The new Mission: Impossible movie features a small army’s worth of weapons: guns, knives, swords, nuclear bombs, and one especially malevolent artificial-intelligence bot. But the seventh instalment of the Tom Cruise franchise-slash-death-wish also contains an especially killer secret weapon hiding in plain sight: Canadian actor Henry Czerny.
The Toronto-born Czerny made his first M:I appearance in director Brian De Palma’s original 1996 film, playing Eugene Kittridge, a U.S. intelligence honcho who clashed with Cruise’s super-spy Ethan Hunt. It was only Czerny’s second Hollywood role, and he nailed it, delivering a character equal parts intimidation, paranoia, and exasperation. (It helped, perhaps, that the actor’s first big-budget job, in the 1994 Harrison Ford vehicle Clear and Present Danger, was playing a similar CIA jerk.) Yet after the first M:I popped at the box office, Czerny was gone, his character replaced by a succession of Kittridge-esque spy chiefs.
Not to knock Anthony Hopkins, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Alec Baldwin or Angela Bassett, all of whom did stellar work as Hunt’s various supervisors, but it was hard not to notice the absence of Czerny’s particular brand of teeth-gritting fortitude. After five sequels and more than a quarter-century, no other actor could infuse the word “Ethannnnnn” with as much drawled out menace as Czerny. Which is why it is such a thrill – almost as big as watching Cruise motocross his way off a cliff – to watch Czerny get back to business as Kittridge in Dead Reckoning Part One.
“Twenty-five years later, I’m in the midst of running errands and thinking, I’ll take the august years of my life to build beautiful furniture in my garage, when I get the call that they want to bring Kittridge back,” recalls Czerny, who today makes his home in Los Angeles. “I think it’s a joke. But then I’m calling [director Christopher McQuarrie] who is in Venice scouting locations, saying he’s wanted to bring me back for a few iterations now.”
It was that much more of a shock given that Czerny had been long holding onto the belief that he blew his big chance with the franchise so many years ago.
“I was the high-falutin young actor having done two back-to-back Hollywood blockbusters thinking, ‘Ah, this is how it worked,’ like I’m back in theatre working on a new play,” Czerny recalls of the lunch he had with Cruise’s then producing partner, Paula Wagner, after the first film came out. “I let her know what should have happened in the first movie, and what should be explored with the second one. She was … very gracious. She picked up the tab. She said, ‘Thank you, Henry, very much.’ And that’s the last I heard.”
It is not as if Czerny has since suffered for work. The actor, who, before M:I, made his terrifying mark in Canada with the acclaimed 1992 CBC miniseries The Boys of St. Vincent, has built an impressively busy and eclectic career, bouncing between Hollywood and his home country, between film and television. Yet the 64-year-old has never had quite as bright a spotlight on him as the one that M:I delivered. Which is why it was no question for him to revisit Kittridge. Even if there wasn’t much detail about what the new movie might involve, or Kittridge’s place in it.
“I asked, ‘Well, where’s the script?’ I was told, ‘Good question,’” he says with a laugh. “It was, ‘We have an idea, but we want to bring people in, see their chemistry, taste what’s going on, and the script evolves through that.’ And that’s how they work on a multi-hundred-million-dollar movie.”
De Palma’s Mission: Impossible film also famously started shooting without a completed screenplay, though Czerny recalls the two experiences as involving different levels of production fluidity.
“Whenever we got new pages on this one, someone would say, ‘These will self-destruct in five minutes,’” he says. “But that’s because they have no problem adjusting to what they’re shooting so that they can get the best. They don’t stick with something that’s not working. And they have the resources to shoot a scene that maybe lasts a minute and 30 seconds for an entire day. You have all the opportunity to explore what you want to find in the scene, and Tom is going to be there for every one of them.”
On Czerny’s first day of filming Dead Reckoning, his character was supposed to get off a train, get in a helicopter, and fly up. No dialogue, relatively straightforward.
“I get there and Chris is there with the Steadicam guy, and they tell me to come back in a bit,” Czerny says. “Three hours later, I’m back and McQ has got cranes everywhere. It’s because he wants to fill every inch of the screen with story. They’ve worked it and rehearsed it so many times by then so that when you come on, it’s like a beautiful five-course French meal. The entire thing has been honed down and reduced.”
Audiences will have to wait until Dead Reckoning Part Two comes out next year to see what the M:I gods have in mind for Kittridge. In the meantime, though, Czerny is happy to go wherever the work takes him, be it the cliffs of Norway or the motel rooms of Northern Ontario.
“‘Action’ is called, you act. It doesn’t matter what set you’re on,” he says. “How you get to set and what kind of remuneration you get, that’s different for sure. But this is a hot plate – something is going to happen here that will never happen again. So let’s do it and capture it. It doesn’t change, regardless of where I am.”
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is in theatres now.