Alien 40th anniversary: Tom Skerritt talks chestbursters, Ridley Scott and Jones the cat

“When he brought in these buckets of sheep innards, I thought ‘Oh, Ridley! What are you up to?'” Tom Skerritt on 40 years of Alien

Alien has long been a stone-cold classic and left a major imprint on sci-fi and horror movies since its release in 1979. Its glorious, immersive cinematic genius and legacy is still continuing to this day with a franchise that has spawned eight films including prequels and crossovers with the Predator (well, they can’t all be winners), and it returns to UK cinemas on 1 March.

Tom Skerritt who played Dallas, the captain of the doomed Nostromo that set out on a fateful mission forty years ago, zips us back to the late 1970s to describe his experiences on set. He chats to us about his time spent watching Ridley Scott in action, how the film came together, his reaction to that iconic chestburster scene and Jones the cat.

What was your first encounter with Ridley Scott like?

I don’t honestly remember when or where we first met. Because he was so caught up in the look of the film, and I appreciate that he was, we didn’t have time to really fully engage. He’d say, “Hi, how you doing?” and he’d move on to do whatever he needed to do. I really respected that because you’re dealing with an artist, truly an artist.

Beyond him being a director, I thought this guy is a painter and I just wanted to see him do his thing. I wanted to see how he went about it and the intensity of his work suggested that’s the way to go about it. He was so focused on what he had to do. You can laugh every now and then but by and large with a visionary like him you’ve got to simply watch him and see what he’s doing. I got a lot out of following him around and finding more out about it.

And how did you feel when the script first landed in your hands?

It was a bit bleak… I had received the script and no one else had read it, there was no director attached, and there was only a $2 million budget for it. I thought there was a strong enough storyline but $2 million dollars sounds more like an Ed Wood movie. It was totally under-budgeted. I knew a film called The Duellists which was Ridley’s first film, which was an exquisite film, a masterpiece. When they called me a week or so after I’d seen that film, they said the budget’s been kicked up to $10 million and Ridley Scott will be directing, I was all in.

I went over there with this very optimistic feeling about working with Ridley Scott and then the cast he brought in, the two wonderful English actors in particular, Ian Holm and John Hurt (who passed recently) I just felt that I’m honoured to be in the company of these people. That’s basically how I felt, that immediately we had something that was going to come out of that script that was certainly a lot better than what I was initially given.

Were you a fan of HR Giger’s design work and what was it like wandering round those sets?

Personally, I like brighter colours and material, but in that movie, all of HR Giger’s artwork is very mechanic and dark and somewhat like watching an operation on a body without the lighting. It had this physically internalising sense, so it was very uncomfortable to be in that mood and light. It had a surreal feeling to it. Then we were wandering around all this Styrofoam that they used to make the images and that’s a potent fragrance!

Can you talk us through what it was like filming that chestburster scene, how messy did it really get?

It was pretty much a one take, he had a few cameras on each one of us and once you get the reaction the first time, you’re not going to get the same reaction second time so you can’t keep repeating it. I followed him around for so much of the shoot, so when I wasn’t on camera I was learning things. I watched the specialists set it all out, so I was very aware of the mechanics of it all. But when he brought in these buckets of shall I say, innards of sheep, or whatever it was that had given its life for this, when I saw that coming, I thought “Oh Ridley!! What are you up to??” Then when it happened… “OH!”

The only thing that did hold it up at one point was when we were trying to get it out of the t-shirt. The t-shirt had initially been cut a little bit across the chest area so it could break out, but it just wouldn’t break through the first time. That was all that held it back. Once it came through you saw all the results of that eruption. Everybody else was quite shocked by it. I didn’t really know how I would react because I had seen them working on it for a while but the effect was certainly there. Veronica Cartwright who was not anticipating that any of that stuff would fly on her and had blood spurt all over here was, well…she almost fainted. That was very authentic. You can’t replicate that.

The legacy of Alien has lasted forty years, can you still believe we’re talking about it now? Did you have any idea at the time that you were making a classic?

It was a very unique experience for me because I could sense right from the beginning that because we were going to have this guy shooting, Ridley Scott, we were going to have an extraordinary film. Turns out it is one of the big films of the twentieth century now. In the midst of it all I remember having a conversation with Yaphet Kotto and he was kind of growing a little bit impatient. I was like, ‘Hey man, we’re in the midst of making a classic.” He was like, ‘Yeah I gotta calm down.’ So yes, we knew we were making a classic film.

Did you or the cast spend much time with Jones the cat?

I never really saw the cat on set, only when Sigourney was dealing with it. The cat wasn’t really part of our daily life sadly. The one we have in our household now is and that cat is now nearly twenty years old believe it or not! She’s called Zoe.

The 40th Anniversary of ALIEN will be in cinemas from 1st March. Find cinema information here: https://bit.ly/2TlbyxK 

For an extended version of this interview, pick up issue 156 of SciFiNow on sale 8 March.