Marvel’s Avengers Behind the Performance - Nolan North / Iron Man

Actor, mo-cap master and now billionaire, genius, inventor, and philanthropist - we speak to Nolan North about Tony Stark, getting older, and the thrill of getting to play the Iron Avenger.
By Duncan Heaney

When casting Iron Man in Marvel’s Avengers, the team at Crystal Dynamics wanted someone who could perfectly deliver the character’s wry wit and intelligence. And who better than Nolan North?

The actor truly embodies Tony Stark in the game - full performance capture means that what you’re watching on screen is essentially him. We spoke to the actor about how he put his own stamp on the character, the fun of playing with his friends, and the perils of growing older.

What was the first thing that came to mind when you were asked to play Iron Man?

Nothing other than… yes!

I mean, if someone asks: would you like to play Tony Stark in this game, with motion capture, and a bunch of your friends are already on it? Of course you’re, like, yeah!

There was no “let me talk to my wife”, no “let me look at my schedule”. I’m going to play Iron Man, I want to play Iron Man. That’s it - I went immediately to yes.

Did you do any research for the role or did you feel like you already had a sense of the character?

I've always been a fan of the MCU, especially the Iron Man movies. The biggest thing for me was to make it my own. There were certain phrases and small things I did that were intended as a homage to Robert Downey Jr., but just doing some kind of impression would be a great disservice to the character. It's something I couldn't sustain.

So it was a case of putting myself in the suit. It was written really well, so I tried to keep things very simple and do my thing. Put my spin on this character and let it live in this new form.

So you weren’t tempted to draw on the movies at all?

No, because if we did anything that would lead to a comparison of those movies, which are universally beloved, it would just be a bad, bad outcome.

I'm not Robert Downey Jr. so the only way I could really screw it up is if I tried to be him and that's not something that I was interested in doing. I'm a huge fan of his, and I'm a huge fan of what he's created, but this is a different playground. I was just honored to be able to put myself in similar shoes.

I say this about any character I play, but it’s really like - ok, Nolan North is now in the Iron Man suit and he happens to be called Tony Stark. I’m just going to put myself in there, and sure there are small little tweaks to make - things I wouldn’t do - but ultimately play that character as best as I can.

As actors we want to do our part and let the people who make the game do their part. Because ultimately, this isn’t a passive experience like watching a movie - when you’re on that stick, you are Iron Man, you are Black Widow, or Captain America. That’s all that matters - doing my part so that experience is the right one for the gamer.

So was it challenging to step into a character that’s become so well-known?

As I said, the biggest challenge was just to make sure I differentiated it from the preconceived notions people have of Iron Man.

Fortunately, I think that was tempered by the fact it was an ensemble shoot. You know, there would have been more pressure if this was an Iron Man game that I was headlining.

That said - and I’m putting this in the heads of Marvel and Crystal Dynamics - if we ever do split off from here into some solo games, I’m open to it (laughs).

But seriously, the bottom line is, I just want people to enjoy what happened here so maybe, possibly we get to do it again one day.

Glossing over that shameless self-promotion, this game’s going to be sticking around for a while, so the ride’s not over yet.

I hope so. I mean, people could turn around and say: this guy sucks (laughs)!

We think that’s unlikely. The role seems to suit you.

Yeah, I think it does. That's what Shaun Escayg (Creative Director) told me: “You are Tony Stark - just without all the money.”

He told me to just tap into the wit, sarcasm, and humor that Tony has - and the drama takes care of itself. As long as I could be, you know, the kind of person who was too smart for the room, no matter what danger is presented, I’m going to be okay.

Combined with performing in a safe place with so many people I knew, meant that I felt - yep, this role fits me like a slipper.

What was the most enjoyable thing about performing the role for Marvel’s Avengers?

Oh, you know I've been in the mo-cap suit a loooong time. I was actually one of the earliest people to actually embrace mo-cap. I just enjoyed it. My background was always in theater and on-camera stuff, and then things just kind of went in this direction. Then Uncharted came along, and now it’s a decade in mo-cap suits of all different kinds.

The funniest part of the whole thing as Iron Man is whenever he'd leave a scene by flying off, I’d have to turn and sort of look up in that classic pose. And then have to stand there like that while everybody else is finishing the scene.

The only saving grace was that Travis Willingham (Thor) usually took off with me, and he’d swing Thor’s hammer like you’d expect, but now he’s standing there frozen like the Statue of Liberty, and we’re both staring at each other laughing.

The coolest part though is doing that Super Hero landing onto the knee. The three point land - you literally feel like you’re a little kid in the backyard. You know, you look out there and there are kids playing - one of them has got the Captain America shield maybe. That’s all we do - we’re adults playing like children.

It’s the truest form of acting and this was the perfect project to just play. And we were encouraged to do that.

Obviously you’ve very familiar with the rest of the cast - Troy Baker (Bruce Banner), Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey (Black Widow)… What was it like playing alongside so many of your real-life friends?

Actually that’s my favorite part of this whole thing. I like working as part of an ensemble because that’s what it’s all about.

I’ve done this job long enough to know that it takes so many moving parts, and everybody doing their job really well individually for this collaborative effort to come together into a great experience for people. That's basically the bottom line of what we do.

What’s interesting with this game is how easy it was to connect with the other actors. I’m looking at Troy Baker and that’s Bruce Banner. I turn to Jeff Schine and that just is Captain America.

When they yell cut, now it’s Jeff again. You run the lines or laugh about stuff, but when you get back into it, you’re all just those characters again.

Some of the ensemble are relative newcomers. What was it like working with people like Sandra Saad?

I mean, Sandra is Kamala. She brought this enthusiasm and excitement: “Oh my god I can't believe I'm working with you guys!” And that's what Kamala is so it was perfect. She was so organic and natural.

And she really is a sweetheart. I mean, you see interviews with her and she's always smiling and giggling - that's her!

So yeah, she was great. And you know, I remember first time I sat in on an animation session with Frank Welker, who’s a legend in animation. Rob Paulson and Maurice LaMarche are sitting next to me - Pinky and the Brain! And, like Sandra, I’m the newbie.

Or when I worked with Harry Dean Stanton on HBO’s Big Love one time, and I’m like: “Oh my God, it’s Harry Dean Stanton!” and we’re having lunch together. And he’s telling me about Repo Man. And I kind of thought: how did I get here?

So we’ve all been where Sandra’s been in one shape or form.

Was it gratifying to be the subject of that admiration?

It’s funny that as I get older, I get more people going” “Oh, man. It's so nice to work with you. I played your games.” I'm like, “How old are you?!”

But yes, it's great to work with somebody who's new to it. Especially when they're like Sandra, because she asked questions. She didn't sit there with the attitude of “I know what I'm doing” - she was always open to direction. Not from me or the other actors - you never do that - but she asked for advice, took notes from Shaun or whoever she needed direction from.

Basically, she was everything you could want in somebody like this and she's the perfect actor for that character. That enthusiasm she has bleeds into her performance and makes her so relatable. You want to root for Kamala so much because of Sandra’s own personality.

I think she’s got great things ahead of her.

Now that you’ve seen and played the game, how are you feeling about it?

Really great! I think it really does have something for everyone. For example, maybe you don’t like playing as Iron Man, but you love Thor because that hammer is badass. You can go at it.

But then as you explore the characters, you start to discover more and more layers - there’s amazing potential for replayability here. I think that’s the sign of a good game.

We’d like to thank Nolan for taking the time to speak with us. Marvel’s Avengers is out now for PS4, Xbox One, Steam and Stadia.

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