Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Way-Back-Wednesday: Interview with Darth Maul Actor Sam Witwer

I had the pleasure of interviewing birthday boy Sam Witwer when he was voicing Darth Maul actor on "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." Thought it would be cool to re-post it in honor of his big day. Here it is:

Actor Sam Witwer is no stranger to the world of "Star Wars." Growing up as a rabid fan of George Lucas's space saga, he probably never dreamed he would inherit one of the most significant roles in the world of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars." This Friday, he's making his premiere on the TV show voicing Darth Maul in the first episode of the two part season finale, "Brothers." I had the opportunity to talk to Witwer about the return of the Sith warrior and what fans can expect to see.

How did you get the prized part of Darth Maul?

I did this character, Darth Vader's secret apprentice, for the video game series "The Force Unleashed." That led to "Clone Wars" supervising director Dave Filoni inviting me to play the Son in the "Mortis" trilogy. He was a really fun character because he was essentially the dark side of the force. He was the living embodiment of the dark side and was a fun challenge. I think Dave and I like working together. He said, "Yeah, I might I have something down the road for you." I said, "I'll do anything." I was thinking it was going to be a quick bounty hunter or something. He calls me up a year later and goes, "Okay, so listen. You know Darth Maul is still alive. I need somebody to play him. Can you do it?" There's only one answer to that: "Yes!" Afterwards you worry about whether you can actually deliver the goods. That's how it came about. He started telling me this story which was so fascinating and interesting. It was time to start wrestling with things in my head. Two or three weeks later we were in the studio recording some of it.

Is it safe to say you're a "Star Wars" fan?

I better be, right? I'm guilty as charged. I'm a huge fan and have been since I was a little kid. That might actually be why Filoni called me up. I think he recognized I love this stuff as much as he does. It never hurts to like this stuff when you're auditioning or when you're performing it. Perhaps you try a little bit harder at it.

What can "Star Wars" fans expect from Darth Maul in "The Clone Wars?"

It's not a story about Darth Maul coming back and he's such a bad-ass. This is more about a guy who is deeply psychologically damaged. That's the reason he survived and the damage goes a lot deeper. It's more about psychology and that's what I liked about it. There are cool psychological and emotional wrinkles in the character fans won't necessarily be expecting. You're going to see a very disturbed man when you first see him. There's a fight coming up that's going to blow your mind. It's really satisfying.

Did you do a lot of research on the character of Darth Maul when you took the role?

I somehow know a lot of Expanded Universe stuff when it comes to what flavor of fan I am. I wouldn't say I'm one of the hardcore "I've read everything" guys. I know all of the movies very well. I certainly read a lot of comics. When I came to Darth Maul, I wanted to have an awareness of what had been done. The intentions of everyone are not to invalidate any stories that have been told about him thus far. I don't think anything conflicts with what's already out there. I wanted to be aware of where his character comes from in terms of the other sources that depict him. What they did with those stories is they kept him very true to the film. He's very soft-spoken and an amazing warrior. They kept it in that area. What's fun about what we get to do is we're working with "Star Wars" creator George Lucas. These are his stories and we're executing them so we get to expand and really create a well-drawn and well-rounded character. I don't think people are going to be expecting him to be as smart, cunning, or charming at times as he is. These aren't things you're going to see in these first two episodes. Not too long down the road you're going to really get to know this character quite well. That's going to be the fun of it. We'll just dig in and every episode reveal new elements of this character. We'll peel back a few more layers and introduce a few more character traits. At this point, we have a pretty good understanding about who this guy is, what kind of villain he is, and how he fits into the "Star Wars" universe.

So fans don't need to worry that he's going to get killed off quickly again like in "Episode I." His story on "The Clone Wars" will line up with that of the Expanded Universe?

He's around for a little bit. We don't bring him in and kill him right away. All the Expanded Universe stuff exists, but not always exactly in the same universe as what we're working in. We try to put a nod to this or a nod to that as often as we can. You'll see where it goes. There are some things that'll be a lot different than most people's expectations. I'll tell you that right now. It's quite a bit different. As a fan I think it's a great thing. What would be the point of bringing the character back and giving you exactly what you expect? Why do it? That's not what we're here to do. What comes first for us is creating an interesting character and an interesting story. We want to expand it beyond people's expectations. That's when you have the most fun. Of course it's the riskiest whenever a fan hears we're not going to get what we want. "What! This is terrible!" Then they see it and say, "Oh, okay. That's cool." I urge people to be patient because I believe they're going to like it. I'm a fan myself and when I read the scripts I was like, "These are really good moves and good ideas." I'm glad they're doing it like this because otherwise it would be stale, stagnant, and what people expected. We haven't really ditched those character elements fans have locked into with the character. We've incorporated as much as we can and come from a place of awareness. The things they're looking for are in the character, but there's a lot more beyond that.

Who did you get to work with when you were voicing Darth Maul?

I got to work with James Arnold Taylor [Obi-Wan Kenobi], Clancy Brown [Savage Opress], Tom Kane [Yoda] was dialed in. I know him a little bit. Ashley Eckstein [Ahsoka] and Matt Lanter [Anakin Skywalker] showed up briefly for some of the later stuff. I had to be recorded in isolation because I was in Montreal shooting "Being Human." We had to record the voice any way we could. I prefer recording with other people. There's this whole thing where the script refers to these passages of dialogue the character goes through. He says some crazy stuff and it wasn't written in the script as to what it was. I wandered around my house jotting down notes and writing things. That was a good thing to be alone for. Even though I'm supposed to be talking to Clancy, the places we went were crazy, raw, and vulnerable. With the added pressure of wanting to get this iconic "Star Wars" character right, I was glad to just do it by myself and concentrate on these crazy passages we were trying to bring to life. I'm a film and television guy for the most part. I'm all about working with the other actor. Having the ability to adlib in this particular instance, come up with stuff all by myself, and being the only one in the recording booth was probably a good way to establish the character for me. I could do the character any way they want in front of anyone and I'm comfortable at this point. We hadn't established him yet at that point. I was nervous, warming into it, and figuring out what worked and what didn't. It was nice to have everyone's patience. They gave me wide berth and we really got to experiment.

How do you get into the role? What mindset do you put yourself in?

I think if you want to do a great job in voice acting, you have to dig in and figure out on a deeper level how this all works psychologically. You have to get into that and the character. If you're not willing to do that I don't know if you're entirely doing your job. It's "Star Wars" and I deeply care about getting it right. On the other hand, if it was any job I have too much respect for the craft to go and phone it in, say some lines, and then walk away. That's not satisfying. What do you get out of that? What is the worth in that? There's not much there. You have to give your all and come up with something unexpected. Something people don't see coming. That's what's interesting about the job. I had this acting teacher back in drama school named John Sticks. He's one of the founding members of the Julliard School. He said, "With acting it's not about what's probable. It's about what's possible." You don't approach some scene saying, "Well, it's more likely the character would act like this so I'll act like that." You examine it from the point of view of, "What's possible and maybe unexpected this character could be going through." That's what I always look for when I'm reading scripts, trying to figure out what I want to do next, or performing a role. I'm trying to figure out what the possibilities are. It's not a "paint-by-numbers" acting gig. Who wants that?

Do you have anything new coming up we can expect to see you in?

"Being Human" is where it's at right now. Unfortunately I haven't been able to accept a lot because I have to remain available for my show. I can't be too sad. I'm a pretty lucky guy.

How do you balance your time between the two shows?

It's a little bit challenging when it comes to schedules. It's a good problem to have. I'm lucky. They all access a shared audience. There's some overlap. That's what makes it easier. The fact that everybody coordinates together makes it easier. It's all a good thing. The people at "Being Human" want me to do all the "Star Wars" stuff because it's a big help. It's all good for everyone. We're having fun.

What did you think of "Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace" in 3D?

I loved the subtlety of the 3D. What I mean by subtlety is that no one was trying to poke my eyes out. There weren't things flying out of the screen hitting me in the face. I prefer when you're just looking through a window and it happens to be three dimensional through that. I thought it was a really smart and good conversion in terms of the 3D and the visual quality. I can't wait to see the rest of the movies like that. It was really the best screening of that film I've ever seen. I swear they went back in and mixed the sound again because there were a lot of enhancements. I don't remember the movie being that dynamic in terms of the soft parts being soft and the loud parts being deafening. It was a really good mix. There are definitely sound effects on the Blu-ray that weren't in the theatrical cut. I'm completely aware of it. I'm a musician so I listen very carefully and I know there have been changes. It sounded amazing. It never sounded quite that good. That movie sounded great to begin with so that was a real treat.

Isn't it great how they orchestrated the release of "Episode I" in 3D with the return of Darth Maul on "The Clone Wars?" Not only is your character's face plastered all over the internet and Cartoon Network for his return, but it's also all over billboard's and TV commercials on major networks for "The Phantom Menace" at the same time. What do you think of that?

I don't mind that. Talk to me about how [great it is] they're doing it while my show ["Being Human"] is airing as well. It's all ridiculously gratuitous for me. [Laughing]

Have you met the original Darth Maul, Ray Park, before?

I've met Ray Park three times. The first time I wasn't an actor yet. I was in Chicago and I went to a theater called the Old Orchard. It was in Skokie outside of Glenview where I grew up. It was opening night of "The Phantom Menace" and that afternoon Ray was there signing autographs. No one knew who he was because no one had seen the film yet. He was there to promote the movie, but no one quite knew who Darth Maul was yet. My friends and I went to a sneak preview the night before so we were the only ones who got it. We were like, "That's Darth Maul! He's the coolest villain we've seen in years!" People really didn't understand. He was so nice, humble, and cool. He wanted to make sure we liked the performance and all that. I met him again 10 years later right around the corner from my house here in Los Angeles. He was at this Mexican restaurant. I'm looking at the menu and taking my time. This guy steps in front of me and orders because I wasn't ready. He turns around and says, "I'm sorry. I stepped in front of you in line." It's Ray Park. I'm like, "No, go ahead. Order." I explained, "I'm a 'Star Wars' character, too." I don't know if he understood or if he hadn't played "The Force Unleashed" and didn't know what I was talking about. A week later we were both signing autographs at a convention. I was like, "Yeah, I was serious about that. I wasn't just some fan that made something up." [Laughing] I met him three times and he was really great.

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