Detective Cole Phelps. Badge No. 1247.
In May 2011, the groundbreaking video game L.A. Noire was released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Set in 1947 Los Angeles, the open-world, neo-noir crime adventure put players in control of a hardnose gumshoe, solving notorious crimes one intricate interview at a time. (An enhanced version of the game was released in November 2017 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.)
Of course, players were not just any flatfoot. They traversed the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and beyond as newly minted LAPD detective Cole Phelps, a World War II hero who quickly made a name for himself as a solid case man before becoming a pariah in his work and personal life. Shootouts, explosions, brawls, car chases, foot pursuits — all just a part of the daily routine for Det. Phelps. Collecting clues (sometimes at truly grisly crime scenes via the homicide desk) and meticulously interviewing suspects to close cases is what made the game stand out.
Aaron Staton, best known as fan-favorite Ken Cosgrove on Mad Men, played the role of Phelps, lending his voice and likeness via motion capture and the then-newly developed facial MotionScan technology. In fact, several Mad Men actors and actresses had roles peppered throughout the meticulously re-created 1940s Los Angeles, including Michael Gladis (Paul Kinsey), Myra Turley (Katherine Olson), Rich Sommer (Harry Crane), Kate Norby (Carol McCardy), and Patrick Fischler (Jimmy Barrett), among a sprawling cast that also included John Noble (The Lord of the Rings, Fringe), Adam J. Harrington (Bosch) and Michael McGrady (Southland, Ray Donovan).
Directed and written by Brendan McNamara, L.A. Noire was announced in 2005 and developed by the now-defunct Team Bondi (the studio’s first and only title) and published by Rockstar Games. An instant hit with gamers, L.A. Noire received high marks from critics for the storytelling, MotionScan technology, and its 2012 BAFTA-winning original score. L.A. Noire was also the first game to be named an Official Selection of the Tribeca Film Festival. Of course, it was not without some criticism (South Park poked fun at aspects, such as the fact that blowing an interview does not necessarily impact a case being successfully closed.) Still, the game holds a score of 89 (PS3 and XB360) on review aggregation site Metacritic.
Now, a decade later, cast from the game (all with the Mad Men connection) pull back the curtain to share how they became involved with the iconic title, what it was like to work with the technology, and how being involved with the AMC series was a performance asset, as well as marvel at the game’s legacy, among other topics as The Hollywood Reporter opens a new case on L.A. Noire.
File No. 11-0810: Aaron Staton (Detective Cole Phelps)
[L.A. Noire casting directors] Laura Schiff and Carrie Audino, who also cast Mad Men, are the link. My name was brought up. I am not sure about the entire conversation, but I was grateful it happened that way. At the time, I was playing a lot of video games, like Call of Duty and Halo. I found the project really interesting and exciting. Mad Men was on hiatus, so it was like a field trip.
There were two separate technologies being used; one was motion capture, which is the wetsuit with the little balls all over it. On day one, we did an assortment of motion activities like running, sprinting, jumping and crouching for a movement palette. And we did the stunts, like scenes of kicking in doors and holding prop guns. The first three months were for motion capture. And what was supposed to be another three months for the MotionScan ended up taking another year.
With MotionScan, there were 36 cameras all around. You’re in this white room and I spoke every line. I had 5,000 pages of text, which I delivered straight ahead to a red X. I could move my head 45 degrees in either direction and up and down. But they really wanted me to sit completely still. And we did an hour and a half long sessions. I would say each line three different ways and then we would move on to the next take.
I know I said my name and badge number a lot. “Phelps. Badge No. 1247.” And I do remember, “You’re being economical with the truth.” One thing that ended up being different than how we shot it in the game was the entire interrogation tactic called “doubt.” When we filmed it, that tactic was called “force.” It was not physical, it was a forceful intention, like, “Cut it out! Let’s get to the facts!” There was an intensity that was meant to shake up the moment.
The soundtrack is amazing and the gameplay is so classy, just driving around, listening to the music. I only played through half of the first desk because I was distracted with my performance — and I was just terrible at the game. (Laughs.) I found it really frustrating. I couldn’t figure it out. And there was a level of story intensity that I knew was coming.
I never heard a word about a sequel. If there was another story, I would be curious what they would tell since Cole Phelps died. I do get recognized from time to time from the game, which always makes me think how incredible the MotionScan technology was.
File No. 11-0830: Michael Gladis (Dudley Lynch)
I actually ended up replacing another actor. Whoever they hired originally to play the bartender didn’t work out, so they called me in to do the face-voice acting. I never got to do the greenscreen ping pong ball body motion capture. They just stuck my head on that other actor’s body. The actual face-voice performance was one of the stranger filming experiences I’d ever had.
When I started on Penny Dreadful: City of Angels last year, both the lead, Danny Zovatto, and the director of the pilot, Paco Cabezas, came up to me independently and said, “Holy shit! You were in L.A. Noire?!” They were both playing it to get a feel for L.A. in the ’30s, which I thought was funny.
I think TV, film and video games are gonna merge into these immersive alternate reality experiences. And as long as the writing is good, I’d love to do another game. I especially think of video games as having short life spans. They get played out and everyone moves on. But, there are some — Portal springs to mind — they have legs, and that’s really great. It’s a testament to how well designed and written they are.
File No. 11-0425: Myra Turley (Barbara Lapenti)
Laura and Carrie asked me if I wanted to do it, and I thought, “That would be a hoot!” I had two different times coming in, 18 months apart, so that was strange but fun. What I remember was being told to move some part of your body at all times, which is remarkably different from film where you hit your mark and stay still. There was no set. There were outlines of doors and chairs. They had to do a hairstyle where there was no hair that was stray — not one hair. It was really weird.
It was like nothing I had ever done; it’s fun and a challenge because you’re trying to make this work but thinking “I don’t know what the hell I am doing, but just give it a go.” (Laughs.) And another good while later, it was released. I was in Palm Springs and so excited to find a mall where I bought it the first day it was out. It was fun! It was tricky! My family is in Ireland and they all got it, so they were all very excited. And through emails, we would share clues because I didn’t want to cheat. I wanted to see if I could do it.
I had done the Clint Eastwood film Flags of Our Fathers (2006), which took place during World War II, so that was close to the [L.A. Noire] period. I love doing period pieces. It is my favorite stuff to do.
The game was a class act. Their vision for it, how they presented it upfront, was really compelling. And I think they didn’t cut corners. They made it happen without selling out, which is why it took so long.
File No. 11-0202: Rich Sommer (John Cunningham)
Carrie and Laura asked if I would like to do it, and I said, “Yes!” L.A. Noire preceded Firewatch, so it was my video game introduction. And it was quite an introduction because putting on the suit with ping pong balls and sitting on painted crates is a far cry from what I have since done in video games.
I only worked two days on the game; one day in the full-body mocap and one day in the facial capture, which is when we got all of my audio. It was a very trippy thing to be making a game with Aaron when we had been acting together for a few years at that point. I dug the writing. I would love to see more games go down this road: more cerebral, less focused on action than on thinking your way through it. And that is what made the acting of it so fun.
Having been so immersed in the Mad Men world for as long as we had at that point, it did some of the work for us. But when it came down to it, it was sitting across from another human being and trying to do a scene. It was very familiar and very unfamiliar at the same time.
I did play the game, but I did not finish it. That is no knock on the game! I have finished very few games in my time that didn’t star Mario as the lead character (Laughs.) But I really dug it. It was hard. I never wrapped my head around how to be good at it. And I didn’t spend enough time with it to learn how to become good at it. I did enjoy it on a thematic level and likely more than a layman as 75 percent of the characters were played by people I personally know. So, even walking down the street and being yelled at by Julie McNiven as she walked by was a total trip. It feels like a time capsule. I got a Nintendo Switch maybe a year and a half ago, and L.A. Noire was one of the first games I got for it, even though I already had it on Xbox.
File No. 11-0801: Kate Norby (Lorna Pattison)
It all happened pretty quickly. It was like, “Can you come and do this in a few days? We’ll send you the script tomorrow and then come in for makeup and hair the next day.” I didn’t even know what it was, but I love and trusted Carrie and Laura. I called my dad, who is a huge film buff, especially of older films, so he was like, “You need to go get The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice, anything with Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall.” I spent the whole day just watching those movies.
I got the script and it was a lot of the same lines, just slightly different, which is really hard to memorize. Normally I have really long hair and not a strand could be out of place. So my hair was shellacked into this ’40s style, which would normally be poofy. The makeup had to be very specific because of the way the cameras picked it up. Then I was in the room all by myself with cameras all around. It felt like A Clockwork Orange scenario. (Laughs.)
Brendan McNamara was really great, really specific. He would call out the lines he wanted me to say and have me do it all sorts of different ways with different intentions. And we went through every single line like that. Lorna was interesting because it was like she was mean but then not.
It was a blast! Everyone there was really fun. I was like, “Oh, hi! Oh, hello!” to all the cast from Mad Men. They were a great group of people. I watched it on YouTube because I’m really bad at video games. (Laughs.) I can’t get the character to move anywhere; I just run into the wall over and over again. Maybe I just don’t have very good eye-hand coordination. I didn’t want to try it and fail in front of my friends. I thought the game was so cool, but kind of creepy to watch my expressions. At the time, I had no idea that it would look so real. It’s surreal! And after 10 years, it still looks great!
It’s a happy accident for me because I was really ignorant of what was happening. When I was there, the director was talking about all the new technology they were using and how excited they all were. It sounded like something big.
File No. 11-1229: Patrick Fischler (Meyer Harris “Mickey” Cohen)
I got a call from my manager asking if I wanted to do this game playing Mickey Cohen, and I was like, “Uh … sure.” I am not a gamer. I was in my teens. But I knew this was a big deal, and I knew Aaron was leading it. So I was a yes. And I had an utter blast. It was so weird. I treated it like I was doing a scene and tried to ignore everyone was in tights covered in styrofoam balls. The weirdest part is when we did the face stuff, which was in that room I thought I might never come out of. (Laughs.) It was super intense.
It’s the only video game I have ever done. I am not big on doing them, but this one was a different story because of everyone involved — and I got to play Mickey Cohen. I love that time period. I love doing stuff like that. It’s my favorite. I did some research, but I didn’t overwhelm myself with it. I got a sense of who that guy was and how to play those scenes.
I am that guy: I have never played the game. I have seen screenshots of it over the last 10 years. I would like to play it and probably should at some point. The reception to the game was amazing. I have done a lot of stuff and had a lot of people reach out over social media or stop me in the street, and L.A. Noire is in my top five of the stuff people recognize me for. It makes me laugh. And it happens to this day; it was pretty recent someone mentioned L.A. Noire to me. It’s become historic in its own way.