Heroes come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Need proof? Look no further than the world’s most popular amphibious anthromorphs — Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo, collectively known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Born in the black & white pages of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird‘s comic in 1984, the four turtles have battled the evil Shredder, his Foot Clan minions and alien invaders in cartoons, movies and video games. And this weekend, they’re back in fighting form with their latest feature film, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
“Smallville,” “Blue Mountain State” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” veteran Alan Ritchson bring the latest version of Raphael to life. Just ahead of the movie’s opening, he spoke with CBR News about his excitement at contributing to the revitalization of the TMNT franchise, the challenges of acting while wearing motion-capture gear, mastering Raphael’s weapon of choice, the sai, and filming the “toughest” fight scene of the movie — which wasn’t even included in the final cut. Plus, an update on the Kickstarter-funded “Blue Mountain State” movie.
CBR News: A lot of people grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons and movies, but what do the franchise and characters mean to you?
Alan Ritchson: Man, this represents my childhood. I have a special fondness for this project because I remember playing the videos games and arcade games. My brother and I used to go to the bowling alley next to my house, and there was a Ninja Turtles arcade game there. I was always Mikey, he was always Donatello. He’s still a nerd! He’s a chemical engineer now, so he’s kinda still in the same vein. I grew up with this, so when I got the call, I couldn’t believe it. It’s a little more surreal than most projects I’ll probably have a chance to work on.
Bringing this particular character to life means a lot to me because once I dug into who he was and what he represented and had a chance to start reading the script and see what these writers see him as now, I really aligned with a lot of principles. Raph is going to find his own truth. He will swim upstream, if that’s what it takes to find an honest life for himself. We live in a world where that is becoming more and more accepted. We’re so used to doing what we’re told and going by the rules, whatever they are, no matter how nonsensical they are. Raph is not that way, and I share a similarity with him in that way, in my own life.
What was the audition process like, knowing you were trying out to play a giant-sized turtle while wearing a motion-capture suit?
That’s sort of the whole thing that got me interested in doing this. The first time I heard about it, I was like, “I don’t know if this is right for me coming off some of the projects I’ve been on.” The whole sell was, “We’re shooting this like any other movie. You’re bringing the humanity out of this character and we’re going to copy and paste your performance. That’s what this is. We’ve advanced the technology where you guys can be running around Times Square. You guys are going to be interacting with real actors and real objects in Manhattan. It’s no different than any film. It’s as organic as filmmaking can be, and we’ll do the rest.” That was really exciting for me, and it was pretty remarkable. Once you get used to the cameras in your face and the battery packs and the shells and the dots on your face — once you get used to that being a part of it, which you do eventually, it’s just like working on any other film. It feels that way and it was neat.
Of course, we did a ton of reshoots. Trying to find the tone of this film took a long time. We did a lot of work on the mocap stage, which I’ve done before, and it feels much less organic. It wasn’t quite the same as our time in New York. For the most part, the technology has gotten to the point where you can be running around outside, and they can capture that performance and all the nuances of your face and body.
The suits don’t hide much, but you don’t have to spend hours in the hair and make-up chair, either. Do you simply check your egos at the door for this process?
Yeah, exactly. I was always super-thrilled when pictures would leak of me and Megan running around Times Square. I’m in these giant, blue gloves to give her something to hold on to, that was the same spatial size. They had all these ridiculous shells. “Humiliating” is a pretty safe word for this type of process, but it is what it is. We do what we do to give fans of the series, and new fans, an opportunity to enjoy an adventure that they can relate to. If that’s what it takes to get them there, I’m happy to be the one doing that.
What differentiates Raphael from his fellow turtles?
Well, the other Turtles are kind of complacent. They do what they are told and were taught. They will wait for their orders from Master Splinter. If they are told to cooperate with April O’Neil, they will do it. Raph is not that way. If it doesn’t seem true to him, he’s not going to do it. He and April butt heads. I gave Megan quite a hard time on set, because she’s a lot of fun and she’s a tough girl. It was a blast to work with her and get some jabs in there. She can hit back — she’s that kind of girl. The same thing was true for our characters. These two let each other have it.
How much training did it require to work with Raphael’s sai?
We did a couple of months of training. The cool thing for me was, my work was truly a continuation of the work I had been doing for “Catching Fire.” When I was working on that film, we did two months training just doing the hand-to-hand work and the work with the dagger. Then we shot for four months, so I was working with a dagger daily for a long time. I got really proficient at it. My instructor on that was Danny Hernandez at 87Eleven, which is one of the best stunt teams in the world. These guys specialize in a lot of this kind of work. One of the guys is a five-time world karate champ. These guys are super-talented, so to work with them was great.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn when I started working on Turtles, that not only were we with 87Eleven, but Danny was my guy again. It was just a continuation. We just switched weapons. There were more nuances to the sai, and a little more dexterity was involved. I was a little clumsy at first, but we worked on it for a couple of months. I got to the point I wasn’t half bad. I had a rubber pair I took home, so I wouldn’t get tackled in the streets if I was walking around with them.
How does Raphael react when April’s camera man, Vern, becomes involved in the movie’s events?
Raph is the kind of guy who doesn’t put up with anybody’s stuff. He sniffs out pretty quickly that Vern is into April. Raph’s view towards humanity in general is he doesn’t like them. He’s helped them for years, and had to also live under them. He wouldn’t be accepted if he showed his face. They would call him a freak if they did. He resents humanity in general, so it’s already tough enough to accept April O’Neil, but he’s forced to. When this annoying Vern comes along, he’s even less inclined to put up with his stuff. It makes for some interesting scenes when they are paired together.
What can viewers expect from the showdown between the Turtles and Shredder?
The cool thing about this is, when the action gets going, it doesn’t stop. Once this thing takes off, that train leaves the station and keeps going. You pretty quickly meet Shredder, and the Turtles go at it. The rest of the movie is this battle of good versus evil. The fight sequences are incredible. I’ve watched the movie a couple of times now, and I can’t take my eyes off the Turtles or Shredder. They look so much larger than life. It’s amazing. The fighting is super-organic because it was real. They were able to take those performances and apply them to these bodies. Those fight sequences are epic.
There’s fighting and action and surfing down the sewers. Can you talk about which sequence was the most labor-intensive to pull off?
Surfing down the sewers was probably the least comfortable one because that was us literally laying on our shells, on our backs, just kind of writhing around and having to act like we were floating in space. It was probably the least comfortable one.
One of the toughest was a fight sequence we reshot several times to get right. It’s actually not even in the movie. We were running and we enter a tool room, this fight breaks out, which we had to learn choreography for and spent weeks on. It was this massive brawl that was pure hand-to-hand combat for five minutes. It was amazing. It took forever to get right. We kept doing it over and over. It was such a pain, and it’s not even in there. The rest was pretty seamless, but that’s one I will never forget. I think they are going to have some behind-the-scenes footage of that one. It was such a big sequence, but that’s moviemaking for you.
Pizza and the catchphrase “Cowabunga!” are synonymous with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. How much of that come into play in the movie?
There’s definitely pizza in the movie. In fact, when we started shooting, the first script had no pizza. We were like, “There’s no pizza references.” My brother and I used to camp out in the basement, playing Nintendo and we’d get pizza. We would eat it like the Turtles, where we would pull it into our mouths. That’s my whole childhood. We started talking about how we needed more. Eventually, we were working with Pizza Hut on it, so we had tons of pizza boxes and pizza everywhere. There’s plenty of pizza in the movie. And cowabunga — I think we honor the fans pretty well with that one. You’ll hear it.
Besides the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, you recently released the catchy tune Mojito and a steamy video to accompany it. What kind of music do you want to produce?
That was a blast to make. The kind of music I gravitate to is more of an R&B soul sound. A lot of times, the way I write is acoustically. My sound is more like if John Mayer and John Legend got together and maybe had a child. That heartfelt, more lyrical stuff is what I’m more into. I don’t know how much people want to hear that from me with my “Blue Mountain State” fanbase. That’s most of who follows me. If I put down a sappy love song, they’re going to be, “What is this?” That’s where my heart is. I did the Mojito thing because the timing with the TMNT movie was perfect for that audience and something they could enjoy. But I gravitate towards the sappier.
Speaking of, there was a Kickstarter movement for a “Blue Mountain State” movie. Can you give us an update on its status?
In fact, I’m in the production offices for BMS as we speak. We successfully closed the Kickstarter campaign. It was their highest grossing campaign. The support from fans was overwhelming. There was a time during the campaign when we weren’t sure how it was going to go. The outpouring near the end was incredible.
We’re working hard every day to move towards shooting this in the fall, back in Montreal. We hope to have this movie out next spring, 2015. We’ve had tons of interest from distributors. It looks like this could be a huge comedy next year. I’m really proud to be making this and want to really honor the fans with this show that ended prematurely.
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