It’s fair to say that Josh Helman has large shoes to fill. Taking on the young version of William Stryker, he’s inhabiting a character previously played by such talents as Brian Cox and Danny Huston. But X-Men: Days Of Future Past gives Helman a chance to put his own mark on the role, as he plays a more youthful Stryker who’s only on the first step to becoming the terrible threat to mutantkind we saw in the previous movies.
As part of our visit to the set of Days Of Future Past last year, we got to sit with Josh Helman and talk about what we can expect from his role in the film, and the behind-the-scenes BB gun battles he and the cast engage in between takes.
Taking on this role, you’re coming from a long line of Strykers. Is that a challenge, or is it a case of cleaning the slate?
Oh no. I mean, I would never say it’s cleaning the slate. The most daunting thing about Stryker is that he’s already been played by two great actors. Brian Cox and Danny Houston are both guys that I’d watch do anything, so to step into the shoes of someone they’ve both played is an incredible privilege. But I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t come with a certain amount of stress as well.
Stryker’s such an interesting character, and I think that he’s developing in such a way that is quite unexpected. The period where we’re picking up on him now, in 1973, to what he evolves into, he covers a lot of ground emotionally. I think that’s going to be really, deeply interesting – but we’ll get to that in the future.
It’s a great set-up for a character that will, hopefully, be fun to watch and is certainly fun to play.
So what is Bill Stryker doing in this story? Is he meeting Logan for the first time?
Yeah. This is the inception of it all, I guess. Bill’s role in this film is really… his job is to work with Trask. Simon Kinberg, the writer and I, have spoken and think that Stryker and Trask have worked together for a couple of years at this point. We talked about military projects like Blackwater, which I’m sure you’re all aware of, where they had an almost contracting-type role.
I think that Bill’s someone who’s had a deep education about what the future looks like through working with Trask. Trask is the most forward-thinking man that Bill has ever met – certainly more forward-thinking than anyone in the military, more forward thinking than the government. So he’s getting a view of the future that he knows is coming.
The good thing about Bill is, he keeps his cards close to his chest. A lot of characters in these situations love to talk – what I love about Bill is that he doesn’t talk. There’s a lot going on in his mind, and he’s planning a lot for the future. Again, it’s setting up some really interesting journeys for down the road.
Were you a fan of the comic books before this?
I knew the films. I’d seen all the films. I’d seen all the films at the cinema when they came out; I was 14 when X-Men came out in 2000, I believe. And I didn’t know the comics growing up. I’d been a fanatic of movies since I was a wee lad, so I got into the films before i got into the comics.
It was only recently that I got into the comics, after I got hired on this. I thought I’d better become a fan quickly, and I did become one. I started on the original comics from Stan Lee and all the artists and storytellers did from there, and I got to the graphic novel that Chris Clairmont did, which is the one Stryker comes from – God Loves, Man Kills, which is a brilliant story.
You see Stryker as a military man in a flashback – he’s an evangelical preacher in that one, which is really interesting. So I’d seen all the films, and I was honestly a big fan. I saw the last one, First Class, at the cinema, and I think I said to my girlfriend at the time that I’d love to be in an X-Men movie. So to be here now is an insane privelege, and one I’m not taking lightly.
So how did all this come about, then?
I was quite protected from all the stress that comes with auditions, to be honest with you. I was lucky, in that I’d done a film called Jack Reacher, which Christopher McQuarrie directed. Again, being a nerd about films, I would do anything to work with that guy. I’ve been a fan of his for a long, long time. So to work with him was a dream come true, and then of course, he knows Bryan [Singer] very well, because they did The Usual Suspects together.
So for me, I originally got hired for a role that’s no longer in the script, and that’s Juggernaut. So I was like, “Oh shit, I’ve got to put on 30 pounds” [Laughs]. So I was training for about four weeks, and then I got a phone call saying, “Good news and bad news. Bad news first: Juggernaut’s no longer in the script. The good news is they’re having trouble with another role, and they want to see you for it.”
I ended up going to see the producer in New York, where I live, and I got a call a couple of days later saying they’d love to have me if I was interested. And I was like, “Yeah, okay. Yeah, I could be persuaded.” [Laughs]
So why did they write out Juggernaut?
They decide to go in a different direction, basically, with that sequence of the film, which I understood. I feel very fortunate that it worked out this way, because Stryker is an amazing character.
Stryker’s a menacing character in the previous films. Given that you’re playing a younger version of him, do you get in on the action?
Oh yeah. It’s funny. I think most of this film is him realising that he’s not much of a match physically with the mutant kind. Bill gets his ass whooped a few times in this film. [Laughs]
Again, it’s interesting, because that’s an important step for Bill as a character. He grows into a character who learns to use his mind to achieve his ends. And that becomes a part of an incredibly powerful arrow that he has in his quiver, and something he uses to his great benefit.
I remember watching some interviews with Danny Huston, and he talked about the fact that it’s amazing that a character who’s entirely human can hold his own with mutants. And not only hold his own, but be intimidating, and be a legitimate threat. A human who has an ability to that is a special man indeed. I think what we’re seeing happen to the character now informs what he becomes in the future.
So it’s before he has his son, right? Because I remember in X-Men 2, he has his son, who actually kills his wife. So is this before he knows he has a son?
There’s allusions to that in this film. I don’t want to say too much, but it’s early in the process.
This film seems big even by the standards of an X-Men film. From your perspective, just how big is it?
It doesn’t get much bigger, it really doesn’t. X-Men films have always been big, and necessarily so, because of the stories they have to tell. But this film feels like something else entirely, and I have a great respect for writers, because a lot of the time they go unnoticed. But this script goes above and beyond what I thought was possible for a film like this.
Especially because there are so many complex things to weave together. But the fact that it’s done so seamlessly and effortlessly, I think that means that it must have been an incredibly difficult task. I have great respect for Simon Kinberg and everyone who developed the script.
So in terms of scale, I think this is going to blow people’s heads off. The way the old and the new comes together is totally organic, and that’s a really difficult thing to do. I think it’s going to completely blow people’s minds. Really, honestly, I do.
What’s Bryan Singer like to work with?
Bryan’s an interesting figure. I mean, we hadn’t had many discussions before I came aboard on this film, so it was a bit of a sink-or-swim experience. But I’ve been – hopefully in a non-creepy way – I’ve been watching Bryan. I like to get a feel for the way directors work, and see their sequences, how they work with actors, how they put everything together. He has such a total understanding of what he’s doing. I’m constantly amazed by the little things he’ll catch, and the connections he makes between things.
He always has an eye on how the audience is going to perceive things, and he has an instinct for what’s right and what’s not. He’s a brilliant director, and I’m grateful to work with him. X-Men and X2 are two of my favourite films in the series, I think because tonally they’re so grounded, and that’s what these films need. If they’re too fantastical, I don’t think they work – what’s the point of doing films like these if you don’t understand the characters?
So I’m consistently impressed by what he’s doing with these people.
It must be a great experience as an actor to be working with this cast. It just keeps going on.
It’s becoming almost farcical at this point – like, 50 high-calibre actors all getting out of a clown car at once. It’s really remarkable. Again, I’m a nerd about movies, so I’ve been aware of all these actors for a long time. I actually had the good fortune to work with Nick Hoult on Mad Max in Africa, so we became really fast friends. He was telling me, all through Mad Max, that he was going to be doing X-Men after this.
We’d be sitting in Namibia, and I’d be saying, “Man, I’d love to be on that movie. That would be great.” It was an absolute dream to come in here. But Fassbender, McAvoy. Again, I’d watch them do anything. I was on set yesterday, watching James [McAvoy] and Nick and Hugh [Jackman] do a scene, and I was pinching myself, because they’re incredible actors.
You need actors who are so good in films like this. Because they have to make these stories really resonate, and bring a truth to them, and they do that. But yeah, the cast on this film is ridiculous. I’m in good company, and I’m just trying to screw up as little as possible so I can respect myself.
What’s the relationship between Trask and Bill Stryker?
It’s really interesting, because we’ve been finding that as we’ve been going along. Peter and I only met hours before our first scene together, and Peter is such a sweetheart. He’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. He’s a darling.
Bill comes from the military, and Trask is scientifically minded. Finding the reasons why Bill and Trask come together has been a really interesting voyage of discovery for us, because I think Bill really respects Trask because Trask started out with certain disadvantages that he more than overcame. He became an incredibly imposing figure, a strong figure.
Stryker has a certain image of what it means to be a man that he wants to live up to. I think he sees that in Trask, especially mentally – Trask is one of the strongest and intelligent men Stryker’s ever met, and that’s an alluring thing for him. It’s been really interesting finding certain dynamics together. Most of what I’ve done is watch and listen to Peter, and just do what he says. And that’s a really lucky job to have. Working with Peter has been great, and I feel like I’m constantly learning from him.
With the element of time travel, is it possible that Bill’s future’s not set in stone? We know what happens to him in the second movie; is there room to change that future?
That’s a good question, and I may not be the best person to answer that. I think, in these film, nothing’s set in stone. There’s always room for surprising developments with these characters. I think with this franchise, it does that – it allows for contradictions and complexities – and I think that’ll be true of Stryker as well. But to what degree? You’d have to ask Simon Kinberg.
It sounds like you’ve been planning future movies. Are there seeds planted in this movie that will contine Stryker’s storyline? That he’s a growing character that will continue in the X-Men?
Nothing’s set in stone. I won’t believe it until I’m sitting in the premier for the next film. But I think that it’s such a rich character that there’s room to develop that relationship. And because we see him in earlier X-Men films, it’s already in the consciousness of people who really love the series. I think it could be really interesting to see how he develops over time. Because he is one of the greatest enemies that mutantkind has ever faced, and I’m sure there are many more stories that could be told.
Which of the X-Men is your favourite from this film?
There’s actually a couple of little character moments that I love. It doesn’t give away the plot, but there’s the aftermath of certain fights that I just love. Charles, James McAvoy, his arc in this is really interesting. He’s got some great stuff with Nick and Fassbender as well. I’ve not seen a lot of the other future stuff with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. But I’ve heard it’s beautiful, and I can’t wait to see it.
Who was your favourite member of the X-Men growing up?
Growing up, there was something so fun about Wolverine as a character. Especially with his history and his ability to regenerate, and his claws – it’s any boy’s fantasy to have that. It’s not just their powers, though. I love Magneto because of how dark he is, and how complex. I think he’s a beautiful character to watch. He does terrible things, but there’s always something you identify with.
Do you see this version of Stryker as a reflection of the military in some ways? Does he resemble specific military figures of now or then?
It’s a good question. I don’t think he is a reflection of the military. I don’t think in his mind he’s primarily a military man – I think he’s more complex than that. I don’t know if I can put it into words, but I think he represents a way of thinking that is especially dangerous to people. I wouldn’t associate that with the military, specifically.
X-Men‘s always interesting in terms of social issues. Does this film have anything to say through Stryker?
I think Stryker has a place, but he’s not the centre of it. What we see in this film is a vision of the future and what that might look like, and that has relevance because the future we see is, to put it mildly, dystopian. It will definitely have relevance, because it’s about where we could be heading if we don’t make certain choices and hard decisions. I think all the films have relevance in a way, especially the ones where characters are making difficult decisions.
We saw in the production department that there’s a base in Vietnam. Is Stryker in Vietnam at some point?
Uhhhm, yeah. We’re starting our story right at the end of the Vietnam war, so there’s resentment for the way that war was run and how it turned out. I think it was emasculating on a level for Stryker.
So he was there and he experienced it?
The fact that we’re calling him Bill and not Stryker – is that an attempt to keep the audience from realising who he is until maybe later in the film?
It’s one of those things that keen fans of the series will pick up on, but it’s not one of those things that’s overtly [stated]. In a sense he is Bill, he’s a young man in the army. And I think that the William Stryker that we know doesn’t yet exist. Does that make sense? I’m not trying to be too coy.
Do you have any scenes with Quicksilver?
Uh, no, no I don’t regrettably. But I’d very much like to be there to witness that. It’d be fun to see those scenes being played. We were talking about favourite scenes, and the one with Quicksilver is pretty special. So I’m looking forward to seeing that.
Would you say the story sticks fairly closely to the comics, or does it take inspiration?
It falls somewhere in the middle of those two. The great thing about X-Men is that it takes characters that are quite firmly established in the comics and puts them in new contexts. So it’s a blending of comics and the previous films, so it’s in its own universe in the middle. I think it’ll fall nicely in line with the others. I don’t think any of the fans will cause for upset, because everyone respects the characters and the lore so much.
How have you been getting along with Hugh [Jackman]?
I’m only at a loss for words because he’s so normal and sweet. Despite the fact that he could out-man the rest of the cast put together, it seems, in his present state. He’s a sweetheart. Very welcoming and opening. But across the board, no word of a lie, I’ve been utterly floored by how giving and wonderful it all is. On the shoot, everyone’s friendly until someone shouts ‘action’. Then ‘cut’ is called, and we’re all back to practical jokes.
They’re going to hate that I’m saying this, but I’ll say it anyway. James McAvoy and Nick [Hoult] decided that it’d be a great idea a couple of weeks ago if we had BB guns on set, so we could have BB wars when we weren’t shooting. For the last two weeks, the makeup department has been a bit upset to put it mildly, because we’re playing war constantly between set-ups.
I mean, we have rules. We have to wear glasses. We’re not allowed to shoot at anyone who doesn’t wear glasses. And no innocents are allowed to be caught in the crossfire, so we have to be aware. We have been going to town. I got shot in the collarbone yesterday by Nick, but I got him a great one in the forearm and I shot McAvoy in the back. But I’ve been shot in the face a number of times. Each of us have been shot in the face at least once, I think.
So that gives you an idea of the calibre of work ethic that you’re dealing with. That’s the great thing about this: we have so much fun. We all genuinely get along so well that it’s conducive to a great work environment. It’s certainly one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever done.
Josh Helman, thank you very much.
X-Men: Days Of Future Past is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd May. You can read our set report here.
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