It wouldn't be a Transformers film without Mark Ryan. The English actor has been in every entry in the blockbuster franchise, including Transformers: Age of Extinction, which opens today and features him as the character Lockdown. We caught up with Mark on Thursday to ask him about his long association with Transformers, and if playing a giant robot is more fun than becoming the pirate Gates on Starz's high-seas drama Black Sails.
It's been more than half a decade since the first Transformers, and Mark gave us his opinion on how the franchise has evolved over four movies. "We've reworked and refined the actual on-set part of the technique quite a lot over the last seven years," he told us. "Michael [Bay] was very smart to have a live 'reactive' element to the acting process, as I have spoken to other pals working on CGI type projects and it's one of the most difficult aspects - acting to a dead green screen or light-pole with no actor there to actually bounce dialogue and drama off of. This on-set flexibility gives him and the actors a chance to deliver lines with various emphasis or pacing and keeps it spontaneous.
"Also technically, the 3D elements and digital processing have become much more complex and refined, let alone massive in storage terms," he added. "The ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] team headed by Scott Farrar really has it down.
"Michael has also been able to keep the human and emotional drives of the story alive and accessible to a worldwide audience. This is an amazing achievement, considering Optimus and Bumblebee are alien robot characters and only exist digitally!" he said. "Michael has managed to imbue them with a sense of honor, vulnerability, humor and loyalty. That is quite a remarkable screen achievement over four blockbuster films in itself, let alone make them one of the highest earning franchises in cinema history. I've met enough kids around the world who think their dad's Camry changes into a heroic alien robot at night in their garage to show how magical and enduring the Transformer mythos has become!"
What's interesting about Mark's part of the franchise is that while he's appeared in each movie, he's portrayed different characters every time - three different Transformers and a military operator. How has he been able to tackle multiple roles? "I've been extremely fortunate to have Michael allow me the freedom to try out different voices during production," he reflected. "It usually starts on-set as the script elements are revealed during shooting. I try various voices as we run the dialogue, knowing some will be discarded or covered by various other voice-over actors. But it gives me the chance to throw in a wild card and try something new and previously unheard in the franchise.
"Michael will sometimes ask for something more aggressive or something with a specific tone or accent if he has a particular character aspect in mind. This process is a lot of fun and we play around with a lot of vocal tones, even in post [production]. In that post process, I usually do a scratch-track for editing purposes, and sometimes a voice from the set will stick in Michael's head."
Transformers: Age of Extinction has rounded up an impressive voice cast, starting with the legendary Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, but also including John DiMaggio (Futurama's Bender) and Ken Watanabe. "It's an honor to be associated with this legendary group of actors," Mark told us. "Peter is a gentleman and a lovely bloke, but we rarely see one another when we're recording. He did come down to the set once and we talked about his brother, who is in the Marine Corps.
"He watched me running around like a madman, taking in the camera moves and the actors' lines, watching the ILM poles, doing two or three robot lines I had to perform, being wired up by Peter and the sound team and taking direction from Michael, changing and adjusting to the set-ups and ad-libs. He looked at me with a smile and said, 'I don't know how you're doing this.' I think I said, 'Neither do I, mate. I improvise, adapt and overcome." We both shared a chuckle."
He's also humbled by his association with the Transformers fans and the franchise's dedicated crew. "I've been invited all over the world as a guest at fan conventions, meeting and talking to the fans, and I really do enjoy that part of the job very much," Mark reflected. "When you see how interested and dedicated fans are to something you were involved with, it makes you realize how much impact these movies have had on millions of people's lives. It's very humbling and rewarding.
"I really enjoy the whole creative process of being on the set and working closely with Michael and his crew, especially Amir, Peter and the sound boys, Harry Humphries and Scott Farrar. Ian Bryce runs a tight, efficient ship and is a real pro, so the experience is always very exciting and dynamic and we do a lot of camera set-ups per day. There is a sense of professional pride and fulfillment being a small part of this huge international phenomena, and I'm proud of their success and of being part of this amazing and talented crew."
Back in front of the camera, you saw Mark give a different kind of performance as Gates in Starz's Black Sails, the new drama created by Jonathan E. Steinberg (Human Target) and Robert Levine, which will return for its second season in 2015. So which is more fun: playing an alien robot, or playing a pirate? Or maybe one of his other fantastic roles?
"Ha! Merry Man, honorary Knight of the Round Table, pirate quartermaster and giant alien robot!" he laughed. "That's not counting the theatre roles. I don't think I'd swap with many folks.
"I did enjoy playing Gates very much, though. It was like slipping into a well worn and comfortable pair of old boots. Easy to get into and comfortable to wear," he said. "Again, Michael Bay - in the form of his production arm, Platinum Dunes - brought the scale, vision and visual effects to make the show epic and groundbreaking. So Gates comes a very close second to being associated with Bumblebee, Jetfire, and Lockdown."
"Mr. Nasir in Robin of Sherwood was obviously a huge part of my life for the last 30 years, and we just celebrated its anniversary with a huge gathering in Chepstow, South Wales where we filmed many scenes," Mark added. "Robin of Sherwood seems to have picked up a whole new following with a younger generation as it's still the definitive show about the Robin Hood legend. it was the launching pad for many careers both on and off the screen, and started a whole new way of making TV. It was groundbreaking then and still holds up now in style and depth."
From Robin Hood to pirates to Transformers, Mark has had a lengthy career bringing to life some of the most fantastic worlds and characters. We asked him to give us one piece of advice from his experiences. "Everything I learned from working with legendary swordmaster Bob Anderson behind the camera on First Knight is directly applicable to Transformers and many other jobs I've done since in Hollywood," he said. "Especially King Arthur of course, but I think an actor should have a good 360-degree working awareness and be knowledgeable about every technical aspect of a modern film set.
"My advice would be learn as much as you can and don't be afraid to try new challenges regarding the entire business," Mark continued. "Give everything you try 110 percent effort and you cannot lose. You will learn something and carry that lesson forward to the next challenge. Never, never, never, never give up!"
Transformers: Age of Extinction is in theatres now.