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For any actor, the idea of taking on a major pop culture character must be an intimidating, albeit exciting, one. Not only are there personal expectations to live up to, there’s also the expectations of millions of fans just waiting by their keyboards to shred a performance to pieces in message boards and on social media. Naturally, this was on D.J. Controna’s mind as he was taking on the part of Flint in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a character he loved since he was a kid, but all along he was able to push forward with faith that what he and the rest of the cast and crew were putting together would be exactly what the fans wanted.
Prior to the action film being released in theaters this past weekend, I had the chance to sit down with the star one-on-one to talk about his adventure making the new G.I. Joe movie. Check out our conversation below, in which he talks about the hardcore training to get ready for the part, accidentally breaking a stuntman’s nose, and almost playing Superman in George Miller’s Justice League.
You were a huge fan of G.I. Joe going, right?
Very much so.
What was your in? Was it the cartoons, action figures, comics...?
I think originally my in was the cartoon and then the cartoon and the toys. I was just steeped in that for years and years and years and then as I got a little bit older, I started picking up the comics and yeah, some of the IDW stuff I still like to read.
It’s kind of an abstract question, but what would you say it is about G.I. Joe that people connect with so much? It’s such a popular franchise and it’s been around for so many years…
I think there’s a lot of reasons. One is the fact that it is able to reinvent itself from toys to comics to all these other iterations. And I also think the fact that it exists in a...it’s fantasy, but it also exists in a military/quasi-political world. So, any time a new story teller approaches it, they have, they can take elements and angles from modern day and work it in to make it relevant all over again.
How did you exactly come to this project. Was it something you went after?
It was a similar process to all of them. You get a phone, they tell you that they’re doing the movie and with films like, with properties like this, you usually don’t get a script early on and you get material you’re going to prepare for your audition, it doesn’t tell you what character you’re going to be playing. It’s all very vague. I met with Jon and we did some scenes together and then after that it was just a series of meetings. I sat down with Jon and just talked about the franchise and his vision for it, how I felt about it, what type of movie I would like to see it be and I was really pleased to see we have a lot of same opinions. And then again, I would do more meetings with Lorenzo and it was more of the same conversations. You know, you wait around while they’re trying to figure out the casting, to make it gel so the movie can actually get green lit. And then they called back again and asked me to actually come play.
At what point did they tell you that it was Flint you were going to be going after?
I figured it out pretty early on. I figured it out probably after the second meeting. So, after I heard that I got really excited, because he’s one of my favorites.
I heard that, and correct me if I’m wrong, but Jon Chu actually did interviews with you as your character?
We did a lot of rehearsal and when we all first got down there, it was pretty cool. You know, with a movie like this, the action is nuts and on the day there’s explosions and craziness, so there’s not a lot of time to walk away from one of these sets and go, “I have a question about my motivation...” We were on a schedule. So, Jon was gracious enough to carve out a lot of time for Adrianne, Dwayne and myself and other people. And we did, we sat down, we did interviews, we improved a lot, went through different scenarios that were going to happen in the movie, just so that we developed those character relationships and so that on the day, it was muscle memory and we could do it all and make it seamless.
Is that the way you kind of prefer to work overall or was it kind of just specific for this project?
Every project, it depends, but I like to do half and half. I like to do enough preparation so that I can forget about it and then I just kind of naturally know where my guy is coming from but I still have room to spontaneously pop up on the day.
We hear about Lady Jaye’s backstory with her father, but we don’t hear too much about Flint’s backstory. Is that something that you looked to when you’re approaching the character?
Yeah, you know, the Flint character in this film, we’re introducing. So, he’s kind of a younger version. So, you’re kind of watching his introduction into the... yeah, I mean the Flint we all know is leader. It’s him and Duke. We’re trying to illustrate it and hopefully if we continue more movies we’ll watch his full arc continue and we can watch him turn into the leader we’re used to seeing. But we see the things that, you know Flint’s kind of a hard ass who like to do things his own way. We see that with the way he is with Roadblock and the other guys. We know that the Flint and Lady Jaye storyline and where that goes, the beginning of that. So, we just want to hopefully get to grow it out a little more.
In terms of working with Jon Chu, he’s obviously an established director, but it’s mostly through dance films. This is his first big action movie. So. were you kind of, having that knowledge, were you approaching it both with fresh eyes, with that kind of a collaborative sense in the sense that you’re both new to this kind of action world?
Yes and no. I mean, look, I had some experience on some big sort of action movies that didn’t necessarily come to fruition. For Jon, yeah, it was obvious that it was his first big action movie, but the thing is, you can’t hold someone or label them based on the first thing they did. If we did that, we’d have no great directors, we’d have no great actors, we’d have no great anything and he was really... Those movies he made were really successful and really well done. He’s a huge G.I. Joe fan and we both had, we both took it very seriously and we’re both around the same age, so there wasn’t...
Was that a connection as well?
Oh, absolutely. The energy was one of collaboration. It felt like I was playing G.I. Joes with a friend of mine again. So the pressure on the outside, we put the pressure on ourselves. We just wanted to make the best movie we could.
What was the atmosphere like on set? I’ve heard that on days when you have big explosions, it’s actually pretty tense.
It can be. There were days that were just kind of exhilarating. There were days that were exhausting. There were days that were painful. There were days that were just ridiculous laugh out loud fun. It was a big movie and we worked on it for a really long time, but you know, especially because we changed the tone and we wanted it to be a little grittier and a more realistic. That means the fights hurt more, because they’re real and it’s you and the in-camera effects being, they’re real. Those are real explosions. It’s real fire. There’s a lot of real danger. So, it did get really tense. There was a lot of things, there’s only so much chaos you can control. We all got banged up and bruised and there were a few close calls.
I know you did free-running and stuff like that to train. How long was the process and how hard is it? I have to imagine, that’s not easy stuff.
I trained with Team Temp. It’s out of Los Angeles. It’s a great group of free-runners and stunt guys and we worked on it for about two months and then once we got to New Orleans, my stunt double and I built the fight choreography and mixed in hardcore with this close quarter combat fight style and it was incredibly hard, man. I did as much of it as I possibly could. There were a few things, a couple things that were just absolutely death defying, you know there’s only one guy in the world that could pull it off and I give all the credit to my stunt double for that, but I was really proud of it.
Just in kind of getting back to that idea that Jon Chu started with these dance films, was there kind of almost a translation that you saw between fight choreography and dance choreography?
There kind of was in a way. I think it’s just, it comes down to Jon’s creative choice and his aesthetic taste. He’s very good at capturing kinetic movement and that’s exactly what those two things are and you know, I think his eye lends itself to both and I think that’s why he did so well with it.
You regularly hear about action films, someone is supposed to pull a punch and it doesn’t exactly go as planned. Did you walk away with any battle scars?
Yeah, I got popped a few times, I broke a guy’s nose by accident. Yeah, it was totally my fault, just a long sequence and I went two inches left when I was supposed to go right, but you know, that’s what you sign up for when you do an action movie and you want to do it more realistically. You take more risks.
Well, that’s good that you didn’t get your nose broken.
No, thankfully, I did not get my nose broken. I got a couple other things, but no...
What other things?
I popped my shoulder out of alignment, bruised a couple ribs. Adrianne shot a gunshell that went into my shirt and my pants and started to burn, and I got burned in a specific area [laughs]. Yeah, but we all did. We all took our nicks. Dwayne got banged up, Adrianne got banged up, Ray got banged up, we all did.
Except for Bruce...
Bruce doesn’t get banged up. No, he’s...
He’s John McClane!
Bruce has done this before.
That is something. I’ve talked to other actors who’ve worked with Schwarzenegge and Stallone and there’s any intimidating force about having an action star like Bruce Willis on set. Was there an intimidation factor?
The thought of it was intimidating, but I’ve got to tell you, meeting Bruce, there was none. He was... I’m a huge fan of his. He’s one of the reasons I wanted to become an actor, you know, watching all of his work. At the end of the day, he’s a funny guy and he’s from NJ and he likes to crack jokes and have a good time.
Are you from New Jersey?
No, I’m from Connecticut, but all my family is in the tri-state area. So, it’s very much that thing, I feel like I grew up with the unfamous version of this guy, but as an actor to work with him, I learned so much He’s very spontaneous. He always brings something new. He’s always throwing curve balls and it’s those spontaneous moments that makes, you know, the best moments in movies and he, I learned a lot from him. I hope I get to work with him again.
Just being as big a fan of this franchise as you are, is there a certain degree of pressure, just in terms of taking on the character and being a part of this?
In theory, yes, but to be a fan of it and to be directed by such a huge fan of it, the pressure that you would get from that comes from ourselves. I mean, we are the people we’re trying to please, know what I mean? So, it’s kind of freeing in the way where it’s literally just the pressure translates itself into total focus on the work and just trying to make the best movie that we can.
I guess, what would you say is your mission? If you had the chance to speak to the world, what do you want to say to fans? What do you want them to expect from this movie?
I just want fans of G.I. Joe, I want them to just enjoy the ride and understand that this is a movie made by fans for fans. So, we want this to be the G.I. Joe movie that fans have been waiting for and we think that we did a pretty good job.
I’ve heard about the Batman suit that’s going to be used for George Miller’s Justice League and that it was this 7 foot fucking monster. What was the Superman suit going to be like?
The version of Superman that we were going to build was incredible. We were very much leaning towards alien, you know, not like down and out Clark Kent, but a fully realized alien, alien god. This guy was always flying and the design of the suit was, there was very, very cool subtle details that were really cool, but tonally it was like a god, like the ultimate powerful god and the relationship between Batman and Superman that we were going to make in this movie was the one that I always wanted to see. Still do, still do, man. It’s a damn shame we didn’t get to finish that one. Hopefully it will work out and Warners will be able to put it out eventually.