Heading into the fifth game in Ubisoft's Splinter Cell franchise, it's difficult to imagine any voice other than the soft, commanding baritone of Canadian actor Michael Ironside coming out of super spy Sam Fisher.
But that's almost what happened.
After the fourth game, a morally grey adventure that had Sam infiltrating a terrorist cell, Mr. Ironside thought he couldn't continue to play the role of a character who seemed to represent political ideals with which he disagreed.
It wasn't until he saw the script for the fifth game in the series, Splinter Cell: Conviction (releasing April 13th), which previews suggest will see Sam rebelling against his former government masters, that he decided he was willing to reprise the role of one of the most recognizable characters in Western games.
I had a chance to speak with the Hollywood veteran at the Toronto Comicon over the weekend, and though our chat was brief he explained to me what it was about the new game's script that brought him back, how he prepares himself to get into Sam's headspace, and why he prefers gardening to games.
What brought you back to Sam Fisher?
I really was done after the fourth game. I didn't think you could take it any further, and I found it boring. I just felt like it would be irresponsible. Then they sent me the script on this one and I read it through and saw where they were going and I said, "wow, I kind of like that." I wanted to see if I could humanize Sam.
Did the script answer some of the questions you had about the character?
Well, I asked some questions and [Ubisoft]answered them. Questions about Sam's relationship with authority and how he represents a huge and powerful entity like the United States government.
But for me it was an acting problem: Can I make this character real? Can they give me enough to make it real?
I wasn't interested in doing it after the fourth game. The political machinery that the game seemed to be an exponent for was something I didn't want to be a part of. But now they're focusing on an individual. It's more about Sam.
Tom Clancy properties typically have a reputation for promoting American paternalism. Is the new game rebelling against those politics?
Well, I'm stuck because I can't represent the game. I can only represent what I'm trying to do with my character.
What I'm trying to do is make Sam more relatable for the individual who has gotten fucked. There are a lot of people out there who, whether they're driving a Mercedes or driving a Hyundai, whether they're at the top of the socioeconomic food chain or the bottom, have a list of things that they want to talk to somebody about. That's what this character represents right now. He's trying to find out where there is truth and where there isn't. It's anti-big government, and it's anti-big corporation.
Did you have much freedom with the character? Could you ad-lib?
There's not much room for ad-libbing, but there was some stuff I wouldn't say or do, and I voiced it at the beginning. When they sent me the synopses and storylines I asked them: "Where are you going with this character? Where are you going with this relationship? Can we go this way?"
But that's just the character. Most of the game is what you see here [gestures to a screen showing the game] this violence and action. It's pinball with guns.
Do you ever play the games once they're finished?
No. I'm not a gamer.
Do you watch other people playing so you can see your performance in context?
I do. I have a neighbor who plays. He's a camera guy. When I get the game I give it to him and I go over and watch him play and watch what they've done with the game.
I'm just not a gamer. I like to get my hands dirty. I work on cars, I work on my own gardens, I like playing golf, I like playing chess. I like picking a piece up and moving it. I don't get that visceral enjoyment out of games.
Do you think actors can practice their craft in games?
I do it because it's kind of an acting challenge. When we first built the Sam Fisher character I brought in actors who weren't even in the game, paid them union scale, and had them play out scenes with me. I wanted to see how we could improve it and where the organics of the character and situation were.
Otherwise it's just intellectual masturbation. You just sitt there trying to figure out what Sam would do.
And some nice stuff happened. Some of the relationships between Grimsdóttír [Sam's remote handler when he's in the field]and my character in the first and third game came out of that play. We didn't do it this time, basically because he pretty well operates on his own. It wasn't necessary.
As a craft? Absolutely.
Do you think there's enough left in Sam's story for another game?
They're saying they want to take Sam in a direction all by himself now. Let's see what happens with this game. It speaks to an individual who takes responsibility for his behavior and his actions as opposed to simply being a representative of government. If this game works, I'll take a look at the next script.
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