Interview: ‘Pacific Rim’ Jaeger Pilot Heather Doerksen On Going Big, Or Going Extinct

Heather Doerksen is about to go big. As one of the rising stars in the upcoming summer blockbuster ’Pacific Rim,’ Doerksen is also one of the few female pilots of Jaegers, giant robot mechs that stand as humanity’s last hope against a monster invasion.

We had the chance to chat with Doerksen over the phone in advance of the movie’s release, and talked about the intense physical training she went through in order to pilot the Jaeger, working with director Guillermo Del Toro (“Hellboy”), and her upcoming projects with Marvel Knights Animation:

MTV Geek: So let’s talk about your role in “Pacific Rim…”

Heather Doerksen: It’s the role of Sasha Kaidanovsky. She’s one of the pilots for the Russian Jaeger, Cherno Alpha. She’s hoping to try to stave off the possible extinction of the world from these Kaijus that are appearing from the middle of the ocean. It’s a big job but somebody’s got to do it!

Geek: Tell me what interested you about Sasha.

Doerksen: Interestingly enough, she’s a woman of little words. You don’t really want to mess with her. She’s not scared of much. It’s almost like she lives her life with nothing to lose. I think that’s how she fights and why she is able to fight the Kaiju with her co-pilot as well as she can. It’s why she’s survived this long in battle. What intrigued me personally of the character was that there were parts of her related to and completely different from me. I would like to think I am fairly confident in who I am. But, I would have to say she possesses a strength that I wish I had. There’s kinda that correlation in why I really liked Sasha.

Geek: How did you prepare for the special effects? How do you react to something that might not even be there?

Doerksen: That’s a good question! Basically, Guillermo on the first day of the table read-through had pictures and 3D models of the Kaiju for us to look at. We knew every single Kaiju; what their capabilities were, what their fighting habits were. We were able to relate to that  in terms of the fight.

When you’re actually doing the fight scene, we were literally inside the head of the Jaeger. None of that was green screened. We were in the head of the Jaeger that was built. You’re strapped in. Anytime we were fighting a Kaiju, that was green screened and Guillermo would just shout out instructions about what was happening and how we needed to react.  That’s how we did it when something wasn’t there.

Geek: Did you do any training beforehand for this movie?

Doerksen: They told the whole cast that they wanted us in really perfect shape. They said they wanted me to be very buff. I had prior to the movie never been inside the gym. I go to yoga and I walk everywhere. That’s how I exercise. It was very foreign to me to start going to the gym six days a week. And I had to radically alter my diet, taking off of protein and vegetables, and really opening up a muscle. I did two hour workouts, leading up to the training period. They officially flew somebody in to train us. And we had that training three hours a day. It was pretty physically grueling, but with a sense of achievement once I had done the movie and knew that I could do that. I can physically do that! It’s amazing!

Geek: What was it like wearing the armored suits you use to pilot the Jaegers? They look pretty bulky…

Doerksen: The armor was actually made by Legacy FX. They did the armor as well for the “Iron Man” series. They had quite a bit of experience in that world. Although the armor was bulky and it was heavy, a few pounds more than we could carry on our shoulders all day long, it was really sic, sic like leather. And so, it wasn’t as heavy as it could have been if it had been metal.

Geek: While wearing the suit, did it add to the performance?

Doerksen: Yes, because with the armor and also being attached to the con-pod inside the Jaeger head, it was heavy. Everything was weighted down as if we were moving a large robot. It worked in enhancing the performance. It was heavy, cumbersome, and we had to manipulate it. What you’ll see on screen is quite real. It’s the actors trying to lift the armor and the Jaeger arm.

Geek: What about the sets? I know a lot was digital, but I imagine the physical ones were pretty huge.

Doerksen: The sets were incredible. Every day was something new, glorious, and huge. The sets were so big, sometimes we had hundreds of extras. The video village was so far away, Guillermo had to have a bull-horn and be yelling through it towards everybody. Everything down to the last little detail, Guillermo would check over and make sure it fit within the world that he was trying to create. He was really hands-on.

Definitely when I walked onto the set with the Jaeger head, I suddenly realized how big these robots actually were. You’ve seen models but seeing the actual head they built, knowing it was only the head of the robot, I could suddenly imagine how large the rust of the robot would be with the body. They were huge, gorgeous to look at, dirty, and gross! It was fantastic!

Geek: What was Guillermo Del Toro like as a director?

Doerksen: Right away, Guillermo has this air of ease about him. He’s got it under control. Everything just seems so easy. Everyone was doing their job in the most professional aspects that they could’ve. He got such a great team involved. He was great at picking the crew that he worked with. Everyone was so professional. At the end of some shoots, people are ready to leave because some of them can be quite content after six months of shooting. Sometimes people are  tired at the end, working long hours, and want it to be done. The last day of shooting on this, everyone was sad. No one wanted to leave. It was such upbeat set to work on. So much joy and laughter! It was so fantastic!

Geek: What are your expectations when seeing the final cut and yourself in 3D?

Doerksen: Well, I’ve never seen myself in 3D. That’s going to be quite a trip, I think! I’m really going to be in your face, I think! I don’t know! I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie! Besides the big monsters vs. giant robots, I think the details that Guillermo puts into the movie is what’s going to set it apart from others. The grindiness, the characters, and the emotion that he has put into this particular film are going to carry it through. I think the 3D is going to be spectacular, especially for the fight scenes.

Geek: What can you tease about your role in the upcoming movie, “Hidden?”

Doerksen: “Hidden” is a movie about the zombie apocalypse. It focuses on a little microscopic lens on one particular family, Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood”) and their daughter, and their journey through this apocalypse. I play their neighbor, Jillian,  who comes in and out of the story as it goes along. It’s an interesting take on the zombie genre. The zombies have something different than I have seen from the zombie genre. I think that will be intriguing for audiences, something new and different.

Geek: What other projects are you working on?

Doerksen: I’m actually doing a voice, a cartoon. I’m doing three miniseries from Marvel Comics. It’ll be a lot of voice work as well, which I love. I’m working with Marvel Knights Animation. It’ll probably be coming out in the Fall. I play six different characters – from Emma Frost, Psylocke, She-Hulk and Betty Ross. It’s going to be neat to see the final product. Those come out in the Fall. I love doing voices! It’ll be exciting!

“Pacific Rim” hits theaters on July 12, 2013.

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