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Acclaimed Actor Willem Dafoe Chats
About Playing and Speaking Martian in "John Carter"

By Dave Parfitt
Question and answer transcript provided by Walt Disney Studios: Ė January 6, 2012
How did you get involved in ďJohn CarterĒ?
Willem Dafoe: I was very lucky because the project was quite far along in its casting when I came around.  I was in Los Angeles, where I rarely am because I donít live there.  I knew Andrew was meeting with people for ďJohn CarterĒ and since I had worked with him before and was aware of the project, I said that Iíd like to have a meeting with him.  We met and he told me what he was doing and showed me some of the art.  When I read the script, I got excited.  I said, ďListen, you want me to play a Thark, Iíll play a Thark.  I would love that.  I would love the physical challenges.Ē  This film had lots of challenges, not only because of the stilts, but some of the gestural language and the fact that we had to learn a Martian language for part of it.

So, I said, ďWhere do I sign?Ē and thatís pretty much how I became involved.

How did director Andrew Stanton draw you into his vision?
WD: He didnít need to do too much because I really like him and trust him.  I know him from working on ďFinding NemoĒ and I know that heís quite rigorous and detailed.  I was struck by his take on the story and I could feel his passion when he showed me some of the designs for the film and talked about his vision.  The script was also very strong; it was exotic and it was fun.  I liked the idea of the source material [A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs] even before I read it.  I was excited that it was a big movie and I liked the prospect of playing a nine-foot tall Martian warrior.

Please describe your character, Tars Tarkas.
WD: Tars Tarkas is the head of a warrior tribe called the Tharks.  They are very tall, green-skinned Martians with four arms and tusks.  Thereís a feeling that their culture is in decline; they were once a great society and now theyíve been reduced to being a nomadic, warlike society, moving from place to place to survive.  Thereís a feeling of sadness and lost empire to them and it very much informs who Tars Tarkas is.  The Thark culture is brutal, primitive and warrior-like, but it hasnít always been.  Tars remembers a more refined, civilized past.  He secretly yearns for those days and for a more humane society.  He knows thereís got to be a better way than how theyíre surviving now.Ē

Tars Tarkas develops a special relationship with John Carter.  Can you talk about that?
WD: They are a very odd couple, visually to be sure, and when they team up, thereís a lot of interplay about the very different cultures that they come from.  There are lots of opportunities for humor and misunderstanding.  Itís a special relationship because thereís excellent development of those two characters in the story.

What other characters does Tars Tarkas interact with the most?
WD: My principal relationship is with John Carter.  Then I have relationships with some of the other Tharks, which are Sola, played by Samantha Morton, Sarkoja, played by Polly Walker, and Tal Hajus, played by Thomas Haden Church. Thereís an interesting relationship with Tal Hajus because heís sort of my second in command and is always challenging my decisions.  Heís always nipping at my heels trying to see if he can take over the Thark nation.

Please talk about motion capture and how Andrew Stanton handled it with the actors.
WD: Andrew Stanton was very insistent that he wanted scenes played out for the human characters, and also to always have the scenes fully realized.  So, Iím in all of the scenes with Taylor Kitsch, who plays John Carter.  Itís not just motion capture on green screens.  And it makes a big difference.  Itís a big difference for the actors because everything is informed by the set; itís not disjointed.  It gives a kind of integrity for the animators to work with as everything holds together as a piece.  I think thatís very important.  Iím not sure thatís ever been done to this degree.

How did you deal with walking on stilts and having four arms?
WD: The way I look at it, with the stilts and four arms, Iím actually creating material with my character for the actors and filmmakers to work with.  But then Iím also very dependent on the special effects guys and on the director to know whatís possible.

For example, I have four arms that are much longer than they are in real life, so occasionally there are opportunities to do something with them.  As Iím doing the scenes, sometimes we find places to have someone else help me out or we use arm extensions.  There are all these little tasks and tricks that become skills that we can play with to some degree. It gets pretty involved and gets pretty heavy and Iím very dependent on knowing what the process is, what they need from me, but itís interesting.

The scale of this film is huge.  How does that affect filming as far as actors are concerned?
WD: It does have enormous scale, but I will say, the great thing about this film is Andrew [Stanton] knows how to handle it; heís demanding and heís a detail guy.  Thereís a very practical approach.  Itís all very tight, considering what weíre doing.  Though the scale is so massive, we move quite fast and we move decisively.  Thereís not a lot of waiting around.  For a big film like this, itís amazing how immediate the shooting is.

What was your greatest challenge as an actor on this film?
WD: I canít allow myself to become cynical about the fact that Iím doing something thatís going to get changed into something else by a computer.  I really have to concentrate on what my task is.  A performance of this kind is mediated by so many hands and so much technology, I can see how someone could get lazy or cynical about what they have to do.  Thereís always that feeling of, ďOh, they can fix that later,Ē but you have to believe that what youíre doing does make a huge difference.  Thatís why they hire actors for these roles.  Thatís why we did a substantial amount of research.  Thatís why weíre on stilts as opposed to platforms or just green screen and moving things around with a computer.  Weíre actually doing the scenes.

I guess the biggest challenge is always being present and playing the scenes while embracing the technical limitations as tools.  I think thatís the biggest thing.  Also, I find that because Iím so conscious of the fact that what Iím doing is going to be sent into the computer and is going to be shaped, itís easy to start indicating things and showing rather than doing, such as pointing or making a gesture.  You still have to perform it with a kind of heart and believability, even though youíre doing these wildly exaggerated or wildly indicated actions because of the technical requirements.  You still have to stay with it and not just think of yourself as a puppet making these gestures.  You have to feel it and be there.

Are there moments when youíre on the set and what you see in front of you kind of boggles your mind?
WD: All the time.  The scope is just incredible.  The first time I came on the set, I couldnít believe it.  The production design elements are so well integrated into the natural elements here in Utah.

What has it been like like working with Taylor Kitsch?
WD: Taylor was really beautifully cast and I like him a lot.  Heís got a good sense of humor, so he brings humor to it.  Heís got a kind of looseness, but then heís also got heroism.  Physically, heís very strong and he looks great for the role.  Heís the workhorse in this movie and fun to watch.  His approach is very committed and physically heís very good.

What do you think audiences might love or find amazing in ďJohn CarterĒ?
WD: Itís a grand adventure; itís exotic; itís classical in the sense of its origins.  Remember the source material was written in 1912, and Edgar Rice Burroughs was imagining things that we had no scientific basis for at the time.  So, itís pure imagination.  Some of those ideas really informed science fiction later because these books were widely read and embraced a lot of the popular imagination of the time.

So thereís something kind of classical about the imagining of Mars.  Some people are cynical about green men on Mars but are we so sophisticated that we canít embrace that?  I donít think so because I think green men from Mars came from something in our imagination that had to be there in order for ďStar WarsĒ to happen or ďAvatarĒ to happen.

This is a very well imagined world that Edgar Rice Burroughs has created.  Itís got all the attraction of that imagination plus pure fantasy.  The story he tells really is very evocative, the characters are so well drawn and it puts forth some questions about society and how we conduct ourselves.  It asks what our ambitions are and what weíre willing to sacrifice.  Itís rich material.

I can imagine that the film will work for a very broad audience.  It works on lots of different levels because itís complex, itís dense and itís very detailed.  One of the biggest pleasures in doing this project is to work with someone like Andrew Stanton who works on this scale, on a story that has popular appeal but doesnít pander.  ďJohn CarterĒ was created from a very personal place.

Youíre so known for acting in dramas. Why ďJohn CarterĒ?
WD: Maybe Iím known for dramas, but Iíve made other kinds of movies, too.  Iím here for my pleasure and my interest.  This film is something that Iím interested in.  If it doesnít fit into whatís expected of me, or what people want from me, thatís not my concern.  My concern is to help Andrew do the thing that heís trying to do because I like what heís doing.  I get great pleasure out of that and itís very satisfying for me.

How is Andrew Stanton different from other directors youíve worked with in live action?
WD: The fact that Andrewís background is in animation makes him different for me.  With all those years at Pixar, he has a different approach to filmmaking.  But at the same time, he has a great film culture in general.  Heís very knowledgeable about many things, but he doesnít come off as a heavy intellectual.  He comes off as a very regular guy.  Itís sort of beautiful.  The detail of his approach probably is most informed by his work in animation and his love for classic movies.

What do you think are the most extraordinary aspects of this film?
WD:  Probably the most extraordinary things are the scale and the detail, and fact that its imagination is classical.   Itís not gimmicky.  Itís rooted in a great story that is a classic narrative.

©Disney Enterprises, Inc
Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church

Question: I saw you walking on the stilts. How long did that take you to master?
WILLEM DAFOE: Itís a work in progress, but we got a little time before to rehearse and so you just keep it up. But each time itís a new challenge because the terrainís different, the quality of the sandís different, but itís very important because that height relationship not only helps technically with direct eye lines when mixing effect-oriented stuff with real actors, but also you find the voice much better and you play the scenes much better when youíre that character.

What made you want to take this role to begin with? Itís so unique.
The truth is, I like the whole project. When Andrew [Stanton] put out a feeler, I said basically, ďYeah, Iíd love to play one of the Martians,Ē and then heíd say, ďWhat?Ē [laughs] I did tip off that I would really love to play Tars Tarkas, which is the role Iím playing, because heís an interesting character. Heís not what he appears to be, number one, without giving too much of the story away. Heís also got a really good relationship with the John Carter [Taylor Kitsch] character who he kind of takes under his wing and he has a relationship with the Samantha Morton character [Sola]. Plus an adversarial one with Thomas [Haden Church]ís character, [Tals Hajus].

Could you elaborate on the scene that youíre shooting?
Right now, basically, Iíll shorthand it. Thereís just been a battle and the John Carter character has helped us in the battle, kind of by accident, unknowingly. So, Iím embracing him as one of our warriors and heís very reluctant. Basically, thatís whatís happening. And also, itís the introductionÖweíve taken Dejah [Lynn Collins] prisoner and she comes and asks us to help her rather than take her as prisoner, but we kinda blow that off. [laughs]

So on Mars, at first you speak Martian and then transition into English after drinking that stuff. What does your Martian sound like? Can you say something in Martian?
Sure, sure. [speaks Martian] Like that.

Thatíll work on the Comic-Con chicks. [laughs] Was there a dialect coach for that?
They had a linguist make a language that corresponded so the sound sounded right. Iím sure itís a hybrid of many things. Then we found a place where we liked it. Thereís kind of an alphabet and corresponding Martian words with English words, so the syntax is actually all juggled around, but itís based on something actual. And, yes, someone did just be an outside ear for us to speak and see if we wereÖthe important thing was for us all to speak in a similar vein, but also have our individual character voices.

How are you enjoying the shoot here in Arizona and Utah compared to shooting in a studio?
I prefer shooting on location, just because it always helps you.   You go some place, you put your life on hold even more than when youíve settled in some place. You can make a new life so it opens yourself up to the make-believe and the imagination in a way when you arenít burdened by things that remind you of your life all the time.

After a certain amount of days on the shoot do you past the dots on the face, the way everybody looks?
What dots on the face? [laughs]

Do you just forget about it at a certain point and just get into the imagination of it?
You do and thatís the only way to stay invested and to really play the scenes. I look at it as, I donít worry about the scenes so Ödifferent processes. This is like an experiment in recreating information. These performances in front of the camera are sacred pilgrimages in creating fertile material for them to work with, probably in post.

What have been some of your personal challenges for working on this film compared to other movies?
Personal challenges for this? I donít know. Iím having fun. I think with something like thisÖis not to get cynicalÖin the scene even with all of these technical applications. I think, partly because Iím really more of a theater actor, thatís my background and Iíve made a lot of movies like that, Iím used to that.

Was your balance pretty good before this or is it something youíve had to practice?
I think so, I think so. I shouldnít be bragging, not yet. But, itís always something thatís there, that possibility.

All about the core strength?
It is, it is. And Iíve got good core strength.

I know you probably donít get a lot of downtime, but what do you do for fun around here?
We havenít been here long enough to tell you that, but I would imagine sightseeing. [laughs] Itís beautiful country.

Howís it been working with Taylor? Whatís it been like?
Heís great, heís great. Heís a workhorse on this thing, heís perfectly cast. I enjoy him a lot. I like how he works. Heís the center of this.

Have you been able to teach him a lot?
I donít teach nobody nothiní! [laughs]

[Thomas Haden Church joins]

Whatís it like working with Willem Dafoe?
THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: Heís great. He was really an inspiration for me when I was younger and even though heís not a lot older. Ö Heís so grounded and at the same time, so genuine. Itís been great, really great.

Can you talk about what youíre role is in the movie and in this scene?
Well, I donít know how much you know, but weíre part of a warring tribe on Mars. There are different factionsÖI have to keep it on the down low as far as information. Willem and Samantha [Morton] and myself and Polly Walker, weíre all members of the same tribe. Then Taylor, as you can tell, is a dude. [laughs] An Earth dude. And then Lynn [Collins], if youíve seen her, her appearance is a lot different than ours.

On a technical level, how does this compare to Spider-Man, for example?
Itís a completely different concept because this is all motion capture. Everything we do. Now, the whole world is apprised of how it works because of Avatar, but you just act everything out. For the most part, our physicality is captured by the cameras and then all of our facial maneuverings and manipulations are caught by the headset cam. There are two of them. Itís a different process because, on Spider-Man, so little of it, so little of the animation was available to me as a physical actor, whereas this, youíre completely embedded in it. My whole body and my head and everything is going to be in motion capture with an infusion of my body and, as I already said, my physicality and expressions and emotions of it.

Do you have a pretty good idea of what itís going to look like, in your head?
Theyíre giants, but they have their own, for lack of a better word, they have their own humanity, a tribal humanity and a social order. Thatís a pretty good representation of the way theyíre going to look.

Can you talk a little more about your character?
Willem is the leader of the tribe. My guy is sort of his pit bull guard dog. Heís very aggressive when it comes to violence and fighting. Heís probably a little bit too aggressive because Willem is trying to lead by example, his character. Thereís, at times, a little friction.

Do you get to do any fighting in the film?
I do.

Do you have to do that on stilts? How is that handled?
A lot of it is going to beÖagain, as I was saying, itís all melded. We rehearsed fighting. We had a stunt camp in January in England and we rehearsed fighting on the stilts. I prefer being on the stilts, I think Willem does too because itís just become the character to me, to be 8í7íí and still independently mobile. I spend a lot of time rehearsing on them by myself at the ranch where I live in Texas. They sent me stilts probably in November and I just started like a baby, just started getting up on them and moving around and getting better and better and better. Then at the stunt camp in January, I had a greater awareness of what was going to be expected as far as manipulating and movements, that sort of thing. I still canít run. Itís disappointing because I thought I would get to where Iíd be able to move with the facility of my normal kind of stature. Itís really difficult.

Can Willem run in them?
I donít know. I havenít seen him run in them. Iím assuming the stunt guys are really good in them. They also use, I think theyíre called ďleaping stiltsĒ where itís a completely different energy. ďPowerisers.Ē Itís completely different. They can run in them, they can do layout flips.

With all the stilts and the motion capture and the facial recognition, was this more challenging than a normal live-action production or less so? Does it free you up?
Thatís a good question. Probably a little of both, because youíre always aware that, especially with the helmet, the mo-cap helmet on, youíre always aware that itís there. The cameraís right there with the lights. I know that itís going to take it to another kind of level of menace and vitality thatís going to be in Andrew [Stanton]ís domain. And the production team, itís not just him. There are literally hundreds of people working on this project. 

Willem Dafoe, Lynn Collins, and Taylor Kitsch at Disneyís D23 Expo
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez,  ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

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