Marvel’s Avengers Behind the Performance - Troy Baker / Bruce BannerHow did the actor find a fresh take on a character as established as Bruce Banner? What was it like working with a real life version of Kamala?
Troy Baker is one of the most respected actors working today. He’s a master of performance capture, a world-class voice actor and - as fellow Avenger Sandra Saad aka Ms. Marvel previously pointed out - he genuinely does have perfect hair.
In Marvel’s Avengers, Baker plays the role of Bruce Banner - scientist, hero and reluctant mentor to Kamala Khan. It’s a distinct and memorable take on the character, and we wanted to get into his head to find out how he landed into those familiar yet fresh purple pants.
How did you react when you were asked to be in Marvel’s Avengers?
My first response was that I assumed I was going to play Hawkeye, because of what I did previously for the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series. But Creative Director, Shaun Escayg, was like, “no - you’re not going to play Hawkeye”.
I assumed Loki then - I’ve played him in shows like Avengers Assemble. And Shaun was like “no - you’re not going to play Loki.”
So I basically said: “I think you have the wrong number - I can basically do one of those two!" And he replied: “I want you to play Banner!”.
I went: “Yeah, you’ve definitely got the wrong guy.”
Wait - you didn’t want the part?
I didn’t really want to be the Hulk. I know people who have played Hulk and those guys always walk out of those sessions (imitates a hoarse whisper) “See you guys in two weeks”. I didn’t want to blow my voice.
But Shaun explained that he didn’t want me to play Hulk either - he wanted me to play Banner. And that’s when I realised - I don’t think I fully understand what this job is.
So Shaun walked me through and explained: “Look man, there’s no way to match or repeat or what the movies have done, and we’re not going to do those versions of the characters. We want to do something completely different. So if you’re down for it, I want to show that Banner is at the heart of this story.”
Here’s the cool thing - he explained that the game was going to really focus on Kamala Khan. And I was like, okay I’m in. No matter what this thing is, I am in.
As the process continued, it felt like we were constantly peeling back the layers of what this experience meant to me, what the story that we were trying to tell was, and what was the game we were trying to truly make. I was constantly surprised and impressed.
Bruce Banner famously has two very different sides to his personality? Was this something you had to fully grasp in your performance?
Actually, we really treated these characters as two separate people. So in the same way that I'm not Thor, I’m not Hulk - I don’t have to worry about that. Someone else is going to do that heavy lifting and I get to fully focus on Banner.
For me the question was: who is Banner in this story? Forget about the movies. Forget about the comics. I'm not going to be Bill Bixby thumbing my way to the highway. There has to be a unique version of that character. So who is it?
How did you go about finding the answer?
I think, generally speaking, a lot of people try to build a character from the outside in. You ask yourself things like, what does he sound like? Does he have a limp? But none of that stuff informs who the character is - I can’t become that person if I don’t understand them at a visceral, guttural level.
So for me, the process of becoming Banner started with a lot of conversations. Shaun and I spent a lot of time on the phone and off the stage really discussing the character. I love contention - the truth is found by digging for it. It’s almost like truffles - you have to dig through a bunch of dirt to find it.
That’s how you really find the character and your performance. Mickey Rourke was quoted as saying: “dialogue is the last thing that I worry about because if it’s written well and I understand the character, it should just fall out of my mouth.” I agree with that - I’ve never forgotten the line for a character that I fully understood.
There must have been some challenges though - Banner’s quite buttoned down, for example.
Yes, and actually one of the biggest challenges was how to show frustration. There are a lot of scenes with high stakes. There's drama and there's tension - especially between Banner and Iron Man. If I raised my voice, or started waving my arms around, Shaun would stop me and say, “Too angry dude - you get that angry, your pupils are changing color.”
He wanted me to not even let on that it was affecting me. So it was like this beautiful balance of being zen, but not seeming detached or emotionless.
That was interesting, because I’ve never had to do that before. Normally I have a full swathe of emotion to able to play with, but for this role I had to ride the razor’s edge the entire time.
Did it help that you were acting alongside a friend like Nolan North for those scenes?
Yeah - actually, Shaun and Marvel Games put together a hell of a cast. You know, and there's not a single person in this thing that didn't swing for the fences.
I know Nolan so well that I know where he's going in a scene. To be able to anticipate those moves breeds trust, and you need a lot of trust to make sure that it feels like two people having a real conversation, a real moment.
If I decided to go off and try stuff out, I need to trust that whoever's in the scene with me is going to go off with me. The beauty of this cast is that there’s a very short runway to get to that level - I know Nolan North (Iron Man), I know Travis Willingham (Thor), I know Laura Bailey (Black Widow).
There are some newer cast members too though…
Yes, as you say, I didn’t know Sandra Saad (Kamala Khan), and I didn’t know Jeff Schine (Captain America). So how do we get to that level of trust? Well, for Sandra, it plays naturally because like Kamala she’s the new kid. But Captain America is our teammate and friend, so it needs to feel different.
Honestly, I can’t say enough about Jeff Schine. That dude came in and just nailed it.
Look, the stage where we performed this is like my stomping ground. This is where we shot Uncharted 4, this is where I shot The Last of Us and Middle Earth: Shadow of War. I mean, I might as well have my own parking spot here (laughs)!
So for Jeff and Sandra to just show up and even just hang with us was really awesome.
We spoke to Sandra a few days ago actually - she said you were full of stories and wisdom.
(laughs) Well, Sandra never stops asking questions. Ever.
At lunch, I think her mind ate more than she did! She was constantly asking: What does that do? What does that mean? She really threw herself into the whole process.
She wanted to learn as much as she could, and she acknowledged the fact that this would be the entry point for many people into the character of Kamala Khan - the game is really her story - she’s the sun we all orbit around.
Kamala’s a relatively new character, so Sandra could become the Kevin Conroy, the Mark Hamill… the voice that people associate with this character. I think she recognised that fact, but she didn’t burden herself with it - she just did the character.
So there were times during lunch where she’d just come up and say: “Can I ask you a question? What are you reading?” And I’d be like “uh,.. Marcus Aurelius,” and she’d go “Why? Feed me, give me information - I want to learn about everything.”
I’ll say this about Sandra - she is never going to be that person who’s like: “I’ll be in my trailer”. She wants to be on set, and if you want another take, she’s going to give it to you. She always took a note, she never got hung up on her own performance…
She’s a formidable force, and I watched her get better with every take. It’s impressive.
She mentioned how good you were at the performance capture - what would you say is your secret?
Look - what we do is weird. For one thing, we're professional liars (laughs).
Performance capture is especially weird - you're going to wear that suit, you're going to put on that helmet, with a camera that's going to sit six inches from your face… and by the way, everyone else is wearing the same ridiculous costume.
And then you’re not actually going to be on a set, and you’re not actually going to be interacting with real props… I mean, it’s a hard sell for a lot of people. But for someone like me, you basically just described my entire childhood.
You know, the towel became a cape and socks or underwear became a mask. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of cool kids’ toys. I had broken action figures and whatever I could find to play with.
For me, this career is just expanding on what I did as a kid, and somehow finding a way to monetize that as an adult!
So you’re saying that a mo-cap suit is basically your own personal Super Hero costume.
It kind of is! Although my true superpower is that I have a wonderful team of animators behind me.
But yes, that’s part of what allows me to become somebody else and in this story, that’s Banner’s role too. He has to make peace with who he’s going to become, and if that’s not a resonant and relevant message to our culture today, I don’t know what is.
There’s been this decades-long conversation about accepting yourself and others for who they are. For that to be at the core of Bruce’s struggle is, for me, a very compelling conversation to have.
Finally then, what would you say for people who are just getting their hands on the game?
Well, you know Crystal Dynamics knows how to make a hell of a game, but even so, it was clear to me very early that this was definitely the most ambitious game they’ve ever made.
And one of the most ambitious titles I’ve seen come out this year, for sure. We’ve had no shortage of ambitious titles, of course, but my experience was just one surprise after another. I can’t wait for people to play it and see for themselves.
Marvel’s Avengers is out now for PS4, Xbox One, Steam and Stadia.
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