STAND IN FOR LAURENCE FISHBURNE
MATRIX: How long have you been on the production?
MICHAEL: I’ve probably worked about 200 shoot days, which is quite a long time. It’s been quite a good adventure as well. I have been in the acting industry for quite some time doing a little bit of commercial work, but I’ve been looking to break in for quite sometime.
MATRIX: Do you remember how you first got contacted to be involved?
MICHAEL: Basically, I looked over an actor’s website and I was fortunate enough to be chosen out of 100 other guys who were very similar in shape and size. I met with the Directors [Larry & Andy Wachowski] on my first day, which was very overwhelming, but a great experience: I walked onto a massive set feeling like I was in Hollywood, and I met these two really interesting looking guys who looked me up and down and said, “Let’s give him a shot, and when Laurence [Fishburne, Morpheus] comes in on Monday, we’ll get them to meet up.”
MATRIX: What was it like meeting Laurence for the first time?
MICHAEL: Meeting Laurence for the first time was a little bit overwhelming for me as well, but I was ready to work with him as I really respect his work and have been watching it closely. I looked forward to the opportunity to work with him, and I also figured I’d be elevated by the company I kept; that working with him would make me a better actor.
MATRIX: Has your acting ability improved in the time you’ve been on the production?
MICHAEL: Definitely, I have great confidence now. A young actor in Sydney doesn’t get many opportunities, but then all of a sudden this big circus comes to town and it’s called THE MATRIX, and it gives young guys a chance, and guys on the fringe an opportunity. I was really fortunate to get my shot that way.
MATRIX: Could you give an idea as to what a Stand-In does.
MICHAEL: Being a Stand-In is a great opportunity because the Directors know you on a first name basis and they ask you to do a range of tasks, so in that regard you’re working closely with the Directors, which is great. However, the main role for Stand-Ins is to give the Lighting Department a chance to light around you, and to get the Director of Photography to look at what lighting they’re going to use and to allow the actor more rehearsal time back in his van before he comes out to do his work. It also gives the Camera Department an idea of when they were going to pan in and pull back. On a daily basis I would find that I would walk down corridors, I would hit marks, I would stand in certain positions, and I would hold certain poses and frames a lot like the actor was going to do himself. Then the actor would come in and film would roll.
MATRIX: Do you have the opportunity to watch the scenes you stand-in for be shot?
MICHAEL: Yes, that was the great thing about being a Stand-In. You may have to hit a mark for the 1st Assistant Director, just to give him an idea of when the actor is going to stop on a spot and they’ll check the lighting on that, but when the actor comes in you have the opportunity to step back and watch him work. You had your own interpretation of how things were going to go and then you’d see the big guys come out, which was fantastic.
If you want to start in acting I suggest that a Stand-In role is much better than an extra role. In an extra role you don’t get as many opportunities to work with the director at close hand, if any, and you won’t get as many opportunities to eat with the great people you’re working with, like the crew. I’ve found that when you work on these types of films, everybody is pretty much the best at what they do in every department, especially on a film this size. So if you’re a Stand-In and you get the opportunity to talk and meet with those people day by day, and get to know them and work with them, that’s a fantastic opportunity.
MATRIX: Did you find yourself saying Morpheus’s lines?
MICHAEL: There were times when one of the actors was working on the Second Unit and couldn’t be available for First Unit rehearsal, and it was a point of view shot, so sometimes I delivered those lines. That was another great opportunity for a young guy coming through learning the ropes, the guys you’re working with, like the Brothers, whatever they’re doing, they pull you in and talk to you on a first name basis. They’re very understanding guys; they’d ask me if I could do something and suggest I give it a shot. It was such a great experience working with those guys in that regard.
I’d say the hardest days in regards to difficult set ups were when I would have to hold a pose. Laurence would be shooting out a car window, and we’d have to get the right shot because that would be superimposed back onto film that had already been shot out in San Francisco. I would have to hold my body with a gun pose out the side of a window for possibly 15 to 20 to 45 minutes on end, which was very hard, particularly sweating under the heat of the lights.
My particular thing was that I liked to do the whole Morpheus thing. I was a Stand-In and Body Double, but I used to play the whole Morpheus thing in my head and I used to watch it closely. When saying lines came on board, it was just another thing that I wanted to do so I put my hand up. James McTeigue, the 1st Assistant Director, would usually have been the one to do it, but it was something I wanted to sink my teeth into. After 40 or 50 shoot days, here I am raising my hand saying, let me act some lines in this major Hollywood production film. Laurence had a lot to do with giving me that self-belief.
One scene where I remember doing that was when Monica Bellucci [Persephone] was on the lounge with Christopher Lambert [Merovingian] and I stood in and delivered Morpheus’s lines to Monica. That allowed Laurence to go back to his trailer and do things he needed to have done and not come back onto set while they’re doing their 5 or 6 takes each.
If I could put my hand up to do any job on this film, I’d do it! There were times where we were lifting things on set and the Directors themselves, Larry and Andy, would lift things; if someone needed something moved they would get their hands dirty. I’d run over and give a hand and there’d also be Bill Pope, the Director of Photography and James McTeigue. Everybody had this unbelievable passion to see this film finished; it was amazing.
MATRIX: Was it mandatory for a Stand-In to read the scripts?
MICHAEL: No, it wasn’t a necessity. We get sides on a daily basis, depending how keen we are as individuals. There were 3 of us Stand-Ins who were actually booked full time, which gave us a bit more passion within itself to get highly involved, to read the script and find out what was going on day to day; where the characters are going and how people are dealing with the fact that their characters are changing.
I have not read the script in total, but from what I have read of the script for my scenes and the sides I read day by day, I marveled that the Directors know exactly how it’s supposed to look from that dialogue. There were times when we’d go into a blank studio space and there’d be no set or anything, just myself, another stand in, James McTeigue, someone on the cable and the two Directors. They would build a scene up with nothing around, and I mean absolutely nothing, and they would play the heroes, they’d play the villains, they’d play everyone, giving us this image that we had to take away to location because maybe they weren’t coming on location for that day. They could put you into a blank room and the image would be in your head within two or three minutes – how exactly we’re going to be shooting this and how it’s going to look – they were just so good at portraying the story, it was amazing.
MATRIX: In the instance where you fed Morpheus’s lines to Monica Bellucci, had you seen Laurence do the read already?
MICHAEL: Yes, I tried to mimic his style of read and that tone to the best of my ability, which was like a type training itself.
MATRIX: Was there ever an instance where you fed a line you hadn’t heard Laurence deliver?
MICHAEL: Before he’d come out onto set I’d have fun with the lines, doing them myself. After a time I felt comfortable doing that, although still a lot of my work was basically mimicked off of what Laurence was doing. When I got my own role in the film, that’s when I pulled myself away from that and put my own character into the role of Zion Controller.
MATRIX: As a Stand-In, is it necessary to wear a costume?
MICHAEL: As a Stand-In you only wear part costume, so maybe the top half of your costume that is relevant to the lighting. As a Body Double you’re in a complete outfit exactly as the actor would wear; you wear everything down to the shoes that the actor wears.
MATRIX: Describe the distinction between Body Double and Stand-In.
MICHAEL: What you do as a Body Double depends on how close to the actor you really are. If you’re a spitting double, then obviously you can do a lot more work for the actor, giving him more time out of it, but if you have some attributes that are the same they may choose to use you for those, such as hands. I’ve body doubled all through the film as hands, as boots, and over the shoulder for Morpheus. You may think it is Laurence’s shoulder in the film, but we’d use my shoulder, my back of the head and my above the head in the shot. So, as a Body Double you are physically in the film and you actually take on the character of who you’re doubling to the best of your ability; as a Stand-In you work behind the scenes and are part of the crew.
The two most important things for a Stand-In would probably be his height and complexion. It’s got a lot to do with the dolly, so we know when the camera is going to start and when it’s going to stop so the actor will be hitting marks and the Stand-In will be hitting marks for the actor. As a Body Double you actually need to have facial features that are the same or body features that are same.
MATRIX: Is it unique to both Stand-In and Body Double for a character?
MICHAEL: I was fortunate enough to Body Double for several actors: Chris Kirby [Mauser], Don Batte [Vector], and Harry Lennix [Commander Lock], I’m quite versatile in that regard. I also stood in for those characters as well, which was my choice because I really wanted to learn from those guys.
MATRIX: How did the directing go in regards to the body doubling?
MICHAEL: A lot of times I’d be sitting in cockpits. For instance, Harry Lennix had a lot of work going on in the Main Unit and he had to get over to Second Unit for those guys to shoot him coming through a door. They couldn’t get him from one location over to the other in time without disturbing the flow of the other actors and the whole production. So they called in a Body Double, someone who looks very similar and from a distance you would believe is Harry Lennix; in this instance, it was me. I went to the Second Unit and spent the day knocking on a door hand doubling, which allowed Harry to stay on the Main Unit set and shoot what he was shooting. So he was in two places at the one time; what could be better than that!
MATRIX: How did your acting role in the film come about?
MICHAEL: I feel that it came about from working with really good people. I knew that if I was part of a good project and if I worked hard, then maybe I’d be given a great opportunity. Day by day my fingers were crossed, and my hard work was recognized. The role was actually Zion Controller in the Command Center [in RELOADED], and I was fortunate enough to have a couple of lines. It is in a part of the film that is quite intense, so I’m sure the audience will like those scenes. I’m basically monitoring the Nebuchadnezzar, which is one of our vessels and I’m looking from cargo bay to cargo bay to find it, and there are a few other Commanders delivering lines around me.
What was great was that I was working with the guys for so long that I was really confident by the time my time came around, and I could see the Directors believed in me. I feel good about that and I’m looking forward to doing more shots in the future.
It was my dream to have the Directors speak to me in any capacity in regards to the film, and towards acting especially! When my scene came up I had my own idea of how I was going to do it, but when the Brothers came to set they gave that added direction. After working there for 200 days, I knew everybody I was working with, and I had people I worked with for over 100 shoot days patting me on the back saying congratulations. I had been given the opportunity to be instructed by the people I had been looking up to for over 100 days and my dreams came true.
MATRIX: What were Larry and Andy’s directions to you?
MICHAEL: They told me I hear this information coming over the line, and I touch my headset and look to my screens; they actually acted it out for me as they were directing. They gave me a visual of what the scene was going to be like, as well as a verbal, so it was a lot easier to nail. I have watched them work with Laurence, with Monica, and I have watched them work with Keanu and with Carrie-Anne [Moss, Trinity]. I also watched them work with a boxer called Roy Jones Jr. [Ballard] who didn’t have much acting experience. I watched them take him through a progression – a series – of acting until they found the right one, the one that hit them in the back of the mind and said that’s the one we want to use.
MATRIX: Do you find the Directors’ approach to seasoned and less seasoned actors the same?
MICHAEL: Yes, I think Larry and Andy have a pretty standard approach in how they do things with the actors; they go in with an approach in mind that morning. When I was working with the actors there were a few American actors and a lot of Australian actors, so the approach was different on that day; it was a laid back approach. They understood that we were less experienced so they’d decided to work through it and try the scene in a couple of different ways. What I find that they do that is really important is to walk and talk you through things. They don’t point a finger and say they want it done like this, we’re going back to our chair, get it right or we’re coming back down here to give you a hard time. It was more like they made suggestions so there was no pressure on you and you automatically feel like you could do what they ask.
With the American actors they’re really comfortable with each other, so there’d be an edge of comedy to some of those scenes. The Directors have a really relaxed outlook. I guess the key to Larry and Andy is the way they bond together as well; they don’t have to ask each other what they want, they know what they want. They sort of look at each other and go, “Yeah, why not,” and they go with it. I think that’s really special and it helps a lot for actors to see two minds working together as one as opposed to two separate minds jostling; you know you’re working in great company.
MATRIX: In THE MATRIX there are no nationalities; how hard was it to perfect the neutral accent?
MICHAEL: I didn’t get as many opportunities to study it as I would have liked, but working with it has allowed me to see that I can do it. I’d like a lot more work, and I think a lot more of work will come with more of these neutral accents. It was really challenging to have a lot going on around you and to keep this neutral accent; but it being challenging made it great as well. I was fortunate enough to work with a Dialect Coach, and I guess a lot of actors here on the film were fortunate enough to use him as well. We went over a few different ways to do things, and he basically helped me get a fantastic accent and I perfected it with practice.
We had to give really deadpan acting as well, we were pushing that very bland response to everything, and I know the Directors are the masters at that. I hope that this style of acting is something that’s pushing forward into the future, like science fiction style acting that’s very straight. They chose great actors from all around; I was fortunate enough to work with Rupert Reid [Lock’s Lieutenant] and Josephine Byrnes [Zion Virtual Control Operator], who do a lot of work for the Sydney Theatre Company and are very talented. The Brothers made great casting decisions.
MATRIX: What made you decide to get into acting?
MICHAEL: I was living out in Maroubra [a Sydney suburb] and this new show came into town by this gentleman, Ben Gannon. I had just finished school and I didn’t know what I wanted to do and they asked if I wanted to be an extra on their television show, Heartbreak High. It was actually set in the building that I studied in, so it was in my old high school. I decided, why not! So I found myself doing a lot of what I’m doing here in the Matrix, filling in. I worked my way up again and I got some lines, then I started joining bands and performing live in clubs and doing commercials and bits and pieces. I have an extremely high passion for acting; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I find jumping on the stage in front of 5,000 people gives you the same rush as jumping behind the camera and pumping out a few scenes.
MATRIX: Laurence Fishburne has been acting for a long time; what have you learned from watching him?
MICHAEL: I took this job basically because of Laurence Fishburne; I’ve been watching his work for many years. An opportunity to be a Stand-In or double for him was what I was looking to do when I came onto the film, and he had no hesitation meeting with me and getting to know me, which I found very nice. What I learned from Laurence Fishburne was presence – walking onto the set you can feel he is there – he has a great presence. He also holds himself and carries himself in a way that inspired me daily. As far as acting goes, what I learned in my time with Laurence Fishburne was to be yourself, because he certainly is; he is himself every day. He’s got great experience and a great personality. I was very emotional the day he left because I felt like a principal person in my life, a big role model, had stepped away.
Growing up watching Laurence, I’d always been a big fan of his work, and I always found him to be a role model for young black guys and young people in general. When Laurence Fishburne is in your presence, you feel special, and to be able to give that to other people was what I wanted to learn.
He has such a great control over his voice; the Brothers on many occasions asked him to do a series of lines and he could deliver one line in nine different ways. My biggest question was how could you choose which one to go with! I could never, they were all so great, and so perfect to me… and that’s where the Directors were so great, they have that ability to find the best of the best.
MATRIX: There have been 140+ sets on these films; which one most impressed you when you walked onto it?
MICHAEL: There was this time I walked onto a set in one of our biggest stages – Stage one – and there was water everywhere, and there were guys walking around in trench coats wearing gumboots [rubber boots]. As I walked around the corner I saw a magnificent, huge city street [Matrix City Street] had been built and it had rain pouring down and lightning flashing. It was like you were in a storm in the middle of Sydney in the middle of a studio; it was just fantastic. The Agent Smiths were so lifelike that every time you walked by them they gave you a bit of a scare! Hugo [Weaving, Agent Smith] can be quite scary when he gets into his mode and starts delivering his lines.
One of my favorite sets, a Zion set, was Goodnight Zion, which was tiered up to 4 or 5 levels; it was just massive. It was like the front of a building, so you could walk around the front of it and along the side of it, but there was nothing in the back. From the front you could have sworn you were going to walk into this massive tiered building.
We also had things like cockpits that we’d sit in. The Logos Cockpit sat on a gimbal with two compression pumps and was able to travel from extreme left to extreme right in 7 seconds. As a Stand-In I’d sit in it, and the Jada Pinkett Smith [Niobe] Stand-In would sit in it, and we’d be thrown forward and backward in this cockpit up in the air in the studio. We’d deliver the lines and do our best to help everybody get this image through. Basically it was like an amusement park ride times ten, I actually enjoyed going on it after a while, it was quite good fun. They’d wheel in these massive stairs alongside it, we’d climb up and into it, and before they operated it warnings would go out around the stage that no one was allowed to go within 10 meters [33 feet] of it. Then they’d start throwing us left to right and forwards and backwards. Safety guys were always around us so it was very safe; safety was always the priority of everyone.
We did a lot of location work as well – you think palm trees and sunshine for location work, but we went 7 stories down into the ground and had some car chase scenes that we did in a parking building in the middle of Sydney. One set was just doors everywhere [Industrial Hallway] and from the outside you couldn’t tell what was going on, but as soon as you were on set it was amazing. I really have to commend the guys who built those sets because they were fantastic.
MATRIX: Did the sets help give you a sense of character?
MICHAEL: Yes, it’s so much easier to act when you’re in a good quality wardrobe and you’re in a good quality environment, where the set is designed realistically.
MATRIX: Thanks very much Michael.
Interview by REDPILL