Joseph Gatt On How His 'Dumbo' Villain Is The Darth Vader To Michael Keaton's Emperor [Set Visit Interview]

Joseph Gatt is used to playing the bad guy. With his striking chrome dome, high cheekbones, and thin eyebrows, it's no wonder that Gatt has been typecast as a villain. He's tried to kill Thor as a Frost Giant, and he's terrorized various heroes as countless Russian mercenaries. But in Dumbo, his villain Neils Skellig (the psychotic hunter and right-hand man of Michael Keaton's ruthless circus entrepreneur V.A. Vandemere) hits a little closer to home.

"I'm very anti-hunting and I'm involved in a lot of charities and work against hunting and big-game hunting," Gatt said in an interview from the set of Dumbo in September 2017. "So I know a lot of people that I can reference this particular character to. None that I would want to be friends with or recommend be friends with." But there is one influence on his character who a few people would like to be friends with: Darth Vader. "The way I like to describe Skellig, Neils Skellig, is if you imagine Michael Keaton's character is the Emperor, I'm Darth Vader," Gatt said. "So basically he's the more powerful [guy] in charge of everything, and I just do his bidding."

On /Film's visit to the set of Dumbo, we sat down with Gatt to talk his dynamic with Keaton, and why they're doing more than acting opposite a tennis ball.

This interview was conducted as a roundtable with other assembled journalists.So what can you tell us about your character and role in the movie?

The way I like to describe Skellig, Neils Skellig, is if you imagine Michael Keaton's character is the Emperor, I'm Darth Vader. So basically he's the more powerful [guy] in charge of everything, and I just do his bidding. I'm his head of security and I'm a hunter and I don't like animals very much, so as you'd imagine I get on really well with Dumbo. I have a lot of interesting interactions that don't end very well generally for me.

Do you actually do anything harmful to the animals that we see, like Dumbo?

Like I say, we do have our conflicts. Most people see Dumbo as this cute big-eared pachyderm and he's very cute, has these big eyes and little lashes. I see him as something that would look nice on my wall or as a new hat, maybe a new jacket perhaps. So we don't really see eye to eye.

What kind of conflicts does your character present to Dumbo?

Ooh that would be telling. There's a part in the story where Mrs. Jumbo, well actually there are two occasions — also like in the original animated movie — where Mrs. Jumbo has a bit of a fit and she's taken away and put in her little railcar by herself. And there's another part in the story where Medici's circus has been integrated into the Vandervere Dreamland World. And we don't know if Mrs. Jumbo is there, she's in disguise. Well, Vandervere doesn't know that she is Mrs. Jumbo, and we don't know at the time. And there's a moment that's really cute in the story where Mrs. Jumbo hears Dumbo in pain and she starts calling out to him from the other side of the park, and he escapes from the tent and starts flying through the park to get to his mom. And it's really very cute, and of course it's my job to ruin all of that. To find Dumbo and capture him and put him back. And then we have to obviously get rid of this distraction, being his mother, and I have to do that. But I can't tell you if we actually do get rid of the distraction or not. Let's just say I'm given the task of putting everything in order.

What were some of the things you did to work on the dynamic between your character and Michael Keaton's character?

It was pretty simple in the fact that...we kind of figured out from the start that my character wouldn't be very subservient to his character, to Vandervere. That was one of the main discussions that we had at the very beginning was how subservient I would be to Vandervere. But again, pretty simple to the whole Darth Vader-Emperor [dynamic]. If you go back to that analogy, he's his own powerful character. He ultimately takes order from the Emperor, but you're ultimately just as scared of him as you are of [the Emperor]. He's his own powerful character who makes his own decisions, and Skellig is exactly the same. I mean, left to his own devices, what would Skellig do? Probably rid the whole world of elephants.

It sounds like you're doing a lot of acting opposite a tennis ball, so to speak, if you're dealing with the elephants. How did you deal with acting with something you couldn't see and how did you find that?

You know, they're doing that in lots of very interesting different ways. It's something you get used to whenever you're working on a movie like this it involves a lot of VFX. To be quite honest, apart from so far Dumbo himself, the sets are incredible. And Tim really does like to have as much physically there for the actors as possible. Because there are certain other directors that would do this completely green screen and we'd have to imagine everything. But Tim has given us so much. And regarding working with Dumbo specifically, there are different ways that they're doing that. We have an actual life-size beautiful-looking Dumbo, and I think we have him at two different ages, which they put in to give us an idea of his size and shape in the scene, and do the lighting and that kind of thing. When we actually shoot the scene, he will be removed and we'll either do it with either nothing there or we'll do it with, we have this guy called [Edd Osmond], who is put into a green costume that vaguely mimics the size and shape of what the elephant will be. And he's there, and it's great having him there because he'll actually physically interact with us and move around a little bit. Especially with the kids, they have a lot of very specific interaction with him so it really helps them out, and it helps us get an idea of the elephant's energy. It's really great at bringing the character to life. But it's very rarely that we'll do the work with nothing there at all, there's always something there for reference. A little more than a tennis ball.

What are your memories of the original movie?

I only saw the original animated movie about four weeks before I flew out. I for some reason never saw it as a kid. Which is strange because I'm a huge Disney fan. I love Disney and love most of the work that Disney had done. And actually I watched it after I'd read the script for this. So it was interesting to me while I was watching it to see how much of it was integrated into Ehren Kruger's script. I was speaking to [Ehren] yesterday, I met him yesterday for the first time, and I just congratulated him because he's done such an amazing job at taking all the best stuff from the original movie and then expanding it and putting in all these incredible human characters. But still the main character is Dumbo, it's all about Dumbo. I've read a few things online that people have written where they've gone on about how, "I don't understand, this is supposed to be Dumbo's movie, why are all these other characters in there." And I really want to go on there and start writing and responding, but I can tell you this is Dumbo's movie. Ehren's written these great characters but it all facilitates the story of Dumbo and his journey from birth to the end of the movie and his future so to speak. All the best of stuff is in there. And it's all very politically correct. Because there was a lot of stuff in the original movie, and it's very of its time, that wasn't very socially correct. That's now completely gone. It's very animal-friendly, you won't see elephants standing on top of each other. Everyone's gonna love this movie.

You've done a couple of genre movies where you've played the villain, but you're not that recognizable to your everyday appearance. Are you prepared to be the face of the villain in a family film and have kids scared of you?

I cannot wait. I've done a lot of things, like you said, where I've played the villain. But I try to — like social media's great for this — show the world that I'm an actor and I actually love animals. And I'm kind of a silly person, I work out, I love my girlfriend and I love animals. I'm doing all these fun things. And then I play all these evil, nasty villains onscreen and I love showing people that diversity, that difference. That stopped, so far, people wanting to spit on me in the streets or slap me. But I do get a lot of shouting across the street, especially in LA. "Oh why you'd do that? You tried to kill Thor!"

So as a self-professed animal lover, how do you approach playing a character that is not a fan?

It's difficult, it's hard to explain. It's weird. I had to play a character once where I was a horrible racist, and shouting all this really nasty, racist stuff. And it was very, very difficult for me to do. To the point where I almost turned down the role because I thought, "I don't know if I can do this." You just find the thing about the character that you can relate to. Anything. And as long as you can find something you like about the character, something you can relate to, even if some things go way off into some weird place, then you can connect. And you can use substitutions, you do the actor thing were you turn the racism into some other kind of hate or dislike. But it can be very difficult sometimes. We had to do a scene last week where I was basically threatening to turn Dumbo into an item of clothing, and it was very difficult imagining cute Dumbo there and me being very mean. But that is what we do, that's the job. And then you laugh about it when Tim yells cut, and you do it again.

dumbo trailerThe idea of a Disney villain is very specific. There's often that sort of pantomime silliness and archness. Is there any of that to Skellig or is it more grounded?

I wondered about that before I came here and before I met Tim for the first time. It was one of my big questions. It would be very easy to imagine a Disney villain as sort of "muahaha" and over the top. But Tim is great, he wants everyone playing everything very real, very held back. Not forced, nothing over the top. Even to the point where you feel like, "Did I do enough?" I think the characters and the writing and the story speak for themselves, the actors don't really have to do much. It's so well-written. Everything is played very real, very down to earth and grounded. You don't get much over-the-top stuff, which I think means people are going to hate me even more!

What were your favorite Disney films growing up?

I'm an old romantic. And I cry at silly things. Beauty and the Beast is a favorite. But you know, of the old things, I like the Mickey Mouse originals like Steamboat Willie. That was always a favorite because I used to watch it as a kid with my dad. I liked Lion King, which was always one of my favorites. So I had a few, but they always get me. Aladdin for example was another. I used to do musical theater, so it was always fun singing that when I was at drama school. All my audition songs were from that show. But I pretty much like all of them. I haven't seen much of the newest ones.

That's the great thing about Dumbo. It's almost like Disney are making a new Mickey Mouse. Dumbo is Disney. More than every other character. You take a picture of Mickey Mouse and Dumbo and show it anywhere in the world and people will go "That's Mickey Mouse and Dumbo." Even if you take pictures of the Disney princesses, unless they're really geeky, most people won't know which one it is. But everyone knows Dumbo, everybody knows Mickey Mouse. So it's such an amazing privilege to be part of Disney doing this and being part of Dumbo because it is Disney's heritage. It's going back, what 70 years since the original came out.

How does working with Tim differ from other directors you've worked with?

The only thing I'll say is he just cares so much. I don't think I've worked with a director who cares so much. He cares about the actors being comfortable in what they're doing and feeling safe. And that's why he's put together such a great cast. We're all just playing. There feels like there's no pressure on set, even though you know there is — it's a huge studio feature and there's a lot of money at stake, etc. But you never feel like it on set. Everyone just seems so calm and in control. And none of it gets to the actors. I've worked on sets where there's so much stress, that every time you walk onto set you feel like there's this massive weight on your shoulders at all times. And sometimes you have to catch yourself because you're sitting there, and Tim's there, and Danny Devito, and Michael Keaton, and Colin, and you're hanging out and having fun, and you're like, "Should it be this easy? Should it be this much fun?" But it is, it really is.

Were there any inspirations for your character? Did you look at any real-life actors or movies from the past?

A lot of people that I hate very much. As I said, I'm very anti-hunting and I'm involved in a lot of charities and work against hunting and big-game hunting. So I know a lot of people that I can reference this particular character to. None that I would want to be friends with or recommend be friends with.

Does your character have a really cool costume? Because I know these are all very iconic looks in this movie. Does your character have a distinct look?

All of the costumes from what you've seen in the photos are incredible. But my costume, I wouldn't say it's an exciting costume, I have this beautiful three-piece suit. We're all in suits, which is fantastic, we're obviously period. And some very special footwear that I cannot mention. They're a pair of boots but they're pretty special. And it's a first for me because I've never done anything period before. So normally I'd be doing something futuristic, or I'm in military gear, or covered in blood, or covered in prosthetic make-up or whatever. So this is lovely, I get to wear this beautiful period suit. And I get eyelashes and eyebrows!