The best actor you might never recognize on the street has played a fed up rebel ape and a fantastically super-powered supervillain in two big studio blockbusters in a row and worked with Hollywood legends Steven Spielberg (War Horse), Oliver Stone (Alexander), Woody Allen (Match Point), Robert Redford (The Conspirator), and Ridley Scott (The Counselor).
This week he stars as a shockingly emotive, hulking, 8-foot tall Orc chieftain with huge tusks jutting out of his mouth in this week’s Warcraft, based on the Blizzard franchise 100 million gamers and counting have obsessed over for two decades.
But Toby Kebbell, 33, arguably one of the most talented British exports of his generation, is perfectly fine not being mobbed out in public in Los Angeles, where he now resides. A recent encounter in a Shreveport, Louisiana, bar proved as much when he had to convince a drunken stranger he was, in fact, the junkie-philosopher rocker from Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla—and that the man had his mug tattooed on his own body.
“I had an interview where the guy said, ‘Why play these characters where no one sees your face?’” Kebbell smiled last month in Los Angeles as we sat outside a trailer on the Universal Studios lot. “I had a guy show me his tattoo of Johnny Quid on his thigh and buttock, and would not be convinced I was Johnny Quid. It was the weirdest thing on Earth.”
“He pulled his pants down, telling me, ‘That’s the motherfucker.’ He kept saying it. But he didn’t understand,” continued Kebbell, who these days looks more like Johnny Quid’s gentler, more stable, more cosmopolitan Angeleno cousin. “So I’ve never been recognized—which is a blessing. I get to play role after role. I’m very happy and I would love to continue that.”
Kebbell steals the sprawling $160 million CG epic Warcraft, co-written and directed by Duncan Jones and based on the original 1994 fantasy strategy game that laid the groundwork for what turned into a full-fledged World of Warcraft MMORPG phenomenon. Under a meticulously rendered frame of pixels courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, he breathes life and surprising pathos into Durotan, the towering Orc chieftain of the Frostwolf clan, whose moral revolt against his own fanatical brethren leads him to ally with a race of humans whose world, Azeroth, a desperate Orckind has invaded.
Although not a WoW player, Kebbell’s been known to lose himself in video games like Fallout and Borderlands. “I’m a spat upon console gamer and my brothers are all PC gamers,” he grinned. “But I understood how that could become obsessive, how it could become a great pastime. Games aren’t anymore something that segregates people; they actually bond. And you find out who you really are playing a game sometimes.”
“I feel I’m a bit soppier than I like to pretend I am when I play a game,” he admitted. “Shaun (a character in Fallout 4) calls me ‘Dad’ and I’ve got the urge to say, ‘I’m not your Dad—you’re a robot!’ But I still go, ‘Yeah, alright son.’”
Nowadays, his hobbies tend towards the offline variety. “I’m annoyed because GIRLS has made all actors who do woodwork douchebags,” he quipped, “but I’m one of those douchebags! I love woodwork. I love practical things. I love things that I can accomplish, because my job is so much a portion of the grand accomplishment.”
Kebbell, who turned in an excellent motion capture performance as Koba in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, spent 28 days filming his part over the course of six months, lending Durotan not only a striking physicality befitting a leader but an internal humanity that makes his heroism transcend the trappings of CG.
“When I looked at people I looked at them casually and calmly,” he explained. “I wanted Durotan to be thoughtful. I wanted him to be capable, clearly, of having the rage—but the rage is the easy path. The calmness, the nobility, the sweetness, the thoughtfulness…” He describes a quietness he tried to inject into the colossal Durotan by referring to another powerfully silent cinematic chief: Chief Bromden, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
He sees deeper real world parallels in the sweeping good vs. evil arc of Warcraft, even if the coincidence of a storyline about greed and fear fueling power-grabbing politicians—well, evil shamans—is purely accidental in an election year.
“Had it been planned that way we’d all be in a very bizarre conspiracy,” he laughed, “but I think there’s always been the belief that greed is a foul thing. And greed will be the downfall. I come from a country where, if I’m doing well, I pay more taxes. I pay more national insurance towards the healthcare of others. I don’t want to get into a political statement, but when public services stop becoming public services, perhaps they shouldn’t be called that anymore.”
His naturist Durotan, he says, represents a tempered kind of power born of necessity, while the evil Gul’dan (played by Daniel Wu) is driven by the chaotic dark magic of the fel.
“The fel was ultimate greed. When you see the film, you see what world that came from. And so the situation is, who’s powerful? Is Gul’dan powerful, or is Durotan powerful? There’s all this rage and power. The Frostwolf clan are hunters. They understand power. They understand the gentleness of what it takes to get what you need—not what you want. And it really hurts Durotan to see his son, who died in the portal, brought back to life by the fel—and what he will be in the future.”
If Kebbell’s Durotan inspires a generation of young gamers to appreciate the tolls of war and the real meaning of fatherhood and family, chalk it up to yet another stirring motion capture performance in Kebbell’s blossoming filmography. He’s now been called three times by Warcraft studio Legendary Pictures to don a mocap suit and bring a computer generated being to life.
“It’s actually really flattering, because they tend to consider they’ve chosen the best actor to do the CG role,” he said, modestly. “They need someone they can rely on to keep giving them something. And it’s not very humble of me to say that perhaps they chose the best actor, but it’s flattering to think that you’re doing this to motor someone else’s artwork. You’re not really doing it for the glory. It’s more for the duty of performance.”
He waxes honorific over mocap king Andy Serkis, the Lord of the Rings and Rise of the Planet of the Apes/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes star who’s become synonymous with digital performance art. But even Serkis, heralded across the entertainment industry for his contributions to characters like Gollum and Caesar, hasn’t been able to help motion capture gain the ultimate status of respect: The official acknowledgement of the Academy.
Kebbell, who starred opposite Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, pointedly champions the specialty niche that Serkis and performers like Terry Notary have brought into popular consciousness. “The craft I’m trying to learn is apprentice to journeyman of motion capture,” he said. “I’m in the journeyman phase. It’s an incredible craft—and it is a craft. I consider acting a craft. I’ve got to pay my shillings and present a masterpiece in order to get into the guild, but I’m just trying to learn what this craft is.
He recalls the awards race momentum that his and Serkis’s Dawn of the Planets of the Apes turns seemed to have, before the Academy ultimately balked—yet again, as Serkis has never been nominated—at honoring the art of digital performance.
“It was a very close call with Koba alongside Andy [Serkis]’s performance, which well deserved it,” Kebbell wistfully remembered. Neither ended up with a landmark nomination, “but it was a long conversation about what the ‘For Your Consideration’ billboards were going to be. It’s very flattering, but it’s somebody like Andy who deserves that, and the technology that realized, ‘Oh, we can do this—if only we had an actor willing to go to the depths required to bring Gollum to life.”
For his next foray into motion capture, he reteamed with Notary—who also starred in Warcraft as an Orc named Grommash Hellscream—on Legendary’s upcoming Kong: Skull Island. In it he plays a human, Major Chapman, but Kebbell also wanted to clear up reports that he also plays the CG-crafted King Kong.
“I was asked very sweetly by Terry [Notary] who said, ‘There are some things with Kong’s face. We need a nuance. We need a subtlety. Will you come and help?’ I was flattered and honored. Of course I would come and help. I’ve done a couple of days, but Terry Notary plays Kong.”
This time last year Kebbell was on the eve of promoting Fox’s would-be superhero reboot Fantastic Four, in which he played a young Victor Von Doom aka Doctor Doom. But the Josh Trank-helmed blockbuster didn’t quite meet expectations, to say the least: The $120 million-budgeted tent pole tanked at the box office amid dismal reviews and public internal strife when Trank took to Twitter to decry the studio’s meddling.
Count Kebbell among the disappointed. “Blockbusters…” he mused, cracking a sheepish smile. “Aren’t blockbusters successful?”
“I tell you, the honest truth is [Trank] did cut a great film that you’ll never see,” he said. “That is a shame. A much darker version, and you’ll never see it.”
At least he enjoyed playing Victor von Doom, putting meticulous work into tiny details before his screen time was chopped to pieces. “I spent so long figuring out an accent that was from the mid-Eastern block, generic enough to be a guy who then lived in America. I figured that out,” he grinned.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “I played Doom in three points: Walking down a corridor, killing the doctor and getting into the time machine, and lying on the bench. They were the only times I played Doom. Everything else was some other guy, on some other day… doing some other thing. I was infuriated that he was allowed to limp like that!”
In the version that made it to theaters his Doom arrives to save his pals in the negative zone only to be left behind, his transformation lost in a flash forward that cuts jarringly to his new villainous self, gone space-mad with his new powers. “I missed the press tour for Planet of the Apes because I was lying under rubble, slowly rising out of the ashes to be Doctor Doom,” he lamented. “Never made it to the film!”
“There are always frustrations with these tent poles,” he shrugged. “But it generally comes from the script changing, sadly enough. But I’m very proud of my work. I’m also just as heartbroken as the fans are.”
But Kebbell says the experience of starring in one of Hollywood’s most notorious blockbuster fiascos hasn’t changed the way he mulls over studio projects. “If you let fear into your heart, it will block you,” he added cheerfully. “I don’t mean to be taking lines from Apocalypto or trying to be too preachy, but I’m not in control of that. And until I’m running the studio… unless I manage to grow a brain like [Legendary Pictures head] Thomas Tull, it’s never gonna happen.”
Studio head has a nice ring to it, admits Kebbell, who next stars as the backstabbing Messala in MGM and Paramount’s Ben-Hur remake, but “it takes great men to do that successfully. I would love to do that because it’s an incredible test of self to do that with grace. But it’s also probably too big of a cross for me to bear. I’d love to direct. I’d love to figure that out because I love watching actors, and I love assisting in figuring out what they should be doing.”
“That’s really not what directing is the majority of the time,” he added with a sly grin, “but I would love to have a go.”