Can you tell us about your character?
I’m somebody who comes back from the first war. Four or five years before the beginning of the story, he left for the first war to fight on the front lines, he left his wife and his two children who were about four and five at the time. And when he comes back, his wife has passed away. Consumption took her and his two children have been raised by the circus and he’s physically not the man he was because he lost his left arm on the field of battle. And emotionally and psychologically, he’s not the man he once was and the world that he returns to is a world that he doesn’t recognise, he doesn’t know how to be a father, so his journey is to forgive himself and his own guilt and shame for not being there. And I think his lesson in the film is that it’s okay not to know how to be a parent, sometimes you just got to be there and observe your children figuring things out for themselves.
Dumbo arrives in the story initially as something that needs damage control, as something that we all judge, even the circus people. When we see the ears first, it’s kinda ‘What the hell?’ and we know that it’s probably not going to be taken too well by society, by the community that come to watch our circus. It’s not the cute little doting perfect baby elephant that Danny De Vito’s character envisions and thought he was buying. But what seems to be a handicap at the start of the film or what seems to be a cause for derision is actually a cause for celebration and is something that, bit by bit, throughout the telling the story awakens the spirits of each of the characters.
You have done a lot of blockbusters filled with CGI, but this is different. How was that?
I’ve been lucky enough to see some credible artistry through the years, some of the sets on Alexander will never be bested and some of the sets on Total Recall were extraordinary as well. But I will say, for the instant invocation of a childlike sense of wonder, there was nothing like walking into this set. When I walked onto this set the first time for Dreamland, which is the huge big theme park that Michael Keaton’s character presides over, and they had built in this aircraft hangar that they used to make Zeppelins, air balloons, a huge monstrosity of a thing maybe 800 feet long and 250 feet high, and there was this wooden gangplank platform that went about 500 feet and then at the end of it was this huge big top. The set went up like three or four stories, down 500 feet, all these lights flashing, popcorn stands, 400 extras, about 12 horses, eight Model T Fords from the early 20th century and about 40 different carnies juggling and balancing things on their heads and I just walked in, I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ My eyes watered, literally, my eyes watered, it was so beautiful. You get a little bit used to it over the next few days of course, I didn’t live in that sense of wonderment, but it was extraordinary to see, it really was.
You’ve recently acted in True Detective, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which are all very different from Dumbo, so how did you connect to this materials, and is there anything you can compare in between?
I’m not sure I’ll go back to being a cocaine addicted dirty cop at some stage, but… it’s very different from anything. I remember when I did The Lobster and somebody said to me, ‘This is very different for you’, and I’m like, ‘But this is very different for any actor to do’.
The directors are so singular. Yorgos [Lanthimos] is singular in his vision in one particular way but Tim is just as singular in his visual approach to storytelling in his own way. So, it’s certainly very different for me. I will say, though, that the themes that are looked at in Dumbo are as heavy and as consequential and as painful as scenes can be in any kind of European minded independent drama, you know.
You’re dealing with the death of a parent, you’re dealing with kids being raised in foster type care. You’re playing a widower who’s lost a limb in a war… I mean, the themes are avarice, greed, cruelty, separation of child and parent when Dumbo is taken from his mother… The themes are heavy but being Tim’s design and vision, respect is paid to the heaviness of the themes by not hitting them over the head because this is a film that should be enjoyed by adults but also has to be accessible to children, which I think is the beautiful thing.
It presents these heavy themes, there’s no shying away from them, but it doesn’t do them in a way that a child can’t process them. And I think there’s worth in that ability to access what’s going on. It’s nice to do a film that my kids can see. I’m not saying they’ll like it. I’m not that foolish, but it’s nice to do something that they can actually watch.
What do you look for in a director? What do you need from him or her to do a good job or a better job?
I have no clear answer to that because every director … I’ve been asked through the years a couple of times, ‘Do you like to rehearse or not to rehearse?’, and sometimes directors will ask you, ‘Do you have a way of working? Do you like rehearsal or no rehearsal?’, and I can never answer that question. I could make something up, but I really like going off the director. I feel that I’m lucky that I don’t have one thing that I need from a director because then I’d be hoping that every director I worked with, would give me that thing and if he doesn’t, then I’m fucked, you know?
There are some directors I worked with and in a six week shoot, I have had three conversations with. And it’s fine. I trust that if I’m doing something that they don’t like, and maybe that was the beginning of the three conversations, they’ll tell me. And there’s other directors I have a much more intimate relationship with and I’ve rehearsed for three weeks in a room with other actors and that’s cool too, that’s probably more fun and a little bit more daunting but fun because you’re getting engaged and you’re breaking the script down and stuff.
I don’t know that I need it, but it’s nice to be around a clarity of vision.