By Natalie Paterson
For a military-grade robot, the character of TARS is certainly a fascinating one in the film Interstellar. It should come as no surprise that the voice behind him, Bill Irwin, is just as fascinating. With a portfolio ranging from clowning to acting as a serial killer on prime time television, he certainly has a story to tell about his journey to the role of TARS, as well as his interactions with director Christopher Nolan and co-star Matthew McConaughey. Before the release of the Digital HD of Interstellar on March 17th, and the Blu-ray combo-pack to follow on March 31st, Lithium Magazine was afforded the opportunity t speak with Bill while he was at South by SouthWest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, promoting the Interstellar Experience.
What brought you to voice the character of a futuristic robot?
*laughs* Well, I think, in show business, things often remain a mystery. But a wonderful casting director named John Papsidera in LA, who is one of the geniuses behind a lot of geniuses that make movies, he suggested Chris Nolan talk to me and then I found myself on the phone with Mr. Nolan and we talked about ‘articulated machines’. He didn’t use the word ‘robot’ for a long time, but when we got into production we would use the word robot because it was just shorter, but Chris Nolan was very careful to call these “articulated machines”, and you could tell he saw something in his mind’s eye. I was doing my best to envision that while we were talking on the phone (I was sitting in my backyard). But in short order, I found myself in Burbank with these geniuses in the special effects shop. They were bending sheet metal, and we were trying to come up with what this articulated machine would look like; how it would move, and more to the point, how we would get it to show up on camera and do the things that Chris needed it to do.
Did Christopher Nolan discuss the direction he wanted TARS and CASE to take before filming, or did he leave that up to you and Josh Stewart?
He did, but he’s working on so many things at once. He’s like a Rembrandt doing a huge canvas, so it’s kind of cryptic what you hear from the boss. He would pop in and say, ‘How’s the movement going?’ and we’d show him the latest version of the machine, hoping to make it work. I think he’s like a lot of directors: he chooses people, has a faith in how they’re going, and he’s certainly capable of directing you if you’re not going in the direction he has in mind. He really leaves things in people’s hands to a great extent. I saw he and Matthew McConaughey working together in that way, in that there wasn’t a whole lot of: ‘On this next take, Matthew, would you give it more of this or that…’ They’re both parents. They both had to immerse themselves in the story and the character, and just roll camera.
TARS is one of the most memorable characters in the film. Not only were you his voice, but his movement as well. How similar, if at all, would you say you and TARS are?
*laughs* Natalie, I’ve never been asked this question. It’s a really good one because that’s an actor’s job: to come up with a character. The writing on this script is really terrific. I talked to Chris Nolan on the phone, and I sure hoped I got the job because he’s an inspiring character, but I hadn’t a clue what he was really talking about then, I flew out to LA a little while later. They sat me in a locked office and let me read the script (which is the way everybody was able to see it at first, we weren’t given scripts for quite a while) and when I read it, I thought ‘There is a character here.’ He’s kind of ex-military, slight John Wayne cast to the voice maybe, but a certain world view of men I have known and had the privilege to work with, but there was a character there that I would always take refuge in. Like I said, with Chris (Nolan), there isn’t a whole lot of directing or discussing character. You just kind of fly, and if he’s getting what he wants, off you go. I don’t think I’m like TARS. I’m not a combat veteran, but as an actor you absorb the culture. Chris would talk about these machines, they’re really like military surplus junk and they reactivate them for this mission, and that’s sort of a clue to character.
What do you think of the interesting relationship between Cooper and TARS?
Well, the first day I met Matthew, whom I only really called Matthew a few times, I started calling him Cooper, and he started called me TARS or Slick, and that sort of built a connection between these two characters. The first time I met him, I made a joke saying, ‘Hey, this is a buddy movie huh?’ and it wasn’t even the first day of production. It was a camera test in the deep dark July of that year, and Matthew was pulled in so many directions, I’m not even sure he heard my joke. But I thought, ‘Uh oh. He hates me. That joke did not land, and I’m not sure how well we’re going to click together.’ Fortunately, I was dead wrong. He’s a very savvy actor. He works both with intellect and with instinct, and he’s just the real deal in that way. So he knew that there was a connection. The first day I worked with camera (a scene late in the movie) where Cooper is reunited with the machine and he sees it sitting under a tarp, and says, ‘Could you give me what I need to reactivate this?’ There was a way he just ran his hand over the machine, and I realized, ‘Oh man, he has been ruminating on and thinking about the connection between his human character and this artificially programmed machine character,’ and it just sunk in. That was the first day of work, and it ended up being a day where we did a lot of improvising. He put me at ease greatly by showing me how he had been thinking about this relationship with the machine.
Some of your past roles include Mr Noodle on Sesame Street and Nate Haskell, the Dick and Jane serial killer on CSI. So how does one man go from silent clown, to serial killer, to TARS?
Paycheck, Natalie! The acting profession is a thrilling one: it’s a fun one, and it’s also a tough one, and it’s also a really challenging one. You go through high times and low times with it and trying to provide for your family with it, but that is the gig: to jump from one thing to another, whatever the story demands. Sometimes there’s a storyteller like Chris Nolan who’s got something in mind, or sometimes it’s just some director or writer who really isn’t too clear about what they’re after, and you jump in and show them something. When it’s going well, it’s a true joy to be able to do this thing one moment, and this thing another moment. I have on my desk at home a letter saying, ‘Dear Mr. Irwin, I enjoy your work on CSI as the serial killer. My children watch you as Mr. Noodle, which kind of creeps me out.’ It makes me proud as an actor.
What do you have in the works now? Are you in production for anything at the moment?
I was part of a group of people that did the first season of a series called “South of Hell” on the WE TV network, now we’re waiting to see what the network thinks of it and whether the public likes it when they put it on the air. That, and I have a clown show with a partner named David Shiner. He and I have done things on stage over the years. It’s getting to be elderly clowning now, we’re both in our 60s but we’re carrying forward the baggy pants tradition, and that plus anything that’ll help me pay the bills.