It takes a big man to step into the shoes of the Master Chief–literally: the Halo super soldier stands at around 6’7″ by some estimates. And to play the character, it takes an actor able to show some emotion from behind a polarized glass visor. Enter Daniel Cudmore, who’s filled genre roles as hulking characters in features like X-Men: The Last Stand Volturi guard Felix in the Twilight films, with an upcoming role in the Billy Bob Thornton/Eva Longoria redneck action-comedy The Baytown Outlaws .
When we spoke recently about his role in the 5-part web series, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, he talked about how odd it was going from a gamer to playing the Master Chief. “It’s funny, because back in the day, my girlfriend–now my wife–bought me Halo 3,” he explains, saying that although he didn’t know too much about the Halo universe, “I remember playing that game from front to back and thinking that was a really cool concept.”
He says the call to enlist at the taciturn super soldier came from a secretive call came six years later with the promise of a really cool suit and a lot of “hype and secrecy” behind the project. In spite of all of the unknowns, Cudmore says he jumped at the opportunity. “All of a sudden, I’m this iconic character from a video game, running around shooting a live-action movie.”
When I asked him whether he had any hesitation going into a role where his face would be covered for the entire production (a real challenge in getting key emotions across), he explained that part of the challenge was grounding the character, in the dialog. “You have to make it simple and direct,” he says, warning that with suit work you can’t overdo it. “With the suit, though, you almost kind of have to overract certain things,” he elaborates, saying that bigger motions read better on film under layers of armor than would smaller actions. He was better able to calibrate his performance by watching playback after each take to get a sense of how he was moving and acting as the Chief.
So what is the Master Chief’s body language like, I asked. “Well he’s very confident, and he’s very trained. So nothing’s sloppy,” Cudmore tells me. He says that there’s a balancing act of making the character’s movements look deliberate and a little stiff without coming across as robotic. “Just trying to make his movements a little larger than life, but still with a sense of humanity to them.”
This speaks to a little of what 343 Industries is doing with the man known as John-117 in Halo 4 which seeks to humanize him a bit, something done a bit in the novels and comics but which may not have shone through in the games. Cudmore took a crash course in Halo history by digging into some of the fiction and says he came away with the core idea that the main struggle within the Master Chief is the tension between the mission and his humanity. Some of that comes through in Forward Unto Dawn, where the Spartan has to decide whether to fulfill his objective or help the fresh batch of UNSC cadets survive the Covenant attack. “He still has a heart and wants to help,” Cudmore says, “He just been so geared towards being this ultimate killing machine, but he’s still human, and it still comes out even though the training tries to suppress that.”
Digging a little into the series itself, Cudmore says that what makes the Master Chief so compelling is that in spite of the odds, in spite of the challenge, he doesn’t waver from his support of the cadets when your average person might have done otherwise. He says that this is how ends up inspiring this group of kids who think, “It doesn’t matter how many odds we have stacked against us, we can still keep pushing forward. And if we failed at it, at least we tried our hardest.”
One of the characters the Master Chief inspires is the series’ focus, cadet Thomas Lasky, a key character in Halo 4 who comes from a proud military lineage, but finds himself ambivalent about his own role in the service. “In a way, the Master Chief coaxes some of this out of Thomas Lasky, and in a way he doesn’t know that he’s always had it inside of him,” Cudmore tells me about the way the Master Chief helps the younger man find himself throughout the course of the series.
In finding the human side of the Chief, Cudmore says that looking through some of the fiction behind the character, he was surprised at how innocent the Master Chief comes off–he only knows the military after being kidnapped and impressed into the Spartan program as a child. That further splits the character’s personality by leaving him at his core as the same kid forced to make these split-second, deadly decisions.
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