What kind of research went into preparing for the role of Edward Kenway? What did Joy Division have to do with the casting process? How tall is he? These are just a few of the things we discussed when we spoke with Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag’s Lead Writer Darby McDevitt as well as the voice of Edward Kenway himself, Matt Ryan.
Edward is not the kind of Assassin you’re used to, as you’re likely learning if you’ve already started the game. He’s brash and selfish. He’s a dirty fighter. And he has no real desire to give up his ways to follow the Creed (much to the chagrin of other Assassins). It’s all these things that make him one of the most compelling characters in the series. Darby and Matt share their unique insights into what makes Edward so special, revealing a few exclusive tidbits along the way.
Edward Kenway began as a somewhat different character, but went through a bit of a transformation when Matt Ryan was cast. Tell us about that change, and how it happened…
Matt Ryan When I auditioned for the part I used a Northern English accent. When we got to Montreal and just started talking, Darby and the guys were like, Hang on, what’s your accent? I’m from Wales and Swansea is the port I come from. So we started talking about that, and about making that the part of the world Edward comes from. What’s similar between my journey and Edward’s is, I left home when I was 19 and lived in Bristol for three years and then I lived in London and then I moved to America. So in terms of just the accent, my accent has traveled. It would be truer to the accent Edward would have.
Darby McDevitt That backstory was brilliant. I didn’t even know Matt lived in Bristol but I said, Okay, Edward was born in Wales but moved to Bristol. I made that up for the character before I knew that about Matt. Bristol was a very common town for pirates. That’s where Blackbeard’s accent would have been from. It’s a huge port town. That was just a happy accident. I have to admit when we sent out the casting call I asked for a Manchester/Mancunian accent because I’d been listening to a lot of Joy Division interviews and I love the Mancunian accent on Peter Hook and all the guys from Joy Division. So some of the first auditions we saw were true Mancunians and it was cool, but it didn’t quite work. It took us a long time to find Edward. We saw maybe 60 people and we finally got Matt.
It’s not just Matt’s voice that’s perfect, though. He also looks quite a bit like Edward.
Darby I liked his voice, but because we were now going full performance capture we had to worry about how he looked and held himself. Luckily, our animation director said, Matt has the physicality that’s right for Edward. I remember one guy who was a bit too showy – a little too Errol Flynn.
Matt Edward is kind of nonchalant, isn’t he? He’s loose but then he can focus and snap to attention at a moment’s notice.
Darby He’s like an animal. We needed that combination of a guy who has a warm voice and could be friendly but also commanding. Of course, he also had to be physically impressive. Because of technical constraints he had to be between 5’10” and 6’2”. How tall are you?
Matt I’m 5’10 ½”.
Darby Great! If you were 5’9” we might have asked you to wear lifts.
What sort of research did you do to prepare for being a pirate and an Assassin during the Golden Age of Piracy?
Matt Basically Darby sent me a list of books to read – including Colin Woodard’s book The Republic of Pirates – and I researched the period. I think one thing that always fascinates me about doing period stuff is the lack of technology. We take our forms of communication for granted and it’s the first thing I do when I’m doing something set in a different period. I just try to get my head around that. If you’re at sea for months and months, you can’t put out an S.O.S. and have a helicopter come and save you. You’re on your own. Just that sort of mentality is different. Even the shadows were a different kind of dark in those days.
So I researched a bunch on the period, but before I got to Montreal I didn’t have that much information on the character or the project. The first week was Darby and the team bringing me and the other guys up to speed and getting us on the same page as them in terms of the character. One thing about the process that was amazing was that we had a chance to rehearse. We would rehearse for a day and then we would shoot for a day. That’s so rare these days. With TV there’s hardly any rehearsal and with movies sometimes you get a little rehearsal. The only time you really get rehearsals is in theater. We actually had time to really go through a rehearsal process and flesh out the scenes.
I think throughout the whole process there were more and more things I was gleaning from the character because it was shot from about last October or November until June. It was a week here and two weeks there and each time it would get deeper and deeper and the character would get more and more fleshed out. It’s a really interesting process in terms of that.
Darby On average I think we had two rehearsal days for every three days of shooting. That was a first for me, too. We didn’t shoot Revelations this way and maybe every character except Ezio was coming into the studio the day we shot saying, Okay, I got the script two days ago. I read it. Here we go. So even for me it was a nice step forward. There’s always the question of, Why don’t games have better stories? Possibly because we don’t actually empower the people who are good at storytelling to actually tell that story. That’s one reason, anyway. But I think in the last decade we’ve seen some great games from teams like Naughty Dog and Irrational. We’re doing these fantastic stories now and it’s because the companies are investing more and more and saying, Actors are good at acting. Let’s let them act. Let’s not just put them in a studio and hand them a script.
What was it like doing the performance capture for the role?
Matt I was just in a big studio and the guys would show me some images and then I’d have to imagine everything. But that’s kind of what’s great about the medium. It leaves everything up to the imagination so you have to really go to a different place in your head than you would if you were doing film or television, where sometimes you have the things in front you. In this case it’s nothing. A stick can be a gun or a sword or anything you want it to be. It really leaves it up to your imagination, which is such a fun thing to do. You find yourself becoming a kid again when you used to pick up sticks in the shape of a gun and pretend to shoot. Suddenly you’re using that part of your imagination again and it’s a really interesting experience.
I think one thing you’ve got to take into consideration when you’re doing motion capture is the environment. You need to imagine the heat and the pace of things. Often when we’re on the ship I’d be holding two sticks and I’d have to pretend I was sailing. So you’re pitching over the wind and the water and you’ve got to imagine all these things. Sometimes the guys are like, You’ve got to pitch it up a bit. There’s more wind or rain here. So I’d have to project a little bit more. It’s all left to the imagination, which is completely and utterly fascinating and brilliant. I think it’s a fantastic medium. I think it will become more and more popular for more and more actors as it goes along.
How did you balance Edward’s external and internal conflicts to create a rich, robust character?
MattI think the most interesting thing about the process is you shoot it all out of sequence. Normally you would have an arc and you would map it all out in terms of where you want to take the character at certain points in the movie or game or whatever. That couldn’t really happen within this process, so what you have to do is hit each moment. We’d all talk about it and what beats we were trying to hit and trust that it fits in with the story. But that’s the great thing about this character: his conflict.
He’s so three-dimensional. A lot of videogame characters aren’t. They’re very archetypal and that was the main draw for me really – how conflicted Edward is – and to play those conflicts is a really interesting thing. His drive to get what he wants is so strong, but at the same time he has all these things going on underneath. He’s a real guy, but he’s driven by what he wants to achieve. He thinks he’ll find happiness by achieving fame and glory and riches, but ultimately we all know that’s not how you find happiness. Somewhere along the line he changes routes and becomes someone different.
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