As the male lead in Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s prequel to The Thing, Joel Edgerton has some serious shoes to fill. Regardless of how different his character, pilot Sam Carter, may be, he is destined to be compared to R.J. MacReady, Kurt Russell’s character in John Carpenter’s original. Fortunately, it’s something the Australian actor is well aware of and he’s ready for the challenge.
Speaking with Edgerton on set in Toronto in June, while he sat wearing a huge puffy jacket, I, along with four other journalists asked him about his character in the film, the scale of the project versus his previous work and those “Ah ha” moments that no prequel could do without.
How does it feel to be in a big budget American prequel like this coming off of two independent Australian dramas like Animal Kingdom and The Square?
It’s good, I mean obviously but I don’t really see a lot of differences. Obviously there is always a lot more equipment and people but the main difference I see is in terms of momentum. It’s easy to kind of block out the scale of something but its not … the biggest difference for me is momentum. On a smaller film you get to shoot sometimes four or five scenes a day and you’ve got to do the tight schedule. I think I really feel the luxuries of a big budget film. You might take three days to shoot a scene here. We shot one scene or a sequence of scenes that took four or five days. In Australia you try to knock that out in one day.
Is preparing for the work the same?
I find it more challenging because it makes it more challenging because you have to keep your headspace for a longer duration of time. I like the momentum you get from shooting a lot in one day. So I think this is a particular skill to slow down to the pace and pacing your self through a sequence. But its great, look doing something like this is cool. It’s great to shoot on something that has more than one camera and cranes and scale, you don’t usually get that on a local film in Australia.
Is your character the character from the original that is flying the chopper at the beginning?
No, no. There is one character and one canine that appear in the Carpenter film that you’ll see in this film but everybody else is a new character. I play a character that runs a supply service and shuttle service I guess with a helicopter from the outer, bigger stations. The trio of characters myself, Jameson and a character named Dregs, in any other given scenario we might be delivering food supplies out to the American base that you see in the Carpenter film.
We know that you are a playing a completely different character than Kurt Russell did in the first film but would you say that your character kind of fills his role in this movie?
Yeah it’s sort of like that. You get a feeling that they are both cut from the same cloth. That the character I play is a similar character. In the films I guess it is a similar part because he becomes a bit of a hero. Yeah cut from the same cloth is probably the best way to say it but totally different guys in totally different stories.
Well I’m 35 and the film came out in ’82 so I saw it on video the first time I saw it. My brother and I used to watch a lot of … our film diet was horror films and action films pretty much. In fact I think before the age of 12 I had seen the entire Death Wish trilogy, which probably disturbed me a lot. I owe a lot of that to my Mom because we had like one little video store, I lived in a town called Dural, which was a small semi-rural town about an hour outside of Sidney. The first video I ever watched was on a beta system because everyone thought Beta was the way but then it ended up being video so we backed the wrong horse. But we watched American Werewolf In London and I know that the second film I watched was Evil Dead, which I didn’t finish because I was so freaked out. So I watched a lot of action movies as a kid. I saw “The Thing” on video and then I saw it again like five years ago and then of course I’ve watched it a few times doing this. We often sit in the tent and watch pieces of it. Whenever anything in our film matches up to anything in the Carpenter film, especially in the decimated Norwegian base camp, and look at how props are placed and how the set looks and all that.
How does that help you prepare for what you are about to do in a scene by watching the Carpenter movie?
More so that those scenes are used as a practical element, you’ll get to see how the axe came to be in the door in the Carpenter film. But for me watching the old films is more about the tone and the atmosphere of it. There is a really great serious tone to Carpenter’s film where it’s really treated like a drama and I think a lot of great horror movies are like that. It would have been a shame to do a prequel or a sequel to this and add a tongue and cheek element to it. I wouldn’t have been interested in being involved in that case. I think Matthijs and Marc [Abraham] and Eric [Newman], the producers, the general approach that they’ve had with making this film has been pretty much playing that line, atmospherically, tonally, in the design that it really does feel like it can sit side by side with the Carpenter film and at the same time it is its always film. In the same way that Carpenter’s film has elongated moments of dread and silences, you know kind of behavioral things and I think its good and to go the other way and try to fill it with too much exposition and anything too tongue and cheek.
Well, what is he like? He’s sort of kind of dry. He comes off as I guess in the hero mold but very much a reluctant hero. He’s not enthusiastic about the situation. I don’t think he makes any bones about being a sarcastic and straight up guy.
Is he funny?
That’s not for me to judge really. There’s not a lot of, you know, jokes in the movie. There is a sort of atmosphere that leads us into the moments before everything goes wrong. At the same time there is no attempt to fill the film with humor or romance. It plays a pretty straight line. It’s grimy, the environment is harsh and the characters are quite gnarly. I don’t know it’s really weird to try and describe him in the same way that I find it hard to describe myself as a person. I can tell you certain things about Carter but I don’t know that I really can sum him up for you eloquently. He’s certainly dry and kind of softly spoken, observant and a bit cynical. I think what’s interesting is we get commissioned to being with these Norwegian scientists up to the murder.
We kind of get stuck there over night and then what is interesting is we get commissioned to bring what ever this mysterious thing is that they have found back. We are the last to be brought into the loop. We are the last to be let in on this amazing discovery. So I guess we are kind of outside characters me, Jamison and Griggs. So in away we’re kind of … also when things go bad and the chaos ensues the fact that we are on the outside gets exacerbated and we are let in. One of the great things about the movie is that it’s not just about aliens vs. humans but it’s about humans vs. humans. That’s what I really loved about the Carpenter film was that sense of paranormal, pitting everyone against each other, friend against friend, unsure of who to trust and that adds a great element to the film. Also I think the fact that therefore any one can be a villain, anyone can be the thing, anyone can be the dangerous element and I always love it when a movie can have multiple antagonists. Like The Crazies you know those kinds of stories where everybody can become the thing that you are most afraid of and we have that. The other cool thing is that due to the way the Carpenter film starts and that this is a prequel to that on the Norwegian base we have a language barrier, which again is throwing another kind of obstacle into the mix for everybody to get along and determine what’s really happening.
Yeah, a little bit. There are a few of those moments going on. You know the interesting trick for Matthijs has been that he has worked tirelessly to make the film work. We had a conversation once that often if you get two different sets of humans together they will handle the same situations with similar solutions. After some time they may stumble on the same solutions so the trick is to not make those solutions so similar that there is no point to us even making this film so we wanted it to stand on its own two feet. At the same time we play with the same rules for this science fiction so you do have those similar beats and definitely within the story at some point we as a group, you know myself and Jamison get separated and I wouldn’t say earmarked but are severely mistrusted. Being that the two characters histories extend all the way back to the Vietnam was where they were soldiers the two of us are ex-soldiers so I guess to make enemies of us is a difficult situation. You don’t want to make trouble with us; I’m familiar to it.
How has it been working with Matthijs as a director?
I love him. I really love him. For a start, handing this project over to be anybody would have been tricky. I think you need to have someone who’s really passionate about it. In a way, I think you need to have someone who has been a fan of the old movie. And he’s a fan of that kind of genre of film. And I know that he really loves the original Thing and he really loves the original Alien. So his kind of enthusiasm for the project means a lot. I think it’s really going to find its way on screen. As a director of actors I think he’s great. I find him very easygoing, and he has ability to kind of guide performances by not saying too much. Also, he’s not afraid of actors, like some directors are. I just find him to be really great. He’s putting all this time and energy into crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. By that I mean, you’re dealing with a world of rules. Whenever you deal with science fiction you are setting up a world of rules. I think you work hard to establish the rules. And you also have to work even harder to maintain those rules, and within that find excitement and unpredictability and all that stuff.
So you can’t sort of go three quarters of the way through a film like this and then suddenly change the rules. But also the tension that exists between not wanting to be predictable, but also not wanting the audience to scratch their head and go, “How the fuck do you explain that?” In a film where people are changing and morphing, you don’t want to see, necessarily, how it happens, because you want to have an ace up your sleeve. But then when it does happen you don’t want the audience to go, “When did that happen? That’s impossible. That character was never alone” or whatever. So how do you have someone wander off on their own without the audience going, “He’s going to turn into it!” It’s a great tension that exists in the story, of how you make it feasible and yet still exciting. And he’s been so meticulous about the way that’s planned and plotted that it’s a great tension that exists in the story, of how you make it feasible and yet still exciting. He’s been so meticulous about that. Anytime you go to him and say, “Explain this to me,” he’ll spend time going through the storyboards, reexamining things. I really like him. I’d work with him anytime.
You’re being put through the ringer today with the heat. As far as the whole film goes, what’s been the most physically challenging part?
I always thought that acting was about doing dialogue in dramas. Strangely enough I’ve really enjoyed the process of just stalking down corridors and not saying anything, more of the action-based stuff. It’s much more enjoyable than I ever think it’s going to be. The real challenge is working with green screen. Because as much as we actors credit ourselves with having great imaginations, it’s still weird. Yesterday, walking out of an ice cave for the first time, looking at this spaceship, I was saying to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “That’s tricky stuff for me.” I’m supposed to be an actor, but imagining something that is so far outside your own experience. I find it really hard. It’s always those moments. I had a moment in Kinky Boots where I’m running through the shoe factory, and I’m just literally running out of the factory and I open the door and there’s a knock on the door, and it’s a drag queen. It was weird having to open the door, because as an actor you know what’s on the other side of the door, and yet you’ve gotta express this instant moment of surprise. I just find those moments weird.
To act with a tennis ball and imagine it’s a tentacle, or if you’re in some kind of wilderness film and you go, “Okay, we can’t have a grizzly bear here, but imagine when you step over the rock there there’s a grizzly bear.” I don’t know. They’re tough moments. Some people are really good at it, but I find it really challenging. It’s always challenging. What’s pretty cool on this is that the actual machines and the mechanical real practical effects are there for us to look at. There’s a percentage of CG, but quite a heavy percentage is practical effects, so we do get to perform with real things in the room rather than tennis balls. And you’ve seen the sets – the sets are really epic. It’s not just wandering around on a completely green set. So I’m really thankful for that because it’s such a great team working on that. There’s a great team working on everything, but the sets and the detail that goes into that and the creatures are fucking awesome.
In a way. But I don’t really think so much about that. It’s interesting because in the sets that are in the base, things are low-tech. In ’82 I was eight years old. But I’ve done movies like that, period movies. I did a movie set in the year I was born. I find it curious, but it doesn’t really change the way I approach it. It’s more about the props you work with, and the sets. But no, not so much.
Speaking of the creatures, and working with practical effects, the thing that’s so striking about the original is how horrifying the faces are, and the mutated bodies. Do you get to work with a lot of horrifying props, or anything in particular that was super creepy?
Yeah. There’s a whole sequence that goes on where there’s quite a number of things happening, and certain limbs break away. That was pretty creepy. But what I find fascinating about the design of this, and also what was in the Carpenter film, is the incorporation of human [elements], like when you had the head with the spider, the head spider, or whatever you want to call it. Or when a body kind of arches back and moves in an unnatural fashion, like in The Exorcist when the girl does the spider walk down the stairs. That stuff creeps me out, when a human transforms in a minor way, but moves in a way that’s artificial to us. I find that for some reason really unnerving. There’s quite a bit of that in this film. The design of the creatures is really wicked.
Do you personally get to go into the spaceship?
[Laughs.] Why don’t you write, “He nods.” Yes, I go into the spaceship. I just went in.
Does some epic stuff happen in there?
Yeah, well what’s cool is, again, sitting down with Matthijs and getting to imagine the world, even the rules that were already given in the Carpenter film. You see a spaceship in the first one. We see it arrive on earth, and then you see the Norwegians celebrate around it. So I just think it must have been cool for the writers and those guys to sit down and imagine the tools to tell this story. We’re not doing anything that breaks the boundaries of what was set up, but I have a feeling they’re doing it in the most imaginative way without taking too many liberties.
As a fan of he first film, were there any moments you got to do where it was like, “Oh man, that’s how the axe got there!”
Well, there’s a couple. Because I was really curious in the beginning about how they were going to do the axe, how they were going to do a certain character committing suicide. And where does the film end? Does it end with a dog, chasing the dog? So every kind of point along the way I was wondering, “How are they going to explain this?” Also, this is its own film. [You don’t want] to put so much energy into tying those loose ends that you damage this film, as its own entity, you know? I think they’ve done a really good job of it. I reckon the fans of the original movie are going to really like those moments. They’re going to have their own “Alright!” moments.
Have you had that?
I’m part of a couple of those moments, which is great.
Everyone keeps bringing up Alien, especially in the scene in the corridor in this film. Are there any other nods to Alien in the film, or other genre films?
Not really. I mean less so in the design and more so in the tone is what I mean when it comes to Alien. I think there are a lot more buckets of blood in the Carpenter film, and a lot more ultra-shocking in the Carpenter film. But definitely the tone had a real sense. There’s an elongated sense of tension and dread, and also a nice balance of characters.
You would describe this as less gory?
I don’t know how much blood is going to get thrown around. I think the shock value may find its balance in post. But I don’t know. My relationship with horror films is that I often feel like some of them are just too gory, for no reason. In Australia they’re referred to as blood porn. But as long as you’ve earned the right to do it, and the characters come first and the other stuff is the dressing, the icing on the cake, then I think it’s good.
For full coverage of my set visit, click here to see my report, interviews and more!