How Andrew Stanton Assembled His Cast for Disney’s “John Carter”

Ahead of the February 22 World Premiere of “John Carter,” Walt Disney Studios released this detailed behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film’s production.  Continue after the break for insights from Director Andrew Stanton on how he cast the epic movie, as well as thoughts from the cast members themselves.  Keep watching “Adventures by Daddy” in the days to come for more backstage glimpses of Disney’s “John Carter,” and click here for a compilation of all the press releases, images, trailers, cast Q&A, and news for the film.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

Director Andrew Stanton had very specific ideas on how he wanted to cast the movie.  “When I see a movie like this, with such big, iconic leading roles, I don’t want to already associate the actor with somebody else,” he says.  “I want to believe the character 100%.  When we started the casting process, I felt that finding actors who had yet to be discovered fully would be a real perk.  Taylor [Kitsch] is a natural talent; he has incredible instincts and such great, raw qualities to work with.

L to R: John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Director Andrew Stanton Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


“I felt like the luckiest guy in town to have captured his fire before everyone else had saturated it.  He was exactly what I wanted for the role of Carter: viral, charismatic…and dark. And you would be hard-­‐pressed to find an actor with his work ethic—he  brings 150% every time he has to come up to the plate,” Stanton adds.

Taylor Kitsch credits Andrew Stanton’s take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original source material for the complexity of the John Carter character.  “What Andrew Stanton has done is taken the base of Burroughs’ work, including the lack of gravity, the strength Carter finds he has and everything that Mars represents  in  the  original source  material and then gone into further depth with the characters and their backgrounds,” he comments.

“He has given me so much to dive into—it has been great to draw so much information about my character from his script.”

Behind the Scenes: Stunt Coordinator Tom Struthers was delighted and amazed that Taylor Kitsch did 98% of his own stunt work, including an 85-foot jump in the learning-to-walk sequence, a 65-foot jump in the arena, battling the ferocious white apes, and a 250- foot long series of jumps in the Martian wilderness.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Kitsch was delighted to have an opportunity to work with Stanton and was very impressed with the unique way in which Stanton directs his actors.  “Andrew is unlike anyone else I have worked with before because he will direct me differently from the way he directs Willem [Dafoe], Samantha [Morton]or any of the other actors,” he says.  “He  knows what is going to work for me and me  only.  It is very personal and collaborative because he trusts me as much as I have to trust him.”

When asked to reflect on his most enjoyable scene in the film, Kitsch responds, “The Great White Ape scene is probably something I will never forget—just the energy in the arena was really great.  When I went for the screen test, Stanton showed me the Great White Apes and I knew then that scene would be epic.  If we have all done our jobs, I think it will be awesome.  The stakes are incredibly high for that scene; it represents something huge to my character and for the overall arc of the film, and I loved that.”

White Apes, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, center) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


When  Stanton went on the hunt for the perfect person to play Princess Dejah Thoris, he had definite ideas.  “For Dejah Thoris, I needed to find someone who you just believe is that intelligent, that strong and has royal blood running through her veins,” he says.  “When Lynn came into the casting room, she had that quality right away and I was fascinated with it,” he recalls.  “We called her back for a more serious casting and the minute I saw her read against Taylor, it was like Cinderella’s foot going into the slipper.  She is one of the most passionate actors I have ever encountered and teamed with Taylor the dynamic is incredible.  It was miraculous casting because I have benefited from the two of  them throughout filming.”

Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Lynn Collins explains how she and Taylor Kitsch approached their on-screen relationship.  “The most important thing about this relationship is the chemistry,” she says.  “You have to take a person from Mars and a person from Earth and determine how their opposing characteristics will work, how they will gel, how they conflict, and what they will find attractive.  It is a dance when these characters come together and when they are apart.”

L to R: John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Collins admits that she was intimidated at first by the physical demands of her role.  “I was pretty nervous about coming in and doing a lot of the physical work. There are extensive amounts of fighting and wirework. I had this terrible fear of heights but that has been completely dashed now because of this movie. Taylor’s character, John Carter, can jump huge distances and a lot of these jumps involved holding me, so of course I’m flung everywhere!  It is physically  demanding  but it is so comforting to have a director that you trust and you know that the hard work you put in is going to pay off.”

Working with director Andrew Stanton was a hugely positive experience for Collins.  “I have such tremendous faith in Andrew that any anxiety is just taken away from me. I trust him and his vision entirely,” she says.  “Andrew has an incredible mind and he is the type of artist who has no ego. He is really just about the work and facilitating the story.  As an actor, I appreciate that so much because my process is made easier when the director is clear. He knows this story and what he wants to accomplish.”

Director Andrew Stanton watches Lynn Collins (Dejah) and Taylor Kitsch (Carter). A Stage, Shepperton Studios, UK ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


In “John Carter” there are underlying themes that are very contemporary and those themes drew Lynn Collins to the role.  “The social conflicts portrayed on Mars are true to some of the issues we have on the planet today,” Collins explains.  “Thematically it is incredibly contemporary, which is one of the reasons why I was so attracted to the material.  Hopefully the audience will come out of the theater not just having had the ride of their life and falling in love with these great characters but also thinking about their own actions and our actions as a society.”

On working with his co-star Lynn Collins, Kitsch enthuses, “Lynn is just a ton of fun; the energy she brings to Dejah and what that represents is incredible.  She has brought a great balance of fieriness and beauty to the role because her character is on such a driven path.  Trust is everything to an actor and as a good friend, I trust Lynn immensely.  It has been great to work with her.”

L to R: Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church), Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Andrew Stanton also enjoyed the opportunity to work with coveted actor Willem Dafoe, who plays Thark leader Tars Tarkas. “The character Willem [Dafoe] plays is an older, noble character that commands respect regardless of losing stature in his tribe.  Willem brings that same kind of aura on set through his pedigree, his filmography and his history—he is actually really like that as a person,” the director comments.  “It was fascinating during the rehearsals when all the actors were in the same room together, everyone suddenly raised their game.  Willem unintentionally sets a great example of class and maturity for the rest of the cast to aspire to.”

One of the main factors that drew Dafoe into the “John Carter” fold was the fact that Stanton was directing. Commenting  on working with Stanton in the past, he says,  “I worked with Andrew [Stanton] on ‘Finding Nemo,’ and even though I was doing a voice, I found Andrew to be incredibly well researched. He knows every shot, every process— he’s an incredible multitasker.”

On the subject of working with Stanton again but this time on a live-­‐action film, Dafoe comments, “One of the biggest pleasures of doing ‘John Carter’ is to work with Andrew [Stanton] on this scale, with a story that has a vast popular appeal but doesn’t pander. I think because of his background in animation and all those years at Pixar,  he has a personal approach to filmmaking. He’s made wildly popular films, but he seems driven by his own curiosity and pleasure. He works with great detail  supported  by constant research. He’s knowledgeable about so many things—yet he has a boyish love for classic movies.”

L to R: Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Dafoe was not daunted at all about the prospect of playing the tall, four-­armed leader of the Tharks.  “I was excited that ‘John Carter’ was a big movie and at the  prospect of playing a nine-­foot tall Martian warrior.  When Andrew showed me the designs for the world of the movie, the beauty of it struck me.  I liked the cast that was already in place and I knew the Tars role would be a physically demanding one.  I sometimes miss the physical challenges in movie roles but ‘John  Carter’ promised lots of physical performance element – not only would I perform on three foot stilts, we had to develop a vocabulary of gesture and the Martian  spoken language which is used in part of the film.”

Dafoe shares much of his screen time with Taylor Kitsch who plays John Carter.  Describing their characters’ relationship, he says, “Tars has a touching coming-­together with John Carter through the story.  There’s humor as well.  They are a very odd couple—even just visually—and when they team up, there is a lot of interplay reflecting their very  different cultures, which creates lots of opportunities for comedy and misunderstanding.”

Dafoe has nothing but praise for Taylor Kitsch’s talent and work ethic.  “He brings an ease and confident heroism to the role,” he says.  “Taylor is the workhorse of the movie—he is in almost every scene.  He is very practical and his approach is very committed.  Special requirements are made from him physically—he has got to be something of a dancer and a very good physical actor to deal with all the wire work and stunts, which I think he accomplished outstandingly well.”

L to R: Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Sola (Samantha Morton) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


When it came to casting the part of Sola, the female Thark assigned to care for John Carter, Stanton was very pleased to find Samantha Morton, who he felt embodied many of Sola’s qualities.  “Sam similarly has great parallels with her character, Sola,” he says.  “Sam has great vulnerability and a mothering quality to her that is genteel and accepting.”

When Morton read the script, she admits to being “happy and surprised.”  Morton recalls, “It made me laugh and it made me cry, and it made me want to read it again instantly, which I did.  I thought it was just brilliant.  I genuinely felt that it had a different ingredient to the normal action-­adventure sagas and there seemed to me to be some solid roots for some incredibly well-structured characters.”

L to R: Woola, Sola (Samantha Morton) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Morton feels there is a responsibility attached to playing an already well-­known and loved literary character.  “In my career, I have played characters that have been famous, Jane Eyre being one of them, and you feel that there is a huge responsibility inherent in playing somebody that is greatly loved because so many people have an opinion on the character,” she says.  “Coming on board this project, I was aware that everybody would have their own opinion on what Sola would be like because when you read a book it is so personal—it is you in the story and your imagination.”

Prepping with her fellow Thark actors was a very important and necessary process for Morton, who says, “Andrew [Stanton] was committed to giving us proper rehearsal time so we could talk about the characters and find who we were as a race by working together, performing together and practicing our Thark voices together.  We had a couple of weeks together where we could have fun with it, saying ‘maybe they move like this,’ or ‘maybe they talk like this’—it was an absolutely invaluable creative process.”

On working with Andrew Stanton, Morton says,  “How amazing to have a director like Andrew [Stanton] on a film like this. Very often the director is preoccupied with figuring out all the shots but I get the sense with Andrew, perhaps because of his animation background, that he has already planned everything out.  As an actor, when you get that from a director, you can just fall into his or her arms because you feel so safe—and that is very rare.”

Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Thomas Haden Church takes on the role of another Thark, Tal Hajus, a brutal warrior, who wants to displace Tars Tarkas as leader of the tribe.  Inspired to be working with Andrew Stanton, he comments, “As a director, I love Andrew’s sense of storytelling.  He has a very childlike fascination with telling these life-­affirming stories and he tells them with humor and drama.”

Haden Church was also excited to work with the talented cast of “John  Carter.”  “Willem Dafoe is such a personal hero for me as an actor,” he says.  “Probably the first movie I really loved was ‘To Live and Die in L.A.,’ and then that led to ‘Platoon’ and I would just study his performances.  I’m not overstating that—Willem is one of a handful of actors that inspired me to pursue acting as a career.  Just to have the opportunity to work with him on this movie is incredible.

Samantha Morton is a stand-­out talent,” he continues.  “So much comes  through her eyes and how she so delicately controls her emotions and her physical acting. She brings a whole other level that is unbelievably expressive, heart-­rendering and tragic.  I may never fully comprehend, so I just stand back and appreciate the light she is shining on the world.  She is just sensational.”

Matai Shang (Mark Strong) with Warhoons ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


The filmmakers chose Mark Strong to play Matai Shang, the mysterious leader of the Therns.  Describing his character’s motives, Strong  says, “I do not think of Matai Shang as malign.  The way Andrew [Stanton] brings the Thern characters to life and makes them three-­dimensional is by giving them a purpose, and Matai’s purpose is to create order in the Universe.  What he sees himself doing is right.  At first he simply sees John Carter as something that is getting in the way of that.  In Matai’s mind, he doesn’t think of himself as wrong.”

The Victorian view of the future intrigued Strong and, for him, was one of the most compelling draws of the “John Carter“ project.  “What is wonderful about the film and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ view of the future is that it is a Victorian’s view of space and another planet,” he says.  “It is not the one that you get when you adapt a comic book. In this version the guys still have swords and they still have helmets, but they look almost art deco.  I think that is why this particular film fascinates me.  It is a Victorian’s view of science fiction.”

Behind The Scenes: 383 yards of material were used for just one of Matai Shangʼs silver Thern robes and the robe took approximately 250 man-hours to make by hand.

Strong feels that the story encompasses the elements that make all great stories epic.  He explains, “There are tribes at war, there is a love story, there is a malign influence trying to prevent our hero from carrying out what he needs to do.  It is about identity and about your place in the world and in the universe.  On a very simple story level, it is about a man trying to discover who he is, what he wants, and fighting against all odds to keep it.

“One of the most interesting ideas is that a human being needs to travel to Mars in order to find out about himself and his humanity.  I think it is no accident that, by moving away from the human race, John Carter is able to discover what is important in our spiritual world and in the universe, not just Earth,” says Strong.

Working with Andrew Stanton, Mark Strong was impressed by the director’s energy and focus for the project.  “I remember at a meeting that Andrew and I had at the very beginning, the thing that struck me most of all was Andrew’s enthusiasm,” he recalls. “And that hasn’t waned the whole time we have been shooting, which is phenomenal.  It is an incredibly draining, exacting experience to direct a movie of this size.  He has been utterly consistent in the enthusiasm and belief he has communicated to the actors, which has made the work a joy.”

Sab Than (Dominic West) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Dominic West signed on to play Sab Than, the leader of the Zodangans, whose mission is to defeat Helium and conquer its people.  Talking about what attracted him to the “John Carter” project, West says, “Andrew Stanton is the main reason I wanted to work on this film.  He is definitely one of the greatest filmmakers around at the moment.  Having met him and seen his amazingly thorough approach to his work, and understanding how fully realized and enthusiastic he is about this particular story, I was delighted when he cast me in the film.”

Sab Than (Dominic West) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


West is excited to portray a colorful character who is involved in huge action scenes.  “I haven’t done many action movies, most of my work tends to be language-­based because I do a lot of theater, so I was very attracted to the idea of immersing myself in an almost completely action role,” he says.

“I did about two weeks of solid fight training.  I had to get the style of the Zodangan sword fighting down and I had three fights that we needed to choreograph.  The rest was a lot of wire work—I was in the circus about ten years ago, so that came fairly easily to me and was great to get back in to,” West concludes.

L to R: Kantos Kan (James Purefoy), Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Rounding out the talented cast of “John Carter” are Polly Walker as Sarkoja, Ciaran Hinds as the King of Helium, Tardos Mors; James Purefoy as Kantos Kan, Captain of the Helium Air Navy, and Daryl Sabara as young Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Again, “Adventures by Daddy” will be releasing more behind-the-scenes information leading up to the March 9th opening of Disney’s “John Carter.”  For more adventure movie news, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

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.