The American Tokusatsu Career of T.J. Storm
More than any other actor, T.J. Storm has had the longest career in various Ameri-Toku series including VR Troopers and Godzilla.
Walking around the convention floor of the Japan World Heroes convention in Pasadena, California you can’t go a minute or two without hearing a cry of, “That’s so awesome!”
No, it’s not an over eager fan finding that rare toy or an expression of joy at meeting a celebrity. It’s T.J. Storm, the current motion capture actor for the American Godzilla, and he’s currently geeking out over a Godzilla: King of the Monsters toy he’s been asked to sign.
“I’ve never seen this one before!” He exclaims, turning the figure around as he tries to find the best place to sign it. Storm is not playing this up for the fan’s benefit, it’s clear he’s genuinely excited. Not that it’s a figure of his Godzilla, just that it’s a cool Godzilla figure in general. When he isn’t swamped with fans wanting an autograph, he’s gleefully roaming the dealer’s tables checking out all the cool merchandise.
T.J. Storm is amongst his own kind, fans of both Japanese and American Tokusatsu (Special Effects) series that include the likes of Ultraman, Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, and Power Rangers. Storm himself has a long history in the genre, not just as a fan but as a main part of it.
Storm is one of the few American Tokusatsu actors to have played multiple characters across multiple franchises. From 1995 when he played the evil commander Doom Master in season 2 of VR Troopers through his current role as Godzilla, T.J. Storm has a unique perspective on being part of the American Tokusatsu phenomenon. He grew up as a fan in Hawaii where many of the Japanese Tokusatsu series aired long before Power Rangers hit America. In addition, unlike some characters in Ameri-Toku his biggest ones have always been adaptions of the original Japanese source material.
Doom Master was almost a completely physical rip from Shaider, the series that was used as part of the basis for VR Troopers. Godzilla was obviously a new interpretation of the legendary character. Bringing new versions of these Japanese characters to life isn’t something many people have experience with so we at down with Storm to chat about his various Ameri-Toku roles.
The experience of booking each part, finding the best way to adapt them for an American audience, and the day to day life on set. Plus we even touch on his guest appearance in Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight!
DEN OF GEEK: I’d love to hear about how you got the role of Doom Master in VR Troopers.
T.J. STORM: I believe there were a couple of auditions. One was for voice. They wanted to see if I could do a character voice of something big and dangerous. And I was like, “Oh, yeah. Sure.” And they was like, “Your resume says you do martial arts. Can you do it for performance in action?” And I’m like, “Well, that’s my specialty. Sure.”
When I first got [to LA], I was a dancer, then later I learned how to act. And then I got to do a bunch of kickboxing movies, which nobody saw because they were very low budget, but they were shown all around the world. But we shot a lot of them, and I got a lot of experience doing that. When I finally got the chance to do VR Troopers, I was like, “Yeah. I’ll do some of that.” “Can you use a sword?” And I’m like, “Sure, sure.” And I got the audition, and then I got the call back, and then I got to be the Doom Master.
Talk a little bit about being Doom Master in that show.
It was awesome. I didn’t understand how they use Japanese footage at first, but growing up in Hawaii and watching all of those shows originally, I was like, “Oh, you guys are just… okay, I see what you’re doing. So we need to re-shoot some of the action, all of the acting, so it’s in English. Okay, fine. Let’s do this.”.
I remember they sent me to a place in the Valley where I had to get in basically a casket. They poured it full of latex for my body mold, and they gave me a straw to breathe out of, and they kept my eyes clear. And then they set me almost upright as it started to harden, and I watched the entirety of True Romance, and I was like breathing through a straw. They cracked me open after my skin was crawling. I was freaking out a little bit. But they cracked me out, made my body armor, and then my very first day it’s black samurai body armor with a huge helmet on top.
What was that helmet like?
It was heavy, but I didn’t care. I was so excited to be on a television show that was connected with Saban and the Power Rangers. I was just super excited, so I didn’t care about any of it. They gave me a gigantic sword. They painted my face with makeup; it took like an hour and a half to do. And we promptly walked outside in the black armor and makeup to 112-degree heat, near Valencia near Magic Mountain.
read more: Power Rangers: Ranking the Other American Tokusatsu TV Shows
We shot in the heat. I had the Vixens behind me, my woman warriors, and we were fighting the guys, the VR Troopers in their full armor. It was a day of heat, and melting, and blindness and pure fun. It was amazing. And a lot of what you guys were doing, you were either out fighting in Valencia somewhere, or you were standing on that set.
What was that set like?
The set was really cool. The one thing that always happened was there was some weird teleport thing where we… I don’t know how it worked. I don’t remember the exact specifics, but there’s a term in film called ‘crossing the line’. It’s when the camera goes from one side of your face to the other side, and the rule is you cannot cross the line, a specific line in space, otherwise it gets very confusing for the person watching the film to know who you’re talking to. It could look like you’re talking to yourself, or you’re talking in the wrong direction.
And the way the set was, we’d shoot on one side, then somebody would teleport, and I turned around to talk to my master, and we’d have to cross the line sometimes. And they would always stop and be a half an hour discussion because we could never figure out where the line was for the shot. So we’d be like, “Wait, are we crossing the line here?”.
So, for a half an hour, every single time, we could not remember how this worked. And it happened every time we shot. “Did we cross the line? Ah, is he teleporting back in? Which way is he looking when he comes back in?” We couldn’t figure it out it. So, we just got used to getting comfortable, like, “We’ll figure it out. The camera people will figure it out.” But that was the best part of it. Just waiting for that, and how to understand that, but it was always fun.
And then you said you had a background in martial arts, how do you move around with that giant Doom Master outfit on and the helmet and everything?
It was surprisingly light. After they did it all, it was surprisingly light. And the sword was not metal, it was paper mache and wood together, so I had to actually be careful not to swing it too hard because it wouldn’t hold its shape very well if I swung too hard. But it was a blast. It was always awesome. The hardest thing to do was jump because my legs were kind of big, and they kind of had suspenders to hold them up, so it was kind of hard to jump. But besides that, it was just pure fun. I loved it.
And it was so interesting because in the first season especially the American shot fight sequences, those Trooper suits were so restrictive and you could tell. But by the second season they seem to improve on that a little bit.
They definitely streamlined it. I want to say that we had a really great costume department and they were always tweaking and upgrading and fixing and repairing because we were always breaking things. But it definitely got better, and the stunt people worked so hard, and the actors worked so hard. They were pretty good martial artists themselves, so they did a lot of stuff themselves before they transformed. So it was always fun to watch the stunt team, and the actors do their stuff and to work with them.
And then primarily you’ve worked with all the villain and the Vixens. Talk about working with those cast members, who we haven’t heard a lot from.
They’re awesome. The Vixens are still around. I see them on Facebook. They have kids now, so do some of the actors. Sarah Brown is amazing. She’s an amazing human and her story just kept on going. She did soap operas and all kinds of fun stuff. All of the guys are really, really great. They all have great personalities and we all really got along and had a lot of fun. Especially the stunt team. They still work, some of them are working on huge projects now, they all do really, really well.
So you just mentioned growing up in Hawaii. What is your experience with Tokusatsu even before you got involved in it?
It’s part of my childhood. You don’t really think about it. Who is the giant gold robot with kind of pyramid head? I grew up watching him, Ultraman. Macross, Robotech, all of these huge anime’s. It was just after school cartoons for us. We watched it every day. It was always fun to watch. It’s just part of your culture to grow up with that stuff. And we were exposed to a lot of Japanese culture in Hawaii, so it seemed normal to me.
So when I got here to California, I noticed it didn’t have a lot at first. And then 20 years later it started blowing up and everybody, all of a sudden is like, “Hey anime’s awesome.” And I’m like, “Anime is anime.” I’m glad people are getting exposed to it. I’m glad Japanese culture and all of these fun projects are now in the mainstream.
So how did you first get into the business of acting? Was it through martial arts?
My mom put me into martial arts when I was a kid. I was really clumsy, really hyper, and she put me in to help with that, and it did. She made me stay with it. Thanks mom! She made me stay with it until I got okay. And then after okay, I got good, and I wanted it to be more popular in school. I was a super nerd. I played Dungeons and Dragons in class, I was not cool. So I decided to learn how to dance because that’s what cool kids did.
I learned to dance and then I became a dancer and then we perform for tourists in Waikiki, and then I got a scholarship to dance school. Then I came to LA as a professional dancer. I did a lot of music videos, I worked on Janet Jackson music videos. I got to do some really, really fun stuff. Got a record deal oddly in there. Got to do a concert tour, got screwed out of the record deal, and I was like, “I don’t like this music business. It’s a little shady. I’m going to do something that’s not shady. I’m going to go act.” –laughs-
Did you release a record?
We did. We did. Got on the Billboard Top 100, we did concert tours with people who were pretty big at the time. It was awesome.
What was the name of the group?
Real Image, later we took over Nice and Wild. We had songs and covered this song called “Diamond Girl,” which they originally did, but it was the same producer, so we took over. And then we had a song called “Signal.” It was a fun short period of fame and fun and we totally got screwed out of our deal. And I was like, “Let’s try acting. How hard could it be?” Holy shit.
Fortunately my dance and martial arts combined for me to create good choreography for martial arts and stuff. I was able to do that pretty well, and it made it much easier. So I got into the kickboxing movies, got into VR Troopers, then I went to acting school. I probably should have done that in reverse, in retrospect. That’s where I realized, “Oh my God, I cannot act at all,” and I could act theater big, not well.
Which works for something like VR Troopers.
It works for VR Troopers. “I talk like this and you will die.” But I was not a great actor.
So when you were playing that Doom Master part did they ever tell you something about the character? Or were they like “Just act evil.”.
Oh I understood that cultural genre. So I understood the idea of the samurai, which I was a dark samurai. And my relationship to the master and my enemy, those were pretty basic. So there was nothing subtle about it fortunately. And my ADR, my voice directors, when I went to go voice … because where we shot was usually pretty loud.
read more: VR Troopers: The Essential Episodes
So I’d go voice over everything and they’d direct me better. They made the performances much better than I probably did on my own. And then later I learned how to more seriously act. And I’ve been honing that this entire time. But it helped a lot.
And then jumping ahead in your American Tokusatsu career, you did a guest shot on Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight. Talk to me a little bit about that.
(Kamen Rider Dragon Knight co-creator) Steve Wang, he said, “Dude, would you mind helping me on a project?” I’m like, “Sure, man, what do you need? What kind of project is it?” He’s like, “Oh, it’s called Kamen Rider.” I’m like, “Kamen Rider? I grew up watching that!” He’s like, “Yeah, they’re redoing it. It’s going to be cool.” I’m like, “Hell yeah. What do I need to do?” I was super excited to revisit that world and be a part of that. And I get to keep dipping my toe in that world, I did a voice on an anime called Berserk. That was awesome. Just to be part of that culture, it always takes me back to Hawaii.
read more: American Tokusatsu Shows: Kamen Rider Dragon Knight
Then jumping forward, the biggest in every sense of the word, roll for your American Tokusatsu career was being in Godzilla. Now I remember reading that you didn’t even know you were going to play him until the day before?
Yeah. One of my friends called and he called weeks before and he’s like, “Hey, we need some good beasts.” And I was busy on a lot of projects so at the time it was like, “Oh okay, I’m going to give you some names. Here’s some great people.” Gave them a bunch of names, forgot about it. I went back to shooting the stuff they were shooting. It was a lot of Marvel stuff at the time. And he calls me weeks later, he’s like, “Dude, can you come down and help us with this beast stuff?”
read more: Godzilla: King of the Monsters – Complete Easter Eggs and Reference Guide
I literally thought that he had called some of the people that I suggested, and now he wanted me to come down and coach their movement. I’m like, “Yeah, sure. Where are you guys?”, “We’re in the Valley, blah, blah, blah, blah.” So I went down there, showed up. There’s only three of us that walk onto a stage and I’m like, “What are we doing? What are we going to do?” He goes, “You’re Muto Number One, your Muto Number Two, and you’re Godzilla.” And I’m like, “Whaaaaaaaaaaat?” I was like, “What? Yes! YEEEEESSSSS!” They were the best words I’ve ever heard. And so we just started shooting right then and there.
And when you have to snap to it like that, you don’t have any time to prepare, do you just jump into your cultural knowledge of Godzilla?
Absolutely. And you pull out the phone immediately while people are setting up. I watched all the periods of Godzilla’s, I watched some of the anime. I was flicking through this stuff really, really fast because I had to absorb the basics of the movement. I skipped the sillier campier ones, because I knew what those were about and I got it. And I tried to get them more serious ones. And then I had to understand the model that they were using and say, “How do you guys want this to move? How big is he? How tall is he?” He goes, “Oh, he’s the tallest of them all.” I’m like, “Oh, so he’s more massive?” “Oh yeah.”
read more: Godzila: King of the Monsters – Post-Credits Scene Explained
But they didn’t have a model. They didn’t have a picture for me to look at. So I was working off of imagination at this point. I was like, “Oh, okay.” And they’re like, “No, no, no, he doesn’t have Tyrannosaurus Rex arms, he has shoulders.” I’m like, “He’s going to have shoulders? Like he literally has shoulders?”, “Yeah, he’s pretty muscular.” I’m like, “Like this? How’s this posture?” Like, “That was good. Let’s try that.” They shot it over to Warner Brothers. They had to go up and down the chain of command, and it came back, a couple of notes, but for the most part they liked what they saw and we shot it out.
And then what was it like coming back for this most recent movie, now that you had time to really think about it and have more time to really absorb all about what Godzilla is?
Awesome, but I didn’t know that I had the part. You never own the part. Anybody could be in there. It doesn’t matter. So I thought seriously that they were going to audition me. I went, they called me to Legendary in Burbank and so I went there. There’s a park right below Legendary, I ran around the park warming up, I wanted my body warm so I could perform really, really well.
Went to my car, changed my shirt. Then I walked up to the meeting. Got to the floor they’re on, one of the top floors in the building and the elevator opens up. And to the right, there’s a gigantic Godzilla statue, to the left the entire wall is Godzilla painted across the wall and I’m like, “Holy shit, this is terrifying.”
I walked out of the elevator, hardwood floors that go all the way out and all you can see, it’s a gigantic room. White hardwood floors that stretch all the way out to single desk, a gigantic desk, probably 20 feet long with one single woman sitting smack dab in the middle of it, and she’s tiny in the distance. That’s how massive this place is. I was like, “Oh, this is like a movie. And I am terrified.”
So I started walking towards the desk like, “I think this is where I’m supposed to be?” The lady looks up, “Oh, Mr. Storm. Oh great, you’re here.” And I was like, “Ah, yes, I am here. Let us go.” And so we went. She took me down some stairs to a huge glass wall. Behind the glass wall was a huge, I mean that’s a 40 person meeting table, a conference table. And there was about six or eight people at it, (Godzilla: King of the Monsters director) Michael Dougherty was one of the people. And I’m like, “Oh shit.”
read more: The Weirdest Godzilla Moments from the Toho Movies
And I walk in and everybody stands up, introduces themselves. And I’m in audition mode. I’m like, “Hello, good to meet you. Hello.” They’re like, “All right, so we want to show you the movie, and we want to tell you what we have planned.” I’m like, “Go on.” And I didn’t … I was ready to audition. I had my head shot and my resume, but they’re like, “Okay, so this is what we’re thinking for him.” I’m like, “I like it. Go on.”
At some point [I think] I’m going to have to audition. They’re going to pull out the rug from under me. They’re like, “Well, this is going to be great. We love your movement from the first one. We love your performance from the first one. This is going to be really great. You’re going to be fighting Ghidorah this time, and here’s some of the shots, and this is what we’re thinking, and your schedule free for this?” And I’m like, “I believe it is. Go on.” I was terrified. At no point did I have to actually audition.
At the end they’re like, “All right, great. This is going to be awesome. Thank you.” What the fuck is going on? They brought me in to tell me that I have it? Yay. It was awesome, but I was terrified the entire time. But you always gotta be ready to do your best, this time I lucked out and they were happy with the performance and I was happy to do it. It’s freaking awesome.
I find it interesting that throughout your career in the American Tokusatsu scene, that you’re adapting things from the original Japanese source material. Whether it’s Doom Master because there was a character like that in the original Japanese show, or with Godzilla there’s all the original films that you looked at. When you’re playing these characters, do you look at the Japanese footage and then make it your own? Or do you take as much as you can from the footage?
I always ask who the audience is meant to be. Then I look at the source material and stay close to it as I can with the new audience in mind. There are some movements in Japanese culture that do not translate. Waving your hand over your face in America it means something smells, in Japan I believe it means ‘no’.
That’s a gross example, but there are several things that don’t translate. So I just translate it just a little bit so that it makes sense for the American culture, because that’s who we’re making this particular version for. But I still make sure that it’s the same story. And I took many of Doom Master’s gestures because he had very specific gestures.
read more: Classic Monster Influences of Godzilla: King of the Monsters
And so does Godzilla. Certain things, and then I added a couple of small things. When I felt pain, I would do a [head shaking motion.] Which I got from my dogs and my cats in the past, when they slam into something, they don’t say, “Ouch.” They do this head shaking thing. People were like, “Oh shit, I like that. I like that.” Because they recognize it in their own animals. They recognize their own experience and it translates well. So you just try to do your best in melding the two.
What else are you working on now? Anything that you’re excited about and you want to tell people about?
In the last year I have gotten to be the Predator, I have gotten to be Godzilla again. I’ve gotten to be several Marvel characters. I’ve been Iron Man, Groot, Rocket Raccoon. I’ve been a little Black Panther, I’ve been Thor, I’ve been Black Widow, oddly in motion capture. Don’t ask.
But I’ve never gotten to be a part of the Star Wars universe. And I’m like, “Come on man. It’s one of the oldest.” I’m so proud to be part of the oldest franchise. Godzilla is the oldest, but not Star Wars. Star Wars is one of the big ones, in America at least. It’s one of the granddaddies of all the franchises. Now I got to be part of the Star Wars universe. Last year they called me to ILM, and they’re like, “We’re gonna need some help with this. How do you feel about Darth Vader?” I’m like, “Yes. Yessssssss!”.
So we did some tests, ran it up the chain, ran back down the chain. I am Darth Vader. I’m Darth Vader in Vader Immortal, which is a VR experience for ILMX Labs. And it came out super cool. It just came out.
We’re doing some more stuff with them soon and I’m part of the League of Legends universe now. I got to do a voice for them. And that is super exciting because I play the hell out of that game, and it’s fun. And I’ve worked on over a hundred video games and I run a motion capture performance school, Mind’s Eye Tribe Action Actor’s Academy. We’re online: mindseyetribe.com.
It’s nice to be able to give some of those skills to the next generation of actors who are going to be running the Godzillas, the Vaders, the Predators, the Avatars, whatever they are, they’re going to be the next generation. So it’s really fun to help them get in position to do their best.
Wrapping this up, let’s take it all the way back to VR Troopers. Could you have imagined back then when you were playing Doom Master in 120 degrees in Valencia, that now there will be people asking you about this, asking you about your role as Godzilla, back then when you’re playing that character?
You know, when you’re a kid playing in the yard. I remember playing in the yard and there was no Terminator yet, but I was basically the Terminator. I would chase my friends around the yard. We were six. I would chase them around the yard. They would shoot me with their imaginary guns. I would take the bullets, I’d fall down, then I’d get up. “Oh no, he’s alive again.” The chase would start all over again.
When you’re playing monsters, you don’t think about the future. You don’t think about the past. You just play, and that’s what I did then. I put on the samurai armor and I said, “I am Doom Master and these are the Vixens.” There was no future. There was no past. I was just Doom Master. Now I am just Godzilla. Now I’m just whatever they let me be and I love to play and I love to get to do it.
Shamus Kelley is a pop culture/television writer and official Power Rangers expert. Follow him on Twitter! Read more articles by him here!