Ever headed to bed after a marathon gaming session and found yourself dreaming about being the lead in your own game? Well this is quite literally the case for Shawn Ashmore, the face of Sam Lake and Remedy Entertainment’s (the brains behind Max Payne and Alan Wake) latest ambitious venture. A groundbreaking combination of live-action episodes and choose-your-own-style game, Quantum Break sees the actor at the centre of the time-bending action as protagonist, Jack Joyce. Best known for playing X-Men’s Bobby, aka Iceman, Ashmore swaps frozen water for time manipulation, battling a mocapped Aidan Gillen along the way. We sat down with the actor to discuss all things motion capture - Andy Serkis included - the future of gaming, and why his inner 10-year-old is “jumping up and down” with joy.
How would you describe this gaming experience to a person who has no idea what they’re letting themselves in for?
Quantum Break is this revolutionary combination of a third-person shooter, like a Triple-A action game, science-fiction, and also an in-game live-action show. I play a character named Jack Joyce, who's the lead character and who you control. And as you play through the game, at the end of every act you're given this thing called a 'junction point'. And essentially you're given a decision to make. One of the characters, Paul Serene (played and voiced by Aidan Gillen), who plays the antagonist has these time abilities to sort of see potential futures. So as you reach that point you're given two choices. And based on the choice you make, you unlock a live-action episode. So you can essentially be playing Quantum Break with your friend, playing a separate game and have a completely different experience based on the decisions you make. So it's this really interesting combination of these two mediums and I feel like it's the best of both. There's certain storytelling that really excels in video games and certain storytelling that really excels in live-action. It's sort of the combination of those two.
I loved the idea, I loved the concept and I just jumped right in!
It’s no secret that you’re a massive lover of games. What was it like to team up with Sam Lake (creator of Max Payne and Alan Wake)?
Amazing! That was one of the things that pulled me right into this project, when I was told that Remedy was doing it. I was a big fan of Max Payne and Alan Wake so even without knowing what the story was yet, I knew the type of game it would be. I knew the type of storytelling, I knew how character would be important. And as an actor that was an important aspect for me.
I got a call saying that Xbox was developing this new IP. I got the broad strokes and met with some representatives from Xbox, and then went to Finland and talked with Remedy and I was basically in immediately. I loved the idea, I loved the concept and I just jumped right in!
Jack constantly talks to the player during the game. It’s one thing to be voicing a character, but how much stranger is it when Jack looks like you, too?
It's very strange! I'm sort of used to seeing my image, watching a performance. But if you watch a film or a TV show it's very passive. You sort of sit back and just watch the experience. So it was something totally different to take the control and be able to run a character around and make decisions, and obviously within the game the character's being put into some very dangerous situations. And it's really weird knowing you're going to walk through this door and put yourself into a dangerous situation when it looks like you - you have to second guess before you want to do it. My wife played it and she loved it. She thought it was hilarious.
Were you surprised at the depth you were able to give this type of role? Or had you been hoping to branch into gaming for some time?
That's what I really was excited about, coming in. I had conversations with the team at Remedy at great length over a couple of days about what they were looking for out of the character specifically. We talked story and we talked the themes of the game and all that, but we also just talked about the character and where they wanted him to come from. And there was a lot of things that I could relate to. Specifically there's a huge portion of Jack that has a struggle with his brother, Will (played and voiced by Dominic Monaghan). I have a twin brother (actor Aaron Ashmore) and we're best friends, but I could understand that relationship, and I was like, "I think I have a lot to offer as far as a performer bringing that to this character". And you know, that was great. So I wasn't surprised at the depth, I was actually excited.
What was your first motion capture experience like?
You feel ridiculous! You're wearing this skin-tight leotard, it feels sort of strange. But then you step out into the volume with everybody and I'm looking at Dom [Monaghan], and I'm looking at Aidan [Gillen] and Courtney [Hope], and I'm like, "oh, we're all wearing the same thing. I don't feel so ridiculous". Safety in numbers! You are uniform, you’re all wearing the exact same thing, so it's sort of comfortable in a weird way.
There is a certain level of feeling ridiculous the first time you shoot a power out of your hands! I think I got over that on the X-Men set.
In a lot of ways it's challenging because, you know, as an actor on set you're reacting to a lot of things. This is the perfect example: our director Stobe [Harju] talked me through this and I kept forgetting that in this one sequence I'm knocked out and I wake up in the back of a van and there's a light shining in my eyes so I have to squint because I'm coming to. So we shoot this five-minute scene, and he would say, "the performance is great, the reactions are great, but you keep forgetting to react to the light". And that's something that on set you would never forget to do because there'd be somebody with a flashlight in your eyes so you would naturally react. It's more of a checklist of the physical things you have to remember: ‘don't forget that when you're running across the volume there's a kerb right there that you have to step’. It's a piece of tape on the ground to tell you that's where it is, but you sort of forget to do it. So in a way, it's more challenging because you're not reacting to things, you're more creating the performance. But you also don't have to wait for lighting. There's not like a hundred person crew around you to distract you, it's just the actors, a few technicians and the director. So you can get through things a lot easier, and I felt like I got to work more.
Do you feel ready to head off and work with Andy Serkis now?
Ahhh, no, no, no! (Laughs) I would love to work with Andy Serkis, but he is a next-level performer. He's done some things with motion capture that I didn't think were possible. The first time I saw it in The Lord Of The Rings, I was really moved, but then I saw King Kong and then I saw [Rise Of The] Planet Of The Apes, and he brings a level of depth and emotion without even speaking that I think most actors would find really difficult. He’s amazing.
Were you glad you had your previous X-Men experience to fall back on when it came to the stunts in the game?
They’re very different mediums, but there is a certain level of feeling ridiculous the first time you shoot a power out of your hands and nothing's there and everyone's looking at you! I think I got over that on the X-Men set, so by the time I showed up at Quantum Break, I was like, "no problem! I need to shoot a time power? I can do that!". There is a level of self-consciousness when you're creating over the top supernatural kind of events and you're sort of like, "oh, do I look silly doing this?" In real life? Yes, of course you look silly. When everything is done? It's going to look incredible.
What was it like squaring up against Aidan Gillen?
He's a tough, tough guy! What's great about their relationship and another thing that really drew me to this is I love the idea of the story of best friends becoming worst enemies. And it's not because these guys don't like each other: it's situational. This event that happens in the game that sort of fractures time, both Paul and Jack are trying to solve the problem, just in completely different ways. They have different ideologies, and so that's what drives them apart. And to see that journey and make it realistic and have that shift in those two characters was just really cool. But Aidan's amazing. I mean, I'm a huge fan of Game Of Thrones and I felt really lucky to get to square off with him. He's [a good villain] but he's a really nice guy!
And the other thing, too, is Lance Reddick who plays Martin Hatch. I was a huge fan of Fringe and he's amazing in Quantum Break. But he's also like the nicest guy in the world. I want to see him do a comedy because he's hilarious, but he always plays these very serious put together guys and he's so good at it.
A lot of people grew up watching you on TV and in film, but to a whole new generation you'll be the face of a game. Is this an exciting thought?
That's very exciting. Obviously video games have been a massive form of entertainment for a long time, but I think now the technology's at a point where performances can be captured authentically. I think a lot of actors are going to start branching over because there's incredible stories to be told in video games. So it's cool! I think it's great that people will be able to see a performance or a character of mine in a totally different medium. I think it just opens a whole new option, which is great.
What do you consider your introduction to gaming?
The original Final Fantasy on Nintendo was the first game that I really got into. I would play with my brother and my two friends, and you could play as four characters, so we each had our own character that we'd built. I was the White Mage and Aaron was the Black Mage and my friend was the fighter. So there was a sort of social aspect to it. And obviously in gaming now it's jumped to the next level where there's a lot of online gaming - I play games with my brother online - but even then there was a social aspect. We wouldn't play unless the four of us could be in the same room together playing. So that was the first game that I really absolutely fell in love with.
I'm very interested to see where virtual reality goes. I think that's the next level of immersion.
You can now tick off being a movie superhero and being the lead in a video game. How do you think a young Shawn would react if Jack went back in time to tell him this?
My inner 10-year-old is jumping up and down being a part of a video game! I don't think young me would possibly believe this. I don't even believe this! It's just so bizarre and so exciting. I don't think I could possibly prepare myself for the strangeness, but I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of something like this.
Do you think he'd want you to be in the next Final Fantasy?
(Laughs) Maybe! That would be kind of fun! When people ask me - because you do tick boxes off, like all that superhero stuff - I want to do something much simpler than that. I want to be in a Western. That's one of my favourite genres. Clint Eastwood's one of my favourite actors and I just want to ride a horse! I want to be a cowboy in something.
What would you like to see in the future of gaming?
I'm very interested to see where virtual reality goes. I think that's the next level of immersion. First and foremost for me it's always about storytelling, because I can get just as wrapped up in a book as I can a movie - and a book is about as lo-fi as you can get. So for me it's character and story. But to go to that next level, I really think virtual reality might be it. And I don't know what that is, I don't know where that takes us, but I'm really interested and excited to see what types of storytelling will come out of that technology.
Quantum Break is out on Xbox One and Microsoft Windows now.