Aaron: So, it’s not always doom and gloom and serious inside that suit though. You got suited up to play some soccer alongside Ian Feuer in AvP Requiem were you also inside the suit for the Pepsi ad for Alien 3 or those ones for AvP?
Tom: Yeah, that was really cool. It was Joe Pitka. Like he was a huge name in commercials. We went over to his office to meet him, and he had these gigantic like shelves full of Clio awards and he’s an amazing guy. That was the person we had done a couple other commercials with him afterwards. We did this Pepsi commercial with a snowman. It comes in out of the cold and melts away to reveal a kid inside and that was me in the snowman suit. So, at the time I could crouch down but yeah, all that peripheral stuff.
When we did the Pepsi ad, we thought “Oh man, we’re so young at the time. Is 20th Century Fox gonna get angry at us? Should we check with them?” You realize that all these people paid licensing to do this. That was really cool. The only thing we haven’t done… I’m still trying to promote that Sigourney and I do a small tour of the show Love Letters where she dresses as Ripley, and I dress as an alien. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the show. It’s just two actors sitting on either side of the table reading these love letters they gave each other in their youth, and I thought “Wow, could you just draw in crowds.”
Adam: You’ve had a history of performing as a gorilla on several occasions. I think with the alien it’s been one of your most recurring roles and after the DNA reflex was introduced in Alien 3 with the xenomorph taking on characteristics of its host, we saw that some of the toys, the comic books, the video games played around with this concept and one of the hybrids introduced was actually a Gorilla Alien.
I’m curious as to your thoughts on this concept like from a performance perspective. Would you like to see more animal-born xenomorphs and like combining your gorilla and alien performance be something you’d ever want to do?
Tom: When I saw the aliens gorilla hybrid, I thought oh please 20th Century Fox, please move this into the next movie. To me, it’s like combining my two favorite things right. Gorilla and an alien. I thought that’s the way to go because I remember when the first movie came out, I wasn’t even in the movie business. I was still living back home and went and saw it in the theater. The more and more you see of the alien, up to the point where the illusion is blown when the stuntman and the alien suit comes out and gets fired out of the rockets.
You could tell it’s a guy in a suit but before that I’ve seen all these kind of details. It looks very mechanical and, in my mind, I thought “Oh it must be because that organism when it got out in the ship, when it grew in its environment, it took on things of its own environment like some kind of a weird… but natural camouflaging.
I carried that thought with me for a while and when I finally saw those other toys come out, I thought “Oh maybe this bridges that gap where you have this alien this Chestburster and you pack it up against the spaceship. You come back to it after a few days or weeks or whatever. It looks like that alien where you throw it in a refrigerator and it comes out in a couple of weeks looking like a hamburger.” I don’t know but I just love the idea that it would take on its own environment as a physical way to disguise itself.
Adam: In Alien 3 and then continuing into Alien Resurrection, the xenomorphs had digitigrades or triple jointed legs. They’ve been portrayed in the films with both this configuration as well as a plantigrade design. I would imagine this leg design makes it more difficult because you have less that you can show in the suit, correct?
Tom: Yeah, it’s more of a locomotion through the set. When going back to Pumpkinhead. The Pumpkinhead creature had those… I don’t think of them as backwards… I know you’d say backwards jointed legs but really what they are is… the leg is such that the pad of the hand if you think of this is the pad of my toes right. This is my heel, and you walk like this as a plantigrade. Instead of walking on this. This being your toes and this being your ankle but instead of walking on this now, you’re up like this so it extends this. Then it goes up to the knee and then it goes up to the hip and usually what you see is, it looks like a backwards leg unless you know what you’re looking at. But anyway long way of saying, we did try it on Pumpkinhead.
We extended the joint to go down to the toes and they were very heavy steel struts so I could put my weight on them. So they’re very difficult to move and I couldn’t really find the balance, so we hung a cord up from a gantry outdoors. At least I was able to stand up and do a couple poses in a few steps. When we started Alien 3, we were working with Steve Norrington and some of the guys over in in the UK. He was trying to build something like a two-piece fiberglass thing that would lock around my thigh and support my whole lower leg with a metallic outer… like a strut and find out how small we could keep them.
So, the suit wouldn’t reveal them, and I remember being able to walk but it was very hard to learn to balance. I don’t remember how much time we had but I just thought “Boy this is really going to slow down filming if we try to do too much with this.” So, we didn’t push it because by then Fincher had also made his mind up that he wanted to really engage in this rod puppetry thing which has its ups and downs. I think there’s more ups to it than people realize but anyway we haven’t ever done it.
I’m able to stand on some extensions. We did some Wolfman leg extensions for The Vampire’s Assistant and they’re not too bad. I can walk and keep them balanced but I know there’s a company who does those digital legs and seen great stuff on video. It’s a lot to learn and then you also have to be able to hide all of that rigging. No matter how sleek it is, it still kind of gives it away if you’re not careful.
Adam: So, I guess it would be possible given the work of Pumpkinhead and werewolves to do that kind design practically but it’s typically just more straightforward to do that CG when you’re seeing the full alien or the lower half of the alien.
Tom: Well, honestly what I would do if I was directing Pumpkinhead, I would choose my battles. I’d go through it, and we work out those extensions or we have a cable and stuff. For the rest of it, I would say take off the leg extension, put the guy up on a gantry out of shot, just shoot him from the hips up or whatever. That way you’re taking advantage of the best ways of doing each of those two versions instead of trying to combine them.
Adam: So, Alien Covenant featured the first time a xenomorph in one of the movies was entirely computer generated on screen. Odd Studio created an alien suit that was on the set for lighting reference and performance as well as a larger puppet rig that rested on the actor’s upper body.
Looking at some of the comments on behind-the-scenes photos on reddit I noticed several of them lamenting that these effects were never seen in the film and instead replaced entirely with CGI. With alien specifically, do you think that there will be always something missing without the man in the suit or practical puppeteered effect making its way on screen regardless of how good motion capture or CGI gets?
Tom: Well, I think so. It’s that hanging question that you just said at the end. How much better is CGI gonna get because if you watch a movie where the CGI was really lavished on the production right like Jurassic Park or like a Peter Jackson’s King Kong. All that stuff. I think all that stuff holds up today I think the Jurassic Park example is more telling because it’s got the balance between digital and the Stan Winston animatronic dinosaurs. Peter Jackson’s was all non-practical, but it also depends on the size of the budget and what you can afford to do.
I think there’s still something that’s very provocative about it – the man in the suit kind of thing. I don’t know if that’s the right word. There’s something that is very settling. It just seems more real. Practical things still have an edge to them that I think is more real but there’s times where CGI allows you to do footage and scenes that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do. So, I was surprised at that picture. I think that’s Javier Botet. Is that right?
That’s a brilliant way to do it. If you have the VFX team that’s willing to go in there and get rid of all that green but we’ve tried things like that. At what point, does it become so prohibitive because if Javier is walking towards Cameron, doing his alien thing or whatever. He turns this way, now all of a sudden you’re seeing green and you’re seeing an alien out here and how do you bridge all of that. It was beautiful work. Odd Studios – just beautiful work. I wish I would have seen that in motion if it’s just built for a straight coming at your view then so be it. Get your three or four or five shots the best way you can out of it.
Aaron: How important do you think the actual reference performances for that kind of thing as well? I mean because didn’t you reference footage for the rod puppet for Alien 3 as well if I remember rightly?
Tom: Oh yeah. When Sigourney is about to be trapped in the lead mold and they’re trying to trap the alien and the alien runs across the open track behind them, Fincher used me as reference. I’m just in the leg and no extensions and the tail and the suit and everything and the head and so he said, “Put your head down.” So, the others had to stop. I did that.
The first thing I did, I just ran headlong into the wall, so I heard all the visual effects people got a kick out of watching that over and over and over but yeah, I think the reference stuff is very good. I think motion capture suits are amazing. I was working on a show where there was a lot of motion capture. I was just doing some peripheral prop stuff that Andy Serkis was involved, directing this stuff. It’s really intriguing to be able to push that as far as they’re able to push it.
Aaron: So, there are things on the horizon right now when it comes to Alien as a franchise so looking to the future, we’ve got to ask. It’s been since 2007 since you last got inside an alien suit. Would you like to get back in there? Would you like to be covered in water and weighed down and get back on the screen again to be an alien?
Tom: Wow, how can I say no to that. I don’t know. I would do gorilla stuff again… I would probably rather do that. It’s actually progressing to the point where I just want to act now. I just want to go in. I’m going to come up with a character, work in a scene with other actors. I think that would be fun. I just think that would be very artistically fulfilling. Now I’m needing to wear a suit, an animatronic head is frustrating. The more I learn about acting, the more I want to do it to be able to do body stuff but no, it’s for other people doing the face. I’ve done some parts that are just right for being cut out of movies when a movie runs a few minutes too long.
The gorilla stuff I would love. I loved doing Zookeeper because it was such an extended character, a second featured character behind Kevin and I think that something about that allowed me to… even though people were operating my face, it allowed me to do so much body stuff. Alec was cracking up. He said “Oh my god. You have such great comedy chops. We have to find a way to use them.” But it’s not up to us. Somebody has to come to us and say that.
Aaron: Okay so that’s actually all of our questions but before we go, there were a couple specifically from members of our community who wanted to ask you some stuff. So, Caleb asks other than just the demands on the script, what sort of ingredients go into creating a performance for you? Do you have like a process that you like to do to help you discover the character? Like certain animal moves or is it a combination of the way the creature is written plus what the suit actually allows?
Tom: It first depends on what the character is. When I started doing gorilla stuff, I was studying as much videos I could find, and I went down to the L.A. Zoo a number of times and wanting to make that authentic. With the alien, it touched on us a little bit where it is about trying to think of some kind of a move that doesn’t reveal it’s a man in a suit.
So, I will try not to do things like stretching my arms out, being able to see the symmetry of the body. It’s more about trying to hide my proportions inside a suit and I love working with the environment. If part of me could be obscured down in this niche or over there or something, I think that’s a much better opportunity to present the creature character without showing that there’s a man inside.
Adam: Just curious with your performance of the dog alien and Alien 3 compared to the warrior alien in subsequent films, you played the alien. Did you play the alien any differently from based on like “Oh this one came from a dog. Maybe this one’s more feral. Maybe this one’s more animalistic or this one came from a person. This one maybe moves a little differently or was it just kind of – this is an alien. This is how an alien moves?”
Tom: I think it was probably stripped of a lot of that searching and trying to find a different expression for the alien to portray. I think it really is more like you said, it’s really about being consistent as an alien. I think there’s an aspect to giving the audience what they’re expecting and what they want, even if there’s some way of changing up a little bit. But it’s like you adapt and as an audience member, you adapt to actors. Male and female actors. Beyond who they are but just how they move.
How a male or female walks down a hallway and even if it’s a different character, it still seems very natural and like what you would expect. Maybe that’s kind of overblowing it but similarly, that’s what I think of the alien. I think if the alien has the same kind of look… because we do changes… sometimes we take the dome off… depends on the director. Sometimes we put it back on but as long as in general, it’s what you expect. I think that’s good for the consistency of the franchise. You do want to have some kind of threads that tie together.
Adam: SiL is curious about how much of the creature performance in the final cut of each film would you say is yours versus stunt actors or animatronic in the case of AvP? I guess it just probably varies greatly from film to film I would imagine.
Tom: It does vary greatly but probably the easiest thing is what stuff is not me in a creature suit. Well like I said, there was a stunt shot with some wire stuff in AvPR that the stunt man did. The stunt coordinator did the one with the swimming through the pool in AvPR. That was not me. Usually the stuff that I’m in, unless the sequence gets cut out for some other reason, there’s not a lot of stuff that if you see the suit on screen, it’s a good chance that it’s me unless it’s really complicated stuff.