"Jonah Hex" is built upon unique casting choices. However, when CBR News visited the set of the film last year, the full extent of the producer's wide casting net became clear when we did back-to-back interviews with John Gallagher, Jr. and Will Arnett who play Lt. Grass and Second Lt. Evan of the Union army respectively.
Gallagher may not be a well-known name to film goers, but on the stage he's one of the biggest actors on Broadway. Already starring in the Tony-winning "Spring Awakening" during its initial run on the Great White Way, the actor is currently headlining "American Idiot" – the jukebox musical based on the songs of Green Day. Arnett is best known to comedy fans for playing Gob Bluth on the Emmy-winning "Arrested Development" as well as starring in a number of movies like "Blades of Glory." However, both actors are breaking new personal ground in "Hex" as their roles in the Western feature neither singing nor joke-making, and each actor explained how they came to wear the Union blue, their memories of Jonah Hex from "Batman: The Animated Series" and how they think "Hex" will remain separate from other comic book films.
JOHN GALLAGHER, JR.
Can you tell us about your character and how you fit into "Jonah Hex"?
So Will's playing a good guy or a bad guy? We know so little about the project walking in.
John G: Yeah. It's one of those films that is kind of fascinating because it is in a way this comic book picture and has these superhero tendencies and is a very kind of action/adventure what you'd want from it – it's really void of any heroes and villains. You have Jonah Hex, and you have Quentin Turnbull, who John Malkovich plays. That's the hero/villain story, but everybody is flawed in their own way, which makes it really exciting because even though you have kind of 'good guys' and 'bad guys,' the lines are quite blurred as to who is really who. So Will's character, Lieutenant Grass, I'm sure he'll be able to tell you much more than I can, but it's really interesting because you're not quite sure where he falls. He really adheres to the law. He likes rules and regulations, and he really believes that this era of bounty hunters and crazy madmen is coming to an end, and the new order is going to be the information era. There's some really funny dialogue about that which makes slight reference to where we are now in terms of information becoming...well, here we are riding on this bus, hurtling through New Orleans doing multiple interviews. [laughter] So Will's character is a good guy, but when you stand him next to Josh Brolin as Jonah Hex – Jonah Hex, as I'm sure you all know, is this ruffian [with a] scarred face, never sleeps and drinks whiskey for breakfast. They look quite different even though they're both supposed to be essentially on the same side. It's kind of a situation where I think Will's character is a good guy, but you know in a film when there's a character who's clearly in the right but you kind of wish he would just get out of the way so the cool, bad person will come back and shoot some people.
Hex isn't one of the best known comic book characters in the world. Before you got cast in this part, were you even aware of the character?
I was. My awareness had actually come from – you know the animated series of Batman? They worked him into that episode, and I remember watching that and finding it a really fascinating episode and wanting to know more about who is this character. When I found out he was a DC Comics character as well and had been around for a while as kind of this unsung hero in the comic book world, I was really excited when I saw that they were turning this into a film. When I saw that Josh Brolin had been cast, I really felt like these people know what they're doing for sure and are going to make a really interesting version of this movie.
In terms of stylization, would you say this is going to look like a traditional Western, or is this a different take?
I've only spent about a day on the set, but they've got some really fantastic, amazing tricks up their sleeve. It's a little bit of everything. You see a little bit of the 'Dollars' trilogy and Spaghetti Westerns like Clint Eastwood in 'The Man With No Name.' You see that there, but we have Michael Fassbender, who's an amazing actor, playing this tough guy walking around these old villages in this wild Western format, but he's got all these tattoos on him. They're kind of pulling a lot of different references to make it feel like that traditional Western, but we've definitely grown accustomed as audiences to seeing everything each year grow a little bit bigger and a little bit more exciting. I think they're pulling out a lot of the stops on this movie.
As far as comedy, when somebody casts an actor like Will Arnett, it makes you ask, "What's the tone of the film?"
What's incredible is a lot of people are going to be really surprised, and I was too to get here and start work in my scenes with Will. It's not an inherently comic role that he's cast in. And he's fantastic. I think it's an opportunity I'm happy he's being given. Because in the past few years, he's obviously done amazingly well in the comic roles, and there's no question about it that the man's hilarious. Whether he can help it or not, he just is. He's tremendous in this role, and there's a lack irony and a lack of sarcasm to his performance. It's very, very straight with him playing this Union army soldier who's meticulous and buffed up and dead set on his ways. I think people are going to be really taken aback when they see Will in this movie, in a good way.
Yeah. The costume designer is wonderful, and much like all the other people on this film, they pulled from all sorts of inspirations to make sure that it's historically accurate. But it also is a filmed based on a comic book, so you can be a little lenient and go far out there with a lot of the choices. But it was very fun putting on the Union outfit for the first time. They have a really good eye for transporting people. I came in, and I had grown out my hair and grown more of a full beard, and I sat down and a few seconds later they'd trimmed my hair and gotten rid of all this [beard growth] so it was the kind of thing where I was a little embarrassed to go back to New York City without being made fun of by my friends. Some of them did, and rightly so. But they really did have a great eye for seeing somebody and saying, "This is what's going to work. You're going to look wonderful in this." Michael Shannon's in this picture, and I don't want to give anything away about his role, but he plays the ringleader of this kind of devilish circus act out in the desert. They've done some amazing things with makeup and prosthetic teeth to make him look the part.
It's a really unusual cast.
It is a unique cast. That's what really started to make me feel like I knew this was going to be special, because I knew the story of Jonah Hex was such an exciting one, and as we started to build the cast with each person, I thought it was such an interesting group of actors. Akiva Goldsmith is one of our producers here working with our director Jimmy, and they love what they do, and you really feel like they got a group of people together that they really like and admire. It feels as if we're kind of part of our own little devilish circus act. [laughs]
How has the film changed a little bit with Jimmy working on the script? I know that Neveldine and Taylor did the first draft. I'm curious as to whether what was originally on the page is what the film is going to be, or was it slight changes?
Mostly just slight changes. There hasn't been anything too grand that they changed. One thing I loved from the first draft that I read to the revisions is that I felt reading it that I wanted to know a little bit more about Megan Fox's character Leila. I wanted to know more about that character, and in the first draft it was a bit more mysterious. So most of the revisions have really been character-based and fleshing out the characters a bit. Areas towards the climax of the as usually in making a movie like this where the question is, 'How's it going to end? What's going to be the climax?' have gone through some changes here and there, but for the most part the script is pretty close to what I first read.
The Hex comics mix various other genres with the material from horror to the supernatural. Can you tell us how the film might do the same?
Absolutely. Especially because so much of it is being shot and takes place in New Orleans, which has a lot of spooky history and voodoo and the occult – it's a wonderful place to be shooting a movie like this. Because there are a lot of moments of sheer grit and realism in the comics and then some small, not the centerpiece of the film, but the backdrop of the Jonah Hex character does wrestle with real demons and actual supernatural elements he's fighting to come to terms with whether he thinks he's hallucinating in one moment, but it kind of goes off in another.
So is the relationship between your Lt. Grass character and John Gallagher's Second Lt. Evan another example of a "bro-mance”?
Because Hex isn't one of the best known comic book characters, do you have any sense of whether you're granted more freedom or autonomy here then would have been bestowed upon, say, Spiderman, or Batman filmmakers?
Probably. I mean, I think that there, I'm sure that there is a fan base, a core fan base that's very hardcore about it. And I'm sure they're sitting two people away from me. [Laughter] And so, I guess there's probably the danger of not worrying about it, because it seems to be not as well known a character. However, I think that it does seem like the filmmakers are very intent on trying to stay true to the character. Not because they don't want to alienate the fanboys, no offense, but because they want to really adhere to the story. But yeah, there probably is more leeway. If you look back, I mean, Jonah Hex was in a bunch of different incarnations, right? There was the original that was part of a different series of comics. Then he had his own comic as a spinoff, and then another series after that with different writers and different illustrators, so I think that he's kind of evolved as well. He's also made appearances in the Batman cartoon as well at a certain point. So even the actual comic itself kind of took liberties on the character itself. You hope that if there are people out there who feel that there's liberties taken can kind of understand that it's artistic license and not a desire to say "screw it" to the character.
For those of us a little unfamiliar with the script, can you talk a little bit about how it starts and the storyline and how much of an origin story it is?
It starts with this guy, who's kind of this renegade outlaw living in this kind of lawless West, and you decipher very early on that he's a bad ass. And that there's some kind of pathos there. There's something happening, and then you have...as the story moves, you understand he has this complicated relationship with the character Quentin Turnbull, played by John Malkovich, who is ultimately the villain in the story. But everybody's kind of a good guy, and everybody is a villain. Everybody makes a case for why they're doing what they're doing. And I think the only person who is not that sympathetic is probably Turnbull. He is kind of like pure evil.
And you know, I think that [Turnbill] represents a guy has nothing to lose because he's lost it all, which is a very difficult thing to combat against. I think that Jonah understands that. I think that you could draw parallels to terrorism and terrorists. People who are willing to do anything are very dangerous adversaries. So Jonah is kind of fighting that and he's kind of fighting the system and what that represents, and he's fighting his past, so here you have a guy who reluctantly decides to confront his demons. Something that he's clearly been running away from for a long time, and it culminates with this crazy, huge battle. I don't want to give too much away.
With you playing Union soldiers, is there any conflict with Jonah Hex having fought for the Confederacy?
Not really. Nothing that's kind of apparent in the script. It doesn't really seem like he's got any kind of allegiance to the Confederacy based on political views or anything.
In the book, originally, he actually surrendered to the Union troops.
Well, they do refer to that – that he becomes disillusioned with the Confederacy. I think that has more to do with what Turnbull was doing than the politics of the Confederacy. I'm not really sure. But there is reference to that, because that's how they find...that's kind of the kernel of the problem between Turnbull and Hex. When Hex turns himself in, he refuses to divulge the whereabouts of the platoon or whatever. And then they're able to gather, from the color of the mud on his boots, the red mud or clay. It only exists in one valley, so the Union kind of deciphers from that that's where they must be. So Turnbull holds Hex responsible for the death of his son, Jed Turnbull, who is also Hex's best friend. It's very complicated.
Probably getting to know the horses and the humility involved in that. John and I went up for a few days and we were riding horses and we, you know, we started slowly. And one day we got there and Josh's stunt guy and a couple of other stunt guys were there and they were riding around a big open field, pretty expertly. Full gallops and kind of laughing and circling around and stuff. And we found out that they'd only been riding a couple hours. And we had been riding for a couple of days and we were gingerly at a trot. So they're going to look like they're on Harleys and we're going to look like we're on Vespas.
So would you be willing to do another comic book movie after this one? I mean, you talked about Green Lantern coming out.
And if they keep scraping the bottom of the barrel, maybe Plastic Man, so...
You'd be a good Plastic Man. That's what he was trying to say.
You're trying to say that I'd be good at the bottom of a barrel? [Laughter] Is there a comic book character known as “Bottom Feeder”?
Probably. But that's probably X-rated. He just feeds of bottoms.
I think we just came up with a new porn comic book.
Great. Let's do it.
"Jonah Hex" opens in theaters on June 18. Check out more coverage with the cast and crew on CBR, and be sure to take a look at our new Jonah Hex Hub!