Exclusive Interview : Michael Chiklis


Guy talks to the “Fantastic Four”‘s Thing

One couldn’t blame Michael Chiklis for feeling a little torn. The comic-book movie “Fantastic Four” – in which he played astronaut Ben Grimm, transformed by cosmic radiation into a walking, talking hunk of orange rock known as The Thing – had been a box-office blockbuster, popular enough to make a sequel a foregone conclusion. So on one hand, there was the validation that comes with millions of moviegoers the world over enjoying your work so much that they’d be happy to see more of it. On the other hand, for Chiklis there was the unappealing prospect of once again encasing himself in a 60-pound rubber suit for the duration of the shoot. And while the self-confessed Fantastic Four fan was keen to reprise his role in the follow-up, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”, he admits that he had “a tremendous amount of trepidation” about donning The Thing’s skin a second time.

“I had a number of health issues during the first one,” says Chiklis, who became an overnight sensation after 20 years in the industry with his award-winning performance as rogue cop Vic Mackey in Ten’s gritty crime drama “The Shield”. “Without getting into the gross details, spending 12 to 14 hours a day encased in rubber that doesn’t allow you to go the bathroom means that certain things that aren’t very pleasant can develop in your body. I had to go to the director, Tim Story, and the guys at 20th Century Fox and say ‘Listen, I can deal with uncomfortable but unhealthy is unacceptable. How can we get through this?’ And they were incredibly helpful. I made a number of suggestions, all of which they executed. And the difference between the two experiences was night and day.

“In their defence, they were all sorts of time constraints and there was so much focus on the look, the look, the look that there was pretty much no focus on the fact that there was a human being inside the suit and that there might be health problems and other issues. So the guys from Spectral Motion, the guys who made the suit, really bent over backwards to help me. And looking forward, I’m actually excited to do the next one. Because while it’s uncomfortable, it’s also absolutely acceptable. I really love the Fantastic Four and I really wanted to do the movie, so I didn’t want to be the guy with the problem. I wanted it to go forward. But if there are things that are happening to you physically…I only have one body, you know? So we had to work it out. And it is all worked out now.”

When Chiklis says there was a marked contrast between his experiences shooting “Fantastic Four” and its sequel, he’s not exaggerating. “While on the first one, it took three and a half hours to get the mask on, it took an hour and a half on the second one,” he says. “The first one, 45 minutes to get the body on and you’re wearing it for the rest of the day. The second one, seven minutes to get the body on, five minutes to take it off. So between every take I was able to take it completely off. That makes a huge difference. And I love being on the set. I’m an innately social guy. So on the first one I was sort of entombed in this thing and it took all the joy out of it for me. I was mummified! I couldn’t talk to people, I couldn’t hang out – let’s face it, it was a hellish experience, the first movie. Here I was on The Shield, doing some of the most hardcore acting I could do, and I thought ‘OK, I’ll go do Fantastic Four and it’ll be light, fun fare’. And it ended up being one of the great challenges of my acting career’. When I heard the words ‘Michael, that’s a wrap’ I wanted to cry. I really didn’t think I was going to pull it off. Thankfully, that’s all gone now that we’ve moved forward.”

Still, it must have been pleasing that Chiklis’s co-star Chris Evans, who plays fiery superhero The Human Torch, got a taste of what Chiklis had had to put up with when he donned the Thing suit for a scene where the powers of the two heroes are switched. “Oh, yes!” laughs Chiklis. “Still, his head was exposed – you can see his hair. So he didn’t get the full experience.”

The challenge of acting through the full-body suit and mask that brought The Thing to life was exacerbated by the fact that any expression on Chiklis’s face looked completely different on the character’s face. “Something I noticed early on was that everybody was looking at me like they were scared or worried, like I was mad or something,” he says. “I realised that with a neutral face, the mask would show a scowl or a frown. So I had to reassure everyone ‘No, no, I’m just sitting here!’ People thought I was pissed off! So it was very interesting having another face on your face. And I spent so much time doing something I normally never even think of doing for any other role. We have a joke about ‘mirror actors’, who spend a lot of time studying their own reflection – you never do that, but I had to spend some time getting used to my new face. So I’d look in the mirror and it was actually kind of fascinating. If I moved my face in this way, it would project this emotion. It became a very technical exercise, and I’m a visceral actor – I work from the inside out, from the guts, so this was an interesting exercise in working from the outside in. Ironically, that miserable suit I had to wear for the first movie gave me all the pathos I needed for the character. I was literally a person trapped in a body I didn’t want to be in. It gave me everything I needed to play the role.”

Pathos might have been a key element of The Thing’s personality in the first movie (although Chiklis is quick to reassure viewers that the rock-hard hero is “much more light-hearted” in the sequel), but “Fantastic Four” and its sequel are anything but moody and gloomy. In fact, they’re downright frivolous and fun-loving in comparison to some other comic-book adaptations.

“We wanted to create a distinction between this movie and other comic-book franchises,” he says. “Batman, Spider-Man, all these superheroes – they tend to be more brooding, the themes tend to be darker and skewed towards an older audience. The Fantastic Four was always a little bit campy and kitschy. Let’s face it, my character’s key line since the ‘60s has been ‘It’s clobberin’ time!’ By the way, too many people think my voice has been electronically enhanced. No, that is my larynx being ripped apart! But going back to the distinction, it’s interesting to me that some critics criticised us for being campy or kitschy. They clearly didn’t know the comic book. And it’s a mistake to compare us to something like Spider-Man – the two are apples and oranges. I’m not casting aspersions at those other movies, either. I’m looking forward to seeing Spider-Man 3 with my 13-year-old and my eight-year-old – I’m probably going to enjoy it as much as they will.”

Chiklis knows the pressure to conform to a certain format all to well. Not only has he experienced feedback about Fantastic Four’s so-called lack of grittiness, he’s gone through it with some of his previous TV roles. “When I did The Commish, there were certain people who insisted on comparing it to NYPD Blue, which was the big cop show at the time,” he says. “We couldn’t understand why they would do that. The Commish is not NYPD Blue. It’s a family-friendly cop show, and Tony Scali is a reassuring character. Something like The Shield shakes you to your core but not everything is meant to do that.”

Any interview with Chiklis would be incomplete without discussing his role as The Shield’s Vic Mackey, mainly because it marked such a major departure for the actor. Prior to landing the role, Chiklis was frequently typecast as an everyman with a few extra pounds. Losing 50 of those pounds and shaving his head were two ways he intended to change audiences’ – and the industry’s – perception of him. “It was very deliberate,” he says. “I was frustrated that everything coming my way was the sweet, roly-poly guy. As an actor, I wanted to do some intelligent, hard-hitting adult drama. And I wasn’t getting the opportunity to do that. My wife was brilliant – she said it wasn’t incumbent upon the studios to look at me in a different way, it was incumbent on me to reinvent myself. And she was right. I had to provide them with everything I could that they could buy me as a different kind of actor, and I had to stick to my guns and make the industry realise I wasn’t going to do the work I was known for. Sometimes you have to define for yourself what you want, and you either commit to it or you don’t. In my case, thank God, it worked out.”

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is now showing