Hollywood -- Every summer at least one major studio production becomes a lightning rod of industry attention, either because of some problem on the set or in the front office. This year it looks like that picture will be "Alien 3," the third of the highly successful series about the interplanetary grudge match between a 23rd-century pilot, Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, and various representatives of an alien breed of creatures who cherish humankind both as food and as unwilling incubators for their young. Of course, with a $50-million budget, it would have been surprising if the movie hadn't invited controversy, and one member of the cast, at least, isn't the least disturbed about it.
"It was a tough shoot. Everything you read about all the things that went on in London is basically true," the burly Charles S. Dutton says, laughing.
Now known to many as the star of Fox Television's sitcom "Roc" (Mr. Dutton's real nickname), about the travails of a black sanitation worker, the Baltimore native is far more celebrated as a star of stage. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, he won accolades and awards for appearing in two of August Wilson's plays, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "The Piano Player," in which he starred. "It was a physically tough, exhausting shoot. And it wasn't much fun.
"But," he goes on, "I had a great time. It was my first time in London, so I enjoyed myself tremendously. I enjoyed the crew, I enjoyed [director] David Fincher. I thought he was a great director. I think there was a communication problem early on because it was his first movie. He had never dealt with actors before; he had done music videos. So instead of the things that you normally [hear], the simplistic things about what an actor wants out of a scene, David had a tendency -- which is great -- to speak in images. It was interesting, because I found in working with David that he would be a great stage director.
"In film," Mr. Dutton explains, "you have all these instruments and objects intruding on you, so you cannot really see the image. But I knew what he was going for visually. I knew the technical problems and the budget problems that were going on and what David was faced with. Fox, in a way, was criticizing him for doing too many takes and spending too much money, but yet they spent all this money on these fabulous, gorgeous sets -- there was also an eeriness and a wickedness to them -- and the man simply wanted to shoot them. It was just the scope of his vision."
On a prison planet
In the movie -- which takes place just after the end of the series' Part Two -- Ripley lands on a remote prison planet. Mr. Dutton plays Dillon, the charismatic leader of a small band of remaining inmates who have formed a religious cult. Initially hostile to Ripley, they join with her to hunt down one of the title critters, a formidable hunter who not only feasts on stray humans but apparently figures that Ripley is the nurturing type.
"Dillon is the spiritual leader," Mr. Dutton says of his character. "They count on him to make a final decision about what they do, he leads the prayers. He basically says when to sit down and when to stand up. It's a weird sort of thing. They're seeking redemption not only for their sins but in a large sense for being mortal, for being human. They want to get to stand on the side of God. They accept, at least Dillon does in his own head, the fact that the beast is on this planet tormenting them as a test from God. And they all must not be afraid to die. They must view it that when you do, you go to a better place, a higher place. So it's not really Christianity or Islam or anything we know of. I guess it's a hodgepodge."
Although anyone would look good against the alien beast, Mr. Dutton believes the film does more to put you on the side of these lost souls who, since they are, after all, prisoners, have nothing to fight with but sticks and stones. "At the end of the movie, you're on their side. I think at the beginning of the movie, the audience is intimidated by them. But the men do some very, very courageous things -- out of survival. We have a plan to tackle the monster and it backfires. Which I think is a great setup."
Creating the character
Sympathy for inmates might come a little easier for Mr. Dutton than for most people. Before he graduated from the Yale School of Drama -- where he first became friends with co-star Ms. Weaver -- the actor had put in several other terms at a harsher institution: In 1976, he finished serving a sentence in the Maryland State Penitentiary for manslaughter. "Alien 3" marked the first time the actor played behind "prison" bars. Yet Mr. Dutton says that his prison experience was of limited value in making the film.
"Working with Sigourney was great," he says. "We always wanted to do a stage play together but never had the opportunity. I'd been directed by her husband, Jim Simpson, a couple of times at Yale. But I think this was the first movie where I've gotten a chance to focus and get the kind of camera time where I really could be judged on a performance.
"But the choice I made with the character had nothing to do with my experience as a prisoner. I'm serious. I didn't think about that one iota, not one single time, not even the scenes in the cell. I did add the element that this guy was an intellectual and what that entailed in gestures and speech and pronunciation. Without having airs, he did have a presence about him that was intimidating yet soothing and comforting. You had the feeling that if you had this guy as a friend you'd be OK in that place. But he was a brutal man. When judgment was passed, there was no reconsideration."
'Sense of unnaturalism'
In any case, according to Mr. Dutton, although Hollywood usually gets prison life wrong, "Alien 3" does capture one or two of its elements. "In every dining room, in every prison across the country, just the fact of having so many men in the area at once, there's always the threat that something could go wrong," he says. "There could be a riot. It could be a killing.
"But there's a sense in what I call Hollywood prison pictures," he says, "that everyone gets along. When they do a prison shoot, everybody's in high camaraderie. And that's not true at all. There's a certain sense of unnaturalism in movies. And this movie somehow captured that sort of ease that prison life has. It's not as regimented as Hollywood makes it. I always took my time in prison; I never speeded up because a guard said to speed up. Nobody really walks in a single file all the time. It becomes a community, and people act like real life in it. The only thing you can't get in prison is a woman; and if you have enough money and connections you can get that. And those are the hard, cold facts.
"Not once did anyone ask me [about prison]," Mr. Dutton continues, "because they didn't know about my experience. Sigourney knew but she never asked me once, 'Is this real, Roc?' I did make some suggestions about the cells and what would really be in them, what would be allowed. But I made it clear, I said, 'Look, I haven't found a prison in the year 2200. I was in in the 1960s and '70s. So I don't know what they may have. They might have computer toilets in here now.' But it's really a grimy, very decadent place. So the prop set dressers listened to me a lot and we put certain things in."
Mr. Dutton did flashback to one part of his life, however. As part of their makeup, everyone in the cast had their head shaved; the planet is supposed to be infested with lice.
Bar brawls off the set
Whatever that look means on 23rd-century prison planets, it means something very specific in late 20th-century London. "I got in more bar brawls than I've gotten in since the '60s when I used to like bar brawls," Mr. Dutton says, laughing. "It was because of the whole skinhead thing over there. The studio was kind of in the country, but I traveled all over just enjoying myself in the city, and some of the pubs were in pretty tough neighborhoods. I didn't know the score, the dos and don'ts, the protocols of the East End.
"But I wanted to hang out in Whitechapel with Jack the Ripper and go through those little streets and see the shops; get some history of the town. And I'd go into a bar that didn't allow skinheads. The place was cool, because they weren't allowing skinheads because of racism, but they thought I was coming in to start trouble with the skinheads. So I got in a couple of fights, until I could explain myself."
Still, the whole experience, Mr. Dutton makes clear, was largely positive. "I made friends for life with some of the guys in the cast," he says. "Sigourney and I and one of the American actors, Holt McCallaney, threw a party for the cast. The American actors were getting per diem expenses and the English guys weren't. So a lot of times I'd end up at the end of the week with three or four thousand pounds. And because it was my first time in Europe -- and I know this is going to sound silly and immature -- I couldn't quite take that British money seriously. So I enjoyed five months of treating everybody. We always had a party."
Mr. Dutton spent his weekends touring other European cities -- Paris, Rome, Florence, Vienna. He sighs and laughs. "I fell so much in love with it, I was considering buying an apartment in London, but my business manager talked me out of it."