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Miles Teller has gone from zero to hero in the last few years. With roles in films like Whiplash, Rabbit Hole and The Spectacular Now, Teller has shown an intriguing dramatic side that all but evens out the heap of not-so-inspiring (read: disastrous) broad comedies he's participated in, take for example 21 and Over and That Awkward Moment. Looking towards the future, Teller has a lot of promise so long as he continues to involve himself in solid project while he's busy paying the bills with mainstream crud. With The Fantastic Four on the horizon, the only question is how high will Teller's star rise?
Over the prattle and coos of preteen girls, Teller and I had a chance to chat at the Seattle premiere of his latest, and largest, film yet: Divergent. But we only talked briefly about the YA wannabe sensation, to preference some of his more serious roles. We touched on drumming, the recurring themes of his fledgling career, his trajectory since college and what makes him an all around bad ass.
So I caught Whiplash down at Sundance. Loved the movie, with the way it was edited, you looked like you were just slaying on those drums. So, tell me what you were doing for preparation for that? Have you always played?
Miles Teller: I’ve played for like 10 years, I got a kit when I was like 15. Never played jazz before and then just kinda started taking some lessons, took like lessons for a few weeks, like four hours a day, four times a week.
Obviously some of the stuff you were playing was like off the charts and some of the best drumming, do you have a guy who is like subbing in and you were body doubled?
MT: I did, like I did do pretty much did all of it, you know what I mean? Like, there’s a couple of things, like the director would shoot some stuff for his hands. Like anything that’s like a real close up is probably not me. But, a lot of that is just me crushing it.
Another film that you were great in was The Spectacular Now, and now you’re doing another movie with Shailene Woodley. How is it working with her again and what’s your guys’ relationship?
MT: Yeah, man she’s great, I think she’s a really natural actress, she’s really easy to play off of, but this was easier, I mean in The Spectacular Now we’re like falling in love and I’m like breaking her heart and stuff, and in this movie I just beat her up.
So you get to get your hands on her in a different way in this movie? You wrestle her to the ground, etc.
MT: Yeah, definitely more violent.
So you’re a villain in this. This is obviously your first bad dude role, what was that like?
MT: Yeah, I mean obviously I wanted to make him likeable. That was a big part of it for me. It’s nice playing somebody where I didn’t have to make everyone laugh all the time.
The line for this movie is like, you know, “If you’re different, you’re dangerous…”
MT: You just turned around and read that off the poster.
Yeah, I did... but I’ve read the book like eight times.
MT: Yeah, me too…
What makes you dangerous, what makes you a badass?
MT: I think the mind. I just think if you outsmart somebody. You gotta be a couple steps ahead of the next person. If you’re in control you’re pretty relaxed in the situation. So I’d say relaxation is key.
What got you into acting in the first place?
MT: I did some plays when I was a little kid. And then, I just played sports and played in some bands in stuff. In high school we got a pretty hot drama teacher, so then I was very into drama. One day my best friend who drove me home everyday said “we should audition for this play” and then I got into it for the last two years of high school. And then I went to NYU and spent a lot of money.
You went like right from your senior year to being in the movies, yeah?
MT: Senior year of college. The first movie I booked was this movie called Rabbit Hole, and so I did that. I booked that like two weeks before I graduated.
In a lot of your movies - Rabbit Hole, The Spectacular Now, even Whiplash - you’re always a character who’s involved in a car crash.
MT: Yeah and in real life I was in a car crash.
Is that a little too surreal for you, do people typecast you for those kind of roles?
MT: I don’t think I get cast as a guy who gets into car accidents, I’m just taking all those roles right? It is weird though, it is a theme in my career so far.
That and alcoholism.
MT: So you said you went down to Sundance? Did you get a chance to see any movies down there?
Yeah, I saw about twenty movies. Did you get a chance to see anything?
MT: I didn’t get a chance to see anything. I got to meet Phillip Seymour Hoffman, that was the coolest thing.
You shot 21 & Over here in Washington, over at UW. What did you think of that?
MT: I dug it man, we shot in August, there wasn’t that many kids around. When you’re walking arouatt:nd in a tube sock and there’s like Summer Session going on. It was cool, man, the Square is like Hogwarts, it’s very nice looking.
What did you think of NYU and what kind of advice would you give to young aspiring actors out there?
MT: Yeah, I really loved it. I think, whatever is good for you go for it. I think New York does propel you forward, it is a city where you can’t really just stay stagnant. People are always doing stuff and it inspires you to create. Also, I just think it’s the best city in the world.
Is that where you’re living now?
MT: No, I live in LA now, because that’s where all the things happen at. There’s a lot of TV in New York though.Follow Matt Oakes on Facebook Follow Matt Oakes on Twitter
Photo by Renzo Adler
Currently running at the Museum of the Moving Image, Indie Essential: 25 Must Play Video Games, features unique examples of how independent developers that are taking gaming in new and daring directions, such as Quadrilateral Cowboy, Gone Home, and Spaceteam. The exhibit is presented in conjunction with the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games, an annual festival in LA and New York City, which awards new and innovative indie developers.
Also featured at the exhibit and a past festival winner, Killer Queen Arcade, developed by Joshua DeBonis and Nikita Mikros, harkens back to the golden age of arcade gaming with it’s massive cabinet with two screens and the ability to support ten simultaneous players in a strategy game evocative of Joust.
Along with an appearance at The Museum of the Moving Image and the NYU Game Center, Killer Queen Arcade has been touring the world, spreading the good word about the simple pleasures of arcade gaming. I sat down with Josh and Nik to discuss what got them to make Killer Queen, where they come from in the world of gaming, and where they want to take it.
J: We’re getting the game ready to be shown in an arcade in San Francisco called Free Gold Watch and we’re going to experiment to see how profitable it can be. …It’s always been a festivals or museums, places like that where it’s free. So we want to see how it reacts in a more commercial environment. We really don’t know what to expect, we got nothing to base on.
Q: How did the two you get started making Killer Queen?
J: Nik and I are both game designers and game developers, and in our sorta day jobs we don’t work together, we have our own studios. We started to collaborate together because we liked working together and we feel we complement each other well. We got started collaborating on a series of four different games that culminated with Killer Queen Arcade. That was actually the first purely digital game we’ve done, most of our games are physical.
Q: How did you meet?
J: We were both doing work for GameLab who also has a game at the museum called Diner Dash. That was back in 2005 or something like that. We weren’t both employees there but we were doing some contract work for them….
We are both programmers. I consider myself a game designer first. I learned program so that I could make the games that I wanted to make. I did the programming on Killer Queen Arcade, Nik did the art, and we both did the game design. And I did the music.
N: Josh has a music background.
Q: What kind?
J: Jazz, mostly. I play saxophone. For Killer Queen I did chiptunes for the first time, which was really fun. I actually built it and did the music in… it’s called Famitracker, and basically it writes the codes to be played on the NES and emulates the playback. . …It’s a limited pallet of sounds but it’s great.
Q: Nik, do you consider yourself a programmer first, an artist, a game designer?
N: I just make games. I don’t think of myself as a programmer, per se. If I think about my brother, he’s a programmer. I went to art school.
Q: So how did you transition from art school to games?
N: Well I’m sorta self-taught and I’m from the generation of kids that grew up with Apple IIE and basically if you wanted to do anything with it you had to learn some programming.
J: We want to be as good as possible at whatever we do. And I think we both have the similar philosophy. We both enjoy learning new things and that attracts us to game development.
N: It’s always in the surface of the design. I don’t know if I’d ever program again if I wasn’t going to make another game. Unless somebody was paying me a lot of money to do it.
Q: Are a lot of developers coming from art, or programming, or is it mixed?
N: It’s mixed. Honestly, there are a lot of people coming from music.
J: It’s a mixed bag, and it always has been. A lot of people come from creative writing …Depending on what your background is, you bring different things to the table.
Q: What lead to making Killer Queen Arcade
J: Nik and I wanted to work together, that was the impetus, and there was this festival called Come Out And Play, [which was] a street game festival. We wanted to work together and we both wanted to do something for that. We made a game called Pigeon Piñata Pummel that was a game with piñatas, baseball bats, and the piñata were filled with bouncy balls. We enjoyed working together so for the next year of that festival we made another one called Pitfall Live at the Tank.
N: That was like a live-action Pitfall game. There was a rope and you could swing on the rope. It was like a weird fusion of digital and physical games.
Q: Did Activision give you any problems?
J: We weren’t even a blip on their radar. It was more of a performance than anything else; it was a one night only thing. Even if we wanted to do that game over it would be so hard. It was this whole elaborate setup for this one night only thing.
Q: Did you want to make a traditional arcade game because you’re used to working with things in public spaces?
J: We made a field game version of Killer Queen [Arcade] called Killer Queen first. It was a solid game, but it was so hard to set up. It was so big and you needed a field and foam swords and all kinds of crap. So we said we make video games, wouldn’t it be cool if you could play this game on something in your pocket and download it? So we said yeah, let’s make this video game version.
It sort of evolved into what we consider to be the best version of it and, yet again, we made a game that is completely impractical and there’s no way you can download it or put it in your pocket. We’re just seeking the form that fits the game we’re making.
N: We have been working in public spaces and arcades are public spaces.
J: We try to make a spectacle of our games. All of our games are team based, they create a spectacle, they’re all fairly easy to get into, and some of them more or less have strategy. They share a lot of the same aesthetic.
Q: Would say you're more aware of the spectacle when you make an arcade game?
J: Those things are always at least a minor element in any game. You’re thinking about the spectacle even when you’re making something like Super Mario Bros. It’s not as important in some games, but it is a factor in everything.
N: I’m sure even when they were making Super Mario Bros they wanted to make something that’s fun to watch because your friend would come over and then watch you play and then they’d want to buy their own copy or whatever.
Q: How did you become part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Indiecade exhibit?
J: We were at Indiecade out in LA earlier this year and we were chosen for the Developer’s Choice Award, which we were honored by because that’s chosen by all of our peers. It meant a lot to us. Then, I assume, because they’re having Indiecade East at the museum in February, for this exhibit they want to include all the Indiecade winners which are also at Indiecade East. They asked if we wanted to come and we said we’d love to.
Q: Is there an emerging scene in the East Coast for developers?
N: I would say for indies, New York is really a great place to be. There’s a really good community here. We all talk to each other, we all know who each other are and give critiques to each other or support each other in a lot of meaningful ways that I think in a lot of other places in the country that’s harder to happen. The distances are greater. 70% of us live in Brooklynn. And there’s a pretty big scene here.
J: Also nationally we’re sorta seeing this revival of arcade games and there’s this certain buzz that people are excited about this style of game and I think we’re gonna see more in the future.
Q: Do you also work within more mainstream games?
N: Both of us make more mainstream games for a living for clients. I’ve done a ton of work for various clients. Like when we met, Josh was working on something for Nintendo and I was working on something for VH1 and I had done a bunch of stuff for people like Adult Swim.
J: Our client games tend to be on a smaller scale, not like big Xbox games.
N: We’re not making Call of Duty or anything.
J: I don’t have any interest in doing that sort of thing.
N: Me neither.
J: Sounds like a nightmare.
Q: Was there a moment that made you want to strike out from the mainstream sort of style of games, or is it not so much an us-and-them philosophy?
N: For me, early on I did think about possibly moving out west, but I don’t know. It just didn’t feel right. It’s not an us and them thing, it’s more like this is what I’m doing, they’re doing something else and that’s cool, I enjoy those kinds of games, but I wouldn’t want to make them.
J: The most shocking thing for me is when I talk to friends that are working on triple-A games and they mention they’re only working on that one game. And not only that, but there’s hundreds of people at that company working on that one game and that’s all they’re doing. And Nik and I are often working on many games at the same time. It’s just such a different lifestyle and development process.
N: My brother works at Blizzard but he’s like one of the two people that works on a ton of different titles at the same time.
J: Part of that idea is enticing to me. I’d love to be able to dedicate every moment to crafting on beautiful game.
N: But would you want to have to work on something for five years?
J: That’s the other thing. The work that I do for Killer Queen is completely separate from the work I do for Meriwether and I like that. I like the variety. Also, a steady paycheck would be nice.
Q: What’s the indie game community like?
J: It’s very tight knit. Maybe too tight knit, in that it’s hard to accept new people or whatever. But I definitely feel all of our peers are always willing to help us out, give us feedback, or just hang out and play games. Just this morning we got an email from Adnan [Agha] who has Slash Dash at the museum with an idea for Killer Queen. He said “hey I was thinking about this, what do you think?”
We find people doing that a lot or we bring games to our friends and say play this, what do you think? Lots of sharing of ideas. Technically Nik and I are competitors in the business with our day job, but it doesn’t feel that way. There have been times we knew we were bidding on the same jobs, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any real competition. It would be weird if we felt that way. Even people we don’t work with directly, like Gigantic Mechanic, we compete with them, [but] I’ll go hang out and have a beer with them and talk about our clients. There’s definitely this group of people that came out of GameLab that have a similar mentality about games. Maybe it’s a school of thought.
N: Why do you think that is?
J: Like what’s the mentality? I would largely say it’s an appreciation of play. ...It’s an intangible thing. I don’t think there’s a way to put it into words but I can see a parallel between the work Gigantic Mechanic does and we do and [what] Eric Zimmerman is doing on his own.
N: Is it trying to stretch the definition of what a game is?
J: I don’t know. It’s just everybody’s influencing each other.
N: I think what it’s a willingness to share. That’s probably the most important thing. None of us [are] shy about showing our stuff to anybody else.
Q: Are the big developers starting to learn from the indie scene?
N: To me, the big story there is Hearthstone. Here’s a game coming out of Blizzard, and developed by a small team within the company using Unity. It seems so out of left field, but I can almost see that meeting. “Hey, what if we tried to do something like the indies are doing?” It’s pretty good. I can see that kind of being a trend.
Q: Are the indie developers learning from the big ones?
J: I hate to sound so full of ourselves but I don’t think we’re learning anything from them other than what we already knew.
N: Me and Josh always disagree about this.
J: I love playing big triple A games, but I learn so much more about games by playing smaller independent games, largely because I can play them faster and more of them. Whereas when I spend a hundred hours playing Dragon Age, I didn’t learn a lot about games by doing it. Or about game development. Learned a lot about dragons though.
N: I feel like there is something to be learned, I don’t feel quite the same way as Josh, but I don’t see how it relates to me on a day to day basis. That’s really the key. Because I’m working on a totally different scale from somebody making Dragon Age.
Q: So have you been taking Killer Queen Arcade on the road?
N: We showed it in London, LA, San Francisco, New York, Austin, Dallas, Berlin.
Q: What kind of people get drawn to Killer Queen Arcade?
J: When we showed it at California Extreme in San Francisco, there was a lot of kids there so we got a lot of kids to play it. And I suspect there’s a lot of kids at the museum. I really like seeing kids play it. Kids react to it very positively and they’re so willing to spend a little time to figure it out, much more than many adults.
Q: Do you find people are forgetting what arcades were?
J: There’s enough. Between Chuck-E-Cheese and Dave & Busters in every city… But I think it’s gone away enough that there’s this real strong urge to bring it back. I think that’s what we’re seeing. Things go in cycles and it’s about to come back. I’m hoping it is, and I’m seeing signs of it coming back.
Q: People long for that communal experience.
J: We’ve now perfected, or at least improved, on playing games with people all over the world, and that’s great, and I love playing those games, but that has lost a lot of the social aspects that is endemic to games since we played games and people want that.Q: What’s next for you guys?
J: After the exhibit we’ll bring that [Killer Queen] cabinet back to the NYU game center. We are involved in a lot of events over at NYU. We’re building more cabinets and figuring out where to put them. So may be here in New York, some may go around the country, or the world. Basically we’re figuring it out this moment. We’re starting, very roughly, to think about our next project. We don’t want to dive into it too quickly. We still got a lot to do to tie up loose ends, but we’re tossing ideas back and forth.
SeaWorld trainer/performer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, an orca held by the aquarium/entertainment complex, the dangers of keeping this species in captivity was spotlighted. Little did most of the public know that this wasn’t the first time this whale had killed. Nor did they knew how crazed it had become after years of being penned in.
It was such an amazing discovery for filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite that she devoted time and money creating her documentary Blackfish in order to answer why and how the 40-year-old trainer died (SeaWorld Entertainment claims the whale targeted the trainer because she had worn her hair in a ponytail) and what to do about marine parks like SeaWorld that exploit cetaceans for human amusement and profit.
The documentary kicks off with Tilikum’s 1983 capture off Iceland’s coast, and reveals how he has been harassed by fellow captive whales and was left in dark tanks for hours -- incidents this director suggests prompted his aggression. Cowperthwaite also focuses on SeaWorld's belief that captive whales live longer, a claim that the film argues is false.
An experienced TV documentarian, Cowperthwaite has directed, written and produced for ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery, and History Channel, including History Channel’s “Shootout!” a series for which she and a cameraman were embedded with 300 Marines at Twenty Nine Palms, and “Disaster Tech,” a documentary series about the biggest natural disasters in world history.
This doc has been racking up notices, awards and favorable response — including many protests of the whole marine mammal crisis — while also stirring SeaWorld ire. When the feature was about the air, this exclusive interview was conducted in Manhattan. Cowperthwaite since has seen a successful DVD/blu-ray release and finds the film shortlisted for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar.
Q: Why did you embark on this project?
GC: I came at it with a burning question. How did a top Seaworld trainer come to be killed by a killer whale? I didn’t get it. I know they don’t kill us in the wild, so I couldn’t imagine that happening.
[Dawn] was actively feeding this whale, Tilikum, before he killed her. It speaks to that fact that I think coming into a project like this without an opinion or argument is okay. You can come in with a burning question and keep digging and digging and digging. That ended up being my method and it ended up being so fruitful because all the information I was discovering, it was from a place of ignorance so I just kept feeding my brain.
I knew that when I made the film, I needed it to be very fact-driven. It needed to be a narrative that had credible people like the former SeaWorld trainers [such as John Hargrove,] speaking about what went on inside. I needed to reveal it to the audience and arm them with information the same way that I was able to discover it.
Q: Did you ever go diving one day and meet a whale?
GC: No, I wasn’t even fresh off a trip to SeaWorld, it wasn’t anything like that. It was what happened. Then I’d read another article and I’d think “You just told me she slipped and fell, why are you now telling me it was her ponytail? Weren’t there cameras? Didn’t I just see this on the news?”
So I just dug, that’s it. I had a burning question and I needed it answered whether it was for my own edification or for a documentary, I knew I would keep looking until I found the answer. If I have this many questions, the world will have this many questions and if I am so shocked by the answers then the world will be so shocked.
Q: Going from making a film in Denver to this, how and when did you make the shift? Did you do anything with nature before?
GC: [I did a piece with] National Geographic about human phobias. It would seem like I’m this naturalist.
Q: I guess you’ll never take your kids to SeaWorld, will you?
GC: I can’t. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it. That’s the only way I can describe my experience. Once you know what you know you’ll can’t look at those silly tricks and think that’s cute. You think to yourself this speaks of mastery, this makes me uncomfortable, this is so sad. Whereas three years ago I thought to myself I always described it as a cringe factor.
This doesn’t feel right, and yet it’s not abhorrent enough to get you to get up and leave if you don’t know the truth. You think to yourself this doesn’t feel right, but it must be okay because everybody is smiling.
Q: Knowing the cruelty of humankind, it’s not that hard to understand. What would be an appropriate space for a cetacean? Are there environments large enough to keep them without just setting them loose — which can’t happen for those raised in captivity?
GC: We do advocate for sea sanctuaries, which would be a cordoned off cove with a net, because of course these captive animals can’t be tossed back into the ocean. They don’t know how to hunt, they can’t chase their own food. Like Tilikum whose teeth is all messed up.
They could be released into these sea sanctuaries, it would be better in terms of what kind of enclosure can emulate their natural environment, but that’s a tough one when they can swim up to 100 miles a day. It doesn’t mean they would do that. I would just be guessing since this is not my area of expertise, but you have to have a big enough space so they can feel like they can get away from you.
Q: How far are we from communicating with these creatures? I wonder what will happen when we do?
GC: Sometimes I think about that and it’s so overwhelming to even imagine what it would be like to communicate with an animal like that. An animal that has been on this earth for that long and they’ve emerged as an apex predator, they’re a predator’s predator, they can take down great white sharks. They live in relatively peaceful communities or pods. So even the transients and residents, when they’re forced into captivity together, they don’t even speak the same language so they don’t get along. In the wild, those animals, when they do migration patterns just pass each other by peacefully. When you think about what they could teach us, it’s astounding.
Q: It would be fascinating to learn the languages of these animals — like in that Steven Spielberg series.
GC: When you think of the range of vocals, the languages. They can isolate languages based on the vocalization of a certain orca. So they can figure out where that orca’s family is.
Q: Are killer whales the most carnivorous ones? I assume they eat tunas.
GC: For the most part the residents are the tuna and salmon eaters, but the transients go for dolphins, seals, and sea lions. It’s this uncomfortable fact, that they eat dolphins, an animal we also love. There’s some things you learn about these apex predators that wouldn’t be suitable for SeaWorld’s literature because they’re trying to create this image that this is a fuzzy, huggable animal that you can then buy in a store on your way out.
Q: Like a lion.
GC: Or a teddy bear.
Q: How long did this take to make?
GC: It took two years.
Q: Did you tell SeaWorld what you were using the footage for when you asked them?
GC: SeaWorld knew very early on what I was doing. I called them and sought out an interview for about six months and we went back and forth as they were considering it. At that point I was sure they were going to be a voice in the film — they had to be I thought.
Dawn died in the park and I came from no animal activism; I’m just a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld. So I thought this was safe territory for them. However, the moment they realized that I had been interviewing people who had worked at their parks and had captured whales for them, they declined. It’s a minefield for them. For 40 years they’ve successfully kept these truths under wraps.
Q: Besides the two deaths, were there others that involved whales?
GC: There were the two deaths, Kelty and Daniel, Dukes, Dawn, and Kito that killed Alexis Martinez. So that’s four human deaths and over a hundred documented injuries -- that’s just the documented ones. From what I’ve heard from SeaWorld trainers there are thousands of undocumented ones.
Q: Where do you go after you’ve had that job if you’re not going to be a trainer? How did you persuade people to talk against SeaWorld? Was it to avenge the deaths?
GC: That was what spurred them to come out and start speaking in public about it. They heard the spin that was coming out of SeaWorld after [Dawn’s] death. She slipped and fell, or it was her fault.
They started hearing that and said, “No, that couldn’t be true.” They worked with [Tilikum} and were there. I think, and this is corroborated, the former SeaWorld trainers speak out because all of them had a hard time, most of them had a hard time leaving and leaving their animals behind.
The former Seaworld trainers bond with their animals and when they’re forced to leave, they are forced to leave an animal they’re afraid will never be taken care of. They basically didn’t feel like leaving without knowing that they were going to be doing something for the whales and speaking out for the whales.
Q: Did you expect the response this film has gotten? And where does that lead to?
GC: I didn’t expect it. I always make the joke that documentary filmmakers never expect their films to be seen on purpose. We always imagine people will run across them on the television -- maybe — but you never actually expect people to pay for it. So I have been blown away by the response. It’s the idea that you created this intact document that can now get in the world and go do some work. That is like a dream come true.
Q: Documentaries give me so much to worry about, now I have to worry about Sea World! Have you seen other similar documentaries such as The Cove or movies like Free Willy as research? Do you want to go further into this subject, or are you done with it?
GC: I do love the doc medium, I have to say. This is my storytelling home. I don’t know what comes next. Sometimes you think to yourself maybe another topic out there needs the kind of energy I put into Blackfish. But then there’s the other side of me that says there’s a momentum here and I don’t want to leave until I know… This 80-minute document has an amazing surrogate. Whether it’s a cause for me, [to support] sea sanctuaries.
I haven’t hitched my horse to any one cause out there, as much as I’ve gathered information from all of them out there and said, “Okay, what’s resonating with me and all the people that have seen Blackfish?”
It’s the idea of these sea sanctuaries. It’s the idea that you have to stop the captive breeding and put them in sanctuaries.
Q: Has anyone made the connection between your movie and 12 Years a Slave — another film about captivity and slavery?
GC: Oh yeah, and it’s tricky because that is probably the fastest way to turn off members of the general public, by saying anything about animals being slaves because that word is so heavy and it really speaks about human horrors and atrocities and it has offended a lot of people that I have spoken with. “How can you liken what has happened to us with 40 killer whales at SeaWorld?” It’s very tricky territory.
Q: What’s next?
GC: I’m percolating some things right now and it’s terrible documentary karma to ever talk about anything you’re doing because it will vanish the moment you think it’s something before you’ve gotten into it.
Photos, except for stills from films, by Roger Wong
For London-born actor Idris Elba it must have been a moment of incredibly mixed emotions. On Thursday December 5th, the London premiere of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom took place, and Elba who stars in this biopic as the great South Africa leader, was there in the company of Prince Andrew, his wife and many British luminaries including Mandela’s daughters when it was announced that the 95-year-old long freedom fighter had finally died.
As the driving force behind the African National Congress’ campaign against the heinous policy of Apartheid, Mandela endured prison, illness, and deprivation to become a revered world leader and role model despised by the right wing everywhere. Once he became South Africa’s first post Apartheid president, he brought a redemptive philosophy and market-driven economic ideas to a country devastated by sanctions against its defunct racist government.
Based on the 1994 autobiography of the same name, the film chronicles Mandela’s life as this international icon and revered global leader.
Although the film — as written by Oscar-nominated William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Miserables) — spans so much of the great leader’s life, it feels too much like a summation rather than an examination. Yet it works because of Elba’s expressive performance.
Transitioning from Mandela’s childhood as a herder in South Africa’s rural Cape region, to his days as the first black lawyer and Apartheid resistance leader, director Justin Chadwick highlights key moments as he evolves from revolutionary, to prisoner (he spent a good part of 27 years on the notorious Robben Island), to his nation’s first democratically elected Black President.
As the world now mourns Mandela’s passing and celebrates his legacy, Elba, in turn, enjoys praise and recognition achieved through years of hard work playing characters of importance with a sense of authenticity and gravitas.
With his impressive resume — The Wire, Luther, Prometheus, Pacific Rim, and Thor: The Dark World, among others — the 42-year-old actor is making his mark in more ways than expected. And finally after more than 20 years of film and television work, he has just been nominated for Golden Globes in both television, for the English legal drama Luther, and film for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.
Born of a Ghanaian mother and Sierra Leonean father, Africa courses through Elba’s blood which enhanced his understanding of Mandela’s struggle. Though he started by pursuing a career in music, his success in BBC television series led him to his successful film career.
The following Q&A is compiled from two recent appearances Elba made at the Soho Apple Store in promoting both Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and Pacific Rim.
Q: What was it like to take on the role of Nelson Mandela?
IE: It was tough, obviously. There were so many personal challenges that I had to get over. I didn’t believe in Idris playing Mandela. I was hooked up on the lookalike version of Mandela and I’m West African, not South African, so there was a whole different cultural thing that I was aware of. So, to be honest, I was like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” I didn’t have the attributes.
When my agent called me about it, I put the phone down because I thought he was joking. Eventually I came around and Justin [Chadwick] came to see me when I was making Pacific Rim in Toronto. We sat down for three nights, hung out and talked about his version of Mandela. The idea was to highlight this younger, charismatic man who was the first black lawyer in Soweto with all the energy he had, which [Justin] wanted to bring across. He wanted to show you what Mandela was like when he was my age, 41, to give some context to where Mandela ends up. I was very much worried about this role.
Q: Playing an individual who was still around [at the time, ed.] and putting him on screen — what was that like?
IE: Everything around you was part of the film. 360 degree sets. The cameras essentially could shoot anywhere. It also meant that the extras who were part of those massive crowd scenes when we had to do those speeches… though half of them were too young to actually remember Mandela in his prime -- he’s very much ingrained into their system.
And they would not allow Idris Elba — the guy from [Tyler Perry’s] Daddy’s Little Girls [laughs] — to come on stage, do Mandela, and lie to them. That was not allowed. I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes in speeches or forget my lines. It was a challenge just because I knew he was a real man to them. I was really nervous about lying to them but I never had to because they gave me so much more energy than I could even possibly give them. That encouraged me and Naomi to really make those speeches as real as they can get.
Q: What was ultimately the biggest challenge?
IE: I think playing the range realistically from around 20, which was practically impossible, to around 70, and mapping out the whole journey. Things happened to his body, mind, voice, in that whole time and that was the biggest journey, trying to figure it all out in this six-month shoot.
And we shot out of sequence. Some days, or some weeks, I’d be the older Mandela and others, I’d be the younger Mandela. Pulling it all in and making sense of it was the biggest challenge for me.
Q: Was there any point during filming that changed you in any way?
IE: The film definitely changed me. Understanding who that man is deepened my own perspective of myself and the world. It’s hard for me to talk about it in a tribute sense in a situation like this because there’s so much to talk about. Hopefully that film impacts and educates the audience, but for me, it was a life changing film to make.
Q: You mention the voice, capturing that memorable Mandela cadence...
IE: It was a lot of studying. I’m a natural mimic. If I hang around someone for long enough, I start to understand what they’re doing with their voice and their cadence and speech. Ironically enough though, my dad’s voice is not too dissimilar. He’s from West Africa, which is a slightly different accent, Sierra Leone. People who come from Africa and speak English have such an interesting cadence — it’s broken up — so almost everything you say sounds noble. It’s amazing.
With Mandela, it was something that I was in tune to with my ears and I could sort of understand a little bit. When Mandela was younger, he had a very high-pitched voice, stuttered, and spoke very quickly. As he got older, he slowed it all down and realized the power of poise and silence and really settled into his chest with this really nasally sound. I just paid attention to all of that and tried to emulate it.
Q: You’re also a musician.
IE: I love African music. I’m West African. I love hearing contemporary new African music. When I was doing this fashion show, I picked some tunes from [Malian musicians] Amadou and Mariam.
Q: And you’ve deejayed as well.
IE: Actually, I play a lot of house music and this summer, I’m going to be in Ibiza, Spain, for the whole summer doing a residency. If you come out on a Friday or a Saturday, I’ll give you the works [laughs].
Q: When you signed on to do Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s project, did he assign you homework to get into what the film’s going to be?
IE: It’s more than just reading material. He took the actors, one-by-one, and we’d have these massive sessions with him talking about the history of where [the story] came from in his head. He took us through the history of the characters, the history of the robots. My character is dipped in Japanese culture so I had to learn a lot about that.
Originally in the script, the character was named Sensei, believe it or not. In the redraft, he was called Stacker Pentecost. I had to learn a little bit about Japanese culture in the way my character moved. When he was called Sensei, he moved in a kind of zen-like way but as he changed in the script, he became that guy.
Guillermo was very hands-on with actors, he’s got shitloads of information to tell you and he’ll tell you every little beat. When we’re shooting, Guillermo is very pedantic and detailed. If he puts it there and you move it here, he’ll be like, “Cut!” He’s that detailed.
Q: Well your character in the film is also very controlling.
IE: Yeah, I do whatever the fuck I like. In terms of that character, Guillermo gives you a lot of license but he’s also the boss. He knows exactly what he wants.
Q: Pacific Rim has a very international cast — Guillermo is Mexican, Charlie Hunnan, an Australian, and you being British, what is it like working with such an international group?
IE: That was part of the DNA of what Guillermo wanted to do. He wanted an international cast because the problems of the Kaiju is an international problem. So he wanted it to feel like [that] if the world had to come together, this is what it would look like. It wouldn’t be American or English, it would just be one army. I think that was imprinted in the DNA of the whole script and showed up in the end.
Q: Describe the choreography of doing scenes where you are piloting a giant robot and fighting aliens from the sea.
IE: Guillermo likes actuality so [though] there’s a lot of green screen, the actual mechanism like the robot’s head where the soldiers would be inside, was actually built on a soundstage. It was this huge replica of a robot’s head that sat on a gimbal and the gimbal would move according to how it would move if we were actually in the thing.
Then, they put us in this suit, which took about 45 minutes to put on, and then they put us in a harness and myself and the other actor would be in this treadmill situation and we had to move in tandem. That was the hardest shit to ever do. You got this thing moving, you got frames all around, wind coming at you, you felt like you were really in that thing.
It helped us as actors because we didn’t have to imagine how uncomfortable that would feel. We had it for real. It was a really good experience in that sense. In science fiction, a lot of films are made with CG but this film, a lot of the real stuff, you can tell the difference. There’s a lot of real sets and real shit going on.
Q: Did you rehearse much or just suit up, get in the gimbal and we’re rolling?
IE: We rehearsed it a lot. We rehearsed some of the set sequences because the robots fight in a certain pattern, whether it’s punching or kicking, and the actor in the suit has to do that at the same time when we put it together so we had to rehearse that a lot. It was really difficult.
Q: What did you think when you found out that your character was re-named Stacker Pentecost?
IE: First thing is that he’s religious and I’m thinking he’s some sort of a preacher or a guru. But the name was definitely the best character name I think I’ve ever had. Stinger Bell was a good name but Stacker Pentecost that’s the shit.
Q: In the film you do a “Henry V”-like monologue -- there’s a line where you say, “Today, we’re canceling the apocalypse.” You don’t get lines like that too often.
IE: When I read the line, I have to admit that it sounds better than it actually reads. When I read it, I was like, “What? Canceling the apocalypse? Who speaks like that?”
When you’ve got 600 extras, this body suit and armor, these big robots next to you with that haircut, you feel the words. The words suddenly came to me. Canceling the apocalypse, I felt it. When I read it, I was like, “I don’t know if I can say that.”
Q: Did you love sci-fi growing up? There’s a lot of anime work [referenced] here where you don’t necessarily need to be familiar with it but if you are, you get something extra out of the film.
IE: I was into Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, growing up. That was me and sci-fi. When I got [to do] this film, it was definitely an education for me. Graphic novels, the history; I remember Godzilla but that was about it for me. It was a process of learning how deep this world is with Guillermo.
Q: Then, there’s Thor: The Dark World. You reprise playing Heimdall, the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge which was severed in the first one, you were out of a job but Heimdall is back.
IE: Yeah, Heimdall is back and a version of the Bifrost is back.
Q: Did you get to keep his helmet?
IE: No, man. When I woke up in the morning, my neck was always crooked. I needed a massage. That helmet looks fantastic but is very difficult to wear.
Q: Even now, The Wire is still as important as it was when it came out and has become a touchstone for intellectual discussion on the medium [television]. Did you realize how good this series would be?
IE: In short, I didn’t. The way The Wire was pitched in the beginning was that it was a procedural cop show. When I read it, I realized there was much more to it but I didn’t realize how important it was to modern day television.
I didn’t realize it would end up being a reference point for the rest of my life but I knew that the writing was good. I knew we were going to see a part of the world that doesn’t get any shine and I knew the actors we put together were real and authentic and not just star driven.
The producers had a very definite vision for it. It took me a year because it was even after the first season that I realized that this show has got legs to a wider audience than I had first thought about.
Q: Was there an episode where you saw that it was more than what you originally thought was happening?
IE: When I was shooting, none of that realization came to me. It was literally two years afterwards when people are screaming, “Where’s Wallace?” I realized that it was really penetrating an audience.
Q: How many times a month do you hear “Where’s Wallace?”
IE: About four years ago, I would probably hear that about 58 times a month and now it’s about six or seven times. These are rough figures.
Q: And then there’s Luther. Can you talk about season three?
IE: Well Luther is back for season three. We open in London in July and then it’s September in America. I’m really excited about this season. The show has evolved. With first season, we didn’t know where we were, who Luther was. The second one, we started to understand that and in the third one now, we understand it a little bit more.
I’m really proud of it and, yes, Alice is back causing all kinds of trouble. Luther is evolving. It’s a different kind of Luther. In the second season, Luther was contemplating suicide every day and in this season, he’s moving on from that. I’m excited.
Q: When you worked on the creepy Obsessed, did you look at Fatal Attraction as a reference in terms of how you maneuver the characters?
IE: I don’t think I did it consciously. In the back of our minds, we understand that Fatal Attraction is the archetype film in that category but didn’t reference it deliberately, even if it certainly was in the back of our minds as a benchmark of a great film that has been done. So, no is the short answer.
Q: Is there any credence to talks about you playing James Bond?
IE: The James Bond thing is a massive rumor that’s taken legs. I’m definitely glad to be an actor that people would like to see in that role but it isn’t going to happen at this point. If it did happen, that would be great.
Q: When you develop accents for a role, do you have to think about it?
IE: People say that my American accent is so good but the truth is I that lived in America for four years before I ever got a role playing an American. And when I got here my accent was awful. I couldn’t get a job for shit. I went up for Boris Kodjoe’s role in that film Brown Sugar but my accent was awful.
Now, when I speak to English actors that want to do American, I ask if they’ve ever spent time in America or if they know any Americans or know any history about America. If they don’t, that is where you fail immediately.
If you understand a culture, you understand the way they speak, how they communicate, and then you understand how to manipulate your mouth to talk like them. I always thought it was just something easy to learn phonetics by listening or learning from a voice coach, but for me, it was more about understanding the culture to be able to speak that way.
When I’m doing a film, for example, Nelson Mandela, that role and accent is so well known but I had to understand who his people were, who his family was, the tribe that he comes from. If I can understand that then I can understand the way he speaks. There’s a lot of work that goes into accents. I’m doing a film in England where I’ll be playing someone with a real street Eastern accent. That’s not my real accent so I have to put some thought to that to make that sound convincing.
Q: Were you excited when Guillermo said it’s fine if you sounded British?
IE: As soon as you tell someone you have an accent, they say, “Oh yeah. I hear it now.” Now, my work is doubled. I have to work extra hard to make it sound convincing.
Q: What’s the difference between doing American or British films?
IE: European dramas tends to be a lot darker than American ones. Crime thrillers and English drama has a history with whodunits and over the years, they’ve gotten darker and stranger. In America, it’s starting to head that way.
Drama producers are given license to be a lot darker in Europe; they are more open minded to that darkness in drama, but America is still more set in its own [style] but it’s changing. Cable TV is definitely changing that. AMC, [and] Showtime make more provocative, darker and less safe drama. It’s about what audiences can take. English audiences can take a little bit more at this stage.
Q: How old were you when you started making movies?
IE: I started making films when was about 21 years old but when I was about 12 years old I decided I wanted to be an actor.
Q: In one of your best films, Sometimes in April, your performance about the Rwandan genocide is so raw and graphic. How did that affect you and make you a better actor?
IE: I’ve said it to the press at the time, that film was one of the first I did after The Wire, and it absolutely changed my goals as an actor. I wanted to be a star but after I did that film, it was more important to play characters that moved me.
Rwanda was quite reluctant to see that film get made and shot there because that tragedy was only 10 years old. When we went there as actors, we felt a little disrespectful because there were people still dealing with the trauma to their families and their cities. It moved beyond just an acting job, learning an accent and learning a language, it almost became my duty to do it right.
The film takes a journalistic approach and is very hard to watch. It’s not like Hotel Rwanda, which is a good film, but a little more of a movie. It did change my roles in that I realized that I was fortunate to have been involved in shows like The Wire that keeps pushing the characters to say something and go through something.
Q: How often are you offered roles with complex characters that challenge you as an actor?
IE: Actually, I don’t get offered those roles a lot. But one day, this gentleman wrote to me and he [had] wrote this script called Legacy; he was a first time director, and sent the script. I loved it, we raised the money and made the film. That was the last time something like that happened. I’m an actor, I like to be challenged. There are great opportunities for me but not all of them are challenging.
Q: What are your favorite characters to play?
IE: Honestly, characters that take me away from myself as much as possible. I don’t want to recognize myself in it at all. I don’t have a favorite type but I think the more challenging, the more crazy the characters are, the better it is for me to play.
Q: Is there anyone you really want to work with on a movie that you haven’t yet?
IE: There are a million good actors and filmmakers I really want to work with but I haven’t been able to. I’m not just saying it because I’m in New York but Spike Lee is one. We’ve threatened to work together a number of times and I’m hoping that it’ll happen.
The good thing about stepping up the ladder as an actor is that [opening] those doors become easier. You tell a director that you really like their work and sometimes some synergy form there. I’m excited about that climb because I really get to choose the roles and choose the people I work with.
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