Pink Floyd: Learning to Fly actor Lawrence Bayne interview
Written by Ed Lopez-Reyes
Sunday, 12 February 2017
2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of "A Momentary Lapse of Reason". It was the beginning of what many refer to as the band's 'David Gilmour Era'. Lawrence Bayne became a familiar face to Pink Floyd fans in 1987 as the star in the band's Learning to Fly video. The video, below, became the gateway for a new Pink Floyd audience but also crystallized the band's ambitions after a period of uncertainty for many others. Bayne sat down with Brain Damage to discuss how he was selected to star in the video, his interaction with Storm Thorgerson and David Gilmour, what he has been doing since filming the iconic piece, and his own band: Simple Damned Device.
Brain Damage: Lawrence, it's been 30 years since the Learning to Fly video was filmed… does it feel like it's been 30 years or does it feel like it was yesterday?
Oh God! When I look at it, it feels like 50 years. But the experience itself is fresh in my mind for a number of reasons. It was one of the first professional gigs I ever got as an actor. Prior to that, I had been doing street mime and goofing around. One day, I'm sitting at home with my friend Steve, viciously hung over, and I'm called by my agent at the time – he'd been utterly useless until then [laughs]. He called me on a Saturday, which freaked me out, and said: "Do you want to do an audition today? It's for Pink Floyd." And, to be honest, I was so hung over – it was just brutal… my friend says: "You gotta go. It's Pink Floyd. You gotta go!" And, of course, smarter heads prevailed and I got my shit together and went downtown to one of the most bizarre audition processes ever… which was about to last two weeks.
BD: Are you from Toronto originally and how did you get into acting and music?
I was born and ill-bred in Toronto [laughs]. I was one of those darling kids that couldn't shut up. I guess them call them ADHD – you know, they have alphabets for kids that have problems. I hate that shit! I was an active only child until I was nine years old and pretty much at nine years old you are who you are for the rest of your life. So at that point I knew that I was into doing impersonations, and singing, and dancing.
My father took me to the premiere of A Hard Day's Night when I was six years old. The theater had one cloth-covered speaker in the middle of the stage and 200 dancing girls screaming at the top of their lungs. My father said: "You had your hands clamped over (your) ears, your knees up around your chin, and you never blinked once; you just stared at the screen the whole time." And that really was it: I wanted to be The Beatles – not any one of them; I wanted to be what they were generating up there. I thought it was just incredible.
My father was a bit of an audiophile at the time. He came home with A Hard Day's Night and put it on. I learned how to do Beatles when I was a kid, like when I was six and seven. So I was well on the way to loving music and over the years performing, of course. I fell in love with Marcel Marceau and began to do street mime at around 14 or 15. I got pulled into a comedy club to do parts between comedy bits and then got written into the show. I became a stand-up comedian for a little while until I realized those people are some of the bitterest bastards on earth! So I had some fun with that and then back to university, got an equivalency course. The only thing I did at university was English and Theater, so I went back there to do Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare and then I went to the agency I mentioned and said "I'm an actor, get me jobs!" And they did not do a thing for me until they got me the Pink Floyd audition. Once that finished video was in my hands I started shopping around for a better agent. And I found one in a woman named Cari Fallis. She was my agent for 19 years. I retired her. She's now a registered nurse… she takes care of a different kind of clown now! She likes to take care of people but she just decided 'actors: no!' [laughs].
BD: Why did it take so long to make the "Learning to Fly" video – the audition process went on for two weeks?
Well, I'll tell you… You've seen the other (version of the) video, with all the other stuff (the divers, the pilots, and all that stuff)? I love that other take …
BD – I wanted to ask you about this, about the other version of the video. It was available on YouTube for a brief period of time but now it's impossible to find. I was curious if you knew the backstory with that. I met Storm Thorgerson a couple of times; one time I hung out at his flat for a good half hour to an hour and did ask him a question about the reasoning for the change. He just said he wanted to do something different. But do you know more about that? What made him change his mind about that first version of the video with the factory worker storyline?
I do not, other than Storm's people skills may have had something to do with it [laughs]: I was a lot less to deal with than that other video! I went to the audition and there were professional divers, guys dressed in aviator uniforms… there were all these other things that went into the other video, which I always thought worked as well. I heard that they had gone to northern Ontario and put lights underneath water, into a quarry, and lit it up. They had high-diving kids going into the water and all this incredible stuff. Just to say, once again, I was hung over, and I walked into an audition with about 200 people: there were kids, which are always a joy [laughs] and there were a lot of actors, which is another joy [laughs]. It was just cacophonous; so noisy. I was scheduled for a (specific) time but (the) hours dragged on past that time. I (eventually) went in and there was like a council of about 20 people there, which I later learned was Storm's entourage, CBS records, and everybody else. I went in and stood in place for about a minute, totally ignored. But then I fell back on my mime skills and I did a fake lean onto a bar and began to fake drink and somebody said: "Look Storm, look, look!" And Storm looked up and said [Bayne imitates a perfect Thorgerson voice and accent now]: "Oh yeah, thank you." As God is my witness, I said "fuck you" and walked out.
So flash forward: I'm called on Monday: "They'd like to see you again for the Pink Floyd video." I'm like: "Are you serious? I said 'fuck you' and walked out of the room!"
But this is the kind of person that Storm appreciates. So I went back and there were two other actors there: Eric Schweig [cast, among other things, five years later in the movie Last of the Mohicans] and Billy Merasty [who has accumulated a lot of television and stage credits over the last 30 years]. Both great actors, both pure aboriginal actors, I might add: I am Inuit, Cree, and Scotch. But Billy Merasty and Eric Schweig were pure bred Indians. They looked the part, had long hair, I didn't.
We were instructed to wait in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in Toronto until we were called up. I'd really had it with the whole process.
So we were all called up at the same time and instructed to go wait in a suite. I was getting a little creeped out. As we stood in front of the elevators – there were three elevators and three of us – I said: "OK, whoever the elevator door opens for, that's the guy who's gonna get the part." It opened in front of Billy Merasty. So I immediately went, "great, fine: the pressure is off." The superstitions of an actor!
So we went up and here's the audition process: I was called to Storm's room. He asked: "Can I see you run down the hallway?" And I said: "If I do that, I just might keep running." And he said: "Just run down the hallway and back." As my agent, my friends, and people who really help me will tell you, I can't run for shit: I'm not a runner, I'm not an athletic guy; I mean I'm active but, you know… running? I looked like I do in the video: I think it looks a little silly in the video; I try to tell people it's because I'm about to turn into an eagle but not many people buy it! They go: "No, you just run like a doof!"
So Storm has me run up and down the hallway and then he wants to do a little improv game: he hands me the keys to his room and says: "I want you to pretend this is your room when you come in; when you come in, you notice that I'm here: I just want to see what your reaction is."
BD: So he wants you to act 'surprised' that he was there?
Yeah, 'surprised' that he was in 'my' room: "This is your room, you walk in, and you find a stranger; just react," Storm said. So I go outside, I open the door, I come in, and he's sitting right there: totally in my line of vision. I ignore him; I go to the mini bar and I pour Jack Daniels and drink it, and then I turn around. I see him and throw the keys at his head… and he goes "cut!" And I was on a plane the next day to Calgary! (The video was filmed in the Calgary area).
I liked him immediately. The man was like oil and vinegar and as anyone who knows me will tell you, so am I.
My favorite direction from Storm once we got to Calgary was "Lawrence, can you act a bit more masculine?" He was a great guy, man [laughs]!
The video shoot was fantastic - all first time experiences for me. This might sound like crap but it was the first time I ever flew. The first time I flew commercial, first time I ever got on a biplane – the biplane guy did barrel rolls: CBS were chewing their balls off worrying about it! I was taken up in a helicopter to the top, to shoot the very 'clumsy' me running and turning into an eagle.
BD: Let me back up and clarify one thing then: I've only see the original video once and so I needed to ask you, are you in the original version of the video as well?
No, I'm not. I believe the elderly gentleman, Denis Lacroix [Lacroix has appeared in Scanners, Black Robe, and Running Brave], is in it. He's the medicine man guy that appears in the beginning of it (the second, permanent version). I believe he made that (first) cut but I didn't.
BD: But you were there during the filming, you were there but not edited into that original version of the video?
No. (For the permanent, second version) it was Denis and I – that's the only people I ever saw that were filming, that and David, who was there to play guitar as the helicopter went over. At the time I was hiding in the (cabin) because I'd been allowed to hang with David. (I) asked him lots of questions and he was really gracious. I also did his hair for him [laughs]!
BD: I know the Wind Ridge Trail is the specific area where they filmed the part where you become an eagle, so is (the cabin) in that vicinity and area?
Very much, yes, that's an abandoned hunting shack up in Calgary; and we flew to another area to film the (jump into) the air. Of course, any sharp-eyed person (firstly my brother!) will notice that that guy flying through the air, over the camera, had suddenly gained 30 lbs: because they used a stuntman. I'm unsure as to why they used a stuntman. I jumped over the goddamned camera 30 times myself! So I don't know why they used the stuntman but they did.
BD: Wonder if it was a contractual thing?
Maybe; I was to learn that there were many things like that, which prevent you or force you to do stuff, in this business. But it might've been that I'd been up at an increased altitude for so long that I actually developed altitude sickness. I was stoned! I was over-oxygenated or under–oxygenated… I was just sort of reeling toward the end of the day.
Once we finished filming we (returned) to the helicopter: they wanted to get another shot (but) the sun was going down… so we've got Storm on his headphones, a CBS executive his headphones, I'm on headphones, the stuntman is on headphones, and the helicopter pilot is on headphones. All the headphones are equipped with mics and they're yammering back and forth at each other: "where can we land for another shot?" They start to argue about it and the helicopter pilot - who had some experience in Vietnam - decided to end the argument by dropping straight down 400 feet – he just dropped like a hammer – straight down! I recall being told after that: "well we can't shoot anything now," because I had gone into a fetal position in the back and was just out – out of my head. The stuntman lifted me out, unclenched my fingers, and gave me a pill the size of a bottle cap and put me in my bed.
BD: Do you know why they chose Canada?
Yeah [laughs], I'll give you two words: tax breaks.
BD: Which is still a really big reason people film up there?
Which is also a reason we are losing things up here: some of them are disappearing. At that time Canada was a haven for the 'Hollywoodites' and anyone who wanted to shoot film. Yeah, man, tax breaks. Find me a mountain range? Well you can find that in almost every country but they picked Canada because it's beautiful and had the tax breaks and… I don't know – maybe they thought there were more Indians up here. I don't know!
BD: Have you gone back to Wind Ridge at all in the last 30 years?
Not that site – but I will tell you that many, many (of my gigs) have been done in Calgary since then and I count Calgary as somewhat of a mystical place for me because of that. Honestly, man, I've gone to Calgary so many times.
BD: Did you know much about Pink Floyd before you were contacted for the video?
I was a Pink Floyd fan like every other upright, fully functioning stoner at the time! It was Dark Side of the Moon, man… and headphones! A mind-blowing trip – it was the quintessentially produced journey, absolutely eye-opening … it's obviously still one of the best albums ever made and set me on the road as a lyricist. It's storytelling – it's brilliant. Let's put a cap on that: it's fucking brilliant. The best album they may have produced. Then again, The Wall blew me away… A Momentary Lapse of Reason and Animals … I'd been a rabid Floyd fan long before they ever hired me. To be hired by them was just a knockout.
BD: When you talked to Gilmour, did you sense there was a certain amount of stress and concern about the product they were about to release?
Let's factor in a few things. First of all, I'm a googly-eyed kid looking at one of my idols - so he had a fucking aura around him, as far as I was concerned. If you want me to tell you whether he was stressed or not, I can tell you that the word that comes to mind is 'purposeful.' He had a direction and he wanted to be in it.
For all the schism created between Roger Waters and Gilmour, I went Gilmour because I like his writing and his music. I find it darker, yet more optimistic and less bombastic than Waters' stuff. Which, you know, I write bombastic tunes as well – but for my own listening pleasure I've always leaned toward Gilmour. There was just a little more glint of hope in the lyrics and in the actual playing.
BD: Did you hear the material before you filmed the video? Had they released the album and music? How did that work out and what did you think about the video's rotation on TV?
The song was on the air while we were filming. I remember hearing the song (during production); they said: "This is the song we're doing." It was like a hotel radio; it wasn't anything I could actually listen to. I listened to it a little bit and probably even back then I had a habit of not paying attention to material I was about to do so I wouldn't get blocked into anything, you know. So I heard the song, I liked it, and I thought, 'hell man, it's Pink Floyd!' So, you know, it's gonna get wide release no matter what. It was one of the first videos ever to win an award if I'm not mistaken – somewhere in Europe.
Remember when they used to sell a lot of TVs [laughs]? I was walking past a shop in Toronto that had a bank of TVs in their front window and all of the sudden I looked up and every one of them had my face close-up on it. I looked at it and started to laugh. Someone stood beside me and looked at me because I laughed and I said, "yeah, that's me" and they said, "oh fuck off" and walked away!
BD: Were your parents or any other relatives and friends big Pink Floyd fans? How did they receive this experience?
My mother would not have known Pink Floyd from cotton candy. My father poo-pooed everything but also, you know, he had his finger on the dial. He didn't like a lot of music but he certainly appreciated the music for why it existed – and the evolution of music. My father was a rabid music lover as a student in Montreal. He went to McGill University and he and his buddies would go to the jazz clubs because the jazz clubs in Montreal were the only ones comparable to the ones in Chicago and New York City. They (jazz acts) never came to stodgy old Toronto but they came to Montreal, so he'd see Lionel Hampton, Lionel Petersen, Gene Krupa, and all those guys. He'd see them in Montreal and hang out with his buddies, who included William Shatner – they all went to school together.
BD: That's a story right there!
I was told a few tales! I worked for Mr. Shatner on one of his shows and relayed that to him. He just sorta stared blankly at me [laughs]!
BD: I know you have a gig with the History Channel and a lot of voice-over work. What are some movies and shows, and music projects that Pink Floyd fans might be able to find you in?
Street Fighter IV – I do about 10 voices on that video game. Because of my aboriginal blood I've done more than a couple of projects that were along that line. I was in a very successful Canada film called Black Robe, which was directed by Bruce Beresford. I have a face that doesn't sell you security so I get a lot of villainous roles! I did three seasons on La Femme Nikita, I did three seasons on a kid's show called Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, which was well received, a couple of seasons on The Famous Jett Jackson, which was a Disney thing I also wrote a song for and continue to get really laughable royalties for…
BD: Your band has an exceptionally interesting sound. You can hear echoes of Tin Machine.
I've heard that reference to us before…
BD: So did these influences you grew up with by virtue of your dad have an impact on your music? What are the influences that have impacted your band's sound?
You mentioned you were highly influenced by 1987: I was influenced highly by 1977. 1977 saw the release of two iconic albums that affected me musically and lyrically. The first one was Aja by Steely Dan and the other was Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols.
BD: Did you feel something special was going on with music that year?
Yeah, man – 17: I was completely emancipated from my family and out there on my own for the first time. I'd left several times before and come crawling back, but in 1977 I was fully free and clear to explore whatever the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life. Those two albums came along and I really wanted to do music. First with my friend Steve: it just did not happen for any number of reasons that any musician can cite for failure. And Steve and I are still glorious friends but there was a time when we weren't and music was one of the reasons. And I can't stand that. I can't stand being at odds with someone over creativity. I am not a diva, man, and I don't like them. Steve wasn't a diva either but being at odds over music or over creativity just put the hair across my life. I can't stand it. So we separated for a long time and I went and got with other creators and got an album out called Inspect your Elders by a band I was in called Control Freak. That was a two man job.
BD: Does your band play in the Toronto area, for the most part, and do you plan to venture beyond that vicinity?
We play, generally, in Toronto. We have issues within the band that restrict our movement – and I don't mean legal ones, I mean people taking care of family and people putting their priorities right. Right now we are just dealing with people being good people; they've got to do stuff for other people – that's really where it's at. Do we want to play more? Absolutely.
BD: So the Learning to Fly video played a big part in your life: it cemented you as an actor in Canada and carved out some space in the music arena. Did you ever hear back from Storm, his production team, or Pink Floyd?
Well, we came back to Toronto because they had a three night, sold out show right after the video was filmed. I went right to the hotel where the band was staying. I saw the concert, went backstage and then was back at the hotel. At the hotel we were [clears throat] partying… that's when I met the whole band and heard that whatever things we were imbibing, the band was imbibing nutmeg tea [laughs].
BD: Did you meet anybody else besides the core members of Pink Floyd?
I can't remember whether I did or not, to be quite frank with you. The guys came down to say hi to us in the party room, I think it was Nick Mason who said they were gonna stick to nutmeg tea, and then off they went and left us with our own party. They loved the fact that we were having a good ol' party, but, you know, they had just finished a gig. I don't know who was with them but, man, there were so many suits down there and so many handlers and whatever… it was absurd.
BD: So you never saw the band live after that?
No, I haven't' seen them since. I went off and did my own thing. To be quite honest, I'm not much of a 'concert-goer.' I went to (see) some of my favorite heroes and then after a while… it probably has something to do with the Toronto audience – and I'm going to get crucified here: Toronto audiences are so fucking blasé, man… you know. They were back in the day: I'm sitting there going to see an exciting band and this guy is standing around more interested in selling acid than watching the show, or just a lot of prodding and not getting involved. That lack of generosity always bothered me.
BD: What about Storm: did you ever hear back from him? I mean he was the main person that worked with you… Did you guys stay in touch?
He did not and I didn't think I should. You know, I always felt … [pauses] there's a school of thought that says actors and people in this business should be as opportunistic as possible and 'schmooze' and 'network'… and I'm not comfortable with it. I did a good job, I thought. I was told I did a good job. I felt amply rewarded both monetarily and party-wise. It was time to do something else and move on. So not a big consideration: just my first job, man, and wanting to do more jobs afterwards.
BD: Lawrence, is there something about that video that would really surprise Pink Floyd fans?
For the 'music-philes', for the guys that are into the music of Pink Floyd, I'd have to say: I really enjoyed the fact that I didn't hear the song while filming it – now they play the track while they film the video. That wasn't happening for me. It was being directed by Storm, and Storm heard the song in his head. I was fascinated that he was able to do that. Storm taught me more about acting, as a guy who wasn't necessarily a theatrical director, than many directors since: about how to work the camera, about what a camera will do for you, and what it will do against you. His direction was fair and spot on. I've always appreciated that. Directors should know what they want from an actor, not get there and start pulling their hair out when you start doing what you are hired to do.
I asked him why he hired me. I had to ask because it was the first time I was hired, you know. He said, "well, you know, you fit the type, and you were the only one that could act your way out of a wet paper sack." And to be fair, to the two other guys, they're both really good actors, but whatever chord I struck with Storm I think it was more of a personal one. From the 'fuck you' in the audition room to throwing keys at his head … the man had balls. Let's face it – he took shit from nobody. He brooked no nonsense and he had a clear vision. I like to think that I am all these thing too. So he's been a big influence and remains one.
BD: Do you still listen to A Momentary Lapse of Reason? Do you have a favorite track? Do you still watch the video, even if just to reminisce and remember?
[Laughs] If I watch the video I just kind of cry a little – you're looking at the best-looking I ever was, man! The most confident I ever was. The happiest in my own skin that I ever was. You know, you get older and you appreciate different things and certainly I'm not the satanic kid in a candy store that I used to be but I was top of the world there, man, and so I look at it and it triggers lots of memories. I can't dwell on the past. I don't watch it very often but every now and then on Facebook a friend will post it and go "remember when you were good looking?"
BD: You played a critical part in Pink Floyd history: in a way, you helped reintroduce the band to the entire world. It's a pretty important role. It's a big thing.
It's pretty overwhelming when I let myself think about it!
BD: What's your next project?
The band is called Simple Damned Device. Add a '.com;' go visit that and you can see what I'm doing based on the influences in my life and the fact that I've been a musician as long as I've been an actor. They're not at odds with each other: creativity is creativity – but if I push anything it's the amazing band that I'm in, that I'm fortunate to be in, so everybody go and listen to Simple Damned Device! Give us some hits on YouTube. We love you!
You can hear an audio version of this interview with bonus material and learn more about Lawrence Bayne and Simple Damned Device at each LawrenceBayne.com and SimpleDamneddevice.com. Our thanks to Lawrence for his time!