Toby Kebbell’s varied yet relatively brief career (he made his film debut just 12 years ago) has already seen him working with directors ranging from Woody Allen to Robert Redford to Steven Spielberg. But in recent years he’s turned up in quite a few genre films, including a standout performance as Koba, the right hand ape-turned-traitor of Caesar (Andy Serkis), in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It was on that movie that he immersed himself in the art of motion capture, helping to make Koba as realistic and complicated a character as possible and holding his own against the already brilliant work done by Serkis in that format.
That job gave him the basis to make the leap into even more complex mocap territory on Warcraft, director Duncan Jones’ big-budget adaptation of the Blizzard Entertainment game. Kebbell plays Durotan, the dignified and even thoughtful — for a gruesome-looking, eight-foot-tall orc — leader of the Frostwolf Clan, who has deep misgivings about invading the planet Azeroth and making use of the corrupting magic of the Fel. Not only does Kebbell put across the character’s conflicted nature, but he does some truly amazing facial capture work — whatever you think of Warcraft, at least some of its visual FX work is truly groundbreaking.
Kebbell will also show up this summer as Messala, the adoptive brother of the title character in a new version of Ben-Hur, and in 2017 he’ll monkey around with a much bigger ape in Kong: Skull Island — although contrary to some reports, he’s not playing Kong (that honor has gone to Warcraft movement coach Terry Notary). We spoke with Kebbell about those, Warcraft and more recently in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: You’ve obviously had experience before doing this type of performance capture. What made this different?
Toby Kebbell: I’m intrigued by the motion capture craft. It’s something that’s very unique. I just find it easier. You are not being messed around with, with hair, and makeup, and costumes. We have incredible costume people and hair people on the film, but it’s always distracting to have someone come in and poking at your face. You are just like, “Leave me alone.” So motion capture is really about the essence of the performance. Someone else is going to tirelessly work making sure the hairs move, and the sweat is right, and the glisten in the eye. Your performance is literally being captured, just your performance, the essence of that. So it’s a great craft.
What did you have to learn or work on in terms of plying this creature that’s eight feet tall, much bigger than us? He probably moves a lot differently, for instance…
Precisely. Same with Koba. Koba stoops and he has a different thing, and a hanging lip and a lazy eye. So, with Durotan, he was much bigger. So I had to stand correctly. I’m a sloucher. And I had to give that force of energy. But Terry Notary is a great movement coach. So Terry, when we spent time in the room first, Terry was very good at telling you, “OK. Don’t lift the knee. The knee is not how they walk. Lift from the small of your stomach. Lift that and stop with the back.”
So it became a dance routine that you learned that you took home, that you practiced, that you sat like Durotan and then came back to work and wondered if that worked and saw how that worked. So it’s a long process. But once you have it, once you have a very mannered performance, you have to kind of smooth that out and make it seem very natural.
One of the first scenes in the movie is with Durotan and his wife Draka. The close-ups of their faces are really incredible. When you watch a character on screen like this where you are not really seeing any of the real you, is there is a disconnect for you? What’s your feeling watching yourself in this kind of role?
Well, it’s beautiful because you can finally look at what you did performance wise. What was in your head, did you manage to get that out? When you are looking at your own face you are irritated by so many things, so many nuances, and you’re like, “That’s not what I was trying to do! I wish he’d look like this or I wish I had that kind of jawbone.” The nice thing about Durotan is he looks exactly how I wanted him to look because he was designed by fantastic artists. So I’m able to watch: “Yeah, he’s pondering there. He’s wondering what it’s going to be and the dangers and the trepidation.” So it actually makes it easier to watch your performance and critique that.
Durotan is one of most conflicted characters in the movie. You really see how torn he is by the different allegiances. Can you talk about playing that central conflict for him?
I went through the psychology of it. I wanted to understand how Durotan felt about the Fel, how he felt about the quick, easy, greedy version of existence, how he felt about becoming a father, how he felt about his wife, what allegiance he felt for his clan. So I wanted him to be a very thoughtful character. I found it really useful to spend time pondering what it would be to be a father myself. But also, I sort of conceived the Fel would be the force. Not like The Force in Star Wars, but an actual force; forcing something in, pushing it. It seems powerful, but it’s actually just force. And so, I wanted Durotan to discover what powerful meant during his journey in the film.
How familiar were you with the game mythology before you signed up?
I was aware the game existed. I was aware it was an online game. I had never played it. I didn’t know anything more about it. But yeah, Rob Kazinsky, who plays Orgrim, his enthusiasm for what he had played and what he had spent his life doing, it bled into me. It didn’t bleed into the performance because I’m playing Durotan. But it bled into that intrigue
Did you end up playing it or checking it out at all?
No. that’s a whole thing, buying a PC and doing all that. I mean, you know, there are extremes. It wasn’t necessary.
Come on. Blizzard’s got to hook you guys up with some free gear.
I wish. There’s nothing free in this world, not anymore, or since Alec Guinness made all his money off franchise merchandise.
When you were in the motion capture suit, how physically challenging was the role? And what were some of the more physically challenging moments?
I mean standing straight all day is not the hardest thing in the world. But it is exhausting and draining on the body. Giving him peace, giving him a manner in which he seemed calm, he seemed even in a very dramatic moment that he’s the one to be relied on — that is a draining thing to play, but it’s actually very giving. Playing Koba and doing something evil is draining too, and actually the end of the day is ultimately draining in the sense that you feel lethargic about awful things and decisions you’ve made as your character. There’s a beautiful reverse of that playing Durotan and being noble, and calm, and decent, and reliable. You are like, “I could be this person. I’m this kind of human being. Maybe I should be more like this in my existence.” So it gave a great deal playing Durotan. But yeah, my job is not hard.
You are back in performance capture in Kong, too, right?
No. I play Chapman in Kong. I play the second in command to Sam Jackson’s character.
Are you not doing Kong himself?
No. There’s been a leak online that I was doing Kong. What it is, is Terry Notary is playing Kong. And he very kindly, as a gentleman and someone who I respect greatly, asked if I could do some nuanced elements of Kong’s facial capture. But no, in no way am I King Kong, anything other than the face…It’s not fair to take that away from Terry. Terry is playing Kong.
Can you call up War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves and say, “Hey, you don’t see my face, so can you give me another part?”
I want to call them and say, “Can we have Koba’s own film? Is there not room for what happens after he falls?”
We don’t know that he’s dead for sure, I guess.
Exactly. So there’s definitely a script available to be made. It’s whether Matt wants to direct it and Fox wants to produce it.
You are also in Ben-Hur as Messala. I think people have an image of the old films as Charlton Heston and these four-hour, stately type of epics. How do you update that for an audience today?
We’re actually honestly doing a retelling. And I think Ben-Hur, it’s quite important to say that we’re telling a story about forgiveness and the corrupt, stupid things we do to ourselves that end up hoisting us by our own petard. It’s just not necessary. So where does forgiveness come into that? Yes, there is a great chariot race, which is really the reason I took it on. I love horses. I love spending time with them. To learn to pull four horses was just incredible. So that was what drew me to it. But it turned out that it’s really a story of brothers and forgiveness and the very cruel, stupid mistakes we make throughout life sometimes, some worse than others, of course. But could you forgive that if someone did that to you?
Ben-Hur is coming out this summer, but you are still filming Kong?
Yeah. Kong is still filming. (Note: this was several weeks ago.)
What’s different about this version of the story?
What’s really nice is this is end of the Vietnam War, and this is a helicopter unit who are asked to take a bunch of scientists over to an island to plant a satellite beacon. They’ve done it very cleverly. I got to learn to fly helicopters in Hawaii and fly to Australia myself and be in Vietnam. So basically, my job was hanging out with Samuel Jackson flying helicopters [laughs]. It wasn’t a job. It was such an easy piece of work. It was heavenly. Sam is such a good dude. I had such a nice time with him. Good man. And I’ll keep in touch.
Warcraft is out in theaters this Friday (June 10).