Performance capture technology has helped to make a star of Andy Sirkis but led to hard times for an older generation of British animated performers. Earthprime caught up with Windy Miller, best known to UK TV audiences of the 1970s for his role in ‘Camberwick Green’, but who in the 1990s joined other British actors like Luke Goss and Tim Roth by moving to Los Angeles to be reborn in the USA.
In the first public interview he’s ever given, Windy talks openly about his struggles with scrumpy and substance addictions, and the difficulties he and other animated performers face in the digital age.
EP: Firstly, thank you for talking to us. You’ve never given an interview before.
WM: All through the Camberwick Green era, it was in our contracts that we couldn’t do any press or publicity. There were artistic and other reasons for that. I always respected Gordon [Murray]’s decision to keep it about Trumpton, Camberwick Green: about entire communities not about a few lead characters.
If you look at more recent shows like ‘In The Night Garden’, children’s TV has gone back to its roots in this way. Gordon was a pioneer. Of course, the industry has been through a period where huge stars were built up to sell merchandising to kids, and with that you got inflated egos and budgets, and all of the associated problems…
EP: You’re talking about stars like Morph, Postman Pat…
EP: Are you still in touch? The stories of your period in L.A. together in the late Nineties are legendary.
WM: Morph’s clean, like me. He went into a recovery programme a while back. He’s going to auditions again and starting over. It’s incredibly brave because the economic climate – the climate generally – doesn’t favour us. It’s like he’s Roy Rogers still trying to get cowboy film roles, and ‘Easy Rider’ is the big hit.
So, look, I’m not here to bad mouth any one, and least of all other animated actors. We’re all looking over the same precipice…
EP: Because of Andy Sirkis’s Gollum and performance capture being a huge part of blockbuster movie-making?
WM: Precisely. So… fair play to Pat. Fireman Sam. Don’t get me wrong. I love the work of the generation who came after us. But if you look at what’s happened in our industry, the debacle of ‘Pat’s Delivery Service’ in particular but also the recent movie… There was a boom and now there’s a bust, and in a sense we all had it coming. Excesses were indulged.
We can’t blame anyone but ourselves for what happened. That’s my motto in life: no regrets. Keep moving forward. That’s how I’ve survived over the years. I make all my own decisions, creatively and in life, so you have to own your fuck ups too.
EP: You’ve brought us rather neatly to the two sequels to ‘The Matrix’. That was your big break but also your undoing in Hollywood.
WM: When I was cast in the two Matrix sequels it was totally out of the blue, I’d been here for… two months, I think. It was one of my first auditions. I was driving back home to my little apartment out here in Burbank, and I got the call. They wanted me. It was instant. Like falling in love, actually. We thought we were going to do incredible things together. That moment changed my life. For better and for worse.
EP: What went wrong?
WM: You have to remember how huge the first film was. After that, they seriously thought they were making a movie of the Bible with the sequels. They made a series of what can only be generously called “eccentric” casting decisions, and the studio indulged them. No one attacks Professor Cornell West for being in the Zion sequence, the boring rave montages which fans found such a letdown. (“That’s Zion? That’s the rebel stronghold that Neo’s going to lead against the AIs… a bunch of yoga teachers and crusty computer programmers off their faces at Burning Man?”) Cornell West was cast in that sequence but his presence didn’t define it.
All the blame for the fight sequence somehow lands at my door. I think it’s because the bullet-time shots in the first movie had been its calling card. Remember how every movie and TV show copied that shot, for years after that: someone suspended in the air, frozen in the middle of a praying mantis kick? We didn’t match that level of excitement – there was nothing that looked that striking, that new – in the two follow-ups, and in the sequence we’re talking about…
EP: Where Neo fights hundreds of Agent Smiths in a recreation yard…
WM: Right. It’s simply not there on the screen, that energy, and it’s all down to my performance. It’s me, sucking, hundreds of times over. People joked about it at the time but it really set my entire life and career back. All my problems professionally and personally since stem from how I coped – or, rather, how I didn’t cope – with that initial experience of failure in Hollywood.
EP: It seems as though you were set back by the Matrix sequels in a way that Keanu Reeves’ career wasn’t, at least after the initial criticism.
WM: Exactly, but Keanu was an established star and he’d been in other stinkers like Bertoucci’s ‘Little Buddha’, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’. I was – in Hollywood terms – a new-comer, in late middle-age, carrying one of the most complex and anticipated fight scenes in cinema history.
Me and Paul Hogan, maybe Billy Zane in ‘The Phantom’ too: we’re the outsiders who’ve come in, crashed and burned expensive movies in the full glare of media attention and never really recovered from it. It’s a weird club to belong to but it’s certainly an experience, I’ll grant you that.
That failure seemed to magnify or confirm everything else that had screwed up in my life up till that point and how I was trapped by a series of false dawns. Which is strange when you think about it, because that’s a lot of what those movies are really about. Neo is told he’s the Messiah, but – really – he isn’t. Or anyone could be if they choose to try to follow through on that idea of Messianic destiny. Maybe we should have made that film… the film about how a foam rubber miller from Britain can’t ever seem to catch a break, and has to learn how to function normally without alcohol or pills, by taking responsibility for his own version of reality.
EP: On set, how did those scenes feel as you were filming them? Did you know it was a flop even then? And what’s Keanu like to work with?
WM: Long, long days. Endless set-ups and continuity problems, a nightmare. Keanu is… it’s like looking into a mirror.
EP: Is that a good thing?
WM: Well he can’t do accents so that was the only sense in which I felt I kept any of my own identity on the set, or I would have just been his mini-me, frankly.
EP: People assume you’re from the West Country.
WM: They always have because all of the speaking parts in Camberwick Green were in the pilot, and they decided to cut them all. Keanu was never able to get my accent right which is from Barbados – a very specific island accent, and not like Jamaican – by way of Peckham in South London, and a spell in borstal as a teenager.
EP: People don’t realise you’re from the Caribbean, to this day.
WM: I’ve played so many Caucasian roles by now… it hardly seems worth disappointing people by opening my mouth and talking with a Bajan accent. That’s why I spend so much time nodding and waving.
EP: Do you blame anyone involved in the production for how the Matrix movies have affected you?
WM: Who would I blame? The producers indulged the two creative talents behind one of the biggest and most innovative movies of its era, and the studio let the producers indulge them. Of course it went wrong, we can see that in hindsight.
But you can see why they did it, too: giving the Wachowskis total creative control is what made the first movie such a hit and so much fun in the theatre. I still adore the first Matrix movie and just try to forget about the two that I’m in. Travolta has done this with ‘Staying Alive’: no one remembers there’s a sequel to ‘Saturday Night Fever’. Or that he’s in a remake of Powell and Pressberger’s classic ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ with Olivia Newton John. Why would you remake a classic? It would be like remaking ‘The Wizard of Oz’ or ‘Casablanca’. They both lived that one down and it hasn’t ruined ‘Grease’ for anyone. Prince is still going strong but have you ever seen ‘Graffiti Bridge’? ‘Under a Cherry Moon’? That has Stephen Berkoff and Kirsten Scott Thomas in it being made to look like complete fools. Car crashes. At one point, Scott Thomas plays drums and raps some lines from George Clinton’s ‘Loopzilla’. Fortunately, most people had the decency to look away. Robert Altman did and she was in ‘Gosford Park’ after that.
I wish we’d had more time on set to get it right. Maybe now, with digital filming as well as animation, we could have done more takes… but that’s the movie business. So many films that should have come out as masterpieces came out as flops, because the ambition of their conception outstripped the technical and logistical ability of film-makers to realise their initial concepts, on the screen.
It’s part of the evolution of any art form and in that regard I feel everything Andy or any other performance capture artist does is an homage to me, to Kong, to the Minoton in Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad movie… We were there first. They can only forget us now because we established the territory, we created this technique, which they’ve taken on and have done such amazing things with. For every incredible robot or creature on screen… they’re giants standing on the shoulders of armies of six-inch tall puppets like me, made out of foam, clay, latex and wire. That makes me immensely proud, to be part of that legacy.
EP: What happened next?
WM: I hit the skids. It all fell apart. I was alone in West Burbank, I had no friends out here, my career had suddenly gone from having a huge pay cheque for my first L.A. job to the phone never ringing.
EP: You had a drinking problem that went back to the BBC days…
WM: That was in the Seventies and you’re right, there was a different attitude then to alcohol and to addiction: a lot of addictive behaviour was masked by a kind of social respectability – almost an admiration – of drunkenness and excess, which is what did for Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and all those actors… I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t a reaction to the post-War period, austerity, rationing. You can explain the Sixties that way, certainly. Maybe I have a different perspective on this because I assimilated to British culture as a teenager but never lost my sense of being an outsider. That’s why I find it easy to be here in L.A. We’re all aliens. We’re all from out of town.
There was a heavy drinking culture at the BBC back then. You can see it in Camberwick Green, even. Midday on national television and at the start of the show I’m steaming drunk. But everything was like that. Pebble Mill at One was on after us and Acker Bilk was usually on the bill. Jazz musicians with afternoons to kill in Birmingham. Need I say more? If you worked in British day time television back then and you remember the early Seventies, you weren’t there.
EP: But this was California in the early Norties.
WM: Right. Far more temptation. A bigger pay cheque to burn through. Bigger mistakes to make.
EP: What was rock bottom for you?
WM: Wow. I’m not really sure I should say, to be perfectly honest. I spent a lot of time hanging around with other out of work puppets, being late for auditions, planning collaborative projects that were never going to happen. I got off lightly compared with others. There are no old photos of my downward spiral to haunt me now when I Google myself. Not like… Well. I mean, poor A.L.F. Look at what’s happened to him since. The paparazzi don’t notice you falling out of bars on the Sunset Strip at 4 a.m. when you’re a few inches tall. You get stepped all over instead.
EP: You fell in with the California Raisins.
WM: Right. But they’re getting out of jail soon, so… Look. I had an illegal still in my apartment and made cider. I’d always made home brew on the side. I have chemistry skills…
EP: People don’t realise this, often, but you really are a miller…
WM: Everything you saw in Camberwick Green was real. Gordon was in the tradition of Humphrey Jennings and the Free Cinema movement. We worked on Dogme principles before Lars Von Trier had thrown his first tantrum. Gordon hated artifice and anything staged or fake, so… yes. I started out in agriculture and moved into acting. So I understand a lot of processes and how to use certain equipment.
EP: You ran a crystal meth lab supplying rich and famous clients.
WM: This was all in my deposition, yes. It was on record in Court, as part of my deal with the District Attorney’s office here. I don’t think it’s wise for me to go over every detail again. It’s all in the past. But, yes, I wasn’t just using: I was supplying. I narrowly avoided a long jail term.
EP: How did you make it through that period of addiction and involvement with organised crime?
EP: This is Max Headroom?
WM: That’s right. Max is my best friend in the world. I’m only here today because he mentored me through abstinence-based recovery and also back into acting. Max has been through his own journey with substances and the pitfalls of success. There are a lot of people around this town who owe Max everything. Not only puppets and toons, I’d like to add.
EP: What’s Max Headroom doing these days?
WM: As I understand it, after he had his falling out with Matt Frewer and tried to pursue his solo career without much success, Max had a spell of addiction but he pulled through, he went back to college. Max is a qualified psychoanalyst now with a lot of clients, and he’s also an artist.
EP: What kind of art does Max Headroom make?
WM: He makes lawn furniture from repurposed building materials, out in the Mojave Desert. His work is wild. It’s very organic and strange. He built my barbecue, actually. And an entire gazebo for Crispin Glover. It’s made out of hand-bent, rusted reinforcing iron rods. The kind they stick in concrete. It’s quite a creepy thing. Max puts his dark side, his dark and anarchic energy, into his Art. You’re only as sick as your secrets, they say in AA. Max has no secrets. He shows everything to the world and is always being analytical and creative. I don’t think Crispin drinks a lot of tea in there with his feet up, reading the ‘New Yorker’… I think it’s more of a manifestation of the collective id, which is very much Crispin’s thing as a collector.
EP: How do you get along with your contemporaries?
WM: It’s a small profession, I guess you could say that; and that there’s a lot of… history.
EP: Do you feel any professional envy? I’m thinking about your work on the Wallace and Grommit films.
WM: It’s an open secret in the industry that I did Wallace’s stunt work up until ‘Curse of the Were Rabbit’. Some time has passed so I don’t feel the need to keep quiet about this anymore, no matter what the gagging clauses on my contract may say. Sue me, I’ve got nothing.
EP: You still seem to feel some bitterness towards them.
WM: Not towards Grommit. Not at all. Grommit is exactly as you see him on screen. But not everyone on that set was as committed to sobriety as they should have been and eventually people get sloppy under those conditions. I had to finish that last movie, another three weeks of shooting, following a fall from a parapet down four storeys and landing on my back. It’s lucky I’m made of wire and foam. I had to take pain killers every day after that, just to get the footage and… well, again it’s no secret. I was off the shoot before it ended. I have only myself to blame.
EP: How did the accident happen?
WM: It was unprofessional and I take full responsibility for my state of mind on a dangerous shoot. But let’s just say that hanging out in Wallace’s trailer all night with his buddy Jason Mews wasn’t the brightest idea we had on that set. No disrespect to Jason though, I love his work and he’s a sweet guy who’s cleaned up his act. His voice performances on the ‘Clerks’ animated adventures are groundbreaking. That show deserves reappraisal.
EP: It seems that your own early work has had a kind of reassessment, but a lot of that reappraisal is ironic. How do you feel about, say, being cast in the Quaker Oats ad? Or the Trumpton sequence in ‘Life on Mars’?
WM: It’s all work, isn’t it? They had a couple of us – the original cast – on the set for the ‘Life on Mars’ skit as advisors, to make sure they got the flavour of it totally authentic. John Simms, in particular, treated us with total respect and professionalism. You don’t find that kind of attention to detail in television these days, it was unusual and we took it the way it was intended: as an affectionate homage. And let me tell you, there were more than a few nonces on Camberwick Green who I felt like administering a drubbing to! We could have done with Gene Hunt back then.
EP: Did you hear rumours at the BBC at the time?
WM: About Basil Brush and the others? There was no good reason for a single fox to be visiting Thailand in the early Eighties, that’s all I’m going to say.
EP: Do you see much of the old cast?
WM: Just Armando, the circus clown from the titles. He’s an amazing physical performer, a fifth generation circus puppet. He’s up in Vancouver teaching mime to the next generation. Barney McGrew and Cuthbert, from the fire crew, have moved out to L.A. and have a realty business. And they got married, of course. I think they recently adopted a baby from Africa.
EP: What’s next for you?
WM: I’ve got a new gig which is drawing on my love of the music of the 1950s, especially calypso. Peter Tork and I have a double act and we’re booked to play on a number of sea cruises next Summer. I’ll get to hang out with Kelly Monteith too, which is a dream come true. It’s very exciting.
EP: Windy Miller, thank you very much for your time.
WM: It’s been a great pleasure.