I recently got the opportunity to talk to James Payton about his role in ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’. Here, James talks about what it was like working with the cast and crew and about how he got involved in the project…
Hey James. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me. ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ will in cinemas worldwide as of 29th July 2011. For anyone not fully versed in the Marvel comics, how would you sum up the plotline?
Set during WWII, it’s about a kid from Brooklyn who, despite his physical limitations doesn’t know when to quit and won’t take no for an answer. This kid wants to do the right thing, not for self gain, but for the greater good. This inherent goodness in him leads to him being given the opportunity to undergo a series of experiments to create on the outside, what he is already on the inside. A hero. We follow the trials and tribulations of the new Steve Rogers as he makes the transformation from propaganda tool to Captain America and takes on the fight of and for, not only his life, but for millions of other lives too. It’s also pretty bloody funny in places. Also, stick around until after the credits…
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the film….I understand he’s based on a historical character?
Yes, you could say that. I play Hitler in the movie, but not the real one. Essentially I’m a USO performer who plays a larger than life version of Adolf. The first ‘Captain America’ comic book cover featured Cap socking ‘Ol Adolf on the jaw and what we’re doing in those scenes, aside from showing how Cap is being used as a propaganda tool, is referring back to that cover as a nod to the history of Cap. I imagine people will take great satisfaction from seeing Hitler get walloped. The USO sequence is one of Joe’s favourite moments in the movie, it’s mine too but probably for more vain reasons than his.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I guess it all started back in the distant mists of 2008 and ‘The Wolfman’. That was where I first worked with Joe Johnston as Anthony Hopkins stand-in. Joe used to like dressing me up as various characters, doing off lines for some of the actors and generally getting me involved as much as possible. I recall being dressed as Benicio Del Toro’s dog at one point. A career highlight for sure. ‘The Wolfman’ I suppose has become notorious throughout the industry for being a difficult shoot, but for me, Joe held the cast and crew together and made the experience a rewarding one, regardless of all the issues surrounding the project. In 2010 I was called by the ‘Captain America’ production team (at the time of shooting the ‘title’ of the movie was ‘Frostbite’) asking me if I wanted to be involved in the new movie. Joe wanted as many of ‘The Wolfman’ crew back on board for his new picture. I think that says a lot about the quality of the British crews and Joe’s loyalty. I happily agreed to sign on as Stanley Tucci’s stand-in. A couple of months into the shoot I was asked to audition for a one line part. I was put on tape and Joe was happy for me to play that character. After a 1940s shave and haircut it was quite clear that I bore a certain resemblance to Adolf, I even made a passing comment about them not having cast that part yet and made myself available. Time marched on, as it so frequently does, and when it came to the one liner, one of the producers did it instead of me! I didn’t dwell on that for too long as very soon after I was asked if I would like to play Hitler in the movie. Needless to say, I said yes. My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) was supremely happy for me but found it terribly difficult to kiss me during the Hitler moustache period. I couldn’t really blame her.
Had you been a fan of the ‘Captain America’ comic book series before you signed on / were you aware of the franchise? Did you do any background research once you get the part?
When I was a boy, I was aware of Marvel and of the ‘Captain America’ comic book series. I wasn’t the biggest fan as such, I was more into ‘Warlord’, ‘Roy of the Rovers’ and ‘The Eagle’ as a child, but I do recall being pretty fond of Cap. I think, like a lot of kids, I could relate to Steve, more so than ‘Batman’ certainly. He’s just an ordinary kid with a strong moral compass. Steve essentially becomes what we all wish we could become; his physical stature when he becomes Captain America finally catches up with his moral stature. He was a good man before the vita rays did their work and he was still a good man after he became the super soldier. I’ve always thought that as an actor, it’s my duty to be as prepared as I can be for whatever role I’m playing. I like to go into something knowing that I’m off book and have options to show the director. I wanted to take the real life version of Hitler, his mannerisms, posture and facial reactions and parody them. I got myself onto YouTube and watched some of his well-known speeches to get the physicality of the man, then doubled them up to create a pantomime version. I think Joe trusted me to turn up knowing what I was going to do and that it would be right for the movie as a whole. Fortunately, it seemed to work!
The film stars Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving – and Joe Johnston is onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set?
The cast was a delight to work with. Everyone was aware that Chris had worked amazingly hard to get the body needed for the role and we all respected that. We were also acutely aware that whether this movie succeeded or failed fell pretty much squarely on Chris’s shoulders. We could get the lighting, sound, music, special and visual effects right but the movie as a whole would only work if Chris could convince everyone he was Steve Rogers and Captain America. That’s an awful lot of pressure on one man and the fact that he stepped up and gave a career defining performance with such humour and grace is a testament to him, not only as an actor, but also as a man. I think Chris’s performance is such a generous one, he allowed the rest of the cast to breathe and come alive. He wasn’t a one-dimensional hero, he had layers that helped ground the movie. Once you’ve established a character like Steve Rogers/Captain America you have to pit him against a worthy foe, and Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is certainly that. Like Chris, Hugo adds layers to his performance that prevent him being a one-dimensional villain. He’s also a lovely man. We bonded over the public reaction to our facial hair; me for my Hitler moustache and him for the odd looks he would get for his Victorian beard during the ‘Wolfman’ shoot. Every actor in ‘Captain America’ seemed to come into it knowing where to pitch their performances to make the movie work. Egos didn’t come into play. Hayley, Tommy, Toby, Stanley and all the cast – from the leads to the day players – just seemed to be on top of their game. I think that all comes down to Joe and the casting directors. Working in such an environment was a real pleasure, especially when surrounded by a crew I’ve known and worked with for years. They were all so supportive to me personally, aside from being pretty much the best of the best in what they do. You don’t just cast actors for a movie, you also cast the crew. Joe and everyone at Marvel knew exactly what they wanted to make the good ship ‘Captain America’ be a great movie and a great project to work on. I’m immensely proud of the final version. To call it a fantastic superhero movie seems somewhat dismissive, it’s a fantastic movie in its own right.
Captain America has a shield that he can use to protect himself from attack and also throw – can you think of any other practical uses for it?
I’m thinking that it would be an incredibly useful tray in the pub, a practical umbrella for those times you’re caught out in the rain, an impromptu sledge for when you simply have to slide down a hill at speed and a perfect battering ram for the tube in rush hour. I’m sure there are a few more damn fine uses for that shield than those though.
Let’s talk a bit about you James. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
I think I always had a desire from when I was very small but I recall the very day that I knew that this was what I had to do. It was the afternoon of 2nd April 1988. My father had died that morning of cancer at the age of 41. I was 12. Obviously it wasn’t the happiest day of my life, I was in shock. I was half watching an old movie on the television, trying to make sense of what had happened. My understandably distraught mother and grandparents were sorting things out when a scene came on with a talking horse. I found myself laughing. How could I be laughing when the worst thing I could have imagined had actually happened I asked myself. That was when I realized the power that movies held. I was heartbroken and yet these flickering images helped me to realise that life isn’t just tragedy, it isn’t just comedy, but it is a marrying of all emotions. I knew that I wanted to be involved in this massively powerful medium from then on. I wanted to attempt to make people feel how I felt when I watched movies. I still do.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in acting?
I used to say to people “Don’t” when they asked me that question. Quite simply it takes over your whole being and if you’re not ready to accept that, you should probably go and do something else that makes you happy. You won’t become a millionaire, you won’t become a household name but if you can make a living from doing it, hey, you’re a massive success in my eyes. Nowadays if people ask me I tell them to not just talk about it, but to get out there and do it. Find your local theatre programme, get in touch with local filmmakers, write your own play, film, short, sketch whatever. Shoot it on your phone if you have to, even put it on in your own garden and…learn to listen as an actor, don’t just stand there waiting for the other dude to finish speaking so you can say your lines. That goes the same for listening to people who are more experienced than you. You may not always agree with them but you should try to understand their point of view. Watch real people, see how they react to things. Practice, practice, practice. An athlete trains everyday, so should actors, even it means doing different accents or pulling odd faces. There is no one way to make it but the harder you work the luckier you will become. I think you have to know why you want to act. If it’s just for fame then chances are you’re won’t get very far. It’s a very hard business and if you’re not willing to work at it you should probably forget it. Aside from my wife and family it’s what gets me up in the morning. I love it. Also, don’t be a dickhead, that’s pretty key.
What music is currently on your I-Pod / CD music system?
I guess my musical taste is fairly odd really. I listen to a lot of older music from the likes of Noel Coward, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys. If I had to choose my absolute favourite piece of music though, it would have to be Debussy’s Clair de Lune. For me it says everything about life, death and every moment in between. That said, nearly a year after shooting my ‘Captain America’ scenes, I’ve still got Alan Menken’s ‘Star Spangled Man’ in my head. Now that is one hell of a catchy tune.
You’ve had a number of different roles on a range of different projects – who has been your favourite actor to work with so far and who has given the best advice to you?
Yeah, I guess I have played quite a variety of roles from one medium to the next, from Frank Longbottom in ‘Harry Potter’ to Charlie Chaplin in the East End of London for a site specific theatre piece. It keeps life interesting. I even played one half of Ginger Rogers, the Space Pirate for the after party at the Brit Awards 2008. I’m not sure I could choose just one actor but I have been fortunate to work with Robert Downey Jr on both ‘Sherlock Holmes’ movies as his stand-in. His commitment to his craft is immense and it is incredibly inspiring to see that up close. He’s fearless and I’m proud to have built up a really good working relationship with the man over those two films. Hugo Weaving is also a favourite, he is never less than brilliant and is a real gentleman. Anthony Hopkins knew I was an actor when we worked together on ‘The Wolfman’, he told me to “keep going” which I think is a really useful piece of advice. I’m in this for the long haul. I love working with my actor friends Keith Eyles and Ben Shockley, they are both very truthful actors who haven’t yet been given the chance to show off their talents to a wider audience. I really could go on all day about some of the great actors I’ve been inspired by and learned from but I realise that everyone has things they should really be getting on with.
What does a James Payton day usually consist of?
If I’m working it involves getting up far too early, travelling to the studio or location for a day on-set as an actor or stand-in. The day will then pan out depending on which one of those jobs I’m doing. I certainly know which I prefer and which brings the most satisfaction but the other one has given me too many opportunities to just dismiss as just a job. If I’m acting it involves rehearsals, costume fittings, make up checks and finally the magic of the take – there really isn’t anything quite like that moment between “rolling” and “action”. If I’m standing-in it involves an awful lot of concentration for up to 12 hours a day. I’ve learned and continue to learn an awful lot from both jobs. If I’m off, my days tend to consist of line learning, auditions, meetings with my film chums and trying my best to look after my beautiful new wife when she gets back from her work. I also have a mild Twitter addiction and a fully blown Playstation habit. I also try to watch at least one movie a day, just to keep learning.
What has been the most interesting piece of local / national news you’ve heard in the last month?
I think all that is happening with News International, Murdoch and the vile phone hacking scandal is fascinating as a study of the power of the general public as a collective mass. There is an awful lot of justifiable ill will floating about and everyday seems to bring a new revelation. The story will run and run and I wouldn’t even like to guess how it will turn out. There will be changes though and I’m sure heads will roll, I just hope they are the right ones.
What’s coming up for you in 2011?
I’ve shot a commercial out in Lisbon and Austria this year and am currently working on a screenplay with some chums. We’re hoping to shoot our first feature as a collective in 2012. I’ve signed with a new agent and am continuing to audition as much as possible for a wide variety of projects. Both me and my agent are waiting for the Hitler call. I can’t imagine ‘Captain America’ is the last time me and ‘Ol Adolf will cross paths…
Thanks for the interview!