Interview: 'Big Game' Star Ray Stevenson on the Punisher, Turning Down 'Game of Thrones,' and Kicking Sam Jackson's Ass

Interview: 'Big Game' Star Ray Stevenson on the Punisher, Turning Down 'Game of Thrones,' and Kicking Sam Jackson's Ass

Jun 29, 2015

If you want to cast an actor who looks ready and able to waste every last motherf*cker in the room, Ray Stevenson is your man. Few actors have played such a wide array of badasses, from Frank Castle in Punisher: War Zone to Volstagg in the Thor movies to Titus Pullo on HBO's Rome. In Big Game, now available to rent on VOD, he plays a traitorous Secret Service agent who brings down Air Force One over the Finnish countryside, forcing the President of the United States (Samuel L. Jackson) to evade a team of mercenaries with a young kid as his only ally. Yes, it's as bonkers as it sounds.

We hopped on the phone with Stevenson to chat about his latest role, but our conversation spiraled into everything from Nazi zombies and Garth Ennis to Sully Sullenberger and Game of Thrones. Unlike the stoic characters he often plays, Stevenson is a talker and he shares your enthusiasm for all of the cool movies and shows in which he's been cast. 15 minutes is not nearly enough time to discuss his career so far. When I first heard about Big Game, I was immediately interested because I had seen director Jalmari Helander's Rare Exports. Were you aware of that film when this crazy script came your way?

Ray Stevenson: No, I wasn't, actually. I wasn't aware of it. I'm embarrassed to say I still haven't seen it! I should have by now, I suppose. I meant to! I meant to catch it! It's on my to-do list. On the page, this movie must have sounded insane. Air Force One is shot down and the President evades hunters with the help of a young Finnish kid. Did you get the vibe immediately?

Stevenson: [Laughs] I read it and said "Are you serious? How is he going to pull this off?" You read through it and you go "You know what, this is so crazy and out there that I think it could be bloody wonderful!" Then I spoke to Jalmari and we talked through a few things and I got this mental image of somebody who is impish and devil-may-care. Sure enough, he's very playful. I love that about his script. It has a scale that was nostalgic. It reminded me of the movies I watched as a kid growing up. Force 10 From Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. When you're in the mountains, you get that feel. And yet it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's a great adventure romp. It's actually about a right of passage for a 13 year old boy, which I thought was wonderful. It has an '80s Amblin vibe. Sort of a classic boy's own adventure. Just with lots of gun battles.

Stevenson: Well, exactly! Like Von Ryan's Express, except you've got this kid. Who was terrific! He comes from great stock. His father is a very well-renowned theater actor in Finland and he's Jalmari's nephew. He took his work seriously, but not himself. He did a sterling, stand-up job. Your character is one of those great action movie tropes -- the traitorous Secret Service agent. We've seen characters like this in movies Air Force One and White House Down, so how do you bring a fresh take to a character like this?

Stevenson: You look at him and you say "What is he?" He's bringing down Air Force One, he's killing all of his comrades, all of the people he works with, the whole flight crew, he's kicking the President out to be hunted on the ground. There's this line about doing it for $10 million, but that's not what it's about. He took a bullet for this President and there's shrapnel next to his heart that's going to kill him. It's his last tour of duty. What do you do to a horse? You just pass them off to a field somewhere. He's a bit bitter about all of that and I think he's turned into a fanatical patriot. He sees this weak President who is weakening the United States and as his last act of defiance, he's going to be part of a staged, ridiculous thing that's going to get rid of the President ... so America gets stronger, but he'll have popped off his clogs anyway. He can say the end justify the means. He basically wants to save America. One of the film's highlights is you beating the shit out of Samuel L. Jackson. Not a lot of people get to do that.

Stevenson: Mate, have you seen me? It's not difficult. [Laughs] But I imagine Samuel L. Jackson would put up a fight! He seems like a scrapper. 

Stevenson: Samuel L. Jackson, playing the President, didn't know how to cock a gun! Sam can. The President can't. You're one of the great go-to tough guys. When you show up in a movie, you seem like you can kill anyone in the room.

Stevenson: I don't think anyone wakes up in the morning thinking they're the toughest guy on the block. It's like the people who think they're the most intelligent person in the room. That's the most unintelligent thought anyone can ever have. People who think they're hard guys are the first ones you take out. You meet people who really do perform like this in that world and you see these humble people with smiles, but there's a side to them that has that capacity. Like despots. No one wakes up thinking "I'm going to be a bad man. I'm going to be worse than I was yesterday. I'm going to be a bad man." The real bad ones think they're fully justified and give themselves a credo, a religion or a philosophy that they serve, and if you're against them, you're against the far higher thing. So they're fully justified in taking you and you family out. They're serving the higher good. That's where the real danger comes. All these big tough guys...I never liked the idea of dick swinging. If you're going to do something, you've got to do it. That reminds me of how you play Volstagg in the Thor movies. He's this jovial, fun-loving guy. But he's also this great warrior.

Stevenson: That's right. Volstagg has the heart the size of a planet and he wears that on his sleeve. Every cell of his being delights like a three or four year old child, but if he gets hurt, it's like his whole being is crushed. It's exhausting! I didn't want Volstagg to be this Sumo Wrestler heavyweight. I wanted him to be like the dancing hippos in Fantasia, very Epicurean, up on the balls of his feet, doing ballet steps making sandwiches that happen to be ten tiers tall. He has that sort of levity, that sort of lightness, that sort of loyalty. Fiercely loyal. When he tells a story, he seriously enlarges the story. He's going to be back in the next Thor movie, right?

Stevenson: I hope so. I hope so. That wasn't your first comic book movie role, though. I think Punisher: War Zone is hugely underrated.

Stevenson: The way it was sold...even the fanbase that couldn't wait for it to come out didn't know it came out! What can you do? I was very proud of the movie. We worked very hard. It was actually based very, very closely on the comic books, but the storylines also needed to be updated and contemporized since [those storylines] were ten years old. But Garth Ennis' writing also struck me as some of the most emotionally sophisticated writing I had ever come across and that character, who is not seeking redemption or remorse and who is worse than any of the bad guys out there...You don't want to be [The Punisher]. You don't want to be where he's at. But you're very glad he's there and you can't wait to see what he does next. I'd jump at doing the character again, but I just heard that there's another actor doing it in Daredevil. So whoop-dee-doo. It stands there as part of the lexicon. It's interesting that you bring up Garth Ennis, because his comic work ties into what you were saying earlier. He kills off characters who are full of braggadocio while his heroes tend to be professional types who fly under the radar.

Stevenson: The real heroes are reluctant heroes. You always see these guys who have been on the battlefront and they've saved somebody and have been hailed as a hero and they say "No, not me. The real heroes are out there. Buried in the ground out there." They've seen the guys next to them do stuff that didn't make the press. The pilot [Sully Sullenberger] who flew by the seat of his pants and brought that plane down on the Hudson and he was an incredible hero. You could say that was a heroic act. My late father was a pilot in the Royal Air Force and he said himself that when you're under that much pressure, you either crack or you get on with your job. [Sullenberger] got on with his job. And that constitutes a hero for the lives he saved. But I'd be surprised if he said "I'm a hero." He'd probably praise his cabin crew for keeping everyone calm. That cabin crew was dealing with hysterical people. Heroic acts all around. Sullenberger is getting a movie now.

Stevenson: Tom Hanks, isn't it? Yeah. Clint Eastwood is directing. It should be interesting. It's definitely not a typical hero story.

Stevenson: I don't think they'll glorify him. I think they'll tell a full story. So this is probably the most niche question anyone will ask you, but there's this great little movie you were in called Outpost-

Stevenson: [Laughs] It's this great little zombie Nazi movie!

Stevenson: Nazi zombies! I hate those guys! I had just finished Rome and my agent got this call. Super low budget. Five weeks of filming in Scotland. I looked the script and the director [Steve Barker] wanted to speak to me. And if the director was prepared to come and meet me, of course I'd meet him! So I read the script and thought bloody hell, this is nuts. But it was intelligent enough. Unified field theory and all of this stuff going on. Bunker in a strange European land and what-have-you. And then I met him and was instantly aware that this guy is a zombie geek. Him and his producer grew up with zombie movies. They knew this world. They were so invested. And I thought, you know what? You can't ask for better than that. They were going to bring an integrity to whole nasty zombie thing. And it worked! The zombies won for God's sake! But I loved it. It was so low budget. If it rains, it rains. Right, it's raining. Fuck it, we're shooting! I think they pulled off quite a little gem. I can't believe you reminded me of that. Wow. Outpost is surely only a few years away from a huge cult following.

Stevenson: Brilliant. Let them come. The first thing I ever saw you in was Rome. That show was so far ahead of its time. If it had aired in the age of Game of Thrones, it would have been on for a decade.

Stevenson: You can try and second guess things, but it is what it is. In two seasons, it opened the doors to America for me. I wasn't going to go to America if I didn't have something to bring with me. My character was popping, which was tremendous. I got my representation and my movie career started. But in hindsight, HBO admitted they made a mistake. They had made an error [in cancelling Rome] but too much time had passed. HBO had a change at the executive level and if they come in and keep a show on the air and it's a success, it's their predecessor's success. If it's a failure, it's their failure. They struck Deadwood as well. I want to see you back on HBO. What would it take to get you on Game of Thrones? I want to see you swinging swords at people's heads again.

Stevenson: I was offered [a role]. I also saw them before they even started, very early on. I would rather have been [cast] at the beginning. It's just that coming into a show now...I think it's wonderful, but it's not something I would come into at this point. I don't know if I would add anything to it at this stage. And I'm off doing Blackbeard [on Black Sails], so there you go. Can you tell me which role you were offered?

Stevenson: I was offered a 4-6 month stint. [The show] was just too far down the line for me. Having already been seen at the beginning, I would rather have been involved in the growth of a show, even though everyone gets bumped off left, right and center. I kept seeing all the people I knew from Rome in it! But I can't, man! I can't! But good on them. 

Big Game is available now on Video On Demand.

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