On a recent weekday afternoon at a cozy loft in New York City, Microsoft held a press demo for the new Xbox One exclusive third-person shooter, Quantum Break. While playing as Jack Joyce, the time-stopping protagonist modeled and voiced by X-Men star Shawn Ashmore, I turned around to see Ashmore, in the flesh, standing five feet away. During what must have been my fifth double take, my avatar was shot, killed, fell to ground writhing in pain. Ashmore, the real one, winced.
I let Shawn Ashmore die while Shawn Ashmore watched, is what happened.
A few hours later, I’m finally talking to Ashmore himself. I apologized for getting him killed. He said it was okay, and explained how trippy it is to be in a video game again (he was last playable in the video game tie-in for 2006’s X-Men III: The Last Stand).
“The X-Men video game it was like a day of voice recording,” he said to me, reminiscing. “I was so not involved, and I didn’t particularly like that game honestly. To me there was no depth. It was kind of cool to see myself running around and flying and on the ice-slide because at that point I hadn’t done it in the films either. I was like, ‘Oh, at least I get to do the ice-slide here’ This is something totally different.”
He was referring to Quantum Break, the hybrid shooter that’s also a live-action series. During the course of the game, certain actions players make as Jack will be reflected in live-action “episodes” of Quantum Break. Whether it’s successful or not, no one can deny Microsoft and developer Remedy — known for Max Payne and Alan Wake — are trying something bold. “This doesn’t just feel like a video game to me,” Ashmore says. “This feels like a full experience. I think this is potentially a new step to tell stories, get to play great characters this way, and I feel like being part of this was a great step for me. I would do this again in a second.”
For Geekscape, I sat down with Ashmore during the demo in New York to discuss his involvement, the process of being an actor in a game, and we even look back on a few fond childhood memories. Animorphs, anyone?
At one point Quantum Break was very different than it is now, At what point did you jump in in the game’s development?
About two years ago. I’m not exactly sure how much material they’d released or how far the development was along. I think [director] Sam [Lake] was saying today that they’ve been developing for about three years, so obviously it was a fair ways down the line before I jumped in, but it was about two years ago.
What was your first impression then?
I got to watch a demo first and I was blown away. I loved the story, I loved the character. I grew up playing Remedy games so I knew the level of character and storytelling that they were going to bring to it, and the visuals I thought were incredible. You know the stutters, the ripple effect? The game play mechanics I thought were really, really fun. They’ve come a long way from when I first saw them, but just the concept and the idea I thought was really strong, and I was in immediately. As soon as I saw the thing I was like, “Yeah. Okay. Let’s do this. Let’s go.”
What are your impressions of Jack Joyce, the character you play in Quantum Break? What was it like slipping into his shoes that’s been different from your other roles?
What I thought was interesting is that, you know Jack has a slightly troubled past and you don’t know too much about it in the amount you play, but there’s backstory we got to work and figure out. This is sort of Jack Joyce’s origin story. He becomes a super hero by the end, but what I thought was interesting, he’s sort of like an everyman thrown into an extraordinary situation, so he reacts like a normal person would. A lot of games I play there’s this rugged, swashbuckler kind of attitude, like cavalier and that works. That works for a lot of games. What I liked about this is that it felt grounded to me. It felt like when he’s scared, he’s scared. When he’s upset, he’s upset. Just a very grounded, real character being put through the ringer emotionally as we go through the game.
That being said it’s also a lot of fun, like once Jack has these abilities he becomes powerful and enjoys that too. I like Jack. I like Jack’s troubled past, and as the game progresses you get into a lot of these notions and you go deeper into who these guys are, what their relationships are, the classic idea of Paul Serene, them being best friends and then being pitted against each other. It’s a much more complex relationship than just protagonist and antagonist. These guys love each other, yet they’re pitted against each other, and I think that brought a lot of drama and I thought that was a very interesting relationship to explore as the game goes through. I just thought it was very complex when I jumped in.
There is much ado about Quantum Break‘s story because it’s told in a very unique way. It’s both television and video games. What was that experience like for you, maintaining a character through a digital process and then live-action?
Let’s talk about digital because that was the majority of my work. Because the video game is told from Jack’s perspective and the show is told from the antagonist’s, so it’s the same story told from two different perspectives. So Jack is more involved in the digital aspects, the game aspects than the show. There’s obviously crossover, but I spent more time with the game. It was challenging. It was totally different. I’d never done motion capture work before.
In all the X-Men films we shot it on set and then it was manipulated digitally afterwards, so to do the motion capture stuff was challenging because it’s just a new process. But it was also a lot of fun because it’s really stripped down. It’s a very raw way of capturing performance because it’s actors in big empty room working together, so you have the words, the page, the characters, and the actors recording together, so it felt natural. It felt easy once you got into it, and because you’re doing these sometimes ten minute takes, you get rehearsal ahead of time which you don’t get with film and television.
One of my healthy skepticisms about Quantum Break was the user experience, playing a video game and then watching a show for twenty minutes. As a gamer yourself, what do you think about that experience?
I’ll be honest. I think that if you’re not invested in the story, you’re not going to want to sit and watch the show. That’s what it is. When you’re playing action, you want to play an action game. Again, what Remedy does and what I was so excited for is that they tell a great story. You’re invested in the characters so you want to know more, and I think that that’s what’s important, and that’s what I when I approached the project, that’s what I got out of it. I thought the same thing. I was like, “Okay. That’s interesting.” But when I play a game a lot of times I just want to hit the skip and get back to the action.
I think by telling a story from two perspectives and interweaving the drama and the characters are hopefully grabbing people early, you’re going to want to learn more, so to me that was very important because this is a new way of telling a story. I think that’s really interesting, but I totally understand what you’re saying and I thought about that before I became involved, but when I read the story, I was like “This can work.” Remedy can weave this story so you want to know more. You want to spend as much time as you can with these characters.
I’d be remiss as a so-called “90s kid” if I didn’t ask: Animorphs! We’re in an era where everything kind of comes back and is renewed. Would you want to do Animorphs again?
It’s crazy. I was seventeen when I shot Animorphs in Canada. We didn’t get Nickelodeon in Canada. I worked on the show for two years, but none of my friends watched it. Nobody watched it in Canada because it wasn’t on TV. I came down to the States, I was walking around and people were like, “Oh, my God. Jake.” I was like, “Oh, wow. People actually watch this show.” That was an incredible experience. Then like I’d say maybe a year and a half or two years ago, like I hadn’t heard the word Animorphs in like fifteen years, and all of a sudden it came on Netflix and, again, people were walking down the street and they were like, “You’re the guy from Animorphs.” It had this resurgence, and I heard a rumor somewhere that they’re talking about making an Animorphs feature film, and I think it’s a lot of fun.
Would you want to be involved in that revival?
Absolutely. Sure. I’m probably way too old to play Jake anymore, but absolutely. That would be a lot of fun. That was one of the roles that helped me start a career as an actor, so it’s kind of near and dear to my heart, and it was a great experience at the time.
The big reason I bring up Animorphs is because you have a history with genre. You’ve also, of course, been in the X-Men movies. You’ve done a lot of straight-forward drama and comedies too, but you’re known in genre. What attracts you as an actor to this realm?
I grew reading fantasy, science fiction, comic books. This is my world. Entertainment-wise this is the kind of stuff I love, and I do love straight drama, and I love hard-hitting art house films, but growing up I was reading Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and X-Men comics, and I was playing video games, so this is my childhood. This is the stuff I love, and the reason I love science fiction and fantasy is that I think that you can tell such an extraordinary story. Normal people going through extraordinary things, that’s awesome, and as entertainment there’s escapism. That’s what I liked. I like heightened fantasy, that heightened world.
A lot of the projects that I’m attracted to as an actor are because I would want to watch them. I would want to play them. This is a game that I would love, you know a story driven game with science fiction elements, heightened game play. This is the kind of stuff that I want to play, so from the X-Men to Smallville, to Fringe, and all that stuff. I’m a fan of that. I do my best work when it’s a project that I’m excited about.
Fun question. Out of all the superpowers you’ve had in your career, which one would you actually want to have in real life?
Jack Joyce of course. [laughs] No, I actually am not sure I would want to have Jack’s powers because it’s kind of a burden. I think as you play through the game you realize that time travel is very, very complicated and the repercussions can be very challenging. I think being able to manipulate time might be as much of a burden as it would be as a gift. Maybe I’d go with Bobby Drake, although I’m cold all the time anyways.
Would you be open to coming back for Quantum Break 2 or 3?
Who knows what’s going to happen, but yeah. I would love to be a part of video games again. I loved working with Microsoft and Remedy. They’re creative, collaborative teams. That’s what I want as a performer. As an actor sometimes you step into work where everything is so set you don’t really get to have a say, so you’re just coming in and doing exactly what they want. With Quantum Break a lot of the character and the story were there, but I got Sam and the writers were open to my opinion, so I felt like, “Okay. They want me to bring a lot to this character.”
Is it rare as an actor to have that kind of input in a character?
Not always. For a big studio feature that’s not really the way. It’s more collaborative when you’re on an independent scale, and a lot of that has nothing to do with studio features not wanting actors to have an opinion. There’s so many rungs on the ladder, so if you want to make a change you got to go all the way up to the top, and I was dealing directly with the creative director of the company [for Quantum Break] so if I had an idea I could voice it. They weren’t all good ideas and they didn’t use all of them, but we had an open dialogue where I could talk, so I felt comfortable with the Remedy team immediately. That’s important.
You don’t want to feel uncomfortable you can’t say anything. If I couldn’t give them what they wanted performance-wise, I would say, “Hey, guys. Can we try changing this line? I’m not getting there. What can we do?” They’re accommodating to help me get where we needed because everybody benefits. If the performance is better, the story will be better, and a lot of the times it’s just as an actor sometimes you have a block, like a line just doesn’t read well. On the page it’s great and another actor could pull it off, but for you it just doesn’t roll off your tongue the right way. They were always willing to make adjustments and make things work and that was important.
For longtime Animorphs or X-Men fans, where can we see you next after Quantum Break?
I’m about to go shoot a pilot for ABC up in Toronto called Conviction. I’ve a film called Devil’s Gate that just finished. Sort of like a thriller, dark thriller.
Could we maybe see you in a cameo for X-Men: Apocalypse?
No. I can say I’m not in X-Men: Apocalypse. I always hope that there’s another X-Men on the horizon for me because I loved that character. I’d love to go back again, but I am not in Apocalypse.
Quantum Break will release on Xbox One on April 5th.