Interview: Reflecting on five years with five members of Red Dead Redemption 2’s cast

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    Red Dead Redemption 2 was quite possibly the biggest game of 2018 and one of the biggest titles of the generation. It garnered dozens of perfect scores, a number of game of the year awards, and most of that is due to Rockstar’s impeccable ability to tell a compelling story.

    But a story is only as good as its characters and Red Dead Redemption 2 features a cast of outlaws that will go down in gaming history as some of the finest characters around. With the beloved John Marston making a return and being approached from a new angle, Arthur Morgan being a morally ambiguous brute who goes through quite the arc, a frail Sadie Adler who comes into her own, and many more, it’s a diverse cast you can’t help but love.

    We got the chance to speak with five of the core cast members of the game and speak to them about their experience on Red Dead Redemption 2 and their mindsets surrounding the characters. If you haven’t played through the entirety of Red Dead Redemption 2, we highly recommend that you click off this page as there will be spoilers.

    Molding Sinners Into Saints

    Rockstar Games is known for crafting narratives surrounding violent criminals, it’s their schtick. Sometimes it’s surface level, bad people doing bad things like Grand Theft Auto V. Sometimes it’s deeper than that, good people with questionable morals doing bad things. That’s where Red Dead Redemption 2 falls. Almost every character in the Van der Linde gang is a good person who cares about the well-being of their tightly knit family.

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    Arthur Morgan, in particular, is someone who likes to act like a bit of a macho man but deep down he’s vulnerable and has morals. Actor Roger Clark gave some insight on how he balanced Arthur’s vulnerability and tough guy attitude.

    “One way was reminding myself that people are very complicated. We contradict ourselves all of the time and as long as it’s done in a way that is true to our motivations, I think these inconsistencies can do nothing but add to our depth and humanity,” said Clark.

    “I feel Arthur in many ways plays down some of his emotions because of the environment and culture that he grew up in, i.e. the western genre. It’s not until he is confronted with his own mortality that he begins to address the repressed feelings within him in an effort to achieve some sort of peace and goodness before the end of the story. I don’t think this would have read as well with players without the writing team’s powerful narrative.”

    Clark went on to note that he was able to go places with Arthur’s character that you couldn’t in any other medium.

    “Secondly, I performed this character knowing that the player was going to have a great deal of control over his action -whether he was played honorably or not. Being conscious of this, especially towards the latter half of the story, I tried to find an honest ambiguity in Arthur that would make sense regardless of the player’s style. People seem to believe that Arthur is capable of great kindness as well as malice depending on the situation and whatever way he acts within the world of Red Dead Redemption 2, which is fulfilling as a performer.

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    One of the other characters in Rockstar’s acclaimed western is a frail woman by the name of Sadie Adler, a woman who has her husband killed right in front of her. The gang takes her in and gives her a home where she quietly keeps to herself until one day, she comes out of her shell in an attempt to become a gunslinger.

    She’s easily one of the most badass females in gaming and her arc is nothing short of empowering but it’s a tough role to play, going from constantly crying in the corner of camp to being a loud-mouthed sharpshooter. Actress Alex McKenna said that it was a long five-year journey to help find the character which was constantly evolving.

    “Sadie is definitely in a bad way when we first meet her – she has just undergone the most traumatic of experiences and lost the love of her life. I filmed this scene pretty early on working on the game, but video games unlike films, don’t give you the full script at the start. The story is continuously evolving and the writers are developing characters and creating new scenes so it makes it difficult to plot out your character arc exactly,” McKenna said. “Once I realized the direction she was headed… aka total badass, it became clear to me I wanted to make sure to infuse levels of her emotionality and humanity.”

    Alex McKenna also notes that Sadie could’ve easily have fallen into the trap of being a female for the player to rescue or fall in love with but she’s neither, she’s highly capable and doesn’t succumb to any tropes. She’s not all peaches and cream, she’s got a dark side but also grows to care deeply about Arthur, John, and the other members of the gang.

    “I was very lucky the writing was so good because it could have been very easy to have Sadie be a stereotype. Thanks to the writers at Rockstar, Sadie does not begin as a typical damsel in distress, she doesn’t serve as a love interest, and the game does not finish with her as a total revenge-hungry lunatic,” she stated.

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    “Don’t get me wrong, she is absolutely fearless and has no qualms starting a fight but she is also incredibly loyal and loves her friends very deeply. I had the absolute privilege to work truly incredible actors and to develop those relationships over the five years on RDR2, and as a result, I think you can see that trust and admiration Sadie has for some of the gang.

    Sadie has quickly become a fan favorite of the gang with fans crying out for a sequel or DLC starring her as the playable character. We asked Alex McKenna if she’d return to the role and she seems more than willing to.

    “Two words: YES PLEASE! Sadie was a dream of a character to play. I got to be vulnerable, kick some ass and ride horses in the wild west… what could be better? I can unequivocally say that were Rockstar want me to play Sadie again, I wouldn’t hesitate.”

    John Marston, Jim Milton, and Rip Van Winkle – A Man of Many Hats

    When we meet John Marston in Red Dead Redemption 2, he’s sort of the fool of the gang. That’s hard to believe when we all spent the previous game learning so much about him, he’s not a super smart guy by any means but you never took him exactly for a fool.

    In Red Dead Redemption 2, you can see why everyone picks on him. He’s a lousy father, his plans tend to go awry, and he’s the butt of most of Arthur’s jokes. With that said, it could be argued Red Dead Redemption 2 is about John as much as it is Arthur. We see him grow drastically from dumb criminal to a man who puts his family before himself. It’s a remarkable arc that is handled with lots of care and takes its time to develop, sometimes putting the action on hold to tell a simple family drama.

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    Actor Rob Wiethoff isn’t exactly your traditional actor. He’s only been in 7 things according to his IMDb, 3 of which were playing John Marston in the original game, the DLC, and the sequel. Wiethoff hasn’t acted in anything since 2013 and that’s because he’s a relatively normal guy who lives in a small town in Indiana doing blue collar jobs. The reason being for all this is he’s a family man, just like a certain cowboy he inhabits.

    Wiethoff sees a lot more of himself in the Red Dead Redemption 2 version of John than the one we see in the original game.

    “It’s kind of funny to think that when I started playing John in Red Dead Redemption, I was a lot more like John in Red Dead Redemption 2 in my own life. By the time I started working on Red Dead Redemption 2, I had settled down, gotten married and had twin boys. I don’t think a guy ever really forgets his wild side, though,” he said.

    Wiethoff himself went to LA when he was younger to pursue a career in acting, ultimately having it not work out as he had hoped. In 2008, he auditioned for John Marston and despite feeling like he bombed, he was cast and began shooting in 2009.

    Upon its release in 2010, Wiethoff was praised for bringing to life one of the most well-written characters in gaming and the western genre. That said, he didn’t do much more acting beyond that and decided to walk away from the industry in 2013 to move back home and focus on his family.

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    I think the things that I really want in life have become clearer to me ever since I got married and had kids,” Wiethoff said sincerely. “I can’t say that John Marston and I are perfectly aligned in that aspect, but it did make sense to me that John got to the level of commitment to his family that he did. Also, when he realized what it was that he really wanted, he didn’t care that he had to walk away from everything he’d ever known in order to reach his new goals. That realization and reaction is a very real thing that can happen. It happened to me. In that way, I was able to easily relate to the story.”

    Of course, playing John Marston again was a big deal. Rockstar kept a super tight lid on the fact he was returning that the public didn’t even really know he was officially coming back until about five months before the game released. Wiethoff said that it wasn’t very hard to keep it a secret, though.

    “It wasn’t terribly hard for me to keep that I was going to be playing John Marston again under wraps as our kids are so young, and my wife and I don’t have the same kind of social life that we once had,” he said. “We both have regular jobs and we hang out with our kids when we aren’t working. Not having much interaction with people outside of our jobs and home life made things a lot easier than they could have been.”

    When people would ask why he kept disappearing so often, Wiethoff just chalked up to newly acquired fame.

    “Of course, people would ask why I was out of town as often as I was. We would just say that the work I did in Red Dead Redemption got me more work. Honestly, that was enough to satisfy most of the curiosity. If anyone pushed more, I would just say that I signed a contract that won’t allow me to talk about specifics and that it was more interesting than the work I was actually doing. Ha!”

    The False Messiah and The Rat

    Many of us knew how Red Dead Redemption 2 was going to end given it’s a prequel. Things were going to have to fall apart, lots of people were going to die. We just didn’t know the exact details of how the dream would come crashing down.

    Turns out it’s a tale of manipulation from the slimy Micah Bell, a crazed gunslinger who gets into the mind of gang leader Dutch Van der Linde. He’s wildly unlikable, he’s despicable, he’s gross… but he’s a great villain. Peter Blomquist noted it was a blast to play Micah and go to the lengths that he went to.

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    “It was a ton of fun. Micah is such a slimy opportunist with an incredible knack for making people angry. It was an extremely enjoyable process to discover how to manifest that particular level of wretchedness. Rockstar allowed me to explore that character and test the limits of his personality- and I always trusted that Rod Edge [Director of Performance Capture] would either reign me in or encourage more of Micah’s personality quirks.

    It’s easy to compare the chaotic nature of Micah to someone like Heath Ledger’s interpretation of The Joker in The Dark Knight. They’re both master manipulators and very unhinged but Blomquist was keen on making sure it was a largely original character.

    “Developing the character was pretty much done from scratch. Of course, there are always the great villains that run through my head at some point- but I certainly didn’t model Micah on any of them. He was so clearly covered in layers of slime and muck that all I really needed to do was imagine stepping out of a swamp every time we started a scene.”

    By the end of Red Dead Redemption 2, Micah conquers Dutch’s mind and among a number of other events, the gang ultimately falls apart. Arthur’s seconds are numbered as he grows weaker from the TB and the law arrives to put one final nail in the coffin of the gang. Arthur helps John escape, fending off the hordes of lawmen so that John can go be with his family and be a better man.

    Micah seizes this moment to jump Arthur and the two duke it out until Arthur can’t take any more. In his last attempt to kill Micah, he crawls for a gun and Dutch appears, stopping him. Dutch looks down upon his surrogate son with a look of disappointment as Arthur continues to tell him Micah is the one true cause of all their misfortune.

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    Dutch doesn’t say much at all but you can take a lot from just his facial expressions, he realizes what he has done. It’s an absolutely brilliant performance from Benjamin Byron Davis who thinks that it can be interpreted a number of ways but he believes Dutch realizes he has been played a fool.

    “I am a firm believer that the opinion of the player is as important as my own when it comes to interpreting the character. I love hearing the myriad ways folks are interpreting Dutch and his choices,” said Davis. “I can tell you as an actor when we were performing that scene that for me, it was absolutely clear to Dutch that he had been deceived. The tragedy is that it is too late for Dutch to do anything about it. Rare are the moments that Dutch is at a loss for words and his exit is poignant in its silence. I believe Dutch realizes the depth of his failure and the true cost of it all and he is overwhelmed.

    One moment in the game that has sparked a lot of discussions comes in the epilogue of Red Dead Redemption 2. John Marston goes with Sadie Adler to kill Micah Bell years after the events of the main story and upon finding him, Dutch Van der Linde appears in a classic western threeway showdown. It’s hard to tell what exactly he’s thinking, will he help John or let Micah kill Sadie?

    Ultimately, Dutch shoots Micah and John unloads his revolver into Micah resulting in a bloody death. Dutch walks away into the sunset, silently. The reason this can be puzzling is that we all know in the original game, John is forced to kill Dutch by the hands of the law. John doesn’t take a lot of issue with killing Dutch feeling betrayed by him but it’s also made to seem like John was left for dead by him and then never saw him again.

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    We asked Benjamin Byron Davis for his take on this whole scene.

    “When it came time to film (capture) the final confrontation with Micah I was in a position where I really understood the entire journey of the character over both titles. I guess to directly answer your question – my perception of Dutch is that he too sought redemption for the mistakes that he had made. I think that is why he never does harm to John, Abigail, or Jack and I believe it is why he is there on the mountain to get revenge on Micah. There are many who would credibly disagree with me, but I choose to believe that Dutch realized he had failed Arthur and he does his best to atone by helping John and his family as best he can.”

    He also spoke to how the character has evolved over the years, giving him credibility and weight.

    “One of the great pleasures of playing Dutch over all these years has been how incredibly well-written he is – there is a persistent nobility to the man that kept him (at least in his own mind) from being more than a mere killer. The work we did on the first Redemption title was ambiguous enough about the past that we had a lot of wiggle room,” he said. “All I had known for certain about Dutch when I started playing him was he was an accomplished orator, extremely well-read, had been a gang leader and had lost his mind. Returning for the prequel I had a much better sense of the man, and we were focused on building a character that could credibly lead so many people for so long.”

    As Davis mentioned, Dutch is a very well-read individual. He reads a lot of books about philosophy and history, some of this can be read within the game, so we asked Davis if he himself did some reading to help inform the character. Turns out he had a history reading similar books to Dutch but did find an author he was unfamiliar with and sought out their work.

    “Dutch is particularly influenced by philosophers and intellectuals in the vein of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A few years into the production of the prequel one of his great philosophical influences was named – Evelyn Miller,” he said.

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    “Now, before acting school, I attended the University of Chicago where we were all required to read what is called ‘the canon.’ It is basically the great books of western civilization. I was far from a perfect student but I dare say I am as well-read as Dutch – which was an asset in playing the character. Upon coming across Evelyn Miller’s name, I was delighted that here was a writer I had never heard of that I could investigate to help inform my performance.”

    That’s when he realized the true origins of Evelyn Miller.

    A Google search yielded no results, I texted all my friends who might have heard of him and the name didn’t ring a bell so I wrote an email to one of our producers to find out if he could help me track down the writer. As soon as I hit send on the email it finally dawned on me that Evelyn Miller was invented for the game.”

    Becoming A Cowboy

    Red Dead Redemption 2 was captured over the course of five years but as we all know, it wasn’t really intended to be that long. The game was slated for a Fall 2017 release and then got pushed to Spring 2018 and then finally, October 26th, 2018. There’s a number of reasons for this but Roger Clark knew he was in for the long haul, just not that long of a haul.

    “I knew it was going to be a big, long contract and I was thrilled to take on the challenge but, no, I didn’t anticipate five years! A lot happened in those five years, children grew up and were born, sadly some friends and colleagues passed away too,” he said.

    “It was very daunting, yes, and, at times, crazy to work at something so big for so long with next to no public feedback. Besides the trailers, the feedback didn’t come until all of our work was done!”

    But Clark managed to keep a cool head, knowing the whole journey was worthwhile.

    “I just learned to take it one day at a time, keep chipping away at it and I learned to trust the amazing talent of all of my colleagues. The animators, our director – Rod Edge, the engineers, set builders, producers, writers, fellow actors, to work with such a huge and amazing group of people was an absolute privilege.”

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    Over the course of five years, Clark did pretty much everything you see Arthur do outside some of the larger stunts. Flipping the page of a catalog in a store, strutting through towns, fanning the hammer on a revolver, etc.

    “I did everything except the major stunts, which were done by an amazing team of stuntmen,” he stated.

    “All the cutscenes and virtually all of the in-game animation was accomplished via performance capture. A lot of fans understandably still think we are voice actors but almost everything you see in the game was learned, rehearsed and acted out by myself and literally around a thousand of my incredibly talented colleagues. Audio, facial, motion…everything.”

    Clark stressed the importance of performance capture and how it has a significant impact on the acting we see in gaming.

    “There will always be a need for amazing voice actors but performance capture is a fascinating, growing medium that isn’t going anywhere and calling the work on Red Dead Redemption 2 ‘voice’ acting no longer accurately describes what the actors do. Performance capture or just simply ‘acting’ better describes it now, I think.”

    “Working in this flourishing, still young medium was nothing short of fascinating,” he added.

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    Of course, Arthur goes through some pretty intense physical moments in the game. Some of which may not be the most fun to act out, one of which was a torture scene after Arthur gets kidnapped by the O’Driscolls. Roger Clark remembered that moment quite vividly.

    “I remember hanging upside down for a bit while doing a torture scene. That was an exercise in concentration!”

    When it came time to capture the climax of the game, Roger Clark noted they were years deep into the production and it was stressful as he wanted to nail it to the best of his ability.

    “Not to give too much away for the ones who haven’t played it yet, but the first time I did one of Arthur’s last scenes I found to be much more stressful than anticipated. We were over three years into the project at this point and I wanted to serve the character and story as best I could – that and I probably was a little attached to Arthur having worked on him for so long so I was driven to do the best I could! Knowing that one day I would finish the job was an eye-opener because for years the end wasn’t in sight, and I loved every minute.”

    Big thank you to Rockstar Games for helping coordinate this huge interview and another thank you to the cast for giving us their time as well as many thoughtful answers!

    Red Dead Redemption 2 is out now on Xbox One and PS4.

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