SXSW: Bill Irwin on Becoming Interstellar’s TARS



When Christopher Nolan needed someone special to bring life to Interstellar‘s robot hero, TARS, the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker enlisted the aide of actor and comedian Bill Irwin. Even if you recognized Irwin’s voice in the film, however, you may not be aware of exactly how in-depth his performance went! With the veil of secrecy over the film finally lifted and Interstellar on its way to Blu-ray and DVD at the end of the month, caught up with Irwin at SXSW where the film’s Oculus Rift experience is once again on display for fans alongside one of the actual TARS models used in production! 

Read on to find out about Irwin’s experiences working alongside Nolan and star Matthew McConaughey and, in the gallery viewer at the bottom of this page, check out a brief gallery of the experience’s SXSW setup, including a look at the back of the TARS model and the arm holes Irwin used to manipulate the character.

CS: So where did Interstellar officially begin for you?

Bill Irwin: I got a phone call from my agent saying, “Christopher Nolan wants to talk to you on the phone.” I sat there and listened as he described what he called “an articulated machine” that was to be a character in his movie. This must have been May of 2013. We talked about how animals move and how a machine might move. It was an in-depth conversation and I remember thinking, “Well, that’s the first step in a long process. There will be auditions and things.” The next thing I knew, I got a phone call that said, “Get your passport together. You seem to be the guy he wants to work with!” Then I went straight to Burbank to an un-air-conditioned shed where they were developing [TARS]. You can see in the bonus features that come with the Blu-ray, it was at first just pieces of sheet metal that we started puppeteering around. It had a sort of heavy military hardware demeanor to which Nathan Crowley, our designer, added depth and weight. So it got heavier and heavier. But this machine and I spent a lot of time strapped to one another. I would stand behind and make him move as a character in each scene. It was one of the wildest actor adventures I’ve ever had.

CS: And that meant that you weren’t just doing the voice, but were actually on the set throughout production?

Irwin: The voice turned out to be the least of it. People saw the movie and they assumed, naturally, “Oh, that’s a voiceover gig you did in Los Angeles for two or three days.” No, it was actually a puppeteering job. What that meant was that I was really an actor in the scenes. I would advance and hope I was hitting my mark and was in my light and not stepping on Matt Damon’s foot. Most of the movie took place in either the infinite vastness of space or tiny, cramped NASA quarters, pods or tight spacecraft. The machine had to be able to move realistically through tight quarters when the scenes were in play. I’d love to do it again! The second time around, we can get things to move exactly as we want. The pictures [on the Blu-ray] really show off the process we went though learning how to move this thing. How to really have him move both as a character and as a viable machine. Chris Nolan said something very smart early on. He said, “There’s no reason for a robotic machine to look like a human being.” Normally, in movies, we make them humanoid shape, but they may as well be a block of a thing. That’s how TARS and I began to take each other’s measure.

CS: Where did the name come from? There’s obviously a HAL-9000 nod, but I wondered if the name itself wasn’t a nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tars Tarkas.

Irwin: I’m not sure! There are three articulated machines that are characters in the film. There’s also CASE and then the one that has been disassembled by Dr. Mann is called KIP. For KIP, there is a derivation there, because we all assumed it was named after Kip Thorne, who wrote the book that triggered this whole story and rumination that the Nolan brothers embarked on. As far as TARS and CASE go, if it was ever explained, I wasn’t there.

CS: Was there a specific moment you can point to when you realized that TARS was really clicking for you?

Irwin: There were a few different times in this shed in Burbank. Sometimes you’d start to feel that you really were moving as an automated machine would. It ceased to be a machine that I’d push around wondering what I was doing there and started to be a real piece of military hardware. Then there were some times in Iceland where I realized, “Wow, this is really how this machine would traverse the ice.” Then, sometimes, I’d be on the other side. Normally, they’ve put me behind the machine or they’d have Mark Fichera, the stunt guy who’s much stronger than me, behind the machine. But if they needed to see TARS walking away from camera, I’d be on the other side. There were a couple of times when I saw Cooper (as I call him. He ceased to be Matthew to me pretty quickly) shoot TARS a grin. It was then that I realized, “Oh! It’s a buddy movie with two military officers relating to each other on a mission!” It’s a pretty great feeling when you realize that, through puppetry, you’ve created an actual character.

CS: There’s something neat about TARS in that he seems like he should be the straight man, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Irwin: He’s got a streak of sarcasm that I can only thank the writer for. The vocal part, though, we really didn’t spend any time on at all. At one point, Chris said to me in the shed, “By the way, have you thought about the voice?” I said, “I think he sounds like an experienced military guy.” That’s as much character time we spent on the actual voice. I spent more time on how CASE talked. I did both voices initially and then another actor took on the CASE voice in the final cut. In shooting the scenes, though, I wanted to give both TARS and CASE different personalities. You can get really lost in these things.

CS: Can you tell me a little bit about what went into shooting the tesseract scene?

Irwin: The tesseract scenes came up late. We were getting very close to being finished and were all pretty tired. We had been to Canada and Iceland for a couple of weeks and in a lot of studio lot spaces. But that crucial part had still yet to be filmed where Cooper finds the past and the specific moment that he needs in this vast “three dimensional version of a four dimensional reality,” if I have the right term. The design geniuses built this incredible set and then, with CG, would augment out to infinity. Matthew and our various stunt players would spend hours hanging from harnesses. I was on an audio feed. “Hey, Cooper. How’s it going?” “Pretty good, TARS. But I’d ike to get out of here. When’s lunch?” That’s the old movie question. “When’s lunch?” There was one point where Matthew had a really demanding, crucial scene and he did it beautifully, hanging upside down. He walked by me and goes, “Thanks, Bill.” It was very moving, because he’s such a classy guy and he’s saying this while in pain. He’s just shot this huge scene and he’s got another coming up in 20 minutes. But I remember thinking, “Bill? Who’s Bill?” He always called me TARS or Slick. That was a moment that I really remember. Making the movie was a mix of really exciting actor moments mixed with very long moments of being excruciatingly cramped. Hours of boredom, having to be ready at the drop of a hat. It was a lot like flying a spacecraft. Moments of exhilaration combined with times where’ you’re just trying to hang in there and keep your concentration.

CS: Is it a relief to finally have the movie out there and be able to talk about it?

Irwin: Yes! It’s a relief that these bonus features exist on the Blu-ray and DVD, because most people quite naturally assume it was a voiceover gig. It has been hard to explain exactly what went into. Now these bonus features go into everything. Not just TARS but every aspect. It’s great for people who are not just interested in the movie but in movie making. There are things were I was actually there and didn’t understand that that’s how they did that or what they were thinking when they built this.

Interstellar hits Blu-ray and DVD on March 31.