Somewhere there is a casting agent who, whenever he needs a butt-kicking soldier to die valiantly, thinks, "Michael Biehn." Recall "Terminator," "The Rock" or "The Abyss." All soldiers, all KIA. Even when Biehn played a cowboy in "Tombstone," it ended with a bullet to the brain.
In real life, Biehn takes better care of himself. We met for coffee, and at 56 he is in impressive physical condition. But it hasn't come easily.
In your roles you usually have a lean and athletic look. Has this always been the case?
I was very active as a kid. I love sports and I love competition, but I wasn't an athlete. I'm slow and I can't jump. My dad was a baseball player and was drafted by the Cubs, and my older brother is a real athlete, but I'm not like them. Physically, I'm not a strong guy. I am prone to carry extra weight. If you look at my high school photos I have big legs and a big, fat butt.
But I still grew up playing baseball, basketball, football, swimming, wrestling and tennis. I was able to play varsity sports because it was a small school in Arizona, and by hustling lots and brown-nosing coaches.
How did your exercise regimen change when you began acting?
When I moved to Los Angeles I started running and I joined a gym. I always wanted to be lean. The guy I wanted to look like was Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver" — lean and mean and with sinewy muscle. For my entire career I've tried to look like that. I do half an hour of cardiovascular exercise every day. Although I used to run, the constant pounding got to me, and I switched to riding an indoor bike.
I've also started playing racquetball, and it's become a big source of cardiovascular exercise for me. Or I'll bring some boxing gloves and hit a bag for a while. I lift weights, but I always kept my weightlifting light with high reps because I want to stay lean. I never wanted to bulk up.
Tell me about the struggle to keep up the "Taxi Driver" physique over a long career.
When I start putting on a little weight, if I can lean over and grab some belly, then I just don't feel comfortable. I used to work out every single day of my life — I remember running around the airport parking lot once in Europe just to get a workout in — but I'll admit that in the last year it's been tough and I'm carrying more weight than usual. We have a new movie out called "The Victim" [released on DVD last fall], and I'm not just an actor but producer and promoter, and it's cut into my exercise time. All the travel is just a killer, and at 56 it's getting tougher to get back into shape.
There is an intensity you bring to your roles. Does that transfer over to working out?
Definitely. When I work out I go hard, especially on the bike. I'm that maniac in the corner with his head down and the sweat pouring off looking like he's riding for his life. When I'm lifting weights, there is only one thought going through my head: Just do one more. The thing about working out is that eventually it becomes a part of your life. It's just something that is done.
A big part of staying lean is what you eat. What's your approach?
Diet makes a lot more difference now than it used to. My approach is pretty simple: If it tastes really, really good, you probably shouldn't eat it. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, turkey and fish are all good, but I just think it's common sense that if something tastes great, like a potato chip or a French fry or a Big Mac, that it's not going to be good for you. But if you eat a piece of broccoli, you can just tell it's a good choice.