Here, There, and Everywhere: Marton Csokas Rising
Here, There, and Everywhere: Marton Csokas Rising
Marton Csokas, August 8, 2005
If you have been to a relentlessly advertised, glossy, high-profile film in the past four years, you've probably run into Kiwi actor Marton Csokas. Or you may have run into him in a small indie film. Many have not noticed that the man under the flowing blond hair and dignified gaze of Celeborn in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings was also the bearded malevolent, medieval militant Robert De Kere in Timeline or the slick, slimey, Euro-cool Yorgi, ring leader of Anarchy 99, in xXx. You can't keep a good actor down and Csokas has been storming the gates of Hollywood in earnest this year, again as a hairy, bellicose brute embodied in Guy de Lusignan in Kingdom of Heaven, the wise-cracking and rebellious POW Captain Redding in The Great Raid, and the brooding, charismatic mental patient Edgar Stark in Asylum.
The coup de grace in Csokas' career is his role as Trevor Goodchild opposite Charlize Theron in the celluloid rendition of MTV cartoon Aeon Flux, due for release this December. This and his roles as Redding and Stark have allowed Csokas to showcase his classical training and handsome face, devoid of scraggly whiskers or greasy locks, for all the world to see.
Marton Csokas was doing just fine, thank you. After training at the New Zealand Drama School, the actor landed roles in theater ranging from Stoppard to Shakespeare, several TV parts in camp classics Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Beastmaster, Xena: Warrior Princess, and the Kiwi soap Shortland Street; and appeared in several highly-acclaimed New Zealand and Australian films.
Indeed, making a bid for Hollywood roles at the age of 34 is certainly, in Tinsel Town terms, late, and a decision that, Csokas insisted at a recent interview, was not a calculated career move, but rather the fallout from personal circumstances that prompted him to want a change in his environs. Over an espresso and a few American Spirit "blues", Csokas discussed his recent journey to Hollywood's hallowed gate.
DeKere from Timeline (2003); Yorgi from xXx (2002)), and Dr. Leonard Rossi-Dodds from Shortland Street (1994-1996)
So how did it all start for you? What are your roots?
I was born in New Zealand, in Invercargill, on the South Island. My father was a mechanical engineer and was working on a hydroelectric plan at the time. My mother, a trained nurse, went along to be near him. I have a younger brother and we sort of traversed between New Zealand and Australia. I've had the spirit of wanderlust ever since, it seems.
My parents divorced when I was young and I was estranged from my father for awhile, which made it interesting. I was 18 when I reconnected with him -- two individuals meet which seems to make it easier to get through the father-son bit, which is inevitable of course. We have the father son thing but we've also come together as two people, which I think is quite difficult to do.
Were your parents into the arts?
It's not really a background I come from, and they were very against my becoming an actor, but that was a good thing to kick against. My father is Hungarian, born and raised, and orphan after the war. He trained in Innsbruck as an opera singer. It's a long story, unique to him, but a typical immigrant story. He roamed the face of the earth after World War II after leaving Hungary and was in the Foreign Legion in the Mechanical Corps. He arrived in New Zealand in the 1950's, not the best time. He didn't speak any English whatsoever but he could sing so that was how he fared. He did get work in it for awhile but went over to mechanical engineering as a source of income. He's had an adventurous life, that's for sure.
So what attracted you to the arts, to acting?
That was, as all these things are, cumulative; no one thing in particular. When I left high school and went traveling there were things that opened up my eyes to the arts.
I taught in a school in England for a few months, which provided me with some income so I could explore things.
I was able to travel go on to Hungary but I was not there for very long. It was in the middle of winter and I followed various leads that I had, followed people to try and find some contacts that may have known my father's family. I found it overwhelming -- as I mentioned, he was an orphan so it was actually very, very difficult and I got frustrated by it. My knowledge of the language is minimal and having come from New Zealand, there were all these other places that I wanted to visit so I went on, to Italy and then France.
During the course of my trip I realized I wanted to do something where I could travel and have an income at the same time, which has really worked with my acting and all.
What is your education?
I came back to New Zealand and I went to the University of Canterbury in Christchurch but I only went for a year. I took artistry and religious and literature studies and what have you -- it was a general place to be to find out what I wanted. And I thought, "What am I going to be, I'm going to become an academic of sorts". It was in the second year that I discovered that I wanted to be an actor. That was quite a big choice, and quite a dramatic one, no pun intended, for me so I pursued that. I saw that the academic qualities of university could then be expressed via the stage. It seemed to be a great coupling for me. I went into a six-month arts program in Christchurch, and from there to the New Zealand Drama School.
Jarda from Bourne Supremacy (2004), Khrafstar from Xena: Warrior Princess (1998), and Krider from Cleopatra 2525 (2000)
What was your first professional job?
My first paid job was with a cooperative theater where we did everything -- the publicity, the costumes, the sets and after 10 weeks work I earned 96 dollars. So after that experience, I didn't take anything and everything, but I was pretty much a slut to whatever came along. My career has been very eclectic -- you have to do that in New Zealand anyway, there is no way you can be solely a film actor or solely a theater actor; you have to keep your options going, which is true I think all over the world. If you get locked into a company then there are opportunities you can miss out on.
I tried to balance things and just moved around New Zealand a lot doing a lot theater, a lot of television, films. Shortland Street I did for a year -- that was my first consistently paid job. People sort of looked down on that, but I learned a lot about what it is to ingest vast quantities of lines, do it quickly, be economical in one's approach, go home, get up the next day, do it again. On many occasions when the light is going on the film set, the energy is very…everyone is stressed out for whatever reason. I did it for a year in a very concentrated situation and thought "this is easy". A lot of actors I know wanted that tortured artistic process, "no we need more time, we need to talk about it, we need to walk through it" but what that experience gave me was the ability to just throw it all away and do it. You've got 15 minutes to get this because the light is disappearing or we have to be out of this location.
My point of all this really is that every situation I've been in I've tried to find a way to gain a particular lesson from it, or a particular aspect of an experience that makes up the whole and I think almost anything can give you. It's all useful, and now of late I've become a little more selective.
What was it like working on the likes of Xena? The re-runs are still on.
I adore Lucy [Lawless]! She made that show, both in her performance and in the mundane. I made nine shows of that, and I was always in awe of her love of other people and support of other people. That doesn't happen all the time -- the lead person can dictate so much, can really dictate the atmosphere and make it difficult for everybody else and everybody else wears it, you can't help it. The atmosphere is either elevated to an enjoyable arena of work, or it can be just nasty, like a virus. You're dealing with a group of people, so psychologically people's shadow, to use that term, comes into play and it can get a bit tiring and unpleasant. You're dealing with agendas and things you can't see but they're very tangible. She was not like that and I realized that that is hard work to maintain. I really admire her.
Is working in America vastly different? Are you at home with it?
I don't feel like I'm an imposter here. I hope that doesn't change. There is something amoral, ambivalent or tenuous about somebody's nationality in the arts -- it does matter, but then again it doesn't from an actor's perspective. I've played many nationalities and I think it is important not to diminish people for what they appear to be in everyday life, which happens all the time. I just understand that. I mean, a painter for example has the luxury of living whatever life they want and may paint in a very macabre style or in a very erudite manner but you might never even meet that person; they might paint in that style but be the most straight-up person and they don't get judged for it. Their work gets looked at. As an actor in Hollywood, and all over the world these days, there is this very strange thing of not understanding the concept of the classical qualities of acting. There is a mask.
Let's talk about a small indie film you made this year, Evilenko. Did you go to Russia to prepare for it?
No, it was just an excuse. I do a little bit of that, try to get under the skin of the character. Working with Malcolm [McDowell] taught me how to keep a levity about things. Sometimes he's so naughty, it's ridiculous …in the middle of a f****** take. But it's great, because if you're going to get depressed about something, Evilenko is a good way to do it. It was like a big family, we would laugh a lot, and he's a constant practical joker and I realized that is, in part, to keep that levity so it doesn't drag you in; you have perspective. I learned that from him.
The research side of roles is something I love, it's important, and it's really satisfying, but there is also an element that you have to put in you, into your subconscious suitcase and go on the journey and understand that the brain is a lot more complex than we give it credit for. There's that holding on that occurs and the diminishing of any expanse of the imagination which at the end of the day is the most important thing -- access to one's full capacity, full faculties.
If it's a good screenplay or a good theater text -- inevitably, in theater the writer has done more research so that every word has a reason for being there if it is a good piece and then you bring other things to it, as opposed to trying to fill the text with stuff that you beg, borrow and steal from everywhere.
How does that contrast with working in Hollywood?
XxX was my first Hollywood experience. It was lots of fun. My expectations…well, that script was very different when we began. It was a lot more, without wanting to offend anyone, a lot more interesting to begin with than what ended up on the screen. At the beginning, it had a certain degree of…the politics of anarchy were at the center of that film and they just sort of went away.
You've been an American as Ted Healy, a Russian villain, a Croatian refugee. Is your ability to do accents from your upbringing with a foreign father, from your travels?
I think it is very important study into how somebody speaks and it's a great way to hook into a character. I mean obviously whether it's French, Russian -- everyone speaks a certain way, it's based on nature and nurture, and it can provide good keys -- it depends on the film; sometimes film lends itself to that kind but I find it very useful -- it creates a uniqueness and a difference, which is important. I usually try to pick up an accent by myself. In some cases a voice coach is provided and I would use their expertise without question.
Vadim Timurovic Lesiev from Evilenko (2004), Borias from Xena: Warrior Princess (1997-2001), and Celeborn from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
An Interview with Marton Csokas, Bret Ryan Rudnick. WHOOSH #33 (06/99)
An Interview with Marie Adams, Bret Ryan Rudnick. WHOOSH #54 (03/01)
Six Degrees Of Frodo: Lord Of The Rings And Xena: Warrior Princess, Andi Allen. WHOOSH #76 (03/03)
Episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys:
Hercules 2.18 Promises...Tarlus
Xena 3.4 The Deliverer...Khrafstar
Xena 3.6 The Debt...Borias
Xena 3.7 The Debt II...Borias
Xena 3.12 The Bitter Suite...Khrafstar
Xena 4.1 Adventures In the Sin Trade I...Borias
Xena 4.2 Adventures In the Sin Trade II...Borias
Xena 4.9 Past Imperfect...Borias
Xena 6.17 The Last of the Centaurs...Borias
Xena 6.17 The Last of the Centaurs...Belach
Xena 6.21 A Friend In Need I...Borias
Lise Millay Stevens
A woman of mystery