Gabriel Macht has been active in film, theater, and television for most of the last decade, starting with a role on the original Beverly Hills 90210. He has since been seen in such films as Behind Enemy Lines, The Recruit, A Love Song for Bobby Long, and The Good Shepherd. It took Frank Miller to give him a starring part, however: he's slated to appear as resurrected cop Denny Colt in Will Eisner's The Spirit, due for release Christmas Day. In an exclusive interview with Mania.com, Macht talked about stepping into the character's shoes, as well as working with Miller and meeting the expectations of a new generation of comic book films.
Question: How did you get involved with the project? Were you a big comics fan going in?
Gabriel Macht: I wasn't a crazy comic book fan, but I was a big fan of comic book movies. My agent sent me into this audition without saying much about it. It was only when I got in there that I found out it was for Frank Miller. My interest level jumped up by about a factor of 10. I had loved the Sin City movie and the 300 movie both, and suddenly here's the guy who created them introducing himself to me. I think every actor wants to work for someone with a vision, and Frank's is one of the strongest I've ever seen. I jumped on the Will Eisner stuff once I got the part, but in the early stages, what we had were Frank's storyboards for the film. And they were so clear and so beautiful and gave such a tremendous impression of where he wanted to go with this movie. We established a great chemistry right away--almost as soon as I read for it--and while the auditioning process was fairly long, I would get more and more excited about it with each step I took.
Q: How did Will Eisner's vision filter through Miller's? Was there a sense of having to walk a line between the two?
GM: A little, but the synthesis was pretty complete. Frank felt that the movie was more in line with the black-and-white stuff that Eisner had originally published, and we had a lot of conversations about the particulars of that. The first batch of Spirit material I read was about 200 pages worth of original black-and-white strips, not the colorized versions which came out much later. And that was the Bible in the early stages: the mentality of Eisner, and the charm and wit and physical demeanor of the character as he created him. When we got on set, it shifted slightly to a modern setting: figuring out how Eisner's Spirit would respond in a contemporary environment. But we always kept Eisner in mind: with every decision, Frank would ask, "Is this something Will Eisner would approve of?" And Eisner was such an influence on Miller that there really wasn't anybody else who could direct this.
Q: What was Miller like to work with day-to-day?
GM: It's funny; in his medium, he's drawing and illustrating and writing on his own. He's locked up in his studio, he's all by himself, he works for hours on end. It's a very solitary environment. But when he got onto a movie set, he instantly shifted to this ensemble mindset. It was all about the project and no one contributor was more important than any other. He really encouraged all of us to expand on his vision of this story. He was like a kid in a candy store: jovial, laughing, trying to come up with different ideas and encouraging us to do the same. Some directors will shut you down, or aren't interested in what you have to say. They've been working on it for however long they have and they're not interested in exploring alternate ideas. But here, it was like, "Bring everything you have, I want to hear it!" It was a very collaborative experience.
We had the whole film on storyboards beforehand--storyboards of his artwork. Then we had animatics, where he gave his storyboards to the visual effects supervisor who would bring them to life with computer animation. They would show them to us before we'd shoot, and then that would subsequently influence the way I played the character--how I would move and so forth. So it started from Frank, but this process really was a synthesis of numerous different creative forces.
Q: Did that have an influence on how you worked with the other actors?
GM: Very often, the actors sort of get together and form this little bond. On this, the producers set the schedule up based around the different women. So Eva [Mendes] came in for two weeks and she's done. Jaime [King] came in for a week and she's done, and right on down the line. It could get a little disorienting at times. I had a great time working with all of them, but I remember Frank saying at some point that he and I had to be partners in this. And that played into the total synthesis--it was all of us together instead of the actors in one little group and the producer and director in another and the technical guys in another.
Q: How about Sam Jackson? Did you guys work closely, or was there a need to keep a distance to maintain the antagonism of the characters? I don't imagine that you guys have too many scenes together, at least until the end…
GM: Sam's a wonderful actor and he's great to play off of: he gives you so much. I'm constantly questioning who I am and where I came from in this film, and his character has the biggest part in creating my second life. We worked some of that out together in rehearsal and in discussions before the film. There's a few scenes we had together, including this fight sequence where I got to hit him in the face about twenty-five times. That was a lot of fun.
Q: Had you worked with greenscreen before this film?
GM: I did a few days with it on another project. A lot of actors have a problem with it, but I was fine. It's one thing to work with tennis balls, where somebody has a tennis ball on a pole and you're supposed to imagine it as a huge dinosaur or something like that. I'd imagine that that would be really tough, because you're reacting to the tennis ball. In this, I'm still reacting to the other actors, to my scene partners in the story. Plus I was born in New York and spent a large part of my life there, so I have the smell and the taste and the feel of that grit. The lower East Side and the Village, and places like that. Central City, where the Spirit is based, is very much New York. In some ways, the strips were a Valentine to New York. So that helped me a lot. And I had Frank and Frank's pictures and the visual effects supervisor telling me what was going on. There were still a ton of practical elements on set, and even when there wasn't, the greenscreen would represent the skyline or a bunch of warehouses or a boat in the Hudson River. Background stuff, non-interactive stuff. It was similar in a lot of ways to theater work: black box work.
Q: How about the possibility of sequels?
GM: I'm signed on for two more if the opportunity comes along. This was by far the most fun I've had making a motion picture, and I would love to work with Frank or our producer Debra Del Prete again. Lionsgate seems to be very happy with this film and they're giving it a real push. Obviously, they'd love for it to become a franchise. And at this stage, it really has to work on a high level. They took Iron Man to another level, they took Batman to that level with Dark Knight, and if you want to stay in the game, you have to meet the bar those guys have set. I think and I hope we've done that. We'll see what the people out there have to say.