Interview: Mark Ryan, Transformers

Trying to define Mark Ryan in one word — actor, author, director — is impossible. Some will know him best for his work with Monty Python’s Eric Idle, while others may have read his work for DC Comics’ “Green Arrow”. On the small screen, he had several appearances on Robin of Sherwood and more recently Black Sails … On the big screen, he appeared alongside Robert Englund in The Phantom of the Opera and has done work in all four Transformers films… all this when he’s not working behind the scenes as a swordmaster.

Mark was kind enough to chat in June 2014 about his career, and especially the “Transformers” series. Here’s how it all went down…

GS: Besides “Transformers”, you have also tried your hand at writing comic books. As a child was there a bit of “nerd” or “geek” in you?

MR: I grew up borrowing American comics brought back by my uncle Vic from Canada for my cousins in the 60s. Mainly Green Lantern, Thor and Superman. They were very different from British comics at the time and the imagery stuck in my head. But my real involvement in writing comics started when I was invited by Mike Grell to write a story for the 50th Anniversary of Green Arrow, which I was honored to do. I enjoyed working with Mike tremendously and we’ve remained close friends over twenty-five years. Very early on we realized that graphic novels are a ready made story-board for movies and the two artistic vehicles had a very symbiotic and dynamic relationship. We worked on several developing film projects including a script I’d written called Pendragon. When writing The Pilgrim script I kept seeing the imagery in the story in a graphic novel format so we decided to develop the project that way with Mike once again doing the honors as the artistic and story editing guru. Sadly ComicMix financially collapsed during the recession, so we never finished out the six edition project. Anyone out there in the comic universe want to bring it back to life? Drop me an email! The rights reverted to me and Mike is eager to finish it up! Mike is also involved in the graphic novelization of The Wildwood Tarot, based on the deck, which we have in development right now.

GS: As you said, you did some writing for Green Arrow, and you’re also known for your role on “Robin Hood”. Is this coincidence or something more?

MR: I grew up playing in Sherwood Forest as a boy and roaming around Conisbrough Castle featured in Ivanhoe. Nasir in “Robin of Sherwood” was obviously a huge part of my life for the last thirty years and it’s still the definitive TV show about the Robin Hood legend. We just celebrated its 30 years anniversary with a huge gathering in Chepstow, South Wales where we filmed many scenes during the 80s. As the show had many esoteric and pagan themes in it it gathered a huge following in those communities and still appeals to a wide international audience to this day. RoS seems to have picked up a whole new following with a younger generation of viewers however. It was groundbreaking then and still holds up now in style and depth. It also inspired my work on The Greenwood Tarot and Wildwood Tarot.

GS: Your earliest screen roles were working under Ian Sharp. Would it be fair to say he was the catalyst of your Hollywood career?

MR: Ian was a huge influence on my career. He saw me playing Che Guevara during my run in the original London production of Evita and cast me as Mac in Who Dares Wins. We also did The Corsican Brothers together in France during a break in shooting Robin of Sherwood. Ian is a very talented director with a wicked sense of humor and wonderful personal manner and I recommended him for The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne. We did a great fight sequence that I’m very proud of during my run as swordmaster on the show. I hope we can work on something else together very soon!

GS: What does it take to get “sword master” written on someone’s resume?

MR: The legendary Bob Anderson says it’s so. After working with Bob on First Knight and spending three years in RoS, working with swords on various other projects, it’s a title I honor and I’m very proud of.

GS: The horror community knows you for “The Phantom of the Opera”. Did you have much interaction with Jill Schoelen?

MR: Not really. I had more interaction with Robert Englund as we had the fight to do. We went out to dinner in Budapest and to the casino a few times. Robert was very jealous of my old-style British passport and thought it was very stylish! He was charming, generous and a very hard working professional.

GS: You’ve had guest roles on hugely popular shows like “Frasier” and “Community”. How important is it to understand the tone of a show’s humor before appearing on it?

MR: I enjoyed working on both shows immensely. Kelsey Grammer was brilliant. I bumped into him while we were doing voice work on TF:AOE and reminded him of a moment we shared during rehearsals where he actually stopped me in the corridor and apologized for getting the timing a little off on a joke we had at the bar and that he’d get it right. I just looked at him with astonishment and said: The show is called Frasier and you can do it anyway you like! I’ll get it right.

GS: After involvement in the first three Transformers films, was the call for part four more or less expected?

MR: I never take anything for granted in life or in this business and they were already prepping the movies when I got back from Cape Town and “Black Sails”. But Michael (Bay) is a very loyal man and I was very happy to be called back to do the job. It’s a uniquely creative situation and exciting to be on a Transformers set. The crew and production staff are the best in the business and working with them and with Michael is a real honor and a continuing education.

GS: When recording the voices, are you playing along with John Goodman, Ken Watanabe, Tony Todd, etc. or is it more of an individual performance?

MR: I usually work with all the actors on set. Michael was very smart to have a live “reactive” element to the acting process, as I have spoken to other pals working on CGI type projects and it’s one of the most difficult aspects, acting to a dead green screen or light-pole with no actor there to actually bounce dialogue and drama off. So I’ve been lucky to be the on-set robot for some of the finest actors in the business! We’ve reworked and refined the actual “on-set” part of the technique quite a lot. This onset flexibility gives the actors a chance to deliver lines with various emphasis or pacing and keeps it spontaneous. Michael has also been able to keep the human and emotional drives of the story alive and accessible to a worldwide audience. This is an amazing achievement considering Optimus and Bumblebee only exist digitally! Michael has managed to imbue them with a sense of honor, vulnerability, humor and loyalty. That is quite a remarkable screen achievement over four blockbuster films.

GS: Is Michael Bay on hand for voice direction, or is that task delegated to a second unit director?

MR: Michael is totally involved with every aspect of the V/O process throughout production and we usually work very closely together. It’s a very creative process and we have a lot of fun. It usually starts on set for me as the script elements are revealed during shooting. I try various voices as we run the dialogue knowing some will be discarded or covered by various other V/O actors later. But it gives me chances to throw in a wild card and try something new and previously unheard in the franchise.

GS: Likewise, are you given visual cues to work with, or do you record first and the animation gets done around you?

MR: During filming I get verbal direction and cues from Michael as we’re riding the dialogue and camera moves. I’m usually watching Michael’s monitor and Amir’s to see the actors closeup and where the cameras are. I’m listening to the actors through a sound link and doing the dialogue through a radio-mic. It’s very live and kinetic In in post production process I usually do a scratch-track and try out various dialogue and Michael will sometimes ask for something more aggressive or something with a specific tone or accent if he has a particular character aspect in mind. This process is a lot of fun and we play around with a lot of vocal tones especially in the post production phase.

GS: Bumblebee is a beloved character, and is obviously different from Lockdown or Jetfire. What effort goes into your inflections for making each character unique?

MR: Bumblebee is recognized and loved around the world and I’m very grateful to be associated with him. He has so many wonderful human qualities like loyalty, honor and humor. I try to approach each one with a clean slate and match the look of the robot’s design and it’s place in the script. So I try to avoid hearing previous V/Os of a character. I did, however, borrow inflections from my old mate Ray Winstone for Jetfire and you can probably hear it if you listen closely. You’ll have to go and see the movie and see if you can spot who I borrowed some tonal inflections from for Lockdown…

GS: With “Dark of the Moon”, was it an unusual transition — working with the same people, but in a different capacity (live action rather than voiceover)?

MR: To me, I did exactly the same job on TF:DotM as on all the films. I was on the set at Cape Canaveral and various other locations and studios here in L.A. The NASA shoot was a once in a life-time experience standing under the Endeavor Space Shuttle being readied for it final mission. I also worked on post production here. During these post sessions I usually do wild-track lines and fill-ins for Michael but this time there wasn’t really a vacant character for me to do. But I’m happy to say the movie was a massive success and I was glad to be a small part of it. Transformers is a worldwide cinematic and box-office phenomena with some of the very best in the business involved and bringing their “A” game. It keeps me on my toes!

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