Speak with Stephen Blackehart for even a short time and it becomes clear quite quickly that the man loves his work. The actor, who has appeared in such films as Super and The Belko Experiment, has reunited with director James Gunn in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Blackehart plays Brahl, a member of the Ravagers–who we saw in the first Guardians film–a character who has a history with the original team in the comics.
Mr. Blackehart spoke with me recently about Brahl, how the makeup process helps him to embody the character, and what he would include on his own “Awesome Mix.”
FreakSugar: What can you tell us about Brahl, the member of the Ravagers that you play in the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?
Stephen Blackehart: Brahl is a rather savage-looking lieutenant of this branch of the Ravagers, and one of Yondu’s bodyguards. He comes from a pretty dreary planet in Andromeda’s outer rim called Achernon. It’s a terrible place… polluted, fallow, crime-ridden, slow internet – and to make matters worse there are virtually no female Achernonians left. So I imagine younger Brahl was sort of like a darker version of Luke Skywalker when he was still on Tatooine. One fine day a Ravager ship pulled into port in his system, and Brahl took the first opportunity to join up and get off that rock.
The Ravagers are a lot like the 17th century privateers or pirates in our own history in that they prey on weaker ships and systems to survive, but their culture is sort of a hard-boiled democracy. The captain is elected by the crew and is in charge as long as he’s leading everyone to profits. If you’ve seen the excellent series Black Sails, you’ll know how all that works. So there’s opportunity there. Anyway, for a small-town guy like Brahl, it’s a chance to see the galaxy, make money, get promoted, and maybe even find a mate somewhere along the way. He’s pretty hot-headed and rough around the edges, so that last one may be more of a long-term goal for him. But he’s good with a blaster and plenty ambitious, so maybe he’ll make a name for himself out there.
FS: Like Michael Rooker’s character Yondu, Brahl was a character from the original Guardians of the Galaxy tales from the 60s through the 90s, modified and adapted for James Gunn’s film. Did you do any research or look back at those appearances of Brahl from the comic book source material?
SB: Oh, absolutely! I love playing a character with some real history in the comics. Before I ever saw the film script, I went back and dug through everything I could find about Brahl, either online or at the library. When I found a picture online of the 1977 Thor Annual #6 that he first appeared in, I realized that I think I actually owned that comic as a kid. I was a big fan of the Thor comics back then. Thor and Swamp Thing, and the Spider-Man cartoon on TV were my favorites. Brahl was a minor villain in those comic books, but he kept showing up, and he became more powerful over time, eventually nearly killing Martinex of the OG Guardians. He even sold his soul to Mephisto at one point, but didn’t get much for it. I can relate to that. You know… as an actor. [laughs]
Nowadays, I think most people finally sort of understand that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a different, parallel universe from the comic books, and so the stories and situations vary from one medium to another. So, Brahl is a different sort of mercenary in the MCU than he is in the Earth-616 timeline. And I dig that! I really like the idea of people and situations that crop up in nearly every part of the multiverse, but with a different flavor in each iteration. It’s similar to how some people who believe in reincarnation feel that many of the important people in their past lives keep gravitating toward them in successive ones, each time with different relationships to them, or subtly different problems to work through. I’d like to think that in one of these universes, Brahl is the one who saves the galaxy and gets the girl. There’s probably also one in which he wears little fedoras and short pants and hangs out at Coachella. [laughs]
FS: You appeared in the first Guardians film as a dispatcher in the Celestial head of Knowhere. How did your experience with Vol. 2 compare to the first go-around?
SB: Well, I only worked a day on the first one, but it was a blast. I had to fly to London a week ahead of time so they could fit me for wardrobe, so I stayed with James at his rental house in Shepperton while I waited for my shoot day to come. While James was at work during the day, I’d go visit my old drama school in the city, or hang out with Sean [Gunn]. Chris Pratt had the rental next door, and would come over and hang out now and then, and the bunch of us would stay up late trading stories. So, really, that was my favorite part of Volume 1, even though I really enjoyed working on the scene I did with Dave Bautista. He and Chris… everyone I met on that shoot was super nice. That’s not really surprising. James doesn’t hire assholes. Life is too short.
On Volume 2, I was able to sink my teeth in a bit more. They shot at Pinewood Studios in Atlanta, and this time I was there for five weeks. I don’t play a leading role in the film, but it’s much more substantial than the first one. I loved getting into the Ravager culture and getting under Brahl’s skin. The scene work could be exhausting because it was so physical, and I was working under something like 20 pounds of makeup, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I mean, how many people can say they’ve played an alien space pirate? And nothing is better than working with friends and actors I love, like Michael Rooker (my fourth film with him), Steve Agee, Jimmy Urine, Joe Fria, Mike Escamilla, and new friends like Chris Sullivan and Tommy Flanagan. That’s not even counting James and Sean Gunn, whom I’ve known and worked with since 1995 when we were shooting Tromeo & Juliet. What remains of my family mostly live near Atlanta nowadays, so I was able to spend some time with them, too. So, perhaps needless to say, it was just about the happiest I’ve ever been professionally.
On both films, though, the biggest sets I’ve ever seen in my life! So big that some of them wouldn’t fit in six soundstages, much less one. It’s awe-inspiring to see first-hand. Everything that could be done practically was done practically. I can only compare it to what it must have been like to work on the sets of Ben-Hur or Cleopatra back in the Golden Age of the studios. Compare that to the Star Wars prequels where they were acting opposite tennis balls or tape marks on a blue screen. I can’t imagine how hard that must’ve been for the actors.
FS: Following up on that, you’ve been in other films with Mr. Gunn. I know you two are friends. What’s it like to be directed by him?
SB: James is my best friend. My closest friend in the world. To the point where if he accidentally drove his car off a cliff, I’d probably have to do that too. He’s that irreplaceable in my life. Nobody knows me better. He’s been there for a million personal things, and he’s also hired me at times when it seemed like the rest of Hollywood had lost my number.
As a director, he’s similar to Hitchcock in the way he works. He sees the entire film in vivid detail in his head before they even start pre-production. He knows what every shot will look like and where every actor’s breath will take place. So when the filming starts, nobody behind the camera is fishing around or trying to find the story or the essential moments, they’re just capturing on film what he’s already imagined and planned out. He’s going to help you get there as an actor, and there’s always a precise “there” he’s guiding you toward.
It’s always hardest to perform for those who know you best. When I was in college, I was in a production of Hair on stage, and my family all came to see the show. There I was, dancing around and singing my lungs out, fully buck naked with my man parts bouncing around, in front of hundreds of strangers… and my mother and my sister and my grandparents. I had never in my life been so self-conscious. It was the closest I’ve ever come to forcefully astral projecting out of my body and projectile vomiting onto the front row of the audience at the same time, but I had to keep working and stay focused on what I was doing. Performing precise direction for the person who knows me better than anyone, who sees all my flaws and insecurities – on a huge Marvel set, with a Phantom camera going a bajillion frames per second, where every minute spent on me is costing an unimaginable amount of money – is something close to that Hair experience for me. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Next to that, anything I ever do will be easy.
FS: A character like Brahl relies heavily on makeup and fabricated facial forms. What do you do to get in the headspace of Brahl? Does the makeup itself help make the transformation easier?
SB: That makeup is something, isn’t it? It’s a real credit to Kevin Kirkpatrick, Jonah Levy, and Mike Mekash at Legacy who spent upwards of four and a half hours per day grafting all the different pieces of Brahl onto me. Those guys are real artists and I think they deserve at least a nomination come Oscars time. There are so many amazing makeup jobs on Guardians 2! And their work isn’t just for show. It really helps me as an actor. I’d see a set of scars they’d be applying and ask myself what kind of scrap did I get into to earn those. He’s missing part of one of his ears – what’s the story behind that? The crazy, five-nostriled nose? It tells me how thick the atmosphere must be on Achernon, Brahl’s homeworld. He’s even got a braided human-hair earring, which I attribute to the week Brahl spent on Martha’s Vineyard with Alicia Vikander. [laughs] Most of these things will never be expressed out loud or on the screen, but they fuel my backstory and show up – if you’re doing it right – in subtle ways.
Don’t get me wrong, that makeup was heavy as hell and hot as Hades and often claustrophobic to boot! We weighed it one day and it was over 20 pounds of silicon and glue and old-fashioned makeup on top of that, plus gnarled dentures, plus contact lenses that restrict your vision, plus three layers of wardrobe, plus a weapons harness. And then you’re trying to act believably. Most days, I could tip my head to the side and a pint of sweat would spill out of my silicon ear-hole. I spent years studying in London, in New York and LA, and there are times when you use every technique you’ve ever learned to be able to realistically perform with all that stuff on. And other times when you just shrug it all off and have fun. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here or play the martyr by saying any of that, but it illustrates why James doesn’t hire people who aren’t completely dedicated to what they do.
FS: Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, and Zoe Saldana recently revealed what would be on their “Awesome Mix.” What songs would be essential to your own?
SB: When I saw the first Guardians movie, my first thought about the music was that I’d get so sick of only having one or two cassettes to listen to for all time. Nowadays I have like 9,000 songs on my iPod and I’m bored of all of them. But lately I remembered that years ago, when I went away to drama school in London, my girlfriend at the time (who I was madly in love with) made me a cassette mix-tape to take with me. That used to be a common thing between lovers, to make a mix-tape for each other. It’s the closest thing I can think of to Peter Quill’s loving attachment to the tape from his dead mother. On my tape from her there were songs from the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Queen, Louis Armstrong, and David Bowie. I listened to that tape until I wore it out.
I could listen to that tape today and be moved by it, even though the girl who made it has been gone from my life and my heart for ages. Or just give me Ella Sings the Ballads. I’d be all right with that.
FS: Do you have any other projects coming down the pike that you would like to tease?
SB: My calendar is mostly open at the moment. If I’m lucky, Netflix will pick up that Dancing with the Ravagers series I pitched last week. [laughs] Or the Brahl and Taserface buddy cop drama. Other than that, The Belko Experiment just opened internationally and will likely make its way to video in the US by Christmas. But as for the future, I have no idea what’s next. To paraphrase Captain Reynolds from Firefly, I am but a leaf on the wind.
You can check out Mr. Blackehart as Brahl when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hits theaters nationwide on May 5th.