Joe Vaz: Getting Literary with Starship Troopers 3’s Most Dangerous Rebel By Brian Kirst
South African actor Joe Vaz is one of the most passionate, talented character actors around. His skills have been particularly evident of late as the doomed and deadly Elmo Goniff in Starship Troopers 3: Marauders and in the epic blockbuster 10,000 BC. Vaz, is also a genre fan boy himself and the founder of the amazing horror-science fiction magazine Something Wicked (www.somethingwicked.co.za). Most importantly, Vaz’s love for his various art forms is evident in his amazingly interesting answers, below, and at his website www.joevaz.com. So, slip into your best bug squashing get-up and prepare to the journey to film sets as far away as Cape Town and Namibia – just by the mere power of Vaz’s detailed, elegant words.
Brian: You have an accomplished stage record. Has the transition to films been difficult for you?
Joe: What you don’t see when you look at my resume is that my “transition” to films took place over 3 years of not getting any stage work, so no, the transition wasn’t difficult J. It was an absolute pleasure to be working again.
In some respects film can be easier than stage work in other ways it is harder they are two incredibly different mediums and yet incredibly similar. On stage you get weeks of rehearsals, on film you get one or two camera rehearsals which are primarily for the camera crew. Stage you need to stay on your toes in front of a live audience, but on the other hand on film you can have 150, to 200 people sitting around at 4 am waiting for you to get a single line of dialogue right (I’m not making this up it actually happened to me). Stage is great because as a performer it is naturally easier to perform for an audience, but on the other hand film is a fully-immersive medium.
In some cases when working on film you don’t even see the camera, you get thrown into the middle of a real location, with real people in costumes and you’re standing on the side of the street and someone somewhere shouts “Action” and you go ahead and do your scene, and hope that there’s a camera on you somewhere.
Goniff’s scenes in ST3 were a bit like that– specifically the peace rally – I really had no idea where the camera was – I had about 50 screaming protestors around me and I was up on the steps of the Artscape Theatre in downtown Cape Town yelling my lungs out to “ban the Q-Bomb”. It’s weird but it’s also fantastic, for those few moments between Action and Cut you get to completely be this character.
Brian: For 2 years you were the man behind Chinwag the donkey on the television program Kideo. If you could ‘wag’ your way into portraying another ‘ferocious’ beast – what would it be?
Joe: I’d love to play the voice of Audrey 2 in Little Shop of Horrors. That puppet is a bit big to do the voice and puppeteer at the same time though, but it would be blast to play that part. Other than that, my best friend (who also appears in ST3) is a Muppeteer in Takelane Sesame, (the local version of Sesame Street) and that is a particular dream of mine. He was personally taught by Kevin Clash (the man behind Elmo) and I can only imagine the honor. I’d love to voice a Pixar or Disney cartoon one day as I grew up on Monty Python and Warner Bros. cartoons so my friends and I have been creating and mimicking character voices our whole lives, it’s an obscene amount of fun.
Brian: Tell us a bit about working on the epic mini-series To the Ends of the Earth with genre favorite Sam Neill?
Joe: As is so often the case with these things, they sound a lot more glamorous than they actually are. I think I got to be in one scene with Sam Neill where he arrives with a broken leg at a pier – I walk past him and head towards Edmond Talbot (Benedict Cumberbatch). I did get a chance to have a few drinks with Charles Dance (who also appears in the series) though and we shared a few jokes about The Golden Child. That was fun.
Brian: Do you have any favorite recollections about working on the mega bucks, heavily pushed 10,000 BC?
Joe: Working on 10KBC was pretty damn awesome. It is the biggest thing I have ever been a part of. I have always been a huge fan of Emmerich’s movies. For a long time I thought I hadn’t got in. I had auditioned for the film in November of 2005 and by June the following year I was getting seriously depressed. I was even offering up my services as crew just to get on the set. It was August before I got a call from the local Casting Director, Christa Schamberger, to ask me if I had my passport handy as I might be flying to Namibia in the next 24 hours. As it turned out it was a week before I flew out there but it was an absolutely insane week. I was getting calls everyday from Christa and Patti (my agent) and the on-set PA’s to confirm that I had everything in order, and to check costume sizes and had I been inoculated yet, and throughout all this nothing was actually confirmed yet. Final confirmation eventually came in at about 4pm on the following Monday when I was told I was booked on a flight the next morning.
Working in Namibia was amazing – the final set of the film was built and shot in front of Dune 7 in the Namib desert (one of the largest dunes in the world I think). When you fly in to Walvis Bay everything to the West of you is blue Atlantic Ocean and to the East is flat sand as far as the eye can see – it is an extraordinary place. I have a bit of a British tan, (I’m pale as a ghost) so every morning began before 6 am with me being hosed down, literally, with fake tan – and deserts are damn cold first thing in the morning. This was followed every night by a 50-minute shower to try and remove the layers of fake tan, make-up, fake dirt, real dirt and desert sand from everywhere. I don’t know what the hotel staff must have thought of us because every day the sheets and towels would be covered in brown as that damn fake tan refuses to come of with water but rubs off on everything else quite easily. It was a hell of an experience. Roland himself is the most unassuming man you’ve ever met – you’d think that this huge-scale, big-budget director would be all megaphones and Cadillacs but if you walked on set you’d be hard-pressed to identify him amongst the other crew. – Just a really down-to-earth guy.
The sets were incredible, the number of crew, the costumes – it was the most spectacular thing ever. Over 500 extras all individually made-up and costumed according to their specific tribes, every morning – can you imagine what the costume tent was like at 4 O’clock in the morning? It was like a pre-historic Grand Central Station in there.
Brian: Did you study any particular political revolutionaries to get into the mindset of freedom terrorist Elmo Goniff for Starship Troopers 3: Marauder? Or did you just let his explosive dialogue and the situations set the tone?
Joe: I honestly don’t know where Elmo came from – I’m a very restrained guy, I seldom lose my temper or raise my voice, so Elmo just gave me the excuse and the opportunity to let go and go bananas. Ed’s suggestion was to think of him as a cross between Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July and Michael Moore, only a helluva a lot more pissed off and intense. Here is a guy who has given up everything for the Federation, including his ability to walk, and I guess after the war he’s (understandably) kinda pissed off, ‘cause he’s realized how futile this war is, how many millions it is killing, and he is trying to get people to make a change. Elmo’s intentions are pure; his methods are what get him into trouble. He pisses a lot of people off and eventually the Federation finds a way to shut him up. Ed was pretty precise – he had a very clear picture of who he wanted Elmo to be and I just put myself in that situation. Obviously though, the lines were a great help, they’re wonderfully written and it was a blast to get to shout them out in the middle of the street.
Brian: Is there anything that stands out for you about being on the ST3: M set?
Joe: Well, there’s the obvious, which is that it was a wonderful experience to be part of such a cult franchise and to get to meet and interview Ed Neumeier (the man wrote Robocop, for God’s sake!!). Getting to meet Jolene Blalock was also awesome. I’d been a long-time fan of hers and Star Trek: Enterprise so it was a wonderful opportunity. And I got to interview her for Something Wicked (the horror/sci-fi mag I publish in the gaps between roles) too. To be honest though, the really cool thing about being on set was hanging out with the Cape Town crews, a lot of whom I have worked with several times before. The crew in general was fantastic, Producers Charles Coffey and Claudio Fäh, and 2nd Unit Director John Murlowski were a ton of fun and they really allowed me to play around with Elmo’s character. I’m a huge fan of sci-fi movies in general so any excuse to do one is great.
Brian: If you were going down like Elmo in his last moments of ST3: M, what would your final words be?
Joe: Elmo’s lines in that final scene are totally improvised. (We played it a few different ways and then Ed asked me to “give ‘em both barrels” and go apeshit as the guys carry me up the stairs to the gallows, so I just went ballistic). So to answer your question, my last words would probably be very similar to Elmo’s. – Either that or something banal like “oh shi- ”.
Joe: It depends what I’m writing. When I write narrative fiction I tend towards the supernatural. I grew up on horror books and movies so whenever I come up with any premise I immediately slip towards a supernatural bent. I have a great love for the unknown and the unexplained. I am also a huge fan of detective novels for that same reason. – the mystery, the wanting to find what’s hidden.
Scriptwriting is a different beast. My strength is dialogue and interaction between people, and my short films reflect that. My primary aim when writing indie scripts is to give the story what it needs while keeping it affordable to shoot (which any scriptwriting coach will tell you is the last thing you should do, “never restrict your imagination!”) so I tend towards human slice-of-life dramas – few characters, lots of dialogue. I do have a few unfinished SF and horror scripts lying about but their budgets are too big to tackle at the moment. Also, if I haven’t got a solid deadline to work towards I’m inclined to lose focus and momentum very quickly. I work best when I can see the finish line.
When it comes to non-fiction, I do the occasional article for local Film and TV publications, and there I write whatever the hell I’m told to. I have a huge failing as a freelance non-fiction writer in that I struggle to come up with things to pitch. I can write about almost anything but I’m crap at coming up with the ideas. Which is why I write very little non-fiction as the only work I get is usually passed down from people who don’t have time to do it. Something Wicked is the exception to that rule. I have to admit it’s the one place where I get to pursue interviews with the authors and actors who inspire me. Fortunately, my readers share my tastes, so there’s a good chance that what captivates me is going to appeal to our readers. J
Brian: Tell us about Something Wicked and how this super spooky (and ultra-cool) publication came into existence.
Joe: Something Wicked came about from a hunger to promote and inspire South African alternative genre fiction. The SA movie industry suffers from either excellently produced and written “art” movies (which make no money) or badly written, banal comedy. Like any industry, the movie biz needs to make money to survive and statistically speaking, the horror genre is the genre most likely to give you favorable box-office returns for a relatively small outlay – a fact that every producer on earth seems to have figured out. Unfortunately, South Africans have never really been interested in making horror movies. So my idea with Something Wicked is to try and inspire and capture the imaginations of the young SA writers who, up until now, have never had a local platform for their fiction. My hope is to raise awareness of the horror and sci-fi genres within SA and hopefully get some of these young writers to graduate to filmmaking in the future. We have already had one of our writers picked up by the television industry after the producer of a local kids’ science-fiction animated show read her story in the magazine.
I also make it a point of offering copies of Something Wicked to any and all directors, actors and producers with whom I work. Hopefully someone somewhere will pick up a copy of Something Wicked and decide that one of our short stories could be turned into an affordable picture.
In terms of television and film, South Africa is still working under the assumption that the writer just puts the stuff together and that the “real” work happens in front of the camera – which is bullshit, of course. I’ve been in castings for US television series where the episode writer is in the casting giving their opinion to the directors. It has taken some time (and a couple of strikes) but Hollywood is beginning to understand the importance of the writer. Europe of course figured this out ages ago. I am hoping that SA will follow suit soon.
At present Something Wicked has been given partial-funding by the SA National Arts Council which leads me to believe that someone official somewhere believes in the product as much as we do. We are currently distributed throughout South Africa as well as the US and Canada (through www.UbiquityMags.com). Issues can also be bought (and shipped to anywhere in the world) from our online store at https://shop.SomethingWicked.co.za and we also sell eVersions of the magazine through https://www.fictionwise.com/eBooks/InklessMediaeBooks.htm.
Thanks – plug over. J
Brian: What exactly is a Vanilla Gorilla and can you tell us about your role in that project?
Joe: Your guess is as good as mine. I was cast on this in March this year but as yet the project hasn’t happened so I don’t really have any more info for you I’m afraid.
Brian: Hopefully, you’ll find out soon! – Lastly, any words of wisdom you’d like to leave us with (IE: Never trust a government ruined by giant CGI influenced bugs) or future projects that you’d like to tell us about?
Joe: There are always future projects.
On the magazine front we’re hoping to release our first dramatized radio play version of one of the stories published in the last issue of Something Wicked, which will be available on iTunes through our Something Wicked Presents: podcast.
As for the acting front, well these are the joys of being a working-class actor, we go from audition to audition in the constant hope of securing the next big part. At this stage I am working on a German movie called Hilde, about the life of famous German actress Hildegard Knef – I play one of her first US directors.
Other than that, my calendar is currently open, so if you know of any work going, please send it my way. J
Brian: Will do. And thanks – this has been smashingly fun!!!
Joe: Thank you for asking. It’s been great!
(Images copyright 2008 by Joe Vaz; Cover image of Something Wicked Magazine – Copyright 2008 by Something Wicked and Jesca Marisa.)