Casper Van Dien’s career reflections, from “Starship Troopers” to his recent “creepy white dude” era

Casper Van Dien may forever be associated with his character Johnny Rico in Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers,” but in the past 25 years, the square-jawed actor has appeared in more than 100 films and TV series from “Sleepy Hollow” and “Tarzan and the Lost City,” to B-movies such as “Ratpocalypse.” 

Currently Van Dien stars in “Hunt Club” as Carter, a man who stages a “Most Dangerous Game”-like hunt where captive women including Cassandra (Mena Suvari) must stay alive for 24 hours to earn $100,000. Moreover, Carter hopes to make “a man” out of his gender fluid son, Jackson (Will Peltz), by taking him on his first hunt. If this sounds unpleasant, rest assured, “Hunt Club” is a feminist revenge flick directed by a woman, Elizabeth Blake-Thomas.

Coincidentally, in “Daughter,” a claustrophobic slow-burn thriller released earlier this year, Van Dien also chains up a woman. The actor plays “Father,” a creepy man who kidnaps a young Vietnamese woman (Vivien Ngô) and hopes that she will become a member of his family through Stockholm Syndrome.

In a recent zoom interview, Van Dien proved he is nothing like the toxic male characters he plays in either “Hunt Club” or “Daughter.” He is self-effacing and ingratiating, and not ashamed to acknowledge if he had given a bad performance.

The actor talked with Salon about his career and making “Hunt Club.” 

I’ll start with a softball question. Have you been hunting? Do you hunt things?

No, I do not. I am a vegan.

Carter is an intense and unlikeable character. What can you say about taking this role? 

The way it was written is really interesting. David Lipper wrote this, and he’s an old friend of mine. He called me up and said, “I wrote this and think you’re great for it.” I read it and I said, “What the heck are you talking about? Why do you think this is me?” He said, “This is good. I know you can pull it off. It’s going to have a woman director, and a lot of women on the crew.” 

It’s a women’s revenge film, but it has to have that initial setup where I have that charisma with Mena’s character. My character loves his [unmasculine] son and think he’s “fixing” him. That is a huge issue in our society. Everyone has an opinion on this, and it’s unfortunate; everyone should be allowed to grow and learn and become what they want to become. This was a challenging role, and seeing how we treat women in the film is very hard to watch. But watching the premiere, all the women in the audience were so loud and energized when the men get their comeuppance. 

Carter has a speech about “reclaiming masculinity” and talks with disdain about the social constructs and equality. What observations do you have about this agenda, and the crisis of masculinity — a word that Carter says, “Is rarely used without the word “toxic” in front of it?” 

It is a time where other voices are getting heard and that is fearful for some “masculine” men. As if anything is going to change how we are as men or women — even if we put laws and rules and regulations on it. People can hopefully grow or become better. David [Lipper] needed me to do this. He needed someone who isn’t that character. Will Peltz played Jackson’s vulnerability and confusion well. He was able to pull off this more fluid character who was offending Carter’s sense of masculinity.

You also cowboy up with some fancy duds. How did Carter’s look inform your character?

When I first read it, I thought everything was going to be done with tactical things. But the women who made the film had so much influence even down to the costumes. David asked me, “Did you see it like this when you read it” I was like, “No, I saw us in camo and with top-of-the-line guns.” But it’s cool that the wardrobe was like a skin for the characters to be unique and different. 

And we need to mention Mickey Rourke shows up in “Hunt Club” with some dogs. What was working with him like? 

We got to improv our three scenes, and now I know why he’s Mickey Rourke. He was throwing stuff at me, and it was all unscripted. I wanted to match him. He is kind of a shy guy, which is interesting. I liked that. When I saw him do this [style of acting] and connected with him in the scene it was amazing. I would think his character in the film would have been Carter. But he’s playing my character’s help and a guy with the dogs, which is kind of Mickey. His ego didn’t get in the way.

Movie poster for “Daughter” (Darkstar Pictures)What are your thoughts on playing powerful, creepy men in “Hunt Club” and “Daughter”What do you tap into that you excel at these characters?

They are totally two different roles and creepy in different ways. When I read “Daughter” my manager said, “I don’t think you’re going to want to do this,” but my agent read it and thought it was a great script. I read it, and I was like, “I’m in.” The director based it on real events, and I was creeped out. “Daughter” is a slow burn. You feel claustrophobic and the genius was you are waiting for something to happen, and you keep waiting, and you feel you are there with her character, feeling what she does. I was the creepy white dude in it, which I’m getting used to. I’m shooting the season finale of “All American,” and I play a not such a great dad in that; he’s alcoholic and racist. 

Carter is trying to make his son into something he is not. He is trying to “fix” him. And in “Daughter” Father is trying to keep his son “safe.” What do you think about fathers who try to reshape their sons? 

I have five children, and Grace (of “Stranger Things“) is the only one in the business. I never told them what to do. I can only do what I do. Grace is a better actor and talent than I ever was — maybe because she has been on sets since she was in the womb. I would never steer to make them be something they are not. My mom is an interfaith minister in Florida and has married more gay couples than straight ones. I am not like my character. If my son was a fluid guy that is what I’d want him to be. I think that Carter is afraid, and fear drives people to do things that are not right and can be extremely harmful and cause more damage.

The film is a rape and revenge film, but the violence is not as grisly as torture porn. It is disturbing though. What are your thoughts about that?

The rape scene is not gratuitous — it is hard enough to watch as it is — but it cuts at the right moment because your imagination takes you to places they couldn’t film. I cannot watch that. I don’t have the stomach.

You had a breakout role in “Starship Troopers,” and made some Hollywood films (“Tarzan,” “Sleepy Hollow”), but you mostly work in low-budget B-movies these days. What thoughts do you have about your career opportunities?

I’m lucky to work with good people. I work with friends, and I keep trying to do better and better films. I want to — it’s always my goal — and my intention is not to do a bad job, but I have, and I’ve seen that, and I try to grow from that. I love being on set and being around actors, and crew. It is my passion. I think entertainment is so key to help with imagination and get involved with things. Art and literature and music and movies are important. I’m grateful to be a part of that and do what I love.

You have directed a few films. Are you planning to do more behind the camera?

I might be directing again this summer. I want to keep working. I have to provide for a family and pay for ex-wives. [Laughs] I first got a chance to direct “Sleeping Beauty,” which I put my daughter in, and we got it on Redbox. Then I got two films on Lifetime. But I’ve turned down [directing] movies for the past eight years because I want to do something that is a passion project, that will be my voice.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

“Hunt Club” is directed by a woman, and features women taking agency against men who kidnap, chain them up, physically abuse them, sexually abuse them and kill them. What can you say about the feminist themes in “Hunt Club”?

I don’t think men should make movies like this anymore. If we are going to do these films, we should give the voice back to the women. I disagree with taking back Roe v. Wade. I think women are entitled to be in control of their bodies. No woman is going to tell me what I can do with my body. We shouldn’t be able to control them. 

When you make a story about women’s empowerment, we have seen enough “Kill Bills” but it’s nice to see a woman take control — but it is still hard. Having a women director doing this film, her voice was heard. David who wrote this script said it had to be directed by a woman. I agree 100%. 

We have to talk about “Starship Troopers.” What do you recall about the experience? 

I love it, and still get folks yelling quotes at me from it. I just worked on a short and a guy on the crew shows me a pic and it’s him and I as Troopers. That movie had so many people work on it. It was one of the greatest films for me. On set, I looked over and saw Paul Verhoeven, Ed Neumeier, Phil Tippett and Jon Davison, who all made “RoboCop,” and I was like, Peter Weller was No. 1 on his call sheet and I’m No. 1 on this. So, I’m Murphy!

Someone once asked me if it was true that I did not know “Starship Troopers” was satire. I said, “Have you not seen a Verhoeven film?” [Laugh] Two actors said they didn’t know it was. I looked at them and said, “How could you not know this wasn’t a comedy? Did you not see ‘RoboCop'”? ‘Elle‘ is one of the best movies Verhoeven ever made. You are laughing but it is so creepy!” I hope to work with him again. That may be coming up soon. I think he should be a treasure for our industry, but he is not respected enough by the higher-ups. But every director I’ve ever worked with loves him. He asked me to introduce him at a Total Verhoeven program in New York. I thought no one else must have been available, but he asked for me and I was there for Verhoeven. 

“Hunt Club” is available on digital platforms and DVD April 4.

“Daughter” is available on Digital and On Demand Now and on DVD on May 9.

Read more

about great movies directed by women


Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar