John Carter was a proving ground for many in the production. For director Andrew Stanton, it’s his first foray into live action filmmaking after great success as a director at Pixar. For stars Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, it’s the first time they’ve been asked to carry a major film as actors after previous experience on television and in supporting roles. The same cannot be said for Willem Dafoe, who voices warrior Tars Tarkas.
Dafoe, who’s worked with Oliver Stone, Lars von Trier and Martin Scorsese, and played characters as diverse as Jesus Christ and the Green Goblin, had actually worked with Stanton on Finding Nemo, before signing on for John Carter. While his character on-screen is a creation of CGI, Dafoe still had to do plenty of physical work to make it right on film, including spending a lot of time on stilts during filming.
“You know, I don’t know when the last time I was on stilts,” Dafoe joked. It didn’t take much, though, for Stanton to convince him to do the role, or to take on the physical challenges involved. “I was happy to go there. I mean, I didn’t know the John Carter stories, the novels. I just knew he was gonna do this big live action movie for Disney, and I had worked with him on Finding Nemo, and I knew his work at Pixar. I really liked him, even though I was doing a voice for Nemo, that work is quite complicated, and you have lots of recording sessions over time. And I really like working with him. He tells you what he needs. He bends, he’s good at approaching things from all different angles. I think it’s partly from working at Pixar with having this huge respect for the process and for research in the development of things, that when you arrive, it pays off.”
Dafoe said that just because he was playing an alien character, it didn’t mean that he couldn’t bring a real emotional spark to the role either. “You know, the truth is Tars Tarkus has human emotions. That’s why we relate to him. So I’m playing it basically like a human, I think, but it’s filtered physically and visually through these other things.”
While Stanton brought a lifelong love for the John Carter stories to the film, Dafoe said that in researching his role, he focused more than anything on his own character, and his relation to Carter. “I had to know how he felt about John Carter, and then the principle thing was this secret that he has,” Dafoe explained. “But the most important thing was, there are certain parallels to him and John Carter because they both move from not feeling to feeling. I mean John Carter starts out as very misanthropic and kind of cut off, and he doesn’t want to get involved. He’s a classic reluctant hero. Tars Tarkus has not the same thing, but a similar thing where he has all these conflicted emotions about his people. The thing that was important to me was his sense of regret. They had become gross. They had lost their culture. But he was in this double bind because to keep his power, he has to be strong. And he can’t have any show of emotion. But he feels like they should move – they’re going in the wrong direction.”
Dafoe said he was gratified to see that his work and the work of the other actors whose characters had been created using CGI had seen the totality of their performances kept in place. “Andrew wanted the scenes realized with us, and then they were made in the form. I don’t think there were a lot of changes. When I watched this movie, it’s arguable, depending on how well you know me, how much you can see me. But I see everything. I say, ‘Oh, I remember that. I remember that gesture. I remember that look.’ So they really honor the material that they’re taking. And the only time that they change anything is for purely if there’s some sort of technical hiccup or they’re trying to make something more fluid. I felt like they were very true to the actors. They honored what the actors gave them.”