Two-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe decided that when he was cast as Tars Tarkas, the Green Martian king in Disney’s live-action adventure John Carter, he would play the character with dignity, nobility, and a sense of humor about the stilts he had to wear as the nine-foot-plus alien.
“It was fun!” laughed the veteran stage and screen actor. “It becomes something that, if you decide it’s not going to be a problem, it becomes a gift, an opportunity, different movement, different impulses. Always as an actor you’re looking for things to jump off from, new ways of thinking, new ways of looking, and the stilts were part of that.”
While the stilts and motion-capture suit were no big deal, Dafoe admitted to a gathering of journalists that pretending to have four arms was another matter.
“That’s a lot more problematic,” he confessed. To show animators how the gigantic Tarkas would reach for items, “I sometimes would have to have hand extenders, sort of like the things you’d use at a supermarket to get the things up high!”
“[Director] Andrew [Stanton] is very good at telling you what he needs from you in a scene and what the animators need — it becomes like a game, how well can you do it, how relaxed can you be, how do you find impulse when you’re preoccupied with all these physical tasks?” the actor added.
In John Carter, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp classic A Princess of Mars, Tars Tarkas is the king of the Tharks, a nomadic and savage group of Green Martians who live in the abandoned cities of Mars.
“I knew what the character looked like, I knew there had to be something strong and regal about him but not cartoony,” Dafoe said. He also compared Tars Tarkas to John Carter, explaining that he thought both Martian and human had to grow and change in similar ways.
“There’s a parallel between Tars Tarkas and John Carter because they’re both conflicted, they’re both reluctant, they’re both people who are a little shut off in the beginning and then they come to feeling and caring for others,” Dafoe explained. “Tars Tarkas has to keep his position in the world by maintaining that brutal Thark mentality, but you know that he has other feelings and thinks they’re heading in the wrong direction.”
Outside of the physical obstacles of the role, Dafoe also had to learn the fictional Thark language, taking “classes” along with fellow actors Thomas Hayden Church, Polly Walker and Samantha Morton.
“I think the Thark language, though it’s used minimally, is important to set up the characters and it was through the Thark language that you find the voice,” Dafoe said. He and his fellow Tharks began the rehearsal process by learning the language, sitting in a circle and repeating back phrases to each other in Thark, just as they would if learning Spanish or another real language. Despite this immersion, Dafoe admitted he was no longer conversant in the alien tongue.
“The truth is, we shot the Thark language quite early and it’s been long a while — someone asked me to speak and I was like, uh, um, uh!” the actor laughed.
The role also gave Dafoe a new appreciation for motion-capture acting, although he confessed he understood why there was so much discussion about whether motion-capture actors deserve to be nominated for awards after Andy Serkis was snubbed by the Oscars.
“I think clearly people appreciate what Andy Serkis does so that’s where the dialogue came in,” he said. “I think unless you’re a performer you don’t know what a performer contributes to motion capture, but film is such a collaboration that with motion capture its hard to know what the actors’ contribution is and the animators’ contribution is.”
One of the few people on set who had never read Burroughs’ Mars novels, Dafoe confessed that while he had “zero” knowledge of John Carter he was a complete Tarzan fanatic in his younger years.
“I adored Tarzan when I was a kid. Sunday mornings when people would go to church I’d hide because on Sunday morning there was always a Tarzan movie on, and it was a very important part of my television watching!” the actor laughed.
However, Dafoe thought not knowing anything about the character actually helped him as an actor, comparing the experience to playing the Green Goblin on the first Spider-Man movie.
“I had never read a Spider-Man comic book,” he said. “I knew Spider-Man more from TV through the theme song. Sometimes that’s better because you don’t have certain expectations, you don’t have a gun to your head to feel a certain way about it.”
But like most of the cast and crew, the real draw of John Carter for Dafoe was getting a chance to work with Stanton.
“I came to the project more through Andrew,” Dafoe said, praising the director’s ability with actors.
“Generally to start with I feel most comforted when I’m with a director who has a vision, is a great filmmaker, is interesting to be with and needs me to do something particularly needs me to do something difficult or special. I feel like this is a good place to start.”
John Carter opens March 9 nationwide.