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

Walt Disney Studios provided us with the transcript from a question and answer session with acclaimed actor Willem Dafoe.  Dafoe plays Tars Tarkas – a fierce, green Martian warrior who is king of a tribe known as the Tharks.  Continue after the break for Dafoe’s thoughts on portraying the 9 foot, 4 armed, tusked Martian.  Click here for even more press releases, images, trailers, and news for Disney’s “John Carter”, coming to theaters March 9, 2012.

Image: Actor Willem Dafoe from Disney’s “John Carter” attends Disney’s D23 Expo August, 2011.  Photo by Todd Wawrychuk  ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

“When I saw you leap into the sky, I wished to believe it was a sign that something new can come into this world.”

Question and answer transcript provided by Walt Disney Studios:

How did you get involved in “John Carter”? 

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 don’t live there.  I knew Andrew was meeting with people for “John Carter” and since I had worked with him before and was aware of the project, I said that I’d 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, “Listen, you want me to play a Thark, I’ll play a Thark.  I would love that.  I would love the physical challenges.”  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, “Where do I sign?” and that’s pretty much how I became involved.

Image: Director Andrew Stanton during “John Carter” press visit. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

How did director Andrew Stanton draw you into his vision?

WD:         He didn’t need to do too much because I really like him and trust him.  I know him from working on “Finding Nemo” and I know that he’s 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.  There’s a feeling that their culture is in decline; they were once a great society and now they’ve been reduced to being a nomadic, warlike society, moving from place to place to survive.  There’s 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 hasn’t always been.  Tars remembers a more refined, civilized past.  He secretly yearns for those days and for a more humane society.  He knows there’s got to be a better way than how they’re surviving now.”

©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

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, there’s a lot of interplay about the very different cultures that they come from.  There are lots of opportunities for humor and misunderstanding.  It’s a special relationship because there’s 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.

There’s an interesting relationship with Tal Hajus because he’s sort of my second in command and is always challenging my decisions.  He’s 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, I’m in all of the scenes with Taylor Kitsch, who plays John Carter.  It’s not just motion capture on green screens.  And it makes a big difference.  It’s a big difference for the actors because everything is informed by the set; it’s not disjointed.  It gives a kind of integrity for the animators to work with as everything holds together as a piece.  I think that’s very important.  I’m not sure that’s ever been done to this degree.

©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

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, I’m actually creating material with my character for the actors and filmmakers to work with.  But then I’m also very dependent on the special effects guys and on the director to know what’s 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 I’m 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 I’m very dependent on knowing what the process is, what they need from me, but it’s 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; he’s demanding and he’s a detail guy.  There’s a very practical approach.  It’s all very tight, considering what we’re doing.  Though the scale is so massive, we move quite fast and we move decisively.  There’s not a lot of waiting around.  For a big film like this, it’s amazing how immediate the shooting is.

Image: Actor Willem Dafoe, photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez,  ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

What was your greatest challenge as an actor on this film? 

WD:         I can’t allow myself to become cynical about the fact that I’m doing something that’s 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.  There’s always that feeling of, “Oh, they can fix that later,” but you have to believe that what you’re doing does make a huge difference.  That’s why they hire actors for these roles.  That’s why we did a substantial amount of research.  That’s why we’re on stilts as opposed to platforms or just green screen and moving things around with a computer.  We’re 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 that’s the biggest thing.  Also, I find that because I’m so conscious of the fact that what I’m doing is going to be sent into the computer and is going to be shaped, it’s 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 you’re 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 you’re 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 couldn’t believe it.  The production design elements are so well integrated into the natural elements here in Utah.

Image: Willem Dafoe, Lynn Collins, and Taylor Kitsch at Disney’s D23 Expo, photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez,  ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

What has it been like like working with Taylor Kitsch?

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

What do you think audiences might love or find amazing in “John Carter”?  

WD:         It’s a grand adventure; it’s exotic; it’s 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, it’s 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 there’s 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 can’t embrace that?  I don’t think so because I think green men from Mars came from something in our imagination that had to be there in order for “Star Wars” to happen or “Avatar” to happen.

This is a very well imagined world that Edgar Rice Burroughs has created.  It’s 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 we’re willing to sacrifice.  It’s rich material.

I can imagine that the film will work for a very broad audience.  It works on lots of different levels because it’s complex, it’s dense and it’s 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 doesn’t pander.  “John Carter” was created from a very personal place.

©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

You’re so known for acting in dramas. Why “John Carter”?

WD:         Maybe I’m known for dramas, but I’ve made other kinds of movies, too.  I’m here for my pleasure and my interest.  This film is something that I’m interested in.  If it doesn’t fit into what’s expected of me, or what people want from me, that’s not my concern.  My concern is to help Andrew do the thing that he’s trying to do because I like what he’s doing.  I get great pleasure out of that and it’s very satisfying for me.

How is Andrew Stanton different from other directors you’ve worked with in live action?

WD:         The fact that Andrew’s 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.  He’s very knowledgeable about many things, but he doesn’t come off as a heavy intellectual.  He comes off as a very regular guy.  It’s 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.   It’s not gimmicky.  It’s rooted in a great story that is a classic narrative.

©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

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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.