Interview by Linda Hansen-Raj
You’ve said watching Star Wars as a child inspired you to get into acting?
Well, I won’t say that Star Wars inspired me to get into acting, because I didn’t even know what acting was when I first saw Star Wars, but it did inspire me in many ways. I wanted to be Han Solo; live that fantasy, fly the Falcon, fight Stormtroopers, etc., so a little later when I started to understand what the whole acting thing meant, I looked back to my inspirations and started to see how they might become a reality… possibly. Many years later, at Paddington College, I took a drama class as a filler to my Law & Economics major. A few well-placed, wise, and encouraging words from a drama teacher there set me on a path to realize that, as an actor, I would be able to do all the things I’d ever wanted to do, like fly the Millennium Falcon, be a Jedi, fight sharks, search for lost treasures, fly F-14 Tomcats, or maybe even fly the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Where did you learn to be proficient with weapons? How has that helped your career?
My first experiences with firearms were during my short stint as a British Royal Marine Reserve. That was such an incredible experience. It was incredibly tough but so much fun. I loved my time as a BRMR, and that experience has never stopped being useful to me in so many ways throughout my working and personal life. I have also studied various forms of fighting styles and martial arts over the years and have learned different weapon skills associated with those forms. Many of them (sword, stick, and staff, in particular) cross over between different forms. I’ve also augmented my skills with weapons though the acting work I’ve done. Most of my work has involved playing bad guys, which often calls for the use of multiple types of weapons and action. As Kratos I wielded the Swords of Chaos. As Grundroth in Thor I fought Hogan with double ice daggers. I’m never handed a boring G-17 to shoot someone with!
How does growing up in the U.K. compare to living in Los Angeles?
It’s a tired saying but it’s so true: the U.K. and the USA are so different, it might as well be akin to living on Earth or Mars. We use the same alphabet but do not speak the same language. Body language, traditions, fashions, culture, everything is different. We all came from the same place but the directions are polar opposites… and yet, strangely familiar. Because we Brits grow up watching a lot of American television and watching American movies, it all felt so familiar when I first arrived. I felt more at home here then I ever felt in the land of my birth. It sounds strange, but I never felt truly British. My heart always felt like I should be in America, so when I finally arrived it wasn’t such a culture shock.
Maybe it was my naïveté or ignorance, but it wasn’t until I’d been here a few years that I truly began to appreciate the differences, and those differences were compounded when I started traveling around the United States. Every state is like a different country, even to the point where it feels like each individual state speaks its own language, with its own words and dialect! But people ultimately are the same once you learn to read the signs. There are good people and bad people, honest people and liars, scared people and confident people. Los Angeles is like London: it’s a melting pot of so many people from so many places, which makes it so exciting, and there’s never a dull moment.
You often play bad guys; you even describe yourself as a “professional scary dude”! Villains are more interesting than heroes, and their motivations generally less clear to understand. How do you find the sympathetic part of a villain?
Villains are awesome! It is so true what actors say regarding villains: they are so much more fun to play, and so much more interesting. Some of the greatest performances in history have been villains. The first that comes to mind is Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs), Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber (Die Hard), Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty (Bladerunner), Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates (Psycho)… The list goes on. The trick to playing villains is to realize that they all have reasons for doing what they are doing. So you, as the actor, have to find some kind of empathy for the character and almost feel a certain understanding for why he or she does what they do. On very rare occasions is it the case that the bad guy is just an unmotivated sociopathic killer. The really fun ones are the ones who any of us could have been if we’d made a slightly different decision at some point in our lives: the jealous boyfriend committing a crime of passion, the abused child defending itself against its mother, the war vet suffering from PTSD, or the bullied albino child.
Since you can’t tell us too much about GATT5000 from Star Trek yet, how did you approach The Albino from Cinemax’s Banshee? He was really scary, but also almost sympathetic, even somewhat seductive.
At first I had a lot of doubt about playing such a terrible character. I mean, he’s really evil! But then I received some strong encouragement from my incredibly intelligent girlfriend/partner, Mercy. She convinced me that I could do this role and that it would be a great acting challenge for me. I got my head into the script and didn’t care that it was just a three-episode guest star. I treated the role like it was the lead in the show and invented a whole backstory for him. I knew everything about this guy. I could probably write a whole movie just based on “The Albino.”
The turning point for me was realizing that we actually had a lot of similarities, the only difference being that one day he lost hope, turned to the dark side, and ended up in jail. I grew up with alopecia and know what it’s like to be bullied all day every day for most of my young life. He grew up an albino and probably spent most of his childhood having to defend himself by fighting every bully in his town. He fought those bullies every day. He joined the army to get away from the bullying, but it continued there. He then went into crime, and by killing he found a way to stop the bullies and find some peace. But then he went to jail. Again, he had two choices in jail: be bullied until he was killed, or kill and be the daddy . He chose the survival route. Using that route, he also got the one thing he never had in his whole life: love. Or at least the illusion of it! I said at the time that if I managed to get one person to sympathize with this awful person, then I’d succeeded in my job!
Do you think the process has made you a tougher person or more empathetic person?
It’s definitely made me more empathetic. If I can find empathy for The Albino, I can find it anywhere. And one of the major keys to acting is enjoying what you are doing. It’s fun. It’s play. Just like when we would run around that school yard when we were six years old playing Star Wars. (I was always Han.) It has to be fun. And if you can see through the eyes of the character you’re playing, no matter how evil, fantastic, unbelievable, etc., it makes it much more fun. Anthony Hopkins would say hello to me every day we were on set together and would always repeat the same words to me, which I hold onto dearly and repeat to any of my actor friends who complain about being on set or about things in the business. He would say, “Joseph, dear fellow, how are you? Isn’t it a wonderful day? We are so lucky to be here. Isn’t this wonderful?”
Working with heavy-weight directors, like Kenneth Branagh in Thor, is not new for you. Now, for Star Trek Into Darkness, you’ve worked with J.J. Abrams. What is different about his approach? How did it affect your acting?
Ken is very deliberate and methodical in his approach, whereas J.J. is more like a tornado or pure energy. He would make many important decisions, especially artistic ones, totally on the fly, sometimes moments before he called “action.” So the Star Trek set was never a boring place. It is impossible to be on a J.J. set and not have fun. He has so much energy and life and love for the whole process that it’s boundless and feeds everyone else on set. We all just got carried along in a wave of geekdom. He’s also a great people person. He wants to know everyone on set, no matter who you are, because he understands that everyone plays an important role in making the movie magic we see on the screen. I have such huge respect for the man and his work.
Performing in various media must be challenging. Do you find the preparation work for a role in different media, like a voice acting character versus a live action character, to be the same or different?
The preparation differs depending on the type of role, but it’s pretty much the same process no matter what the media. I want to fully understand as much as I can about the character, and the project as a whole, in order to do full justice to the role. The only real difference with voice-over work is that I don’t have to worry about doing my hair before heading to the studio.
One of your roles was in the Wonder Woman pilot. Was it any different to work on a set that centered on a strong female lead?
It was a nice change to work on a show with a strong female lead, but the job is the same. Working with Annie was awesome. She’s an extremely hard worker and a lot of fun. I felt bad for her, though, because she kind of took the fall a little, and it was nothing to do with her, in my opinion. She was very harshly judged for something she had no control over. She did the best she or any actor could’ve done given the circumstances. But it hasn’t stopped her. She’s flying along. I hope we get to work together again soon.
Your social media presence is strong, and it’s obvious you enjoy your fans. Can you discuss your sense of responsibility in acting as villain and actually being a nice guy?
I think it’s terribly important. It’s kind of important for someone who looks like me, period! I’m a big, scary person by default. I’m hairless, 6’1” tall, and weigh a muscular 220lbs. I have to smile in public as much as possible so as not to scare everyone I pass on the street or in the supermarket. My default look is scary. Us big guys have to be extra nice, because stereotyping and human conditioning says that people who look like me are bad, scary people. And most of us are just gentle giants, big teddy bears. My girlfriend always says that when we’re out together she smiles twice as hard as usual to stop people from being scared. (Ha!) It’s a terrible thing. Even certain casting directors, who should know better, believe that we are what we play on screen and judge us accordingly.
So you can understand that playing The Albino, I was fearful that people would be horrible to me and shout nasty things in the street or malign me on Facebook or Twitter because they might think that I am The Albino. But I was so charmed and pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. The intelligence and loveliness of the Banshee fans almost had me in tears a few times with their lovely comments. People come up to me in the street with big smiles on their faces and tell me that they love Banshee and loved The Albino! It’s so awesome. Most people recognized that I was an actor playing a role and gave me the most wonderful compliments. I was also very conscious of this issue when using social media. I would always make the greatest effort to be available and positive. I made as much effort as possible to reply directly to fans in a personal way. I really want fans to recognize Joseph Gatt, the actor, as a real person playing roles. I don’t want to be one of those actors who is confused with the characters they play and judged as a person based on those roles. I’m an actor playing and having fun. Most people realize that, which speaks well of my work, their intelligence, and the show Banshee.
Actors, like writers and all artists, face a lot of rejection. What are your tips for being resilient?
The only tip I have is to know what you want. If this business is what you want, then you have no choice but to be strong. Rejection is just a part of the game, but it’s a part that you have to deal with. If you can’t, get out. Even stars have to deal with rejection. Mercy said something to me once when I was having a tough time and was considering other options. She said “Is there anything else you could do for a job for the rest of your life that would make you happy? Because if there is, you should do it.” There was only one other job I could possibly do that could make me as happy as being on set, and that was to be a fighter pilot. But since that possibility went away when I discovered I was colorblind at the age of 14, I’m left with acting. I also have the knowledge that being on set for one day brings me more joy than doing anything else for a whole year! That’s where my resilience comes from. I’m truly blessed to have the opportunities that I’ve been given and wouldn’t change them for anything.
What can we look forward to from you in the future?
Who knows what the future holds? One of the greatest things about this business are the surprises which constantly unfold… And didn’t someone mention Star Wars: Episode VII?