Interview: “There Could Have Been A Potential Underwear Emergency” – Actor Jonathan Holmes On Spielberg & The BFG
Talented voice-actor Jonathan Holmes bagged the role of his career so far when he was chosen to play one of the villains in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG. He talks to Top 10 Films about working with director and the process via performance capture that brought his character to life.
To say he was ecstatic would be an understatement. “There could have been a potential underwear emergency”, quips actor Jonathan Holmes when I ask him about hearing he’d landed the part in Steven Spielberg’s latest movie. The Vancouver-based performer, whose skilled voice-acting has seen him win plum roles in animated features and video games, acknowledges his latest effort is the “highlight” of his career so far.
It is understandable. After all, working with one of Hollywood’s most iconic and revered film directors is the dream of so many and the reality of so few. Holmes decided to pretend Spielberg was someone else when in his presence to avoid, as best as possible, being hamstrung by a sense of awe. But, he says, the man who gave the world Jaws and E.T. “couldn’t have been lovelier”. He’s acutely aware that people might be overawed by him so “he goes out of his way to make you feel welcome and valued,” says Holmes. “He’s a real gentleman.” And Spielberg recalled many Hollywood tales in between takes to the fascinated delight of the cast and crew.
The BFG always felt like an ideal Spielberg project. A self-confessed kid at heart, the director, who previously adapted children’s fiction such as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan into the underrated 1991 film Hook and Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin in 2011, probably knew a long time ago that Roald Dahl’s most-loved The BFG would come calling. It’s a thrilling, funny and heartwarming tale of heroes and villains, epic childhood adventures and darkly comic fantasy. It almost seems tailormade for the filmmaker who gave us E.T. Fittingly, he employs the late Melissa Mathison, and screenwriter of E.T., for scripting duties.
Holmes plays one of Dahl’s typically imaginative antagonists. Villians who, in less assured hands, would be far too sadistic for a child’s eyes. As Childchewer he is the “vein adolescent” within a gang of nine decidedly unfriendly giants who enjoy nothing more than feasting on children. Befitting the sublime innocence of Dahl’s work and his ability to tap into the sensibilities, fears and joys of children, Spielberg encouraged his actors to use their imaginations. “Let’s play”, he told them on set, providing plenty of freedom and a willingness to listen to ideas.
While he missed the book during his childhood, Holmes enjoyed catching up with the story with his ten-year-old daughter. Something he says has been a real joy. That was only part of the preparation though. He spent a month working closely with one of the pioneers of performance capture acting Terry Notary. It was during this time that the villainous ensemble found their inner giants, Notary putting the actors through all sorts of physical and improvisation drills.
While the actor is used to doing voice parts and seeing the hard work pay-off after all the post-production tinkering and CGI, it was still a unique challenge acting for performance capture and eventually witnessing the results. The process sees the performer wear a skintight suit with motion sensors on the body and face. The actor performs the part as normal with the motion used to bring the computer-generated character realistically to life in post-production.
“The technology is so advanced these days that they are able to capture every nuance of our performance and then animate them into these crazy creatures. So everything you see on screen has it’s germ in our performances. I don’t know that pure voice acting is necessarily more or less challenging – ultimately it’s all about finding truth, vocally or physically,” he says.
Holmes is a busy actor. His CV is awash with multiple roles every year since entering the profession nearly two decades ago. He’s hoping to return to the theatre in the UK next year but at the moment is concentrating on voicing animated TV and a new video game.
The BFG is in UK cinemas now.
Written by Dan Stephens
Discover More: Top 10 Films of Steven Spielberg