Alex Winter has had only one major film role, but it was a most bodacious one. True, the reviews were universally sniffy when Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was released in 1989 ("Should open to a tame response and peter out from there" - Hollywood Reporter). But the daft Valley-dude comedy went on to gross over $45m - not bad on a budget of less than $10m. It spawned a sequel, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. And above all it turned those two slackers into national icons, the godfathers of the current American vogue for lovable stupidity. Back in 1987, when Bill and Ted met for the first time at their audition, the young actors were both unknowns. Eight years later, Ted - Keanu Reeves - is a major star, able to pull down, in the wake of Speed, $7m for his next big studio picture. But what about Bill?
Winter is still baby-faced after all these years: give him a back-to- front baseball cap and an air guitar and he could, at a pinch, star in B&T 3 tomorrow. Only recently, out on the streets of London, he was greeted with a "how's it hangin' dude?" And when Bill and Ted appear in public together... well, when Keanu Reeves was in town last year, Winter took him to the National Gallery to see the new Caravaggio, and wouldn't care to repeat the experience.
But, focused and articulate, Winter doesn't sound much like the spaced- out Bill. And he hasn't become joined at the hip with his fictional doppelganger in the same way as Reeves, who was thereafter generally assumed to be a card-carrying airhead. Years later he was to remark ruefully that, for all the other roles he'd played, when he died he'd be remembered for playing Ted (when he essayed Hamlet at the beginning of this year, everyone called it "Keanu's excellent Shakespearian adventure"). "That's because he's an actor, I guess," Winter says. "And Keanu is just so... Keanu, know what I mean? Not for me. I've moved on and done different things."
Winter is hardly on the skids today: he has a commercials and pop video company based in London and New York. Recent assignments include an ad for Littlewoods pools and, rather cheekily, another for National Lottery scratch cards with Ronnie Corbett as the Grim Reaper (an hommage, perhaps, to the Death Dude in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey? And he has directed a first feature, Freaked. But he hasn't parlayed Bill's brief blaze of fame into a celebrity career.
He professes to like it that way, without feeling remotely envious of his former co-star. "Keanu can't sit back now. Keanu does way more interviews than I have to do. Keanu has a certain appearance. He has a life that he has to lead, and this is true of any actor in his situation. They have managers, publicists, the whole nine yards, 365 days a year. And it's all so that when your name hits a desk the producer can go, `Oh yeah, this guy. This guy's got heat.'
"It's a high-maintenance job, and as soon as you sit back, someone else is gonna come along, another Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp who looks just as good and is hustling twice as hard as you. And they're gonna go, `Oooo, this guy's got an even hotter buzz.' Look at Mickey Rourke. You could say, whatever became of him? But Mickey Rourke had a good long run before he had the collagen implants and seemingly went insane. He did some great work in Diner and in a couple of other movies.
"Acting has never been a priority for me. I'd look at scripts and I'd look at the films that came out and I'd think, `I don't want to be in any of this stuff.' There's a lot of competition and it's not even about trying to fight for a role, it's about trying to fight for an identity. There was a time when you had people like Laurence Olivier or Robert Mitchum: actors who were really extraordinary. Then your longevity might be based on your skill compared to your peers.
"But now when you're competing with Arnie [Schwarzenegger] it's a different issue, because you're not competing with the greatest actor of the day, you're competing with an attitude. And that relegates you to becoming a different kind of actor: a celebrity. For myself, it's a race I wouldn't wanna run. I'd look at the movies being made and think: I'm gonna try that hard so that I can be in The Three Musketeers?"
Instead, when Bill and Ted turned into a box-office winner, Winter used its success to talk MTV into signing him to write, direct and act in a comedy series called The Idiot Box (it didn't air in Britain). He did the Bill and Ted sequel in 1991, and soon afterwards set to writing what was to become Freaked, a broad, special-effects- heavy comedy about a travelling showman who uses a toxic fertiliser to mutate unwary visitors into exhibits in his freak show. Typically, Winter was, he says, intrigued by the "parallels between Hollywood and the 18th-century travelling show, between being in the entertainment industry and being a freak."
Apart from Randy Quaid as the mad showman, Freaked's cast includes Mr T and Brooke Shields. And, slightly to his surprise, Winter found that his name still possessed enough marquee-value for the studio (Twentieth Century Fox) to insist he return temporarily to acting to play the lead, an arrogant young movie star who becomes Quaid's most grotesque specimen. "It was a matter of commercial necessity, I guess. I'd rather have not done it, because directing is so time-consuming. Acting under four and a half hours of make-up every day on top of it was extremely gruelling and painful. I'd much rather have played a sideline character in it and had some fun."
The oddest casting of all is Winter's old friend, Keanu Reeves, unrecognisable under a thick coat of hair, as a character called Ortiz the Dogboy (he is uncredited on the print of Freaked itself, although the UK video sleeve features him). "Keanu had to go through an extraordinary ordeal make-up- wise, hours and hours, five hours. The make-up team didn't want to make a mask for him, they wanted to lay the hair on individually so that it would really form-fit his face. He was such a trooper: he would just come in and sit patiently. And he did an amazing job. Maybe people don't know who he is, but I wouldn't have wanted anyone else to play it, because it's the kind of character, a hyper-theatrical rogue, that he can do really well."
If Winter has any residual doubts about abandoning acting, he just needs to remember the precise level of desperation of the hopefuls auditioning for his movie. "One guy came in to read for the Worm character who scared the heck out of us. He was a really mousy-looking guy, normal guy, and he said, `Mind if I do this the way I want to do it?' He laid this garbage bag out on the floor and took off his overcoat. Underneath he was wearing nothing except bikini briefs and he was smeared in brown dirt: I guess he was trying to look like a worm. Then he got down on the ground and proceeded to writhe around doing his dialogue. We couldn't decide whether he could act because we were so mortified by what he was doing." In bailing out of the celebrity balloon, Winter might have made a smart move: better by far to be a quietly anonymous director than another worm on the Hollywood dung-heap.
n `Freaked' is released on video by Fox/Guild
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