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When NCIS: Los Angeles star Eric Christian Olsen joined the cast of The Thing, the Universal Pictures prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic, he had no idea that as his character faced isolation in the film he might face the same thing on set.
“We shot the first couple of exterior scenes at 10,000 feet, right on the border of Canada and Alaska, and I remember walking over to craft services, freezing, and I saw all this food,” Olsen recalled. “I was like, ‘Why is there so much food up here? We’re leaving.'” He turned to one of the crew members, who told him the extra food was to ensure they could survive if they were snowed in on top of the mountain.
“And it was the grizzled guy who was shoveling stuff, saying, ‘Yep, we’ll probably die!,” the actor laughed.
Luckily, both Olsen and fellow cast member Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje survived the experience, allowing them to speak with Spinoff Online and other members of the press about The Thing.
Olsen, who plays Adam, an American research assistant attached to one of the Norwegian scientists studying the alien, said he’s a fan of the 1982 film, and agreed to appear in the new Thing only because it’s not a remake.
“I think your first reaction is, ‘Why, why would they ever do this?’” he said. After being told the film was a prequel, exploring what happened to the Norwegian science team that unearthed the Thing in the Antarctic ice, Olsen became much more interested.
“You go back and watch that opening scene where those two crazy Norwegians are trying to kill a dog and they jump off and they are shooting this dog and then a grenade goes off and everybody’s dead. You go, ‘Oh, there’s a story to be told that leads up to that moment,’” Olsen said.
“When they told me it was a prequel, that’s when I got really interested as well,” added Akinnuoye-Agbaje, best known for his role as Mr. Eko in ABC’s Lost. He said another draw was the pospect of acting with practical monster puppets.
“To see [the puppets] moving and contorting really informs the performance, first of all,” said Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who plays an American helicopter pilot named Jameson. “It’s better than seeing a green screen and saying, ‘And now an arm is falling off!’”
Both he and Olsen said their favorite puppet was the biggest one: a 300-pound Thing that looked like two human bodies merged with spider legs and extra limbs.
“With this they had eight guys all dressed in black working levers on this giant practical robot that was coming towards me, actually crawling and its arms are flopping out,” Olsen gleefully recalled.
The scene where the massive puppet is used is also one of Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s favorites, as he loved how much action it entailed. “All hell is breaking loose, people are getting killed and stabbed, and two faces are breaking out and the arms are coming off. So this was all happening, there were about five cameras going off, and we were diving and rolling — this was real acting!” Akinnuoye-Agbaje laughed.
Besides getting a better performance out of the actors, Olsen admitted that the presence of the huge puppet legitimately terrified him. “When it gets above me and it actually lowers itself onto me, there’s an extension on the head that pushed into my head and slammed me into the ground,” he said. “Those screams, those were real!
What impressed Akinnuoye-Agbaje most about that specific scene wasn’t the puppet, however, but the sheer number of cameras director Matthijs van Heinjningen Jr. employed filming it.
“Mattijs shot it, like, almost real, for reality,” Akinnuoye-Agbaje said. “He didn’t want to stop, he wanted the raw reactions from everyone. So he had cameras coming from everywhere — sometimes you just didn’t know, you’d bang your head on a camera.”
Describing himself as a method actor, Akinnuoye-Agbaje told reporters that he and Joel Edgerton, who plays Jameson’s friend and fellow helicopter pilot Braxton Carter, got along famously on set.
“I’m British, Joel’s Australian, so there was instant synergy there,” he said. “When you do these movies you’re supposed to be buddies and bond and look like you have known each other for 20 years — and I’ve never met the guy! But it was really easy because he’s just a likeable guy.”
The actor then laughed and admitted that part of his “method” was just maintaining his American accent at all times so he didn’t accidentally slip while shooting.
“We had to stay in the pocket of our characters out of necessity!” Akinnuoye-Agbaje joked, adding, “I think it gave us a certain sense of comfortability knowing neither one of us is American, we’re both in the same shoes.”
While Akinnuoye-Agbaje had nothing but positive things to say about Edgerton, Olsen praised star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, telling reporters that working with her was the highlight of the movie for him.
“She’s a rock star. She’s amazing. I mean, she’s our Ripley. She’s the toughest character in the movie,” he said. As quick to praise Edgerton, Olsen continued, “Joel Edgerton is, I think, one of the most talented actors of my generation. … When they got Mary I was ecstatic, and when they got Joel I went, ‘Oh, this is the type of movie they’re trying to make, they are hiring actors. That philosophy was across the board.”
Diving into his role, Olsen described his character as a fundamental coward. “The way I pitched it to Mattijs is that he’s not strong enough to be on his own so his only weapon is alliances he uses with other people,” he said.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje, on the other hand, told reporters with a big grin that he was thrilled to finally be playing a good guy after a career of nothing but bad guys, from Congo to Oz to Lost.
“He’s an all-around nice guy, which you don’t really get to see me play, so I thought, ‘This is a nice sight!’” he laughed. Saying that Jameson’s defining characteristic was his loyalty to his friends, the actor continued, “The movie really touches on human nature- – you can be somebody’s best buddy, but if you’re the Thing everybody’s like, ‘Is it you?’ You see where your loyalties lie. And this guy is really about loyalty.”
Although he and Edgerton learned the basics of how to pilot a helicopter so their characters “didn’t look like total idiots,” Akinnuoye-Agbaje regretfully informed reporters that neither actually got a chance to fly one.
“The helicopter was on a string, so it only went up and down — so we got to feel like we were Top Gun!” he joked.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje then surprised reporters by stating that he never planned to be an actor, and actually holds two law degrees. However, his love of acting was something he traced back to his childhood.
“I used to be quite a mischievous child, and as a form of punishment my mother used to send me to sit with my grandmother, who was real stern,” he said. “And what she would do is watch all these black-and-white movies and make me sit on the ground and watch them with her.” While this was torture for him as a fidgety 5-year-old, “By the time I was 7 or 8, I knew every plot, every actor, every movie made, and I could have quite intelligent discussions with my grandmother.”
Although his grandmother passed away right before he began acting, Akinnuoye-Agbaje attributed his success and continued interest in entertainment to her. “For an hour and a half she would become this angelic child crying in front of these movies — and then she would turn into a right bitch!” he laughed. Turning more serious, he added, “But it helped us bond, we had a real relationship.”
Ultimately, both actors said they were thrilled to be part of the cast of The Thing. Above all else, Olsen was pleased to have not been snowed in during filming — especially as he had no idea where he ranked on the official cast and crew evacuation list.
“I’m guessing I’m pretty high on the evacuation list,” Olsen joked, “right behind that guy with the shovel!”
The Thing opens Oct. 14 nationwide.