In recent years, Christopher Eccleston has become somewhat of a sci-fi fan favorite, first by becoming the ninth actor to play the role of "Doctor Who"—only for a single season—and then taking on a small role on the popular NBC show "Heroes." Although he'll be known by the most Americans for these roles, in reality, Eccleston's a veteran British dramatic actor who has appeared prominently in many films, including a stint as Nicole Kidman's ghostly husband in The Others
and a corrupt military officer in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later…
(Eccleston's second collaboration after starring in Boyle's Shallow Grave
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the actor while visiting the Bucharest, Romania set of Fox Walden's upcoming The Dark Is Rising
, based on the series of novels by Susan Cooper. Eccleston plays The Rider, the series' dark force of evil. The day we visited the set, Eccelston actually wasn't shooting anything, but he was kind enough to take some time out of his leisurely day off to meet with a group of journalists in the lobby restaurant of his hotel.
ComingSoon.net: Can you tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie?
The character of the Rider is the antagonist, the nemesis, the villain of the piece. He differs somewhat from the book. There's been some poetic license taken and there's an ability that the Rider has which he doesn't have in the book which would be slightly spoilerish but he's got a few surprises up his sleeve in how he manifests himself. I'm teasing, but I want that kind of thing to be an element of surprise for the audience.
CS: Were you familiar with the books?
No, I'd never heard of the books, but as a child I was one of those who was hugely passionate about "Lord of the Rings." I understand the kind of passion that people feel for these books, but I think they should be left for childhood. People say "Lord of the Rings" was the greatest novels ever written, but no, they're not; they're childhood. But I read the book for this and enjoyed it very much, and obviously it's close to me because it's couched in Celtic mysticism and it's a very, very intensely British book.
CS: Are there similarities between your character and the Dark Riders in "The Lord of the Rings"?
I think there must be. Yeah. When you read the book, I can't believe that she wasn't in some ways influenced by Tolkien because by that time, the mid '70s, Tolkien's books had made such a huge impact, but it actually predates Potter and all that stuff. I'm sure that if we dove in some mythology that a man on horseback spreading terror was probably lifted by Tolkien himself, probably from Greek stuff, the archetype being their problem. Yeah, I think there are similarities and I think some of the terror resides in the fact that, for children at least, it's not about machinery. It's this man as an animal. The thing we've talked about with the Rider is that without the horse, he's slightly powerless, and that him and horse are kind of indivisible.
CS: Is this the most absolute character you've played in a while? You tend to play characters that are a bit more ambiguous, but this character is very much the archetype bad guy.
I've tried, but failed. (laughs) You try to add extra colors to it, but I've had that debate throughout the entire shoot, whether you should just go for mongoloid one-dimensional savagery bad guy or you should try… I think there's virtues in both. I think I've tried to give it a twist. Whether that's the right thing to do, I don't know. There are two sides to the Rider, and there's an area where I can kind of suggest things about his character while not actually appearing as him. They're just so cryptic.
CS: What was it about him that appealed to you?
The spoiler thing actually. Yeah. When you see it, you'll understand. There's an opportunity with the Rider for humor and subversion and satire that I've not seen before in these kind of films, and it was that most of all. 99.9 percent of the dramas I've made have been for adults, and this was a real opportunity to try something new. I've had some experience with "Doctor Who" of making drama for children. I think it's a real important area if we can provide them complexity and gray area rather than just a fun fair ride. That's what appeals to me.
CS: David Cunningham said that he was striving for a certain kind of realism in this film. When we spoke with Ian McShane, he mentioned your character could afford to be a little bit more operatic.
Who said that? McShane? He's loaded me with all this. Typical actors. Spineless. [laughs] "Don't blame me, blame Chris." I've been watching him, and he's pretty camp, Old McShane. I think the Rider is slightly less defined actually than most of the characters. He doesn't have as much screen time as the Rider per se, but even within that, I'm sure a much better actor than me would say you've got to find a kind of truthfulness. You've got to. Audiences are pretty exacting nowadays and know when you… so, it has to feel real to you in some way.
CS: How was it working with Alexander Ludwig?
Apart from a brief scene with the Old Ones at the beginning and at the end, I'm exclusively with Alex. He's an amazing young man and to carry a film like this… I carried a film when I was 27 and couldn't really speak or think for the two months afterwards, but he seems to be like it's just water off a duck's back. The thing about him, apart from his abilities as an actor, which are apparent, he's just a very, very decent young man. I'm not just saying this to you. A few of us have said this to his parents who have been around. They brought up an excellent young lad, and you'd like to see him succeed because he doesn't seem tainted by all the Hollywood bullsh*t that we all know so much about.
CS: Had you ever ridden a horse before doing playing this part?
CS: How trained did you have to get before riding one?
As much as we could in a very short time. I left the stunt men to do the easy stuff, and I do all the dangerous stuff. That's the way I like to do it.
CS: We heard that today you'd be doing a big stunt where you ride into the Great Hall and then they send you flying off the horse.
You know more than I do. The last thing I heard was that the horse was going to very cleverly go down on all fours, which I've seen them do and it's pretty extraordinary. So the last thing I heard was the horse was going to go down on all fours and I was going to step ever so sensitively off it. I've heard some of that, but I thought that was going to come later.
CS: They also talked about a scene where the horse you're riding walks up and down these stairs in the Grand Hall. Since the Rider has to be fairly skilled, how much have you been able to do and how much do you leave to the stunt men?
I've done as much as I possibly could, but no matter how skilled a rider you are, the studio are watching you like a hawk because of insurance. Because this is a comparatively low budget film for what they're trying to make, they do not need actors embedded in walls and things.
CS: Do you have a horse trainer who's able to get the horse to go wherever they want it while you're riding it?
The main horse we've used who I am in love with, he's called Rusty and he's incredibly skilled. If you get a chance, I mean watching actors act is boring, watching Stefan and Taz wrangle that horse and the relationship with them is amazing.
CS: It's such a cliché already but W.C. Fields says never act with children or animals and you're doing both…
Rusty said the same thing about me, through gritted teeth. That animal is far cleverer than I could ever dream of being. (laughs)
CS: Does your character return throughout the series?
I've not read the other books, but according to Number One Dork (points to a journalist who read all the books) as she called herself (laughs), my character does come back.
CS: Is that a consideration when you take a role like this, that you might have to return for more movies?
Well, that was addressed at the contractual level anyway. You know it's nice to work but I wouldn't want to just keep doing the same thing. I think my career kind of shows that commercial consideration is not at the top of my tree. Of course, I'm hesitant, but that was the deal.
CS: You mentioned opening things up to this younger audience, so was "Doctor Who" something you did in order to do that?
I think they're much more exacting than adults actually. I think they're much harder to fulfill, and they're much fiercer in their attachment once they've taken you to your heart, but they have better bullsh*t detectors than us. And I remember that as a child myself, and that appeals to me, because I've always tried to involve myself in stuff that is in some ways sophisticated and challenging to the audience that respects its intelligence.
CS: Does doing stuff for a younger audience keep you more honest as an actor?
Possibly, it does make sense. Yeah. They're very straight about how they feel about you, and they're far more sophisticated than some of the product that's aimed at them. I think we probably all feel that.
CS: Has your experience with "Doctor Who" opened things up for a wider range of roles than you might have been offered in the past?
No, I think I've been at it 18 years before I got there so, no, I think it was just a slightly different… there was perhaps more lightness in the role than I'm associated with, but apart from that, no, I would say I was often kind of hopping around genre and character.
CS: How is it to work on a film like this as opposed to doing television?
It's a lot slower. I enjoy the pace of television, although of course with some of the independent films like, for instance "Shallow Grave" or maybe "Jude" even, we didn't have as much time, but television is faster. In television I feel--obviously because of the size of the screen and less the production values--there's a healthier reliance on performance and script. I've always said that the strongest scripts I've had in my career, apart from theater, have been in television because you only have really the actors' faces. So from an acting point of view, my best scripts have been in television. It's quicker, but we're using multi-cameras on this. I don't think I've ever experienced that. I've never seen so many cameras. There's probably six trained on us now.
CS: Is that a bigger challenge to know that you're being captured from all these angles that you're not playing to?
The camera team on this film is fantastic in terms of telling you exactly what's going on, but I kind of believe that if you're being truthful, you're being truthful. I think to a certain extent one can get obsessed with what lens is on and I do like to know if they're right in there and if they're also very wide, I'm going to concentrate on the fact and try not to look too much like Popeye in my close-up… not that I ever succeed.
CS: Can you talk about how they're doing more stuff on-set rather than using CGI?
Have you seen some of the sets on this? I mean one of the great things for me on this film has been wandering around the sets and seeing the work that the Romanian crew have done on it. I got very caught up with the debate about CGI when "Belleville Rendezvous" came out and "Spirited Away." That great discussion about animation that was drawn by human beings and stuff that was computer-generated and for me, "Belleville Rendezvous" wins every time because there's something in it that's soulful and moving. As brilliant and as fantastic as "The Incredibles" was, there was something moving about "Belleville" and it's similar. I'd sooner look at somebody's craft and work than whatever.
CS: So you got along with this idea of actually trying to do a lot of it real?
Yes. Yeah I do. I think you're going to end up with films that will live and breathe in a hundred years time in an indefinable way, actually.
CS: With the diversity of your career, do you consciously try to change things up with each role you take?
My career's been a continuation of the two years I did at college and the three years training as an actor. So when I'm gone I just hope to be remember as somebody who was skilled at what he did so by trying different things it's like you guys trying to write different articles or so that's what I've tried to do. Rather than a couple of times I've made commercial decisions and they've blown up in my face frankly. Whenever I've followed my heart, by in large it's rewarded me and it's a difficult line to walk for actors, directors, writers, whatever. But I just want to keep, I always try and take the roles that frighten me. I played a Hasidic Jew in an independent film ten years ago. Who is going to cast me in that? I had a go. Why do the stuff that's easy?
CS: Do you know if your character might return to "Heroes" next season?
We haven't spoken about that yet. I'd certainly be open to it. I get the feeling that they'd be open to it, but I think we all feel that he made a good impact, and in a sense, it's a decision whether to leave it at that because it just adds to the fabric of their series. I think there's got to be something really meaty for him to do for me to go back, but I'd certainly like to. I was made very welcome by that crew and that cast. Being a Brit on that show, I've never been offered so many cups of tea in my life. But you do, it's like you get lots of attention because you're different.
CS: Do you share Ian McShane's deep love of Romania? (This is sarcasm, since McShane told us ealier he wasn't a fan of the country in which they were shooting the movie.)
(maybe not realizing the question was sarcastic) I fell in love first. Romania's been unfaithful to me with Ian McShane. The Romanian people have been absolutely fantastic, but the problem the actors have experienced--particularly the Americans--is that when you're here and you're not working, you are stuck in a hotel, and you're a long way from home. I mean the Romanian crew on this have been extraordinary, and it's a very different culture, particularly for the Americans to come into. I'm somewhat familiar with European poker face. I've been made very welcome here.
CS: They've been shooting this movie for three months, so have you remained here the whole time?
No. All my work here is done. I lived in Los Angeles last year for nine months, but I'm actually based in Manchester, so I've been able to get home to my home in Manchester. I've not been back to L.A.
CS: Since you're almost done here, what's next?
I'm going to New Orleans for four days to do some reshoots on a curious strange film I did last Autumn in New Orleans called "New Orleans, Mon Amour", which is set post-Katrina amid the relief work with a director called Michael Almereyda and an actress called Elizabeth Moss. I'm going to do that, and then I think I'm going to do Macbeth in the West End if we can pull the deal together, which is something I've wanted to do since I was 17. It's an independent producer named Sonya Freidman and it wouldn't be with the Royal Shakespeare Company. We'd just be going into the west end and I hope, not staging a vanity piece. I hope doing something that's kind of a radical take on it. It's a very difficult play to do. Anybody who knows the play, it's how do you make the witches work?
The Dark Is Rising
opens on October 5, and you can read a lot more about the movie, including a complete set visit in the coming months right here on ComingSoon.net.