Norman Reedus Describes Working With "Genius' Genius" Hideo Kojima on 'Death Stranding'

Death Stranding - Sony Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Sony
"You stand up and he goes, 'Imagine there’s a thousand dead whales in front of you,' and you’re like, 'What?!' His mind is on another level," says the star, who was urged to take the role by Guillermo del Toro.

Norman Reedus isn't a big gamer.

He says so himself, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter about his latest upcoming project: Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding. Even so, the star has dipped his toes into the medium a few times through the years, voicing his popular Daryl Dixon character in multiple The Walking Dead video game adaptations. For Kojima, however, Reedus had a more intensive role on his hands. It required the star to don a motion capture suit "with Velcro all over" and act out his scenes on various soundstages between the shooting of his hit AMC TV show.

Shrouded in mystery and in the works for over three years, Death Stranding's release is finally on the horizon, bowing on the PlayStation 4 on Nov. 8. Reedus caught up with THR to discuss his role in the anticipated game, tell how he first met the famed game director, reveal details about the duo's original project together (the ill-fated Silent Hills survival horror game at Konami) and what it's like to work with a "genius’ genius": "If he ever did a movie or anything else, I would be there in a heartbeat."

When did you first meet Hideo Kojima?

I first met Hideo when Guillermo del Toro called me and said, "Hey, there’s a guy who’s going to call you and wants to do a video game with you. Just say yes." I said, "Who is he?" And he said, "Trust me, just say yes." Guillermo gave me my SAG card and my first acting job, and I trust him with everything. I knew this guy would be good if Guillermo was saying this. So Hideo, Guillermo and I were going to do another game, a Silent Hills game, but Konami and Kojima had a falling out, so it went radio silence for a minute. Then they came back and said Sony’s back in with Hideo and we’re going to make a brand-new game. I was more excited about that, to be honest, because Hideo came down to San Diego Comic-Con and had an iPad and was showing me some of the graphics he was working on, which were just mind-blowing. I knew it was going to be a home run right from the get-go.

What year was that?

Well, I’ve been working on Death Stranding for three years, so about three years ago, I guess.

Did you know who Hideo Kojima was before you met him?

No clue. I’ve never been a big gamer; [1981’s] Defender was my game. Those are a lot different than the games nowadays.

Had you ever thought about doing a game before?

I’ve been in several video games with Walking Dead, and they just kind of came with the territory of the juggernaut that is the Walking Dead, but nothing like this. I never dreamed that I would be wearing a motion capture suit with Velcro all over me. It was a blast, I have to admit.

So, you were in a suit on a soundstage. Can you tell me about the process of filming this game? Was Hideo on set with you?

We filmed in a couple different places: In California in a few spots, the face recognition stuff in New York — it was kind of based on where I was. In between episodes [of The Walking Dead] or if I had a long weekend, I would fly out, and it was whenever everyone’s schedule lined up. Some of it was with Mads Mikkelsen in the room, some with Lea Seydoux in the room, other actors in the game. You go in and they put those dots on your face, which take forever — and take twice as forever to take off — and you squeeze into this tiny little suit that is very revealing and embarrassing and you’re strapped in. You have a helmet cam on with a big arm sticking out the front of it. Anytime I had to kiss somebody or hug somebody, our heads are bouncing off of each other. It’s kind of like Joan Cusack in Sixteen Candles, where she’s got the big headgear on.

You were working with the other actors and Hideo on set?

Sometimes the other actors were there. A lot of times it was just me and Hideo. He would have a plastic baby doll on the ground and want me to cradle it and act like it’s dead, then act like it’s alive. Then freak out because there’s hand prints everywhere. You stand up and he goes, "Imagine there’s a thousand dead whales in front of you," and you’re like, "What?!" His mind is on another level. He’s a genius’ genius. He and I got into a shorthand where he would look at me and he would point and frown and make a face and I would just go, yep, I got it. We sort of transcended the language barrier after a while. A lot of times a director will say, in this scene I think you should do it this way, and they’ve rehearsed it in their head so much that when you throw something new at them they sort of short-circuit. There’s not room for interpretation. Hideo is the opposite. You’ll say, "Maybe I should do this," and he’ll say, "Yes! And then do this on top of that!" He’s a collaborative mind. He wants to hear your input. If you don’t say anything, he’ll think there’s probably something wrong with you. He’s a lot of fun to work with. If he ever did a movie or anything else, I would be there in a heartbeat.

You were originally going to work with Kojima on a Silent Hills game. You said you’ve been working on Death Stranding for three years. Did you shoot footage for Silent Hills? When did it switch?

I think we shot a little something once, a teaser thing, and he turned it into a trailer for the game that became sort of a cult thing, which I know because friends of mine who are gamers, who I didn’t know were gamers, have that year’s PlayStation with that trailer downloaded on the console itself, and that became worth big money.

Have you not played P.T. (Playable Teaser)?

I have never played it.

Oh my god, that’s crazy.

I’ve seen it! I know I’m the surprise at the end. I’ve seen it played, and it’s terrifying. It’s a horror film.

Death Stranding doesn’t come across as horror. When Kojima pitched you for Silent Hills, was it a completely different project, or were there similarities to what Death Stranding became?

It was completely different. Silent Hills had the backstory and people knew that game, knew what it was about and what it would look like. When that went away, I was bummed, but when Hideo described what we were doing next, I completely forgot about it. I was like, thank god that didn’t work, because this is way better. This is a completely different thing. I’ve been with Hideo at the Game Awards, and he’s like the Beatles. Grown men in their 40s are screaming with tears in their eyes like Elvis just walked into the room. I’m like, who is this guy? The Hideo that I know is a friend of mine. He’s had dinner at my house, met my girlfriend and my cat. He’s always been super personable and such a friendly guy with a great sense of humor. He’s great to hang out with. I’ve really gotten to know the mind of Hideo a little bit. I like the fact that Silent Hills didn’t happen, to be honest, because I’ve gotten such a peek into the way he works and the way he thinks, and I’m completely blown away by this guy.

Did he tell you the whole story of Death Stranding from the get-go, or did he reveal it in bits and pieces as you went along?

He revealed it in bits and pieces, and I’ll admit that some of those bits and pieces I was like, what are you talking about? As we worked on the game, it began to make more sense to me, and now I know what the game’s about, but I’ll admit there was a good half a year in the beginning where I was just like, I trust him, I’m going to do whatever he says. Now that I know what it’s about, it’s completely different than all the games I’ve seen my son play. It’s a different, powerful, personable concept. I wear this suit and in between takes I’d take a sip of water and wipe my mouth with my sleeve and he’d be like, "Do that again." It happened so much, and I kept saying, "Why are we doing so many of these little Norman things?" He told me pretty early on when I asked him that everyone was going to play me in this game, and he said, "No, they’re going to be you." All the little mannerisms that Norman has, the game has because instead of a generic character that you play throughout the story of a game, he wants you to connect with it. He wants you to feel emotion toward your player, because the emotion you feel toward the player is part of the game. As the story grows and character you’re playing grows, you grow with it, and I sort of saw that happen as we were making it. I saw what a difference that was compared to the games I saw my son play. It’s a different sort of concept.

Do you know that artist Grimes? Hideo, while we were filming, would just have these superstars come to set just to shake his hand. His fanbase is so broad. You’d have the director of Godzilla or King Kong one day and then Grimes. It’s just insanity. Grimes was there, and she’s a big gamer, and I asked her, "Why do you like Hideo’s games so much?" She said, "I’m a big reader, I read novels, I read everything. I also play games, and it’s like having the experience of being personable in a game with the story of a novel." I said, oh, it’s that! As I got to play in it and do these little things, I understood what Hideo is going for. The human interaction you have with this character, and you meet other people who are having the same interactions, and you are building something instead of breaking something down — there’s elements of horror in there, elements of action and adventure, but there’s also an element of connection. The connection, especially in today’s world with social media, it’s not a negative experience. It’s an only positive experience with the horrors of monsters and death and everything around you. It’s really a great communication device, and not just uplifting. If you want to empower people, you involve them in the conversation. This game is empowering in that way. It’s a whole new concept, and it’s super fascinating. And beyond all that, the graphics are just crazy. I’ve never been so perfectly rendered in something like this before!

Now that you’ve gone through this experience, is it something you’d want to do again? Would you like to do more games?

Yeah, it’s fascinating.  As an actor, you’re acting. As part of a story, you’re in this large story. It’s completely different than the games I grew up with. It’s completely immersive and requires all of your attention and patience. I asked [Kojima] once, "This is so realistic, do you think there’s going to be a day where you don’t need actors anymore?" He goes, "No. You could never do that. You need the soul. You need a real human to have real human emotions." And I was like, thank god, because I wouldn’t have a job if not.