Watching Arrival is a physical experience. At times not only did I have shivers, but I felt a wave of nausea come over me as I figured out the reveal.
Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in by the US government to communicate with aliens whose space crafts have surrounded our planet. Louise is haunted by dreams of her daughter while she and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) must decode the alien’s language before global governments retaliate.
Director Denis Villeneuve tells the story from Louise’s point of view and has created an intimate sci-fi movie where the mere suggestion of violence is fear inducing.
Canadian actor Mark O’Brien plays Captain Marks who alongside Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), accompany Louise and Ian to the spacecraft while they speak with the two aliens.
You may know Mark from the hit Canadian series The Republic of Doyle filmed in his native Newfoundland, his big break. If you don’t know him yet, get ready to see him everywhere. This summer he filmed Anon alongside Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried, and he is currently filming Parallel directed by Isaac Ezban. He is also starring in Kin with James Franco, and the Amazon series The Last Tycoon with Kelsey Grammer.
I spoke with Mark while he was filming in Vancouver. I can see why he is in such high demand. His passion, gregarious nature, and high level of professionalism have taken him from Newfoundland to Hollywood.
I always hear how beautiful Newfoundland is. What is it about Newfoundland that makes it unique? There is something in the air, its it’s own universe in a way. People say it looks like Ireland, or Cardiff, with a sort of old European vibe. It’s the people, it’s the accents, it’s the colloquialisms.
What is it about the people? They feel like old friends, but you’ve never met them. There’s no social veneer put on. That breeds an opportunity for a great sense of humor. I remember when I moved to Toronto and I first took the subway, no one was talking to anyone. In Newfoundland you’d have missed your stop because everyone would be talking to everyone!
You grew up playing hockey, you dreamed of going pro, and then your creative side took over. How is playing hockey similar to acting, directing or writing? There’s a lot of creativity in hockey that I think is under recognized, it’s like acting. When you watch the great players play, it’s like an art. You have to think on your feet, you have to improvise, you have to go with what’s there, and you have to handle different personalities. You have to give a performance. I love that hockey does for me what acting and directing does, it puts me in the current moment. That’s the greatest thrill of my life.
What inspired you to shoot your first short film? I saw Fight Club. My buddies and I used to pick up my parent’s old video camera and just mess around so it was really funny. Then I saw Fight Club and realized we could do really cool angles, even with a crappy old camcorder, and with some editing, we could make something interesting. I honestly think that I am an actor today because I got in a lot of practice early. I remember when I first saw Edward Norton in Primal Fear, I thought “That’s a performance, not just a movie”, his movies made me see the art behind it all. He is an intelligent actor, he doesn’t rush his career, he’s got something. He’s not your typical leading man. He’s more interesting. There’s something you can relate to.
You are usually reading 4 books at once. What are you reading now? I just finished Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. It’s a really great book. He tells you what seems like a typical story and then presents a theme that you never really thought about before. He’s such a strong writer and yet he’s still able to make it popular. I just started Tolstoy’s The Devil, and David Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla which is really interesting, it’s about the movie business. I love David Mamet, he’s so good, he’s so honest.
What is your favorite book? Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s such a nasty book but you can’t help but laugh. It’s about a guy being tortured. It’s a cruel little book that I just find fascinating.
Speaking of torture, did auditioning come naturally for you? I don’t think it comes naturally for anyone. It’s an artificial experience. You are auditioning for a part in a movie, but the environment is nothing like it will be. You could be pouring out your heart and soul and the person could be checking their phone. You don’t get any retakes, there just isn’t time, they are seeing 300 other people. You are essentially selling a version of yourself, which is not what you are doing when you act in a play or a movie. You have to think like a director. I think that’s how I got better at it.
Was there ever a time when you weren’t getting parts? I hosted this kid’s show and then I moved to Toronto and I didn’t get anything for a year and a half, maybe a short film or two. It was really tough, but all you can do is keep going. What if you gave up and a week later you would have got the part that was going to change your life? That’s the thing with this business, anything could change any day.
What kept you going? The love of doing it. I have a great support system, I have a great family. I think I called my sister Melanie every week and a half in tears. I just love it so much, I couldn’t not do it. I still couldn’t. I watch a movie every day. I work on a script every day. Every other day I’m acting. I write while I’m acting, I write while I’m on the plane. I’m constantly looking into who’s doing what. I can’t not do it. It’s like not liking your favorite sports team, you can’t just not like them anymore. I’m obsessed, it’s all I think about all the time. I don’t have a wide spectrum of interests. I like reading, I like watching movies, I like playing hockey, I like seeing my wife, my friends, good wine and good food. I love those things so much that I just can’t fit anything else in, there’s not enough hours.
What is your favorite wine? Châteauneuf-du-Pape is my go to wine when I want something really good. We had a wine in Prague called Springer, they only make a thousand of them, and me and my wife still talk about it!
What would your last meal be? Oh my God, I was just talking about this a week go with my friends, we are all big food lovers and you know what we all said? Pizza!
What is your favorite pizza? This place in LA called All’acqua. They have a diavolo pizza with soppressata on it. It’s a thin crust pizza, with lots of garlic on it, you can’t go wrong.
How did The Republic of Doyle change you as a person? I grew up as a human being on that show, I met my wife, I learned a lot about myself. I made friends I’ll have for life, and that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t such an amazing group of people. We went out for dinner every week, the cast and crew. They gave me a lot of freedom as an actor. I realized what I wanted to do. I realized how hard you have to work to get the thing that you ultimately want, no matter what that is. You have to have discipline. All the top guys have that. You have to have that too if you want to be with them.
What was it about Georgina? I saw her and I said “Yeah, I need to be around her.” Not only is she beautiful, she is very infectious. People gravitate towards her. People look to her for help all the time. She is so sensible, and she doesn’t have an immoral bone in her body. It’s always “what’s the best thing to do, for the most amount of people”. Always. I got that from her right away, and I knew I was going to marry her.
How did you propose? It’s really embarrassing. It was in New York at the Bowery Hotel, it was New Year’s Eve. I thought I’d find a little alley way and it would be private, as if New York is a deserted city. So I did it in the hotel room. It was super awkward, and I was blubbering the whole time. I got on my knee. I did the whole thing, and then we ordered pizza! The guy brought us the pizza and we were like “We just got engaged!” and the guy was like “whatever”, he didn’t care. It was amazing, it was funny, it was very us.
What was your wedding like? It was the best day of my life. I was marrying the woman of my dreams. Everyone I cared about was there. It was the best celebration I’ve ever been to. When she was putting on my ring she put it on the wrong hand and it wouldn’t fit and everyone was yelling “Other hand! Other hand!”
What was your favorite vacation that you took together? Vienna is my favorite city. There’s a lot of decadence, there’s a lot of history, it’s a very beautiful city in a modern way and in an ancient way. They are really proud and kind. I could live there for a time.
What did you learn as a director from Denis Villeneuve? Confidence. Know your story. Know what you’re trying to tell, and tell it economically. He is willing to take chances and risks and he doesn’t care about the outcome because he already knows the story so well. You can’t break down, you can’t be uncertain. There is no time for it. You can take your time and think about something, but when you don’t know, move on. I am sure there are times when Denis is unsure, but he doesn’t rest in that. He’ll be active when he’s uncertain, and I never witnessed any moment when he was uncertain, I’m just speculating that at times he must have been, but that just goes to show his professionalism. Lead the troops and be the one that everyone can turn to. Everyone loves turning to him because he’s such a wonderful human being.
Denis describes Amy Adams as giving all of herself to a part. You say she has a vulnerable strength. How do you think she is able to do that? I think she is willing, she is able. I think a lot of people are inhibited, or lack the confidence. I think for Amy it is a complete will to give whatever she has to the part. I don’t think she cares if someone will like it, or if she is going to be good, I don’t think she cares! I think she cares about doing the scene properly. She won’t hold back. Sometimes holding back means being more restrained, her performance in this movie is restrained and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s getting such acclaim, because it’s all internal. That’s all of her on the screen, there is not a false note up there.
What is it like to wear a hazmat suit? I hate hazmat suits, they are not fun. You just do it, I’ve been more uncomfortable on sets before. Communication becomes difficult, which is funny because ARRIVAL is all about communication. You can’t hear anything, there are fans to keep you cool. 90% of knowing what’s going on on set is overhearing, “We are going to do one more take on this”, it’s just announced to everybody, so when everyone’s speaking French and you can’t hear them anyway, you’re like “I don’t know what the hell is going on”. That’s why Denis is so amazing, because he was able to communicate to us what we had to do.
How was it to see the completed film? It was cool because I would have been excited to see the movie to see what he did even if I wasn’t a part of it. I loved it. I was moved, probably in a different way than a normal audience, because I knew the story, I knew the reveal. I was in awe. I felt proud. I have so much respect for Denis, because of who he is as a human being, he works so hard, he is such an example of a great person to become, and I look up to him for that.
What questions did you find yourself asking as you watched the film? I realized that it’s not just about reaching out and communicating, but it’s about being able to receive communication. Sometimes that is stronger than anything because you are never going to get your point across to someone by screaming yours. We are seeing that a lot right now in the world, everyone is just yelling at each other, without really listening to how the other people feel. Republican or democrat, wherever you are from, whatever you believe in, we’re all in this together and the only way you are going to understand anyone is if you are willing to listen to them. I think there is no room for hate, and there is no room for violence. That’s just objectively a bad decision. I was thinking as I was watching the movie “Do I listen enough?” I think that was a subtle point in the movie that maybe wasn’t the whole point of the movie, but it is something I’ve been thinking about.
Has Arrival made you think differently about language? I think the spoken word is a beautiful thing and we all have that innate ability to learn a language, and I think communication is the most important thing. Language is beautiful, and it’s not just what you are saying, but how you say it, our body language, it’s why we fall in love, it’s why we like, it’s why we hate, why we are inspired. All of that comes from the way something is communicated.
How does Denis direct? Denis is very open to things. He’ll throw things at you at the last second. I love when directors do that. He runs a very standard set. It’s done right. He comes in and he does blocking, “Where do you want to go, I think you should go over here”, then you might say “O, I don’t really want to do that. I think I might want to go here”, “OK, let’s try that.” He runs the set like any other except that he does it really well. You get varying degrees of that from directors. Some do it really well, some don’t. Some have weird sets, some have a strange vibe. Denis is a machine. He knows how to do it. It’s an open atmosphere. It’s fun because he is always joking.
Did anything funny happen on set? Denis and I used to laugh because my character is filming a lot and he would always want to get close ups of my hands on the camera, and I was like “You’re disgusting”, it became very sexual with me caressing the camera “I need you to caress the camera, put your hands on it, now move your hands”. “What kind of movie are you making here Denis?” I would ask him. Every single night I’d say goodnight to that camera. He loves that camera.
What’s the best thing about your job? I do something different every single day. Every day I’m writing a scene of something I’ve never thought of before, you never do the same scene twice. Even if you are doing a retake. Even if you are on a stage. There are still slight differences. You feel alive when you do it. You aren’t thinking about what you are going to have for dinner, you aren’t thinking about the argument you had with your friend, you aren’t thinking that someone tweeted something mean at you, you are creating something, and it makes people feel good. You inspire people by doing that. Even if you are doing background, or you are the stand in, or you’re the director, or you make the lunches for everyone. Everyone is a part of that same thing that millions of people are watching. They bring in hundreds of millions of dollars every weekend. People still love movies. For one reason, they enjoy them. To be a part of that is a privilege.
What’s your dream role? There isn’t a historical character, but there are people I want to work with. I want to work with the greats. David Fincher, the Coen brothers, Scorsese, just meet those people and see what they have to offer. The dream role is getting to work with that quality of director. It doesn’t matter what the role is. You’ll find more in that than a great role on paper with a filmmaker that’s not as strong. It comes down to the people.
What’s your favorite movie? The Game, by David Fincher.
You are currently filming Parallel in Vancouver. What attracted you to this part? The director Isaac Ezban is from Mexico, he’s made 2 features, The Incident and The Similars. I saw them and I thought this guy is so innovative, so interesting, so confident. A really bold filmmaker who we are going to be hearing a lot about.
What can you tell us about it? I know it’s about a group of friends that discover a portal to a “multiverse”. It’s very human, it’s a story about ambition. It’s very interesting to see what it does to the group dynamic.
How was working with Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried in Anon? Clive Owen is the definition of a leader of a film. He was joking every day. He knows his lines, I never saw him look at a script once. He knows it inside and out. He’ll sit there and do 2 takes and then give it his all every single time for the other actors. One of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. Amanda, you’d just never know she was this super star! She is so down to earth. Really funny, really cool, very relaxed. Really funny, she’s especially funny. I loved working with them.
What can you tell us about your character Cyrus Frear? I work with Clive Owen’s character to try and find a killer. I can’t say more about it, but I love that filmmaker Andrew Niccol as well. He wrote The Truman Show, he directed Lord of War and Gattaca. He is a really nice man, a trailblazer in a way, he makes the kind of movies that aren’t sci-fi, but they are sci-fi. Not a lot of people were doing that before him at that scale.
You are also working on Kin with James Franco, how is that going? I was just in Toronto shooting Kin. I’ve been shooting that and Parallel at the same time. Kin is an amazing script. These 2 twin brothers, Josh and Jonathan Baker worked for a long time making commercials, they made this short film called The Bagman that was a huge success, and based on that they wrote this feature. It’s a wild family drama action kind of road trip with a sci-fi element. It’s so interesting, I’d never read anything like it. The producers are Sean Levy and Dan Cohen, among others who produced Arrival. I actually met the producers at the after party of Arrival. We got along, it’s a really good cast. All my scenes are with Carrie Coon, she was in Leftovers, and Gone Girl. She’s wonderful. We got along like a house on fire. She is a fantastic actress.
Wow, so much going on for you! Does it ever get confusing? I’ve had 4 trips back and forth from Toronto to Vancouver, in the past 6 days, so last night I got up to use the washroom in the middle of the night and I thought I was in the other hotel room, and I banged into the wall. So it gets confusing sometimes, but then you get to set. I’ve watched so many movies so I think that helps me keep track. I’ll watch 2 movies at a time sometimes, I’ll go back and watch the other one, so I think that just by watching movies it helps me differentiate.
What do you think makes you unique and keeps people wanting to work with you? It’s hard because you feel like you are boasting, but at the same time I am very proud that I am very professional on set. I think we are all making a movie together. I really care. I know that every word in that script was thought out so hard by the writer initially and then the producers, and then the director. The whole crew has put so much thought into every word in that script, you owe it to them to come in and nail it. And that doesn’t mean that you just know your lines, you have to do something original, you have to do something that people can associate with, and it’s something different that you might do, even if it’s really subtle. I think it’s a matter of treating everyone on that set with respect and talking to everyone the same way as you would the star, or anyone else in the cast or crew and caring about the work because if you don’t care you shouldn’t be there, to be blunt. I guess the reason I’ve been working a lot lately, well luck plays a huge part, but it’s hard work and I care, I love it, maybe a bit too much. I know how much everyone else has put in, and you owe it to them. They’re paying you to be there, to tell their story, that’s been agonized over, so you owe it to them to do a good job.
Do you ever get intimidated by the people you are working with? No, not really. I used to, when I first started acting. Now I get excited. I can’t wait to shoot it. I’m doing this new series The Last Tycoon with Kelsey Grammer, Matt Bomer, and Rosemarie Dewitt. I had this scene with Kelsey Grammer and I just couldn’t wait. Because you know you are going to do great, it’s like when you are playing hockey and you know you are going to play with the really good players, you’re like “O yeah, I can’t wait!” Sometimes it’s an actor you’ve never heard of and they’re really great! It just makes you better. I just want to get better. I want to keep learning! I want to keep doing better stuff, doing stuff no one’s seen before, you are only going to get those opportunities by being challenged. There is no room for complacency for me in this business because I’m not going to learn anything or get better. I don’t get intimidated, I get inspired.
Is there anything you want to say to your fans, or to the people who will read this? Yeah, the amount of people that supported me through the years is unbelievable, from high school, just one message of someone saying “You’re doing great” means so much, because it’s a hard business and sometimes it’s a superficial business, sometimes it doesn’t make any sense, but when you have someone that you haven’t seen in 11 years send you a message and say “Hey, way to go!” That message could have taken them 2 minutes and it means so much. So to everyone who has ever done that, it means more to me than you will ever know.
To anyone that wants to do this job, let your passion inform you. Be passionate, and if you don’t want to do a job then don’t do it. And if you really want a job, then go for it. If you don’t get it, then get the next one. There is no time to stop, you don’t have time. And if you don’t want it, then let that passion inform you, that you want to do something else.