War is hell, and it’s even more hellish in director Julius Avery’s mashup war/horror film, Overlord. Set on the eve of D-Day, in 1944, the film follows American soldiers who discover a Nazi experiment that brings the dead back to fight again.
Actor Bokeem Woodbine spoke with me recently about working on Overlord as Sgt. Rensin, and we got into how he chooses his projects, the way Overlord looks at war, and what it means to him to be working in film.
This was an inspiring interview, and one that has stuck with me because Woodbine was so excited to talk about the film, and so positive about working in film. As he said, “The rewards are endless.”
Overlord was directed by Julius Avery, and stars Jovan Adepo as Private First Class Ed Boyce. Overlord is out now on Blu-ray and digital.
Andrew Powell: How do you find the scripts that you’re most interested in? Is there something you’re looking for, like character depth, or is there more to it for you?
Bokeem Woodbine: My agent and I have been working together for a number of years. He’s great at filtering stuff he knows I just don’t want to do. He won’t even bring it to my attention anymore. So that’s one process of picking the projects. And then some things are about building relationships with people long term. So it might mean working on a project just because of whoever’s directing it and whoever else might be involved as far as actors are concerned.
So that plays a part into the selection process as well. And trying to find characters that I haven’t had a chance to play. And trying to find characters that challenge me in some kind of way and force me to come out of whatever comfort zone I might be in. That comes into play too. I like to do things I haven’t done before, given the chance.
Powell: I love that Overlord is so different. It’s not really in any of those check boxes you expect for a war film. So what drew you to this film?
Woodbine: It was a combination of the script, and I really like the fact that even though historically fighting units were segregated during that time, they’re portraying this unit as an integrated unit. I really like that part. That really spoke to me and I thought that was so cool, and I wanted to work with the director because I had this feeling that this guy’s going places and I liked what he did with not a whole lot of money.
And I said, “Man, give this guy a chunk of change to work with, imagine what we can do.” So it was that.
And also I’m an admirer of J.J. Abrams and his work, and I wanted to be involved with a Bad Robot picture. And I like the fact that the cast was, not necessarily unknown, but there wasn’t anybody that necessarily was “a star.” And I found in projects like that, the efforts of the actors are so sincere that it’s a blessing to be able to work on projects like that a lot of time, because sometimes people who aren’t “famous” yet, they try harder – they take certain risks and they push themselves a little harder, and I’m always on the lookout for stuff like that with people who haven’t reached the heights that they’re going to one day.
I’ve also been on this kick lately where I’ve been working with younger actors, and it’s weird because I don’t feel like an old guy, but I don’t know, it’s just a trip how lately I’ve been working with a lot of these people who are newer to the game and being in the position of almost a senior member of the team. It’s just a trip to me, because I’m usually the same age as everybody else, or I’m the person who might be a little bit younger. So that inspired me.
Powell: The whole film has such a phenomenal sense of place and style. Did you watch scenes you weren’t in, or how much were you on set?
Woodbine: You know, I was just so focused on trying to get it right that I didn’t even really look at the monitor. I meant to look.
The cinematography was awesome on this, and the shots they [Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner] got were just incredible. So I saw some wide shots that just really blew my mind–one in particular. It was a shot of these parachutes in the trees, and we were shooting in the woods and the English countryside, and it’s just a simple shot of some parachutes in trees. I guess the implication is that the soldiers, sometimes they land in these trees, when they’re paratrooping, and I just thought it was so beautiful, the shot, and it just struck me that, “Wow I bet this is similar to how it really looked.” And it wasn’t a big sweeping action shot or anything like that, but it was really compelling.
Powell: What did you think once you saw the film? What was your first impression?
Woodbine: Well I haven’t seen most of it. I have trouble watching stuff that I’m in lately, but I watched just a few minutes of it when I had to do some voiceover stuff on it to clean up some of the sound. And I was just blown away. I was like, “My God, this is … ” I don’t think I’ve been in a film like this before, just the scope of it is incredible. And they were really going for realism and authenticity and it just struck me, frames that I saw just struck me how much they wanted to invoke the horror of war, to make you feel repulsed by it, because the notion of war is repulsive. But at the same time, in my mind, World War II was absolutely necessary. It was unavoidable. It was just like no sidestepping it. It’s not a conflict that could have been avoided. And it had to be dealt with.
And I was just really blown away in how they captured it. In the moments that I saw it didn’t make you feel … “Oh man, I want to go be a hero,” or anything like that. It made you feel like, “This is not what you want to do, but unfortunately in a situation like this you have to,” and I was just blown away by that.
You know sometimes, some war films are almost like, back in the day, in black and white era, they were almost like propaganda films to make you want to go enlist and they would glorify certain things. This isn’t that. This is: war sucks, and unfortunately this was a time when it was unavoidable. You had to point your gun and shoot the enemy, because the alternative is unthinkable. They couldn’t win. We could not let them win. We absolutely could not let them win. And I thought they captured that pretty well.
Powell: I know you’ve got a few things coming up. Is there one that you’re most excited about?
Woodbine: I got three projects coming out, I think this year actually, and I’m excited about all three of them. In the Shadow of the Moon, Wonderland, and Queen & Slim, all very different pieces, and I think they’re all going to turn out to be worth the audience’s time.
Powell: Do you feel like films are getting better stories and concepts? I was looking ahead at some projects this year, and considering some of the impressive projects last year…
Woodbine: I think what’s going on is the audience is getting smarter and filmmakers are aware of that and everybody’s bringing their A-game more often. There’s so many talented new actors, filmmakers, writers out there that nobody’s resting on their laurels. Nobody’s phoning it in. Nobody’s taking it easy. Everybody is just busting their butt.
Every film that I go on for the past several years, everybody is so invested, focused and working so hard. In every department, even the caterers, the food’s gotten better man. So everybody’s bringing their A-game and I think it’s because they realize just how valuable a career in this business is. As hard as it is, as physically exhausting as it can be at times, especially this film, or films like it. War pictures are not easy to make; I’ve made two or three of them. They are not easy to make, if you’re doing it right. I mean, it wipes you out man.
So in spite of how challenging it can be to be an actor, or any member of the crew, we’re putting in our 14 hours a day and it’s like sometimes you’re on a limited budget, so you’re working six days a week, and it’ll be like… not too many people know what it’s like to work a 84 hour week. And in spite of the challenges that are inherent in it, even the dieting, like can’t eat a lot of times because there’s some younger, prettier kid who’s just in better shape than you, so he forces you to starve yourself. That’s a lot to it man, a lot that hasn’t been said. It’s so rewarding that you can’t even … you can’t measure. The rewards are endless and it’s so worth it, and I think that people are acknowledging that and appreciating that and honoring that by just giving everything they have and that’s why their performances and the scripts and everything is just getting better and better all the time.