John Emmet Tracy is an actor with 30+ years of experience behind him in both stage and screen. Recently I had the chance to chat with him about everything from behind the scenes stories, to his charity, and the technical aspects of acting.
If you missed part one you can read it here.
Here is part two of our conversation.
You were in a fan favorite episode of Supernatural. Can you tell us how you got the role and what it was like working on Hammer of the Gods?
I was told I would be auditioning to play the god Mercury. I started to think what might Mercury’s personality be in the context of this episode and the lines that had been written. I started thinking about the word we use that came out of his name: mercurial. So I wanted to incorporate a mercurial aspect into his personality. I thought about one of Shakespeare’s characters, Mercucio, since some say he owes his name to his mercurial nature. Even though our version of Mercury in Hammer of the Gods is ostensibly a villain, I wanted to make sure he was having fun with his own experience. I allowed him to find some joy in the deviant things he was doing.
So when I got the role I think I ended up spending 8 or 9 days making that episode. I had a great time. The thing that I understood immediately, on my first day there, was what an amazing family that crew is. They’d already been doing it together for a long time. In fact I think I was there the day they announced they had been picked up for season 6. This team was such a family and they work so well together. The 2 lead actors really maintained a positive atmosphere on set. On many sets you feel a strong hierarchy of who has the top position. On that set it was an extremely democratic and family feeling atmosphere. It was a lot of fun and a lot of laughing. The boys tend to do the most laughing and joking around, particularly during the most intense scenes that have to be filmed. So it was easy to be quirky and playful and full of mischief working on that set because they have such a positive, happy atmosphere making that show. The show contains intensity and so much darkness and mystery, but the one thing I can assure everybody is that crew and cast have a lot of fun making Supernatural.
Hammer of the Gods is my personal favorite episode of Supernatural.(Editorial note: It really is my favorite ep)
Really? I’m so glad to hear that.
It was fun to do. To figure out how each character was going to look. It was a lot of fun to work with the costumers and the hair and makeup people to figure out what they were going to do for the look of each of these characters. I thought that they did a tremendous job.
I later ended up working for Ivan Hayden who was the visual effects supervisor on Supernatural for years. I was on a show called Divine: The Series, which Ivan and his partners produced with Misha Collins. One of the first things Ivan said when I came in to audition was that Hammer of the Gods was one of the most difficult jobs they’d ever had to do because there were so many visual effects in that episode. There was a cracked mirror that came back together at the beginning. A plant came back to life or died. I can’t remember which. There was so many visual effects that had to be done. He remembered it as one of the most complex episodes they had ever done.
I also read that you’ve done voice over work for the Assassin’s Creed franchise. What were the different challenges of working on a video game as opposed to working in film and theater?
With Assassin’s Creed III I had a couple different experiences. The first one was the for game itself. I recorded that strictly as a voice over in a sound booth. I was asked to read the entire Declaration of Independence. I remember them saying to me “We’re not positive what Thomas Jefferson’s accent would have been. It might have been slightly southern. It might have still had a bit of English in it. It might have been just straight American. So we would like you to prepare the Declaration of Independence three or four different ways, so we can decide when you get there.” Well, as you can imagine I didn’t sleep much in the days leading up to that while I tried to prepare the entire Declaration of Independence in three different accents.
So that part of the game was just me recording in the sound booth. Then when it came time to do the downloadable content called the Pyramid of King Washington. They flew the actors playing the founding fathers to Montreal. We worked right at Ubisoft. We did that as a simultaneous motion capture, voice capture, and facial capture performance. What that means is we had those kinds of lovely suits with reflectors all over them. We had a camera and a microphone mounted on to the front of this, sort of, torture device helmet that they put on you. Ultimately they were going to add the faces of the historical figures but if you see these characters raising their eyebrows or smiling that’s because the actor, who was performing, did it. It was very important to this director that he captured all of those elements at the same time. It was actually very much like performing on any green screen. You were with the other actors. You were face to face. You were having conversations with them. You were moving about. The only difference was instead of holding a sword you might be holding a piece of wood or instead of wearing the clothes of the time period you were in kind of a scuba suit with reflectors all over it.
I loved the experience of it. I loved the concept of playing a historical character put into a historical-fiction setting. I found the whole thing thrilling. It was the first time I had ever done a motion capture, so it was all new for me. Every time there’s a new experience as an actor it’s always exciting.
There’s a learning curve to figure out how to nuance the performance. It was great that I got to play him both in a sound booth and then again in a big, big mocap studio stage.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to get into acting?
I think for anybody who has the instinct to tell stories and to be a part of the storytelling process, whether that be on stage or on television or film or video games or voice overs, I think it’s important to begin by asking yourself why you’re doing it and if you’re willing to spend many years, and in most cases decades, putting in the time and energy and effort in order to start to see some of your goals coming true. It is a difficult business to get into. Having said that though, it’s so worth it once that you’re able to work because I believe that telling stories to people is such a privilege and I remain a fan of watching other actors’ work. I frequently find that an interesting or great or poignant performance can help me sort through things that I’m going through in life. I think it’s a privileged job and I would tell young actors to study and to research to make sure that they understand what they are getting into. As I said it is a very difficult road for a lot of actors. Things like financial security and job prospects and projecting your future potential of, you know, simply being secure someday. Those are all big question marks in the acting world. I find that the actors who do the best with that are the ones who can accept that element of uncertainty right from the start and decide that it’s still important enough to want to be part of the storytelling process.
You’re in the upcoming movie The BFG directed by Steven Spielberg. Can you tell our readers what it’s about?
It’s based on the Roald Dahl book, The BFG. Anybody who is a fan of that book will know a bit about the storyline. I can’t say too much about the project at this moment, but I will say that fans of this book are going to be delighted by what Steven Spielberg is doing with it. It’s thrilling to be a part of Steven Spielberg’s first collaboration with Disney, and from what I saw while I was working on it I think people are going to be blown away by what they are doing with the story.
Are there any new projects coming up that you would like to talk about?
Yes I have a few things coming out next year that I’ve worked on in the last couple of months. One project that I’m really excited about is a new pilot called The Wildings. It is executive produced by Tim Kring, who, as many will know, is the creator of Heroes. The Wilding will be coming out on the USA Network. The pilot episode was directed by an amazing young Irish director named Ciarán Foy. A lot of people know him from the films Sinister 2 and Citadel. Ciarán is an excellent young director who I believe is bound for amazing things. As is the creator of the series, Silka Luisa. They are both young up and coming filmmakers with exciting visions and this is going to be an exceptional show.
Maybe Olympus died so The Wilding could live.
(Laughs). Well Olympus was truly a special project. We were so lucky because the fanbase was so strong and supportive. I have to tell you I’ve never really experienced anything like it. Here we were, in a bunch of soundstages creating this thing, knowing that there would be an audience to some extent. Hoping that people would enjoy it, but It was so rewarding having had this opportunity to live tweet with the viewers of the show. To talk with everyone as it was airing, to feel as though we had a relationship with the audience. In a way it was a bit like theater where actors get to have a relationship with the audience. You get to feel their reactions as you are performing. Throughout Olympus we stayed so connected to the viewers and got to see their responses as they were watching. They would write exclamations and they’d say “Oh no!!!”, or “Please tell me that he doesn’t die!”. It was a lot of fun to be connected and to be part of the conversation as people were experiencing it. That will always remain one of the most special things I will ever be a part of.
As a fan of the show it felt like the cast was including us in what they were doing. Which I feel was pretty special.
Well good, I’m glad, because it was a mutual feeling. This wasn’t a chore or anything like that for the cast. I remember getting together with Graham (Shiels). We played brothers on the show. We got together for dinner somewhere near the middle of the run of the series and we were both just animatedly talking with excitement about how great it is to be connecting with people in real time while we’re watching the show with them. It was a treat for everybody. I remember that it was a fun little reunion for the cast too. We all live in different parts of the world. In a fun way we were carrying on a little dialog with each other along with everyone who was watching the show. We were remembering moments and how much fun it was to film a particular scene, how we couldn’t keep a straight face during this moment or how difficult that sequence was to create. It was like a little reunion with the cast and then getting to share it in real time with the viewers was fantastic.
We at TNWU all have something geeky/nerdy about us. What is one thing geeky/nerdy about you?
Well, to pick the one thing I would have to choose from 100 things to find the one that’s the most nerdy.
I would have to go with the 18 times I saw the first Star Wars movie in the movie theater and the dozen times I saw Empire Strikes Back and how many times I’ve seen it since. Also the fact that I’ve had my tickets for The Force Awakens since… I don’t know when but as soon as they were available I got them. I’m a huge Star Wars Nerd.
Do you have any Star Wars collectibles?
I HAD a lot of collectibles from Star Wars before I knew what it was to have a collectible. The other thing I had at that time was a little brother and sister who managed to destroy any potential collectible I had. So no. What’s exciting is that my kids are now at an age where they love Star Wars too. I am able to relive that and share the experience with them.
I’ll tell you a story that I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone before. Many, many years ago I was at an audition at the Paramount lot in Hollywood. As I was leaving the studio and heading back to the gates, I walked past all these huge soundstages and something caught my eye. I saw something that was kind of recognizable so I just sort of poked my head in and I walked into the soundstage and realized that I was on the set for Star Trek: The Next Generation! Nobody was around. Apparently they were all having lunch or I’m not sure what so I had the Captain’s deck to myself for a little while and actually got to sit in that chair! I’m sure I could have been thrown off the lot if anyone had found me but it was completely worth it to sit in Captain Picard’s chair!
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Header photo taken by Shimon Karmel.