When you’re a director like Ridley Scott, you can pretty much get any actor you want for your movies, and for his last three or four movies, he’s assemble some amazing ensembles. That was definitely true for Prometheus and The Martian, and just as much for his Prometheus sequel, Alien: Covenant.
Of course, Michael Fassbender is back as the synthetic android David (and as a second synthetic named Walter), and actress Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) takes on the strong female role of Daniels. Playing the ship’s captain, Christopher Oram, is Billy Crudup, while Danny McBride plays the pilot Tennessee, while Jussie Smollett, probably best known for his role as Jamal on Fox’s Empire, is Sergeant Ricks.
LRM sat down with the three actors backstage at the Times Square studio of Good Morning America, on which they had appeared earlier. The trio had been together all morning, and clearly McBride and Crudup were well-bonded, and making (inside) jokes at each other’s expense. There was a lot of laughing involved in the following interview:
LRM: I think the reasons to do this movie are pretty obvious from wanting to work with Ridley Scott. Are any of you Aliens fans, or seen a lot of the movies?
Danny McBride: Yeah, humongous Alien fan.
LRM: Even the “Alien vs. Predator” movies?
Danny McBride: I don’t think those are considered Alien movies.
Billy Crudup: Yeah, I haven’t seen those, but first of all, if you’re an actor, getting a job is pretty awesome. Period. If you get to choose what that is, that’s a real luxury. When you have somebody like Ridley and to be with this ensemble of actors and be a part of this huge creation myth that he’s woven together, you just say, “Okay, when do I need to be there?” because obviously I’ll do that.
LRM: Danny, you’ve been doing so much comedy lately, but I think you started as a dramatic actor, so was the chance to go back to that one of the draws?
Billy Crudup: Yeah, or was that...?
Danny McBride: Yeah, Billy, what do you want to do? You want to do this?
Billy Crudup: You saw what I did.
Danny McBride: Billy and I have a truce. We’re not busting each other’s balls. I get asked that question all the time. How different is this than doing comedy? You know, honestly, genre doesn’t really matter when you’re acting. It’s not like if you’re doing a comedy you’re practicing “Knock-Knock” jokes in a mirror. You’re just trying to be real or be grounded and fit into the world that’s being presented. In that regard, it’s definitely an adjustment to figure out how to feel relatable in a space movie, but I think that’s something that Ridley is very conscious of. It’s what that first Alien has. He presents these sort-of working class people in a sci-fi world. I think that sort of approach, yeah, it makes it easy to inhabit that world then.
LRM: Jussie, you’re one of the newer actors in the cast, so what was your entry to the movie? Did you just get a script and go in to audition or talk to Ridley?
Jussie Smollett: Yeah, I auditioned, I auditioned. I went in and actually one of Carmen’s scenes was my audition scene ‘cause I hadn’t read the script. They were being so (secretive) of course. I auditioned like everybody else, two different times, and then I got the call, and my manager was super-excited, but nobody was more excited than my brothers. They were basically like, “Jussie, you have peaked,” I’m like, “Whoa! Stop! There’s more to do!” and they were like, “No, nothing you do will ever be better than this.” I was like, “Yo, Season 4 of Empire is gonna be dope!” And they were like, “We don’t care.” Alien is for them. My little brother flew down from the Bay just to watch the private screening, because they’re obsessed, so I’m really cool right now.
LRM: What I liked about this movie and “Prometheus” is that the ensemble Ridley created basically throws these actors together that you would never expect to be in the same movie. What was that like? Did they shoot all the early scenes with the whole crew first, before the part of the movie where it’s separated into two groups?
Billy Crudup: Danny was saying before that we were all super tight there at the beginning, so the dinner reservations at the beginning of the shoot would start with 12 people and then as the body count went up...by the end of it, we were like, “Is there any three of us here?” I think Ridley definitely structured it in such a way to try to get the most out of the ensemble that he could. He wanted it to be a tight-knit group that could relate easily, because he really does give you autonomy. He says, “If you’re ambitious about this character, if you want to bring stuff in, make a character, make some choices, build some relationships and I’ll use it.” It does get you motivated to hang with the group.
LRM: I wanted to ask about working with him, as an actor, because I know he’s meticulous about the shots, the set-ups and creation of the world, so I wondered if he was like Woody Allen where he hires actors he knows can do what they need to do for the characters.
Billy Crudup: He’ll tell you exactly where you can be effective, “This shot is not about you at all. If you want to show up for work, it will be a super-wide shot. We’ll never see you, but there’s one shot I’ve got planned that will be your moment and you’ll get three or four takes, so come in prepared, and if you have ideas about it, tell me what they are, and I’ll give you your the space to do that.” When you know that as an actor, I feel very comfortable at that point. You feel the pressure, obviously. You want to deliver for him, because he’s been so meticulous about everything, but when he explains to you how you can be effective and what he’s done to construct the other pieces that are going into this scene, and what’s not important to pay attention to. It gives you a very clear focus, and that, for me, that’s all I can ask for from a director.
LRM: Do you feel the same way about figuring out where your character “Tennessee” came from?
Danny McBride: Yeah, and the good thing about Ridley is that when I got there, everyone was saying, “Yeah, he doesn’t do a whole lot of takes, he moves through things pretty quick,” and I think he creates this cool vibe where you have to come prepared. It’s not like you’re going to find it on the day, and he’s going to do 20 takes of something. He comes in. He has four to five cameras rolling, and he smokes through it. If you don’t get it, he’ll obviously do more, but I think his average is about two or three takes of stuff.
Billy Crudup: Absolutely.
Danny McBride: It moves fast. He just creates this energy on set that you have to be ready for.
Billy Crudup: He doesn’t even like rehearsing really, like he’ll give you a rehearsal if you need one. Sometimes there are technical circumstances that are tough to juggle. You can’t get to the story element you want, or the character development that you want, so if you need time to go through this, he’ll give you a second (take), but really, he wants to come in and see what your first take is. He wants to see what that experience is, and hopefully use what’s immediate about it and interesting.
LRM: I want to ask about the religious aspects of your characters, because I thought it was interesting that you’re on a ship called “Covenant” and you’d think your character would be the first choice for captain, rather than second. Can you talk about that? Was a lot of that in the script?
Billy Crudup: It’s interesting right now to think about theology, and belief systems are a big part in how we’re relating in conflict in the world right now, so to imagine 100 years in advance, where is the room for the fundamentalists? Where is the room for the people with a strong belief system? Where are the people who like going to church? I think this is a guy who grew up with a system imposed upon them, a sort of puritanical punitive belief system. He’s trying to find a way to include that part of his history in that family tradition with being a scientist, and someone who believes in the mechanics of the universe. I think you find him as a person in conflict, and when his faith is actually tested there, and he doesn’t understand the world in a way that he thinks he should, it breaks that foundation and forces him to rely ultimately on what will become his faith, which is just the people around him, his love for the relationships that he has.
LRM: This is a tough question because I don’t want to spoil things, but what was it like interacting with the aliens? Did you have anything on set in your scene?
Jussie Smollett: Yes, yes. There was a 7-foot man...
Billy Crudup: No, not that guy. He means the alien. (laughs)
Jussie Smollett: No, the guy dressed as an alien was freaky as hell. He was standing right behind me. We all had to have dummies made of ourselves, so the whole experience was freaky as hell, without giving too much away.
Billy Crudup: It was like a Madame Tussaud’s Haunted House...
Jussie Smollett: It was, but top-notch Madame Tussaud’s...
Billy Crudup: Like the best you can possibly...
Jussie Smollett: Madame Tussaud’s in London, not Times Square. (This cracks everyone up.) Because it was so, so precise. When I saw hair follicles, even down to the birthmark on the tip of my nose, I was like, “You all are psychos.” This is ridiculous!
LRM: Danny, so you’re writing a “Halloween” movie right now, and I was curious what that’s been like? Doing an “Alien” movie with Ridley Scott as an actor is one thing, but taking on something like “Halloween” where you have to follow John Carpenter...again...after someone already tried that.
Danny McBride: Yeah, you know, it’s like David Green got approached to do that, and he knew that I was a massive fan of the series, so he asked if I’d be interested in writing it with him, and I had the same hesitation that I think any moviegoer has now of just, “Do we need to reboot things? Do we need to remake some things?” I told him if we could come up with a really cool take of how to continue that story as opposed to remake that story, then that would be fun to do. We worked on a take, and we actually went in and pitched it to Carpenter. That was important to us. We wanted to have his seal of approval, or else we wouldn’t even interested in pursuing it. We pitched to him, and he dug the idea, and now we’re just trying to convince him to score the movie as well.
LRM: I was going to say that if you’re going to get John Carpenter involved, get him to score the movie. I saw him live with his band and it was amazing.
Danny McBride: Yeah! It’s awesome, right?
Billy Crudup: Was part of your pitch that it was no longer a young lady who is the protagonist, but a middle-aged man?
Danny McBride: Yeah, it was Billy. Look, it’s all Billy. (laughs)
Billy Crudup: You don’t have to pin me by name. I’m glad you thought of me.
Danny McBride: That’s what I took from Alien. I was like, “Look, I worked with one of the most incredible actors ever. He’s not available for this film, but Billy said he would do it.” (Jussie starts laughing very loud to this, so obviously, something was going on.)
Billy Crudup: The truce is off. What’s your next question?
LRM: It’s interesting the way your career has been going, Billy, because you mentioned being happy getting a job, but I always thought of you as a serious dramatic actor...
Billy Crudup: I appreciate that.
LRM: You’re getting into these bigger worlds, so do you feel you can still find character roles that can keep that going?
Billy Crudup: You know, for me, it’s been a conscious effort to try to take parts in lots of different genres, so I’ve done movies like this before, but smaller parts, like in Mission: Impossible 3, Watchmen or Big Fish. They’re all kind of big budget extravaganzas, so I’m happy to explore whatever opportunity they give me.
Danny McBride: I will say something really nice about Billy...
Billy Crudup: Oh, we’ve run out of time.
Danny McBride: Oh, sorry.
(Then the entire interview broke down as all three couldn’t stop laughing about this, so I couldn’t ask my planned follow-up about Justice League and The Flash.)
Alien: Covenant opens nationwide on Friday, May 19 with previews on Thursday night.