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Interview: Jonathan Holmes

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The BFG is known for sweeping children and families away with its beautiful story and timeless characters – but while it is a classic, let’s not forget it’s also a story involving giants notorious for gobbling up children.

Not the cheeriest or indeed most family-friendly of themes, but when put in the hands of Steven Spielberg – a director known for also sweeping audiences away in their own imaginations in almost every one of his movies – it’s no surprise that his take on The BFG is being received wonderfully across the world, as it enthrals audiences with its beautiful message, visuals and narrative.

Kristine Cofsky

We got the chance to climb into the head of Childchewer, one of The BFG’s giant companions, chatting with Jonathan Holmes about what it was like to be part of the magic.

From the moment he speaks, Jonathan Holmes immediately puts you at ease with his calm, kind voice. Although explaining “I’m in Shropshire at the moment” (where he grew up), he spends most of his time in Vancouver with his wife – where much of The BFG was filmed.

“It was all in a studio, in a huge downstage just outside of Vancouver.”

Now, it may seem that Shropshire would actually be a far more fitting location for such an iconic British film to be shot, but as Holmes explains “that’s just the nature of the industry these days. Producers will go where they feel they will get the best crew, the best studio space, economics play into it and so you can bring the film to wherever you are.”

We spoke about how he came to the role of Childchewer and what the audition process was like. While he brings magic to the role of Childchewer, it turns out that actually the actors involved auditioned for all the giants at the same time.

“They gave us a scene that was made up of the BFG’s stuff and various bits of other giants – we were asked to improvise around that. So, I didn’t actually know which giant I was going to play until I showed up on the first day and they showed us images of the various giants. They kind of assigned us giants at that point.” 

From this point on, Holmes was Childchewer, bringing personal touches to the character through not only his voice, but with the help of performance-capture technology: “Everything that you do as an actor, is recorded with all these little dots all over your body and face so that giant is my physicality.” Even for the group as well, “it had become so apparent that our individual physical traits actually come through in the animation. It’s quite amazing.”

Kristine Cofsky

Despite playing a CGI-giant, Holmes expressed that he was well aware of all his physical movements during the filming process: “I did a lot of physical theatre when I first started. I was part of a mask theatre company, so my training was quite physically based. That’s often the starting point for me when I tackle a piece of theatre.” 

On points of inspiration, you’d have to wonder where you would draw from for the role of a child-chewing giant; although there has been a previous film adaptation of the book, Holmes claims he hasn’t seen it and “didn’t want to be too influenced by any other versions.”

“Because the giants in the book were quite broadly drawn, there’s not much specificity as to what each of them” and so as a result they “were given free rein to create these characters.”

Holmes, alongside the several others who were playing giants, had 3 or 4 weeks together before shooting to develop their characters. “The animators were there, Melissa Mathison who wrote the screenplay, and a movement director called Terry Notary who is one of the pioneers of motion capture as an acting technique. So we had a chance to create these characters from scratch, likened ourselves to a pack of wolves; where we stood in the hierarchy.” 

Director Steven Spielberg has said that a real marker of success for The BFG will be if the audience forgets about the special effects, and Holmes thinks that it’s done its job. “One of the great things about this film is that the technology is extraordinary. What they’ve done with this motion capture world I think is unbelievable but, it’s always in the service of the story. So it’s not like going to see a massive effects movie. It’s actually quite an old fashioned narrative – it’s called very lyrically, very beautifully, and I think the effects really serve that rather than being an end on to themselves.” 

Holmes vast experience in a number of different areas of the industry really helps cement Childchewer as one of the stand-out characters in the film. “I work in voice, theatre, film and TV so I feel enormously fortunate really to be able to jump in and out of these different worlds. Voice acting is great fun because you don’t have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to some God-forsaken set; you roll up, you don’t have to learn any lines – you kind of get to have fun in the studio all day. But they all complement each other.” 

But it seems that his background and success has had an effect on more than one audience – Holme’s daughter is also currently involved in voice acting, albeit in a less professional setting; “We read the book together before we did the film and she allows me to see the stories in the eyes of a child again, which is really important. When you’re able to read these stories and see these cartoons through a 10-year-olds’ eyes, I think it gives you greater insight as an actor. She loves the film; she’s seen it about three times now.” 

Holmes reveals a hidden note to the film that you might not notice until you’ve seen it a few times. “I played myself at the beginning of the movie as well. Stephen Spielberg was keen to get as many cameos of us as we could. He mentioned The Wizard of Oz, where the townsfolk end up being the characters in Oz. I don’t think it’s a direct parallel, but he quite liked the idea of those of us who were playing these crazy giants to appear briefly in the movie as well.”

Even with his array of experience, The BFG is definitely outstanding moment in Holmes’ career. “At the London premiere, I chatted with the agent for the Dahl estate who was really thrilled with it all. Working with Disney, with Spielberg directing an iconic Roald Dahl book, it doesn’t get much better than that.” 

We’re still looking out for his future projects, with potential roles in more animation, in theatre and even video games in the pipeline but for now, let's embrace the success and wonder that is The BFG (but maybe draw the line at adding children to our diets!)

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