Cult Actors #5: Peter Weller – Renaissance Man & Android
With Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man about to crash land into multiplexes, we take a look at the actor behind cinema’s original metallic superhero – Robocop himself, Peter Weller.
Peter Weller looks like an android. On the surface he has movie star good looks – tall, blue eyes, square jaw – but examine him closer and you’ll see none of it quite fits. His face is taut and angular, his eyes set deep in his skull and his skin looks like it’s made out of moulded plastic. His voice too is monotone and he reads lines like it’s in his programming. He was made to play Robocop (1987).
As Alex Murphy, the police officer executed by street hoods and then resurrected as a mechanical super cop, he stomps through the streets of Old Detroit like a technological knight in shining armour. “DEAD OR ALIVE,” he utters to criminals in an unemotive, basso voice. “YOU’RE COMING WITH ME.”
With his face hidden, Weller learnt to act through his body, training for months with a mime artist and devouring books of robotics. As a result his gestures have a mechanized grace, using as little movement as possible to turn, raise his gun, and reduce the bad guys to chunks of red mess. His cyborg frame moves with maximum efficiency, his chrome ‘skin’ reflecting the neon lights of a broken city.
As the movie progresses a new humanity is uploaded. His gestures become more human (the spinning of the gun, the wry smile) and his voice lightens. With his helmet removed Murphy’s eyes are dead and unblinking but Weller, somehow, is acting from behind those eyes, showing a living soul struggling to get out. His performance becomes the centre stage in a battle between humanity and commerce.
Weller began studying Dramatic Arts in New York and was ‘programmed’ at the prestigious Actors Studio (a la Marlon Brando and Al Pacino). He later became a theatrical leading man and appeared in David Mamet’s The Woods and Otto Preminger’s Full Circle. Here he stared opposite Leonard Nimoy and he credits the Mr Spock actor as a mentor (years later he guest stared in Star Trek: Enterprise as homage). Weller became an assured performer and was praised for: “The sense of realism and truth,” he brought to his Broadway performances.
He carried this with him and was able to bring it to a part no matter how strange. Take 1984s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension for example. Here he plays Banzai, a superhero neurosurgeon, particle physicist, Kung Fu fighting rock guitarist who battles a hoard of fascist aliens all called John.
Dressed like a sort of rock-a-billy new romantic (with a greaser haircut, big shoulder pads and an electric guitar), he still manages to underplay the odd premise. He delivers lines with deadpan precision, whether he’s stopping a rock gig (with his band The Hong Kong Cavillers) to emote with a sobbing fan:
“Is someone out there crying in the darkness?”
or showing a disregard for those in power:
SOLDIER: “The President’s calling, Buckaroo.”
BUCKAROO: “President of what?”
But then Weller has had his fair share of bizarre roles, so maybe this was normal to him. In 1983s Of Unknown Origin he played Bart Hughes, a man whose home is terrorised by a rat…a REALLY, REALLY BIG RAT. Here he transforms from aspirational yuppie into a deranged maniac willing to destroy his beautiful house in the name of pest control. The film concludes with Bart fashioning a weapon out of a baseball bat and bear-traps, wandering around in the dark with a torch strapped to his head. Weller seems to seek out weirdness.
In the 60s he was into acid and hallucinogenic drugs. In the 70s he binged on cocaine before waking up one morning and quitting just as suddenly as he started. He speaks five languages and has a PhD in fifteenth-century Venetian Art. In interviews he comes across like a beat philosopher, a hip cat who seems like he’d be more at home in a 1950s New York coffeehouse. It is perhaps this mixture of weirdness, a drug past and beat cool that lead him to Naked Lunch (1991).
The 1957 novel by William S. Burroughs – a mind-altering journey into drugs, homosexuality and hallucinations – was for many years deemed unfilmable. Director David Cronenberg got around this by fusing elements of the novel with episodes from Burroughs’ own life (the accidental shooting of his wife, his job as an exterminator), creating a more tangible narrative for protagonist Bill Lee’s journey.
Weller (a Burroughs afictionardo) petitioned for the part, writing Cronenberg a long letter asking to be considered. His strong physical and vocal similarity to the author was immediately apparent and once again Weller used his minimalist approach to stabilize the insanity. When Bill Lee is confronted by a giant beetle talking from its anus, Weller’s reaction is nothing more than a slight widening of his eyes.
It’s as if his Lee is wading through a drug fog – seeking sedation from his homosexuality and the murder of his wife. A monologue involving an arsehole that learnt to talk, delivered it in that nasal twang, epitomized Weller’s deadpan characterization:
“The ass started to eat its way through his pants and talking on the street. It wanted equal rights. It would get drunk too and have crying jags. Nobody loved it. It wanted to be kissed like any other mouth.”
Since Naked Lunch film roles have been no less forthcoming, but perhaps a little less prominent. In 1995 he stared in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite and the same year became another sci-fi action hero in the cheap but fun Screamers. In pictures like Top of the World (1997) Weller has become a straight to DVD leading man.
He perhaps deserves better and, in films like Ivansxtc (2000), he occasionally gets it. Here he repulses as the ego-driven megastar actor Don West, a man who is fashionably late for funerals, deeply homophobic, misogynistic and totally self obsessed.
“If I had a chance to fuck your girlfriend,” he tells his agent Ivan. “Yeah, I’d fuck her in every orifice she had and run her out of town on a fucking flagpole.”
In recent years Weller’s career has found its way into television and has had decent parts in both Monk (which he also directed) and 24 (as the man who taught Jack Bauer everything he knows). He even managed a return to the stage in 2006 playing Frank Lloyd Wright in the play Frank’s Home. As well as getting his PhD and spending time to study in Italy, Weller has moved into directing, getting behind the camera on the Academy Award nominated short Partners and directing for television. He seemingly never stops. If the man is indeed an android, then he seems a long way from ever being shut down.