Given its vitality, its artistry, its originality and the sheer and indefatigable terror that it still delivers today, it’s hard to believe that Alien is a 40-year-old movie. But even for a glossy sci-fi movie set in the distant future, Ridley Scott’s film has always exuded a timelessness thanks to a uniquely blue-collar sensibility in its storytelling—characterizing the crew of the Nostromo as “truckers in space”—and a cast composed mostly of established actors who were noticeably older than most typical space adventurers.
Yaphet Kotto was 40 years old when Alien was released in theaters, and he was by any measure its biggest star. He’d already conquered the box office as James Bond’s adversary in Live and Let Die, won critical accolades for Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar and received an Emmy nomination for playing Idi Amin in Raid on Entebbe. Another 40 later, Kotto still delivers one of the film’s most vivid performances as Parker, a pragmatic, disgruntled Chief Engineer who recognizes the impending danger more clearly than the science officers to whom he reports. And yet, Kotto continues to have an expansive, acclaimed body of work that transcends even this iconic role, and almost included several more.
20th Century Fox
On the eve of a series of Alien screenings across the country, Kotto spoke to Nerdist from the Philippines, where he’s just completed The Witchcraft Wars, a series of novels he hopes will bring attention to a phenomenon that is near and dear to fans of Scott’s film: extraterrestrials. In addition to talking about his own real-life encounters with creatures from other worlds, Kotto reminisced on the making of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi-horror classic, revealed some famous film and television roles he passed on (or passed on him), and reflected on a career that made him a movie star, even if there were occasional moments he wondered if he should have just stayed in the theater.
I read that you rejected a different film offer in the hopes of being cast in Alien. What was it that resonated with you about the script that made you want to do it so badly that you would give up other work that you were guaranteed?
When I read that script, I said, “You know what? I have to do this movie.” I stayed out of work for a year, waiting to see if [things] would go my way and fortunately they did.
At this point you had already been in Live and Let Die. I understand you turned down the role of Lando Calrissian in Empire Strikes Back. You were considered to play Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Alien was a film where the gender and ethnicity of the characters was not defined. How difficult has it been for you to find opportunities to act in roles that subverted stereotypes?
What bothered me was the rumors that came out of Fox about Lucas wanting me for Star Wars, and then he went with Harrison Ford. And later on what bothered me was the fact that they wouldn’t give me my proper billing in Alien because I was the most known actor and I wanted proper billing. But I was very fortunate where a lot of movies came my way, and the reason I didn’t do them because New York actors have a saying about not playing the same role twice because if you do, they’ll typecast you and then it’s over with.
I didn’t want to do Lando Calrissian. Irvin Kershner had approached me during lunch at Pinewood and we talked about it and I told him, number one, I gave my word to do Brubaker in Ohio, and I didn’t want to say I’m going to do something and then not do it. So I was glad I had that excuse, because I had the fear that if I went from Alien to Star Wars, that would be it. They’d say, “Oh, he’s a space adventure guy. We have a movie about a police officer or a prison.” “No, no.” You become typed.
So my style was to jump around from one thing to the other so they couldn’t pinpoint me, and it worked. I don’t regret it. I don’t care how big a film is. Life is too short for that shit. We just should be glad that we’re working. We’re getting opportunities and God has blessed me with, even now, I’m getting a lot of opportunities. I know they wanted me to do Star Trek, and for the same reason, I didn’t do it. So it went its way. I would do it now because a lot of time has passed and Star Trek has become different, so it wouldn’t be like I was following after Alien. If the offer came my way, I would do it now.
Just to go back, were you in the running for Han Solo opposite Harrison Ford?
I was in the running for that role. They wanted me for that role and it was a racial decision where I didn’t get it. The same decision was what they told me [about] why your name shouldn’t be first [in Alien] because we don’t want people to think this movie is about immigrants or anything like that. I don’t think Fox was ready to, at that time, have me playing Han Solo. George Lucas himself has told people, “We were going in Yaphet’s direction.” But they went another direction.
A few years ago you said that you were done either talking about Alien or doing events to promote it. Is there a reason you’ve been reluctant to revisit the movie?
No. I’ll tell you why. When I was about ten years old, I had an experience with what you’d call extraterrestrials. The first time I was looking out of a window when I was a kid, I turned around and something was behind me, and it darted way. And all the years things kept happening, and I kept just saying, “What was that?” Until I was confronted with a situation where that was no longer something I could walk away from.
For the last 20 years until Alien came along, I had been experiencing these… I still don’t know what to call it. Because it’s tempting to say they were aliens, but you experience these things, and you’re quiet about it until you’re with someone else and they say, “Did you see that?” And you say, “Yeah, I saw it. What did you think it was?” And then you go, “Wait a minute, this is no longer my imagination.” When other people are there with you, you know it’s no longer your imagination. And when Alien came around, I thought there would be answers about it in there, but Alien was about a creature from outer space.
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The new documentary Memory: The Origins of Alien touches on the idea that the science officers are taken more seriously than Parker and Brett, that there are class divisions within the ship. What discussions occurred at the time about those kinds of conflicts on the Nostromo?
That’s a very good observation, but I kept attributing that script to The Hairy Ape. It’s an American classical play [by Eugene O’Neill]. If you’re familiar with that play, you’ll see all the elements in Alien are in The Hairy Ape. That play [takes place] down in the coal room of a ship, so that’s where I was coming from. They were the ones that made the ship go. Those lines are right out of The Hairy Ape. “Why don’t you come down here? This is where the real work is.”
Your character and Harry’s are really the only ones who are right about the danger of going on LV-426. Did Ridley talk to you about the idea that to some extent your characters were this chorus speaking a truth that’s not necessarily getting heard by the rest of the crew?
I had three experiences with directors that I loved very much. The first experience was Blue Collar. The second was Live and Let Die. And then of course Alien. All three of those directors came to me and said, “We want you in this movie because you’re a director-proof actor. No matter what the script is, you’re going to bring some things to it that we didn’t see.” And Ridley got out of the way. He gave us a lot of freedom to come up with a creative interpretation about where we were going. And Parker was an existentialist. He really didn’t care why they were there. He just wanted to get there and get back to what he was doing before. It gave me the ability to be apart from the officers, so to speak.
I read a story that Ridley Scott had asked you to antagonize Sigourney Weaver during filming, but he didn’t tell her after filming that he had told you to do that. Were you able to reconcile with her later?
Well, I didn’t like the fact that Ridley didn’t tell her afterwards, because it was her first film and with veterans like Tom [Skeritt] and Veronica [Cartwright] in the movie, we were afraid that one cross move and the movie goes down the tubes. And by the ending, she had to have balls. She had to fight that alien, and if she wasn’t angry about what the alien was doing, the whole movie was down the tubes. So he came to me and he said, “I noticed you’re very chummy with Sigourney. Stop being so chummy. Give her a hard time. Don’t do makeup with her. Don’t do this that and the other.” I’m a method actor—it has to be real for me—so I said, “Okay, fine.” I stopped socializing with her. What I regret is that he never went to her afterwards and said, “Sigourney, I put the actors up to doing what they did.” I regret that he wasn’t social enough to do that.
What were your relationships like with him and the rest of the cast during filming?
It was fun. Tom and I had been friends for years. Veronica is a sweetheart. Harry and I had been friends for years. Ian [Holm] and I just met, and Sigourney was a nice lady. She took what was going on in stride—so much stride I couldn’t believe it. Sigourney is an unbelievable woman. I don’t know whether it was a rehearsal or not a rehearsal, but one day Veronica walked over to Sigourney and slapped her face as if she was Muhammad Ali hitting George Foreman. And after the slap, Sigourney never reacted to it. It was like Veronica was never there. Her face went to the side. I was standing on the other side of the room and I heard the echo of the slap. And she continued talking to the person she was talking to as if nothing had ever happened. And I said to myself, “That woman is a giant, man. I can’t believe what he just did.” I’d never seen anybody not react to a slap before. I talked to Veronica about it. She said Ridley asked her to do it. It was a rehearsal, but it didn’t look like a rehearsal to me. Sigourney is a mountain. That’s all I can describe her as. She’s got some internal thoughts in her that are beyond belief.
20th Century Fox
The chestburster scene has become this iconic moment, not just in the movie, but in pop culture in general. Obviously, the process was laborious, but did you have a sense at some point that it was going to be a powerful moment in the movie?
I no idea of what the ramifications of what they were going to do, what the outcome would be. It’s not good, in my opinion, for an actor to get too involved with the mechanics of what’s happening because it’s not going to be organic for you if you know everything. So I stayed away from it. When it happened, I started thinking about the first thing I ever did in my career, which was Othello. And then I did a number of Shakespearean plays in Boston and my career was going pretty good. But I lost all my stage actor friends in New York when they told me, “When you go to California, you’ll sell out. You’ll never come back to the stage.”
But when this thing happened, I started thinking that maybe I should go back to the theater. Maybe I should get out of this business and do something artistic. I thought this was a cheap, exploitative event. It scared the shit out of me. The crew had on goggles and white smocks. The walls were covered with paper and cloth. The cameraman was in disguise. Blood was all over the room. Just grisly gore and blood came out. I said, “What type of business am I in?” So those reactions were not just in the scene. Those reactions were, “Hollywood has gone too far.” I was up three nights thinking maybe I should get out of the industry and become a lawyer or something. But I didn’t realize we had just made history. Later on when we went to the theater, people were running out of the theater screaming, and I realized we had done something special. But at the time it just seemed like some claptrap phony thing with blood and gore.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Alien. Do you have a favorite moment that is emblematic of your experience or something you fondly recall about making it?
There was a mascot on the space uniform during the moment that Parker decides to die to protect Lambert. The mascot decided to play “Teddy Bear Picnic.” And for some reason something happened on set where white phosphorus or snowflakes started to come down and I couldn’t really see the alien. He was there, and that mascot was playing that song, and that was the spookiest moment. It was real. It was no longer an act for me. I was about to become the space GI Joe saving her life. I had to distract the alien from her to me and I couldn’t see the actor. I couldn’t see the alien. I begged Ridley, “Leave this in.” The snow was coming down, and that tune scared me more than the alien itself. They didn’t leave it in. They removed the tune. But the eeriness of that whole damn thing scared me for real. I was not acting at that point.
But what did bother me was when I saw what the alien does to Parker’s head, considering the fact that I am a spiritual person. I believe in the third eye, and it went straight for Parker’s third eye. So I wasn’t acting in that scene. And I said, god, when you get to the point where you’re no longer acting, you’re actually reacting to the atmosphere, and this weird haunting music just helped that scene more than I brought to it. So it’s one of the few movies that I’ve been in when it was real.
And there were a lot of moments like that. I don’t know whether they were working on my head or what. Someone found my name in the Bible, and they were leaving little Bible prophecies around. And no one ever answered me about that. That’s still a mystery. So I don’t like that last scene. Stanislavski would have loved it. Lee Strasberg would have loved it. Harold Kornberg would have loved it in the studio. But I didn’t love it, because who wants to experience death like that? But I still think that Ridley was up to something because that music was so haunting, and they never used that phosphorus and falling snow. They never used it.
20th Century Fox
Now that Ridley Scott has come back to the Alien franchise, would you be interested in the opportunity to come back and explore that world in a different way?
There’s a book I’ve written called The Witchcraft Wars, which is about alien life. The book will be out shortly. I wrote 20 different episodes of this book, and the first one will be at very shortly. So I would go back into space again, because as I said before, with aliens is, we have to come to the realization that they are here. They’re not out there, they’re here. I don’t want to sound crazy and say, “Oh, he’s lost his mind. He’s talking about, ‘They’re here.’”
Let me tell you something. Myself, my wife and 100 people in the Philippines saw an alien spaceship come down as big as Yankee stadium and there were individuals waving down to 100 of us. Now, I don’t know where that thing came from. But we all saw it. It moved, and then bang, in the blink of an eye it was gone. Now, I have a hundred people who were there, who saw it. Why we don’t get to a place that we can say, “Okay, yeah, they’re here,” I don’t know why. We’re not crazy, man.
Maybe that’s a story that you need to tell as an actor.
Well, I wrote The Witchcraft Wars, and we’ll see where it goes. Either the studio will do it or I’ll do it. I have the contacts to do whatever I want to do, but it’s not for want of money. It’s the want that you and your associates and your friends are going to have to deal with the fact that we’re going to be facing people from other worlds face to face.
Check out the Fathom Events website for showtime and ticketing information for Alien anniversary screenings, which begin October 13 across the country.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox