An Interview with Marton Csokas
It’s pronounced Cho-kash (Martin), it’s Hungarian, and he’s a 39-year-old New Zealand actor who, for the past four years, has been showing up in major releases on the film festival circuit (Evilenko, Asylum) and major U.S. productions (The Bourne Supremacy, Timeline, Kingdom of Heaven, The Great Raid). His name does not exactly trip off the tongue of most film buffs; however, the spotlight is bound to shine brightly on him with his next release, a film rendition of the MTV animated series Aeon Flux, in which he takes on the part of the dark Trevor Goodchild, love interest of Chalize Theron, who plays the title role.
Marton Csokas, a classically trained actor out of the New Zealand Drama Academy, has run the gamut of roles: as a Mongol warrior, complete with flowing black hair, Fu Manchu moustache, goatee and scimitar sideburns in camp rerun classic Xena: Warrior Princess; ultra-cool, clean-shaven, raven-haired Euro-villain Yorgi in xXx; hulking and hairy medieval bad guys in both Timeline and Kingdom of Heaven; and the handsome, wife-murdering, morbidly jealous Edgar Stark in Asylum.
Inarguably, Csokas has kept his image fluid. His theatrical work includes roles in robust classics such as Twelfth Night, Angels in America and The Cherry Orchard; roles in small, critically-acclaimed films such as Rain, Hurrah, and The Three Stooges; and even a stint canoodling, nude, with a native in the gay short Twilight of the Gods.
Born in Invercargill, New Zealand, to a Hungarian father of the same name, a mechanical engineer who fled Hungary after World War II, and a Kiwi mother, a nurse, Csokas and his younger brother ping-ponged between Australia and New Zealand as his ever-restless father took jobs in several locales. The couple eventually divorced and for several years the young Marton remained estranged from his father but was infected with a never-ending wanderlust himself: After high school, he spent several months traveling around Europe, a period which he says opened his eyes to the arts. Upon returning to New Zealand, Csokas spent time at university and an arts school, eventually settling on acting as a vocation and winding up at the New Zealand Drama Academy. After hiring an agent and finding only sporadic work in drama, he eventually landed steady work by snagging a role in the long-running NZ soap, Shortland Street, and continued to find work in New Zealand and Australian theater, television and film.
The decision to take on more global films, Csokas says, was not a career move but was driven by a personal decision to leave Sydney and move on to somewhere new—namely, Hollywood. He hasn’t sat still since. His film work has taken him to the Czech Republic, Morocco, Spain, and Germany, to mention a few. Between bouts of promoting his recent works at various film festivals both here and abroad, Csokas has been showing up at a flurry of media events in stylish suits, a modern, close-cropped coiffure and a trendy frieze of five-o’clock shadow, a bit stiff and seemingly nervous in the bright glare of the U.S. paparazzi. This new Marton is a far cry from the espresso-sipping, American Spirit smoking, loquacious and ingenuous guy in baggy jeans and polo shirt who punctuated his words with a toss of tousled locks as he chatted with us about life and art a few months earlier at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
Offscreen: Your trip to Europe when you were 18 —why did that inspire you to go into the arts?
Csokas: I did it on the cheap —I slept in fields or train stations or youth hostels or whatever. The first thing that really got me was an exhibition of German Expressionists, in London, people like Otto Dix, [Ernst Ludwig] Kirchner, George Grosz, all these kinds of people. That was the wonderful thing, just to see how other people think and the idea of, the concept of, creativity being…well, I would have used the word God at the time… but the idea that you can pursue one’s life in a broader perspective through the arts —do good work for humanity as well as being spiritual without wanting to sound too grand (laughs).
In England, I worked in a school for a couple of months. I was teaching anything and everything. I was meant to be sort of supervising —there was a virus that went through the school and a number of the teachers fell ill, so I was teaching— I wasn’t really, but, you know, I was supposed to be teaching, Latin, French, religious studies, music, physical education, the whole lot. That was a little daunting and if there was any desire to be a teacher, it got well and truly thrown out of my system.
Offscreen: Did you get back to your roots, to Hungary, while you were in Europe?
Csokas: It [the job] provided me with some income and I could explore things; I was able to travel to Hungary which was the destination that I wanted to arrive at. I was not there for very long. I found it overwhelming —I was looking for my father’s family but as we spoke of he was an orphan during the war so it was actually very, very difficult and I got frustrated by it. It was in the middle of winter as well and I followed various leads that I had, followed people to try and find some contacts that may have known my father’s family. It was successful but it wasn’t really what I had in mind.
Offscreen: Do you speak Hungarian? Did you learn any from your father?
Csokas: My knowledge of the language is minimal and having come from New Zealand, there were all these other places that I wanted to visit, so I went to Italy and then I went to France and then during the course of my trip I realized I wanted to do something where I could travel and have an income at the same time. So that has really worked out, with my acting and all.
Offscreen: Did attending the New Zealand Drama School have a strong influence on your acting? Would you call yourself a Method actor, or something else?
Csokas: I’m not a Method actor. They taught a lot of things and I was fortunate, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, to have three artistic directors —it was a period of transition, the first director had been there 13 years when we arrived and he was retiring. He became quite reflective and passed on a lot of stories that were, I imagine, what he thought were the most important things which at the time I didn’t want—I didn’t want life’s lessons I wanted to learn to be an actor! I thought what the hell are we learning, what does this mean? But, I realized later, the things he taught were some of the most important things, particularly approval vs. disapproval, looking to other people to see if they disapprove of what you’re doing in your work, and personally as well I suppose, but specifically in this case with work, do people like what I’m doing? —especially as a student when you’re learning— or do they dislike what I’m doing? Do I have to do something better or something different?
So basically, the crux of it is that everything you do ends up being guided by other people. I think there is a responsibility to find your own way. With the three people who headed the drama school, who were so obviously different, I was so frustrated, but then I realized, ah! Well that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
So I spent a lot of time in the library, reading about whomever whether it be [Vsevolod] Meyerhold, Stanislavsky, [Tadashi] Suzuki —which is a normal education in drama anyway— but really finding out who and what I might align with, and basically there’s something in just about everything. I had a very eclectic training, classical predominantly, but very eclectic and it’s still very eclectic for me. I think you find your own method – your own process is very, very important.
Offscreen: Since your first taste of professionally paid acting work was in the Kiwi soap Shortland Street, how did you reconcile that with your desire for “art” and your eclectic training?
Csokas: A lot of people looked down on that, but I learned a lot about how to ingest vast quantities of lines, do it quickly, be economical in one’s approach, go home, get up the next day and do it again. I thought, “This is easy!” There are a lot of actors I know who wanted that tortured artistic process, the “we need more time, we need to talk about it, we need to walk through it,” but when you’ve got 15 minutes to get the job done because the light is disappearing or you have to be out of the location, you’ve got to just throw it all away and just do it. I was a purist when I was in drama school but that changed very quickly —money is a strong motivating force out of necessity. There is a system of cooperative theater in NZ —you get a small amount of money from somewhere, you get sponsors for your posters, for anything. So my idealism was being challenged, that’s for sure. The tutors from my drama school, they were still all doing that and I thought, “Hmmmm…if I want to have a family, if I want to have a so-called normal life or to support myself and possibly someone else and children, how am I going to do that on the 69 dollars?
Offscreen: You were working steadily as an actor in television, stage and movies for 10 years before making the move to Hollywood—why the sudden switch?
Csokas: I’ve never been someone who has had aspirations for Hollywood; a lot of my colleagues have and I could never understand it. I mean, if I’m working and doing things that I love, that is the most important thing. I know plenty of people who went from New Zealand to Hollywood and came back with their tail between their legs, broken, just disillusioned, the whole thing, and then they start again. I thought, “No, I’m getting work.” Not that I’ve always had work, but compared to a lot of people’s careers, I’ve managed to keep it going. So I did The Three Stooges; the producer [Jim Lemley] was very supportive and said he’d given my name to a casting director in Los Angeles and told me that he thought I should come over to Hollywood. I took three steps back and said okay, that’s flattering, but what’s the reality of that? Anyway, the casting director, Mindy Marin, she sent me three scripts over the course of the year. I put myself down on tape in New Zealand for three big Hollywood films, and I thought “mmm, okay, some of the characters are quite interesting, the rebel or outsider or the mad person;” I like that kind of role.
I sent off my tapes and I came close to getting one of them, but emigration and visas were a problem so things didn’t go my way. And these were for small, cameo kind of roles; the three were all bad guys. It was interesting to go through for the sake of it, I kind of like that, and she [Marin] was saying “come over, come over, come over” and something happened in my personal life (his face darkens with the memory) which, by the way, tends to lead me in my career.
I went over during the filming of Garage Days —we had a month off. I went to just change the scenery, to L.A., and I got an agent; it happened relatively easily and quickly. At the end of the year, I thought, well, I don’t want to be in Sydney for various reasons so I went back and I got XXX within two weeks. Travel was an incentive; so was being in Prague [where the film was partially shot]; it was a fairytale for me. It was like “Wow!” I was so lucky and the money I was paid was like “Wow!” I mean I know I didn’t get anything near what people get, but it was fantastic.
Offscreen: Was there a backlash at home in the industry for leaving to go to Hollywood? Did people perceive it as selling out?
Csokas: I haven’t lived in New Zealand for seven years. I was in Australia for three and here [in the U.S] for four. I’ve spent more time everywhere else. New Zealand has an inherited mode of behavior which we term “The Tall Poppy Syndrome;” in a field of poppies they’re all level, and if one comes too high –ha, ha, ha (sardonically) it’s chopped down; it’s inherent in the psyche of NZ. It can be useful, I suppose, it keeps you down to earth, but it can also be destructive. It comes from England, from what I’ve seen.
In other countries, particularly European countries, if you’re successful, your success is celebrated; if you’re an asshole, you’ll be treated accordingly, but if you’re deemed to be good at what you do and have a degree of graciousness or whatever, then you’re celebrated, if your work is appreciated, people don’t feel an inherent responsibility to make sure that you don’t get too arrogant.
Offscreen: What about the celebrity scene in the U.S.—how do you handle that? It’s dangerous ground, isn’t it?
Csokas: In the States it’s the other extreme, it’s the opposite, you’re lauded with a great deal of worship, and people do start to feel that the sun does shine under their ass, which is weird.
Offscreen: Have you ever been seduced by your success? Has your ego ever gotten out of control?
Csokas: No, I don’t think I’m successful. In New Zealand you go from job to job.
Offscreen: Why do you play all these dark, violent characters —the wife-murderer in Asylum, the evil Templar Guy de Lusignan in Kingdom of Heaven, the fanatical anarchist Yorgi in XXX, the rebellious and mad Captain Redding in The Great Raid— are you type-cast, or do you enjoy these kind of characters?
Csokas: I think we all have those capabilities. I love all that stuff —the complex. But then again, that is true in life —I do have a relatively sunny disposition but there are other things that are going on inside me. I might meet someone whom I find incredibly obnoxious, but of course there are other qualities to them. We are fully described people, most of us, and those are the things to treasure and explore, that’s the journey. If I play good people, I always try to find the things that aren’t good. I look for some qualities that are distasteful or not appreciated. There really shouldn’t be a division. So if I play a bad character, I look for their charm, their good points, the things that make them human.
Offscreen: How do you come by such characters in Hollywood? A lot of major releases have a very simplistic view of the world and make a clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys without much room for complexity.
Csokas: There are some things I’ve been involved with that when you read the script there is a great deal of complexity among all the characters and in the story, but at the end of the day what’s seen on screen compared to what we’ve shot, a lot has been subtracted. The general feeling in Hollywood is to keep it simple. Those stupid test screening! “How do you feel when so and so dies?” It’s so bizarre.
Offscreen: Like A Beautiful Mind? The script writers left out some things about John Forbes Nash, Jr. that aren’t very attractive to the average American viewer such as his homosexuality and the fact that he had a three-year affair during his marriage. The character Alicia, who in the film was made his wife, was actually his mistress; his wife was an entirely different person.
Csokas: A Beautiful Mind was a Sunday Night Movie, very palatable. You can see it and happily go to bed. In the final edit of a film, some of those things might be taken away. In xXx, Yorgi was a more complex character, as was Vin Diesel’s. They explored the two poles of anarchic behavior and that got diminished for the sake of explosions and stunts which is all fine and dandy but it is a very different film.
Offscreen: His motivation for wanting to start a World War and have the whole world implode wasn’t even explained until his monologue near the end of the film.
Csokas: Yorgi’s speech at the end got simplified. There were a number of other scenes we didn’t shoot at all which held the mental application to the politics very clearly. His political exposition was very clear and when that disappeared, I felt, okay then, we have the emotional version, an ideology. The points that placed it in some kind of loose reality were gone. It taught me not to take it too seriously and that there are stepping stones. I didn’t necessarily not want to do that film, but it was suggested to me that it would open other doors and it has.
Offscreen: You’ve played a lot of baddies. Actors are notorious for letting a character cross over into their everyday lives. Has that happened to you?
Csokas: When I was younger, I let a piece of work at one point cross into my personal life.
Offscreen: Tell me a bit more about that. What role was it?
Csokas: I can’t tell you, but I got caught up in the work. He wasn’t a very nice character and it was just a matter of not being responsible to people who I was close to. It was terrible. I was fortunate that the other person concerned was forgiving. But it was just awful, just one day realizing “I’m going down here, this is such bullshit!”
Offscreen: Did your friends or a lover or someone else clue you in, or did you realize it yourself?
Csokas: I realized it myself. You lie in bed and know something is going on, that something is amiss. I was being completely dishonest with myself and with other people and before long it gets revealed. It didn’t take too long, maybe month. All this is really irrelevant.
Offscreen: No, actually it’s quite interesting.
Csokas: [Laughs and answers with a good deal of irony] Yes, well, I’m sure it is interesting but all I’m saying is that in terms of your original question, to leave a character at work is a good thing. Of course you’re thinking stuff all the time but the division between illusion and reality is one to make and I’m just saying I sort of experimented to see how far I could go with it and it was ridiculous. I think it says more about lack of knowledge of myself, the desire to escape, to flee who I am and not have the responsibility which I believe one has not to let everything go, which is different than accepting who one is and abandoning oneself to life.
Offscreen: So in your view, what is the nature of living your internal life well? What’s it all about?
Csokas: The esoteric aspect of life and the metaphysical aspects of life they are very, very important. This sounds so incredibly inane, but it’s always been part of my life; it comes and goes, I’ve lost it at times for a long time. The internal pursuit that we’re all lucky enough to have as individuals in the world is to me what is satisfying. And if it’s successful to live, to even be here as we are, it is weird and incredible to be here, it’s weird to be alive in our environment. It’s such a bizarre concept to be alive on this planet earth and to do all the things that we do to be in our lives.
Offscreen: What about all the chaos and wars and suffering?
Csokas: I admire those people who literally want to save the world, who contribute in their field. They have this unrelenting drive to whatever it is they want to do, to discover a miracle formula, to feed the starving people of the world, to work on an invention and to do things that actually make the world a better place; this is what is successful. To have intimate relationships and reconcile all that noise that I have inside myself to some place of connection with being conscious, this is good. I’m learning, I’m stumbling through life like all of us.
Offscreen: How do you handle all the travel and your relationships, your friendships, lovers?
Csokas: In some ways it means that one is isolated but it also means that what you have becomes that much stronger and you don’t necessarily waste a lot of time with things, especially as I’m growing older, that don’t work and with things that matter, you put that much more energy and effort into them. One becomes more selective, and if it is two people, then you really put your heart and soul into it and acknowledge the fact that somebody else does as well and if that’s not occurring, then you keep going. It’s a different lifestyle —it’s a bit like the romantic notion of what the circus might be; you spend five months working with people but you may not necessarily see them after that and you hook into another group. It can be wonderful and I try and hold on to friendships that I secure. I know a lot of other people in the same position and everything that goes with it, and that helps, because if someone is in the same situation, then of course they understand and respect that way of living. It is pros and cons and I suppose if you were in one place for a large portion of your life then maybe you would get sick of meeting the same people all the time, but that’s certainly not the case in what I do.
Offscreen: Do you like that lifestyle or do you just accept it?
Csokas: It’s both. Solitude is very important in amongst all that because you have a lot of external influences, so spending time with one’s self —quality time as opposed to lonely time or time that is filled with stuff to avoid dealing with oneself.
Offscreen: So what you’re talking about is staying in touch with yourself?
Csokas: Yeah, exactly. It’s really important to cultivate a social life too, for the same reasons, but to a different end. You can be in a crowd of people and be very alone. When you spend time by yourself I find it’s really important, to clear the static away.
Offscreen: So this shift to doing Hollywood work, weren’t you afraid of doing that at the age of 34? That is positively old for the industry. Has it affected your choice of roles?
Csokas: It can be very frustrating, but there is a system at work and I’ve come very close to working with directors whom I admire immensely, but I’ve missed it to someone else because their name is known at the box office. So it’s a catch-22; some people manage to never do a commercial film and be relatively successful and keep doing what they’re doing. I have not been able to do that. I would not have taken the second job I did out of drama school if I had maintained my idealism, going back to what we talked about earlier. It’s been important to me to support myself, to have a life whereby I’m not…I could’ve taken a very different road. It’s just not in my nature —I like comfort. I like to have options.
Offscreen: You’ve made the choice to keep the work going in Hollywood. What about smaller, independent films like Evilenko? Do want to keep doing that type of work? Or will you continue working in Hollywood?
Csokas: If you want within the system to have a broader choice, it’s not the same as it used to be. I think there are things that you have to do to keep yourself broad and marketable. Pretty much everybody works within the system. There is the whole independent world but the lines are being blurred more and more. It’s not a very nice scenario, but it exists, and I’ve been disappointed on several occasions where I’ve been told “we really like your work, you’re perfect for the role” from esteemed directors at the top of the heap, but they’ve gone with the box office draw.
So I try to walk that line. Hollywood is a young world. I’m not 24. There are people that disprove that rule, but again, this is where an element of destiny comes into it. The system is what it is – whether it is based on product placement, name value, beauty, youth, etc. and often it comes down to an insipid end product. I feel fortunate enough to be part of those things, to go down that path. There’s another side of it that in my experience things happen the way that they do. It’s all very well to criticize it and say “I don’t like that” but it is what it is and no matter how much you fight it it’s not going to change.
Offscreen: So you’re proud of your recent work?
Csokas: I feel very fortunate for the films that I’ve done, Evilenko being one of them, Asylum another; I treasure these. They are special experiences. Kingdom of Heaven was another special experience and that’s a big Hollywood number. The Great Raid and Aeon Flux as well. Three years of work are coming out this year with heavy backing which I think says a lot. You never know what is going to happen. The point is you have to throw your arms up about it all. There is a point you can become obsessive and frustrated and you start living by the system you abhor in the first place. It’s self-defeating. You do what you do, and there is a certain degree of self-loathing that comes in because I’m going against my principles and I’m living in the system that I never wanted to be a part of in the first place. It’s a psychological state as much as anything —if opportunities come along do I want to take this for artistic reasons or practical reasons. Is there something I can get out of this? Do I have an affinity with this? Okay, it’s a commercial film; fine, if it’s an independent film, that’s okay too. It’s more of an internal balance from an introspective perspective.
Offscreen: Let’s talk about some of your recent roles. I understand you traveled around Russia recently. Was that to research the role of Vadim Timurovic Lesiev, the detective in Evilenko? [The film is based on Russian serial/child killer, A.R. Cikatilo, also known as the monster of Rostov.]
Csokas: No, it was just an excuse. I did do a little bit of that, try to get under the skin of the character. Working with Malcolm [McDowell] taught me how to keep levity about things. Sometimes he’s so naughty, it’s ridiculous …in the middle of a fucking take. But it’s great, because if you’re going to get depressed about something, Evilenko is a good way to do it. It was like a big family, we would laugh a lot, and he’s a constant practical joker. I realized that, in part, is to keep that levity so it doesn’t drag you in and you have perspective; I learned that from him.
Offscreen: Back to the economics that seem to drive filmmaking these days, was it hard to get funding and interest for that film since it is pretty graphic in the depiction of the killing of the children?
Csokas: Yes; some backers wanted the victims to be prostitutes.
Offscreen: Asylum is a popular novel that got excellent reviews in literary circles. Was the script difficult to work with?
Csokas: In Asylum I took a lot from the novel, but the script is also very exact and I had done two productions of Patrick Marber’s in New Zealand. I had never read a script that said, “I love you (beat)”, “I’m leaving (pause)”. It was like —he’s a fascist!! What the fuck! I had a very antagonist attitude toward it and in rehearsals we explored everything under the sun. Strangely enough and wonderfully enough, we came back to those measures of time and found they were working. And we stuck to it. If you put a pause in instead of a beat —a pause is longer than a beat— in the eighth scene of the third act, you really do notice it; it can lose its trajectory and dynamic and form. It can become very slow and it becomes a deep tragedy, instead of a comedy and a tragedy occurring at the same time.
That is what our ensemble discovered —he [Marber] knows what he’s doing. And he spent a lot of time doing it. So I’m an admirer of Patrick and there’s a lot of information there. I also met with Patrick McGrath [the author of the novel] and he gave me a book, Morbid Jealousy and Murder, from a mental institution Broadmoor where he and his father actually did a study at that institution.
Offscreen: It was filmed at what was once a real mental institution; how was that?
Csokas: It was filmed at High Royds Hospital in Leeds. It had only been empty for six months. They are turning it into an apartment complex —I wouldn’t live there, fuck that, I hope they do an exorcism of some kind. It was wonderful; it wasn’t difficult to imagine, all the empty corridors …it was really a nice place to work, to have at the ready.
Offscreen: How was it working with Ian McKellen and Natasha Richardson? Was it intimidating, nerve-wracking?
Csokas: (Shaking his head emphatically) No; I loved working with Ian and Natasha. They are both very full, rich personalities and it was a wonderful experience. Natasha had stuck with the project for five years to bring it to film. She is hugely passionate about her work, very emotional. Working with Ian was incredible; he has such technical expertise that he fills with a very tangible, emotional exchange, a lot of it unspoken. The best thing to do was to do the best that I could; being nervous would just have gotten in the way. Nerves are good if you find a way to use them in the scene —it’s just pent-up energy that if you can let go…Ian’s very, very precise. I saw Dance of Death [Strindberg] on Broadway and there were lots of things I loved about his performance. For example, there was a bar on stage and his character went to get a drink about five times. Every single time he took that step he did it in a different way —he didn’t just walk over and pour himself a drink five times in a row. He did little things —he took some stuff off his jacket when he stepped down, he dallied another time before he poured his drink…you get the idea…or he kind of skipped off the step to pour himself a drink. These things were very considered yet he gives it the air of having been spontaneous.
Offscreen: So how else did you prepare for Edgar?
Csokas: I looked at all kinds of things for that, for Edgar Stark. He decapitated his wife and suffers from multiple personality disorder and morbid jealousy. The thing with morbid jealousy is that he believed that she betrayed him and he therefore had a right to punish her for her betrayal. I’m not uncomfortable getting close to that kind of madness. What I found in my research and what I identified with was that I can be jealous, and the only difference really is that I’m not going to go hack some one’s head off because I’m jealous. I don’t suffer from that disease. I’ve come pretty close sometimes, as I’m sure most of us have to some degree (laughs). Edgar doesn’t believe that it’s wrong because of her betrayal. So he wanders in some sort of nebulous world of trying to escape from that responsibility, if you like, and he doesn’t believe he is ill.
Offscreen: Did you play it that he is truly in love with Stella or is he manipulating her so he can escape?
Csokas: Well, if a beautiful woman (or man) walks into your life of six years without an intimate relationship —sex yes, because as I understand it there are all kinds of opportunities and things that go on in the necessity for one’s survival— but she’s also an object of escape internally and externally. He ends up falling in love with her, which saves him to some extent.
Offscreen: Based on your method of finding the good in the bad and the bad in the good characters you play, what good did you find in Edgar?
Csokas: I tried to make Edgar, with this jealousy idea, the everyman instead of the loony. But he is definitely suffering from an illness because he doesn’t identify with the fact that killing his wife was wrong and thinks it was justified. We had a medical advisor on the film, and the book I mentioned was very helpful. It had a lot of statistics and theories about morbid jealousy that were useful and I hooked into the things that were appropriate. I looked at a lot of Art Brut and Jean de Buffet, his collection of outsider art and used that, more for my benefit than for that of the film. I looked at a lot of stuff on the Internet about people who beat each other with sticks and hammers but are still together.
What’s nice about this film is that Edgar wants to redeem himself because of the love he has for Stella and Stella has for him, but it’s a doomed love affair, of course, too many laws have been broken. He escapes but in a way he escapes to more of a hell because he can’t exist in everyday life, he can’t exist in a mundane society on a practical level nor on a psychological level.
Offscreen: Did you talk to any patients or anyone with a similar mental illness or those close to someone like that?
Csokas: No, I read accounts about them, but there was a lot I could identify with as a human being and there was so much information; that was enough. Sometimes that can be useful, but going back to the imagination, and then to the book, and the screenplay —there was so much there to mine I didn’t feel that was necessary.
Offscreen: Natasha Richardson was apparently quite embarrassed about the graphic sex scenes. Did you find them awkward?
Csokas: No, Natasha was lovely. Everyone’s very respectful of all that, not so much that it becomes constricted but there are so many technical things to consider. Yeah, sometimes it can become very biological but it’s no different from a character dancing, or making a cup of coffee. You just have to get out of the discomfort. I’ve read that some actors long for onset necking, but it’s not my first choice. I always concentrate on what I’m trying to convey —you can get so caught up on what you have to do but if you concentrate on what the scene is about aside from the sexual, it has to be put through the lens. You sort of hit the mark, so to speak.
Offscreen: That’s an unfortunate choice of words.(Laughs). Yeah, indeed! You are telling a story and since it is sexual, which is obviously a powerful force, Edgar has all kind of things going on in his mind, and that is what I’m thinking about, and that’s what we’re all thinking about —the cinematographer, the costume and makeup artists— we’re all telling that story. In the actual making of it, it depends how it is treated, but if your director is very voyeuristic, kind of getting off on it, that’s a problem. In Asylum, we shot a lot more than ended up there, but what’s there is there for a reason. We shot a slightly more languid approach to their love affair than the version we ended up with.
Offscreen: What about your prep for Captain Redding in The Great Raid. Was it vigorous?
Csokas: I really enjoyed playing that character because he’s somewhat of a rebel, an antagonistic force, but within the prisoner of war camp. It’s that force that kept him alive and I believe he was a driving force to keeping other people alive as well. Rather than be submissive, he was quite anarchic in order to maintain his self-determinism. That was his way of dealing with it. I enjoyed playing the role for this reason —he didn’t bow down to the status quo, he held his own opinions. Arguably, you could say his self-possession killed him, but ultimately you could also say that it kept him alive and also maintained other people’s enthusiasm to survive in the conflict as a prisoner of war.
Offscreen: Did you tap your father for his war experiences when preparing for the role?
Csokas: No, I didn’t. I did my own research. Also —I was against this at first— we were put in a situation where we ate a cup of rice a day and slept on bamboo slats and were woken up five or six times at night to march around a fire in the cold. So we were on strict diets and we ate separately from everyone else, which over a three-month period was a good idea because I certainly wouldn’t have lasted. Certainly none of us got to a state that was unhealthy; it would take six months for muscle to waste away, but I think we went for providing the illusion and from there one suspends their disbelief.
Offscreen: Was this regimen [director] John Dahl’s idea?
Csokas: Yes. I originally said no but there were a number of people who were doing it who said yes so I was sort of coerced. There is a point where it becomes ridiculous to kick against it and it becomes a detrimental aspect to working with one another. I wouldn’t normally be for it because it sounds too much like a Method wank, for lack of a better expression, but it was actually worth while.
Offscreen: Did the deprivation of food and sleep have repercussions on you and the other POW actors?
Csokas: The reality is that a lot of us made fun of it in order to actually do it, but I found it was actually very useful for the character I was playing. There was certainly a bonding time that occurred. It maintained discipline. I got depressed sometimes and angry and also hysterical. Everyone would do this at different times so we were able to understand what each of us was going through and cheer one another up in whatever way possible. This is the most enjoyable aspect of making a film for me.
Offscreen: So how much weight did you lose for the role?
Csokas: I had a month to prepare for the role; I lost 15 kilos [33 lbs] in a month and then had to maintain that —and I like my food and drink, I can tell you that! But it was a good exercise. There’s sort of a fashion associated with film roles these days about how much weight people put on or how much weight people take off but it doesn’t really interest me. I’m not a fan of it. I mean, if you play a rapist, do you go out and rape somebody? It is an illusion and there are some things I’ve seen where people have either gained or lost weight and it seems to be divorced from the film rather than inclusive. And all the publicity that surrounds it becomes a subject in its own right and it’s like knowing about people’s relationships and what have you. You cease to engage in the film that is being made and the story that is being told and you feel like you’re apart from it. I think it’s incredibly undisciplined and not very interesting.
Offscreen: So your latest movie releasing is Aeon Flux. What can you tell me about the role of Trevor Goodchild and how does one approach a role taken from an animated series?
Csokas: The material in an animated series wouldn’t really have lasted the distance for a feature film. Also, the animated series is a success in its own right and there’s no point in remaking it.
Offscreen: Why did you accept this role?
Csokas: I was curious about how it was going to be done but once I met with the director [Karyn Kusama] I realized some of the politics of the original series were going to be carried over into very different circumstances and a very different setting. The series was really a leaping off point for the film. So it then fulfilled the expectations of the genre of film as opposed to an animated series. The film has a degree of political subversion; given that it is a commercial film, it is fairly left of center. I haven’t seen it yet, but the way we shot it, it had a certain amount of sadism but not to the point where the people became animated characters; they’re still human beings.
Offscreen: How does the Trevor Goodchild in the film differ from the character in the series?
Csokas: Trevor Goodchild is very different from the animated series. He is a somewhat mysterious character —we think he is one thing and then discover that he’s another, as human beings can sometimes be, they are not always what they first appear to be. The animated character is a lot more vindictive and masochistic. Trevor Goodchild in the film is more romantic, a lot more romantic. He provides a way through for the character of Aeon Flux.
Offscreen: Are they lovers in the film as they are in the series?
Csokas: Yes, they have a past, a present and a future.
Offscreen: How was working with Charlize Theron?
Csokas: Charlize is very committed, ambitious and exact, very precise, very beautiful. I think we did a very good job together.
Offscreen: Do you plan on exploring other options, say, writing or directing?
Csokas: I’ve been working on a piece for awhile; I don’t know what will happen with that. I would like to try my hand at directing. I think the experience one gains as an actor is a good match for moving into directing—you know how the whole process works.
Offscreen: What about theater —do you plan on going back to it? And will you do more independent films?
Csokas: I miss theater; I would like to continue to do both. In a perfect world, I would do only indies as far as film goes; I would stay within that realm.
Offscreen: Now that you’re in the U.S. market, do you have any aspirations for Broadway?
Csokas: I would like to do Broadway given the right play. Some of the things I’ve seen I’ve been a little disappointed in, I have to say. It’s not like it used to be. Just the price of the tickets, for a start…For the general public, it’s a lot of spectacle involved as opposed to substance. I enjoyed Top Dog, Under Dog. I still have to see the Wooster group who were idols of mine. I like the nature of the work, they explore; it is an artistic process. Theater should be an experimental process. They aren’t trying to put bums on seats and sell a nice shiny product that makes you feel good at the end of it. Feeling good is wonderful, but so is feeling mad, angry, frustrated. We have less and less desire or inclination to be challenged.
Offscreen: So in that same vein, are you going to stick with doing Hollywood films?
Csokas: This is a stepping stone for me and its circumstantial as much as anything. This isn’t just necessarily about one’s career —I’m a relatively adventurous spirit and doing something for the sake of it is as important as doing it for my career. It is dangerous to think, “Where will this role get me.” I like to be existential about it. If you aren’t careful, you get sucked in by it. Do it for the sake of itself and like a good transcendentalist that is where your ecstasy will come from.
All photos provided by Mr. Csokas, copyright by photographer Fabian Cevallos.