MARVEL'S AVENGERS Star Nolan North On Playing Iron Man, Following Robert Downey Jr., And More - EXCLUSIVE
We caught up with the legendary Nolan North to discuss his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man in Marvel's Avengers, bringing the hero to life with performance capture, a possible return to the role, and more...
With over 400 acting credits to his name, to call Marvel's Avengers star Nolan North one of the most prolific actors working today would be an understatement. He also happens to be among the most talented, and after bringing Nathan Drake to life in PlayStation's critically acclaimed and best-selling Uncharted series, he's now breathing life into Tony Stark, a.k.a. the Invincible Iron Man.
It's hard to think of an actor better suited to follow in the footsteps of Robert Downey Jr., and while we'll have much more to bring you from Nolan over the next couple of days, we thought we'd kick things off by delving into what he had to tell us about joining the ranks of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
As well as starring in video games, animated TV shows, and movies, Nolan also has his own YouTube channel - Retro Replay - so make sure you head over and subscribe (you can watch some of his Marvel's Avengers videos below). You can also find him on Twitter at @nolan_north and Instagram at @reallynolannorth to keep up to date with that series and his future projects.
When it comes to iconic franchises, it feels like you've pretty much been in all of them at this point in your career. But when you got that call for Marvel's Avengers, arguably the biggest franchise in the world these days thanks to the movies, how did that feel?
It was a thrill. An absolute thrill. Shaun Escayg, our Creative Director, he and I had worked together when he was at Naughty Dog, and we've known each other for years. The great thing is, is he called me and said, 'I need you to be Iron Man.' I'm like, 'Okay!' It wasn't 'Let me think about it,” it was, 'Absolutely!' First of all, it's an amazing character, an iconic franchise, and an iconic character. It's also a chance to work with friends and people you know and trust and have a good rapport with. There's a lot of trust there and I just loved the challenge.
People have asked me, 'Is it daunting taking on Iron Man after everything Robert Downey Jr. did?' and it isn't. You'd think it would be, but it's a different medium and a different world. I would never try to imitate Robert Downey Jr. You can't do that, otherwise you're always going to be compared to something. It's better to make it your own as it lives in its own world. I just did my spin on it. Granted, here and there, there was a little bit of phrasing that paid homage to what Robert did, but that was just my own personal little Easter Eggs, saying a certain phrase the way I think he might have said it. Not do his voice, by any means, but the way he phrases something. I'd like to see if the fans recognise any of the moments where it might sound like the Iron Man they know and love from the films. It was fun to do that, and it was fun to put my own spin on it, but give it little nods here and there.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, and if Nathan Drake was my Indiana Jones, this is my Han Solo. It's the little Harrison Ford comparison I keep in my head [Laughs].
When you're following in the footsteps of someone like Robert Downey Jr. or even Ryan Reynolds and Bradley Cooper with characters like Deadpool and Rocket, is it important that you get to put your own stamp on a character rather than potentially being asked to imitate what they did?
I don't know if, at this point in my career, I'd be interested in doing an imitation. What is the old saying? Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but comparison is...the thief of joy? I think that's it. You don't want to do that. In terms of Rocket Raccoon, they just needed that New Yorker, abrupt and gruff kind of thing; no one ever asked me to do a Bradley Cooper, and that was fine.
The Deadpool one is interesting because, technically, I voiced Deadpool before Ryan Reynolds did. That was purely my own thing, clearly. The first time Deadpool ever spoke in anything other than a video game, which I believe John Kassir may have done in the 80s, was Hulk vs. Wolverine which was a direct-to-video film and the first time he spoke in a 'theatrical' release. Craig Kyle, who was one of the producers, said that Ryan Reynolds was a long-time fan and actually praised what I did. He really liked it, and I know he played the video game one time with Jacksepticeye and he had some high praise for me, and I started DM'ing with Ryan on Twitter, telling him, 'You've made me cooler to my kids than I've ever been,' and he's a fan! The only comparison I would give myself with Ryan Reynolds is that we're both fans of Deadpool before we ever did Deadpool. Him probably more so, and I just love what he did, and I've actually been a fan of his since the days he was on Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. I just think his timing, his wit...he's one of the guys on my bucket list I would love to work with on an on camera role. He's just funny as hell. Or animation! I'd do either with him!
Tony Stark is obviously a pretty unique guy, so I was wondering what quirks you decided to bring to the character, whether it was through your vocal or physical performance?
First of all, you don't want to do anything that's too broad. I just played him as straight as I could. The writing was really good, so there was nothing I really had to do except be true to the character, and I think a lot of pressure was really taken off me because it's an ensemble piece. It's not about Iron Man or Tony Stark; he's a player in this whole play and to do anything too quirky or anything that might stick out like a sore thumb when Travis [Willingham] is doing such a great Thor and Troy [Baker] is doing such a great Bruce Banner, and Laura is there as Black Widow. When you're doing performance capture, it's important to stay subtle and know your part in each scene. This game is really centred around Kamala Khan and Captain America, and everyone has their part to play, but there's nothing I had to do quirky. I think Shaun told me, 'What I know of you, personally, this is why I want you as Iron Man. You're perfect for this, and just the right blend of smartass and badass.' Sometimes just saying the words and playing it as honestly as you can, you find the character rather than trying to manufacture something you think might work. You just need to trust yourself, trust the writing, trust the cast, and the rest takes care of itself.
You obviously weren't lending just your voice to Iron Man as Marvel's Avengers uses performance capture, so what was it like actually being able to physically play this character as well?
It's great. The funniest part about it is that every time Iron Man takes off in his suit, I push my hands down and go up on my toes like I just took off, but I don't go anywhere. So, I'm standing there on my tippy toes like Tinkerbell while everyone else is finishing the scene! A lot of times, Travis Willingham had to swing the hammer and be taking off, so he's standing next to me like the Statue of Liberty holding a hammer, and we're staring at each other laughing, but we have to be quiet! That was the biggest challenge of playing Iron Man: keeping a straight face while taking off!
With Marvel's Avengers, what I really loved about the game were the character interactions, whether it was Tony talking to Kamala about the significance of her costume from a cultural standpoint or the way Tony and Bruce clash on the Helicarrier. Were there any of those that really jumped out to you as an actor?
I think those elements, especially in a game, are very, very important. There was talk about nobody not wanting a narrative element in games, and I don't believe that. I think there are different types of games for different types of people. The game is a game. It's action. That's the action, that's the play, and that's what's paramount to any successful game. How good is the gameplay, and how does it look and how does it play and the mechanics? The bottom line, is it cool? What tempers that and what's nice is that you have these softer moments. These quieter, narrative moments that give it a good balance. I think those are vital to a good game where those narrative moments aren't just to set up the next sequence of gameplay, they're to give you a little backstory and help you fall for these characters.
One of the most important things to me, as an actor, with any character, is vulnerability and likeability, even if you're playing a bad guy. When I played David in The Last of Us, my major hope is that people liked David. I've heard they did and people say, 'I bet he was a really nice guy before he lost his mind' in this apocalyptic setting that he lived in as he was probably a really nice, soft spoken guy and someone you'd want to have a beer with. Now, he's killing people! [Laughs] You make him likeable and vulnerable, and that's why he's so soft spoken. I didn't want to play the typical, 'Oh, look out for him!' That was a character you want to look at, understand why Ellie trusts him, and then he turns. With Iron Man and Tony Stark, you have to show that he's flawed, and he knows it, but won't admit it. He's the kind of person where you want to go and give him a hug and say, 'It's okay, you don't have to put up this front.' Find that vulnerability and likeability in any character you play, and because those are so important to the moments you're asking about. The moments before action, and yes, as an actor, are wonderful to play. That's what we do!
With COVID, what sort of impact is that having on you as a voiceover and performance capture actor, and are you anticipating going back to record any more dialogue for Marvel's Avengers?
I think Avengers is done right now. If they choose to do more content, I don't know, but I'm ready to go [Laughs]. I want to keep doing it. I think a lot of that becomes economic and I can't speak to it as I don't know the ins and outs of that side. COVID has been interesting. Fortunately, no one close to me has gotten super ill. I know some people who have had COVID, but they got over it, thank God. Being shut down with my wife, our dog, my twenty year old son and my seventeen year old son has actually been nice. They're getting older, and it's almost like having our kids back when they were nine, ten years old [Laughs]. They're here at the house and we'd make our runs to the grocery store in the early days of this to get as much food as we could, cook it, and stay home and watch movies and spend time together. That side is positive.
Business wise, I ended up finally putting a sound booth in my house, and it's been great. Good mic, laptop, and little compressor, and boy, I've been able to just walk down the hall and do a lot of work from here. In the future, I don't know, until this is fully clear, I don't think I'll go back. First of all, I don't have to drive all day to different studios back and forth, running across town to get to different sessions. It's freed up more of my day here and I think it's been good for me, personally. I've been very, very fortunate, and I don't take that for granted. I know a lot of people are suffering, so I don't like to make light of it, but personally, things have slowed a bit, but I've been able to stay pretty steady with a lot of stuff and more and more studios are embracing recording from home. Zoom has made it very easy because I can share my screen and they can run all the ins and outs. Technology has been a wonderful thing and got me through some tough times here.
"Oh, crap" kind of became an unofficial catchphrase for Nate in the Uncharted games, but were there any lines or ad libs in Marvel's Avengers you were particularly proud of?
You know, the 'Oh, crap,' was something I used to say a lot anyway. I don't remember, I should talk to Amy [Hennig] and find out whether she wrote 'Oh, crap' or...you know, I think she wrote it first and I said, 'I say that all the time.' She goes, 'You're kidding me?' and it was just serendipity. You know, 'Oh, crap,' is kind of my thing, and it worked. For the first one, I don't think we...I'm sure there were some lines that were ad libbed or when we did do recording in the booth rather than being on stage, we'd play with lines and I'd say, 'What if we did it this way or let Thor take this line and I'll take his and we'll switch lines because that works better.' There was a lot of that kind of stuff, but the fact it was an ensemble and our first go round, it was written really well so I don't think there was a lot of ad-libbing to be honest with you. Because it's a well-known character...catchphrases are something the fans create, and if you try to create a catchphrase, it's just forced. It doesn't come off as organic and never works.
It's been great to follow you since Uncharted, and something that stands out to me about what you do is when we hear your voice in a game or animated film or TV show, it's not, 'That's Nolan North doing the same voice again,' there's always something so different about your performances and it's been a pleasure to speak with you, so thank you.
No, thank you. I appreciate it. That's what really makes this so much fun for me. I love when people go, 'I didn't know that was you!' It's like, 'No, you shouldn't!' [Laughs] I'll tell you something, Josh, selfishly, that's something that makes it interesting and exciting for me when I can play with different characters. I do a character in Star Trek: Lower Decks and they brought me in and said, 'This character is going to be an old man and a little boy and they got scrambled up in the teleporter by mistake and now we don't really know what the voice is.' I said, 'What if I did old to young and young to old and it goes in and out?' They said, 'What do you mean?' So, [adopts a child's voice] 'What if he's a kid just like this and then [adopts an old man's voice] then he goes down to an old man and says, 'If we don't get back to the teleporter, everyone's gonna die!'' They were like, 'Yeah, do that!' It was hysterical and something you just do with your friends at school. It's the stuff I got in trouble for, goofing around and finding a different voice, looking at a picture of somebody and saying, [adopts a dumb guy's voice] 'Maybe he sound like this?' That's fun and that's the one thing I've focused more with voiceover over the last several years rather than on camera stuff because all that was, 'Okay, you're a lawyer again. You're someone's dad again. You're the doctor.' On camera, you're limited to your physical appearance and how that comes across, but with voiceover, you can be anybody or anything. It's never-ending and the best job in the world.