What you've read is true: the nicest people in Hollywood can usually be found working in horror films or portraying creatures on screen. And Derek Mears - soon to be seen playing 'Edward,' a giant troll in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters - is a prime example of actors who handle famous villains/unusual creatures (a group that includes Mears as Jason Voorhees, Tyler Mane as Michael Myers, Doug Jones as Pale Man) who immediately leave their characters behind at the end of each day.
In support of the January 25, 2013 debut of Hansel and Gretel starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, I chatted with Mears about playing a giant troll and working to give the character a personality while wearing an enormous costume. Mears also discusses his approach to roles and his small part in the upcoming Percy Jackson sequel, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.
Exclusive Interview with Derek Mears:
You have a key role playing a giant troll named Edward in the Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters movie, and I can't even imagine what it took to get into the costume of a giant troll. What was that like?
Derek Mears: "It’s pretty crazy, as an actor. What I’m excited about the film is that they decided instead of CGing the characters, to do it all practical effects. Kind of a throwback to Star Wars, and kind of give the character more of a soul - in my opinion. But to do it I kind of compare it to being like, 'Oh you did this and you did that for this type of role,' given you can’t see my face, I’m lost in this giant suit, but in my opinion the analogy is it’s kind of like NASCAR where I’m piloting it but I'm not doing it by myself. Spectral Motion, who've done a ton of films like the X-Men movies and Hellboy, they created the outfit and they are kind of my life support system, as far as the guys working the controls of the Edward character. It’s awesome to be a part of that team."
What did they actually control? Are there different people manipulating different parts of Edward's body?
Derek Mears: "Oh, for sure. It’s such a complicated outfit. When I put it on, I’m 6’5” normally, when I put it on I’m about 7 foot tall and I forget what it weighs but it’s pretty crazy. There’s one guy who controls one of the mechanics for the hand, and then they’ve got the other hand. I think there’s like five guys controlling the individual parts of the character. There’s one person who does the eye brows, one person does the feet. It’s pretty elaborate, but also it captures that childhood side of you where you look at it and think, 'How does all this come together to create this character on film?' I hope the audience digs it."
You were saying that you are glad it’s not a CG character and you think that being real gives the character more of a chance to have a soul. How do you do bring that to a character when you are inside such a huge outfit?
Derek Mears: "Well, I have my own theory. My career, I’ve bounced between 50% my own face and 50% doing masks or monsters, and the common misconception I believe is, 'Oh, you’re a tall guy. Let’s put a mask on you, grab anybody, and go,' and that’s not my own philosophy. My own philosophy is that language is only 10% of communication and when you embody characters, you approach it how you work, if you have dialogue or not. You break the character down from the script and you can look at whatever is going on and you have to trust that energy and that moment is transferring through the mask you are wearing and is captured on camera. If the mask is on or off, I’m still doing the same exact acting and actions. So I feel like there is an extra sensory energy that we all can pick up on, like, 'Oh, there is actually something there or someone there.' It’s kind of how I built my career and that’s what I firmly believe."
Would you rate this character as one of your most difficult? How does it rate on your scale?
Derek Mears: "It’s, honestly, the most difficult job I’ve ever done."
Derek Mears: "Yeah, because you know the part about 'pain is temporary, film is forever' is the motto that goes over and over in your head on the hard days because you are locked inside this suit and you see out of the mouth. You can’t have a character, when you are on set, walking around with the mouth open all the time. So just trying to breath...you know, you are breathing your own carbon dioxide, which is always fatiguing and you are over-heating because of the incredible heat of the outfit. I remember sitting there and not doing anything and having my pulse be 160 - just sitting there doing nothing."
"So, you are performing blind; you are trusting the people around you. You try to spot view sometimes. You basically have to take a mental image or a mental polaroid in your mind of what you can see. You look around and take a picture of that with your eyes because you’re blind and you’re acting in the scene, but you are working on the mechanics of the character. And also, as an actor, you have to commit to what is going on. So you are trying to balance everything all at once, it’s pretty insane."
It sounds crazy. Has there ever been a character they’ve asked you to do and it's just been physically impossible for you to do?
Derek Mears: "Sometimes, yeah, sometimes. It happens. They’ll pitch ideas and I’m like, 'Wait a second, how…?' That’s my first question anytime I sign on for something like this. I’m like, 'Okay, where is the escape hatch in case I have a performance bladder? Where do we put that? We need to make an escape hatch. You need to make that. That’s step one.'"
"I have to explain to people because some people don’t understand the weight and the difficulties of the suit. I go, 'Imagine this: imagine running on a treadmill at full sprint with a plastic bag on your head. That’s pretty much what it is.' Your body and your muscles need oxygen to replenish and you’re not getting that. It’s just suffocating. And sometimes you get delirious and really, as an artist, you try to think of the final product. You are trying to row the boat in the same direction and you want this to be amazing. You are working with a team, like the team of Mike Elizalde over at Spectral Motion, you are working together and trying to make it the best thing possible because we are all fans of the genre ourselves and you want to put your best foot forward."
It seems like with this type of a character, or some of the other ones that you’ve done, there would be a really cool chance for a behind the scenes DVD extra feature just following you around and seeing how you handle being inside the costume. Have they ever done that?
Derek Mears: "Sometimes they do. There will be a little bit for this one when the DVD comes out you’ll see it. The one that I’m most excited about is the throwback to practical effects because you could have easily CG'ed this character. But the throwback is, what I’m hoping is, Hollywood goes in trends, like, 'Hey, that worked really well; let’s do that for our film.' I want to see more of these practical effects because I think it adds a lot to the film."
Right. I can always tell when it’s a CG character and I’d much prefer to have an actual actor there doing it. No matter what the character is or how well the CG is done, there is an emotion that comes through with a flesh-and-blood actor that doesn’t come through with CG.
Derek Mears: "For sure, for sure. That’s something that I was happy about when I was first approached for this project. I’m a fan, first of all. I’ve always said in my career, 'I’m always a fan representing the fans.' If my career ended today, it’s been an amazing run, but I look at things through fan’s eyes. So when they pitched it to me I went, 'What? Another fairy tale movie? No.' And they go, 'No, no, no. It’s not what you think. It’s over the top action fantasy, the huge horror element, it has a steampunk feel to it.' I went, 'Okay, you’re talking my language. Hold on.' And they talked about this character for Edward, and I go, ' Okay, for my career, I don’t want to be Sleestak #42. That’s not where I am.' They go, 'No, no, no. Even though we can’t see your face, the character has a full character arc. It’s one of the main characters. It’s the only one like him. We are trying to do a throwback where it’s the most animated character that you’ve ever seen before.' I’m like, 'Okay.'"
"So I read the script and I'm like, 'Oh my God'...I blurted out a little bit...I’m like, 'Oh my God, I am your demographic for this. I’m the one going, what’s coming up? I want to see this.' So I got really excited. They said, 'We know what we need. We know your career as a professional actor but we also need someone who can survive the suit because the suit is going to be difficult.' And man, I’m happy. I just saw the film recently and I’m really happy how the character turned out."
This is director Tommy Wirkola's first American feature film. Were you a little bit worried about putting yourself in his hands?
Derek Mears: "This is how surreal my life is. Not three months before shooting Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, I’m at home watching Dead Snow, the Norwegian horror film, and I’m like, 'Oh, this is really my cup of tea. This guy seems really cool. I would like to work with these guys someday.' And not three months later, I get the call to go meet with Tommy Wirkola - he’s the writer and director for the Hansel and Gretel movie - and I’m like, 'Wait a second, are you serious?' Not even a month after that, I’m in a pub in Berlin hanging out with Tommy and lot of my Norwegian friends who were in Dead Snow. Tommy, the good guy that he is, brought some of his friends from that onto Hansel and Gretel to play parts as well. I’m like, 'Oh my God, this is fantastic.'"
[Laughing] "How surreal is my life? So I try to explain to fans, I go, 'Picture like being on the web at home on the computer and be reading a blog about somebody or some new film group and then, not a month later, being a part of the people who created that.' It’s so surreal to me."
What was it about Edward you really latched on to when reading the script? Is there a particular aspect of the character you really wanted to make sure you captured?
Derek Mears: "Oh, for sure. With any acting part, you try to find something that maybe you tie into or you relate to it. Everything is so subjective in all different fields and mediums of art, so I’ve had to put my own life experience and my own handwriting to the character, and in certain things that I really want to get across. I was talking to Gemma [Arterton], we sat down and I said, 'For our scene together, I really want to have a headset or something so when we are doing the dialogue back and forth, we have that organic moment, and not just being inside this mask and you can’t hear me. We’re going to lose that timing and that connection.' And she goes, 'I completely agree with you. We need that.' And so I ended up getting a headset so we could communicate in the scenes."
And in addition to acting, you do stand up? Does that mean there's a comedy sans big costume in your future?
Derek Mears: "You know that’s starting to happen more and more. It’s so weird in Hollywood you get known for one thing, like, 'Oh, you are the guy who played Jason.' It’s such an iconic character but because of Facebook and Twitter and social media it’s like, 'Wait a second, you're funny and you’re not just a big guy with a mask.' It’s opening more and more doors and I’m thrilled about that. I just want to create and have fun with my friends and that’s kind of my motto my entire career. And that’s been happening a lot, so hopefully more of that will be continuing. We’ll see."
You also have a role in the next Percy Jackson movie.
Derek Mears: "Yeah, I have a tiny role in that. I’m playing a Cyclops character. It’s nothing, really. It’s a tiny little thing."
This far into your career, you’ve done so many roles and played such a wide variety of characters. Why did you say yes to a 'tiny' role as a Cyclops?
Derek Mears: "Honestly, I went in and read for a different character and they said, 'Look, you’re our number one choice for this character' - it was a much bigger role - 'but the thing is we need someone who is bigger than you are.' I’m like, 'It’s your story, I totally get it.' They go, 'We have this little part and we are shooting a week up in Canada. We really want you to go do that, to hang out. We think you're fun and cool.' And I got along really well with the director. The director is super duper cool so I would love to go up there and just hang out. If I’m not doing something, if I’m sitting at home playing my Xbox, why not? I’ll go, play around and make new friends and travel to another country. So, 'All right, I’ll do it."
I can’t imagine a role that you are not big enough for.
Derek Mears: "It’s crazy, right? There are some big guys out there. It’s funny, because people are like, 'You are 6’5”, 235. Oh, you’re huge.' I go, 'I’ve got friends who are gigantic. I’m the small one of the group sometimes.'"
Speaking of big guys, why are guys that star in horror movies or play creatures always the nicest people in the world? Is it just a matter of casting good guys to play evil?
Derek Mears: "Maybe that’s what it is. I don’t know. I know a lot of big guys who don’t get flack from a lot of people so there is no reason to be angry or try to be tough all the time. One of my best friends is Tyler Mane who played Michael Myers in the new Rob Zombie Halloween, he’s a big guy. He’s like 6’8” and I’m 6’5” - he’s a giant - and we were having this conversation recently where it was kind of new generation had tough guys, where a lot of guys when they are off camera walk around with their chests puffed. 'Hey man, what’s up? Yeah I’m going to go drink some beer, play some football.' They are overly macho and they try to wear this mask off stage. And it's like, 'You know what? We don’t have that tough guy attitude. I’ve done martial arts and cage fought for years. I don’t have to try to be tough all the time, I have that essence. I could wear a tutu and wear lipstick and dance around like a pretty ballerina, but I still have that, in the next film I could punch somebody in the face if somebody tried to take a shot. So we have that evolution of just being comfortable with your masculinity. I think that’s what it is."
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Keep up with Derek via his official Twitter account: @derekmears.