THE WATER HORSE: LEGEND OF THE DEEP
An Interview with Alex Etel
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December 24, 2007
Young British Actor Alex Etel Makes Friends With The Waterhorse and Lives to Tell About It
It's been quite a journey for 13 year-old British actor Alex Etel, whose sophomore feature, "The Water Horse: Legend of The Deep," provides quite a contrast to his cinematic debut in director Danny Boyles' "Millions." In that film, he played seven year-old Damian, who was given to talking to saints. When a bag of stolen money literally falls on his playhouse, he sees what the world is made of, grappling with the matter of ethics, being human and the soul all at once.
Discovered during a casting call for junior boys at his school in Gatley, Cheshire in the northwest of England, the talented Etel has considerably matured since then. And while he again plays an alienated kid living in his own isolated world, this time he co-stars with a big simulated companion, Crusoe, the Waterhorse—a creature inspired by both Scottish myth and the legend of the Loch Ness Monster.
While grappling with the loss of his father during World War II, Angus MacMorrow (Eltel) finds a mysterious object on the beach; it is a magical egg, and soon he's raising a mythical creature which quickly grow into a full-scale dragon like sea creature. Once transported to the Loch, he tries to protect his friend, Crusoe, from discovery a bond of friendship, Angus begins a journey of discovery, protecting a secret that gives birth to a legend.
The film's special effects were created by Weta Digital and Weta Workshop, the same special and visual effects wizards behind "The Lord of the Rings" and "King Kong." But it's the charm of the beast and Angus's awakening passion for life that makes the movie a charmer.
Q: Is it tough playing with a creature that isn't really there in the room with you?
Alex Etel: Yeah, it's really hard. It was a big challenge for me. It was just--the first thing that you had to get over was the self-consciousness of it, and that was really hard for me, especially in front of two hundred people and a camera.
Q: What did you do to not think about it so much?
AE: I don't really know. If you do something every day like that, you can get a bit used to it. So I just tried to cope with it and then I got used to it.
Q: Did they show you sketches of what the creature was going to look like, or did they just say look, it's a big thing over there?
AE: When it was at the teenage stage of it, [they used] a puppet, and then it grew to a tennis ball on a stick. It was very hard, very weird; what a weird thing to do [act before a green screen].
Q: You're playing a serious role in this film. Was it harder playing this role or playing your character in "Millions," where you were a little quirky and funny kid?
AE: It was harder doing this role, especially because of all the CGI and things. But being basically depressed the whole way through it is quite hard, and it's quite weird, because by the end of it he's a bit happier so you have to change. So it was a challenge.
Q: How different was it working with Danny Boyle versus this director, Jay Russell?
AE: They work completely differently. I can't remember of working with Danny, because it was five years ago, and I was only eight, so I don't really remember much. But especially because it was my first acting job, Danny taught me a lot and helped me to move on a bit. But Jay is a perfectionist because--say if there was a few bubbles in the side of the shot of one of the underwater scenes. No one else would notice it apart from him and he would say, like, "Can you move the bubbles?" and everyone would notice it and it would just make it completely perfect, and you couldn't choose anything different to change. So he's a great director that way.
Q: Were you familiar with the Loch Ness Monster, or had you read any books about it?
AE: Yeah, when I got over to New Zealand Jay had got big baskets together full of books and DVDs and things. Obviously, I had jet lag and would wake up at about four in the morning, and I was watching those. So I believed in it more and more; the more I watched and the more I read about it, it could be.
Q: How was it performing the water stunts where you were riding on the back of the Waterhorse.
AE: The water scenes were very cold. I'm not going to deny it. It was freezing. But they were fun, in a way, apart from being near to frostbite. It's fun, because you're doing scuba diving, and this is all going to be part of your career one day. It's weird, a 13-year-old saying that, isn't it?
Q: How were your swimming skills before, in between, and after?
AE: Before, I was quite a bad swimmer, and that was the last question that Jay asked me: "By the way, can you swim?" So the first time I got there the head stuntman, Augie [Davis], taught me how to swim strongly, and then I got better through the shoot. By the end of it, I had to do a big swimming scene with waves and everything, trying to swim to the boat--so tiring. That's just a really big nightmare for me, because I had to do it, maybe, eleven times altogether. It must have only been about five meters, but god, it was hard.
Q: So you're not going out for the Olympics, then.
AE: No, no. I couldn't do that.
Q: Do you have a fear of water or a fear of anything?
AE: I had a tiny fear of water at a stage in my life, because, kind of, of "Jaws," which put me off a bit. So when I heard that it was going to be in water, at the time it shocked me. But I'm all right now.
Q: Since you came to New York in 2004 for "Millions," what things have you learned from then until now. You present this much more sophisticated 13-year-old image rather than that younger-11-year-old image...
AE: I was eight when I filmed it, so I've grown up a bit.
Q: Now you are much more sophisticated. How have you evolved, progressed, and changed so that you were able to get this character down.
AE: To be honest, I really don't know how I did it. I'm really proud of myself that I did, and everyone seems to like it that's seen it. I don't know how, because in my opinion I did better acting than "Millions". I don't know how I did that, because I didn't do any drama or anything like that for about three or four years, so I don't know how I improved off of that.
Q: Well, you did a great job. You had some good adults to bounce off of, also.
AE: Yeah, I think they helped me a lot, especially Emily [Watson who plays his mom] and Ben [Chaplin, who plays the injured War vet/handyman-boarder]. Emily was really mother-like on set, and since it was only my second job, she did help me a lot and she kept me going for quite a lot of it because it was hard work and it was very tiring. And Ben always kept me laughing, which helps. Ben's completely crazy so he's funny. I did quite a lot of scenes with him as well.
Q: How was it working with the bulldog that chases the baby Waterhorse around?
AE: [groans] The dog was not a very good actor. It was the only dog in the entire world that could miss every single plate on a table. They ended up having to pull things off because the dog would just, like, tiptoe around them. But when we got to Scotland, we had a different dog for two weeks that was much more well-trained, and it came to the point where it was chasing its owner. So I would have to chase the dog, the dog would be chasing its owner, pretending to be Crusoe. Crazy shoot.
Q: When you saw the movie, and saw the actual realization of the monster, was it what you envisioned? What do you think of it?
AE: No--much, much better, especially because if you tried to think of Big Foot and you saw it on the screen, it would be ten times better when it's there. So all the facial features and everything of it were better than I had in my head. So I just sat there at the end of seeing it and went, well, I'm proud of that. It was really good.
Q: What would you do if you found a Waterhorse? Have you considered that?
AE: No, I haven't considered that. Let me think a moment.
Q: Who would be the first person you would show it to?
AE: Who would I show? I can't trust any of my friends, really, of anything that big. I wouldn't tell my brother, because he would tell everyone. Maybe my sister.
Q: Where would you put it?
AE: Under my bed. I could just picture myself being tied up by a big Waterhorse under the bed.
Q: What would you call it?
AE: I'd name it something really weird, like Dobbo or John just for the hell of it. I've got some weird names.
Q: Do you have pets of your own?
AE: I've got a hamster, and I used to have a rabbit. I don't know whether I should tell you the story...
Q: Oh, go ahead and tell the story.
AE: Okay. I went on a school trip, and my mum was the only one in the house. The other two rabbits had died and she had seemed not to like that one. When I got back, it had died, so I got a suspicion. She's not admitted to it yet, after three years.
Q: Did you use your experience with pets in a movie?
AE: People have asked me that, and I don't think--I can't really remember if I did or not.
Q: Are you used to interacting with animals?
AE: Yeah. I like dogs and things. I always pictured [the monster] as a big dog.
Q: Has there ever been a time when you were trying to explain something to your mother and she didn't believe you?
AE: Hmm... I'm not going to answer that one [laughs]. Well, a few times. Because my brother usually just wants to annoy me, he says that I have false memories. So I remember stuff and no one believes me. Yeah, people don't believe me, quite a lot. I don't care. It's in my head.
Q: You did a Scottish accent for this movie. Was that hard to do on top of enduring the cold water and pretending the monster was there? There were a lot of things you were juggling.
AE: Yeah, a lot of things. All the action--underwater scenes, trying to keep alive at one point, and then the accent on top of all that was a big, big challenge for me. That was one of the hardest things to do.
Q: A lot of highly trained actors can't do accents no matter how hard they try. Yours was perfect--at least to an American ears but what do Americans know, anyhow?
AE: Yeah, then it's definitely good. The accent was definitely hard to do for me.
Q: Did you work with a coach?
AE: I worked with three coaches altogether on the whole shoot. One was only a week before I got to New Zealand, which was just grasping the basics of it. I had one for about three months of the shoot--she helped me a lot. And one right at the end, because the other one had to go. A very confusing business. The accent got easier, but it's never going to be really easy, because it's such a distinct accent compared to mine.
Q: Can you do it now?
AE: God, I hate people asking that.
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