I had the good fortune to talk to Ray Stevenson about his role in Big Game and a little about his excellent turn as Frank Castle in The Punisher: War Zone
AMD: Rome, the Thor Films, The Other Guys and, of course, The Punisher: War Zone, I’m a big fan of your work. Now, too, with Big Game which I really, really enjoyed. How did the film come to you and what made you say yes?
Ray Stevenson: I’m delighted to hear that you got it because I got sent this script by the Finnish director Jalmari and, you can imagine, you read this and go ‘hang on, right, I think I’ve got a hook on it’ but I don’t.
It reads as huge and so you think - you know it’s not a big, massive studio picture, do they have enough money to do it, you know, get this shot? - and then talking with the director and everything, and then trying to get a sense of what its place is and what its direction is.
You know, this is a rites of passage story and I fell in love with it.
I thought, you know what, I like the fact that this character... he can’t drop the ball. It’s not a comic role. He’s like the low rumbling menace from any of those childhood stories.
You know, that’s what I think I got from it - it doesn’t take itself too seriously but it takes itself seriously enough. I loved the audacity of it, of the storytelling.
AMD: Yeah it was fantastic, it was a great mix. I felt there was a little sly Hollywood parody in there but it also had a throwback to old style action adventure films, which we haven’t seen in a while, coupled with genuine heart, story and the cultural element as well of Onni’s journey (Onni Tommila who played the young boy in the film), I really enjoyed all those parts about it.
What does the director, Jalmari, bring to the directing that was fresh for you that you hadn’t necessarily experienced before?
Ray Stevenson: Have you seen a picture of him? Do you know what he looks like?
AMD: Yes I have, yes.
Ray Stevenson: Right, yeah, so, he has this... he’s probably going to hate me for this, he’s got this elfin like quality that I imagined him, when he’s not making movies, he’s off making toys for Santa Claus in northern Finland (laughs)
He has this impish sense of humour but it’s coupled with a really great eye and ear for storytelling. When we were filming he had his DoP with him, Mika (Mika Orasmaa the Cinematographer) ...and shooting on location, we were shooting set pieces in these huge mountain ranges of southern Germany and it reminded me of, when I grew up, watching films like Von Ryan’s Express and Where Eagles Dare.
It wasn’t a green screen lead picture, you know? There was something refreshingly old school and epic about it that would just keep you involved and keeps you watching. I loved the process.
AMD: Definitely, as you’re saying it wasn’t a green screen thing, you did a lot of on location shooting in the Alps, what were some of the challenges of that?
Ray Stevenson: Well obviously we had the weather and a lot of the locations we had to take ski lifts, one sort of big carriage ski lift and then another, smaller one - and then on four by fours to get up into the more isolated parts - but it was just amazing!
and then you have to, basically, shoot what you’re dealt. If it was rainy, if it was windy - and that can change constantly, in a matter of ten minutes or five minutes.
That kind of added something to the movie. It added that everybody was just committed to making, whatever shot we could get out and getting the most out of the locations - and in a strange sort of way, you’re already isolated when you’re filming anyway. You’re in this, kind of, bubble of the production, and cast and crew and what have you but then to disappear into the wilderness, it added this shared adventure.
It became an adventure and I think that’s what, hopefully, that’s what translates across the screen, that what we’re trying to put across is an adventure and it’s just a thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment.
AMD: Definitely, we really enjoyed it. Now obviously you’re both part of the Marvel universe but you don’t share screen time in those films, what was it like to finally be working opposite Samuel L Jackson? and also just say a little bit about Onni, the incredibly talented nephew of the Director, who just holds the film together and is incredible.
Ray Stevenson: Samuel and I, our paths didn’t cross in the Marvel Universe but who knows what’s going to happen there, as Marvel are heading towards Thor 3 but it’s great to work with him.
I think he’s one of the consummate, character, leading actors and he has a delight in movie making. The guy is so knowledgable, so informed and erudite and passionate about the business. He started talking about an obscure, young Polish director or somebody from Kazakhstan that he’s been aware of. It’s infectious, his enthusiasm and passion.
The young actor, Onni, who was in the movie and spends all his scenes opposite this huge, colossal movie star. He brought an honesty and an openness that is rare and that was able to be tapped into.
His father is a professional actor, as far as I remember. Myself and the cast were in Helsinki for the premiere and Onni was there for the biggest premiere in Finnish movie history. His father was on stage that night (laughs) and I remember the director going "If it was me I’d have just thrown a sickie” but obviously he’s coming from a movie background, not theatre and I come from a classically trained, theatre background and know you don’t pull a sickie when you’ve got a stage play on. In Onni’s village, in honour of this, they were going to have a special screening for all his school friends and Onni’s family.
Onni himself was... he was never intimidated by his uncle, even though his uncle, Jalmari, is now, essentially, one of the leading protagonists and filmmakers of the biggest Finnish/Hollywood movie ever made and so he wasn’t intimidated by that and yet he wasn’t playful.
In a weird sort of way he was exactly suited to the character he was playing because that boy, himself, is going through, naturally, his rites of passage. So it’s a challenge, there’s pressure and all these things and yet he’s as professional and as consummate as any actor I’ve ever worked with. He was lovely.
AMD: Excellent and you have a big fanbase because of the Punisher: War Zone, which has become a cult hit, and it started you on a road of doing lots of physical action roles in Hollywood. In Big Game your character is wounded but still gets in some scrapes and has some fights. Is action something you’ve always enjoyed doing and how fun was it to add the element of the fact your character needs to do certain action but also has this wound, this impediment?
Ray Stevenson: yeah that was so essential to his role. Basically, I didn’t want to make him some disgruntled employee. The man’s honest belief that he’s got this shot at being, actually, a true patriot because he believes he’s a weak president - and he’s dying and he’s been written off and put out to pasture but his patriotism has pushed him into a form of extreme fundamentalism, for want of a better word. As Oscar Wilde says “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
But getting back to the first part of your question about the action roles - What I’ve enjoyed through my career is that, when presented with, on the page, initially, the two dimensional, obvious, blunt, bigger action guy, I’ve always endeavoured to explore a lot more.
Nobody wakes up in the morning thinking ‘I’m going to be a bad guy and I’m going to be worse today than I was yesterday’, nobody thinks 'I am going to be this big, tough bad guy’ - there’s a lot more layers and I’ve always endeavoured to do that.
What’s happened is that filmmakers, people in the industry, the producers, the studios have noticed that about me and it’s actually worked in my favour. They want this guy to be a bad guy but we want him to have layers. The scripts pay so much attention to the other main characters, they know I will automatically bring so much more to it. It’s just the way I like to work and I’ve turned down a lot of stuff which was that obvious bad guy... but then you get characters like this and this man’s motivating himself.
AMD: So are you aware of the cult that’s grown up around War Zone and what are your feelings now towards the film?
I approached War Zone, I remember one our first conversations - Lionsgate showed me in to meet the director - Lexi Alexander was really, very keen on me for the role and I was very flattered and humble.
I was meeting with them and the meeting was going great but I had had a chance to read some of this book, Garth Ennis’s writing with Tim Bradstreet’s illustrations, I had never come across writing like this before, it’s absolutely the best and I said to them, I said
“You know, there’s one thing, he’s a violent man who is violent with the violent people but I’ll tell you now, I don’t want anyone to walk out of the cinema wanting to be The Punisher, wanting to be Frank Castle.” and there was sort of a tumbleweed moment and I explained myself by saying
“I don’t want people tooling up and taking out the bad guys in their life. I want you to commit to Frank Castle being in such a remorseless direction and pain that there’s no sort of end to this...”
(then he searches for a word he’s looking for to describe it)
It’s, like, you’re very glad that he’s there and you can’t wait to see what he does, to all the bad guys, but you don’t want to feel that there is any saving grace for him. He’s on his path and you don’t want to be him because of how he ends up. That’s what I was asking of Lionsgate and they did it.
The fan base has been phenomenal, people have stepped up for that movie. So I think, if anything, looking back, we weren't too short of storylines from the original series of comic books that were already 10 years old, 15 years old, it was potentially rife for sequelising? However it’s a very difficult sell, an R-Rated comic book character but I think we gave it a very good shot and I am just delighted to be part of these films of Marvel Studios and to have played Frank Castle.
The film Big Game is out now on Blu Ray, information on that and my interview with the film’s Director, Jalmari Herlander, can be found HERE.
Hear our review of Big Game on The Podcast From The After Movie Diner episode 160 HERE