Acting for Eidos Montreal’s Guardians of the Galaxy came with an almost unique challenge. Not only were the core cast members tasked with bringing digital avatars to life, they had to differentiate them from some of the most famous onscreen characters of the last decade. Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket, and Groot – they’re all now major pop culture names thanks to their MCU counterparts, not to mention decades of comic book appearances.
But this isn’t an MCU game, nor a straight comic adaptation. Not in the slightest. We spoke to all five lead cast members for Guardians of the Galaxy to work out how they managed the balancing act of presenting players with new versions of beloved, familiar characters.
“We were told very early on that [the developers] did not want it to be the comic books, they did not want it to be the MCU versions of the characters,” said Jon McLaren, who plays Starlord. “They wanted us to take risks, try things and really push to make these characters our own.”
That’s exactly what the cast did.
“I chose not to go back and look at the movies,” said Kimberly-Sue Murray, who plays Gamora. “I didn’t want to be influenced because I knew we were going to do our own version.”
“The narrative team did such an incredible job of crafting a unique story and unique world that is completely separate from the comics and the MCU,” explained McLaren.
Much like the MCU Guardians, the game’s Peter Quill and his rag-tag band of space heroes are a loveable ensemble brimming with heart, humor, and barely-concealed contempt for one another. But the versions we ended up seeing became very much their own – leading to widespread critical praise, and even awards recognition.
At this week’s BAFTA Game Awards, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was nominated for its Narrative and Audio Achievement, while Jon McLaren is up for Performer in a Leading Role, with Jason Cavalier (Drax) and Alex Weiner (Rocket) both up for Performer in a Supporting Role.
“This is an affirmation of that team effort as a whole,” said McLaren.
Much like his on-screen alter ego, McLaren is a rallying voice among his real-life Guardians, and he’s keen to share the credit for the game’s success. And while the narrative team gave its actors extensive background notes for each of their characters, they were very keen for the cast to develop the roles themselves along the way.
“They really emphasized doing our own versions of the characters and steering clear of the MCU,” said Murray. In her case, this meant a substantial departure from how Gamora was portrayed on the big screen. “I really loved that Gamora wasn’t anyone’s love interest,” she added.
Of course, the big-screen version of Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana, saw the galaxy’s deadliest woman become an eventual love interest for Peter Quill, but in the game, there’s not even so much as a hint of that happening.
“She stood on her own,” added Murray. “There was no ambiguity with regards to her relationship with Peter Quill. I really wanted to have her be one of the guys. She’s a team member, she’s an equal, she’s not just a love interest. As a woman, often I play the love interest, so I really wanted her to be an equal and to stand her own and have her own story that had nothing to do with lust or love.”
That carries over into the game’s mechanics, too. Gamora is an equal part of the team, and a vital one – carving up enemies with her signature blade while also offering an insight into tactical maneuvers as you decide how to approach different situations.
“It made her mission so much clearer,” added Murray. “She has her own past that she’s dealing with, her own dark secrets, and you don’t want to distract from that. It was a smart move.”
Drax says it himself – this woman is a murderess. And pretty badass, too. The Destroyer himself is also a different beast in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Sure, he’s still got his trademark straightforward nature, and the Katathian warrior clearly takes some cues from Dave Bautista when waxing literal with his chums. But actor Jason Cavalier put a lot of work into sounding out exactly what makes Drax tick.
“Drax moved differently, spoke differently, thought differently, and came from a far different culture from anything I’ve ever had to experience, so I had to create everything from scratch,” said Cavalier.
“Why was Drax so literal? I mean, we hear about the culture, but it’s never really explicitly stated why they react that way, so I had to figure out a logical reason for behaving that way. Drax comes from a warrior culture and if they were going to fight at the drop of a hat, you’d have no society left. So, these people needed to be clear with each other, and direct, so there would be no miscommunication – because most conflict comes out of miscommunication. So, that was my reasoning for why Drax was the way he was. He’s not stupid, he’s just from somewhere else and they behave differently.”
You see this throughout the game – Drax’s literal nature is played for laughs as he regularly holds onto his own butt or complains that it’s physically impossible for him to watch his head.
“I did go back and revisit the films a number of times,” said Cavalier. “Just to reacquaint myself with some mannerisms and things. I knew we were doing our own versions, but I also knew that we were probably going to have to respect certain characteristics.”
However, the depth of Cavalier’s character really comes to the fore when dealing with his past. It’s a familiar story for fans of the movies – Drax’s wife and child were killed by Thanos. Unfortunately, this grief makes him the most vulnerable, whether he realizes it or not.
“The depth of his pain was something he had never addressed and had buried,” said Cavalier. “When the opportunity to heal that pain came, that could have been what was weakening him.”
During the game, the Guardians encounter the Universal Church of Truth – a cult-like church with promises of eternal life and resurrecting dead loved ones, so it’s easy to see how Drax could fall for their mind-controlling shenanigans.
“We never explicitly see the moment he decides,” explained Cavalier. “We get little hints and glimpses of him being confused or not quite there completely, but the act of breaking under The Promise, we never see. I had to make a decision on why that would be and I just assumed it was that he wanted to be rid of the pain that he had inside.”
Considering the light-hearted, over-the-top nature of the game, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy deals with a lot of pain from its main characters. Take Rocket, for example. The MCU touches on his past as a result of experimentation on Halfworld… but never quite explores it. Here, the game goes all in – using it as motivation for much of Rocket’s quirks.
Actor Alex Weiner explained how he got under the raccoon’s skin:
“I started looking at some summaries of comics, the arcs that were present – discovering Lylla, discovering Halfworld. I did stay away from the MCU, actually. I was already a huge fan and like many people, I discovered those characters through the MCU. But now, having the opportunity to portray this character myself, I didn’t want to be influenced in any way.”
On the surface, Rocket is one of the characters that most closely resembles his MCU version. There’s that underlying rough and ready nature that permeates the character, and a deep sense of otherness – that he’s always on the outside. Then, there’s Rocket’s hang-up about being a raccoon.
“It would have been easy to play him as a human,” said Weiner. “It would have been easier to just walk around and talk, but then I made a decision to add some animalistic qualities into Rocket, so just scratching his spur sometimes, or like a little twitch in his leg. That kind of came in through the game a little bit at times. I was constantly exploring this character who claims he’s not a raccoon even though he kind of is, so how does that work? Does he have those animalistic ticks? That was one thing that I played around with quite a bit.”
Ultimately, it’s Rocket’s backstory that really sets the video game version apart. “I was immediately curious about his backstory,” he said. “We didn’t get a huge amount of it from the MCU. We knew that he was tested upon, that there were experiments involved.”
The nature of video games means that there’s a lot more time to delve into these characters compared to the movies. Essentially, we get a much deeper dive into what makes them tick, and the cast took every opportunity to portray that.
“You have twenty hours versus two to really dive into the backstories of these characters,” said McLaren. “You learn a lot about Rocket, you learn a lot about Drax, about Groot, about Gamora, and you just have more time to tell their stories.”
“The gamer gets to explore the world… you get to know the characters,” added Murray. “How many cinematic hours did we shoot, like six? That’s three movies! You have so much time with these characters.”
It’s not just about the length of time we spend with them, either. Groot actor Robert Montcalm may only have said three repeated words throughout the game, but explained it more than eloquently in our interview:
“Emotional depth makes me care about my teammates, and this is all about a team growing together,” he explained. “If you don’t have the emotional depth of everybody, you’re not really going to care about these side characters. Why should I go and rescue Rocket in that situation? Why do I care if Gamora needs help on that end of the battlefield? It doesn’t really matter. But in this game where you can go and have meetings where you talk one on one with the characters and learn more about them – that was extremely interesting for me. Now I know a little bit more and I care a little bit more. It was a journey of growing together as a family in this game. You know and you care and that’s why you want to keep playing.”
Montcalm had one of the trickiest jobs – making a new, unique version of Groot while saying just three words over and over again. To put it into context, he had 1630 lines in the game, all of them saying “I am Groot”.
“I absolutely adored doing that line,” he laughed. “I felt bad some days when we would show up and everybody had monologues to say, and I was like ‘I have two “I am Groots” in this scene’.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that. The intention and meaning behind his lines differ with every “I am Groot”, whether he’s being accidentally shot at by his best buddy, or trying to convince Rocket to give Starlord another chance.
“Some people would be like, ‘That’s ridiculous – you say one line, that can’t be that interesting’,” he explained. “To me, it was the most interesting to say that one line again and again and again.”
The dynamic between Rocket and Groot in particular means that Montcalm and Weiner had a very close working relationship. When it comes to the game, you can see that in how they depend on each other.
“Rocket and Groot have such a unique relationship, it really made the world of difference to have Robert in on all of the scenes,” said Murray.
“What’s funny is, Rocket wouldn’t always translate what I was saying, purposefully, because he would want to get his way on something I perhaps disagreed with him on,” said Montcalm. “So, I would just keep staring at him after he would give a mistranslation of what I meant.”
“There were numerous times where Robert would deliver me an ‘I am Groot’ and I knew exactly what he was saying,” said Weiner. “I just knew. He was that good.”
There’s one thing that’s clear from my time with the cast of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy – these actors are as much a family as their on-screen characters. That’s bound to have paid off when making the game itself… and even now, they’re still part of their own crew.
“Some of the insults towards Starlord – ‘Floorboard’, ‘Stormlord’ – I remember we would start using them off set,” explained Weiner. “I’d call up Jon and be like ‘Hey Floorboard, how you doing?’ Starpants was the best one. They were really fun.”
“I still text Jon sometimes with the star emoji and the pants emoji,” laughed Murray.
“I have him as Starpants in my phone, actually,” laughed Weiner.
“Yeah… I have a lot of nicknames as a result of this game,” said McLaren. “We bonded really quick,” he added. “We really did become best friends really, really quickly. I hope and I think that it shows throughout the game.”
“Whatever work I was able to do, I was able to do because of my extended family here,” said Cavalier. “It wouldn’t have worked without them. I felt free and open, and if I fell, they were there to catch me. It was very much a family effort. A team effort.”
Ryan Leston is an entertainment journalist and film critic for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter.
Source: IGN Video Games All