rock hard he-man. But he’s also a fundamentally decent, charming, sweet guy. So it’s a combination of those things. His strength is very appealing to ladies. That’s just prehistoric; it’s hardwired into their DNA. Women like a man who appears to be a protector. But when you combine that with the fact that he’s sensitive, and he’s somebody that they could nurture and take care of, it’s irresistible. It’s rare when you get that combination of incredibly powerful and yet emotional.
What was your shittiest job as an actor?
Oh god, boom, it immediately hits me. When I was 21 and just out of college, I did an off-Broadway play called “Return to Sender.” I had to actually wear a globe on my head; a glowing globe. It was a sci-fi play, and the voices were done by other actors and we had to lip-sync their lines. It was by far the worst gig I ever did in my life. I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. Here I was a young kid going to New York to make it as an actor, and I’m on stage with a fucking globe on my head. It was bad, man.
You’ve played both John Belushi and Curly Howard. In your opinion, who was the funniest fat guy?
Wow, I don’t know. I really can’t say who was funnier. That’s impossible. I loved both of those guys for very different reasons. All I know is that they both made me laugh my ass off. As an actor, it was a huge responsibility to portray such well-known, iconic characters. I think John was by far the most difficult. He was a much more complicated character to play, if only because of the nature of that story and all the unknowns. I tried to do it as a homage. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. Growing up, I was a big fan of John Belushi.
You were more or less blackballed by Hollywood after the Belushi biopic, but you managed to resurrect your career by working with Burt Reynolds. What’s the story there?
It was a movie-of-the-week that he did many years ago. Uh… my god… I can’t remember the name. The title was the name of the detective. (Long pause.) Wow. You know you’ve done a lot of gigs when something like this happens. I’m sorry. Anyway, because of the situation at the time, it was tough. I always sing that Sinatra tune, “That’s Life.” I’ve been up and down and over and out. Burt stepped up at a time when pretty much nobody else would and gave me a job. When he did it, the television world opened up again for me. That was a godsend. It was huge for me. It led to guest-starring roles on TV, which ultimately led to The Commish and then The Shield. I never fought any of the things that were happening to me at the time. I just followed the advice I got as a young actor. Put your nose down and let the work speak for itself. It took awhile, but I finally got that opportunity again. (Long pause.) “B.L. Stryker”! That’s it! That was the name of Burt’s movie! I’m so glad I remembered that. I thought I was going senile.
What made you decide to shave your head? Did you just think it looked bad-ass?
I think it was about reinvention. I was tired of playing rolly polly fat guys, and I knew I was capable of doing something more hardass and adult and not just soft, flabby guys. One of the great things about The Shield is that it did reinvent me in a lot of people’s eyes. Nobody would have imagined that I could’ve played Vic Mackey prior to that show. It was such a perception-shattering gig, and it’s made things easier for me.
Do you think you’ll ever reinvent yourself again? Maybe grow an afro and a goatee and really catch people by surprise?
I don’t know. That’s a great question. I’m hoping that the opportunities will present themselves. There are so many things I’d love to do. Well, we’ll see. I’m willing to try anything. Whatever presents itself that’s exciting.
You could always reunite your rock band.
You know about that?
Yeah. You were a drummer in a band called Double Talk during high school and college. Have you ever considered giving up the acting thing and going back to rock n’ roll?
My daughter had a bat mitzvah last August and I called up a bunch of my musician friends and we put on a concert. We sounded alright, man. It was pretty heavy. So I have that in the back pocket. And sometimes I think, “Yeah, that’d be alright.” But anything worth doing is worth doing right, so I wouldn’t even attempt to get back into that world unless I could take the time and really do it correctly. There are a lot of actors who try to be musicians as well, and some of them aren’t particularly good at it. So I wouldn’t want to do it unless I knew it was something I could be proud of.
It doesn’t sound like you’re in any hurry to retire from acting.
I’m not. I’ll probably be doing this for the rest of my life. I have certain guys that I’ve always looked up to. Anthony Hopkins, for example. This guy has had just a glorious career. I don’t know how old Tony is at this point, but he’s still working away and doing stuff. And look at Clint Eastwood. He’s more prolific now than at any point in his career. He’s nearly 80, isn’t he? Men like that really have my total admiration, because they have longevity. I’ve been around for a long time, but I want to be around for a lot longer. I have this image of myself at 80 – or, god willing, much older – and I’m in the middle of a monologue and my heart just explodes. That’d be a good way to go. I want to croak on a movie set. Boots on, doing what I love to do. I don’t see myself as a retiree. I’m going to be an actor until they have to carry me away.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July 2007 issue of Maxim magazine.)