It has been a busy year for James Frain. Through, truth be told, he is one of those wonderful character actors who seems to be constantly working, dexterously moving from role to role. He has a chameleon-like ability to transform himself into whatever a role requires of him, and yet maintain the elements of an essential, and unique, core.
He plays a key supporting role in the event film of the Christmas season TRON: Legacy; did a stint as a hilariously evil vampire on the wildly popular HBO series True Blood; and will next appear on the upcoming NBC “realistic” superhero drama, The Cape. We spoke to Frain about his character in Legacy, and got a nice little tease about what we can expect from his role as the villain Peter Fleming, AKA “Chess”, on The Cape.
James Frain: Hello, hello!
Screen Rant: Hello! So, jumping right into TRON:Legacy, your character Jarvis is sort of the archetypal sycophantic assistant — who we all hate. What did you use as a template to create him?
JF: We sort of discovered who the character was as we went along because he is the kind of ultimate bureaucrat; but he’s also a comic character, so he had this slapstick element to him as well, and this sort of, rather pathetic sense of wanting to be more powerful than he is, which made him quite childlike. But it wasn’t necessarily clear when I first started who he was going to be, or how it was going to play out; that became clear when I started working and when Joe (Kosinski, the director) was giving me the feedback that he wanted. I was very pleasantly surprised by how much comedy he wanted to go for.
Jarvis did indeed add a great comedic element to the film, one which was slightly different than the other characters in the film, and yet blended in and added a nice texture. One of the best moments for his character involves the simple act of nearly knocking over a table, in the midst of what might have otherwise been a scene that was overburdened with dramatic weight.
SR: Did you make those discoveries in rehearsal?
JF: No, that’s shooting — we didn’t really have rehearsals.
SR: I feel like the look of Jarvis is sort of The Fifth Element meets City Of Lost Children.
JF: Whooooa, I like that, it’s a good pitch.
SR: Well, thank you. Michael Sheen has talked about different influences on the look and attitude of his character, Castor – Ziggy Stardust and so on – did you offer some input into the development of the look of your character?
JF: I didn’t, no. I understand that Michael had some ideas about David Bowie that he brought in. For me, I was presented with these drawings that they already had for the characters; and I just sort of thought it was fantastic — just incredibly original and imaginative and I was happy to go along with it.
SR: Are there any people you have known in life that you referenced for Jarvis? Because, I feel like we’ve all known people like him to some degree.
JF: I wasn’t thinking about it that consciously, but I’m sure that there is subconsciously, people from the past. But I don’t really work that way.
SR: How do you work?
JF: I’m just kind of more — I’m more intuitive when it comes to working on a character. Acting isn’t something that I think about very consciously, somehow that just doesn’t work for me. I just kind of feel my way into it.
SR: Was there any part of you that needed to make an adjustment with your character because you are digital programs, rather than human beings?
JF: I just didn’t think about us as being digital entities, I just though that…You know I thought of it as being like Alice In Wonderland, where no matter who we are, and what we are doing, we still have human feelings and human responses. I thought that was one of the great ideas of the original. I loved the discovery that inside a computer its just like our world, and people are just like people with the same challenges and problems that we have. I just accepted the conceit that we were programs, I didn’t really think about it.
For me, one of the most interesting ideas in the first movie was not so much the idea that we the audience make “programs” that are just like “users,” but rather the discovery that the programs themselves are far more like their users than they (the users) had imagined. There is an interesting theological element to the idea that this seemingly omniscient creator, the user Kevin Flynn, is really just trying to get along the best way he can, and is not that dissimilar from his creations.
Tron and Yuri have built up a mythology around the users, who they have never seen — and one of the best moments between Tron and Kevin is when Tron says to him (I’m paraphrasing a bit here) “Yes, but you have done this all with a plan right?” and Kevin replied “I hate to disappoint you man, but we users are just trying to figure it out as we go along like you.”
SR: Were you a fan of the original Tron?
JF: No, to the shame and horror of it seems every other male in my generation, I did not see Tron. It’s something I must do penance for. But, I did see it before I saw the movie (TRON: Legacy) and I was glad to see that you didn’t need to have seen it, or know anything about it in order to have seen this one. I think they did a good job of taking the original idea, of what would it be like to be stuck in a computer and re-imagined that, and somehow referenced the original movie without being stuck in it. I thought they’ve done all that really well — and I totally could see how enchanting and magical it must have been to see that movie as a ten-year-old, and I really wish that I had.
At this point I ask James about how he worked with Jeff Bridges as the character Clu (who he shares most of his scenes with) and if he was in a room known as “the vault” where they did the motion capture for Clu. Unfortunately, the phrasing of my question was a bit confusing and James interpreted that to mean — did he ever have a scene in the room that Sam Flynn is initially brought to on the grid where he is greeted by “the sirens.”
JF: Oh no, that would have been brilliant but no. Jarvis did not have three hot sirens undressing him every day. I think he would quite like that, but I don’t think he would be able to handle it. Noooo….he couldn’t handle it. Well, he tried, we had a scene where I hit on one of the Sirens, but it didn’t go terribly well for him. He’s not a ladies man.
The idea of Jarvis the ineffectual ladies man, with a smoking jacket, and glass of courvoisier, is simply to funny and we take a moment to laugh.
SR: Do you feel like there are particular challenges as an actor working with 3D and this level of CGI?
JF: Working in 3D I didn’t experience much of a difference, except that the cameras are very big so they can’t be moved around with as much ease. It was more like, when you’ve seen photos of cameras from the 1930s being moved around with these huge cranes. So there was something quite sort of old-fashioned about it almost. And working with CGI is more like doing theater where your sort of imagining things. I didn’t experience it as restrictive. It’s challenging, but everything is – every project has its things to be overcome, but I didn’t find that there was anything particularly impossible about what we were doing — it was all quite exciting.
SR: You’ve said Jeff Bridges is one of your favorite people to work with because he really is “the dude”; what was it like to work with him? Is he really “the dude”?
JF: Well, you know, I am a little in awe of Jeff Bridges. He’s an actor I have admired for many years, and so I didn’t know who I was going to get, in the sense that I didn’t know what he was going to be like. And so I was pleasantly surprised that he is this kind of laid-back guy. We didn’t hang out much, I didn’t have a lot of time working with him, unfortunately. Most of the stuff I had to do in fact was with his body double, and then later we did the scenes again with Jeff. I didn’t get to know him really well working on this movie, but admired from a distance. I admire him, I liked him and I was very glad he was such a cool guy — but I didn’t spend the same kind of time I would have spent on a non-CGI movie.
(Ah! So we do get a sense of how they created the scenes between Clu and Jarvis!)
SR: You recently played one of the most fantastically psychotic and hilarious villains to grace the small screen: Franklin Mott on True Blood. Now you are going to play a brand new villain on The Cape, can you tell me a bit about that character?
JF: He’s fantastic. He is an extremely charming, roguish, very, very wealthy, quite flirtatious and a devil-may-care kind of a guy — who has an unfortunate habit of dressing up and being malignantly psychotic.
SR: Will he have shades of Franklin?
JF: No he is quite different from Franklin — hes quite, quite different. Franklin is a one off — (laughing) he’s a one off. But this guy’s got his own thing going.
Whatever thing Chess (Frain’s character on The Cape) has going on, we are certain of one thing, with James Frain as the puppet master, it will be a fun ride to watch.