6:30am PT by Patrick Shanley
How 'Red Dead Redemption 2's' Stars Brought a New Western Classic to Life
Rockstar Games' Red Dead Redemption 2 may have galloped out of the stable — the game earned over $750 million in its first three days of release alone — but the process of bringing the epic Western saga to life was anything but a sprint.
Taking over five years to complete, the game features more than 500,000 lines of dialogue, over 1,000 speaking roles, nearly two dozen principle castmembers and an open world packed with fully voiced characters for the player to interact with.
The actors spent years bonding on a soundstage in their mocap suits as the story slowly unfolded. Eventually, they took to stealthily sharing script sides with each other in hopes of gleaning more about the story to make their characters more well-rounded.
Here, the cast behind the game's central characters — Roger Clark (Arthur Morgan), Benjamin Byron Davis (Dutch van der Linde), Alex McKenna (Sadie Adler), Noshir Dalal (Charles Smith) and Rob Wiethoff (John Marston) — along with Red Dead Redemption 2's director of performance capture, Rod Edge, give insight on the Herculean efforts that went into making Rockstar's Western opus a reality.
How long was the process of taking Red Dead Redemption 2 from page to final product?
Rod Edge: A little over five years ago we had a basic plan of what we wanted to start with. We picked some fencepost scenes and laid out some characters in key scenes they may be involved in. Traditionally, someone would write a script and get funding for the script. What we tend to do is start with a story on a piece of paper and then go, let’s look at characters that are going to be in that story and flesh those out a little bit, and let’s do some casting and do some scenes to see how it looks and feels. Five years ago we started that process with Roger.
Roger Clark: My first day on the project was in August of 2013. With the context of this particular installment, I was the first to come on, apart from Rob and Ben who worked on the previous chapter.
Edge: The first scenes we did were with Roger, yeah, because casting the player is the main thing you need to do when you start a game.
Did the actors perform together on the same soundstage?
Benjamin Byron Davis: I would say that we were all together for almost all these scenes. I think theater is probably the closest thing that I’ve experienced to the work we’re doing.
Edge: I want to be really clear that we do the scenes. They don’t motion-capture their types of movement. The scenes that you see were done in full. Bodies, face, everything. What you see is exactly how we captured it. They’re there; they’re doing it.
Alex McKenna: I think it’s a very interesting hybrid because it is being onstage together. We’re dressed up in the motion-capture suits that, I think, make us look like scuba diver superheroes, and we have cameras right in front of our faces. Rod, you can correct, there are like 600 cameras?
Edge: (Laughs.) There are 60 or 70. There’s a lot.
McKenna: They’re getting every angle, but the scenes are happening as they would onstage or in a movie. It’s very much a real performance where we get to interact with one another.
Clark: I would say that, to mirror what everyone else says, we are all together, particularly when it comes to the cutscenes. We were working on a set that was dimensionally accurate to whatever the in-game setting was. That’s where the animators were invaluable to the actors because the animators would explain to us exactly what our environment was specifically, whether it was day or night, whatever. They were also able to show us that in what we call "pre-vis" [short for pre-visualization] so we could see exactly what our environment was, and for an actor that’s really important because other than that it’s just scaffolding and what Alex says: superhero scuba suits.
Davis: The core gang really grew together over the years, but there were so many other actors who would come in for smaller roles, and the first day you’d always see that look on the face of someone who’d never done it before. The thing I would tell them is that the body is onstage, but because you have this camera onstage, your face is in close-up, so it’s this really odd hybrid between the two forms, theater and film.
Edge: I think when you see long-form TV or film or something like that, you imagine that you get an actor and on their first day they go into hair and makeup and put on their costume, their gun belt, their Stetson, and it’s weathered and they’ve got mud thrown on them and they’re introduced to their horse that they lead down a dusty street and for all intents and purposes it feels like we’re in the Old West — we don’t have any of that! We’re literally in a white room with some speed rail, people in suits they really don’t feel comfortable in, and every actor, especially in the main cast, they’re really creative people and they have to be. That is the sheer strength of this ensemble. They’re people who can creatively see outside of themselves and see and imagine the world that they’re in just by doing it together and building up this world. I think that is the true testament to what these guys achieved.
Does that present a pretty big challenge of getting into character, then?
Clark: One of the advantages of the duration of this project was that it afforded the principal cast [time] to become very familiar with the medium and with each other and their characters. We were really lucky in the sense that the actors developed as good and as strong a relationship with each other as our characters did in the game. That gave us this sense of trust with each other, and as time went by we became more familiar with mocap and we knew which questions to ask the animators in regards to the environment. We trusted each other a whole load.
McKenna: I couldn’t agree more. Every time we’d get on set and we’d rehearse a scene the cast was so invested in their characters that it made it super easy to get into that world, even though it didn’t look anything like that in our reality when we’re doing it. To imagine it became easy to click into because of the actors I was working with.
Rob Wiethoff: There were so many days, in the fourth year or even the third, where the main cast knew each other so well and we’d be joking to each other about our family members. We all knew each other. There’d be somebody who was new that day and you’d kinda think, "You have got to be feeling like you’re on a different planet." But I think because we had such a really cool group of people that everyone was happy to talk to anyone that was new and give them reassurance and say, "This is very different than what you’re used to, but this is so much fun and you’re going to do great and you’ll feel good after one take." It really was a team effort. People genuinely cared about everyone’s experience.
Clark: It didn’t take long for me to realize that the more comfortable we made [new actors coming on], the better the scene we got from them. We tried to make it as much of a nurturing environment in that respect as we could.
Rob and Ben, you both starred in the previous game, and in your case, Rob, you were actually the player character last time and had to carry much of the script. What was it like to come back to Red Dead?
Wiethoff: I do want to make very clear that I didn’t carry anything in the first one. That game was a great game, as well, and that’s because of everyone involved, and I’m so happy to have been a part of that and again a part of this. Playing a younger version of John — I’ve got an older sister. She’s three years older than me, so when she was a senior I was a freshman and, of course, all her friends were the guys that I looked up to. I always wanted to be really cool like them but I never knew how. So I have lived that kind of frustration of, "Why don’t they think that everything I do is cool the way I think it is?" I tried to use that a little bit with John. He’s just young enough, cocky enough and not aware of himself enough because of his inexperience that he just kind of doesn’t get it yet. I guess because I actually lived that — and probably still do in many aspects of life — it came pretty natural to me.
Davis: It’s uncommon that you get to do something that you’re absolutely just honored to be a part of and that was Red Dead for me. So, I hoped I’d get this call. Rod is a director that I’d walk through fire for, and I knew that when we were working together on the first one. When this came up, the potential enormity was a little daunting. I was quite excited, but I’m an older guy than when I did it the first time. I said to Rod on the first day, "Back again." I told him the first one was so good that I was afraid of making a misstep here. It felt like a responsibility to knock it out, and I think we might have pulled it off.
Edge: I remember that conversation, Ben, and I’m not going to protest if you want to stroke my ego. (Laughs.)
Roger, you had a lot of pressure on your shoulders to introduce a new character in such a beloved series. Where did your inspiration for Arthur Morgan come from?
Clark: I had played [Red Dead Redemption] before my audition, and I was a huge fan before I even knew I was going to be a part of it. My main inspirations for this performance were [Seven Samurai star] Toshiro Mifune, John Wayne — not so much Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name because as stoic as Arthur was I think he needed to be a little more talkative than Eastwood’s guy — and also John Marston. One thing that Rob taught me — even before I met him, as a matter of fact — was that I had a very slim chance of being able to re-create what Rob did with John Marston. It’s too perfect, it’s too unique. I was going to have to do my own thing. If I tried to re-create that in any way, shape or fashion, I don’t think I would have succeeded.
Noshir, Charles is the son of an African-American father and Native American mother. His character is one that is not represented often in Westerns, did that present a specific challenge to you?
Noshir Dalal: When I first arrived on set and realized what I was a part of, because I’m not sure about any of the other folks, but I actually didn’t find out what it was until I got there.
Clark: Me too.
Dalal: There was actually some translation with Charles as time went on. I did what research I could, but, at the end of the day, the thing about Charles that struck me the most is that he’s a man who’s half of one world and half of another and belongs in neither. As a result, the only real people who ever considered him a part of their family is the [Van der Linde] gang. That idea of never really having a place to belong until meeting Dutch and the gang, I resonated with that a lot personally because I’m half-Japanese and half-Parsi, so I’m Indian on one half and Japanese on the other half and either group doesn’t really look at me as belonging in their culture. I’ve lived in the States so I was mostly around white folks, and I’m definitely not white, so there were a lot of parallels that I could draw from my personal life that worked really well for Charles. It was really cool to see how, as my days on set grew and I became really good friends [with my co-stars] and I learned to really care a lot for the actors I was working side by side with, playing that in Charles was super easy. There wasn’t very much I had to do.
Edge: Aside from trying not to break stuff. (Laughs.)
Dalal: I did break a lot of stuff on set. (Laughs.) You know it’s bad when Rockstar makes a “break jar” that you have to put a dollar in every time you break something.
This game does a great job of giving more depth to traditionally one-dimensional Western character archetypes. Sadie is a great example of this. Alex, how did you make her stand out so much?
McKenna: I think the writing absolutely helped. [Sadie] has a really extreme arc. To be a female who basically loses everything and decides rather than to just accept her role becomes part of this family and part of this gang. I think it’s rare to see a strong woman let alone a woman who gets to ride side by side with a bunch of men in a gang. It really is the writing. I wish I could take credit for creating her (Laughs.), but it really is a group effort and I think she really does stand out.
There are over 500,000 lines of dialogue in this game. How do you tackle such an enormous project?
Edge: We don’t write it all and then go out and shoot. We write as we go. It’s a five-year production period and a big, big, big game. We find areas we want to expand. We have areas we realize need to be more complex, so we add lines. It’s a process. For me, personally, I imagine a world and a vibe that you’re after and then there’s more to do and more to do, and I mean that in the sense that you get to work at it and develop it. You get to know the characters and the world and you keep doing it. Also, to be fair, when we do a shoot we'd have a read-through, and we were always peeling through the pages trying to spot what would happen next. In itself, it becomes this incredible adventure that you’re on, and I’m the first one to discover how the characters or plot develop. That’s how you do it, just a love of the medium and the story and just the really strong desire to be in the world.
Davis: The number of pages you’re reading makes running lines very complicated. There’s a lot to memorize. I will say that once a lot of production was in the can with a lot of these big, long monologues, I would take a perverse joy in somebody showing up who had a big monologue on a given day and I’d just be so happy it wasn’t me. (Laughs.) As the story unfolded, we all tried to figure out where things were going and where we were headed because it is being built as you go. In some ways, it’s like you’re acting inside of a painting as it’s being painted.
Clark: To look at it in one piece for most of the years on the project was far too overwhelming a task. I always approached it a day at a time and I imagined myself chipping away at this huge rock. Because of the huge scope of the storyline, which really resembles a five- or six-season television show, what I started to appreciate was embracing the complexity of the human spirit because a lot of our characters would contradict themselves from the beginning of the story to the ending of the story. We would embrace that complexity and say, "He might not have said that at the beginning of the story in chapter one, but I need to find a way to make it truthful to myself now in chapter five."
Here’s a question posed to everyone: What was the most memorable moment from this experience?
McKenna: For me, it would be getting to set early in the morning and not necessarily having a full script, so we’d just have the pages we were doing. It would take me about two years to really understand who Sadie was, let alone where she fit in the story. So, we’d be sitting around getting ready to get in our suits, and I remember asking Roger, "Hey, we all signed the same NDA, right? Are we allowed to look at each other’s sides?" And we went around very, very quickly and read everybody’s sides to get some more information. I remember feeling very naughty, like we were all cheating in school, but we really just wanted to use that to make it the best performance possible.
Wiethoff: My first day, I went back to a familiar place and I knew I was going to see a lot of familiar faces. I rode in the car to the location with Ben Davis, whom I’ve known for almost 20 years because we worked together before any Red Dead Redemption, and we got there and I met Roger. I got to see Roger work, and I don’t know if I had just forgotten what all this is and what you needed to do, but I remember going home that night and calling my wife and going, "They got a real actor this time! This is going to be so good!" (Laughs.)
Clark: One of the things that encourages me so much about the reviews that I’ve seen is just how everyone has praised the performances and authenticity, and I will say I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the animators and the technicians. They explained to me what the environment was. I was able to see myself in that environment in real time through pre-vis, and that really helped inform my performance and give it a lot of context. It was so big a scope to take in at any time, and I don’t remember one single instance an animator didn’t have an answer to my question. It really made my job easier.
Dalal: To mirror what Rob said, I’ve been fortunate enough to do a little bit of motion capture before I came to this game, but the difference in priority at Rockstar was something that I’d never experienced. I had never been at a place where the human story and narrative were driven so far in front of any other requirement or need. As a result, the bar here was super high and everyone is working their butts off. No one had the luxury of phoning it in. That was a real eye-opening experience for me. Also, just the fact that I was playing a character that I cared about very much and I knew from a sociopolitical and cultural point of view needed to be told in the right way. To do the research and toe that line in the restricted setting of a game was a really interesting challenge.
Davis: We had an ensemble as actors but really the entire organization made you feel like you were a part of something larger than yourself. The thing for me with doing the first game was there were a lot of people who played it but not everyone got all the way through the story and didn’t necessarily know who Dutch was. But, literally, everyone on the first day who worked at Rockstar loved the game. Rob and I were catching up the first day talking about the movie Gravity, which at that point had just come out, and I noticed one of the Rockstar employees (motion-capture supervisor Cory Alderman) was staring at us and I said, "What’s going on?" He just goes, "I can’t believe I’m watching Dutch and John talking about Gravity." (Laughs.) To just be in an environment where I knew everyone cared so much, it was just remarkable.