UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH ZILLA! Michael Croaker on His Role in Godzilla: Final Wars!

Photo © Michael Croaker.

Australian-based actor Michael Croaker earned a place in Godzilla history in 2004 when he was cast in Ryuhei Kitamura’s Godzilla: Final Wars. Mr. Croaker played the role of Ritchie, a car thief who meets Zilla face-to-face during the monster’s rampage in Sydney. While it may have been a small part in the film, Mr. Croaker enjoyed every moment of it and shared his fond memories in this 2005 interview with Brett Homenick.

Brett Homenick: How’d you get started in acting?

Michael Croaker: I began doing live theater when I was fifteen. At seventeen, I had written my first one-act play. It was based on the death of John Lennon, and I got the chance to also work onstage with it and direct. That experience finally hooked me.

BH: How’d you get the part in Godzilla: Final Wars?

MC: I had just left an audition and was heading home when my agent called and said, “Got another one for you if you’re nearby Fox Studios.” I picked up the script and read for the role of a New York City police officer. A few days later, I received a call to audition again before Ryuhei Kitamura. At my second audition, I was asked to forget about the New York cop role and create something fresh. Ryuhei matched me up with a series of different actors and simply set up a premise like, “You are brothers. One is strong-willed, and the other is weak. Godzilla is tearing up the city while you are stealing a car. Begin.”

We then improvised creating character and story. It was a grueling second round of auditions on all the assembled actors. But the great thing about it was that Kitamura was saying in his own way “take risks” and “don’t play it safe.” As an actor, this freedom to work before a camera was really exciting. A few weeks later, I was called and told that I had the role based on the improvised work I had done.

BH: What was Ryuhei Kitamura like as a director?

MC: Working with him as briefly as I did was the most rewarding experience I have had on any set with a director. There was absolutely no pretension or ego; he was relaxed and trusting of actors to work their craft. He seemed to have a very clear image in his mind of what he wanted out of every shot.

BH: In the movie you’re dressed as a punk. Was that a decision of the filmmakers?

MC: I’m sure it was specifically Ryuhei’s idea. On the day of the shoot, he asked me try a new line that wasn’t in my original script. He asked me to make a light-hearted reference to myself as being “Max.” I asked what the connection was, and he said to me, “Mad Max, you know?” I only learnt later that the Australian film classic Mad Max had made a great impression on him when he was studying film, and this was obviously a chance for him to have a little tribute to it for the Sydney Zilla attack in GFW. I was then glad to have been a small part of his own personal indulgence set against the size of the whole film.

Photo © Michael Croaker.

BH: How did Kitamura direct you to react to Zilla as it chased after you?

MC: He was obviously looking for sheer terror and disbelief. Zilla’s eyeline was a small green circle at the left of a camera lens fixed to a crane that reached to the sky. We actually had a couple of takes on the screaming and shock until he was happy that we were truly looking as if Zilla was upon us. It was a terrific time. I’ve never screamed for so long in my life.

BH: How did you rehearse for your scene? You take a fall before Zilla lunges toward you.

MC: That was funny for everyone on-set but me. I’m not a stunt guy at all, and there is of course a correct way to tumble on land with skill and technique that can allow for multiple takes. Initially, the actor who played my brother Johnny rehearsed for about half an hour to take the run and tumble on the road. He comes from a stunt background, so he picked up the move very easily, and then when it came time to shoot the scene, I was asked to the set to take the fall. It seemed there’d been a slight miscommunication, and so Johnny was relieved of the task.

I then took a crash course (literally) in running down a road and dropping onto my shoulder for a roll-away from Zilla. We must have shot that thing six times before Ryuhei was happy with how it looked. When the stunt crew on-site finished with their muffled laughter, I was handed a bag of Epsom salt for my aching body and must have stayed in a hot bath for an hour when I got home. It may look really simple in the finished film, but I paid heavily for my lack of stunt training, let me tell you.

BH: Who was the actor in the scene with you? What was he like?

MC: That’s another Aussie actor called Brad McMurray you see in the film. Brad was good fun. After each shot with the fall, I would pass him off camera and ask, “How’d that one look?” He was pretty encouraging. We both shared a real respect for the fact that we working on a project that would be forever part of the Godzilla film history.

BH: Can you tell us about the day of shooting your scene?

MC: It was very early in the morning and still dark when we started, and when we finished it was well into the evening. I remember coming out of make-up and standing on the street where the crew was set-up. It’s normally a bustling area in the heart of Sydney, and now it had wind machines and wreckage strewn about it. When I then saw more than 90 extras standing about, I knew this was going to be a shoot I’d long remember. It just felt epic.

BH: How was the language barrier handled on the set?

MC: Ryuhei speaks English quite well and indeed most of the Japanese crew seemed to have enough of a handle on the language to convey what was required. When it was particularly involved, there was someone close by ready to interpret. It was never an issue.

BH: Did you meet any of the stars of the film?

MC: No. In fact, the funny thing was that the entire day was spent shooting Brad and I with the extras working about us. We’d be getting asked for photographs from some of them, and it felt quite bizarre because we knew that in the finished film we’d only be something relatively small.

BH: Did you work with any of the special effects crew for your scene?

MC: Yeah, we did at the end of the day. I haven’t seen the finished film, so I don’t know if the footage was ever used, but we shot quite a bit of green screen for a Xilien spacecraft that was to pick us up and save us from Zilla’s Sydney stampede. I remember the direction being very precise, but whether it made it in the final edit I’m not sure. I don’t doubt your readers would know – I’m waiting to find out with the special edition DVD on my side of the world.

BH: Do you have any interesting stories from the set of the film?

MC: I did see quite a few members of the Japanese crew moving about with small digital cameras behind the scenes all throughout the day. I’m just hoping that they kindly omit outtakes of my poorly executed stunt rolls from the DVD special features. Because I’m sure I saw them sneaking a peek with a smile!

BH: Overall how would you rate the experience?

MC: As an actor, particularly in Australia, you become happy to simply be working on something. The work opportunities for exciting projects can be tight. As a real fan of film myself, it was wonderful to be included in the cast for something as significant as the 50th anniversary production for the world’s most iconic screen monster.

Ryuhei Kitamura is certainly going to be a director to continue to watch in the future. He is young and passionate, and there is surely great things too come. (A look at Versus alone established this.) I’m really happy to have had a slice of his time in my career. As for Zilla himself, this is a business where you don’t necessarily know what’s ahead, but as far as leaving GFW behind, I was truly honored to share just a little screen time with the big guy!

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