An unexpected guest of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Michael Eklund didn’t even know himself whether he would be able to attend the premiere of his film Eadweard, for which he subsequently won best actor at both the UBCP Awards and the Alhambra Film Festival, among many other accolades the film has received for production and costume design, makeup, hair, adapted screenplay and cinematography.
A versatile character actor whose lengthy resume tends to favour darker flavoured parts, in person Eklund is charming and effusive company, and on Sunday 28th June 2015 he was kind enough to make time to grab a Starbucks and talk at length about a portion of his career and some of the many genre projects he has been associated with as well as the story behind Eadweard, which also won best picture at the Cape Cod International Film Festival.
Geek Chocolate – You’re here at the Edinburgh International Film Festival with the European premiere of Eadweard, a biopic of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who despite the pioneering nature of his work isn’t a name as well-known his successors Auguste and Louis Lumière or Georges Méliès. How much of his work and history were you familiar with before you read the script?
Michael Eklund – My answer is “none.” I read the script that Kyle and Josh wrote, and I was actually quite embarrassed that I had not heard of Eadweard Muybridge before. I come from an art background where I studied painting for three years at art school, and when I read this story the first thing I thought was “why has this man’s story never been told before and who is this man?”
After I read the script, before I even agreed to say yes, that I was going to do the movie, no matter what I knew that I needed to research as much as I could about this guy just for myself. Once I started researching him and looking at his photographs I realised, oh, I’ve been looking at this man’s photographs for years, my whole life, I just didn’t know it was him who I was looking at.
Then I started researching him and that’s when my imagination started rolling, who this guy was, what he went through, and that’s when I decided that I had to play this role.
GC – The film was adapted from a stage play by your director Kyle Rideout and Josh Epstein. Theatre asks for an inherent suspension of disbelief from the audience which allows more symbolic representation while film has more veracity. How much was changed in the process?
ME – That’s probably a question for the director. I’d never seen the stage play, they closed a few years before we shot the film, so I wasn’t lucky enough to see how they portrayed his story on stage. I heard it was beautiful, I heard there was a lot of dance and they used multiple actors to show his photographs.
I believe using the concept of film opened up the doors so that they could tell more of the guy’s story, taking it from stage to film you could show more of his life. I wish I had seen the play, but I didn’t have anything to compare it to, really.
GC – While Muybridge’s photographic work is preserved in its entirety as are the court records of the murder trial, with gaps in his personal history this is more of an interpretation of his life than a documentary recreation. How much leeway were you given by Kyle in your interpretation?
ME – I would say I had quite a bit of leeway. We had a great script, and as long as I followed the script, as far as character and performance he left it up to me because there is no actual physical record of who Eadweard Muybridge was, there’s very little information about him as a person. I had to scour so many websites and literature and books, anything I could find to find even just a seed of a sentence of who he was. A lot of the research out there is about him but not him as a man.
When you finally realise there’s not a lot about him, it kind of allowed me to build this character from the ground up and make my own decisions on who he was. It meant a lot of conversations between me and Kyle, what direction to go with. We could have played him more insane or crazy, but I didn’t feel that’s who he was, really. He was a scientist, he was very intelligent, but he was very tormented and troubled as well, and so we began there.
GC – You do play him as incredibly driven, intolerant of failure, not a good collaborator, all the things which don’t work well on a film set. How does playing that fit into the daily schedule?
ME – It’s funny, because I’m exactly the opposite of that. I love collaboration, I love the teamwork of what goes on on a film set. I think to be an artist, who Eadweard Muybridge was, or somebody who works at that level, the vibrations he was operating from, no, they don’t play well with others, but on a film set today, in today’s world, you have to. You can’t get away with being those kind of actors that don’t collaborate well with others and it only helps the film if you’re willing to play with everyone and work with each other rather than against.
GC – You were very lucky with the filming with the clement weather, because there’s as much nudity in this film the two hours as on a full season of HBO. Most of the models were a lot younger than you, but you’re in as great a shape as any of them. Was that scene something you had concerns about, and were you aware it was actually going to be on the poster?
ME – I had no idea my nude body was going to be on the poster. That wasn’t in the contract. They didn’t clear that with me at all, but I love our poster, it’s a beautiful poster.
The nude scenes in the film, all I knew was… I did have final approval of that scene because I wanted it to be done tastefully and done right. I studied that photoshoot very intensely and I wanted it to be as perfect and close to the real thing as possible. I think all the models and actors and actresses in the film wanted that as well.
This was a movie that was based on collaboration. All those other actors in the movie, some of them were working for very little money and you were there because you wanted to be there, and it was a passion project. But yes, we did get very lucky with the weather, it was very hot that July, that month of summer, and it helped the film very much.
GC – Another physical aspect of the performance was your impressive and manly beard. Was that all your own work?
ME – That was all my own work. I had three, four months to grow a beard, I had no idea if that was possible, I’d never grown a beard like that, but it was part of the first meeting I had with Kyle Rideout, the director, one of the first questions he asked me was “can you grow a beard?” I knew I could grow a beard, I just didn’t know if I had enough time to grow the beard that we wanted to for the film.
Growing it wasn’t the hard part, the hard part was getting it to be white, and we tried many different ways of doing that, but basically what it came down to was a lot of peroxide and bleach. So we bleached my hair, and then we didn’t know how to turn the beard white and we couldn’t find a makeup artist that had a product that could make it look realistic so we basically went back to a very well-known hair technician in Vancouver who decided to bleach my beard white as well.
What happened was after the film when I shaved the beard off, I realised that I’d chemically burned my skin underneath the beard, which I didn’t know until after we shaved it off and realised that you shouldn’t bleach your face. That was a lesson I learned but I would do it all over again if I had to.
GC – And the pain would have fed into the performance
ME – Exactly.
GC – The recreations of his photographic work, immediately recognisable, are fantastic, but only touched on in one line is his awareness of how vision is perceived and interpreted by the brain. Is that something you would have liked to explore, or would it have moved the story into a different territory?
ME – I think it would have moved it into a different territory. We centred on the relationship between him and his wife Flora. It could have been a whole different movie, but the process and the psychological aspects of his mind and his work, I think we touch on that enough in the film, but this at its core is a relationship film and a love story between him and his wife, and then his work is a third character because it is the wedge that drives between the two characters and their relationship.
GC – Another thing not touched on: while he spent his adult life in America, he was actually English, having been born in Kingston Upon Thames and returning there before his death.
ME – There’s a lot of scenes that we shot that aren’t in the film. I’m looking back now, it’s been over two years now, we shot scenes that took place in London, there are scenes where Eadweard is in the United States and he goes back to London, scenes with Leland Stanford [co-founder of Stanford University and early sponsor of Muybridge’s work] where he was doing talks and speeches to other photographers in London.
We did shoot those scenes but then we cut them out of the last act to focus on the storyline between him and his wife, but there was more in there in the earlier cuts of the film.
GC – It’ll all be on the Blu-ray.
ME – Yeah, deleted scenes.
GC – One of the things that struck me when I was watching the actual physical process of how he created his photographs was that his methods had fallen out of fashion, but then ten to fifteen years ago they fell back into fashion. When you were on set, were you ever tempted to recreate bullet time from The Matrix?
ME – Muybridge is the beginning of The Matrix, it is true. He did it all in one line, twenty four cameras in a line, whereas The Matrix was a circle, but that shot did come from Eadweard Muybridge which I realised when we were making the movie. “This is the Matrix shot, but just… straight.” He was way ahead of his time, Eadweard Muybridge, in many ways.
GC – One of your first prominent roles was in the claustrophobic armageddon thriller The Divide, largely set in a basement in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear attack, where you holding the axe very much became one of the images of the film, even though it’s quite misrepresentative of your character. In an enclosed space it’s entirely up to the cast, and it was quite an ensemble, Michael Biehn, Milo Ventimiglia, Rosanna Arquette… What was that experience like?
ME – Making The Divide, I’ve talked to the other actors in the film and we all agreed that it’s one of those experiences that comes around once in a blue moon. Making that film was a very special time for all of us. It represented something very interesting that we were trying to do in that film. Working with the director Xavier Gens, he’s a French director, his artistic eye and vision for that film, it all comes from his imagination and his twisted mind.
As an actor, shooting a movie in chronological order with seven or eight actors who all work differently, working in one setting and one location, slowly going mad together while making this film over six weeks, also being under a weight loss programme, being forced to starve yourself… you don’t get asked to do that kind of stuff much on a film, and when you are it’s a playground for any actor, and we just had a blast on that movie, all of us.
It’s still one of the most amazing experiences and fun experiences any of us have had. And we all bonded because of it, we’re all friends still because of that movie.
GC – That was co-written by Eron Sheean who also co-wrote and directed you in Errors of the Human Body, a film which couldn’t have been more different, only peripherally science fiction and more character focused than action, a brilliant part for you and a chance to film in Europe. What are your reflections on that film?
ME – Errors of the Human Body is again one of those special moments in your career that you’re very fortunate enough to have that you’ll never get back. Working on The Divide was the beginning of my relationship with Eron, and working together on that film led to him giving me the script on the weekend for Errors of the Human Body.
When we were working on The Divide at the end of each night we would go back to the bar at the hotel and look at the next day’s scenes on The Divide and rewrite them together, and thus began the working relationship we had that led to Errors of the Human Body which took me to Dresden, Germany, which is the beginning of working on Errors which basically led to a snowball effect, working with these filmmakers over and over and over again.
Both The Divide and Errors of the Human Body are special gems on my list of films I’ve been happy to work on that will always stand out for me.
GC – In one of his last roles before his unexpected and very sudden death, the administrator of the facility was played by Rik Mayall, who despite his large and varied body of work, in Britain will always be known as an outrageous alternative comedian. Were you aware of his history and what was he like to work with?
ME – Of course! You have to be aware of Rik’s history. I was a kid, the first Rik movie I saw was Drop Dead Fred, and then years later, working on Errors, when we cast Rik, it was a full circle, you remember his work so well. And then this was a very interesting part for him to play, too, because it was very different, and what I know from his previous work, it was a more of a dramatic turn for him.
What I do remember working with Rik is he was a very, very giving actor, very funny, vibrant, he was excited to work with other actors and he was smiling every day on set. That’s something I’ll always remember about Rik was his smile.
GC – You recently did a season on Bates Motel. It’s not a show where anyone is going to have a happy ending. Were you warned or did you anticipate where you were going, or did you hope you might get through on a lucky break?
ME – Bates Motel, I was a fan of the first season, I never knew that I was going to do the second season, so I was just a big, hardcore nerd fan of the first season. I loved the show so much, and then the show came to us, approached us to be a part of season two, and I jumped at the chance because I loved it so much. Working with Vera Farmiga and Max (Thieriot) and Freddie (Highmore), and everybody on the show was just so nice.
It’s a quality show, the writing is so good on that show, but you’re right, you just hope you would make it to the next script, and the next script. They don’t give you your script ahead of time, they give it to you a couple of days before you start shooting so you’re just hoping that you’re going to make it to the end.
I thought I would make it through a few of them, maybe half way through, but then I made it to the final episode of the season and I was just happy to be a part of the show.
GC – Vancouver is a major centre of television production, has been for twenty years now, and one of the first international shows filmed there, The X-Files, has now returned. Given the chance, would you rather be an FBI agent, part of the shadow conspiracy, a victim or a monster of the week?
ME – I would like to be… oh, that’s a good question. Can I be all of them? In one character?
GC – With that show, quite possibly.
ME – You could be. I’d like to be an FBI agent, I’d like to be part of the shadow conspiracy, I have been the monster of the week on other shows, and you know, the one thing about being the monster of the week, those are the characters that really stand out and those are the characters that really make a show good.
I was a big fan, and one of the reasons why I moved to Vancouver in the first place was that I wanted to be on The X-Files, and soon after I moved there they moved to Los Angeles so I didn’t get to be. Now that The X-Files is back in Vancouver I would love to be a part of it in any way I can. You know what? My answer to that question is that if they’ll have me I’ll play anything.
GC – A show which was too short lived was Almost Human, where you had a single guest role towards the end of the season. It was a hugely ambitious show with a great cast – Karl Urban is pretty much incapable of doing wrong. What was the mood like on that show and what were the hopes for it?
ME – As far as the mood of the show, I was there to do the guest star, the monster of the week I guess you would call him. I remember it was in the same vein as Bates Motel. I do a lot of guest star roles, the character parts and roles, some shows stand out more than others, Fringe was one that was very special to me, Bates Motel, and Almost Human.
They’ve very well done, the scripts are strong, they take the take and attention and shoot the televisions shows like mini-movies. The vibe on that set was very fun. I remember it being just a great group of people. That’s what I took away from the experience. The cast and the crew, everybody was strong and supportive, just a great environment to work in. I wish the show had lasted longer.
GC – You also had appearances in early episodes of both Battlestar Galactica and Caprica. Battlestar became a show which was known for honesty in the writing and great character development coupled with the knowledge that nobody was safe. You only had a small role as Specialist Prosna, down on the hangar deck with Chief Tyrol and Cally but you were introduced as prominently as them, laughing and joking, you were part of the team, and then suddenly the scene where Cally is weeping over your burnt body as they zip up the body bag, it set the tone for so much of what was to come. Did you have any inkling of the juggernaut that show was going to become when you were on set?
ME – That’s a great question, and I’m going to give you an exclusive in this interview because you brought that up. Of course, no, I had no idea what Battlestar was going to become at all. When I signed on to do the show I thought it was a two hour movie, that was it, and being an actor and taking my work very seriously, when I read the script I felt that my character didn’t have a full arc.
Prosna was a deckhand with Cally and Chief Tyrol and everybody but he didn’t have an ending, he just kind of disappeared in the two hour movie, and it bothered me. As I read the script, there was another character, just called “deckhand,” who dies in a fire saving lives. I went to the producers –
GC – Ron and David, I presume?
ME – Ron and David, and I asked them, “has this character been cast yet, the guy who dies in the fire?” They said no. I said “Can I be that deckhand that dies in the fire? Can Prosna die in the fire?” And they looked at me with this quizzical look, they’re like – you want to die in the show? And I said, yeah, my character doesn’t have an ending. And they said, “yeah, if you want to be the guy that dies in the fire, you can be the guy that dies in the fire.”
So I wrote my own death. I volunteered to die on a show that I didn’t know was going to go on for five or six years! Watch all my friends go on to work for six years on this show… Now I don’t know any other actor that would go up to the producer and say “Hey, I’m volunteering to die on this show that’s going to go global, be one of the most popular sci-fi shows ever, can I be killed off the show early?”
Unfortunately, I was that actor, I did volunteer to die early, I had no idea what the show was going to become. However, looking back, if I did do Battlestar for the next six years, there’s a whole line of movies and characters that I wouldn’t have played, so it’s weird how an actor’s career is paved by the choices they make, but looking back in retrospect I think it was a good choice to volunteer to die; financially, maybe not.
GC – According to your toe-tag, your home colony was Caprica, and you did appear as a bartender in an episode of that prequel series. How different was that production, and did you consider whether you might be playing your own grandfather?
ME – I never thought that at all! Yeah, I did one episode, I think it was one scene, on Caprica. I don’t really have much memory of working on the show, it was very quick. I remember them calling me – you know what it was, they called me at the last minute and said “can you come down to the set to be a part of this scene on Caprica, we want you to be in it,” and I was going “yeah, I’m not doing anything today.” So they offered me the role of being this bartender, and as I was doing it I was kind of wondering why they chose me, it was a very small role, but who knows, maybe I was my own grandfather.
GC – You worked with Larry Cohen on Masters of Horror, with Zach Snyder on Watchmen, with Terry Gilliam on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Them is some big names. When is one of them going to call you back to put you in a lead in one their big projects?
ME – Out of those names you just mentioned? I’m waiting every day! Terry Gilliam, he actually told me, I did two days on Doctor Parnassus, we had many meetings beforehand regarding a different character, a different role to play, again, another one of those roles where I was at the gym, I think, and my phone rang, and it was the production and they said “How fast can you be on set? Can you be here in an hour?” I said, “If Terry Gilliam calls, I’ll be there in an hour.”
I showed up on set and he threw me into the scene and when he left he said “It was a small role, but next time,” and I’m still waiting for those calls to come.
GC – The trailer for Dead Draw with Gil Bellows just hit the net recently. Give us the pitch in a nutshell.
ME – Dead Draw: four friends reunited to pull off one last heist that goes horribly wrong.
GC – Doesn’t it always?
ME – Doesn’t it always? It wouldn’t be much of a movie if it just worked out.
GC – And you’ve got a stack of other projects lined up. What’s on the horizon and what are you excited about?
ME – You know what I’m really excited about? I did a movie last year, we shot in New Orleans, called Mr Right, it’s myself, it’s Sam Rockwell –
GC – Sam is just incapable of doing wrong.
ME – I have looked up to that man my whole career, so I was very happy to get a chance to work with him. It also stars Anna Kendrick.
GC – I love her.
ME – Doesn’t everyone?
GC – The first thing I saw her in was Rocket Science which was shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival and she’s done so much since then.
ME – Exactly, so getting to work with them, we did this comedy action movie, combining action with comedy, and that comes out this year.
GC – Who’s the director?
ME – Paco Cabezas.
GC – Thank you for your time today and for being here at the festival, it was a wonderful surprise to see you last night.
ME – I’m just happy to be here in Edinburgh, at the festival for our premiere of Eadweard, it’s very special for us, and just having the chance to show the film to a variety of audiences all over the world over the last three to four months has just been an amazing experience. Coming to Scotland has just been so cool, it’s been one of the places I’ve always wanted to see in my life, and having this film come here has given me the opportunity to do that, it’s just been a dream come true.
Special thanks to Michael for his kindness and generosity and my apologies for taking so long to transcribe the interview