Robert Vataj talks Dead Man Down, in theaters starting today, March 8th
Dead Man Down, the English language debut of original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev, opens in theaters today, starting March 8th. In the film, Colin Farrell plays Victor, a hitman blackmailed into a revenge plot against his former mob boss. To gain the upperhand, Victor is forced to take an Albanian man hostage. Robert Vataj plays this poor, tortured soul, and stayed in character, blindfolded and unfed, for the duration of his time on set.
We recently caught up with Robert, who made a name for himself with his memorable role in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, to talk about the experience of being strapped to a chair by Colin Farrell for a three day stretch.
Was he allowed to take breaks? Did he eat? Was he ever able to eventually become friends with Colin? Here is our conversation.
Have you seen the movie?
Robert Vataj: I've seen clips of it. Niels hasn't let me see it yet.
The most striking element is the film's cinematography. Paul Cameron
did a beautiful job of capturing something that is new and electric. What was it like having to stay on set while they worked through and set up some of these quite elaborate shots?
Robert Vataj: To start off, my character is a hostage of Colin Farrell's, who plays Victor in the movie. How it was...I basically stayed in character the whole time I was stuck in that chair. I probably lost around 12 to 15 pounds within three days for this role. What was it like to wait around for that? I suffered. Waiting around, they needed to get everything set up. The way Niels Arden Oplev puts things together, I basically had a set plan of what I needed to do and where I needed to be in advance, because he knew what I'd put in for the film. Picture Niels Arden Oplev as some sort of an artist, but not your typical artist. He doesn't paint on a regular canvas. Lets say you began with a graffiti artist. Even though something might have been out of reach, he went over every inch of that set. He broke down doors to get what he needed out of me, and out of all the actors. That's the type of person he is. Even at some points where I started to lose it, you could build trust with the director. If you don't have trust with the director, there is nothing there. Like I said, even when I got punchy, and I started to lose sight of where I was going, he was sort of like my GPS. He kept me on track. He pointed me in the right direction. He made sure that I got to the destination, where the film needed to go. As far as the crew and what not, this was probably the most professional crew I have ever worked with. The largest film I had worked on prior to this was The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, with the late Tony Scott. Budget wise, this was a much smaller budget. But it seemed like a much bigger film...As far as what was involved with it.
How many hours did they have you strapped in that chair for any given amount of time?
Robert Vataj: Oh, um...I would say that we started shooting at 7 in the morning. The day wouldn't end until late evening. In terms of how many hours? I never got out of that chair, even if there was a break, I stayed in that chair. Because my character is basically held hostage for a week and a half. I tried to make it as realistic as possible. So I refused to take the blindfold off. I had that blindfold on for probably two and a half days. Prior to the film, just to get used to it, because once the blindfold comes off, you want to make it as realistic as possible. I would say, maybe 13 hours in that chair. And it wasn't in a regular seated position. He had me sit on the corner of the chair with my legs strapped fully out. Take into consideration the weight loss that I did. The three days prior, it was a struggle.
What did you have to do for yourself once you got out of the chair? I can imagine that your legs had gone numb. Your feet go numb...
Robert Vataj: The crew that was there helped me out a lot. Once we started shooting, I started to take gradual sips of water. The weight that I lost was water weight, over the three days. Once we started shooting, I started taking small sips of water. Just to hydrate myself. My lips. This way, I could focus, and do what I needed to do. As far as my legs falling asleep, the crew people would come and massage my legs a little bit, to get my blood flowing.
Have you always been this committed as an actor? Or was this just a role you felt needed that extra bit of pain to make it more grounded and realistic?
Robert Vataj: Uh...As far as the weight loss and what not?
In terms of sitting in that chair for 13 hours, pretending you are actually a hostage, and experiencing the suffering that comes with that...
Robert Vataj: Its not the size of the role that really maters. The way that I studied acting is, you don't want to be caught in a lie. I'm sure you've heard that a million times. Once someone sees that you are lying, no one is going to believe it. Once I know I'm lying, I lose control of the whole character. So I try to make it as real as possible. I try to mimic the struggle this person would actually go through. I wouldn't make it through the two weeks of this person basically just eating candy bars and sips of water, as the character basically does in the movie. Though, as I said, three days and drastic weight loss, living on an extremely limited amount of calories....I just thought that...After talking with Niels Arden Oplev...This goes back to what I said earlier. Once you talk to a director and you trust him, if I didn't trust in Niels Arden Oplev, and I didn't think his vision was a beautiful vision, and his destination was a spot I wanted to go, I wouldn't have put myself through this. I was a huge fan of the first The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Once I saw that, I knew I had to get on board with this. Yeah. I believe that this is his first English feature film that he is doing. From what I know, from what I've seen, and what I read in the script, and the cast that is on board...This is going to be amazing. Colin Farrell, from this film, I think he is finally going to get the recognition that he deserves. Even during the filming...I would say that the film involves blackmail, sexual seduction, tons of action, whatnot...The way that Niels Arden Oplev has put it together, it's a cat and mouse game. You don't know who the cat is, you don't know who the mouse is, and you don't know who is ending up in the mousetrap. I can assure you, this story has never been told before. I have never seen a movie that was similar to this. If you want, even the scenes that I am in, the colors that he uses, and the rooms, and the way it is lit...It gives you a sort of emotion all by itself.
If you are this committed to the role, did you know Colin Farrell before you had to act opposite him? Or did you not meet him before, and keep your distance, so that he was this other man standing in front of you during shooting?
Robert Vataj: I didn't know Colin Farrell before this. This is my first project with him. Hopefully not my last. I would say, his commitment from what I saw, was full on, non-stop. It was rare to see him take a pause from who he was during the film. Which is great to see. You always want to see the other actors put in the same amount of effort that you're putting in. He is the main character in the movie. Him and Noomi Rapace. If the main characters don't go all out, you are going to lose sight of where you want it to go with the whole film. He stayed on point the whole time. I worked with Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, James Gandolfini, these guys, and I would say that Colin...His acting style is very gentlemanly. I can't describe it any other way. But, he was excellent. More importantly, he was a good man. I have worked with many actors that aren't on that type of level. They wouldn't deal with me. Cause I'm not on the same level as him. We don't have the same notoriety. But Colin levels the playing field with everybody. Everybody on the set. There was not one person that was more important than the other. Not the extras, not the main characters, not the crew. Everyone was on the same level. Colin made sure of that. So did Niels Arden Oplev.
Was it important to stay away from Colin while you were shooting?
Robert Vataj: Of course it was. During shooting, I stay in character. I couldn't build a friendly relationship during the shoot. I can't do that. I don't have that on and off switch, where I am able to turn it off and turn it on when I need to. It is either on, always, until the power goes out, or the switch goes off, and it's off. During the filming, I had to stay in that character. I had to stay in character.
It seems like 'Method Actor' is almost a dirty term nowadays. No one wants to say they are 'Method'. Now they say 'committed'. What is your take on that?
Robert Vataj: If you looked up Method Acting in the dictionary, I think you would see, 'extreme dedication'. I think that you would lose value in a film when, say...Daniel Day-Lewis, he is amazing. He is a method actor, and he needs to stay in that character. He should stay in that character. I don't need a best friend during the movie. We can be friends afterwards. If our mission is to put something out there that is quality, our mission is to give Niels Arden Oplev what he wanted, and what he expected. If Niels Arden Oplev is up 24 hours a day, we need to be up 25 hours a day. Focusing and making sure where we want to go. Method acting is not a dirty word. I think it's just misunderstood. When someone wants to get somewhere, and they want to take the train, let them take the train. As long as they all get to the same place.
I'm not an actor, but they have had me on set, doing extra work, and for me, I found it hard to find that on and off switch. Where is it? Once you're in character, for me, it seems easier to stay in character, as long as you don't take it to incredible extremes...
Robert Vataj: When I worked with John Travolta, he had that switch. He was able to do it. (Laughs) Which surprised me. Some people have it and some people don't. I'm just not that type of person, where I can have a sports conversation in between takes, where you are taking my mind off where I need to be. I need to stay there. And I think a true professional, people in the industry, they understand that. And they appreciate that. It's like a father son relationship. Do you want a father or a friend? In the end you want the father. (Laughs) That's basically what you want, the best performance. If you have to be horrible to me, or treat me great, or ignore me, you do what you have to do...And then we'll go get the drink afterwards.
What happened during breaks. Did you just sit there by yourself?
Robert Vataj: (Laughs) During the breaks, I never left. I stayed in that chair. I refused to take the blindfold off until it came time to take the blindfold off. I did have people there to give me water, to massage my legs, make sure I was alright. I always had the option to get out of the chair. I just knew this would be the best way for me to give the performance that is expected of me. My main concern with any job is that I didn't want to let down the director who put faith in me. Anyone is replaceable. But once a man puts his trust in you, and he believes you are going to go all out, and make sacrifices, then you do what is expected.