For many Call of Duty fans, the original Modern Warfare 2 is a series favorite. I certainly know it’s mine, and I’m eagerly looking forward to how reboot Modern Warfare II — releasing worldwide tomorrow — honors and builds upon the legacy of its predecessor. In the lead up to the new game, I was able to speak with Neil Ellice, the actor portraying series icon John “Soap” MacTavish. He spoke about taking over the role, what acting in a video game is like, and, of course, what to expect from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II.
AIPT: What drew you to the Call of Duty franchise and the role of Soap specifically?
Neil Ellice: In the first audition, the story team – led by Brian Bloom, Jeff Negus, and Graham Hagmaier – referenced one of my most favorite films for Modern Warfare II‘s tone and depth: Sicario. Then we workshopped the monologue of a soldier. Not in combat, but speaking to a military psychologist on his personal experience of war, particularly its complex and gray morality. That was surprising and intriguing to me as an actor.
Soap himself? Well, he is one of the newer Task Force members. Up to this point, he has been able to draw a very simple line between good and bad. So to experience this world through his eyes and in the course of the story for that world view to unravel and realize that there are no clear sides or winners – that’s an exciting character arc for an actor.
AIPT: When did you first start playing Call of Duty?
Ellice: I had a run at Warzone 1.0 but, to be honest, I quickly realized my contribution to this community is bringing it in the acting department!
AIPT: Who are your inspirations as an actor?
Ellice: Anyone fearless enough to get up there and take the mask off, especially those who stuck it out long enough to put food on the table.
AIPT: Did you feel pressure taking over the role of Soap after Kevin McKidd previously voiced the character?
Ellice: I have tremendous gratitude and respect to Kevin McKidd for his talent in making Soap MacTavish an icon so that it became a legacy role for actors like me to take a run at. All legacy roles have their challenges. I think the best advice I got was just to commit to be true to myself (good life advice in general!) and be equally committed to bringing humanity and truth – as Kevin McKidd was – to each and every one of Soap’s scenes as a torchbearer.
AIPT: What are some challenges of acting for a video game versus acting for film and TV?
Ellice: Our director Jeff Negus storyboarded every scene and often shot with a “V-Cam” rig handheld style, so this was very similar to film and TV. But generally, there’s no “coverage” in performance capture, meaning we don’t work through a series of wide to close-up shots. It’s all captured super wide on a stage filled with cameras in a “one-r” and then in post-production the director can move the camera wherever they like.
So, for an actor, there’s really no way to just step through the motions in the wide and “save” moments for the medium or close-up. Your entire performance within a scene – from big action to more intimate moments – has to play in both frames, like pure theater. But as one of my idols Denzel Washington said about the difference between acting in different formats: truth is the truth. I take that to heart. It’s all just truth, whatever the format. So just do the truth even if it leaves you feeling exposed. That’s an actor’s job.
AIPT: Do you have a favorite story from your time on set?
Ellice: This was mostly Performance Capture on stage and the cast had a brilliant chemistry, so there were some very fun moments. I think I would give away the campaign story if I named this particular scene, but I remember one afternoon leaning inside a shipping container watching Alain Mesa – who plays Colonel Alejandro Vargas, leader of the Mexican Special Forces – interrogate an old friend. It was mesmerizing, an “I knew him when…” moment. And he’s a wonderful human being.
Bringing Soap MacTavish into live-action for the very first time with director Craig Gillespie in the Official Teaser was an unforgettable experience. I’m grateful to Activision Marketing for giving me a shot. It doesn’t get any better than hopping out of an MRAP fully loaded onto an exploding runway. That was the real deal. I think the Mohawk got singed and I took a few falls but it was worth it. From what I have seen, with the superb experience the developers have crafted, the level of immersion is going to make you feel every hit and some of what I did.
Oh, and the performance capture velcro suit and face camera rig are a lot to wear for a whole shoot day, so I brought in a reclining sports chair and placed it just off set to stretch out between takes. The next morning I was told that its reflective material had apparently thrown off the performance capture camera data for the entire previous day and would need to be manually unraveled… it was banished behind a curtain.
AIPT: How does Modern Warfare II build upon the foundation of the 2009 game of the same title?
As far as gameplay, this is New Generation Call of Duty. It’s packed full of advancements powered by what I understand is the most advanced engine ever in Call of Duty, building on the engine that debuted with Modern Warfare (2019). I think it’s the first time in Call of Duty history the team is using one unified engine across Modern Warfare II and Warzone 2.0. It’s an incredibly immersive experience built by a superbly talented team of 300+ people at Infinity Ward.
As far as the story, our game is a continuation of Modern Warfare (2019). By this point Task Force 141 – Price, Gaz, Ghost, and Soap – has been fully reformed and fighting together for some time. Much to Ghost’s chagrin!
AIPT: How has the character of Soap evolved throughout the franchise?
Ellice: In the Call of Duty universe, the re-imagining of Task Force 141 began in Modern Warfare (2019). So for Modern Warfare II, we are just meeting Soap for the first time, hence the rank of Sergeant. He’s the new guy who sees conflict as cut and dry and wants the quick win to prove himself amongst his peers, especially Ghost, who eventually becomes something of a mentor. But he soon realizes – without spoiling anything – that all is not as it seems… He has a long way to go and the player will have some very difficult choices to make in the City of Souls.
AIPT: What are you most excited for players to experience when they boot up Modern Warfare II for the first time?
Ellice: From being on stage on and off for two years experiencing the camaraderie of our awesome cast, I’m excited for campaign players to experience and immerse themselves in the relationships, especially within Task Force 141 and the brotherhood that grows between Soap and Colonel Alejandro Vargas. And – no spoilers – but you might be just surprised where things end up with Soap and Ghost… “No Fights Alone.”
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II releases tomorrow, October 28th, for PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series X/S, and PC. Warzone 2.0, a sequel to 2020’s Call of Duty: Warzone, will launch November 16, 2022.
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