WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY
A Conversation with Actor MICHAEL PAPAJOHN
By Tyler Malone
You probably don’t know the name Michael Papajohn, but you most likely know his face. He’s appeared in countless movies over the years. You may recognize him from Charlie’s Angels or For Love of the Game, from Hulk or House of Sand and Fog, from The Longest Yard or Terminator: Salvation. He was a stuntman for films as diverse as Titanic and Waterboy, What Dreams May Come and Enemy of the State. His CV is a mile long, and it includes art films and blockbusters, box office successes and duds, and everything in between. But he’s probably best known for his portrayal of the Carjacker in the Spider-Man trilogy. Yup, he’s the guy who killed Uncle Ben in the first movie, and set Peter Parker on the path to become Spider-Man. (Though, by the third movie in the trilogy, his character had been retconned to be absolved of the murder, and now it seems it was actually Flint Marko / The Sandman who was to blame for the death of Uncle Ben.)
What’s interesting is Michael Papajohn is back in the new Spider-Man movie, The Amazing Spider-Man, as a different character. He doesn’t see it as anything abnormal, after all an actor’s job is to lose himself in the character, to tell the story. Surprisingly though, The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t even his biggest film of 2012. Michael Papajohn will play a small role in the most anticipated film of the year–and probably in many years–The Dark Knight Rises. He’ll also appear in The Bourne Legacy this year, and This Means War, and The Gangster Squad–all five films are poised to be big films in 2012. With such an action-packed year ahead, I knew I had to catch up with this stuntman turned actor for PMc Magazine‘s Creative Issue.
Tyler Malone: The issue that your interview is going to be in is our Creative Issue, so I thought I’d start with asking you what your creative process is. How do you go about getting into character and preparing for a role?
Michael Papajohn: You know what? That is a perfect way to start the interview off because that is what really juices me about the business. A lot of people wonder what it’s like to be an actor, and I always say it’s like I’m 7 or 8 years old and it’s Halloween. I can be a cop or an army guy or an Indian. But as far as taking on each role, each role is different. I always go back to the story. It’s not about me, it’s about telling the story.
For instance, with Spider-Man, the motto was “With great power comes great responsibility,” and so I was butting up against that idea as I built my character. So I chose to play that character, the Carjacker, as someone that’s never shot a gun before, that was a creative choice for me. In my head, he was down and out, and desperate. Instead of a villain that was cool, I wanted him to be vulnerable.
I learned from one of my acting teachers Larry Moss how creative you can be with your choices. Watching people’s choices has always intrigued me, other actor’s choices.
TM: So are those choices spur of the moment or are they prepared?
MP: I always like being specific with my choices so that when I show up on the set, I’m prepared. Usually I know when I’m prepared, because I feel it in my body. I played center field professionally, and at LSU, and I remember I always wanted the ball hit to me, and I felt confident in my body. So if I have that feeling on the set, that same feeling I had of wanting the ball hit to me, I know I’ve done my work.
But I also use what happens on set to build the character.
TM: Now I know you’re from the South, so as a Southern boy, I’m curious what drew you to Hollywood? What made you want to do this for a living?
MP: Well, when I was at LSU, I played baseball there. In my last semester at LSU, they shot a movie there called Everybody’s All-American with Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange. They were looking for LSU athletes to play football players. So first I was a football player, and then one thing led to another, and they said they’d pay us more if we took hits or delivered football hits. I had like $13 in my checking account so I kept raising my hand saying “I’ll do it! I’ll do it!”
And then me and the director Taylor Hackford hit it off. He gave me a trophy to thank me for doubling Dennis Quaid, and then he pulled me off to the side and said, “Hey Papajohn, you know, we really like you, you’re a good person, and I think you could do really well in the stunt business.” He said if I needed any help in the business, he’d help me. So that stayed in my mind.
TM: Yeah, what a great first film experience.
MP: Yeah, and what was really cool about Taylor is he gave me some speaking lines that got cut from the movie, so I got to get my SAG card. And then he also let me kill John Goodman in the movie in a ski mask. So in my first movie I doubled Dennis Quaid, I got to kill John Goodman, I had a speaking line, and I worked with some Hollywood stuntmen. So my first movie role on a set was amazing!
TM: Definitely not a bad first gig!
MP: Yeah, but then when I first came out to LA and I was doing extra work on Baywatch, I kept realizing, “Man, my first gig was great.” On Baywatch, they’d give you extra money to go in the cold water. So I was the first one in. I needed that extra money.
But I always acknowledge Taylor because he hooked me up with people in the industry that were able to help me a lot.
TM: So I know you started, as you’re saying, as a stuntman, but you’ve made the transition into acting work. How did that transition come about? How did you segue into acting over stuntwork?
MP: I think the big moment was when I was doubling Adam Sandler on Waterboy. I was Bobby Boucher, and I’m really proud of that job. I was 34 at the time, and I was getting up off the ground slower. I remember the exact hit actually, I got hit in the rib. The guy wasn’t supposed to hit me in the way that he hit me, and I remember the play, and my mouth piece flying out, spitting up some blood. And I remember thinking, “Man, I gotta stay in acting class!”
It was the moment where I realized I was now the one who needed a stunt double.
Also, around that time, while I was in acting class, I got that high that I got while I played for LSU–like I say, where I wanted the ball to be hit to me. After I got that feeling, I was hooked on acting from then on.
TM: So, since we’re talking about the transition from stuntman to actor, now’s probably a good time to ask you about the Action Actor Academy. I know you’re trying to help other stuntmen make the transition that you made. Tell me a little about that.
MP: That came to me through emails. I kept getting all these emails from professional athletes or military guys. They’d say, “Hey man, I’m seeing you in all these movies, how are you doing it?” And through social media and email, I just kept getting contacted.
I thought about how important coaching has been to me, both in sports and in this business. I’ve always sought out coaches because they teach you the fundamentals.
So how the Action Actor Academy came about was that I was thinking about the trajectory of my career, about the choices I made, and the things I went through, and I realized I could help and speed up someone’s career.
I don’t take just anyone. I do about twelve people a year, and I do a year-long commitment. My clients are really doing great in an industry that tells them they can’t do it. So if someone just wants to focus on stuntwork, we’ll focus on that; if someone wants to focus on the transition from stuntwork to acting, we’ll focus on that; and if someone just wants to focus on the acting, well, then we’ll focus solely on that. But I don’t teach acting classes, I just try to speed up people’s career. I feel I can speed up their career by ten years, I’m really confident about that.
TM: One last question about the stuntwork aspect, before we move on to the films you have coming out this year. There’s been a lot of debate in Hollywood over the last decade as to whether stuntmen should have their own award at the Academy Awards. I know the SAG Awards honor them now. With the Academy Awards coming up, what are your thoughts on the possibility of an Oscar for Best Stuntwork in the future?
MP: Definitely it should have an Academy Award attached to it. I mean, there’s life and death situations. I always feel like you have to treat your stunt team like professional athletes.
Also, about the authenticity of movies now. Not just what can be done digitally, but what they do authentically with stunts. But to answer your question: Absolutely, yes. People need to be acknowledged for their work, and stuntmen are an integral part of the movies that often go unrecognized.
TM: Agreed. Now let’s talk about the films you have coming out in 2012. You’re in a number of movies, but you’re in three of the biggest franchises of recent history: the sequel to The Dark Knight, the reboot of Spider-Man, and the fourth installment in the Bourne franchise. What’s the movie that was the most fun or interesting for you to shoot that you have coming out this year?
MP: Each movie is it’s own unique experience, so it’s really hard for me to pick. The new Spider-Man movie is great, and it was a great experience to be a part of the original franchise and now play a different character in the new version. A film you didn’t mention, The Gangster Squad, is one I’m really excited about coming out. That’s a Sean Penn and Josh Brolin movie that I’m also in. Now when I read that script–and I haven’t really told anyone this–but when I read that script I felt like, “Man, this is gonna get nominated.” The script was just that good, and then as I started seeing the cast fall into place, I just realized more and more how great of a picture it would be.
Or lemme talk about The Bourne Legacy and working with Jeremy Renner: Now that is an intense guy, but a guy who shows up prepared. He loves to rehearse; he loves to breakdown a scene, breakdown specifically the action part of a scene. It was such a pleasure to work with him because he’s such a professional, and he cares.
What was cool about The Dark Knight Rises is that I got to see Wally Pfister on the set. It was great working with Christopher Nolan, of course, but I was so excited to see Wally on set because he was the DP I hired on the independent movie that I produced in Birmingham, Alabama, called Rustin.
TM: Oh wow! I didn’t know that. It’s always weird circular connections like that in the business, isn’t it?
MP: Yeah, so it was great to work with Wally again, and to see the success he’s had, and the hard work he’s put in, but yet he’s still the same great person.
So all those movies, they each were such great experiences for different reasons. Oh, and then I also have a movie coming out February 14th that I’m in called This Means War. For that movie, it was great to work with McG again, because I had worked with McG twice before (on Terminator: Salvation and Charlie’s Angels), and he’s so much fun, and passionate.
I think back on walking on set, and you get on set, and you want to tell the story, that’s the priority, that’s the job. So you ask which one did I enjoy the most? Or find the most interesting? That’s a tough one. I want to think on that a bit. Hmmm…I guess I really just have to say that they’re each such a unique experience. Did I ramble too much on that one?
TM: No, I mean, it makes sense. Each set is so unique, and each job has it’s own ups and downs, and each is a totally independent experience. I could see it being hard to choose. It’s like choosing between children.
MP: If I could though, I’d like to say something more about Jeremy Renner, and working with him on The Bourne Legacy. I’ve worked with a lot of actors, a lot of stars. It was amazing to see him break down a fight scene. “What’s your intention?” He must have said that twenty-five times. “What’s your intention?” “My intention is to knock the gun away.” Or whatever it is in the moment. What I got from that is how much he loved the work. That was how he memorized the fight, was by thinking about intention.
That’s what my acting coach Larry Moss always said too, in my years of studying with him: “What’s your intention?”
TM: So though you can’t choose a favorite of your upcoming films, there’s no doubt that The Dark Knight Rises is the most hyped up of them all. It’s one of the most hyped up movies in the history of cinema. Because The Dark Knight was such a huge success, and such a masterful work, the sequel, and the ending of the trilogy, has a lot of people hoping it can stand up. Everyone has a lot of expectations. People are interested and excited. What was your time on set like?
MP: Walking on set for that movie reminded me of the biggest budget movies I’ve ever worked on. When you walk on set, there was a sense of the weight of the project. Of course, Christopher Nolan brings that, and Wally Pfister. I got a feel for the love of Batman. It’s crazy how many people love this character Batman.
You know, I’ve been in Titanic, and I’ve been in some other big budget movies, but I walked off that set going, “Man, this is a big movie!”
So I was excited to be a part of it. But for me the best part was seeing Wally, and the opportunity to work for Christopher Nolan.
So many of the bigger budget movies aren’t filmed in California anymore, so when I walked on that set, it reminded me of a time when a lot of the bigger budget movies were actually shot here in Los Angeles, you know, in like the late 90s.
TM: I know you have confidentiality and all that, so I know you can’t tell us a lot, but can you tell us a little about who you play, and anything about the scenes you are in in The Dark Knight Rises?
MP: I will tell you this, I play a prison guard. But I can’t say much else–these confidentiality things now are crazy! Especially the comic book movies. And that’s what I’m learning…
You know, I didn’t grow up reading comic books, but I’ve been so glad to be a part of those worlds. I remember when Sam Raimi gave me some notes on the first Spider-Man, and he brought up that line–”With great power comes great responsibility”–and I suddenly could see how influential these books have been to people, how you could be 8 years old and read a comic book and it could change your life.
With the comic book movies I feel the responsibility weigh more heavily, you know, to tell a story that means so much to people. When people do it right, the fans will love it. And if they don’t do it right, the fans can turn on that movie so fast. And you know what I’m talking about.
MP: So there’s that responsibility. You know that phrase is right: “With great power comes great responsibility.” You can’t just pick up a comic book story and tell it however you want, you have to keep it true to that world, and yet tell a compelling story for the screen. Working with Sam Raimi, I saw someone very passionate about telling a story, and telling it right.
TM: So, while you’re talking about Raimi, I might as well ask: How did it happen that you were in the original Spider-Man as one character, and now you’re going to be in the reboot as another? Is there a story behind that?
MP: You know, there’s not really a story. There’ll probably be a story after it comes out. But right now my story is this–and I’m sticking to it–that I got a call for an audition for The Amazing Spider-Man. I got the part, and I showed up on set, and played the part. That’s it. I didn’t think of it as any big deal or anything.
But while I was walking on set, I had the flood of memories of the first three Spider-Mans. They shot through my mind. But it’s not about me, it’s about telling a story.
TM: So I think I just have one more question, it might be a kind of easy one–
MP: Well, Tyler, before we get to that so-called “easy question,” let me just say that you started the interview off with a really nice question, and it’s been such a pleasure doing this interview. I usually don’t get great questions like that.
TM: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. So, the easy question now seems especially lame, after hearing you say that I’ve asked such great questions, but nonetheless: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t acting?
MP: You know, I love being a documentarian. I do that on the side. So if I had nothing to do with acting, that’s what I would focus on.
I just love stories. I think there are a lot of great stories out there, and not enough people telling them. There’s something about telling a story and knowing it will be around even after you won’t be.
TM: Very true. Well, you love interesting stories, and I think you have one yourself, and I hope I’ve done a decent job of teasing it out of you.
MP: Thank you, Tyler. I appreciate it.
Michael Papajohn is an actor, stuntman, producer and documentarian. This year you’ll be able to see him in roles in The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Bourne Legacy, The Gangster Squad, and This Means War. He also runs the Action Actor Academy.
Michael Papajohn interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Peter Hurley
Design by Marie Havens
Michael Papajohn, Photography by Peter Hurley