Interview | Toby Kebbel on Durotan, Thrall and ‘Warcraft’
Playing one legendary character in the world of Warcraft isn’t enough for actor Toby Kebbell. The star of Duncan Jones’s fantasy epic plays the orc leader Durotan in the new summer blockbuster, and if he has his way, he’ll play Durotan’s son – Thrall – in the sequel.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Toby Kebbell is quick to remind us that no conversations have taken place yet, nor has a script for Warcraft 2 been written, but he has put a lot of thought into how he’d play yet another iconic Warcraft character in a motion picture follow-up… if it happens, and if he passes the audition.
I sat down with Toby Kebbell at the Warcraft junket at Universal Studios last month, surrounded by swords and armor, and making smalltalk about a recent leg injury that I sustained. That’s where our conversation picks up, with Kebbell revealing an unfortunate injury of his own…
Toby Kebbell: I broke my elbow playing Koba [in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes].
Crave: Did you?!
Yeah, I got a thing called an ulna fracture, which pulls your bone apart and dislocated my shoulder. So it was pretty bad.
Did you make a full recovery?
I went back to work the next day and I never will make a full recovery, because my bone is now always out. I can’t straighten my arm.
It’s because you made that choice to go back to work? You didn’t recuperate?
Yeah, because the surgery also is something that they shave the bone in order to go back in, but that can cause bone spurs which can be massive surgeries later on. So yeah, I passed up, I passed up that. Which meant I couldn’t earn millions of dollars from workers comp but that’s not important. [Laughs.]
“One of the stunt guys I wanted to choke to death because he decided to do a limp that was dreadful. I was like, ‘Please don’t do that!'”
You say that now. There will come a day.
When you were playing Koba had you done motion capture before, or was that your first taste of it?
I had been asked to do some facial recognition for something that I could never, ever let you know what it was. But that was all it was. And then through that, then Koba came to be. “Can you play the full character,” you know?
I have to ask: is it a government secret, that you can’t let me know what it was?
Yes, yes, I played the man on the moon. [Laughs.] No, it’s just something that it’s not… sometimes you help people out because they’re kind and they ask you to, sometimes you have to cover up someone’s bad work and I wouldn’t like to shame anyone.
No, no, I wouldn’t want you to. But there had to be a follow-up question.
So once you did Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and you stole the movie, now you’re the motion capture guy.
Only if Andy [Serkis] steps away. Only if Andy steps down from his…
You’re the archduke of motion capture.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly! The duchy!
You went back and now you’re co-starring in this giant movie, it’s motion capture. Was Doctor Doom a motion capture bit at the end, or was that just a costume?
Doom was a costume and actually it tended to be someone else. They did a lot of reshoots for what they wanted Doom to move like, and unfortunately I wasn’t available. I was off shooting another project and so Doom, as me, is lying on the bed, walking down the corridor, killing the doctor and that’s pretty much me as Doom. Everything else unfortunately is stunt guys, and one of the stunt guys I wanted to choke to death because he decided to do a limp that was dreadful. I was like, “Please don’t do that!”
And now if there’s a sequel you’re stuck with a limp.
How do you start with something like Durotan? What was the first bit, at least physically for example?
The first bit is working with Terry Notary, and that is an orc camp, which is the same thing I did with playing an ape. So he does the basics. So we all had a model of Blackhand, which is Clancy Brown’s character, and you stand there in the full suit with the full motion-capture [set-up], and you’re trying to make Blackhand move authentically.
So there’s a terminology, “selling out.” It’s not the same as selling out with your career, but “selling out” as in your character is not being true, because you can’t fake it with the computer. The computer can only pick up exactly what you did. So really what you always want to do is have a very conscious performance. So you take that very conscious performance and at home you pour your cereal like Durotan, and you eat your breakfast that way, and sit, and try to move at a much slower eye movement. So it’s constant, so it’s bled into my system, so that I can come on and do a less mannered performance, hopefully. Something with nuance.
“I wanted to make Durotan as thoughtful as I possibly could and I hope that came across…”
What is that at home, though? When you have a computer there, you have a sense of what you’re doing. At home is it just compensating for taking up more space, or…?
Well, because when you’ve got the computer there you start to realize, okay, so when Durotan walks he doesn’t lift knee walk. When Durotan walks he lifts his hips, so that’s that muscle there. Okay, I’ve got to get that to do that, to bend, to step, and to stand he catches it with the back of his buttocks and the small of his back. So at home you’re just trying to walk like you’re walking through molasses, kind of deal. You’re just trying to get the muscle memory, like you know, playing the piano or driving a car. It’s the muscle memory you’re trying to get, to remove the over-mannered performance.
Is it purely just trying to make sure that what Durotan looks like physically makes sense? Or is there something more than that? Is there a culture or an attitude? Is that as important?
Those things are very important. You’re really trying to make sure that the footage is absolutely accurate and you’re not having an orc walking weird, or walking too casually. But at the same time what was going into Durotan was how thoughtful he was. What position he is in life.
Durotan ten years ago wasn’t expecting a child, wasn’t married to Draka. Now he’s married, he’s expecting a child, his land is very dilapidated. It’s dying. We come up to this place and there’s this poisoned Fel, so I wanted to make Durotan as thoughtful as I possibly could and I hope that came across, that he’s someone pondering something deep and not necessarily troubling, but just something that he has to fathom. That’s his new mission in life.
There’s a scene where you’re holding Thrall, but he’s just in one hand. How do you do that scene? That’s something you could probably never do in real life. Were you holding a basketball there?
No, we did different things. So we had something that wriggled, [like] a puppy wriggles around and what that would be like, and then how even… Go’el, as we name him. Durotan and Draka name him Go’el. He becomes Thrall through the human… you know the game, you know the situation…
It’s not a spoiler. People know it.
It’s not, exactly. It’s not a spoiler at all. Who he becomes is all-important. So you’re holding a dolly. Basically when we’re doing a scene, because it’s over and over and we’re doing a night shoot, we’re holding a dolly. But we wanted to make sure, is there anything in the arm? Is there anything we needed to be aware of? Is there a wriggle? And they ended up making Go’el, Thrall, a very light child. A very breezy, sweet beast. No, but for the weight I had twelve pounds in my hand, constantly.
“All the bits that seem difficult, the fight sequences, they’re the most fun and the days where time flies by.”
From the audience’s perspective, oftentimes the things that we think of as really, really difficult might not be that difficult on set. Like, what was a scene that was really complicated, from your perspective? As an actor, a motion-capture actor, or just the writing…?
A really difficult scene was a scene we had, me and Paula [Patton] and Lothar and King Llane are there. We had to do a full speech in orcish, with a translation in English. So I had to speak in orcish and find the intonation of what I’m trying to say. She had to translate it into English. We were doing this spin round, so at certain points I did the whole thing in English, I did the whole thing in the orcish language, and she did the same so that they could choose where they would do the translation, where they would do the switch.
That actually, bizarrely, is a very long process. By the time they were turned round on me, King Llane and Lothar they couldn’t wear their armor anymore. [Laughs.] It was heavy! They were in P.J.’s. So everyone was standing around in P.J.’s basically, long johns, doing the scene. So that was an extremely long and tiring day.
Yeah, all the bits that seem difficult, the fight sequences, they’re the most fun and the days where time flies by. You know, it’s like having any job. The bits you enjoy, time flies. The bits that are tricky, that are exposing, they drag.
I imagine that being a motion-capture actor might be a bit like being an actor on Star Trek. As long as you’re under makeup, you can come back and play someone else.
One hundred percent. Go’el, possibly, has to be played by somebody [in the sequel]. That’s my ambition, is to come back. I want to audition to play Thrall, to play Go’el.
Do you think you’ll really have to audition? Do you think they’ll make you go through a whole rigmarole?
Yeah, I do, because the Blizzard team, Legendary, everybody realizes I’m capable of doing the job, but am I the right person? And unfortunately that’s necessary. It’s an upset for fans if they’re like, “Oh!”
And I’m telling you that, and that’s not even been a conversation that anyone’s had apart from me, in my head. [Laughs.] I haven’t discussed that with Duncan [Jones]. There’s not even a sequel script been prepared. I, at this point, would have to audition. Absolutely. But I think it could be nice to give the nuance of Durotan and the son he didn’t know.
“That’s my ambition, is to come back. I want to audition to play Thrall, to play Go’el.”
In your head, how is Thrall different, physically? How would you play Thrall?
Well, Thrall is incredibly different in the sense that… I mean, Thrall is the character that takes us all, any player, all the way through. And so Thrall is that person who’s thrown into the pit. He’s basically a slave. The balance shifts between me being [Durotan], Orgrim’s go-to guy, his mentor, his teacher, to [Orgrim] being that person for Thrall. So that would be a nice, interesting shift to play with Rob [Kazinsky], to shift those powers and play that situation.
But I think he’s much wilder. He’s much less… there’s moments, hopefully if we’re telling a film, there’s moments where his father would shine through. It’s a nature/nurture type deal. His nurture has been trashed around by the humans, given the name “Thrall,” that kind of deal.
At what point while you were making this movie did you realize that Durotan is going to be a sex symbol?
[Laughs.] Never. Not at any point.
Leaving the theater, everyone was just like, “I kinda wanna make out with that orc.”
You know, Draka turned out beautiful too! I really think… we were all talking about Paula and how attractive she was, but I thought Draka was beautiful when I saw her. I was like, yeah, she’s striking and beautiful. She’s kind of got a real viciousness about her. So it would be nice as well, with Thrall, if they added some of that. If they added some of the mother in there. Especially in his features, more than Durotan.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.