Interview: 'Warcraft' Actor Toby Kebbell On The Beauty Of Durotan And Motion-Capture

Warcraft isn't actor Toby Kebbell's first rodeo with motion-capture. Following up his performance in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which he played Koba, Kebbell stars in director Duncan Jones' fantasy film as Durotan, a noble orc more interested in peace than war. The Blizzard adaptation shows both sides of a war — and Durotan is unquestionably the moral compass on the orcs' side.

It's this nobility and thoughtfulness, as Kebbell explained to us, that informed the physicality of his performance. Below, read our Toby Kebbell interview.

You worked with [movement choreographer] Terry Notary on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and you worked with him again on Warcraft. Where do the two of you start when it comes to building a character? 

Terry is a unique individual, as in his ability to teach you your basics: how you would stand, how you would sit, how you would crouch, how you would begin to run. His ability to figure out what you need to change in your foot, or your knee, or your shoulder. That's what we call "selling out" in the motion-capture craft. If you give a half-performance, you basically ... The computer tells you out, you know, it sells you out. There's just no way for the computer to comprehend you're having a bad day, or you've hurt your knee. You've got to give it 100% every time. He's great for that.

On top of that, then you just build your character. He gives you such a nice arena to do that in. He takes away all the questions about the small details. How would I do that? How would I stand? How would that happen? Once you've been doing that consistently for a week, then you take it home. You start to take your produce out of the fridge and do it in the manner of the orc or sit on the lavatory in the same way. It just becomes something you inhabit, and then you can build your character. It's just such a nice process to have Terry around. I could happily say he's a lifesaver.

What sort of physicality did you want to create for Durotan? 

I constantly from the beginning was saying he's a very, very noble person in the sense of... Having the heart to be a hero is really all that will make it in the end, you know. Beyond the glory of what was heroic in the film, and in the script, and what we were going to end up doing; really it was about how he came into being. The nice thing about working on a project that's created by Blizzard and has this massive following is, people have done details, fans have made films. It was very clear who Durotan was. A lot of things that you would usually do to conjure the character had been done, so you could just research them.

With Terry, we just wanted to make sure that he had... He had a lumber that was easy. He didn't have to stand proud. He didn't have to stand big. He didn't have to make himself large. If anything, he would make himself somewhat smaller you know. Just a smooth walk, nothing with great massive presence until it was required. He was a big thinker, and that was really what I wanted Durotan to be. It was a deep, deep thinker.

Mentioning the wealth of information at your disposal, in your research, did any piece of information, in particular, inform your performance? 

You know, none of the facts out there informed anything more than a short film made about where Durotan came from, and how he became the chieftain of the Frostwolf Clan. It's animated, but it's partial animation; it's a picture where the camera moves across the image. It's a lovely little story about the final time he saw his mother and his elder brother. That was very informative because it gave the understanding that there's a wrath and a rage inside of Durotan that he can keep at bay. He has control of his tiger, if you like. He has control of the temper that's within. That was very informative.

Furthermore to that, I watched a documentary called Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. It's a great documentary. The main guy had a great manner about him. I showed the film to Terry, and he loved it. That's really what we worked on, is that calm, the thoughtfulness that we really wanted for Durotan, that I really wanted for Durotan.

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It sounds exactly like crafting a live-action performance, and it's just that you need to be more technically mindful with the motion-capture process. 

Yes, this is exactly that. It's just more detailed. You just have to be aware constantly, but you don't want your performance to be too mannered. You're aware that the computer won't give you any leeway. You have to sell the orc. You have to be big, even though you're in pajamas and the same height as the person you're standing opposite. You have to seem bigger than them. You have to seem as if you're calming them, that you're showing them you're no threat. Even though you're very intimidating and threatening, you're not going to threaten them.

Then, of course, the beauty of having great actors around is, you don't have to play the king; they play that you are the king. There was a lot of that happening, especially with me and Rob [Kazinsky]. Rob was great at that support of being like, "Well, this is the king. He's our hero. He's our leader." It's very important for the other actors to do that for us. To all understand who we're supporting and how we're supporting. I was very lucky as well with great performers giving me that effort in the background of it all.

Plus, playing an orc, it must be freeing as a performer, having the advantage of being able to disappear more. 

You disappear completely, so that it's just the performance. That's exactly what you're doing. And you're aware that you're doing it for an artist that's going to have to watch those dots and be irritated that you were doing something weird with your hand, or you were doing something weird with your foot, or you were tapping your leg, or you were jiggling it; so you've got to be very consciously aware of every detail of what you're doing. A lot more goes into it, but if you're doing your job as a live action actor right, you're doing the same thing. You don't want some editor to be irritated by the fact that you're doing something weird with your hand. You just have to be aware, take away the manner in which it shows that you're acting. It just takes a lot of effort. Save going out for when you've got no work to do, and sit at home and work on it, really.

For Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you had to have a low-hanging lip for Koba. Were there any facial features or changes you needed to keep in mind for Durotan? 

The beauty of working with ILM was they kept saying to me, "Okay, so we want a bigger version. Do that again. We'll do the take again, but we need a bigger version." I said, "Honestly guys, having just worked with... " Because ILM, solid structures, they have down perfectly. This is an incredible company. This was the company who made Who Framed Roger Rabbit? They were responsible for the Judge or "Doc," as he's more commonly known. They know masses and reams of stuff, but what was very clear, having just come from playing Koba, is you could be incredibly subtle, and they will get that information.

They were fresh to it at that point, a little bit. "Well, we're not 100% sure, let's do a big one." So I kept doing a big version. What was nice is going back up to ILM and seeing them again. "Good God, you talked us into those subtle ones, because they're the ones that mean so much." Once you're not looking at my face anymore, you can actually see through the dots: what my nostrils are doing, or why I pulled my teeth back, or why I clenched my jaw. That became fascinating.

For Durotan, what I tried to do was keep a very even eye movement. When he moved, there was very rare times that he would flick his eyes. That's something that you see with very confident predators, very confident animals. Even with the apes. I mean, sitting and watching apes is therapeutic for everybody. Especially these poor lab apes, the ex-lab apes. In New Orleans, they have the enclosures where these ex-lab apes are. What's amazing is you can tell who is the dominant ape; he's the one who glances at the activities, rather than flicks and looks. He's looking up through his eyes.

It's old-fashioned stuff. It's things that tons of actors have done before, it's just a new craft. That this beautiful technology can pick up on these very subtle movements.

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Warcraft opens in theaters June 10th.