In Tron: Legacy, out in theaters on December 17th, actor James Frain plays Jarvis, the main henchman and right-hand man to Clu, a master program created in Kevin Flynn’s (Jeff Bridges) image to help oversee the expansion of the digital grid. Jarvis appears to be proficient in intelligence gathering for the evil overlord, but is actually completely inept and may also have a personal agenda of his own.
During a long-lead press day held at Digital Domain this past Saturday – in which select members of the press were shown footage along with various gadgets, games, toys and behind-the-scenes workings of what it’s taking to bring the highly-anticipated film to the big screen– James Frain did this exclusive interview with Collider, in which he talked about playing one of the more human and fallible characters in the Grid, working in a helmet that almost entirely cut off his sight, and how mind-blowing the dynamics of the film are.
He also discussed his attraction to intense characters, revealed that he had fun playing the despicable Franklin Mott on this past season of HBO’s True Blood and how interesting and complex his next villainous character will be, in the upcoming NBC superhero series The Cape. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
How did you originally get involved with Tron: Legacy? Did something specific attract you to this role?
JAMES FRAIN: It was just part of the regular round of castings. As movies and TV projects come up, they go out to the agents and we just go out and audition for them. Realizing what you could potentially be involved in was very exciting, but no one really knew that much. They’ve been very good at controlling the information. There wasn’t a script. It was just sides, which just had a couple of scenes. What you knew was that, if Disney felt confident to remake Tron, you knew they had to have some big ideas and they were going to push the envelope and spend some money and make an experience happen. But, right at the beginning, it was just like, “Go and audition for Tron,” and I was like, “Sure, I’d love to!”
Had you been familiar with the original film, or had you been a fan of it at all?
FRAIN: No, I wasn’t someone who saw it when I was a kid. I didn’t see it until a friend of mine, in horror, couldn’t believe that I didn’t know what a Light Cycle was. He took me to Blockbuster and we rented the movie, so that I could finally be part of the experience. But, I didn’t have the child’s encounter with it. It means a lot to a lot of people, but they’re a very specific audience. It wasn’t like Star Wars. I’ve got a feeling that this film is going to be more like Star Wars than the original Tron.
Since not much is known about your character, what can you say about who Jarvis is and how he fits into the world of Tron?
FRAIN: The Clu character, who is the evil overlord of this alternate universe, has a right-hand man. He’s the secret police chief, as it were, of the Tron world, and that would be me. But, unfortunately, he’s completely inept and he spends most of his time trying not to be killed. It’s a fun, comic character that’s a little off-beat. It’s an intense, overwhelming experience and one of the things that Joe did to mitigate that was build in as much human idiosyncracies as he could. Michael Sheen’s character, Castor, is a very flamboyant, comic character. My character is not flamboyant, but more human, in terms of being fallible and absurd.
What was it like to go through the process of working with Clu and having to act opposite both Jeff Bridges with a helmet and a body double, in order to do that effect later?
FRAIN: It was really bizarre. When you look at it, it’s just seamless, but it felt very odd because, basically, you’re interacting with another actor, and then you would do the scene again with Jeff, and then through whatever magic they use, they would stick Jeff’s head on this other body. I found myself watching it and wondering where the other guy was. But, you get used to it. Like everything in this game, you get used to it after awhile. It seems odd at first, and then you adapt.
How was the look for this character created? Was it a collaborative process at all, or did Jarvis already look this way when you were cast in the role?
FRAIN: Everything was designed and storyboarded before I came along. I showed up for the fitting and they said, “We’re going to shave your head and you’re going to have a glass mohawk.” They bleached my eyebrows white, and there was a particular make-up, look and costume. It was all there and I was very happy to go along with it.
What was it like to act through the helmet? Did that ever get uncomfortable or claustrophobic?
FRAIN: Yeah, it was really difficult because you couldn’t see anything. It looks fantastic. It really looks cool. But, it had a seam that went right across the eyes. When I put it on, it meant that everything was refracted and I couldn’t see anything at all. I had this slightly squinty, blind stagger about me, which Joe Kosinski really liked and thought was great for the character, so it was just as well.
FRAIN: I think it helped me get into the character. It helped created this clumsy, short-sighted guy that fit perfectly with who he was supposed to be. It was a happy accident. Straight away, you get something graphic with him.
With all of the action and technology in this film, do you think there’s anything specific that will particularly impress audiences when they see it?
FRAIN: I’ve not seen the entire film yet. Everything about it is impressive, but what I found most visually extraordinary was the depth of the image. Even just seeing it in 2D, there are the reflections that you see on helmets and visors – because there’s a lot of them in the story – and the depth of the sense of space, even when there’s just two people talking in a room. That’s just drawn with lights. Everything is made of lights. There is nothing else there. Light builds upon light, and it’s reflected and refracted.
What I find mind-blowing about it is just how inventive and dynamic they’ve been. I think people are going to love the Light Cycles, the Recognizer, the games and stuff, but for me, it’s that sense of being in this total immersion experience in this other world that you’ve become completely lost in, like you did in Avatar or Alice in Wonderland.
Is it a bizarre experience, as an actor, to now see yourself in 3D?
FRAIN: Not really. It must have been what people felt like when color came in, or when sound came in. The new technology comes in and it seems like it’s changed all the rules, but then, after awhile, it’s just how things are done. The thing that always applies is storytelling. Good storytelling, good characters, genuine reactions and all that stuff is what’s important. The technology doesn’t really feel that different. The problem with trying to make a film good and have it work for an audience is the problem of trying to tell a story well. The shape or the color of it doesn’t matter.
Did you go back and do any re-shoots on this, or was your stuff all done at one time?
FRAIN: I wasn’t involved in the re-shoots. I know they did some re-shoots, but I didn’t do them.
What’s it like to do so much press for a film that’s not even done yet and that you haven’t even gotten to see? Do you think it makes it more difficult to live up to all of that hype?
FRAIN: I was thinking today, “God, what would this be like, if this movie was kind of disappointing?,” because we’d still all have to go through this. They’d still have to spend the money. This is a juggernaut. We’re all just cogs in the chain. And, they’d still have to do it because of the investment of money, at the beginning. You still have to launch product. It must be really difficult talking about a film that you know isn’t really going to live up to expectations, or is going to be partially frustrating.
I honestly think that this film is going to live up to the hype. It’s just sharing the experience. This was the first time most of the cast has seen any of the film, and we were all like, “Holy shit! Wow!” Because we know that the story is good and the story delivers, it’s really exciting to think how all these pieces have come together. And, it’s not finished. They’re still working on it. We’re all going to see it at the same time, for the first time, and it’s going to be really exciting. It’s going to blow people away.
With this being such a massive film for Joe Kosinski to take on for his first feature, what was it like to work with him?
FRAIN: He was so confident in the visuals that it wasn’t even an issue. He’s perfectly at home on set and he’s totally confident in what he’s going to deliver, as a director. What I found amazing and impressive was how committed he was to the human relationship. There was nothing different from working with Joe than there would have been from working with a director on an indie movie that is all about fathers and sons, and husbands and wives.
He was into the story and he was into the script, and he wanted to make the scenes as alive and real as possible. It was really impressive that he had the mental space and focus to get to that because there was so much that he could have been overwhelmed with. I don’t know how he did it. It never occurred to me that we weren’t in completely safe hands. What he’s done is an amazing achievement for anyone, but for someone as their first film, it’s beyond belief.
You’ve played quite a few intense characters in your career. Is there something that draws you to that kind of character, or are they just fun to play, as an actor?
FRAIN: It’s both. They are fun to play. Characters who have some kind of free rein on their darker selves are always fun because they’ve taken the license off. You just get to fill out all the colors. But, I don’t know. I just go job to job. Whatever is presented in front of me, I just look at its merits. I haven’t really decided a program. It’s only looking back that I can see there’s a pattern.
Was it particularly difficult to do some of your scenes on this past season of True Blood, especially when your character, Franklin, was terrorizing Tara (Rutina Wesley)? Is it hard to get to that place?
FRAIN: No, it’s not because, if it’s going well, meaning that the writing is good, the directing is good and the other actor is present with you, then it’s always fun. It’s make-believe. It becomes difficult when there’s something not working in the equation. What’s remarkable is when you watch stuff back afterwards and you go, “Oh, my god, that’s terrifying! I remember when we were doing that and it was really good fun.” Especially when it comes to that intense stuff, sometimes it’s even more fun than not because it’s so absurd, over-the-top and extreme. But, Rutina Wesley is just a very open and generous actor, and we just had a blast.
Who is the villain you’re going to be playing in the upcoming NBC superhero series The Cape? Will viewers get to learn why your character is the way he is?
FRAIN: For The Cape, (executive producer) Tom Wheeler has a very, very thorough mythology and I think it’s going to be rolled out over quite a long period of time, but he’s already got the structure in place. He’s got a pretty good idea of what he wants to do.
I play this guy that is a billionaire entrepreneurial figure who, in some ways, is a heroic figure in our landscape, but recently we’ve started to discover that some of these guys aren’t perhaps as trustworthy or as decent as we would have hoped, and he occupies that sphere, but in superhero world. So, he already has a tremendous amount of control, but as with all these guys, it’s never enough.
We’re going to discover what it is that motivates him and what he wants, but there are layers that peel back in the story, about connections with other characters, that are very interesting. There is a showdown with the good guy that pushes through the series.