PETER WELLER’S “ROBO” RIFF
By Paul Freeman
(OUR 1988 FEATURE STORY; Weller’s acting career continues to thrive, including recent appearances on “Psych,” “Fringe” and “Dexter.”)
As Peter Weller glides into San Francisco’s trendy Fog City Diner, he’s more Robobop than Robocop. Before succumbing to the allure of acting, he channeled his creativity into jazz music. Hipster lingo and attitudes remain.
Rhythmic surges marked his memorable portrayals of the offbeat hero of “The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai,” Diane Keaton’s boyfriend in “Shoot The Moon” and Teri Garr’s psychopathic, cocaine-snorting lover in “Firstborn.” But with “Robocop” - a rollicking science-fiction/action picture - Weller registered his first commercial hit.
Filled with ferocious black humor, “Robocop” is set in the near future. A private corporation runs the Detroit police force. Murphy, a dedicated cop, is maimed and murdered while pursuing a wildly vicious gang of thugs.
The corporation transforms what’s left of Murphy into Robocop, a metal-plated, computer-programmed law enforcement whiz. Robocop is a cyborg - half-human, half-machine - with enough firepower to turn criminals into spare parts. Though they try to erase his memory, enough tantalizing fragments are left to spur him on to search for his murderers, as well as for his own identity.
On this day, Weller is searching for a Kleenex. In “Robocop,” he single-handedly defeats the criminal element of Detroit. But at the moment, he’s fighting a cold... and losing.
There’s an intriguing strangeness about him. With his lean, angular face and slightly anemic pallor, Weller resembles David Bowie’s character in “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” His slick, straw-colored hair is in disarray and his icy, intense blue eyes are kept hidden by small sunglasses with pink plastic rims.
Weller apologizes for his hacking cough as he attacks a dozen oysters and gulps chamomile tea. He declares that making “Robocop” was the most satisfying moviemaking experience he’s ever had. His words pour out in torrents, accompanied by large, dramatic gestures.
“Man, this was the best script I’d read in many a moon,” Weller says. “I liked the dignity of Robo, the tenderness and the triumph. It’s all in the packaging of a commercial police story, but the center of the film is Robo’s return as Murphy. This machine is caught up by its own vulnerability and eventually, the humanity starts to overcome the computer. That’s what turned me on.”
The opportunity to work on the first American feature of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (“Spetters,” “Soldier of Orange”) also turned Weller on. “I was a major fan of his movies. He was on a short list of guys I wanted to work with sometime in my life.”
Weller believes Verhoeven was the ideal director for the project. “The fact that he’s European meant he’d had an exposure to all of the old fables about beasts that wanted to be human,” Weller explains. “It also meant that he had an objectivity about the American scene.
“He knew this was more than ‘The Terminator,’ more than a shoot-’em-up cop movie. He knew he had to make it operatic... and he did it without an operatic budget.”
“Robocop”’s sensibilities are sometimes more heavy metal than opera. In fact, its ultra-violence initially earned the film an X-rating. Trimming 20 seconds from Murphy’s death scene resulted in a drop to R. Weller, though, doesn’t believe the film is excessively brutal at any point.
“Verhoeven doesn’t like upfront, bizarre, graphic violence,” Weller says. “He uses violence to pull you through an emotional change. He makes it personal, man. Most of the violence is suggested. This isn’t like the umpteenth sequel to these self-serving teenage horror flicks with butcher knives slashing throats. If I see one more of those, I’m going to barf.”
Weller’s transformation into Robocop should have made him faint. For much of the picture, he had to be shoved into a 40-pound casing. It took ten-and-a-half hours to get into it the first time. Temperatures inside the suit reached 120 degrees. He lost two-and-a-half pounds of water each day and broke out in a heat rash all over his body.
Rob Bottin’s fantastic prosthetic makeup took six-and-half-hours to apply to Weller’s face. The actor relied on Zen meditation techniques to help him survive.
“We had this group of people called the Robo-team that worked 24 hours a day in two shifts. One was maintenance, the other application. They’d surround me in what we called the Robo-chair and give me Robo-water and Robo-brown rice and my Robo-Walkman“ Weller relates.
To develop Robo’s movements, Weller worked with a mime. “At first, we wanted it to be catlike, but the suit was too cumbersome. So we went with making the movements more beastlike, slower, more unsure. These broad movements were difficult for a Method actor like myself.”
Weller took a circuitous route to acting. As the youngest son of a career Army helicopter pilot, his youth was a series of moves from station to station. His mother, a Duke Ellington aficionado, imbued Weller with a sense of wonder about jazz. He learned to play trumpet and guitar. Planning to become a professional musician, he attended North Texas State University.
College stage productions gradually convinced him to switch his major to theater. Landing a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he moved to New York. He studied with Uta Hagen and Actor’s Studio. Attention-getting roles soon came his way. He was featured in David Rabe’s “Sticks and Bones” on Broadway and “Streamers,” directed by Mike Nichols, at Lincoln Center. His film debut came in 1979’s “Butch and Sundance: The Early Years.”
Weller currently resides in New York City, where he runs marathons. He enjoys immersing himself in the New York jazz scene - he still practices trumpet daily - and tries to catch all the top artists.
Still film remains Weller’s primary focus. Since “Robocop,” he’s made “Shakedown” with Sam Elliott, “The Tunnel” with Jane Seymour, and a suspense drama titled “A Killing Affair.” He’s just wrapping up a shoot in Rome, filming “Leviathan,” a science-fiction/thriller directed by George Pan Cosmatos (“Rambo II”).
There could be more science-fiction in Weller’s future. “Robocop II.” If the script is right, the money is right, and Verhoeven is again involved, Weller would be willing to hide his distinctive features behind the robot’s armor one more time.
“The challenge of making it work a second time would be worth the ordeal,” he says. “It’s the inner workings that make it interesting. Even if you only see my mouth, if I’m telling the truth about Robo from the inside out, you’ll get it. You’ll know what the character is all about.”