There’s no denying the reality of Turtle Power. Last summer, the live-action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film defied expectations by raking in over $475 million worldwide. The movie found the famous amphibious anthropomorphs — Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael and Michaelangelo — venturing outside of their sewer lair to save news reporter April O’Neil and the rest of the world from the evil Shredder and his minions, the Foot Clan.
Genre veteran Jeremy Howard brought the tech-savvy Donatello for the Michael Bay produced reboot. In advance of his appearance at The Hollywood Show in Los Angeles Jan. 23-25, Howard spoke with CBR News about his love of the Turtles, the movie’s elaborate action sequences, what didn’t make the cut and his hopes for the sequel.
CBR News: Were you into “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” growing up?
Jeremy Howard: The property meant a huge deal to me. When I was 9, we went to see the original film that came out with my family. It blew my mind, seeing those Turtles come to life at that age. I wasn’t into the Turtles at all before that. I didn’t really know who they were. After that, I watched the cartoon religiously, every Saturday. I got all the action figures and extensive amounts of toys. There were lunch boxes, backpacks and Halloween costumes. To see this all come back and to be playing Donatello is a dream come true. All of a sudden, all those kid feelings reawaken. It still feels amazing to go back and feel like a kid again. I have no problem with that.
What makes Donatello unique compared to his fellow Turtles?
They all have their quirks. Donny stands out pretty dramatically from the rest just because he’s so darn tech geeky. In order to work as a team, each one has to have their strength. Donny’s strength is that technological sense that none of the other Turtles have. If there is any strategy or logistics involved in anything they are doing, all that rests on Donny’s shoulders. He’s a very important part of the team.
How crazy was the audition process for a role like this?
The audition process was much smoother than you would think for something of this scope. Debra Zane, who had cast me in a couple of films before, called me in. I’m now three for three with her, so she’s a good casting director.
There was a very short page or two of dialogue. It was written very strangely. It wasn’t a real script. They had obviously taken some dialogue and changed the names so that if it ever leaked online, nobody would know what it was. It was a simple recon scene from the top of a building where we were trying to rescue somebody, or something like that. I did a pretty good job of that and got called in to meet with the director the next day.
Then, I didn’t hear from anybody for a long time. But when I was in with the director, he showed me a rendering of Donatello. It was a very close-up rendering, but all it showed was Donny wearing glasses. I could see right away that they were taking this franchise to the next level in a way we hadn’t seen before, visually. I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks, then we got called for a chemistry read for a screen test, just to see who got on the best. The four of us were the second group to go in. We were there for a couple of hours. After our group went in, we were told the casting director and director looked at each other and said, “Those are our Turtles.”
This movie doesn’t shy away from action. How intense was the training?
Pretty intense. We got to New York in April, and we didn’t start shooting until May, so we had a month for training. We went in five days a week to learn karate, and then individual training with our weapons. By the time filming rolled around, we knew what we were doing. At the same time, they had such an amazing stunt team that was training us and they knew everything far better than we did. When it came time for the action, they wouldn’t let us do a whole lot. Not that we could do a lot, but the stunt team was amazing. As an actor, it was great to know how they did all those things they did.
As far as the action scenes in the movie, there were so many sequences that were filmed that ended up on the cutting-room floor. These characters are so expensive to animate that they just didn’t have the budget in the end. There was so much more backstory. There was so much more cool stuff that nobody got to see because they just didn’t have the funds to animate the Turtles. The upside of it being, because it was so successful, now we have the chance to flesh them out.
Which sequence was the most challenging to pull off?
The snow sequence was challenging because of the technical aspects that went into it. We were never on the side of a mountain. We were never in the snow. We were on foam shells on our backs on a motion-capture stage. Picture a quiet, padded stage where you can hear a pin drop, and we have to pretend there’s all this noise. We have to pretend we are underneath a truck, sliding down a mountain with guns going off and we’re yelling things. It just seems so strange, but that’s a big part of acting. That’s a big part of this film in particular. When you are on a motion stage, it’s all about how you play make-believe and pretend in your mind. For a scene that was that intense, to be on such a calm set and then they call “Action!” — you have to be in that mindset of, “I have to be in a completely different world.” That scene was tough. And it wasn’t like we shot that scene from beginning to end. We shot it over months, coming back in and tweaking it and adding bits here and there.
The other big one was the lair fight between Splinter and Shredder. When that’s going on, you’re not sure what the Turtles are doing for a lot of it. There was so much fighting that we filmed that didn’t end up in the movie. There were a lot of challenging aspects for that lair fight that people won’t see, unfortunately.
It’s too bad that stuff didn’t make it onto the DVD or Blu-ray as an extra.
I know. I wish it did, too. I think the consensus was they didn’t want the un-animated footage going out there. I’m sure it would break the illusion for a lot of kids, at least in my mind.
Donatello didn’t fawn over April as much as in the cartoons. How did you approach their relationship?
Going into this, because of the history of the comics and the other renditions that are out there, I thought that Donny might have some kind of crush on April. The only one who really voiced his crush was Michaelangelo. I think Donny has affection for April and because she’s the first human that he’s ever gotten closed to, he’s always fascinated by her from a physical, medical and ecological standpoint.
A “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sequel has been announced. What are you hoping they will expand on for the second installment?
We’ve heard they are going to bring new characters in, like Bebop and Rocksteady. I’d love to see more interaction with the Turtles, more quiet moments where we get to see how they think and what makes them tick. At the same time, I’d like to see more ninja artistry on screen. There’s a lot more skill we could see in the action sequences. Everybody has such a specific skill with their weapons. I don’t think we saw that come out as much as we had hoped with all the training we did. Again, it comes down to time and budget. I think we have the opportunity to slow things down and get specific with their skills and the way they think.
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