INT: Chris Eccleston
Being the comic enthusiast that I am, I have obviously gravitated to the TV series "Heroes". I can't get enough of it, and one of the reasons for that is because of the character of Claude. This rogue who turns invisible to hide himself from the world is marvelously played by Chris Eccleston; who just happens to be playing the character of The Rider in the upcoming feature THE DARK IS RISING. Based on the Susan Cooper work of the same name, the story follows a young boy who discovers that he is the last of 'The Old One's' to be born, and must help The Light defeat The Dark.
The Dark just happens to be led by Mr. Eccleston, so it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with Chris. Unable to be on set the day we were there, he was gracious enough to have us come visit him at his hotel where we bought bottles of Leffe beer, some strange anchovies appetizers, and than charged everything to Eccleston's room. Chris spoke to us about the duality of The Rider character and even spoke briefly about "Heroes" and whether or not he would return for another season.
Had you ridden a horse before this?
How much training did you get?
As much as we could in a very short time. I left the stunt men to do the easy stuff and I do all the dangerous stuff. That's the way I like work.
We heard that today or recently you do the big stunt where you ride into the great fall and then they rescue you away on the horse.
You know more than I do! The last thing I heard was that the horse was going to very cleverly go down on all fours, which I've seen them do, which is pretty extraordinary. Taz and Steffen who take care of the horses are amazing. So the last thing I heard was the horse was going to go down on all fours and I was going to step ever so sensitively off it. Sounds more like American idea.
What can you tell me about your character?
The character of The Rider is the antagonist, the nemesis, the villain of the piece. He differs somewhat from the book. There's been some poetic license taken and there's an ability that The Rider has which he doesn't have in the book which would be slightly spoiler-ish, but he's got a few surprises up his sleeve in how he manifests himself. I'm teasing, but I want that kind of thing to be an element of surprise for the audience.
You play most of your scenes with Alexander Ludwig?
Can you talk about that?
Apart from a brief scene with the old ones at the beginning and at the end, I'm exclusively with Alex.
How is that?
He's an amazing young man and to carry a film like this, I carried a film when I was 27 and couldn't really speak or think for the two months afterwards, but he seems it's just water off a duck's back. The thing about him apart from his abilities as actor, which are apparent, he's just a very, very decent young man. And I'm not just saying this to you. A few of us have said to his parents who have been around, you know they brought up an excellent young lad and you'd like to see him succeed because he doesn't seem tainted by all the Hollywood bullshit that we all know so much about.
Were you familiar with the books? Had you read them beforehand?
No. I'd never heard of the books, but as a child I was hugely passionate about LORD OF THE RINGS. I understand the kind of passion that people feel for these books. I think they should be left for childhood. People say 'Lord of the Rings was the greatest novels ever written’. You're like, no, they're not. They're childhood. But I read the book for this and enjoyed it very much. And obviously it's close to me because it's couched in Celtic mysticism and it's a very, very intensely British book.
I have visions of the Dark riders from the 'Lord of the Rings' when I think of your character, are there any similarities there?
I think there must be, yeah. When you read the book, I can't believe that she wasn't in some ways influenced by Tolkien because by that time, the mid '70's, Tolkien's books had made such a huge impact. But it actually predates Potter and all that stuff. I think I'm sure that if we dove in some mythology that a man on horseback spreading terror was probably lifted by Tolkien himself, you know. Probably from Greek stuff the archetype being their problem. Yeah, I think there are kind of similarities and I think some of the terror resides in the fact that, for children at least, it's not about machinery. It's that this man has an animal. The thing we've talked about with the Rider is that without the horse, he's slightly powerless. And that him and his horse are kind of indivisible.
Is this the most absolute character you've played in a while? I was thinking before of the more recent parts you've done, you tend to go for morally ambiguous characters whether it's the character you played in 'Perfect Parents' last year or more recently in 'Heroes', you can't really pigeon hole these people, they straddle both sides. Yet, this is a character who, in the book, will be pretty much an archetypal bad guy. Do you play that for what it is or do you try to add a few extra colors? (Note: At this time, for whatever reason, the bar we were sitting in decided to blast some sort of bizarre adult contemporary music even though they knew we were all there for an interview with Eccleston. Everyone tried to ignore it, but it became so loud and hilarious we all stopped to drink and enjoy the Romanian equivalent of Kenny G)
I've tried, but failed. [Laughs] You try to add extra colors to it, but I've had that debate throughout the entire shoot, whether you should just go for mono-loid one-dimensional savagery bad guy or you should try. I think there are virtues in both. I think I've tried to give it a twist, whether that's the right thing to do, I don't know.
Is that something you'd rather not say too early on?
There are two sides to The Rider. And there's an area where I can kind of suggest things about his character while not actually appearing as him. They're just so cryptic.
David Cunningham said that he was striving for a certain kind of realism in this film and when we talked to Ian McShane, he said that that was his goal in the character as well, but he mentioned that your character could afford to be a little bit more operatic perhaps.
Who said that? McShane? He's loaded me with it all has he? Typical actors. Spineless. [laughs] 'Don't blame me, blame Chris.'
Is that true?
I've been watching him, he's pretty camp; Old McShane. I think The Rider is slightly less defined actually than most of the characters. He doesn't have as much screen time as The Rider per se, but even within that, I'm sure a much better actor than me would say you've got to find a kind of truthfulness. You've got to. Audiences are pretty exacting nowadays, so it has to feel real to you in some way.
What was it about him that appealed to you?
The spoiler thing actually. When you see it, you'll understand. There's an opportunity with The Rider for humor and subversion and satire that I've not seen before in these kind of films and it was that. It was that most of all. 99.9 percent of the dramas I've made have been for adults, film and television and this was a real opportunity to try something new. I've had some experience with 'Doctor Who' of making drama for children, I think it's a really important area if we can provide them complexity and gray area rather than just a fun fair ride. That's what appeals to me.
You play a second character also in the movie? You play a doctor of some kind?
That's the spoiler, yeah. With him, I have a
chance to, I'm the same guy, but…
That happens in the first book and in the last couple. There's the Rider doing duplicitous things.
But it doesn't happen in the second one?
No it doesn't happen in the second one.
No. So they've obviously stolen that from here. Because the writer of this film is a man I worked with on 'Shallow Grave', John Hodge, who you may have spoken to today.
You mentioned opening things up to this younger audience and having done 'Doctor Who'. Did that change your framework of looking at things in terms of your work and say now I see what it's like to have a younger audience as well. I've got a whole cache of people who I hadn’t worked for previously that I can now do parts for in my career.
I think their much more exacting than adults, actually. I think their much harder to fill. And they're much fiercer in their attachment once they've taken you to your heart, but they have better bullshit detectors than us. I remember that as a child myself. And that appeals to me because I've always tried to involve myself in stuff that is in some ways sophisticated and challenging to the audience, that respects its intelligence.
Doing stuff for a younger audience keeps you more honest as an actor then?
‘He said enigmatically’. Possibly it does in a sense, yeah. Their very straight about how they feel about you. Children are far more sophisticated than some of the product that is aimed at them. I think we probably all feel that. I look at some films and television and…
Do you feel that your experience with 'Doctor Who' has opened you up to a wider range of roles than you might have been offered in the past?
No. I think I've been at it 18 years before I got there so no. I think it was just slightly different; there was perhaps more lightness in the role than I'm associated with. But apart from that, no, I would say I was often kind of hopping around genre and character.
Can you say how it is to work on a film compared with working on a TV series like ‘Doctor Who’ or an American TV series?
It's a lot slower. Television, and I enjoy the pace of television, although of course with some of the independent films like, for instance 'Shallow Grave' or maybe 'Jude' even, we didn't have as much time. But television is faster. And I think in television I feel, obviously because of the size of the screen and less the production values, there's a healthier reliance on performance and script. I've always said that the strongest scripts I've had in my career have been, apart from theater, have been in television because you only have really the actors' faces. So from an acting point of view, my best scripts have been in television. It's quicker, but of course you're not allowed, we're using multi-cameras on this. I don't think I've ever experienced that. I've never seen so many cameras. There's probably six trained on us now.
Is that a bigger challenge to know that you're being captured from all these angles that you're not playing to?
The camera team on this film are fantastic in terms of telling you exactly what's going on, but I kind of believe that if you're being truthful, you're being truthful. I think to a certain extent one can get obsessed with what lens is on, and I do like to know if they're right in there and if they're also very wide, I'm going to concentrate on the fact and try not to look too much like Popeye in my close up, not that I ever succeed.
I'd like to ask you a question about 'Heroes', is your character coming back this season or next season? Do you have plans?
We haven't spoken about that yet. I'd certainly be open to it. I get the feeling that they'd be open to it, but I think we all feel that he made a good impact and in a sense it's a decision whether to leave it at that because it just adds to the fabric of their series. I think there's got to be something really meaty for him to do for me to go back, but I'd certainly like to. I was made very welcome by that crew and that cast. Being a Brit on that film, I've never been offered so many cups of tea in my life. But you do, it's like you get lots of attention because you're different.
Let me ask you about your schedule, what's your schedule like? They've been here for three months, have you been staying here the whole time?
No. All my work here is done. I finished on 'Heroes' in late January.
So you finished that and then came over here?
Yeah, a couple of weeks before.
Have you been going back on the weekends?
Well, I lived in Los Angeles last year for nine months, but I'm actually based in Manchester. So I've been able to get home to my home in Manchester. I've not been back to LA.
Ian McShane told us about his “deep love of Romania”. Do you share that?
I fell in love first! Romania's been unfaithful to me with Ian McShane. The Romanian people have been absolutely fantastic, but the problem the actors have experienced is, particularly the Americans, is that when you're here and you're not working you are stuck in a hotel. And you're a long way from home. I mean the Romanian crew on this film have been extraordinary and it's a very different culture, particularly for Americans to come into. I'm somewhat familiar with European poker face. I've been made very welcome here.
Can you say what you feel about CGI? Obviously this film is trying to avoid doing too much of it. What do you feel about it?
What is CGI? (Laughs and looks around)
Computer generated effects, where they don't make much of the set and they just paint it on electronically.
Have you seen some of the sets on this? I mean one of the great things for me on this film has been wandering around the sets and seeing the work that the Romanian crew has done on it.
The reason I ask is because I have a bit of a beef with too much CGI, even though I like science fiction films and such…
When it goes too much, it starts becoming a cartoon.
Yeah. Well, it becomes soulless. I got very caught up with the debate about when 'Belleville Rendez Vous' came out and 'Spirited Away' and that great discussion about animation that was drawn by human beings and stuff that was computer generated and for me, 'Belleville Rendez Vous' wins every time because there's something in it that is soulful and moving. As brilliant and as fantastic as 'The Incredibles' was, there was something moving about 'Belleville…', you know. And it's a similar kind of, I'd sooner look at somebody graft and work than whatever.
So you got along with this idea of actually trying to cut it down and do it real?
Yes. Yeah I do. I think you're going to end up with films that will live and breath in a hundred years time in an indefinable way, actually. And I felt that about, it was thrown up with that animated debate. 'Belleville…' for me was just intensely moving film.
About the horse riding, you were talking about doing this latest scene they're going to do tomorrow where you have a horse and you're riding up and down steps. The Rider seems like a fairly skilled rider. How much of that have you been able to do? How much do you have the stunt men do and show the back of his head?
I've done as much as I possibly could. But no matter how skilled a rider you are, the studio are watching you like a hawk because of insurance and because this is a comparatively low budget film for what they're trying to make so they do not need actors embedded in walls and things. [Laughs]
Do you have a horse trainer? Do they get the horse to go where you want it?
The main horse we've used, who I am in love with, Ian McShane may be in love with Romania, but I am love with this horse. He's called Rusty and incredibly skilled. If you get a chance, I mean watching actors act is boring, but watching Steffen and Taz wrangle that horse and the relationship between them is amazing.
It's such a cliché already but W.C. Fields says never act with children or animals and you're doing both.
Rusty said the same thing about me. Through gritted teeth. That animal is far cleverer than I could ever, I'm going both, yeah and they're both far cleverer than I could ever dream of being. [Laughs]
Does your character return throughout the series of books?
I've not read the other books, but my character does come back.
Is that something you look at it, like when you're doing this movie is that something that you want to know about in case the movie does really well? Or do you not worry about that stuff?
Well, that was addressed at the contractual level anyway. But you know it's nice to work but I wouldn't want to just keep doing the same thing. I think my career kind of shows that I guess kind of. Commercial consideration is not at the top of my tree.
You're not hesitant about signing something which may or may have to do more than one movie before actually doing the movie to see how it goes?
Of course I'm hesitant. Of course! But that was the deal.
With the diversity of your career, is that conscious in a very specific way, like you say I've done a drama, I need to do something a little bit different, or is it just how you naturally pick roles?
My career's been a continuation of the two years I did at college and the three years training as an actor. What I understood is that you cannot be a finished article. So when I'm gone I just hope to be remembered as somebody who was skilled at what he did. So by trying different things it's like you guys trying to write different articles or so, that's what I've tried to do. Rather than a couple of times I've made commercial decisions and they've blown up in my face frankly. Whenever I've followed my heart, by in large it's rewarded me and it's a difficult line to walk for actors, directors, and writers. But I just want to try and take the roles that frighten me. I played a Hasidic Jew in an independent film ten years ago. Who is going to cast me in that? I had a go. Why do the stuff that's easy?
Isn't there a certain paradox you mentioned about the good scripts coming from television and I can't help thinking in a way the television roles you've had have opened you up to a much wider audience but at the same time they've almost sort of narrowed the sort of roles you might get offered because people tend to think, he did 'Doctor Who' or he did 'Heroes' and sometimes people are bleaker in the way they think of what actors can do. Does that help and hinder you at the same time?
I've played a variety of roles in television really and the film career was a kind of separate thing. The spine of my work has been television really. I don't know how to answer that, really. I think every actor gets, you all get put in a box.
I can't help thinking do you sometimes take a role because you just think ‘I've got to just leap out and do it’ I was thinking the 'Second Coming', when I saw you in that I thought, man, he's got balls because it was such a vivacious piece. Do you sometimes think ‘I don't know how this is going to turn out but I'm just going to jump and see what happens.’
With something like that I think more and more what's offered to audiences intellectually is anorexic and with something like that I thought ‘I've got to be part of this’ because I do a job that I love and most people don't. I get paid well for it so the least I can do is give something back. With that, a debate about faith and the death of religion, I don't know if it’d be broadcast it in America, but British television is in a bit of a state at the moment and we made that five years ago, I'm not sure that that kind of television would be made at the moment. And since the beginning of my career in British television, you know, everybody at home now is watching HBO.
That's what I thought. Was it on channel 4?
It was on ITV. It was originally written for Channel 4 and it was a much bigger piece.
They probably wouldn't do it again, now would they?
ITV, at the moment, probably not. Although the regime has changed there and there's great hope for that regime.
You're almost done here, what's next?
I'm going to New Orleans for four days to do some re-shoots on a curious strange film I did last autumn in New Orleans called 'New Orleans, Mon Amour', which is set post-Katrina amid the relief work with a director called Michael Almereyda and an actress called Elizabeth Moss. I'm going to do that and then I think I'm going to do Macbeth in the West End. I think. If we can pull the deal together, which is something I've wanted to do since I was 17.
As an actor who makes a living in film and television, you do theater, you have to commit yourself for a long period of time, is that a consideration that you have to make?
For my agents it is, yeah. There probably under the table. It's a consideration for me because I've done very little theatre and I go into that rehearsal room with a lot of people who are far more experienced than me and again that's the idea of challenging myself. There was a great actor called Michael Bryant who called film and television acting ‘arm chair acting’ and there's a kind of truth in it. It's a big challenge for me.
What theatre company?
It's an independent producer called Sonya Freidman and we'd be going and it wouldn't be with the R.S.C., we'd just be going into the west end and I hope, not staging a vanity piece, I hope doing something that's kind of a radical take on it. It's a very difficult play to do. Anybody who knows the play, it's how do you make the witches work?
Thank you very much.
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