While we're on the subject of "Alice In Wonderland," I have one more interview to run today. I first spoke with Matt Lucas a couple of years ago when he and David Walliams came to Los Angeles to promote the HBO version of "Little Britain," a show I quite like. Lucas is one of those performers who is frequently described as "fearless" because of his willingness to do anything for a laugh, but I don't think that fully describes just how nuanced and smart much of his work is. There's a keenly observant quality to his character work, and a wicked, wicked streak as well.
The first real images I saw from "Alice In Wonderland" featured Lucas as the Tweedles, and if nothing else, I give Burton credit for that casting. I wish he'd been used more in the film, but he is a striking presence, and an interesting addition to Wonderland. Considering how much of his work has been spent in elaborate make-ups so far, I thought having a conversation about the transition into a digital world would be a rewarding one.
Turns out, I was right. From the moment he opened his door at the Hollywood Rennaisance and recognized me from our previous interview, Lucas was gracious and charming, and here's the conversation we shared:
: So the thing that struck me as I watched the film the other night is that this is an incredibly technical piece of work. And for you, as an actor who has had so much experience in prosthetics to then make the leap to this sort of digital prosthetic world or digital performance world... can you talk about the adjustment you had to make, if there was one?
Matt Lucas: There was an adjustment, I guess, because I’m playing two characters on the screen at the same time. So I wore one of those all-in lycra green bodysuits, but my face was visible and it’s my face that you see on both the characters in the movie. And I think my movements were captured and then CGI animated over. How was it? Well, I just had to get a stronger sense of what I was going to do before I did it on camera. Just because I knew that whatever I did had to fit in with the other Tweedle. But there was an actor called Ethan Cohn who played whatever Tweedle I didn’t play.
Drew: I’ve seen some of the art. Some of the pictures of the two of you together.
Matt: Yeah, yeah. And that was really instrumental. And he had an actual role in the film. He’s the guy whose chin falls off.
Drew: Oh, okay.
Matt: The guy with the long chin is one of the four sort of sycophants to the Queen. And now he’s off. He just did a big movie with Forest Whitaker and Adrien Brody, with like the three of them in the lead, so he’s kind of been… he’s off and away now in his own right. But I think that was a really good part of the process, that there was another actor there for me to work with. Even though he always knew and I always knew that it would be my face on both Tweedles in the end product. It was nice actually. Even though there was a lot of, you know, machinery around me and having to wear various devices on me to capture my movements, it was lovely that the makeup was only half an hour at a time, you know? Just to make my face a little whiter.
Matt: Like all Tim Burton’s characters have a slightly whiter face and slightly Panda-y eyes. But actually it was nice not to be in so much makeup. I don’t complain when I do have to wear makeup because the end result is always worth it. But it is quite notional when you’re in a big green room and having to imagine that behind you is rolling hills or something or that you’re walking through sort of a marshland or something when actually you’re just on a concrete floor. Or that you’re being chased by a Bandersnatch when it’s just a man holding a stick. But increasingly that’s the way filmmaking is going. And also I think, filmmaking is... you know, reality is notional anyway when you’re making a film, so even if you and I were playing the parts that we’re being right now…
Drew: Right. Surrounded by a set and…
Matt: We would be on a set. There would be lighting. I’d be thinking oh, this costume is a bit itchy.
Drew: And you’ve still got a grip eating a donut right there.
Matt: Exactly. And you’ve got someone’s phone going off in the background. So you never are the character. You’re always acting. It’s always a technical job anyway, so there’s not as much difference I think. Whenever you see in a movie someone reacting to something, chances are the thing they’re reacting to isn’t actually happening at that moment. Or if it is happening, it’s happening for the fiftieth time. You know, the active imagination that you have to use when you’re on camera is not that far removed from what you have to do when you’re doing any other role I think.
Drew: It just seems that we’re… and it’s interesting because this role I think is a real hybrid of you playing the character and then the digital versions. It’s not quite the full motion capture like “Avatar” where you’ve been completely replaced.
Matt: It is my face that you see.
Drew: So it’s an odd middle ground and I think it’s a unique choice by Burton right now.
Matt: Yeah, and it’s a strange thing as an actor to not really know what it’s going to end up like. To think, "Well, if I’m going to trust anyone, I’m going to trust Tim Burton. And I’m going to trust Ken Ralston, whose special effects are legendary."
Drew: I can’t wait. I’m talking to Ken later today.
Matt: He’s the nicest man in the world. And so when you’re in the hands of those people who, not only do they have brilliant imaginations, but they’re great craftsmen. I mean that’s the other thing. We always talk about Tim Burton’s imagination, but we should never forget his ability to render that imagination for everyone to see, you know, whether he’s drawing something or filming something. And that’s really evident in “Alice in Wonderland”. I think it’s visually up there with or beyond any of his works.
Drew: It seems like there is a grand tradition... I’ve been sent many versions of “Alice in Wonderland” in the last few weeks because anyone that owns one right now is re-issuing it on DVD. And there is a grand tradition of playing these characters. These characters are very iconic and very well known. So as you approach playing the Tweedles, were there other versions that you had seen that were in your head? Did you make a conscious effort, like "I’ve got to really come up with something that is mine regarding the Tweedles"?
Matt: Yeah, more the latter. But that was because of what Tim Burton wanted us to do with our characters, to find our own versions or a version that was exclusive to this film. That’s certainly the case. I mean, Alice is older. The Mad Hatter is very much Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. (points past me) Oh, look, I’m on TV. Oh, no, that was the Pillsbury Doughboy, sorry.
Matt: Tim would direct me towards the two girls in The Shining... you know, like how eerie they were and how silent and still they could be. That is what he kept saying. "Keep watching those. I want that." And of course, in “Sleepy Hollow,” he has two girls who are just like the two girls in “The Shining”. I’d remembered there’s a French and Saunders sketch…do you know who French and Saunders are?
Drew: Of course, yeah.
Matt: There’s a great French and Saunders sketch where they’re dressed as schoolgirls, and they’re just in front of a white background and there’s some music playing. And they’re kind of facing out to the camera, and Dawn... you know, the larger of the two... holds this enormous cream cake, and Jennifer’s standing next to her and she’s sort of edging towards it. And Jennifer closer, silently, but it’s obvious that Jennifer wants some and then just to stop from Jennifer getting any, Dawn just eats it all really quickly. And you know it’s going to happen, but it’s really funny, and I just kind of kept remembering that sketch when I was doing the Tweedles. That’s what one of them, you know, one of the Tweedles in my mind would do to kind of stop the other from having something, you know what I mean? There’s a kind of sense of what childish one-upmanship. They’re trying to get each other into trouble. They’re kicking and pinching. So to me, they’re childlike and childish. So that’s what I wanted to do is make them kids basically and tap into that. Because I thought a large part of the audience for this movie would be kids and that’s what they’ll respond to. That’s kind of what I try to do. And I always had images of Augustus Gloop in my mind, you know, that sense of gluttony. And I imagined that they were almost like these kind of rather privileged Victorian kids. But sometimes they look like kind of aggressive British skinheads in their red suspenders.
Drew: They walk that fine line between being somewhat adorable and terrifying.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah, they are eerie. I mean, they’re kind of cute and sinister. And I think that is reflective of what’s going on in the movie in general, because Alice is innocent but knowing. And I think The Red Queen is a tyrant but she’s still vulnerable. And The White Queen is definitely, you know, beautiful and good, but sinister and dark at the same time. And you know, the Hatter is lovely but also scary. And I think no one in the movie is one thing, you know? So it would tally up with that if the Tweedles were cute but also slightly ungovernable I think.
Drew: I’m sure many people are curious about working with Johnny Depp, but I’m actually fascinated with Mia. Her work on “In Treatment,” I thought, was amazing. I think she’s an uncommonly good young actor. Can you talk about working with her? Because Alice is a tricky character. It’s somewhat of a passive character who walks through a world where she meets characters who are more colorful and interesting than her, but Mia seems to have a gravity in the film that keeps pulling you back to her.
Matt: Yeah, yeah. Mia is as brilliant as she is beautiful. And she’s also as nice as she is beautiful. So she’s just all of those things. Not only is she kind of extraordinary to look at, she’s actually just extraordinary to work with because she’s such a good actress and she’s really nice and there’s no ego. There’s only someone wanting to do good work. And so you feel like... you don’t just feel like you’re working with some actress and the pressure is on everyone. It’s on Mia, it’s on Tim Burton, it’s on Disney that here’s a relatively unknown actress playing the lead in this massive picture, but she completely lives up to that, I think, and has every chance of going on to having an extraordinary career because she’s brilliant at what she does and also has complete humility. She has great concentration as well because she’s the one who changes size more than anyone. She’s the one who is having to play while we were running around on stilts and sometimes she’s on a platform and we’re on the floor. Everybody’s different sizes and different places and for her it must have been very disorientating, not only as a character but as a person. She always kept her head and, you know, she was more hours on the set than any of the other actors, I’m sure, although Helena had a extraordinary makeup job. But I’m sure Mia would have done more days on the movie and she was a complete textbook example of how to be on a movie set. She was very funny between takes without exhausting her energy or losing her concentration. We would play verbal games together and we would pretend to be these two kind of Hollywood divas who were like young kids who found themselves on a movie set, so we were like “I’m totally over this whole Alice thing like whatever”. "Movie-schmovie." And she would do that and in a kind of adopted sort of spoiled brattish colorful new voice, but in a very comical way. And never in any way reflecting how she was. And it was great. It was great. Because it’s quite nervous if... someone like me, I haven’t done an American movie before, so to go onto a set, you think, "What’s it going to be like?" Because you’re going to do all your scenes with somebody, and you hope they’re nice and they’ll indulge you and that you can have a rapport and she was everything you would want her to be and lots more.
Drew: So much of your career that we know is opposite David [Walliams]. So you have a rapport there that is impossible to create just in a week or two weeks.
Matt: Yeah, yeah. So I don’t look to. Because the first thing is I’ve known David for 20 years, and we’ve been working together for 16 or nearly 16. So fundamentally even when we first started writing together, we were already great friends for a number of years. No, you don’t… I mean, friendship is accelerated on a movie set. You know, relationships are accelerated, but that’s fine. You don’t have any different expectations. But like for instance we’ve stayed in touch, me and her, and just... I don’t know. She’s just lovely. She’s lovely and it was just a pleasure. The whole thing was a pleasure. I never once saw her remotely express any sense of frustration. I remember her being ill. There was just simply... she was flawless on and off camera. It was quite inspiring to see somebody under that amount of pressure, you know, and she never once failed to deliver.
Matt: But, yeah, it was really easy to work with her and yeah, I mean, I actually worked a lot with Ethan in the way I’d work with David normally. But that’s fine. You have different expectations, you know?
Drew: I saw you guys the other night at the screening and it was… we had no idea that the press screening was also going to be where you guys saw the film for the first time.
Matt: Yeah, well, Ethan was there. I was there. Crispin was there. Actually and Mia. Helena was too jet-lagged.
Drew: I think I saw Michael as well.
Matt: And Michael, of course. Johnny doesn’t watch his own movies.
Drew: This was such a technical process, because it was at such an odd remove for you guys as performers, that seeing it put together for the first time, did you feel like the performance that you gave came through fully? Like, "That is the performance that I had in my head. That’s what I thought I was doing."
Matt: Yeah, they took what I had done and they massively enhanced and complimented what I had done. So what I’ve done is considerably better because of, you know, the technical work of the people on the movie. So I was delighted with what they’ve done and felt that it’s a lot better because of it. Not that I was worried about... I felt comfortable on-set doing what I was doing and the responses seemed positive, you know? There was good response. You know, Dick Zanuck and Tim and people would say nice things and there would be laughter. I was trying to make people laugh on camera and all of that, you know, so it felt like it was going okay. But it’s the job of the director and also the post-production team to weave what one person does into the same movie as everyone else. And in fact, the two of me, you know, worked together and have the same rhythm and overlap, you know what I mean? The same timing and I’m only a very small part of that.
Drew: Well, it seems like filmmaking is always collaborative but here, you as an actor, really put your faith in the hands of other people to finish the performance you’ve begun.
Matt: Yeah, and I was completely happy to do that because like I say, if you’re not going to put your faith in Tim Burton and Ken Ralston, then you’re never going to put your faith in anyone. And I was lucky to have the opportunity to put my faith in them, so there was no sense of me worrying what they’d do. Like I say, I’m a much smaller part of the machine than they are, you know? They’re the powerhouses and I’m an actor who came on and did ten weeks and wore a green suit and looked like a giant pea. So, you know? I just sat in my trailer most of the time eating soup. So, you know, it was like... it was fine.
Drew: Well, thank you very much, Matt.
Matt: Thank you.
Drew: I’ve got to say, it is a brave new world for performers right now and I’m always intrigued in talking to people who are taking those steps and to see how they feel about that process.
Matt: Yeah, I love it. I want to embrace it completely. I would love to do more green-screen work. I would love… I mean Andy Serkis is an inspiration because now people are seeing his face more and getting to know him more, but look how he adapts. You know how brilliant he is as Ian Drury…
Drew: I’m dying to see it. I haven’t seen it yet.
Matt: Yeah, he’s just like one of the greatest British actors of his generation. And then look at him... even in "King Kong".
Matt: You look at that and you go, "Wow!"
Drew: I really think we’ll have a different tier of movie stars as people like… I look at Zoe Saldana’s work in “Avatar” and it’s clearly her. That performance is really hers, no matter what else is going on, it's her driving it and I think that we are on the edge of a different world of who our movie stars are. It won’t necessarily be the Tom Cruises. It’ll be the people who adapt best to these sort of performing circumstances.
Matt: Well, that bodes well for people who are getting experience right now.
Drew: Exactly. I think it’s a great time to have done it.
Matt: Thank you. Thanks very much, Drew.
My thanks to Disney for putting together my time with Matt Lucas and Ken Ralston. "Alice In Wonderland" opens in about 37 million theaters worldwide today.
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