We sat down with the delightful Shawn Ashmore – star of Remedy’s swish new TV show, Quantum Break, and Remedy’s swish new game for Xbox One and PC, Quantum Break. Are you confused? You won’t be…
Shawn Ashmore, a 36-year-old Canadian actor with a screen career that’s well into its third decade, has a strong relationship with time. He prizes punctuality, and takes decisive action when someone leaves him hanging. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t know that when I got a call barely 90 minutes before I met Shawn at Microsoft’s Auckland offices to talk about Quantum Break.
True to my own form, I turned up five minutes early. As it happens, that was Shawn’s way too. He’s a punctual guy.
“Yes! To an annoying degree, I’m a punctual guy. I don’t know what it is, but it’s always been in me. I hate being late.”
Annoying? How annoying can that be? Shawn went into director mode and laid the situation out for me.
“I’ve actually cut friendships loose if someone else is incredibly late. If someone is like ‘we’re meeting for lunch at noon’ and I’m there at 11.55 because I’m a little paranoid, and they don’t show up until like 12.30 every time we hang out… you know, [I’m thinking] ‘my time is valuable, and not even a phone call, not even a warning, so I’m sitting there wasting my time.’ I’ve cut budding friendships loose because like, ‘you know what? It’s going to drive me crazy for the rest of my life.’
“At least let me know you’re gonna be late.”
Time and time again
Shawn’s had a real time of it in the fictional world as well. His last appearance as Bobby “Iceman” Drake was in the Marvel continuity mashup X-Men: Days of Future Past which, as Ryan Reynolds famously lampshaded in Deadpool, has a mildly baffling timeline. Quantum Break isn’t exactly intended for the linear-minded either, and Shawn is almost set on which story is easier to follow.
“Just on its surface, maybe Days of Future Past although the concept of sending someone’s consciousness back in time was a little confusing for people. When we were shooting it, Bryan Singer and the writers were constantly having that discussion. It’s like, we needed to really force the idea of the consciousness going back without the physical body, without being too heavy-handed. That was a real challenge. I think it’s probably easier to follow, only because everything is spelled out on screen.
“Something like Quantum Break, you could just play the game through and watch the show to understand the story, but there’s a lot of detail on the side, and some of the science which is told through the collectables.
“My recommendation to anybody playing Quantum Break is take your time, read the emails, experience all the things, look at the science, and talk to all the characters because you will understand the story but you will get so much more out of it if you take your time. That’s the way that Remedy designed the game to be played.”
The game is a mashup experience all of its own, with an embedded live action series bringing a different perspective to the story. Shawn said he was quick to grasp the vision and, though he was very quick to grasp the opportunity, he played it cool.
“I got a phone call, from my agent, and as soon as I heard ‘Remedy’ I was like, ‘I’m in!’ [one-beat pause] I didn’t say that – I said ‘let’s take the meetings and talk to everybody.’
“I met with the Xbox team first, and they gave me the overall pitch. They already had a proof of concept trailer to show off the level of technology. They showed me how the game, the show, and the junction points were all going to work. I was pretty excited about that. I was like ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. This is a big deal.’
“I talked to Sam Lake about the character, the story, and the journey, and what was going to happen with Jack Joyce and Paul Serene (played by Game of Thrones‘ Aidan Gillen) the best friends becoming enemies and both fighting for the same thing with different ideologies. That drama, that conflict, that story really made sense to me. It wasn’t even necessarily about the overall concept, it was the characters in the story. Then add the time travel elements, certain characters looping around and meeting each other at different times – all the dynamics between the characters made me excited for what this could be.”
Going through The motions
Shawn said the experience of bringing Quantum Break to life was equally similar and different to the standard filmmaking experience, but one element that had him heated up about the project was the sheer risk being taken by Remedy, Microsoft Studios, and Xbox in bringing live-action episodes into a gaming experience.
He said that while he didn’t approach his character, Jack Joyce, any differently to how he became Iceman or The Following‘s Mike Weston, the motion capture process was “a huge learning curve” for a guy who had been performing for the camera since the tender age of 10.
“In the first couple of days, I thought ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ The guys at Remedy like Stobe (Harju) our director, Sam Lake the creative director, and Mikki (Rautalahti) one of the writers, were very good in working me through the first days of the motion capture. They understood that it was a huge challenge until you get used to it.”
And when you are used to it? What’s it feel like when you’re not just seeing yourself on screen, but playing yourself?
“Amazing! My inner 10-year-old was jumping up and down!”
Shawn’s outer 36-year-old was also getting pretty animated, to tell you all a happy truth.
“It felt like an out-of-body experience because you’re controlling a version of yourself and you’re also putting yourself in danger, you know what I mean? Like, it sortof felt weird to run into a firefight ’cause normally I’d be like, if people are fighting over there [points at the door] then I’m gonna go the other way and be safe.
“It was counter-intuitive in that way, but it was amazing and empowering even to a bigger degree than watching yourself in an X-Men film where you’re doing all this stuff. You can control the time abilities, and they are superhero abilities, they really are, when you start chaining them together.
“I was like, ‘Wow! Look at Jack Joyce, he’s badass! So I’m kinda badass!'”
Taking games out of the box
Seeing the wedding band on his finger, I asked Shawn what the other half thought of his badassery. He said Dana, his wife of nearly four years, reckons her virtual husband is indeed a badass – but of the real Shawn, “not so much.”
Shawn said his wife’s interest in Quantum Break could help explain how gaming, which has undoubtedly arrived as a mainstream entertainment form, could finally take its place as a respected medium for storytelling.
“She was interested because I’m in it, but she was really engaged – jumping up and down, yelling and screaming when she died, frustrated, wanted to perfect her skills. Ultimately, she was really into the story and I think that was interesting too because I think Quantum Break offers an entry point for people that are into television, are familiar with binge-watching Netflix, and might be interested in trying a game. They can play the game, then they get this live-action show and it’s an episodic experience.
“That’s what I thought when she was playing through – she really likes the gameplay, she’s screaming at the TV and won’t give me the controller, and also by the end of it, she’s so into all the characters.
“The live-action portion tells the same story from a different perspective and she ended up really enjoying the Monarch Solutions side of things as well.”
As an actor, narrative and characters really matter to Shawn, who cited Alan Wake, Max Payne (which he clocked during downtime on the X-Men 2 set a decade ago) and the early Final Fantasy games as his principal examples of story-driven gaming done well.
Expanding on the topic, Shawn said The Last of Us had “really opened people’s minds” to the possibilities of the medium, and he believes the increasing presence of recognisable actors will help. In Quantum Break alone, the rollcall includes Gillen, Lance Reddick (The Wire) and Dominic Monaghan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Lost.
Now that he’s been fully immersed, Shawn has attracted the curiosity of more Hollywood peers and is now an evangelist of sorts for the creative crossovers to come.
“Virtual reality is a huge thing on the horizon and to me that is where immersive storytelling in gaming is gonna go. It’s very complex because to make a virtual reality game or film work, you’re totally removing the director, in a sense, from the picture because that’s what a director does, present the story and the shot: ‘We’re gonna see a closeup here, we’re gonna see a wide shot here.’
“The player or viewer will become the director because they can look at anything they want. If they’re talking with a character and they’re not interested anymore, they’re just gonna turn around and walk away. You have to think of all those things and make it interesting throughout.”
The Canadian healing factor
Leave it Canada to lead the way, right? What makes actors from that nice place north of the United States such great action heroes, anyway? I’d long wondered if maybe kids like Shawn, (plus his twin, Smallville actor Aaron Ashmore), X-Men‘s Ellen Page, and Ryan Reynolds were raised on a strict regime of hockey, bears, and blistering cold.
The reality is even more brutal. The Canadian film and television scene is a supportive environment where it’s possible to develop on the job and get away with a few flubs, Shawn said, while those who don’t immediately succeed in the American market are passed over and someone new takes their place. Talk about an industry eating its young.
“I did some pretty awful things at 10, ’cause I didn’t know what I was doing but you’re given the chance to grow and learn – like you should be. There seems to be a lot of Canadian actors nowadays and I think it’s because we grew up with the chance to learn, develop, and really work on our skillset as actors.
“I fell in love with performing and I’ve been lucky enough to have been doing it all this time. 26 years. It’s almost three decades of working, it’s fun.”
Shawn Ashmore is grateful for his Canadian experience, and he has a long career and a string of character performances to reflect upon.
He also knows a good thing when he sees it: “My wife’s just like me, that’s why we get along! Two very punctual people.”
Quantum Break is available now on Xbox One and PC. Have a look at this trailer – take your time, hurry up … don’t be late.