In the Aquaman movie, Patrick Wilson plays Orm, the King of Atlantis, and half-brother of Arthur Curry. But it’s not enough for Orm to be king, he’s searching for the right to be called Ocean Master, the commander of the combined military might of the Seven Kingdoms of Atlantis. And why does he want this power? To take revenge on the surface world, since we’ve been dumping our garbage into the oceans for centuries.
Orm is not only one of the most interesting, conflicted villains the DCEU has yet produced, he’s also one of Aquaman’s most important villains. Oh, and he has the benefit of the coolest wardrobe in a movie packed to the gills with dazzling costumes. We spoke to Patrick Wilson about bringing Ocean Master to life, and walking the line between comic book villainy and Shakespearean tragedy.
Den of Geek: You have a history of working with James Wan, but this is a very different kind of James Wan movie. Did he come straight to you for the role of Orm?
Patrick Wilson: Yeah.
How did that conversation go?
Oh, like everything these days. He sent me a text. I know it was around The Conjuring 2. We were shooting The Conjuring 2 and I may have asked him about it. I think he was flirting around with it. I think it was rumored. So he said, “I’ve got an idea for you. Do you know the character of Ocean Master?” Of course I just Googled the image of this crazy mask. The old comic came up and I was like “I’m in.” That was so daunting and exciting.
Then of course it took probably a year and a half to actually have a real offer and a script and all that stuff, but I knew if he wanted me to do something it was gonna be good. I didn’t know how much Orm would be in the movie, but I knew it’d be important because I have such great respect for James and I know he wouldn’t waste my time if it wasn’t something really fantastic, which of course it was.
Because this such a different kind of movie than The Conjuring films, was James different to work with this time? Was your relationship with him different on set?
No, it really wasn’t. I mean he also had done a Fast and Furious between those movies and this, so he had jumped into the action world, which I knew he always would. I knew he’s got every genre in him. There’s a James Wan version of every genre, and I mean that. I knew that from the first movie that we did together, from Insidious. I never looked at him like a horror director. I thought it was really fascinating even then, a guy coming back to a horror franchise, which he really pushed the limits on with Saw if you take it back to the ’90s and how important that was to that whole movement of horror films.
I loved that he was like “yeah, I wanna go back into it but it’s gonna be PG-13 and there’s gonna be no blood and no language and no violence” and you thought, how does that even work? We had gotten so used to those whole slasher horror movies. So, that showed me as a filmmaker he was going to push himself as far as he could, and all you want as an actor is to have that ability as well. So, I never viewed him as a horror director and he never viewed me as a horror actor. Honestly it didn’t feel any different. I do tons of different kinds of movies and I think directors should do the same if they have the skill set. He certainly does.
And in terms of pushing yourself I imagine there were some physical challenges with you having to use harnesses to simulate swimming. Was this the most grueling physical role you’ve ever had?
Yeah, hands down. Absolutely.
Nobody who plays a villain in a movie ever wants to say “yeah, well my guy’s a bad guy.” But in Orm’s case you do have a defense that Orm isn’t really a villain in the traditional sense. And he kind of has a point. So how did you approach this?
The last thing you wanna do when you play a character is get caught up in “oh, he’s a villain” or “I play him this way” or “he’s a good guy, so I play him this way” or “he’s an icon and now I’m scared of it.” I don’t judge any character I play. I mean, when I’m playing Ed Warren I’m a devout Catholic who believes in ghosts. I don’t even think about my own feelings when I play a role. Why? It doesn’t do any good. I have to look at it from the character’s perspective.
With Orm, I don’t view him as a villain. I guess as Patrick I could sit back and go sure, in comic book lore he’s a villain. But he’s a foil. He’s an antagonist, for sure, but he’s rooted in a very understandable dilemma. I mean, his oceans are being polluted and destroyed and he’s angry and he should be, and that’s completely justified.
His character trait of how angry he is, that’s something that’s throughout the comics. He was an angry boy. He always was angry. He’s angry at Arthur. He’s angry for Arthur not being there. He’s resentful of that. He’s angry probably at his father and the relationship that he and his mother had. He’s bottled up all of his family turmoil and it manifests itself out through violence like a lot of bad people will do, but I don’t look at him as bad. I certainly look at him as troubled and I can look at some of his actions as irrational or reprehensible. But he’s justifiably angry and I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think that we’re ruining the oceans. We need to take better care of our world.
My favorite Orm scene is everything leading up to that big gladiator match with Arthur, because you see all of the different sides of Orm there. You see Orm the leader. You see Orm the kind of populist, and there’s Orm the antagonist. So how do you thread that needle as performer? You have these angry elements, but then you can see this guy is still something of a charismatic leader?
It’s a number of things. I think that’s James. I think that’s David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, our writer. I think that’s Geoff Johns and the story as well. And that’s me in acting. I think you just have to understand each moment. The setup is always the best part for me in that. In the Ring of Fire before that fight, we have these moments of Arthur just coming in like a bull in a china shop and he’ll like kick your ass right here, and Orm not really even understanding his humor or his attitude. You’ve gotta have the foil. For as loose as Jason’s Aquaman has to be, Orm has to just be so tight and stern and curt. Abrasive.
And then you just want a glimmer of a connection between Orm and his brother. That’s all you need. You need just a few seconds of these guys looking at each other. Because I think Orm is very, he’s being very heartfelt in saying, “Go home. You’re not going to win.” It’s not a threat. He knows. “Listen, you are Aquaman and you’re a superhero in your world. This is not your world right now.” I think we have to set that up with Orm. You’re in Orm’s world right now. And I think he means that. So you have to play each of those moments for real. Go home, you’re not going to win this. But he knows that Arthur’s gonna go “I can’t,” and Orm says “I know.” And then they fight.
It’s a little Shakespearean.
That’s very Shakespearean. All of this language is very flowery. It’s very over the top. It’s very theatrical, all those words. And you can’t run from that. When you have a costume like that and a mask like that and language like that, you cannot run from that. You have to embrace that. I think that’s the trap. I think that’s where actors can run into trouble is, nothing to do with talent per se, but if you can’t inhabit that world, if you can’t make those lines about, lines about you know, “your flaccid poets.” If you can’t pull that Shakespearean dialogue and make that real for you, then it’s gonna show to the audience and you’re gonna look, forgive the pun, like a fish out of water. You have to go for it.
Did you base Orm on anybody? Was there anything you pulled from?
No. I mean, I pulled from the comic. So the panels of Orm new 52 stuff I think was very influential, but there’s nobody that I modeled him after to act like. I didn’t do that. The look was sort of an evolving look. I knew that I wanted to look really different than Jason. I wanted to be very clean shaven and sharp and since he was very dark I wanted to be blonde. All that kind of stuff went into it.
And then sometimes it’s as simple as looking at a panel in the comic and seeing just these teeth through the mask. Sometimes James would just literally say “I need to see more teeth.” I mean literally sometimes just that specific, but I love that. We have that kind of relationship. We can talk for days about script and character and intention and all that actor stuff, but sometimes it’s just that you need to turn your head a little slower or “I need to see more teeth.” And so you have to go okay, let’s do it.
Can we talk about those costumes?
You have more costume changes than anybody.
I do. I have a ton, yeah. Orm likes clothes.
Do you have a favorite?
They all sort of represent something different. I mean the Ocean Master suit is crazy. It’s these metal scales. The mask is so great to wear. And I realized even if I thought they were gonna put it on in post I realized I couldn’t, I just didn’t act the same when I wasn’t in it. That’s not even trying to give myself a pat on the back. We would do takes where I would just say “call me Ocean Master” without the mask on, and it just didn’t look the same. Even if they put the mask on in post you just act differently when you’re behind these red eyes in this mask, so that’s hard to beat.
But there’s also my costume, what we call my battle costume. When I start the journey, it’s the one right before Ocean Master and it’s this very dark suit. I don’t wear it a ton, but it’s very cool. Yeah, there’s a lot.