JOHN MILLAR speaks to Watchmen’s leading actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who is on the road to stardom.
JEFFREY Dean Morgan says that playing such a dark character as The Comedian in the epic adventure Watchmen (to open in Malaysia on March 6) took its toll on him — mentally and physically.
The Comedian is a key figure in the development of the plot of this big screen mystery, because it’s his murder that sets Rorschach on a quest to discover who is trying to get rid of all the superheroes.
And there would be no shortage of suspects because The Comedian has made his share of enemies. He’s a ruthless character who committed atrocities in the Vietnam War and is even guilty of attempted rape on another superhero character.
So it’s easy to understand why Jeffrey found getting under the skin of such a sadist to be such a taxing experience.
The big, gentle actor — best known for his recurring role as heart patient Denny Duquette on the hit TV series Grey’s Anatomy and whose films include PS I Love You and Ang Lee’s upcoming Talking Woodstock — admits that filming the attempted rape sequence (in Watchmen) was one of the toughest of his career.
“It was much beyond an attempted rape, it was absolutely vicious,” says Jeffrey. “That scene in particular was much harder than anything else that I have ever filmed in my life.
“And I made a big mistake in the course of filming that scene, which took the better part of three days to do. I went back to sit behind director Zack Snyder (300) and watched play-back. What I saw still makes me catch my breath.
“The beating that I give her is so vicious and so real that I had to walk away for a week. I went up to the mountains of Vancouver and thought… did I make a good choice here in this?
“It is make-believe, we are making a movie here, but still to do stuff like that! I never thought in a million years it could possibly bother me, but — for whatever reason — it did.”
Apart from dealing with the emotional side of delving into the heart of darkness, Jeffrey also had to cope with the physical demands of being transformed into the muscular, cigar-chomping character that is The Comedian.
“My costume was also the biggest pain,” says the 42-year-old Seattle native.
“I would come in at 2am to start shooting at 10am and then work 16-, 17-, 18-hour days and then afterwards have to sit for two hours while this stuff got pulled off me. So, by the time I started shooting, I would be in a crappy mood.
“The saving grace was that I was working with Zack Snyder and these other actors who are just a lovely group; you are not going to find a more enthusiastic and happy bunch. Zack in particular is like that; I don’t know where he gets his energy.
“After working a 20-hour day he was still running around in a T-shirt in zero degree weather, saying… ‘That was awesome!’ It was great because had you been with a director that got swallowed up in the darkness of some of this stuff, then it would have been hell shooting this film.”
One of Jeffrey’s favourite moments in the making of Watchmen was the filming of the Keene Riots — which happen after the controversial superheroes are officially banned by the government.
“That was when the scale of what we were doing hit me. Walking out into the New York Streets that these guys built was amazing. They were huge,” he says.
“It was awesome having Archie, Nite Owl’s Owl Ship, floating above my head and 500 extras running for their lives as explosions were happening all around, and me jumping out of the Owl Ship and taking pot shots at people with my shotgun.”
From the moment he was cast Jeffrey was aware that there would be intensive fight training before the cameras rolled, but he reveals that his call up to get into shape still caught him by surprise.
“We weren’t supposed to be starting the movie for another four months and I was going to go to Hawaii to celebrate (being cast). Then I got a call to say we were starting.
“So I went to an airport hangar in Los Angeles and there was a three-tonne tractor tyre in the middle of the building and they asked me to move it from one side of the building to the other … without rolling it! I asked if they were insane!
“This was my introduction to the new workout theory! Where’s the gym? It was very crazy, a lot of insane techniques to get in shape. I did that every day in LA for a month and a half. I couldn’t walk and I hated it.
“Then I went up to Vancouver and the fight training started and that’s when I started having fun. Somehow in the previous month and a half I had gotten into shape and I was able to move a little bit.”
He continues: “Fight training was a month of throwing proper punches, really. Punches are much more different in film than they are in the real world. So there was a lot of strictly learning how to fight for the camera. I worked very closely with the stunt double and we did lots of boxing and I did knife training and then I went on to the shooting range and fired guns. I also did a little bit of taekwondo.
“Then once I started to do the choreography, that was when all the fun really started. It was like a dance but it was a violent dance.”
Inevitably with all the action that was involved, during training Jeffrey took a few accidental hits and suffered some bruises.
“I was punched in the eye like every 30 seconds and it was always my fault for bobbing when I should have been weaving,” he says.
He also broke a toe when he dropped a crowbar that was being used for weight training.
“That happened before we even got to Vancouver to start filming. So I thought we had better get filming this quickly or I would be just a bloody pulp. The first sequence we shot for the movie was when The Comedian is attacked in his apartment. That took eight or nine days. I worked four months for that scene, but it was cool, it was good to be able to know what I was doing.”
In the middle of filming a Vietnam sequence for Watchmen Jeffrey also had a potentially dangerous moment involving a flame thrower.
“That’s when I got hurt once — well, I didn’t really get hurt, I was set on fire doing the flame thrower stuff in Vietnam,” he says, in an almost matter-of-fact manner.
“It was actually really funny. I was in the middle of this rice paddy and there was no-one near me. Zack was way over there with the crew shouting… ‘burn longer!’ I was to point the flame thrower at a guy who was three metres away from me and I was doing a count to five in my head and thought that was plenty. But Zack said to count longer.
“So we did this so many times that the water I was standing in became saturated with gasoline from the flame thrower. Then the last time that I fired it I finally heard Zack say ‘cut’. I said, thank goodness, because I thought I was going to kill the guy for real.
“Then I looked down and saw fire coming right at me through the water. It caught on my leg and I could see Zack and his eyes were grew big. But I don’t think he was worried about me, I think he was thinking… That’s my costume that cost me a bomb to make. I was in a metre of water and I remember people shouting… ‘Don’t get your costume wet!’ Anyway I patted the fire down and I didn’t get too hurt.”
Unlike The Comedian who has a short fuse, Jeffrey seems easy-going and friendly and extremely laid-back about the prospect of Watchmen making him a star.