Frankenstein: Interview: Tony Todd

Frankenstein cover day 15 006.JPGAfter twenty-three years, veteran character actor Tony Todd has teamed up once again with his Candyman director Bernard Rose for an intriguing new version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which presents a contemporary take on the story while remaining much more true to Shelley’s original tale – even using portions of her text as voiceover. Todd chatted about playing blind blues player Eddie with Paul Simpson ahead of the film’s release on Blu-ray and DVD on February 22nd…

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How did you get involved? Did Bernard Rose just approach you for the part?

Yeah. We’d stayed in touch in the years since Candyman. It was very fortuitous. Out of the blue, my manager saw that they were doing it, the call was made, Bernard’s mind was jostled, we had a meeting. He’s one of the great directors that I have worked with – he puts his cards on the table. At the end of the meeting he said, “Would you like to come play?” And I said, “To work with you again would be an honour,” so we did it.

My only hesitation was the singing part – I’m not a singer per se, but I know a lot of blues musicians, so I was able to get some counselling. Instead of going for tonal quality, you go for feeling and expression. That challenge for me as an actor was why I was glad to be able to do it.

It made a big difference that it’s obviously your voice…

We were able to shoot that under the iconic 6th Street tunnel area in LA, which has great resonance, echoing quality so that definitely helped.

frankenstein posterWere you familiar with the original Mary Shelley text, and how different it is from the James Whale movie and all the versions that followed?

Yes. It’s a very dense text. I remember attempting it in high school and going back to it as a young man.

I think Shelley, along with Bram Stoker, was responsible for setting the template for what we now know as modern, or certainly good modern horror. Unfortunately in the horror genre we have a lot of riff-raff, a lot of flotsam. I think horror is one of those categories that aspiring filmmakers – good and bad – feel is one of the easiest mediums to get right, and it’s not. It’s actually one of the most difficult to do effectively. There are a lot of things that need to line up in the right position; it’s like winning the lottery or opening up a safe. Everything has to be in order for the balls to drop.

I felt that Rose presents a really good fresh take on the material in this new film…

Yes, considering it’s a subject matter that’s been attempted more than a few times! I think he really transcended, and was able to use a lot of Mary Shelley’s narration from the monster’s voiceover point of view, which was great.

I found that disconnect really intriguing, bearing in mind how simple Adam is, and how straightforward he is in the way Xavier played him.

Yeah, well, for me, the language is the id, what he wishes to express, through her verbiage; what he is from day to day is the disconnect because he is learning as he goes.

Todd CandymanWhat differences did you experience between Bernard directing you in Candyman to Frankenstein? How different did you feel as an actor?

You’ve got 23 years of growth, development, life experiences, triumphs, disappointments.

I do a lot of repeat work with directors. I’m the kind of person who wants to establish a John Huston to Humphrey Bogart relationship: you work with someone more than once, you strike gold more than once, it becomes easier. There’s a shorthand that develops, a really genuine like of an artist to an artist, that when it works on all cylinders shows up in the final edit.

Sometimes you’re hired and you’re not really sure about whether the director’s all on board, you don’t know the circumstances. In this case we had a meeting, so I knew that we wanted to do this again.

Bernard is a hands-on guy: in this film the camera was literally handheld by him even though he had a DP on set. He knew in his head what he was going to use and what he wasn’t going to use, and that led to a conversational style of film acting – you’re doing it not to please the director but by getting his okay.

Todd FrankensteinThere’s so much that he didn’t put in the film that fed the relationship between my character and Adam – there was a scene after they find the dumpster, where they’re in the alley and they’re talking, and I show him the lighter and I show him booze. There was a moment where we find out why Eddie is living on the street: that was a total improv. He had had a car accident; he was a blues musician, he was coming from a club, he had been drinking and he unfortunately killed a family of four, and never got over it.

We had talked about it, and Bernard put that scene in my head and it came out in that improv; but in the end it’s not about me, it’s about Adam. Adam needing to know that was important for him, but not for the audience; it was something I could let go, but the fact that I could at least express it and it was there somewhere in the film that didn’t get edited still feeds into the character.

There’s a feel with a good movie that we’re only seeing 90 or 120 minutes of a world that’s there.

Yes, look at The Deer Hunter for example, one of my favourite films. It’s got a long running time, almost three hours, but we know there was still stuff taken out in the edit. Yet in the first hour, before they go out, you feel like everything is discussed, how people react, how they feel about what they’ve done…

But we can both think of movies that are three hours running time where they could easily be cut back to 90 minutes!

Yeah. Sometimes less is more!

The period with Eddie is a quiet time of learning for Adam…

There’s one moment that is left in there: after we leave the tunnel and I let him rummage through my shopping cart, and he gets [things wrong]. Those are the moment that resonate for me.

Todd Final DWhat attracts you particularly to a project?

I’m not a personality driven actor. I’m a trained theatre actor. I choose characters: every role I do is completely different to the ones before.

Some people misjudge me and say that I’m a horror actor; I refuse to be qualified or put into a pigeonhole. Truth is, forty percent of my work has been sci-fi/horror based and the rest has been filled with independent film choices where I try to play artists, baseball coaches, taxicab drivers, immigrant Africans. That’s where I get to explore and really play characters.

Obviously the bigger films – the Michael Bay projects, Final Destination – are rewarding financially and allow me to pick and choose from those pallets.

There seems to be a generation of actors who have looked at film work in that way – you do the bigger budget things to allow you to do the things you want to do. Over here, it’s often the case that it allows people to do stage work. Stage in LA isn’t as vibrant as it is in London…

Todd Ghost…or in Chicago or New York! No, not at all. That’s why Alan Rickman’s career was so brilliant – he was a renowned stage actor, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the man had to do a few Galaxy Quests (which he still thought was a great film) and the Harry Potters, then turn around and do the work that really matters.

If you had to pick one role from your career that has given you the most satisfaction, which would it be?

Oh man! My theatre work, I’ve been blessed to do two August Wilson projects, the great Pulitzer winning playwright; I’ve been able to work with Athol Fugard, another Pulitzer winning playwright.

Theatre gives me the most satisfaction: it’s immediate, it’s raw, you get to work, hopefully, for six weeks in an ensemble, get to know each other, become a team and you have a blueprint and the reaction at the end is in your face. It’s never the same, but the story is the same, you know where you’re going.

Then I’ve spent the last two years on a project called Ghost in the House, about Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. [To see some of this, click here]

Todd Man from EarthFilmwise, there’ve been some independent films I’ve really loved like The Man from Earth, a movie called Driven about LA cab drivers [the 1996 film], and a couple of things coming out.

Things like Star Trek are a gateway for a genre audience into your other work…

My Star Trek work I’m very proud of. I grew up an only child so I had a lot of imaginary friends; now as a paid actor I get to play some of those aliens and cowboys and pirates and reap the reward from them. And playing hopefully keeps one young at heart. No matter how many physical years we may receive, we should walk out of this place knowing we gave it our all and we’ve extracted every ounce of joy possible.

FRANKENSTEIN was released on digital platforms on February 15th and appears on Blu-ray and DVD from February 22nd courtesy of Signature Entertainment.

Read our interview with Bernard Rose here

and UK readers have a chance to win a copy on Blu-ray here

 

 

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