British-born actor Joseph Gatt joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about his upcoming role in Tim Burton’s “Dumbo”, being a Disney villain, and much more.
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Q: I have enjoyed listening to you speak about the many layers you brought to different characters while working on the video game “Elder Scrolls.” Can you talk about your recent role in Disney’s “Dumbo” as ‘Neils Skellig’ and the layers you brought to make this character all the more dastardly?
A: Haha! I’m not sure I made Skellig dastardlier.
Ironically, it was a question I had for Tim regarding the role because the self-tape that he requested when I auditioned for the role was about as un-Disney as you can imagine. It was extremely dark.
When I first met Tim, we had a discussion about Skellig and what he would be expecting. Tim is known for putting these fantastical characters on screen, but somehow keeping them incredibly real and grounded. That’s what he wanted with Skellig.
He told me to let the script do its own thing and for me to simply keep him as real as possible and that every action comes from a real motivation. He didn’t want anything over the top or traditionally Disney. Not that it would necessarily be a bad thing, but it is just not right in this world. I loved that.
I played the role as if we were making an HBO thriller. I filled up Skellig’s character with a history, with motivation, and the script did the rest. Ehren Kruger did such a wonderful job with the screenplay that the actors didn’t have to do too much besides let Tim paint his movie in the way Tim does. The heart and soul beat so strongly on each page.
Q: You have previously compared the dynamic between Skellig and V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) to Darth Vader and The Emperor In Star Wars. Are there any other interesting dynamics in the film involving Skellig that you can tell us about?
A: I’m a total Star Wars geek and like to compare most things to Star Wars. Dumbo is Luke Skywalker, the loaner and outsider with a special skill he doesn’t understand. He’s on a mission to discover who he is and how he can learn to harness and control this amazing skill. He’s fighting against the odds, with the help of some rogue allies.
Meanwhile, Emperor Vandevere and Darth Skellig are trying to find him and capture him to turn him to the Darkside… or dispose of him if he won’t comply.
I told you I was a Star Wars geek!
Q: This project comes with some pressure from audiences who will compare it closely to the beloved 1941 original. What do you feel “Dumbo” has to offer us in 2019? And what do you feel the new human characters, like Skellig, add to this tale?
A: I cannot tell you how much we need this movie right now.
The basic essence and heart of the original is very present, but to compare isn’t really fair. These movies were made at very different times with totally different social and political expectations. Because of this, the original was much simpler.
The original also ends with Dumbo flying. Ours begins with him flying. It’s a much more complete story about humanity and empathy and about a creature who’s different. Different can mean anything. It can mean race, religion, skin color, gender type, and sexual orientation. In this case, a physical deformity.
With this deformity, Dumbo is trying to fit into a world that bullies and abuses him and reminds him how different, useless, and ugly he is. He has to discover how to turn his difference into the thing that ultimately makes him stand out, be applauded for, and ultimately lifts him (metaphorically and physically) up!
It’s about finding your family and learning about love. It’s about learning that love can make anyone your family, not just people who are related to you.
In today’s political and social climate, which amplifies and encourages divisiveness because of our differences and also demeans and dehumanises people for their differences and individuality, this movie is desperately needed. It’s needed because it’s about learning to encourage and celebrate individuality and about loving without discrimination or boundaries.
The human element simply shows us that this is a human story. Dumbo, as an elephant, is a sentient being who feels the same emotions that we do. Elephants love, hate, and fear like we do. Humanity doesn’t stop at two legged creatures.
I’ve personally seen more humanity in many animals than in a lot of humans. We all deserve to be loved, accepted, and treated fairly and humanely.
Q: I was sold on “Dumbo” as soon as I heard Tim Burton was at the wheel. Did you witness any moments of genius from Tim or is he more understated in his approach than we might expect?
A: Every moment on set, I felt like I was witnessing genius. It wasn’t necessarily anything specific that he’d do. It was simply this energy that he embodied and distributed to the whole set.
He is a true artist who paints every shot with specificity and subtlety. He trusts his crew and actors and allows us to do our thing with very subtle adjustment or direction. He cares so much and is so collaborative that it feels like he is hugging you whenever you’re in his presence.
Considering the pressure of a $200M tent-pole Disney movie, there was so much calm and peace on set, even during some very trying and stressful moments.
For example, wrangling thousands of extras or setting huge sets on fire, etc. I guess that’s the reason that people want to keep working with him. I would, in a heartbeat!
Q: How special is it for you personally to now be immortalized as a Disney villain?
A: I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked on some incredible projects playing some unforgettable roles, but being a Disney villain really is a dream come true. It was certainly unexpected in the way it happened. Like most people, I grew up watching Disney movies, laughing and crying through them.
Now I get to be a part of the legacy and kids around the world will hate me the same way they hated Scar, Cruella de Vil, Maleficent, Captain Hook, etc. Visiting Disneyland after March 29th will be a whole new experience!
Q: Not to undermine the villainy of Skellig in anyway, but I have already seen people point out the real-life work you do with the Monterey Zoo, Wolf Mountain Sanctuary, and Apex Protection Project. Can you talk about your relationship with animals and why these causes are special to you?
A: There is something magical about animals. All animals. They have a simplicity and beauty of purpose that’s untainted. Their emotions and senses are pure and unclouded.
There is NOTHING like looking into the eyes of a wild animal and feeling its breath on your cheeks. We (my partner Mercy Malick and I) have been fortunate enough to have been connected with a few amazing wildlife sanctuaries. It is such an unbelievable privilege to be able to hand-feed a grown white tiger, or to walk with a herd of gorgeous African elephants, or to run with wolves.
Even on TV shows I’ve been lucky enough to play roles who ride horses. My first was on “The 100”. They wanted to use a double to do all of the riding stuff, but I insisted they train me to ride so I could do the shots myself and they did and I did. I totally fell in love with Navarone, my steed. This big gorgeous creature wouldn’t leave my side. It makes me cry to even think about it.
If everyone could have this connection with animals, I truly believe it would save our planet because we would care much more about them and their habitat, but it would also make us look at ourselves, humanity, and want to change how we treat each other.
I even believe that the Skellig’s of this world would change if they could get to know animals. Their fear, bloodlust and hunger for power would be changed to compassion and empathy. The bully becoming the protector.
I have faith. Which is why we encourage everyone we know personally and on social media to visit these places. You cannot run with wolves or pet an elephant or feed a giraffe and not become a better person. I defy you. It’s impossible.
We do whatever we can do to help keep these places running because the work they do is immeasurable, for the animals, and for us! So, if you’re in California (or close by) you must visit Monterey Zoo, The Wolf Mountain Sanctuary, Apex Protection Project, Animal Tracks, Inc., Wildlife Learning Center, or any other facility or charity like them.
I know there are a few wildlife preserves like these in the UK as well. Or go online to donate and help them to continue loving their animals and sharing their beauty with us.
Q: Another charity you are actively involved in is the Children’s Alopecia Project (CAP), an organisation designed to help, inspire, and supports kids of all ages who develop Alopecia. Given your status in the entertainment industry, how important is it for you to help out with this cause?
A: I got alopecia when I was 12 years old. It became alopecia universalis when I was 14 and all of my hair fell out. To say that this condition has shaped my life and my decisions is an understatement.
When you have alopecia, you are judged differently by everyone you meet every day, mostly negatively. This is incredibly trying and damaging to a person, especially to a child.
I had to go through this with zero support structure. I was bullied by my school mates and by people in the streets. My parents and doctors at the time didn’t understand the disease, so they couldn’t help me. I thought my life was over, that I would either kill myself or grow up ugly and alone.
The work that CAP is doing is priceless to the fortunate few kids who can actually attend the camps and events. With the help of mentors like myself, people who are living successful and happy lives with alopecia, we can inspire the kids to be happy and confident in their alopecia and to not feel alone or afraid.
Other organisations focus on finding a cure and hiding the condition with wigs and make up, which is totally fine if that’s your choice, but I’d rather see kids (and adults) standing tall and proud with their alopecia.
That’s why Dumbo is so important. People are so quick to judge anyone who looks different to them, or to the stereotypical “norm,” but if you’re different because you’ve no hair or big ears, it doesn’t make you less of a person (or elephant). It simply means you are different and unique.
I have had to learn that being unique is my super power. It’s a thing that sets me apart. It’s the thing that makes me memorable.
When my hair stopped growing, it left a space for my heart to grow. Fear makes us all want to blend into the crowd, but acceptance and confidence make us happy to stand out. That’s what CAP does for these beautiful kids and it’s what Dumbo says to unique people all over the world.
My hope is to be able to allow more kids with less resources to be able to attend the alopecia camps and gatherings, especially those in low income neighbourhoods or cities. No child should have to go through this by themselves.
Q: My mother still religiously watches reruns of “The Bill,” a UK TV show you once appeared on. How do you reflect on your incredible journey from “The Bill” to “Dumbo”?
A: I was working in London’s West End when I booked that episode of “The Bill”. I was damned excited. It was my first ever TV job and I had the most fun working on that episode with that great cast. Especially with Chris Ellison and Russell Boulter. We had a ton of fun.
If you’d have told me back then, in 1999, that in 20 years I would be starring as a Disney villain in a $200m Tim Burton movie, I probably would’ve laughed out loud! I couldn’t even foresee moving to the USA and living in Los Angeles, being friends with two actual astronauts, having an incredible partner, getting to pet tigers and drive fast cars, having tea with Anthony Hopkins and talking politics with Michael Keaton. The list goes on.
My life so far has been quite the journey. It’s been a struggle, but it’s never been boring and there has been a life lesson at every turn. I wouldn’t swap it for anyone else’s journey. I love my work with a passion and I love doing whatever I need to do, no matter how hard, to be able to continue doing that work!