Marvel’s Avengers Behind the Performance - Travis Willingham / Thor

The god of thunder talks to us about his audition for the game, falling asleep in mo-cap suits, and one of his most embarrassing moments on a set…
By Duncan Heaney

After playing Thor in animation and games for almost a decade, you’d expect that Travis Willingham would be a shoo-in for the role in Marvel’s Avengers. But that wasn’t the case.

Not only did the actor have to audition for the part, he had to bring the character to life in ways he’d never experienced before. Fortunately, as those of you who have played the game will know, he brought the thunder with a performance worthy of a true prince of Asgard.

We spoke to Travis about the process of winning the role, the perils of breakable props and why motion capture can make you dangerously sleepy…

Hi Travis. How did you react when you first learned about Marvel’s Avengers?

When I heard they were making the game, the first thing I thought was “Oh God, I hope I get to audition for it!”

Then I found out that Shaun Escayg, the Creative Director of the game also worked with Laura (Bailey, Willingham’s wife, and Marvel’s Avengers’ Black Widow) on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and I was a huge fan of their work on that. I knew that he’s an actor’s director, so I definitely wanted to be part of it.

As someone who’s played Thor many times now, you must have been automatically in the running though right?

Well actually, I had to audition like everyone else!

I came in, and I was like: “Hey, Shaun, bro, come on, I'm your guy. I've played Thor since, like, 2011 - I’ve got it down.”

And Shaun just looked at me and said: “Is that what he’s going to sound like?” and I was like, “No wait - let me start from scratch!” (laughs)

What was the audition process like?

The actual audition was in the motion capture space down in Santa Monica where we shoot most of the cutscenes. It’s basically a big square and it can be a little intimidating because it’s just an empty space - no props or anything like that in there.

There’s a table set up for the Director and Producers, and in this case, they had another actor there to read with me, but other than that, you’re kind of on your own - no hammer, no nothing.

It’s very much like theater in that way. That's really what I love about mo-cap - it's as close to theater as you can possibly get, without the limitations of VO and with more freedom than some people might see on camera.

So yeah, I did the audition for Thor - and also a couple of other characters. They asked if I wanted to try for anything else, but Thor is such a great fit.

And this time was quite a new way for me to play him.

In what way?

I think the most remarkable thing about all of it was actually getting the character up on his feet, as we call it.

You can do voiceover standing up or sitting down, but you're usually limited to where the mic is, right? For this, I was able to physically embody that character, take steps as the character, wield Mjolnir… just be that character the entire time, not just vocally.

Was that a satisfying process for you?

Yes - it’s kind of like feeling the blood come back into a limb that's been numb for a while. As a voiceover actor, you really learn to focus everything down into specific points that you can do with your voice. Opening that up and letting your whole body be an expression of the character and what they’re going through is such a thrill.

It was really, really special. I’m not going to lie - I think I held onto Mjolnir, even in between shots!

You had a physical Mjolnir on-set?

Yes, the hammer was there! That was actually a surprise because mo-cap can be so minimalist - you don’t want to obscure the view of any of the cameras or sensors.

I thought they were just going to give me, you know, a PVC handle with two tennis balls and duct tape on so I didn’t stab myself in the face like a dumb actor (laughs).

But I was thrilled when I walked in and they had a replica of Thor’s Hammer. So I actually had something there that I could spin, and twirl before I took off and everything.

And I am happy to report, that I managed to not break the prop hammer once.

Wait - was that a possibility?

Oh yeah. There was a moment on a Star Wars game where they brought out a newly designed lightsaber specifically for my character. It had been 3D printed meticulously, and they even warned me that this was the only one they had.

I was marvelling at it, and playing with it between shots - the same way I did with Mjolnir. And I was twirling it, because that’s what you do with a lightsaber - you start pretend fighting with it.

I think I made it about four minutes before it slipped out my hand, fell onto the ground and broke into three pieces. The whole stage just gasped and the guys were like: “Did you miss the part where this was one of a kind?”

So yes, I am relieved to say that did not happen with Mjolnir. I did not break the hammer.

I imagine you were protective of it though…

Pretty much. It sat next to my plate at lunch, went with me to the restroom - and if that’s not enough to ward away most people, I don’t know what is.

I might have caught Sandra Saad (Kamala Khan) trying to pick it up once in a while when I wasn’t looking. And I was like: “You know, canonically, that’s not possible. You can’t pick it up, so let’s not break character. Shall we (stares faux menacingly)?”

Well, when we spoke to her, Sandra did say her experience was educational…

(laughs) You know, it was kind of mind blowing seeing the parallels between the game and real life when Sandra came to set. She hadn't really worked on any big video games - this was a huge role for her. To her credit, she knew who we were, which isn’t always a given.

Voice over actors or video game actors have some notoriety, but we're not largely known. We're not getting stopped in grocery stores for anything normally.

But she was like: “Oh my gosh, you’re Nolan North, you’re Troy Baker, you’re Travis - this is amazing!” She had so many questions and the same sort of enthusiasm and exuberance that Kamala does in the game.

So it was really wild seeing that play out both in real life and on the stage.

Moving on, how is this version of Thor different to others you’ve played before?

I actually asked that exact same question when we got to set. The things you want to see first when you arrive on a project of this magnitude - as both an actor and Marvel fan - is what is the story that we’re telling? How are these characters looking? How long has the group been together? Are there the rivalries you’d expect, like between Thor and Hulk?

We were surprised and relieved to see that this is a fresh take on the characters. They’ve been together as a team, they’ve had some success, they’ve saved the world a couple of times, they’re in the middle of a celebration. The character dynamics are quite unique from what we’ve seen before.

How Tony Stark and Steve Rogers interact is different, as is how Tony and Thor relate to each other, both as friends and teammates, but also in terms of leadership for the Avengers... it’s a unique thing for the audience to see.

What is it about this version of the character you think works?

I sort of have a Shakespeare dial for Thor - a 10 being: “Zounds, verily, thou must fall to the hammer of Thor!” and all that stuff. Luckily they have him around what I would call a six and a half. He still doesn’t quite fit into this Midgard realm - he’s still trying to learn the verbiage and some of the jokes are lost on him.

I think also the charm of Thor is seeing this Adonis of a man, who seems capable of anything, with incredible power at his fingertips, struggling in some of the simplest ways where mortals thrive. So they've done a great job of keeping the charm of him trying to find his way in the world.

And then also keeping some of that just classic Thor - you know, there may be a ‘Huzzah’ or ‘Zounds’ or two.

The character has a fascinating mix of arrogance and humility. How did you balance that in your performance?

Yeah, it’s funny - it’s sort of a feeling. You can read a script when you get it, and then when you come into rehearsal and you hear how other deliveries are being presented in the room, it’ll inevitably change.

It’ll change how you respond, how you carry yourself - a lot depends on the energy level from the other actors.

But it really is driven by how the scenes are coordinated, and what you're going for - what the arc of the character’s going to be. We know what the major conflicts are - how is he going to react to those? And then ultimately, what is he going to learn and change about himself to deal with it, so that he can hopefully find success towards the end.

For Thor… he's a prideful guy. So’s Tony, but Thor doesn’t like to show weakness. That’s not something he even likes to talk about very much.

So I think certain characters like Kamala Khan coming in and showing incredible vulnerability and honesty about how she thinks about things helps Thor. He sees a vitality and youthful exuberance in the way she approaches life-threatening situations and takes inspiration from that.

Did playing Thor physically change your perception of the character or how you portrayed him?

I think one of the things that I was discovering as we were shooting is what is the correct physical interpretation of Thor.

That doesn’t sound like it would be that difficult because he's a tall, broad shoulders back, powerful-looking guy. Those are the givens, right? But so much of a performance can be hamstrung by sticking with the obvious instead of making an interesting choice.

Especially with Thor, where even just a weight shift or a posture change can be so impactful, because once you see a statuesque figure start to show signs of fatigue or something like that, it can really make an impact on the performance. So keeping that in mind and not holding onto that rigid, powerful Asgardian prince posture all the time was important.

What was the most rewarding aspect of playing Thor in this way?

One of the things I had the most fun with was challenging the team to incorporate all of the abilities of the hammer. My favorite thing from the movies is when Thor throws Mjolnir and it comes back to his hand.

I remember one of our early shoot scenes with Sandra - it’s right at the start of the game. The script didn’t call for Thor to summon his hammer, but I thought it would be a great way to wow Kamala, especially since she’s already geeking out about talking to Thor.

Everyone agreed, so then I asked, how are we going to tackle that? The guys on the rigs basically said: “just hold the hammer and hold it out like you're going to catch it - we’ll digitally run it into your hand.”

But I was like: “That’s not good enough, push the envelope! I want someone to either throw the hammer and I’ll catch it, or have someone that’s not in a suit run that puppy across the stage into my open hand!

And sure enough, we tried a couple of times. As it turns out, it’s really hard to catch a poorly weighted, rotating Mjolnir handle-first without looking as soon as it touches your hand.

In the end, we got one of the guys, you know, with a backwards cap, run across the stage real fast and put it right in my hand and I’d walk away real tough like it hadn’t happened. So yeah, exploring that stuff was worth everything (laughs).

So presumably there are some bloopers somewhere…

Oh, I’m sure they exist. As well as the replica Mjolnir, we had a foam hammer, but we didn't use it all that much. So when the bloopers happened. It was the hard, heavy one. Which made it even better (laughs).

Outside of flying hammers, were there any other challenges with the performance capture?

Here’s a little secret about mo-cap, especially down the Santa Monica stages. You put on this suit, and it's made of Lycra and felt. It’s got some breathable sections around the joints, but it traps heat. Significantly.

So you've had your breakfast, the blood in your body rushes to your stomach to try and digest it, and you're essentially in a Snuggie - you can find yourself getting a little sleepy at times.

So the ritual we really have is doing 10 push ups before every scene to get the blood pumping, so you’re not falling asleep in this walking carpet of a suit!

Now that the game’s out are you surprised by what you’ve seen?

You know, somebody asked me once - does it lessen the game for you as a voice over person because you know what the lines are, and you know where the story’s going? And the answer's no - not even close. Honestly.

Because until then, we’ve only seen what we're imagining up in our minds, right? And what I'm imagining is probably different from what all the other actors are imagining.

And then that’s almost never anywhere close to what actually shows up in the final version of the game. Explosions, sweeping camera angles, sometimes the lines are there, sometimes they’ve changed something - it’s wild.

That’s the beauty and fun aspect of mo-cap. You go to a blank set and have to imagine that there’s a platform over there, or a car over there, and people lying unconscious around us - stuff like that. Then there’s an imaginary explosion in the distance so you have to give it your best Super Hero look (laughs).

It does feel weird and cheesy, but then it all pays off when you see the game and it all looks epic and amazing. It’s so worth it.

You can see - and play - Travis Willingham’s take on Thor right now in Marvel’s Avengers - out now on PS4, Xbox One, Steam and Stadia.

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