I spoke with the incredibly talented Stephen Manley about Ghosthunters, Star Trek, Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter, and so much more. It was wonderful speaking with Stephen about his films, technology, that gorgeous house in Ghosthunters, etc. He has so many stories to share and is definitely one of the most pleasant people that I have ever spoken with. Stephen just won the Best Actor award for Ghosthunters at the Malibu West International Film Festival. Now you definitely need to check him out Ghosthunters.
LL: Do you know when Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter is going to be released?
Stephen Manley: I’m not sure. I don’t know if this is an official release type thing. I do know that it’s going to be on DVD and I’ll find out where Neil Johnson is going to have this thing released. I know that he’s got a distributor but I just don’t know the name of it off the top of my head. Neil’s movies end up on the Syfy channel, and stuff like that. I do know that Tracey Birdsall told me that it’s close to go. She’s trying to negotiate a limited theatrical release in some cities.
LL: What can you say about Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter?
Stephen Manley: It’s a film directed by Neil Johnson. Neil is known as the first digital filmmaker. You wouldn’t know it; he looks like a rock ‘n’ roller. He’s got really long hair and his British accent. We’ve become quite close. He’s a good fellow. I like him so much, and he’s credited as being the first digital filmmaker. I guess he made digital films years back, and I guess made the first completely digital movie years ago. He loves science fiction and this is something like his fifteenth or twentieth film—he’s made a bunch of them. He’s got quite a cult following in the UK and abroad. Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter is his biggest and most ambitious yet, from what I’ve seen of his other ones, compared to what we shot for Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter this looks pretty big in scale—there are deserts, cityscapes, outer space, all kinds of stuff. It looks really, really good. It stars Tracey Birdsall. It also features Daz Crawford from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It also stars William Kircher, who is in The Hobbit films. It’s a wonderful movie. It’s got a lot of action.
LL: It looks like a really fun sci-fi film.
Stephen Manley: It is a fun sci-fi film. There are also some very touching moments in it as well. I think there is more drama and character than the other things that he has done. I know he was striving for that. That’s what really attracted Tracey to it as well. It was a lot of fun. Neil was really good at directing us as to what we were looking at. Sometimes when you do a sci-fi film elements are going to be added in later if the actual props or elements aren’t there. A lot of them were there in the shots, but if for some reason there were things that he had to put in later, he drew a great picture of where it was that we were reacting to, what was happening in the scene, and everything else so everybody was really pleased.
LL: With all the films and shows about artificial intelligence, do you ever stop and think about how it’s more than just a glimpse into our future?
Stephen Manley: Okay, you’re talking to a guy that still has one foot stuck in the Spring of 1979. My tech skills are dragging a bit. I watch MeTV late at night to catch all those great seventies reruns and I think to myself, gosh what a simpler time. I remember that like the back of my hand that’s right where is was. I actually do have, not a phobia, but even my phone has AI in it, which is pretty scary to me. I think a lot of the things in Neil’s film, albeit science fiction, are pretty apropos. Things could take off in that direction. You never know.
One of my favorite science fiction films is the original Rollerball with James Caan. That’s a great movie and it’s much more than just a game that’s in the movie. There was a remake about ten or fifteen years ago that didn’t do very well. It had a great director but I think the producers, or whoever, focused on the sporting element aspect of the story, and it just didn’t happen for anyone. The original film was about an athlete who is part of an impossible game that takes place in the future and the game is designed to show how futile individual achievement can be. The corporations run the world and this athlete, who is Jonathan E., doesn’t want to retire from the game that he’s gotten so strong in, which was never anticipated. It’s about how the corporation puts things into affect to actually kill him off in the game. William Harrison, who wrote the story, witnessed a basketball game in the early seventies in real life that broke out into a horrible fight. It scared him so much that he wrote this short story and the filmmaker that read it contacted him and they made a film out of it. It’s a very scary movie. Back in 1974/1975, while they were making that film, in the commentary of the DVD they said that people said they were crazy that corporations would never take over like that. That future would never come to pass—it’s ridiculous. Well, look what’s happened. The world that Rollerball takes place in is pretty close to pass right now. Look at how corporate everything has gotten. To say that Neil’s film that AI won’t take over like that, I don’t know. I’ve had my cell phone chew me out a couple of times. [Laughing.] That’s just weird to me.
LL: It’s very scary.
Stephen Manley: Yes, it is. I see people running around playing Pokemon Go and that just blows my mind. It blows my mind that their phone knows exactly where they are, it creates a picture, and shows a Pokemon character that people can go and suck up in their phones. So…[Laughing.]
LL: You really got on people’s radar when you played Young Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Can you talk about working with Leonard Nimoy because I know that he pushed to keep your scene in the film?
Stephen Manley: Yes, yes that was a wonderful move on his part. I’m still grateful. Leonard Nimoy was a great man. He always had that beautiful voice of his. I do voice exercises to try to get my voice to have the resonance that his had. It was a great experience. He had seen me in a television show that I did in 1981 called Secrets of Midland Heights, written by a man who became a good friend of mine, David Jacobs. He created the original Dallas and had put me in a previous TV series that he had written and that’s how we met. He gave me a gift by putting me in a second TV series. There was a very sensitive scene that I had with an actress named Zohra Lampert, who’s very famous for her Tony-winning performances on Broadway. She won an Emmy for a beautiful episode of Kojak that she did, which I actually caught recently on a rerun. She played a fortune teller that was trying to help me come to terms with the loss of my mom, who died while I was away on a trip. She wasn’t being mean or benevolent—she was being very kind and compassionate about it. It was a great episode of this TV show. Leonard had seen me in that and he wanted me to bring that to the pon farr sequence because that’s what he was looking for. When I went to audition, I went into Leonard Nimoy’s office and we talked about the things that I have been in, and he told me how important this scene was. They only hinted at pon farr in the television show but now he wanted to show it. He needed an actor that could bring some weight to it. That’s how I got that gig. Also, you had to resemble him a little bit as a younger guy. I think my cheekbones actually looked like the fella that played his dad. [Laughing.] We actually looked, kind of, similar. They changed the color of my eyes and I went to go and get my ears cast.
Later on the set to start these sequences, Robin Curtis was great and a very compassionate, giving, very emotional woman that brings a lot to her work, so for her to play a Vulcan—she really worked hard to not let all of her emotions come through but yet there were some things, under the surface, with her that are just part of her personality—she’s very warm. It was a great experience. We worked pretty hard on the pon farr stuff. I think we spent just about the better part of the day rehearsing and choreographing it. A lot of the fans at the Star Trek conventions, when I’m signing autographs and stuff like that, I have an awful lot of lady friends that like to pon farr with me, and I welcome it from every single one of them. [Laughing.] To this day, I still pon farr. They always ask me about how it originated and I tell them exactly what I’m telling you. There was more to that sequence but it was cut. I tell them that in the uncut Italian Bertolucci version of the pon farr sequence. [Laughing.] Sure enough, when poor Leonard passed away a year ago, I found a picture online of Leonard directing Robin and I and sure enough, she’s reaching out and caressing my face. See, that’s part of the Italian DVD that no one has seen. [Laughing.] It was a wonderful experience. Yes, there were some executives that were not sympathetic to Star Trek and weren’t really a part of the world or fandom. They just knew it as a product and thought that it was stupid and just wanted to cut it because it was making them laugh and Leonard said no. He said that it was very important and fought for that sequence to be in. Because he did that, pon farr has hung with me ever since. That was something that he told me about. He said that being in Star Trek was going to be a part of me for the rest of my life. He pressed upon me the seriousness of that responsibility. I told him I would do it that way and he was very pleased. Star Trek was a great experience for me.
LL: Are you going to be involved in Star Trek: Discovery on CBS next year?
Stephen Manley: I don’t know. If they would ask me to, I would jump at the chance. Perhaps there is something else that may be available. It would be great to be a part of the Star Trek universe again. There are several actors that have taken on many different roles in several different Star Trek television shows and/or movies. It would be wonderful to be a part of Star Trek again.
LL: Ghosthunters is out now. It seems like a really great movie to get you in the Halloween spirit. That house is incredible. From just watching the trailer, it looks like Henry is sure of himself right up until the end.
Stephen Manley: Yes, Dr. Henry Tanner is a very brave fellow. His wife and his daughter were killed by a serial killer in this incredible Tudor gingerbread mansion. Henry was working on a machine with a colleague named Neal, played by David O’Donnell. They break into this serial killer’s house in order to fire the machine up because the machine sucks up ghosts and generates ectoplasm out of them. They have limited time because the place is police taped up from all of these murders. They are on a desperate quest to save the spirits of his wife and his daughter. He wants to see if he can somehow help them in some way. It’s quite an emotional film. It’s really a dramatic ghost story. It’s not the “mockbuster,” or the usual type of fair that Asylum puts out. They took a risk on director Pearry Teo, who wanted to give them a good straight dramatic horror film, that in a way had feelings of an old sixties Hammer film. He brought some steampunk elements into it with the machine and some of the props that we use. It’s quite an emotional rollercoaster. Francesca Santoro, Liz Fenning, David O’Donnell, and Phyllis Spielman—everybody really came to the table. It was like a gothic horror play. All of the characters were very well-rounded. It was a very intense shoot for a couple of weeks inside that house.
That house was a great house. They couldn’t have found a better place to shoot. There is a place in Los Angeles called West Adams District, it’s kind of west of downtown LA, and there is a whole string of old gothic Tudor and gingerbread style homes. They have Queen Anne’s and everything. They were all built in the early 1900s late 1800s and they are just gorgeous. Some of them have been restored and some of them have not been restored. Some of them have been sitting in disarray for forty of fifty years maybe. Movie crews use them for different shoots and Pearry found this one. He went in there with the art directors and didn’t have to dress it very much, let me tell you. The outside of the house is the outside of the actual house where we shot that film. The house is very much one of the leading roles in the film. It was just fantastic. There were rooms in that place where the crew wouldn’t go. I used one of those rooms to prepare for some of my more intense scenes. I had to do some solo prep, but usually we were all together rehearsing. There was a creepy little room near to the basement that I would go down to. There were no lights or plumbing. It was pitch black like a tomb. I would go in there and try to prep for some of my stuff down there. Unfortunately, I scared our PA girl, Shelby Murphy, who looks like a California surfer girl. She was running back and fourth to the production offices, which was one of the rooms in the house, and I was down in that little room running my lines, whispering them, etc. She heard me in the pitch-black room and I saw her run by with a horrified look on her face. I just saw the blood drain from her face as I slowly emerged from this room to see if she was okay. She backed up and ran to the production office. I didn’t see her for a while. Pearry said “method actors” and shook his head and walked away.
I’m very proud of Ghosthunters. I’m proud of all of the actors. I met some great people. Liz Fenning studied in Italy with Commedia dell-arte. Those are the people that do the mask work, the theatre mask work with those classic Italian character masks. Francesca is a wonderful actress. I got very close with David, who was supposed to be my protégé in it. Everybody just did a great job. I think people will be really taken with Ghosthunters. It’s got some great reviews. The professional reviews have been really awesome. Let me tell you, it was an experience. You’re talking to a guy that to prepared for my screen test for it, and my interviews with Pearry, in person. My grandfather was a silent film actor and that’s where I kind of got started. Right now he’s in a mausoleum. Every once in a while, I’ll go visit grandpa and I’ll bring my camping chair and sit down and run lines with him. That’s what I did with Ghosthunters until I was feeling confident to go in and hit Pearry with some ideas that I had for Dr. Tanner. That’s what I do.
LL: That’s really interesting. You also have so many films coming out. I would really love to know more about Bleach.
Stephen Manley: Bleach is an interesting movie. They are still working on it, I believe. There have been cameos from several different actors in there but there is a great sequence where I’m driving across the desert and I’ve got really, really long sideburns. [Laughing.] I look a little bit like Johnny Cash. It’s interesting. I’m not sure when it’s coming out.
There is another film that’s in the works that I’ll be shooting in October. It’s a Fred Williamson movie, he’s the star of it and it’s called Snow Black. It’s a Robert Parham film. He’s the writer and director of the movie. Tim Beal is the producer of the film. It looks to be a really good one.
LL: That’s great. You definitely have Halloween covered just with the films that you’re in.
Stephen Manley: [Laughing.] Yeah. Ghosthunters is pretty creepy. My wife and daughter went to the premiere and my little girl thought it was too scary. She went to Pearry and told him, “No, Ghosthunters 2! That was too scary.” He thought it was a blast. It is quite a creepy film. That’s good because that means that we did our job.
I’ve been playing some great stuff over the last few years. There’s everything from a Hells Angels in the 1970s. I played George Christie, who was the leader of the Hells Angels. I played Charlie Bowdre, who was Billy the Kid’s friend who was gunned down because he was mistaken for Billy at the very end of Billy’s ride. That was a wonderful part. Of course, Ghosthunters is fantastic. Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter is another great one. I’ve been very, very fortunate.
One of my inspirations has always been Lon Chaney Sr. People usually think of him for his horror films but when in reality, he was just a fantastic character actor who loved doing all of those wonderful characters. If I can continue to do wonderful characters—that’s not a bad way to go. I’d just love to keep doing that.
Ghosthunters is available now.
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Photo credit: RuCo Photgraphy