The name Adrian Paul has become almost synonymous with the long running and beloved cult hit TV show Highlander (1992-1998) and its feature film spin offs Highlander: Endgame (2000) and Highlander: The Source (2007), but his talents as an actor transcend beyond the Highlander franchise and venture into the real world as he has continued to hone his skills as a sword master, martial artist, and spearheading a charity called The Peace Fund for underprivileged children around the world. He’s developed a unique sword training and combat seminar called The Sword Experience, which begins its launch this weekend in Temecula, California on Sunday, April 10th and will be going on tour throughout the United States and Europe thereafter.
In this interview, Mr. Paul discusses the phenomenon of Highlander and playing his character Duncan MacLeod, as well as explaining what The Sword Experience is all about.
It seems like I grew up with Highlander, both the films and the TV series. It was a very present and very visible franchise throughout the mid-late ’80s and throughout all the ’90s. To this day, Highlander is a cult favorite all over the world. Not just a cult favorite, but a favorite thing for a lot of people.
Where did you grow up?
Hollywood, Los Angeles. That area.
Oh, okay. Just curious. A lot of people from the East Coast saw the show. I wasn’t sure about West Coast so much.
But you’re not just the star of Highlander – I remember seeing you in other movies throughout the years. I distinctly remember Masque of the Red Death, where you played Prospero.
Yeah, that was one of the first things I ever did. That was an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. A Roger Corman production. People ask me why I pick the films I’ve done, but let’s be honest. Sometimes it’s the role, but sometimes I’ve got to pay the rent. For instance, I did a film called The Breed, and I really enjoyed that one. It was a really interesting film about vampires. I really enjoyed doing that. I’m also supposed to be directing a movie towards the end of the year. I always have fun doing what I do.
Tell me about when and how you landed the lead role in the Highlander TV series. Do you remember the audition process for Highlander?
They had an open call. They were meeting at a hotel in West Hollywood. A few of the producers and casting agents were there, all in the room. I was the first person they ever saw for the role, which was odd because they’d looked in New York, they’d looked in London. I said when I sat down, “You don’t have to look any further: You’ve already found your Highlander.” Half joking, half seriously. They thought I was pretty cocky. So I got the role after doing the audition and doing a reading for it. I also did a screen test. It was a process that lasted about three months.
How was it pitched as a project? Christopher Lambert had already played Connor MacLeod in two movies by the time the show started. They’d conceptualized this as a recurring episodic series, which actually really fits nicely for the theme of the show, but what do you remember about that?
What I remember is that the role was to play Connor MacLeod, which I thought was disastrous because Lambert had done it already, and he was a fan favorite. I know that people already had an idea of who that character should be. When that came out, I was a little scared. I wasn’t so sure. Playing The Highlander is a great idea, but playing Connor MacLeod?! That’s tricky. As luck would have it, Christopher Lambert was available for the first episode, so they had to change my name to Duncan MacLeod, a distant cousin, or a cousin of his, which was fantastic because that meant we could create a brand new character.
I actually recently watched “The Gathering,” that first pilot episode, again just to refresh. What do you remember about filming the pilot episode?
What I remember was Christopher saying, “I want my stunt double to fight this big guy because I’ve been cut before, so I want to be careful.” We were shooting on a bridge at night for a fight sequence. Christopher and I had done a lot of practice. He said, “Adrian, I’m fine with.” I felt at ease doing sword work. I’d done a little bit before. I think [sword master] Bob Anderson had been drumming into me how to be light on the touch, rather than slamming the sword through, which could cause the sword to be dented, the actor to be cut, etcetera. I think Christopher was comfortable with me. We had one play fight in the initial episode, and I remember doing that. It was at an old warehouse, and Christopher and I had a great time. I took to him immediately, and he took to me too.
There are so few guys who can use swords well on screen and also do martial arts. Talk a little bit about learning both and staying on point with these skills.
I started my training with Bob Anderson. Although, I’d started a year before with a private trainer while I was doing martial arts. He said, “You ever do sword work?” I said, “No.” He said, “Try the katana.” It just so happened it was a katana. I learned a little bit, I played with it a little bit. Then Bob Anderson came in, and his style was European fencing. He told me all the positions in European fencing and about that style one-handed. When the show was over after the first year, I went back to my Sifu in the martial arts, and I started learning more Hung Gar kung fu, learning Chinese weapons. From that point on, I learned from people on set, such as Peter Diamond, Bob Anderson, Richard Faraci, and a lot of other guys I crossed swords with, and of course Anthony DeLongis. He came on twice on the show. That was one of the toughest things to do because it was two swords – it was a long sword and a short sword. It was very specific. You have to be very angled with it. I literally was running between doing a take and running off set and rehearsing with Anthony, and then running back to do another take. I had some very interesting teachers.
At what point did you finally settle into the show and your character? I would imagine that working on a show like that was a very rigorous undertaking. 22 episodes a season, or more. How were you able to keep fresh with a show like that?
The great thing about Highlander was that it wasn’t the same old story every week. MacLeod became somebody different, especially in the flashbacks. I could become another character. To be fresh, it was relatively easy. They gave me the tools to do it. I could be a guy in 1805 or in 1623. We as mortals change our lives every twenty years. This guy was 400 years old, so he was a lover and a fighter at one point. He was an idealist at another. Each period was slightly different. To keep him fresh was relatively easy.
The themes in Highlander are pretty awesome. There have been a few rip-offs, but there’s still nothing quite like it. It’s an urban action concept with a sword and sorcery, time-hopping overlay. Do you think that’s why this became such a cult favorite? Why do you think people all over the world responded to it?
I think it has a variety of things for different audiences. That’s part of the reason. This was a European co-production. It was the first of that kind to go over 100 episodes. It appealed to different cultures. It obviously has different things that each culture could attach to. It had the history, it had the romance, it had the fighting, it had the humor. It had different things all the time. Some people might like the sword fights better than the romance. That’s part of it. On top of the fact that … how cool is it to be immortal? In the sense that we are all trying to strive for that every single day. Look at the beauty industry. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. Stay young, look healthy and don’t get old. As an idea, that’s a really interesting concept.
Not only did the show work out great for you, but you got to carry Duncan MacLeod into two feature films. Ultimately you end up being the last of the immortals. Spoiler alert. Duncan supersedes Connor and you get the prize at the end. Say something about starring in Highlander: Endgame and Highlander: The Source.
End Game was interesting because I’d seen the first Highlander film and it was really interesting to me. I love the concept of it. Then, to be able to be with Christopher, who passed the mantle off to me to start with on the TV series, and then literally to take his head off and become the Highlander in End Game was kind of surreal for me. Going from “I really like this show” to “I’m now going to be the guy who is the show” was very odd in a sense. End Game was great to work on. By that point, I had a lot more sword experience than Christopher had. We laughed at it. I wanted to make sure we had two totally different styles, even though we both used the katana.
Christopher would come to me and ask me, “Adrian, was that okay?” I was going, “I’m teaching the Highlander how to sword fight!” Then we went on to The Source, which was problematic because we didn’t have the entire script before we started shooting. I think the concept was okay, but the delivery of it towards the end was problematic because it wasn’t given enough time. Therefore, the visuals started off really good, the story started off good, but then it fizzled out because I don’t think enough thought was put into the end result.
I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but do you think we’ll ever get to see another Highlander film with you in it, or are we at that stage where it will get rebooted?
That’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re rebooting it. They’re trying to put a big film together. I also hear there is a series in the offing, perhaps. Somebody else will take over, I think. I don’t know the details. But that is what I have heard.
Highlander has such a strong and lasting legacy, but looking back on it, what do you take from it the most?
Understanding who I was. It’s why I started my charity The Peace Fund, which is meant to protect and educate children everywhere. As you grow as an actor, you grow as a human being. As you grow as a human being, you change as an actor. That was very true. I devote a lot of my time today, which is taking time to help underprivileged kids throughout the world.
What brought us together today was a really cool looking event you’re putting on called The Sword Experience. It sounds like a really cool idea. Help me understand what it is.
So The Sword Experience … for many years people have asked me “Can you do a sword video? Can you do an exercise video? What’s the difference between real sword fighting and stage sword fighting?” I’ve never really wanted to do a video, per se. Now with the advent of so many different TV shows that have sword work in them – like Game of Thrones, Spartacus, or Into the Badlands – I thought it would be cool to show people what the difference between the two types of sword work is. And give them an experience by putting them in a location where I choreograph a fight and they can take part in the fight and we’ll create an experience around that to make it feel like they’re on a movie set. They can feel what it’s like to put a movie fight together. And they’ll be able to understand what the differences are between the two.
And they’ll have a great day doing it. Every experience is slightly different. The first one is in Temecula, California, this weekend on April 10th. That one is an all-day experience where you can get there early in the morning and have breakfast, and then you get four hours of training, and insider Hollywood tips about how to put a sword fight together, as well as putting your own spin on your character if you like, and then you get lunch, then you get wine tasting, and then there’s live music until the end of the day. It’s an entire experience in itself. The later convention experiences at other cities are slightly different. You get two and half hours of sword training and a lot of other goodies. It’s a pared down version. If you look at TheSwordExperience.com you’ll see various versions that are slightly different, but it gives what you want it to be. Right now, the Houston experience is sold out, we’ve just opened up for Chicago, Minneapolis, London, and Stuttgart.
What would you like to say to your fans and to fans of Highlander?
You know what I’d like to say? I’d like to say thank you. The dedication I’ve seen from people for so many years is astounding. It obviously touched people, and it touched me too. It’s really cool to have that following of people who constantly still ask me about it at conventions. As it much as it touched them, it touched me as well.