Willem Dafoe is not the voice of Tars Tarkas, in the sci-fi actioneer John Carter. Willem Dafoe is Tars Tarkas. When a reporter recently asked Dafoe how he enjoyed voicing the leader of the warrior alien race known as the Tharks, the actor responded: “Voiced schmoiced! I did that! I was up on stilts in the middle of the desert!”
Indeed, Dafoe has added some unusual skills to his already impressive resume with this film. In order to portray the towering alien fighter, Dafoe donned stilts, a performance capture suit, and learned a new (entirely ficitional) language.
The veteran actor spoke about his time on said stilts and what drew him to be a part of this epic retelling of author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic “Barsoom” novel series at the Arizona press event for John Carter. (Read our interview with the film’s star Taylor Kitsch HERE.)
John Carter follows the titular character, a Civil War veteran, on a journey to Barsoom (Mars) where he finds a planet ravaged by war. During his time there, he befriends Tars Tarkas, the leader of a harsh race who is seeking to find the advantage against their enemies. Tars Tarkas believes he has discovered just that in the form of John Carter.
Dafoe had worked with director Andrew Stanton on the beloved animated fish tale Finding Nemo, so when Stanton approached him with this, his live-action debut, Dafoe had “no hesitation.”
“I was there. I was happy to go there. I mean I didn’t know the ‘John Carter’ stories, the novels. I just knew it was gonna be big. And I really like working with Andrew. It’s like a game. It’s like back and forth, back and forth. He tells you what he needs. He bends. He’s good at approaching things from all different angles. I think it’s partly from working at Pixar with having this huge respect for the process and for research in the development of things, that when you arrive, it pays off. “
Stanton was a life-long fan of the Burroughs series and his enthusiasm for the project became infectious for many who were brought on-board.
“It’s always good to be on a passion project of a smart guy. And then he started showing me designs of the characters and of the spaces. I thought ‘This is cool. I haven’t done this.’ I thought ‘wow, these guys really look like warriors.’ And the Tusks. It was very cool because the lights on the capture suit did spatially simulate the tusks.”
“The other cool thing is that while motion-capture is motion-capture, everything’s changing all the time, and it’s becoming more developed. And in this movie Andrew had a real commitment to realizing the scenes without shortcuts. We actually played the scenes, not just to give the animators information, we made the story first, you know what I mean? These scenes were not made in a computer. They were sweetened, they were changed in the computer, but the scenes were made in a very concrete, practical way, out in the desert, with some people on stilts and some people running around three feet under.”
Though he is alien in form, Tars Tarkas has human emotions, which is one of the lessons of the story and the reason that we are able to relate to the character. Dafoe’s commitment was to authenticity and his intention and hope was that his character’s humanity would shine through – though it was filtered physically and visually through computer animation.
“There are certain parallels between Tars Tarkas and John Carter because they both move from not feeling to feeling. John Carter starts out as very misanthropic and kind of cut off, and he doesn’t want to get involved. He’s a classic reluctant hero. Tars Tarkas has a similar thing where he has all these conflicted emotions about his people.
The thing that was important to me was his sense of regret that they have become vulgar. They had become gross. They had lost their culture. But he was in this double-bind because to keep his power, he has to be strong. And he can’t have any show of emotion. But he feels like they’re going in the wrong direction. So there were lots of themes that I could relate to and I could get behind that gave me plenty to fuel how I felt about John Carter and how I would play those scenes.”
You can see the fruit of Dafoe’s labor when John Carter opens in theaters today.
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