I remember right after college making a trek to an art house theater in Chicago to see a little film called LET HIM HAVE IT, about one of the grossest miscarriages of justice in modern (well, if you consider the 1950s modern) British history (if you're familiar with the Elvis Costello song "Let Him Dangle," it's the same story), starring an unknown actor named Christopher Eccleston as the man accused. It's a powerful film and sealed Eccleston's place as a dramatic actor to be reckoned with. Not long after, he became a series regular on the British series "Cracker" and starred in Danny Boyle's first feature, SHALLOW GRAVE.
Although Eccleston doesn't only do genre work, when it does, it's cause for celebration. Among his screen credits are Michael Winterbottom's JUDE, David Cronenberg's EXISTENZ, GONE IN SIXY SECONDS, THE OTHERS, Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER…, G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA as Destro, and most recently in the family drama UNFINISHED SONG. His single-season appearance as the title character in "Dr. Who" helped to solidify him in geek canon, and that was followed by an extended run on NBC's "Heroes."
Long a fan favorite among those of us who just dig cool actors with an impressive range, Eccleston now takes on the role of the villainous leader of the dark elves, Malekith the Accursed in THOR: THE DARK WORLD, and while his makeup and costuming make it a little tough to identify him, his legendary bone structure gives away his true identity, making him a worthy addition to the villains of the Marvel Universe. I recently had a chance to chat with him via phone from London about creating the character, learning a new language to play him, and his vibrant history in genre works. Please enjoy my talk with Christopher Eccleston…
Christopher Eccleston: Hello, Steve.
Capone: Hello, Chris. How are you?
CE: Good, thank you.
Capone: Good. I can’t believe you actually had to learn a new language for this movie. That’s pretty impressive.
CE: Yes. But only the bit of dialog I had to speak. I didn’t sit there and learn an entire language.
Capone: You didn’t immerse yourself in the culture and the language?
CE: [laughs] I immersed myself in the lines that I had to say. And the culture, of course, doesn’t exist because it’s an entirely invented language.
Capone: Yes, but I noticed in the credits that there was a person credited with coming up with the dialect.
CE: Oh yes.
Capone: And I was actually surprised by how many subtitles there were in the film. When you realize you’re playing a character for whom a language has been invented, does that sort of put things in perspective for you in terms of how big a deal this is?
CE: [Director] Alan Taylor-- don’t know if you’re speaking to Alan…
Capone: I am in a little while.
CE: Well, he’s fessed up to a previous journalist that he sprang that fact on me and Adewalde [Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who plays his right-hand man Kurse], it was only maybe a couple of weeks before shooting. I think he mentioned it in pre-production, but we never actually got the text until a week or so before we shot the scenes, which was pretty daunting. But, I’m very pleased with the results; it’s quite a kick to see yourself so physically transformed and then to hear yourself vocally transformed too.
And it’s based on Finnish. It’s based on two or three languages, but I heard that the predominant one was Finnish, so I spent a lot of time on YouTube listening to people speak Finnish, trying to steal some of the music and the rhythms that they use.
Capone: Speaking of the look of the character, I was mesmerized by it. I want to find out from you what you thought was incorporated into the look. To me, I saw bits of the old-school Nosferatu and a little bit of Death from THE SEVENTH SEAL. There’s a lot going on there.
CE: Nosferatu is my favorite thing that you’ve said. I absolutely love that film. I saw that film when I was very young, and shouldn’t have been watching it.
Capone: I’d say up through about age 25, people probably shouldn’t watch it.
CE: But I’d have been about six or seven.
Capone: Oh man.
CE: Yeah, exactly.
Capone: Did you have any say in the look of Malekith?
CE: No, that was created before I came along. I think they had a very strong idea how the Dark Elves were going to look, but once they'd cast me, they then took a cast of my face and used my bones for him. I was concerned about a six-hour makeup session everyday; I wasn’t sure why they’d cast me. I thought, “Well, if it’s going to take this long, am I going to even look like me?” But, I do look like me and I do sound like me, which was important, I think, in terms of convincing the audience that this was a living, breathing elven creature.
Capone: I’m sure that at some point someone at Marvel immersed you in what this character’s history was, what he looked like, and some of the storylines. Were you surprised at the look of the character in the film? It’s very different than what we’ve seen in the comic books before, and the costume in particular looks just wildly uncomfortable.
CE: I don’t know if it’s a spoiler, but we do have the iconic moment when we see the burn established, which is so familiar from the comics. They almost give it a Two-Face element, isn’t it?
CE: It almost recalls Two-Face. Yeah, I was surprised by the look. My favorite look for Malekith is when he’s born. In the sequence where he’s, we call it the birth scene in the pod, when he’s not got all the armor on, and you can see his hair, and there’s a very strange, well, it’s kind of Nosferatu, actually--that vulnerability. I would have liked to have looked like that more throughout the film.
Capone: You’ve done large-scale bigger films in the past…
CE: This is the biggest film I’ve done.
Capone: Certainly. But what was it like stepping into something that’s already been established, where the other actors knew each other already? What was that like for you?
CE: I think that what helped me was that Alan was doing exactly the same thing. I never thought about that until you asked me the question. But, my first meeting with Alan, he said, “Well, here I am. I’m in a big office with a desk, and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here.” [laughs] And he didn’t and neither did I, and there was a bit of brotherhood in that. And then, of course, Tom and Chris and everybody else made me and Adewale feel very welcome. I’m an experienced actor; there have been a couple of other big films, and you understand that people don’t want to be dealing with your nerves. They want you to turn up, do the business, and go home. So that’s what I try to do.
Capone: In terms of just getting into Malekith’s head, I’m guessing like most great villains, he doesn’t see himself as evil. He’s angry because the Asgardians tried to exterminate his people, which is understandable.
Capone: Sure. Do you play it that way? Do you play it as bad, or do you sort of use that anger as fuel?
CE: Yeah, we talked a lot about revenge. The big keynote in Malekith is sense his superiority. He has an ancient grudge and he has an ancient rite and high status; that was a big thing. He feels that if he can get hold of the Ether then nothing can stop him. You try and stay away from a stock version of evil, certainly when you have that amount of prosthetics on as well, it would be too much. So we tried to suggest a slightly haunted, touchy quality, which you picked up on with Nosferatu.
Capone: You've done many great dramatic things over the years, but you've seemed drawn to genre films and television over the years. What do you enjoy about working in that more fantastical environment?
CE: If you look at my CV, genre films would probably take up about three or four percent of what I’ve done, but they do tend to get more exposure. I’ve done far more realistic work--you’d probably call it political drama. And I think what happens with actors is once you’ve been in one of those--probably my first was eXistenZ with David Cronenberg--you bring some of that aura, and you might have to do with bone structure and look, you know what I mean?
CE: I think it’s an accident, a physical accident. And then many actors have made a complete career of it, but of course I’ve always tried to be careful about not just belonging to one genre. It’s very best when it’s BLADE RUNNER or when it looks at the human condition while using the sci-fi tropes; it’s as great a film artform as any.
Capone: I have a very vivid memory of going to see LET HIM HAVE IT, an early political drama of yours.
CE: Oh yeah.
Capone: It changed the way I looked at justice, and I realized everything is shit.
CE: Huge miscarriage of justice, very tragic.
Capone: You mentioned before about working with Adewale. You’re side by side with him almost all the time. That had to be a real bonding experience, especially, as you said, you were both new to this universe. Talk about working with him in these two very different performances.
CE: Yeah. Well, we were together all the time, but the extraordinary thing about working on these films is you spend so much time on your own, either in the makeup chair or on green screen, and we had this. Obviously, Malekith is something like a god to the Dark Elves, so there was this structure between us. But, we got along well, and we were in some pretty outlandish places together. We were in Iceland at 3 in the morning in the makeup chair, and we had to learn that language together, and we did it side by side in the makeup trailer. Yeah, we did well together, and we'd worked together before, of course, on G. I. JOE, only this time he was on my side.
Capone: So what was your the indoctrination process like for you, as far as Marvel giving you information about this character and some history. I’m guessing you maybe weren’t that familiar with it?
CE: I wasn’t that familiar. I was cast pretty late; I think I may have replaced another actor, which is fine, and the process was ongoing. So, I did my own research, I Google Imaged Malekith, both Marvel’s Malekith, and then I read up on Norse mythology. But, it was my conversations with Alan which were key, really. It was a work of imagination using Alan and my imaginations, and what we have had on the page. I think in the end, you’ve got to use what’s on the page, and that’s what I worked from. But, I looked at the famous icons and some of the famous old comics. I had a look at them, and I read the Norse mythology, which I loved. And then, it was about what myself and Alan created with the prosthetics team.
Capone: The set photos that got leaked from this film all seemed to focus on you because you were the unknown in terms of how they were going to approach your look. Was it strange being at the center of something like that? I’m guessing that probably hasn’t happened before outside of the "Dr. Who" arena?
CE: Exactly. Well, I’ve had a little bit of that in the past, but yeah, there’s a great deal of secrecy on Marvel sets, and I would move from my trailer to the set under a huge cowled black cape to foil the paparazzi.
[A studio rep alerts us that the interview must wrap.]