Q: What was your reaction to finding out you would be a video game character?
Shawn Ashmore: It was pretty intense honestly. I was excited, you know? I am a gamer, I grew up playing games so the fact that I get to be a part of a video game at this point and not just part of the game but the actual playable character, that made it pretty incredible. And it was a strange process. I’d never done motion capture before, and having your whole self digitally captured and scanned is a bizarre process. Now that I’ve actually finished the game and got to play through it, it’s so incredible.
Q: Yeah I imagine playing as yourself is pretty sweet.
Shawn Ashmore: I’ve always put myself in the shoes of that character that I’m controlling, but now this is the next level of it.
Q: Which games did you play when you were growing up?
Shawn Ashmore: I played everything. I started playing Intellivision when I was a really little kid. I think the game that really pulled me in to immersive gameplay and storytelling and adventuring was Final Fantasy. I used to play with three of my friends, so we each had a character. The rules that we made were we weren’t allowed to play the game if all four of us couldn’t be in the same room at the same time. So that was pre-multiplayer online, lo-fi multiplayer. I moved on to Genesis and N64 and Xbox and 360. The game I’ve been playing almost exclusively for the last four years is StarCraft. I play with my brother. He lives in Toronto and I live in Los Angeles. He got me into it and that’s how we hang out on weekends.
Q: When were you first approached for Quantum Break, and how was it pitched to you?
Shawn Ashmore: I was approached just over two years ago. I got a random call from my agent one day saying Xbox is developing this new IP with Remedy Entertainment and they want to talk to you about it. And I was like “awesome!” I beat Max Payne on the set of X-Men 2 so I was a Remedy fan. I had so much downtime that I just brought in my Xbox and played it on set. I loved their storytelling, and I loved that their games had an interesting hook from the mechanics perspective. I talked to the people at Xbox and they gave me the broad strokes of the time travel story and what they wanted to do, and the high concept of the game and live action show. Immediately I was like, “Okay that’s interesting but risky”.
I’ll be honest, when I play games I don’t necessarily wanna put down the controller for 20 minutes, and I think that’s a lot of people’s initial response. Then IO met with Remedy and when they told me the game was going to be from Jack’s perspective and the show was gonna be from Monarch Solutions’ perspective, that made it more interesting to me. Then I heard about the actors they were getting and I thought “this could really catch fire and be an incredible experience”. I have to say Remedy did a great job with the episodes. I sat down to play the first chapter and watch the first episode, but when I got to the end of the live action episode I was like, “Nope! Gotta keep playing!” That’s exactly what you want – a binge-worthy TV show pulls you through. And I feel like the pacing of the live action did exactly that for me.
Q: Can you briefly walk us through what it was like on each set?
Shawn Ashmore: My preparation as far as creating a a character and a backstory… obviously a lot of it was done by Sam [Lake, Remedy creative director]. I prepared for the role in the same way I would for film and television, and the live action stuff that I shot was very familiar, because that’s in my wheelhouse. The only major difference was how we recorded the performance – it was motion capture which I’d never done before. That was challenging because it’s a new skill. You have to get over wearing these tight spandex suits and feeling silly, and wearing this headgear that’s a little bit cumbersome at times.
And the other challenge is you’re not in the environment that you’re working in. So you’re supposed to be in a jail cell with handcuffs, and the lighting and the size of the room – none of that is there. So you have a table and a chair, and you’re pretending your arms are handcuffed, and you’re imagining this tight space, when in reality you’re in this wide open warehouse essentially. So there’s just elements of using your imagination, but you also need to be as informed as possible, and that’s what our director did really well on set. He had artwork to show us, and he would just talk us through all the information that if you were on a practical set you would automatically have. So that was the major difference.
Q: I spoke with Remedy’s Thomas Puha a few weeks back, and he said that coordinating the live action side of things with the game side of things was a nightmare. Did you get a sense of this chaos behind the scenes, or that Remedy was flying by the seat of its pants?
Shawn Ashmore: Hmm, what should I say about this? [Laughs] No, I’m teasing. I think what Thomas was talking about was just the logistical stuff. We shot an in-game scene with Jack and Beth first on the motion capture stage, but it was a crossover moment where we also see it in the live action. But I don’t think the live action crew had seen what we had shot, so we shot the live action the wrong way – the room was flipped over. Then they had to go back in-game and re-animate certain things. So I think it was just stuff like that – logistics things. From my perspective it didn’t happen that often, but at times it was frustrating because there was just so many details to comb through and make sure everything was identical. And I was blown away, the design of Monarch Solutions in-game is exactly the design of it in the live action set. To walk into a practical version of Monarch Solutions was incredible.
Q: There were a number of other name actors used for the game. Was there any talk about how strange it was working on a game rather than a TV show?
Shawn Ashmore: On the first day we were all in our motion capture suits we looked at each other like, “What are we doing?”. You feel kinda silly wearing these leotards together. But it didn’t feel like we were working on this video game, we were just doing this motion capture performance. We definitely talked about the game, its potential, and what it could look like. We were all interested in how accurate the face models were going to be. And I have to say I’m blown away, it’s kinda freaky.
Q: Did you get any Game of Thrones spoilers?
Shawn Ashmore: No I didn’t. First of all, I hate spoilers so I wouldn’t do that to myself – I wanna enjoy the season. Having being part of the X-Men franchise for so long and knowing how hard the studios work to keep secrets and stuff like that under wraps, I never put an actor in a position where they feel they have to say something they’re not allowed to, or feel like they have to say no to you or whatever. So I just didn’t ask. We did talk about Game of Thrones, but I didn’t ask about the future of It.
Q: How common is it for actors to look at game roles now? Are games a thing that are on the radar of many in the community, or are they still a niche thing?
Shawn Ashmore: I think actors are just looking to tell great stories, so if there is the opportunity… Developers are trying to push the boundaries from a storytelling perspective, and now the technology exists to really capture a nuanced performance, so I don’t think actors are afraid of it or think it’s “lesser-than”. One of the people I talked to about games prior to knowing I was doing Quantum Break was Ellen Page. She did Beyond: Two Souls, and was telling me about the motion capture experience for her and how much she liked it. She was like, “I’ve done this video game”, and I was “Wait, what? You and Willem Dafoe are in a video game?”
So I don’t think there is a prejudice towards video games, I just don’t think people are as aware of it within the community. But if it’s a great opportunity in a medium that people are consuming, then I think it’s a no-brainer to work in video games. As long as the story is great and the characters are interesting, I think people will be open to doing it. And I would again in a second, I loved every second of it.