Interview with Actor Taylor Kitsch on Portraying Sci-Fi Icon “John Carter”

Walt Disney Studios provided us with an interview with actor Taylor Kitsch, who plays the lead/title character in Disney’s upcoming film “John Carter.”  Kitsch captured attention with his role as Tim Riggins in the NBC television series “Friday Night Lights.”  As John Carter, Kitsch plays a US Civil War veteran who is transported to Mars, meets a beautiful, strong-willed princess, and becomes embroiled in a conflict to save his newfound world.  In the interview below, Kitsch discusses the background for his character, working with his cast and crew mates, and the epic scope of Andrew Stanton’s film.  Click here for even more press releases, images, trailers, and news for Disney’s “John Carter”, coming to theaters March 9, 2012.

©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

“No good’ll come out of me fightin’ your war.”

Question and answer transcript provided by Walt Disney Studios:

Your character John Carter has an amazing back-story.  How did that inform you as an actor?

Taylor Kitsch:         When I first read the script, I was drawn to the character-driven story and the fact that it will benefit from being a big studio movie.  It gave the filmmakers a chance to make the film in an amazing way.  You get to know John Carter’s background with his family, the Civil War and everything.  It’s heavy to play but it gives me such a base to draw from through the whole movie.  For example, in one scene, you’ll see Carter playing with his rings and you’ll know what that truly means to him.  It’s great as an actor because it’s something to really dive into.  It’s great.

©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

What kind of character is John Carter?

TK:         Carter is a man who has lost everything he ever cared about.  He comes back from the Civil War to find his wife and child dead.  He basically goes into this recluse mode of living and is driven to mine for gold.  It’s like a Band-Aid solution—he’s covering up what he hasn’t dealt with, the guilt and the loss of his family, whom he went to war to protect.

He has a fear of taking responsibility again and that’s what he’s fighting through the whole movie.  He lands in the Civil War between Helium and Zodanga.  He’s on Mars but their conflict is incredibly relatable for him, so he just wants nothing to do with it.  You have Dejah, Tars and everyone reminding him or literally telling him that there’s a cause here and you have to be part of it whether you like it or not.  He’s made that choice before and everything was just ripped from him, so obviously there’s that fear of actually engaging in that again.  So that’s what he’s always pushing away from.

This movie covers such an incredible epic span from the Civil War era to Western America to Mars.  How was the epic adventure sense of it for you as an actor?

TK:         The grandeur and what Stanton’s done and how it works and how it’s all intertwined is quite epic and I felt that as an actor.  My character is definitely on an epic adventure.  We go from the 1800s on the streets of New York to the Arizona Territory in the West, to the plains of Mars—all in one movie.  As an actor I experienced my character John Carter in many different settings that had specific emotions and needs that I had to evoke.

I can’t recall any movie that’s done it the way we have.  The ending brings the adventure full circle brilliantly, but you’ll have to see it to understand what I mean.

What do you think audiences are going to love about this movie?

TK:         There’s a lot.  I keep saying that the great white ape scene is worth the price of admission alone.  Visually it’s going to be incredible.  I think they’ll like the characters; they’re going to be able to relate.  It’s not just a special effects movie with things blowing up and basically one guy that you don’t care about.  You care about John Carter and you care about his journey.  You see an incredible arc of who he is, his new beginning and rebirth, and although you have special effects, you’ve also got the brilliant actors whom I’ve had the fortune of working opposite as well.

Please talk about your character’s relationship with Lynn Collins’ character, Dejah Thoris.

TK:         In the books it’s almost love at first sight and John would do anything for Dejah, but in the film you follow an arc that happens with John and Dejah as their relationship develops.  I love the banter back and forth.  We rib each other and we challenge each other through different scenes and finally the truth just comes out.  It’s a love story with everything else going on but it means so much to the film.  It’s quite the backbone of it.

Our characters’ relationship at first is about pushing each other’s buttons to see how we’ll each react.  That changes as we grow and she stops trying to test him and begins to see the real John, the part he can’t even see himself.

But through the relationship, Dejah and John have so much going on that those moments become very special and, in a sense, earned.  It would be unreal just to play that relationship as it is in the moment.  You have to understand that the stakes are always so high, so you have to create these small moments that are earned and not just like, “Oh, you’re pretty today.”  You definitely have to work and earn those moments, which make them that much more special in the film.

Image: Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins at the D23 Expo, August 2011. Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez, ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Did you enjoy working with Lynn Collins?

TK:         Working with Lynn is fiery, which I love.  Lynn has a great balance of fire and beauty and has done an amazing job with her character Dejah.  She’s just a ton of fun.  In every scene I play with her the stakes are quite high because she’s on such a driven path.  Just to be in those scenes with her has been great.

We work really well with one another.  Trust is everything and as an actor and as a good friend I trust her immensely.  It’s been great to work with her.

How did director Andrew Stanton convey his vision to you? 

TK:         Andrew Stanton’s vision was very infectious.  He’s just brilliant and you just have to go along with it.  You have to believe in it because it’s such an incredible vision that if you don’t, you’re not doing the story and the character justice.

Our first meeting was great.  I was so excited because I am a huge fan of “Wall-E” and, come to find out, he’s a fan of “Friday Night Lights.”  It’s just been a great relationship from the get-go and trust has been there from day one.  It was great to be able to have him explain his vision and then to become part of it.

Image: Director Andrew Stanton at the D23 Expo, August 2011. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk, ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Where did the story of “John Carter” come from?

TK:         It comes from Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created the character of John Carter.  2012 is the 100th anniversary of the creation of the character.  Burroughs wrote a whole series of books based on him.

I think Edgar Rice Burroughs was way ahead of his time, especially for his first science-fiction novel.  It relates to what we’re living and doing right now—the lack of natural resources, the energy problems, the wars going on from racism to religion.  He was hitting it all almost 100 years ago.

And even in the film we address all those things.  What Stanton has done is taken the base of John Carter from Burroughs and definitely gone into more depth of who John Carter really is and where he comes from.

Stanton has given me so much more to dive into with the character that wasn’t realized in the books.  It’s been really great, script wise, to draw from that.

The city of Helium, also referred to as “The Jewel of Barsoom (Mars),” is the home of Princess Dejah Thoris. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

How does John Carter wind up on Mars?

TK:         It’s actually quite brilliant.  Edgar Rice Burroughs didn’t really address it in the book, in which he just wakes up on Mars.

Andrew Stanton’s John Carter goes into a cave on Earth where he tries to escape the Apaches.  The cave has become a Thern way station where Therns transport back and forth from Mars.

Carter gets accidentally transported to Mars when he comes into possession of a medallion.

What makes the character of John Carter so appealing?

TK:         What’s made him so interesting for me to play, and why I feel grounded in John, is the sense that he’s real.  And I think that will appeal to audiences, too.  Carter’s sense of loss, his regaining his humanity and his honor and finding love again are all appealing human themes that play out in this character on the screen.

© Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Does John Carter have powers on Mars?

TK:         I don’t like to call them powers because then he’s going into a superhero realm, which this is not.  His enhanced strength and ability to jump are based on the different gravity of Mars.

He learns that there’s a lack of gravity on Mars and he has to adjust to it.  At first he doesn’t realize his enhanced strength, but when he does, he starts to figure out how to use that to his benefit.

Despite the serious underlying themes of the movie, it’s got a lot of wit and levity to it, too.  Correct?

TK:         Absolutely. It’s something that Stanton’s worked on from the beginning, with the script and in the filming.  John Carter has a lot of funny things happen to him and engages in some witty conversation with Dejah, Tars and even Woola, his canine-like protector.  Even his gestures become moments of levity, such as the shrug of his shoulders in the White Ape scene.  It’s very situational comedy.

©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Can you talk about Woola, Carter’s dog-like protector?

TK:         I’m telling you, Woola will steal this movie.  That’s how brilliantly he’s worked into the story line.  Of course, he saves my butt a few times, which is really great.

At the beginning, I hate him for blowing my cover in the Thark camp.  And, annoyingly, he finds me wherever I go.  He’s always able to find me at the right time and sometimes the wrong.  He’s loud and awkward, like a puppy in a sense.

If anyone has an animal or has had an animal growing up, they know that there are so many things that you do with an animal that you don’t do in a relationship with another human.  Eventually, John lets his guard down quite a bit and I love that because it makes those moments with Woola quite great.

Can you address the lengths to which the production and Andrew Stanton have gone to in order to get the right locations?

TK:         We were on location in Utah even though we could have easily done those whole sequences around green screen.  Every location, whether it was in Utah or in London, was researched and chosen very carefully.  In doing so, Andrew’s made an incredible effort to keep it real.  It’s always been performance before technicality.  The focus is on getting the performance and being on location helps with that enormously.

© Disney Enterprises, Inc.

What was it like working with the Thark actors in their motion capture suits?

TK:         The actors were dressed in, like, gray pajamas with dots all over them and headgear.  It all goes back to making it real, because the actual actors were dressed in the suits instead of stand-ins.

Stanton brought in an incredible group of actors to bring these characters alive.  There’s a moment in the film where I do really look at Tars closely and there’s only one way you can do it.  And by Willem Dafoe actually being there on stilts, I can connect with him and his face and with the character.  It helped me so much.

I think it’s going to be an incredible trip to see the actual Tars Tarkas up there and me acting to these guys.  We’ve done everything possible to make that real.  Willem really brought Tars to life.  He is incredibly professional and a lot funnier than people give him credit for.  It’s a lot of fun to watch him.  He is so great to work off of…all of them are.  Sam Morton, Church, all these guys.  It’s been great.

How important was it that Andrew Stanton create a somewhat believable world?

TK:         It’s very important.  The film actually takes place in the late 1800s, so it’s not set in the future.  It’s real time on Mars, too.  So Andrew Stanton created this real world that people can believe in, not a bunch of people running around in robot suits.  I think it’s pretty amazing that we’ve created such a realistic world.

The key to everything is making it so you can relate and you can say, “Wow, you know, I bet that world exists.”  And he’s done such a brilliant job with that.

Can you talk about the scope of the film?

TK:         The grandeur and what Stanton’s done, and how it works and how it’s all intertwined, is quite epic.  Of course, we’ve got these wonderful landscapes and all the amazing shots too, which add to the scope.

I don’t have a clue as to the actual scale of the film, but it feels like an epic to me.  We go from the 1800s on the streets of New York to the Arizona Territory in the West, to the plains of Mars—all in one movie.

This is Andrew Stanton’s first live-action film.  What makes him the perfect director for “John Carter”?

TK:         It’s quite simple.  He’s a brilliant writer and he’ll tell a story like no other.  What we needed first and foremost was an incredible character-driven story, which he delivered.  He’s going to keep the audience on their toes through the whole movie.  There’s no way they will figure out the ending.

Andrew Stanton is different from everyone else that I’ve worked with before.  He directs me differently from the way he’ll direct Willem [Dafoe] or Samantha [Morton].  And that’s the trick.  He knows what is going to work for you and you only.  And that’s the difference of his direction compared to a lot of other directors I’ve worked with.

Image: (L-R) Actors: Willem Dafoe, Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, and Director Andrew Stanton at Disney’s D23 Expo, ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor and how did you get into it?

TK:         There were things that kind of spoke to me while I was growing up, such as performances that changed my point of view.  I love telling a story.  I love bringing people into a performance.  I love the kind of escapism that it brings.

I enjoy working with brilliant actors.  I’ve had the pleasure to do so and hopefully it will continue.  There’s no better art form that I’ve ever come across where you learn more about yourself.  I always want to keep growing and becoming a better actor and everything that goes with that as well.

Do you enjoy seeing this type of science-fiction adventure in theaters?  

TK:          I love going to a good film in theaters just as much as the next guy.  It’s all about escapism and enjoying the arc and the wild ride and wondering where the next scene is going to lead and what’s going to happen.  Just being a part of it and creating it makes it that much more special to me.  I love movies that take you right into the conflict.

And I think we’ll take you right into Mars and hopefully you feel it when I’m in the cave and when Dejah is fighting and when we’re surrounded by Tharks.  And when we’re in the gladiator arena, I hope you’re right there with us.

Image: Massive airships sail on rays of light on Mars. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Did you enjoy your stay in London and working for so long abroad?

TK:         Unfortunately, I didn’t really get to see a lot of London.  But what I saw I loved.  I worked so much that all I did was sleep and work.

I love being away from home, though.  I’ve worked from South Africa to Australia, to London.  Ironically, I’ve only worked for two weeks in Vancouver, where I’m from.  I love being away, as it keeps me a lot more focused than when I’m home where other variables can come into play to detour me from work.

You did your own wirework and even worked with the second unit sometimes doing your own stunt work.  How physically demanding was this role?

TK:         Honestly, no job will ever be as physical and exhausting, yet rewarding, as this one.  I’ve been tested on every level and then some.  The pure physicality of it, to the arc of the character, to the emotional spectrum he has.  I’ve had to keep up my endurance this whole time, but again what you put in is what you hopefully get out.  And I think that will be very specific to this role.

Did you have fun doing any of the physical scenes?

TK:          I love doing the fight scenes.  The Great White Ape scene was probably something I’ll never forget.  The energy in that arena was really great.  I knew early on from the screen test that this scene was going to be epic.  The stakes are incredibly high and I love that.

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.