As much things change, they certainly stay the same.
Most people will know Canadian actor Mark O’Brien from shows like Republic of Doyle and a variety of Canadian indie projects, however now he steps into the limelight with his role in the Academy Award nominated hit Arrival that is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, On Demand and even still playing in a handful of select theatres.
We got the chance to sit down to talk a little about his experiences on set, the similarities between the big and large budget productions that he has got to be a part of, being an aspiring filmmaker in his own right and watching the likes of Denis Villeneuve go to work and his supreme confidence not only in his own abilities but in the excellence of Canadian film crews that can handle a production of any size.
Dave Voigt: Congratulations on the film. Walk me through your audition process and how you ultimately became involved with Arrival because I can imagine the entire experience ended up being different from something like working on Republic of Doyle or How To Plan An Orgy In A Small Town?
Mark O’Brien: Oh it was VERY different then How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town (Laughs). I guess it was ultimately through my manager because I did the show Halt and Catch Fire which made me a little more visible because obviously AMC is a great network but maybe I am being a little bit presumptuous because I just don’t know but I do think it helped. Then I sent an audition tape and really you never really know what is going to be happening with those things, but I saw the role and every time I audition for something, I really do try to do something different with it and make some variations from what is on the page. When you are doing these and watching these, sometimes these reads really do end up being all the same and that’s not the actor’s fault but it very often is the way that it just ends up and really I just did it a little different for the sake of being different and wouldn’t you know Denis (Villeneuve) really liked it and I didn’t think I looked right for it but I have always felt that some of the best filmmakers truly try to cast a little differently. I ended Skyping with him and then he said come to Montreal and the funny thing was that when we has Skyped he could only ever see my head, and then had to call me back to see the whole thing in case I had eight legs or two asses or something! (Laughs)
DV: Now obviously you have directed some short films and some TV in your own right but is the real payoff for a job like this just getting to be there and see someone like Denis Villeneuve work?
MoB: Oh I would have PAYED to be there…but DON’T TELL ANYONE!!! (Huge Laughter) But yeah, it was huge and such an honour to see him work and I mean even before I got the job he was one of my all time favorite filmmakers. He’s like a Scorsese to me and it’s the same kind of Ball Park and as a filmmaker and as an aspiring filmmaker on that level, you go on and you just learn from him. You learn from him as an actor, you learn from him as a person because Denis is just a truly wonderful guy. My wife saw him at a restaurant in LA a couple of weeks ago and I wasn’t in town but she went over an introduced herself and said hi I’m “Mark O’Brien’s wife” and he just stood up and hugged and went over to her friend and they were both struck by how kind and genuine he was. He’s just that kind of guy.
DV: The film marks the evolution of the business in many ways because while he certainly is a Canadian director and you are Canadian actor it is a different scope of film and it shows how truly talent does and can rise to the top in the industry. How did you find the scope or the scale of the experience to be versus working on a smaller production.
MoB: That’s a great question but the only real thing that makes this different from any other Canadian feature is that it had a large budget. It was shot in Canada, Canadian crew and sure there were actors from other places but that’s the case in most films the only real difference was the access to the money which filmmakers up here just don’t have nearly as much of. It speaks to the talent and the professionalism of our crews up here and even with all the Oscar nominations that the film has gotten, it’s Canadians who are getting that recognition. While walking on the set was different because I had done the show Hannibal before and walking on to that set you could feel that the show just had ALOT of money, great crew, and great actors. My first scene was opposite Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne playing the psycho killer, but playing it subtly and that was the first time that I felt a production that I was on really felt like something. I was so nervous and I did the scene but at the end of the day you realize that it’s just the exact same process with a camera on you. I’m a confident guy and confident in my ability and I’ve worked with some very famous people and some that no one has ever heard of before. The Hannibal experience helped quite a bit, it was big, it was a little daunting but I knew that I could do it.
DV: Does the bigger the project make the experience a little more impersonal or does it vary?
MoB: You know that really is a person to person kind of thing. Denis is so wonderful that you can talk to him about anything. I’m doing this show now with Billy Ray who worked on The Hunger Games and you can talk to him about anything. Conversely I’ve worked with directors on one episode of TV and I wasn’t allowed to talk to them, so it’s always different but at the end of the day it comes down to confidence in yourself and communicating clearly so that you can say to someone like a Denis Villeneuve that you’d like to try it a little differently and they are open to that.
DV: This is such a unique film because I will fully admit that I love science fiction but it isn’t always the easiest thing to sell and even with something like this that is a little more cerebral and doesn’t have aliens jumping out of ships killing people. How do you ultimately manage to embrace not only the positive message of the film but still effectively convey, especially with your character how easily we can xenophobic and scared of things that we don’t always understand.
MoB: It is tough but I really do feel like it is a reflection of the world that we are living in as well. Basically we all know what is good and how to be a good person, it’s just that we are all coming at it from different points of view. I always felt that for my character Captain Marks and why I tried to make play a little bit different is that this guy is just freaked out, he doesn’t like anything that is going on at all…he hates it! This is such a grey area that he is confronted with in our world of absolutes with deadlines and goals and he just can’t show how he is really feeling because he has been trained not to show how he is really feeling. You’re communicating a lot of different things at once…
DV: And it’s showing that necessity in the modern world about having to deal with those shades of grey because that’s just how it all works now.
MoB: It really is and the only thing you can really do is to be aware of it and to listen to it because while you can disagree with someone you can’t really disparage someone for coming from their own point of view.
DV: How long were you on set?
MoB: Oh the entire time about 2.5 months…
DV: WOW, so even when you might not have been working you got to be around it all and drink it all in.
MoB: Yeah you are just there, but I shot for about 30 odd days but getting to see it all was just a trip.
DV: When you are there in the moment do you know that what you are making is good and special because I can certainly imagine that there are times and jobs that are just a paycheck but Arrival really does feel like a movie that has become more than that for everyone involved.
MoB: First of all when a studio like Paramount is involved, you know that’s a really good first step Then 21 Laps & Film Nation and the production and distribution side, Shaun Levy; just a great producer, a cast with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner & Forest Whitaker, then perhaps the greatest living director alive in my estimation and even someone like Bradford Young our Director of Photography whose work on A Most Violent Year is some of the best that I have ever seen in the past ten years or so. There were just too many good elements for it in place for it to miss. Even if I was there and I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on, I knew it couldn’t miss because of the personal involved.
DV: Does this all inspire you to get a feature of your own off the ground because I can imagine that jumping from shorts to TV to features can be a little daunting?
MoB: And you know it’s funny because even the opportunities that I’ve had to make some shorts in the past couple of years, I’ve had to let them slide because I knew that I had to make a feature film because it is just so damn difficult. I wrote this script years ago that was this crime/noir type thing and I had even thought about Denis and his career path because no one can make a big budget studio pic as their first feature, they have to go out and make something bold and personal and a little different. Denis did that and I look at someone like a Jeremy Sauliner with Blue Ruin and then moving to something like Green Room and it’s all an evolution and subsequently I’ve learned to start writing backwards a little bit. I wrote something that you can make for half a million and I have that in development now but then I also wrote something that you can make for two million, and I wrote one you can make for six million, and one you can make for ten million and I am currently writing something that you can make for twenty million if I ever get it made twenty years down the line but that’s how you have to think and have multiple plans brewing or you’ll just never work at all.
DV: It’s all about that evolution and finding that thing that can click with audiences in the right way.
MoB: Which really from my perspective for someone like Denis was Prisoners and people go “Oh, HE can be commercial” which of course he always could. It’s funny and cool because on Arrival they actually sought Denis out to make it. Shaun Levy, Dan Cohen and Eric Heisserer actually approached Denis about doing Arrival after he did Incendies which I think is just the coolest thing in the world.
DV: That really does show how in tune everyone was on this one, because it’s obviously a big and bold world but it’s cerebral with a personality as well?
MoB: Oh totally, it’s not an uninterrupted take of people just talking for three hours, this gets to be fun to. I was talking a little earlier about Children of Men which is such a great film that is entertaining but lets you be affected by it as well. Even with something like a La La Land or a Green Room or something like 10 Cloverfield Lane which was easily one of my favorite movies of the last year and I think Denis style of storytelling and here with Arrival it really it hits that sweet spot which is why it has resonated with audiences so damn well.
DV: Do you think that balance gets lost a little too much in Hollywood trying to find that balance between being entertaining and being good because while there is nothing wrong with the larger than life spectacle filmmaking that costs $300 million but there still has to be artistry and story to movies to get people coming back.
MoB: Oh god yeah it’s a huge struggle because while a Guardians of the Galaxy can pull things off with the right tone many times it always feels like there are too many cooks in the kitchen. On Arrival that never felt like a problem at all, the production team was all on board and I was amazed at how much freedom this auteur like Denis was getting on the big budget production. It all comes down to the confidence in the director to pull it off because we all always here these stories about the studio taking over on a set and it never happened here. When you let a good filmmaker do what he needs to do the end results are there.
DV: Plus it’s about building up a guy like Denis to make sure he can handle the ever increasing scale on films like this.
MoB: Oh totally…and I’ll tell I was once saw Steven Soderbergh speak at the San Francisco Film Festival and he got asked what he would do if he was ever asked to run a film studio what would he do and he said that he would take chunks of money, and find talent and give them multi picture deals and say here’s $40 million go make me three movies. You can always rely on talent and it’s proven with a guy like Denis because he just doesn’t miss and has all the right people around him. And it’s such a fine line too because everyone needs to make money and you want it to do well because you may not get another chance to make anything else if whatever you produce does no business and worse if you don’t care that it does any business.
DV: Nobody is making a movie anywhere for any amount of money that they don’t hope becomes a success.
MoB: Even someone like Stanley Kubrick used to send people to theatres and have them call him back on a payphone to see if there is a lineup around the block because he wanted people to see them. There is two sides to the business and Arrival slides into that pocket so perfectly.