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 Part Two of a long interview; you can find Part One here. Third and final part later this week!
greendragon: When you’re first preparing a character, how do you approach it? With your physical background, are you someone who thinks about the character’s movement first? Where do you begin?
Jed Brophy: A bit of both, really. I’m a bit of a watcher, so I’ll ride the train and get some notes on how my character may be from people that I see that I think are in a similar situation, psychologically or financially or whatever. A lot of it is what the other characters say about you in the script which informs you; quite often it’s interesting to see the way that the other characters refer to you – it gives you a great idea of status. For me status is the most important thing – where you fit in to the group. Especially with this project – that was very elementary, in terms of knowing where Nori fitted within these thirteen other people. Obviously he’s quite low status, because he’s not part of Thorin’s immediate family or wider group, people like Gloin and Oin, who are of that generation. Given that he was a thief, he wasn’t really part of his own family – so I started with that thing of him slightly being an outsider. And that informs you physically too; always looking for an exit! Every scene that I was in, I was always looking around to see where I could get out. I don’t trust these dwarves yet to look after me, because I’ve always had to look after myself. Also it helped being a little more nimble, a bit quicker – it’s that thing of having to be light on his feet to get out of situations, living rough; and also having that hardiness, and not taking a backwards step from people, not being cowed by anything; the fact that he’s been on his own. So yeah, I tend to start with the script and see what information about the character is there.
The physical stuff, we were lucky enough to be able to do it together; and actually when you watch other people physically creating dwarf characters, we had a leg up – because we could watch what other people were doing and go, ‘Oh I like that! I really like that kind of heavy weight thing that you’ve got going on in the boots. I really like what Richard is doing in terms of being upright, but down and through his belly…’ – and then trying that stuff out. We got eight weeks to try it out, with Terry Notary giving us notes on whether he thought we were doing a good job or not! Then the proof is when you get it in front of Peter – and he says, ‘I don’t like any of it!’ [laughs] We were lucky though, that he and Fran and Philippa gave really detailed notes right at the beginning of the very first meeting, as to how they saw our characters in the hierarchy; and also some of the physical dimensions and some of the physical tricks and abilities that they had, that set them apart. It’s much easier when you get a wealth of stuff. We also had Alan [Lee] and John [Howe] with just amazing artworks, and there were a lot of illustrations done by various artists from Weta and from Wingnut films and various other people; so we were very lucky. Actually we had kind of too much – it was then filtering out the stuff that was useful…
GD: I’m interested in what you said about Nori’s status; how he’s an outsider, and certainly not a member of one of the more ‘aristocratic’ dwarven families… But in his own mind, do you think he has quite a high status?
JB: Yes. When you become ostracized… I think the thing with him picking stuff up and keeping it is a reflex; it’s that thing of when you are living rough, that ‘that might be useful later on, I’ll keep that…’ It hasn’t really come from him being disrespectful to his family, as such. He has a lot of personal pride; he won’t take a backwards step for anyone, especially of another race… elves, you can bring it on! We’re going to have it! You know, he knows orcs and wargs are bad. It’s not necessarily that he wants to fight them, but he knows they’re bad, he knows what they are. So yeah, I think he’s got a lot of pride in the fact that he has kept himself alive outside of his dwarven family, and outside of his settlement, if you like. I think they all do; I think there’s a genetic arrogance about the dwarves. They know their history; they know that they were made by their god [Aulë] before the elves – they were here first, and they carry themselves with that… It comes from Thorin too; when your leader is so staunchly strong about who he is and what his entitlement is, that does filter down to the rest. But I think genetically the dwarves have that… it’s maybe not a particularly attractive trait, to the other races – especially to elves! But we don’t know any different.
GD: Tolkien makes that clear; the arrogance and stubbornness amongst the dwarves…
JB: And anything that comes out of the ground is ours! The fact that we gave it to the elves – we’re only lending it! The idea that the elves have these things – well, if it came out of the ground, it actually belongs to us.
GD: And we see that in The Silmarillion, where the dwarves are offended because the elves pass dwarvish made treasure down to their descendants; and the dwarves say, ‘No, you had it, but once you go, we get it back! You don’t get to pass it on to anyone!’ [This refers to the Nauglamír, in ‘Of the Ruin of Doriath’.]
JB: They end up killing the king [Thingol] in his own vaults, and taking back the treasure that they made for him… Yeah, I think that is very true of dwarves with each other as well. If Nori takes something from you – ‘It’s mine now, mate!’ You’re not getting it back!
JB: [laughs] I’ve heard so many different stories! Paul Tobin did the design for it, but he did a number of designs, and that was the one that Peter really liked. I think he really liked the idea of Nori having that kind of vanity… that he would take that much time to do his hair, a bit like the Fonz does, you know? I have to say, I wasn’t sure… When I first saw it I was like, ‘Ah man, the fans are going to hate this…’ That’s the first thing that goes through your head, you know? Because in my view, that wasn’t what I saw when I closed my eyes and saw the dwarves. I didn’t see someone with a starfish hairdo! But having said that, you can always see where Nori is! You can always pick up where he is and what he’s doing in the film; I think it’s great that they went for such a distinctive look. I know that myself, before I was even cast, one of my big fears was, ‘They’re all going to be like Gimli, and only two of them will speak’ – like in the book. So the fact that they made them so iconic is a really good thing.
GD: Even in silhouette, you can immediately tell which dwarf is which! How they would differentiate these dwarves was certainly something the fans talked about a lot, before the film came out; because in the book they are not particularly delineated…
JB: No! They’re a big lump of plasticine, with one speaking head, really! Thorin, Balin and Dwalin are really the only ones who actually talk in the book at all. You know, there are lots of complaints from fans that we should have had more to say; but I think that was one part of the filming process that I was quite pleased that they stuck to, the fact that we had a clear leader and some clear spokesmen, and the rest of us had our own little jobs. Really we were there for the sole purpose of getting across this barrier and regaining some sense of entitlement and our sense of history… Having said that, Nori is there for one thing, and that’s himself and the money! It’s not until probably two thirds of the way through that I really start to see Thorin as my king; it’s that thing of, ‘You better prove yourself to me, mister!’ Nori’s at the back quite a lot, kind of going, ‘OK Thorin, you think you’re all that, but you’re a bit nuts, for a start! You’re slightly overbearing… and you lose your way all the time!’ [laughs] ‘And you’ve got some guy who’s a burglar! I’m a burglar, mate – you don’t need this little guy!’
GD: I always wondered how Nori feels about that! In the second film, when they first reenter Erebor through the hidden door, and Thorin says, ‘That, Master Burglar, is why you are here!’ – in that shot, Nori happens to be standing right by him, and I always wonder what Nori’s thinking at that point… ‘I should be the one doing this!’
JB: Yeah, he is thinking that. But he’s thinking it in a way that he would never let anyone else know. The dwarves are very good hiding… – it helps having a prosthetic piece on your head actually, because you can hide a lot! – the dwarves are very good at hiding their inner feelings. It’s something that they would never let on; it’s something that they may use, further down the line, in a spiteful way, but I don’t think that they would ever say it out loud. ‘I’m the burglar! This guy? – he’s useless!’ Clearly Nori, although he’s good at some things – sleight of hand – there are some things he’s not as good at. Disappearing, for instance – he can’t make himself invisible! He’s not sure how this guy is such a good burglar – I think there’s a little bit of suspicion actually…
GD: In the way that you’ve created Nori in the film, why is there that distance between him and his brothers [Ori and Dori]?
JB: It’s more that he feels he’s let the family name down. He also hasn’t been there for his brother Ori. He’s been away from the family, and there’s a little bit of guilt tied up in that. Ori knows nothing about being a dwarf; he’s not a particularly robust fighting person! Part of that is that I let my older brother mother him! Dori really doesn’t want any harm to come to anyone; he would rather we all stayed at home, smoking a pipe in front of the fire – even though he’s quite a vicious warrior himself. I don’t think he wants Ori to have that experience… And I think a lot of that distance comes from Nori going, ‘I really need to work out how I fit back into this family dynamic. I know I don’t like my older brother; I’d like to get to know my younger brother!’ But they never get a chance! All this stuff gets thrown on them from day one; the moment they leave Bag End, really, they’re on their own. So a lot of that stuff gets put on the back burner.
GD: So how does Nori find the time to do his hair every morning?!
JB: That’s a question that has never been clearly answered by the director for me! I have asked on a number of occasions, ‘Will there be a scene of us doing our hair?’ And you just never get an answer! [laughs] I think for fans it would have been interesting at a campfire scene, to have – I think probably Dori does everyone’s hair… And the beards, too! The beards would take hours – and I think Peter probably didn’t want to make a five hour film, with an hour just of dwarves plaiting…
GD: Perhaps in the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey, in the scene at Rivendell where we catch a glimpse of you all having a bath in the fountains, perhaps some hair doing went on after that…?
JB: [laughs] I’m glad that that made it in! Because there were a lot of people who didn’t want that scene to make it into the film; but I’m really glad that it did…
GD: Obviously you’ve played a lot of roles, particularly with Peter, where you have not really been recognizable, where you’ve been under a lot of prosthetic – even more so than you are in the Hobbit movies! Which do you find easier: performing where it’s just your face that you have to work with, or performing where you can really be hidden underneath something else, and be perhaps liberated, in a way? (And I suppose the most liberated would be performance capture, where it’s not going to be you at all in the end, other than the energy you’ve brought to the character….)
JB: They’re all very similar. A lot of people look at the demarcation between those various aspects… Being a creature actor, as we call it, you are using your physical self a lot more than perhaps you would in a theatre piece, where you’re relying on expressions or what you’re thinking. Certainly in film where you’re not in prosthetics, if you think it, it shows on screen. If you’re wearing a prosthetic, that isn’t true anymore; you have to work the prosthetic, and make it more of a non-human thing. I think that’s the trick; a lot of the time when you’re stuck in prosthetics, you’re not playing a human character, so what you’re trying to find is what differentiates that species. What differentiates that creature from having a human emotion; what are our emotions, as the creature – and trying to portray that, through the rubber. It wasn’t my choice to be a creature actor; it just kind of ended up that way, that I had an ability that Peter really liked…
My philosophy of acting is just to act; take whatever job comes up and not worry too much about whether it’s going to be useful for my career down the line or what it might do to get me a job on the next gig. So I guess that part of it I don’t think about too much. It’s just that challenge of being able to read through the prosthetic is very difficult; you have to have a quite flexible face. Andy Serkis has the most flexible face in the industry! When you do motion capture, you do a range of character emotions on your face, and I think most of us have a bank of about 250 to maybe 300 expressions. Andy’s are in the thousands! The subtlety that he can get into his expressions, because of the way that he can move his face, is extraordinary. And that’s the challenge – that’s the similarity between prosthetic acting and motion capture. With motion capture, you are creating believable emotions through a computer generated model, and you have to work it a lot harder than you would do just sitting talking to you like this. In fact, there’s a kind of saying in film that less is more; the less you do with your face, the easier it is to watch, because your eye is going to be huge on screen. That’s the, ‘Just think and it will come.’ Having said that, when you watch Ian McKellen playing Gandalf, his face is incredibly expressive; and I think again, because he’s playing a slightly non-human creature, playing a wizard, that makes things become heightened. So it totally depends on the genre. I would prefer to be just me; I would prefer to not have the prosthetics. It’s an arduous thing to put on every day; it adds hours to your day. And as you say, in terms of your viability as an actor, it’s all about selling your profile; it’s a lot harder when you have to tell people who you were in a film!
GD: What you say about Andy – he reminds me of Rowan Atkinson; he’s a great comedian and wrote brilliant material, but when you think about ‘Mr Bean’, a large part of what makes that so funny is his facial expressions – what he can do with that almost rubber face that he has! Andy is very similar; incredibly expressive.
JB: Yes, there’s no doubt; and using that ability, he’s advanced the technology for making films. I don’t think, personally, that motion capture will ever take over live action filming; I think actually there are subtleties that you have, human emotions that we have subconsciously that we don’t even know, which are from a lifetime of socialization. You can’t distil that into a single performance. Andy has wisely said – and Peter has too – that there are limitations to what motion capture can do; and I think that’s a good thing. For me, the films I love to watch are small films with three or four actors, acting their pants off! For me, that is the most satisfying film; I’m not a great fan of the huge CGI extravaganzas, because I know how that stuff’s done. There’s no magic in it for me, because I’ve seen how it’s done behind the scenes. Whereas someone being able to… you know, there’s a reason why we all loved Phillip Seymour Hoffman, there’s a reason why we all love Viggo, there’s a reason why people like Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett, we want to see them on film. It’s because they bring something else that not all actors have. You know, we talk about A-listers; for me, the A-listers are not the people who earn the big money. They’re the people who can inhabit any character. It doesn’t really matter what Cate plays – you believe it. For some reason, she just brings and honesty and an integrity; and I think all actors are trying and striving for that in their work – and that’s a lot harder when you’re stuck behind a layer of rubber!
I did a film [The Dead Room] at the beginning of this year where I played a man who was a ghost hunter, and that was one of the most satisfying jobs, because it was just three actors. No creature – it was all just talked about and referred to, and it was our reactions to whatever was there. That was pure acting; and I think that’s what we all love to do.
GD: I was just rewatching the Macbeth that McKellen did with the Royal Shakespeare Company back in the 1970s, with Judi Dench – which was such a fascinating production! On the DVD, there’s a 45 minute interview with McKellen talking about that production, and he says there how what was so great in that production was how minimal it was. Because it was in a very small venue [The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon] with only about 100 seats in it, the acting could be more filmic, as the audience were so close they could see everything; there was no need make it big. So they could just strip it all away, which is, as you say, the most satisfying kind of work…
JB: I’ve heard a lot of people say they didn’t like Ed Sheeran’s song, ‘I see fire’. It’s such a simple and beautiful piece of music, because it’s just him and a guitar, and some violins. To me, it’s the simplicity which he brought to it – it just goes straight to the heart. I think that’s what we’re all aiming for; and I think all actors that you talk to, who worked on The Hobbit, would say the same thing about Ian. He’s way up there; it’s like being in a masterclass, watching him, because of the subtlety that he brought to the role – but also the integrity. He was wanting that to be totally believable, not just for himself but for his fellow actors. I mean, what you try to do when you have a relationship on a film set is actually to have a conversation that is real, so that the audience read that as being the first time that you’ve heard it; the first time that Gandalf has said something to the dwarves, the first time that we’ve been in danger… It’s a lot harder on film, because you’ve got all the technical things layered on top of that, and you may do fifteen takes before you get one that Peter actually likes in terms of the drama that’s happening, so you do have to fabricate a lot more than in theatre. The immediacy that you get in theatre is a lot more honest, I think, and it’s what we all try to attain when we do film. If you have a good director – if you have someone like Peter, who casts a group of people and lets them play a bit, you can get magic happening.
GD: It’s that space to play – that’s what boggles my mind about film! In theatre you have the time to get yourself into the place, mentally, where you want to be; but it seems to me that on a film set, so often you won’t have that time. It’s, ‘Let’s go again!’, and you’ve got to get back to some other mindset in the scene, jumping around… So to allow the cast that space, to grow something together, must be very helpful; and it’s evident, on the screen.
JB: Yeah, it is. Doing this horror film The Dead Room at the beginning of the year, we would make the crew go away while we got the drama happening between the characters to a point where we felt it was believable for us, in terms of that it was a real conversation; it wasn’t actors reading lines anymore. Then we’d get them back and they would watch it, and then we’d film it; and it was from the way that Peter works, the way that he does that. He will clear the set, and get all the actors and actually run it like a play. Maybe he doesn’t know that he’s doing it, because he’s not a theatre director, but essentially what he’s doing is allowing us to block a scene, in the same way that you do theatre – then go away and have a think about it, in terms of being able to up the ante… And then he can just tweak. He can apply the thumbtacks, and tighten the screws and see where it brings us. He can just tweak as a director; it’s very brave to do that. The reason a lot of film directors are control freaks is because they’re worried that the vision that they have in their head will be stripped to something where it ends up not being the thing that they started out with…
I did a theatre show [An Unseasonable Fall of Snow] with my son at the beginning of the year where it was just us, a table and two chairs. It’s an hour and a half play; there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t go, ‘Sorry ladies and gentlemen, we need to put a different filter on and come back and redo that…’ You just have to adapt; if it’s not going well, or if you miss a beat or are losing the audience, you have to really work. Part of you has to stand outside it too, to monitor it; the great thing about film is, that’s the director’s job! You can be totally immersed, and it’s their job to monitor it, and go, ‘OK, it’s being pulled in a direction I don’t want it to go any more – we need to bring it back to this…’
Part Three of this interview coming later this week!