At the start of the summer, TORn staffer greendragon had the chance to continue her series ‘Inside the Middle-earth actor’s studio’ – discussing the craft of acting (and other things!) with cast members from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings movies. This time she sat down with an actor who has been involved since the beginning of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films – the fabulous Jed Brophy. To celebrate the release of TORn’s new book Middle-earth Madness, which features this and other interviews, here’s your chance to read what Brophy had to say.
This is a LONG interview; the conversation went on for more than an hour, and covered topics ranging from how he started out in theatre and how he deals with acting in prosthetics, to what it’s like to have such devoted fans, and what we might expect in the third and final Hobbit film… This is part one of the interview – look for parts two and three later this week!
greendragon: Before we get on to discussing acting technique, let’s start by talking a little bit about The Hobbit. I know you’re not allowed to tell us anything about the third movie, but I will just ask you…
Jed Brophy: Did Peter say that? Because I’m allowed to say anything I want!
GD: Oh excellent! Then what can we expect?
JB: Well Nori basically saves the day. I think he saves Gandalf and he definitely saves Bilbo. He has a romance with Kili – kills Tauriel and has a romance with Kili… Then he and Fili have a big fight and he accidentally kills Fili; then Thorin comes around the corner and he accidentally kills Thorin.
GD: Don’t you hate it when that happens?! Were you surprised when they changed the title of the third film? Did you know that might be happening?
JB: I’m not sure what was wrong with the first title; I really liked ‘There and Back Again’, because I think it ties up the whole story, and ties it in to the book that Bilbo gives to Frodo in Lord of the Rings. But I think it all comes down to studios and how they like to market things; ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ makes it sound epic. I just think they’re kind of missing the point that the fans are going to go and see this anyway! That’s always been a strange thing, for me – that studios tend to get so worried about whether their following will go and see something that they’re really passionate about. I just think make a good film – the rest takes care of itself. Having said that, I don’t think ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ is a bad title for the film – but personally I liked ‘There and Back Again’.
GD: I can see an argument for it being the ‘overall’ title of all three films, as it’s the title of the whole book… For me, this is a petty thing, but I just wish they hadn’t put in the second ‘the’ – in the book it’s The Battle of Five Armies, and I think that flows more easily than ‘The Battle of THE Five Armies’…
JB: Yeah – Tolkien had a way with words, and why mess with it? I’m passionate about the literary works too, so I always find that stuff a little hard to take. Having said that, you know, when you sign up to be in a film you’re along for the ride, and you have to try and support it. I think they’ve done a really good job – I feel really lucky to be in the films. But yeah, there’s always that stuff that, for me who came to The Hobbit as a seven year old, those things in the book that impressed me will always have the lasting impact.
GD: Have you got any ideas what scenes might be in the Extended Edition for Desolation of Smaug? Is there any particular moment which didn’t make it into the Theatrical Cut, which you are hoping might be in the Extended Cut?
JB: I’m hoping there will be more stuff in Mirkwood Forest. We did a whole lot of stuff there, with carrying Bombur through the forest, and there was more stuff about becoming lost and befuddled, and a little more fighting. There’s also stuff at Beorn’s house which I think we really liked doing, stuff that’s straight from the book, which I think would be great for the fans of the literary work. It’s so hard to remember what I did or didn’t do now! I’m looking forward to seeing it, because even though it’s only two years ago, we shot some of that stuff out of sequence – when it was only going to be two films, we shot a lot of stuff together. So it’s quite difficult for us to try and remember… But certainly Mirkwood; we did a lot more work in Mirkwood than is in [the Theatrical Cut], and for me that was a big part of the book – this idea of them becoming lost and befuddled, and what they actually get out of… The sequence is very truncated in the film, so I’m hoping there will be a bit more of that.
GD: Lots of people have commented on seeing screen caps from Peter’s video blogs or early trailers which show Bombur being carried – I think that’s something the fans would like to see!
JB: Given that he was so hard to carry – he was really heavy!! [laughs] I think Graham McTavish was on one side and I was on the other side, so the whole thing was very out of kilter… And it was quite difficult to carry him through that set! When you’ve done something that was difficult to pull off, it’s always good to see it on the screen, rather than the cutting room floor! Hunter is not a wee man… [laughs] What we didn’t tell him is that we actually filled his costume full of rocks – we were quite mean to Stephen… That’s not true actually. You can print that! [laughs]
Adam Brown kept a very good photographic diary. He took photographs in a lot of places that we were in; some of them I hope to get copies of one day, for me – but I do hope that they don’t get out into the wider press. There’s a lot of stuff that you can’t really try to translate for an audience as to what it was like for us. It was such hard work that sometimes we kind of needed that private space too, just to get our heads back together, to carry on with this juggernaut. I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t worked on something this size realizes just how much it takes out of you, literally! It took me about a year to recover, at the end of filming – just to come back to a semblance of normality; because our reality became getting up at four o’clock in the morning and finishing work at nine at night, and being these stubby, little, hairy, overheated beings for a whole day! It really changed us, I think in most ways beneficially; but I do hope there’s a time when we can make films where we don’t have to feel quite that knackered all the time!
GD: It’s a point which I keep coming back to when I’m talking to folks from the cast. The fans feel so involved with the films, and rightly so – their passion is a large part of it. So they want to know every little detail; but some of the fans perhaps don’t realise just how unique an experience it is for the people who were actually there. However much one watches the blogs and reads everything etc, one cannot know what is was actually to be getting up at 4am every morning. The actual work experience of it…
JB: Yes, it’s unique – and not just for us, but for all those technical people who were there to support us as well. It would be great to make films like this all the time, but I just actually don’t think that you can humanly do it. It takes a lot out of the support network around it too; the people who are in charge of transport, for instance – they are so dead tired at the end of a shoot like this, because of the logistics of it. It’s like going to war! I guess it’s where life imitates art – because for those dwarves going on that journey, they would have been exactly how we felt at the end. I think that Peter Jackson – unknowingly – shot it exactly right, in terms of the mental and physical conditioning that we had to go through; it was what the dwarves had to go through as well, to get to where they were. Life does imitate art! But there’s a lot that goes into it that we would love to tell the fans but can’t really; we don’t want to spoil the magic! You have to keep something back, you know; you give a lot of yourself as an actor anyway, and each time you do a performance you lose a little bit of your soul… I know that sound weird to people who don’t do it, but you do; it’s not just a performance that you put up there. It’s your integrity as well. If you do a scene in a film that you’re not proud of, it’s there forever, for everyone to critique. That’s quite a full on thing. So it did change us all – and I think in a positive way – but also there is something that we have specially, as you say, that the raft of fans, and even the producers and the studios don’t really fully understand what it was that we went through as a group. Men and women who come back from wars – there’s this thing that they can’t really describe; and I think we have that. Which is great for us – but it is weird to not be able to pass that on to an audience. You can’t really put it into words; it’s not something you can even describe.
GD: I can imagine; so it must be nice when you do all have the chance to get together?
JB: Yeah! I saw Bernard Hill [Theoden] earlier this year, and he was saying wouldn’t it be great, ten years on, to get all of those Lord of the Rings folk back together? I think that would be an amazing thing! Not just the core cast, but all of the characters as well; even if it was just back for a day, for a meal somewhere… It’s always great to catch up with Mark [Ferguson] and Craig [Parker] and Bruce [Hopkins] and those people who are still doing the convention circuit; but there’s a whole raft of people that don’t do that… Yeah, I hope that I will remain friends with the people from The Hobbit forever, and I think that conventions are a way of reminding ourselves that they got together a group of really cool people, to play these great characters; that’s a mark of Peter, Fran and Philippa, that they do cast really good people. On the whole they’re people who are generous with their time, who want to do a good job for the fans and for the film makers, and who are passionate about the literature as well. That’s a remarkable thing about these films – the personnel involved, I think as much as the story. You’ve got a great story AND a great bunch of film makers, and a great bunch of personnel in the middle – it’s pretty hard to lose. It’d be pretty hard to mess it up.
GD: It seems clear to me that one of PJ’s great strengths is the caliber of people that he brings together, not just in terms of their talent but in terms of the personalities. Clearly to him it’s very important that, when you are going through that kind of arduous schedule, you’re with people with whom you want to be! It only takes one negative person to suck the life out of the project.
JB: It does really help that the Middle-earth franchise had this amazing fanbase who had high expectations. I think that high expectations are very important for an actor; I think you want to be challenged to do good work. We’ve all done plenty of work that we knew we were cruising through, and it’s not particularly fulfilling for your soul or for your craft; so when you’re given an opportunity of being at the high end of something and heading towards something really, really good, you do actually challenge yourself – and we challenged each other as a group as well. You know, there were a lot of times when it felt like we were just background extras; but then when you see it up on the screen you can see what Peter was doing. You have to have faith in him as a film maker as well; because a lot of what’s in the scene doesn’t get transferred on to us as actors. A lot of the time it does, but there’s a lot of times when we kind of felt like, ‘Well, what are we actually doing here?’ But you know, as a group, we kept the focus on making the product, rather than looking at what the negatives were. So I was very proud of being part of that group. I have to say, I felt that everybody was on the same page. And I think that Andy Serkis, saying one day, ‘You guys are all playing the game, you’re all playing the characters to the hilt!’ – for someone like Andy to say that, who I rate as being possibly the best actor I’ve ever worked with – that’s the kind of thing that keeps you going; your contemporaries saying, ‘What you’re doing is fantastic, you should keep doing it!’
GD: So tell me, how did you get into acting? How did you start out – what was your training, your early start in the business?
JB: I started as a farmer, and then I didn’t want to be working for my Dad, so I decided I would become a Physical Education teacher. So I went to Otago University to be a kinesiologist doing Sports Science. We were allowed to do some humanities papers as part of our degree, and drama seemed to me to be a simple thing to pass, and as there were only two or three guys, you would get good parts, get to be with a lot of young women, and you would probably pass. Having signed up for that drama thing, I got hooked; so I was three years into a four year degree, and kind of ended up going sideways into drama. I thought I could teach drama and Phys Ed. Once I got up on stage, and there was an audience reacting to what I was doing, and enjoying it, I was totally beholden! It’s one of those things – if you’ve never done live performances, it’s very hard to explain to people just what that feeling of getting a story right, and entertaining someone and having them realise what all the hard work has been, what it does for you; it’s an amazing thing! You know, I’ve taught a lot of young kids drama and seen how it helps them; but as an adult, being able to make a living doing that? – it’s pretty cool.
So I went to drama school in Wellington for two years, then graduated and I’ve been acting ever since.
GD: So did you finish the Phys Ed degree?
JB: I’d have to go back and do probably a year’s worth of practical labs, which you can only do in Ottaga. But I have no interest now. I’ve used the physical stuff that I learnt a lot in my job, but I don’t need to do that last little bit, unless I was going to be a Sports Scientist.
GD: Was your earliest work in theatre or film?
JB: It was in theatre – three or four years of theatre before I cracked the film industry! I went straight from drama school to Centerpoint Theatre in Palmerston North to work there, and then came back to Wellington for two years, and then I heard about a film called Once on Chunuk Bair being made, which is based on a Maurice Shadbolt play about the New Zealand soldiers in Gallipoli. I’d been part of a group of people doing it for radio, and so I said I wanted an audition. My agent said there were no parts; so I drove out to where they were doing the auditions, and got myself to the floor where they were doing it, and walked in there and not demanded, but asked for an audition – and got cast on the spot! And whilst working on that, got cast in Peter Jackson’s film Braindead – and the rest kind of took care of itself, really! I wasn’t that mad keen to be a film actor, but that particular film Chunuk Bair was a subject matter that I was really interested in; so I thought, ‘Well, if you can do both – if I could do theatre and film, then I’ll do that!’ I’ve never really done a lot of tv and it’s not really my thing – but certainly theatre and film I love doing.
GD: Clearly you’ve always been a physical person, with your Phys Ed and Sports Science background; and obviously now you have a lot of expertise in stage combat and the physical side of acting. Did you just learn that on the job, or did you study that separately?
JB: I think growing up on a farm, in terms of the physical stuff you have to do on a New Zealand farm, you’re an athlete, having to shear sheep and drive tractors and herd sheep and do all that kind of thing with cattle and horses – and growing up on horseback. I had a huge advantage compared with my fellow actors, that I had had that as my background for all my life, until I was 20. None of what I’ve done physically in the film industry is new to me, except for the sword fighting, which we learnt at drama school. Having done martial arts and having boxed, all of that martial training is something which I can pick up pretty easily. Physically I’m a natural mimic; if you show me something once I can probably do it, or at least try and replicate it. It’s something I’ve taken for granted, until I got to work with Peter, and realised that actually it has created a fantastic job arc for me; because he likes visceral actors. He likes actors who can do their own physical performances… Then moving into motion capture with people like Andy Serkis, I realized that actually those capabilities were something I took for granted, that most actors have to work at; and I do work and I do stay fit, I do physical training with my son and I work with a stunt girl to keep that up, because you do lose it. You lose the ability to do sword fights unless you’re doing them all the time; it’s much easier if you can just keep it going. It’s also a sanity thing – in between jobs, I can say that I’m training on something. It’s something that keeps you going between jobs… It can be quite a depressing thing, being an actor, because on average you’re made redundant every six weeks! So you have to constantly prove yourself to a new group of people. But if you can keep some sort of training regime up in between, it keeps you quite well toned – like voice training, like anything. So I’ve had a lifetime of training to become an actor, really!
My mother played piano and we always had music in the house. All of us kids played musical instruments; and that’s … being able to get up on stage with people like Billy [Boyd] and play music – that’s my passion! If I had my time over I’d probably become a musician; I think that’s a great way of making a living and imparting an amazing message to people. Theatre is quite close to what music does, but there’s nothing like being in a band and playing up on stage and having a group of people just going wild on the dance floor; that’s a very fulfilling thing! And I think that as a group [of actors], when we travel to these conventions, that kind of background – being able to entertain and having that theatre background is very crucial to the fans having a good time. We’ve created … over the last fifteen years, there’s been a whole new way that conventions are run now, where it’s a lot more entertainment and a lot less of signing autographs. I think that’s a really positive thing as well.
GD: Craig Parker said to me that it makes you feel less like a whore! If all you’re doing is signing a picture you’re just selling yourself; whereas if you come and actually do what you do, entertain people, it feels a lot more legit!
JB: [laughs] Yeah! It’s great for the fanbase too, to understand that we’re not just the characters they see up on screen, that there is a whole raft of other things that we do! That’s the other thing I think that Peter and Fran have done very well – a lot of the people they have up on screen are theatre actors. They come from a theatre background; especially in the UK. All of those actors started in theatre; and it really shows, when you’re doing something of a theatrical nature, something that is larger than life. Tolkien’s work isn’t day to day reality. It’s a heightened fantasy, and if you’ve got people who are skilled in that anyway, it makes the job a lot easier! You get a lot of improvisation which occurs on the screen because of that. Coming back to working on the film, Peter likes if you can have some sort of organic input, if you can come up with some shtick – because he’s got a vision of how the camera works and how the scene is, but he doesn’t always know exactly how the tête-a-tête, the to-ing and fro-ing between the characters is going to work, so having that ability, having jumped up on stage and not being afraid to do it, you get a better body of work out of it, I think.
GD: It’s more fulfilling for everyone, when the creation of the art is an organic process; as a director, if you’re bringing everything to the table, that can just become a slog. But if you’re bringing something that inspires your actors, and they give something back which inspires you in turn … you want people who have something to offer in that improvised, creative way.
JB: Yeah. We do a lot of devising theatre here, where a writer or director will come up with an idea for a project, and there will be sign posts which you have to meet in each scene, but a lot of it is left up to the actors to get that journey underway, and to work out how to resolve conflict within a scene. Then the writer will go away and write the script from that; and I think that film makers in this country are doing a lot more of that too, like Jemaine Clements and Taika Waititi, and Bret McKenzie and those guys – Flight of the Conchords work a lot in that way. It’s not a uniquely New Zealand thing, but I think for some reason we as kiwis have picked up on that being a very useful tool, not just in theatre but also in our film work.
Part Two of this interview coming later this week!