Q&A with Creature Performer Actor Robert Nairne

Robert Nairne is 'The Jack In The Box' and he explains how he got into becoming a creature performer in several productions that you may have seen.

Robert Nairne is a creature performer actor with eclectic experience in the industry who trained at the Oxford School of Drama, after attending Oxford University to study biochemistry.

His creature performance credits include roles in all five of the recent Star Wars movies; as well as playing Hondo Ohnaka on screens throughout the Millennium Falcon experience at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland and Disney World. He has also played key creature roles in Penny Dreadful, Red Dwarf XI, The Secret of Marrowbone, Howl, Boys From County Hell, and The Jack in the Box

The Jack in The Box film is where I first came in awe of Robert’s talent. When a museum is donated a vintage Jack-In-The-Box, it’s not long before staff member Casey starts to think that the creepy clown doll inside (played by Nairne) has a life of its own.

As he discovers his colleagues are dying, one by one, Casey realizes it’s up to him to find a way to end the nightmare or become another victim of the box’s curse. The Jack in The Box is scheduled to be released May 5th, 2020 on VOD, Digital HD on leading digital platforms and DVD. 

What inspired you to become a creature performer?

My history with creature performing is quite funny, really because I just never ever predicted, planned, or aimed for it. Or, even knew about creature performance at all or what it was really, as a career path or concept.  Since I was about 3 years old I was besotted with theatre, plays, dramas and have been performing in school productions all the way through my 4-year attendance at Oxford University

I had the acting bug and after I finished my degree, I attended Oxford School of Drama for one year, and then moved to London to become an actor.  All through drama school, my thing, my passion, that I felt was kind of best at was Shakespeare and really, language, text based performance, it still is. I really love Shakespeare classic text, modern text, and analyzing text and things, so that was the path I assumed I would follow. 

And then as these things tend to happen, I kind of fell into the creature performing or it fell into my lap. It basically was ‘Penny Dreadful’ that kicked it all off, the audition came along for someone that was 6 foot five, very slender frame and kind of bendy. It required lots of stunt experience, which I might have exaggerated a little bit. I probably shouldn’t admit that. I got that casting and did that job. It was about 6 months of work, doing that kind of creature performing with prosthetics and lots of stunt based shots. 

At that casting, I met a chap named Paul Casey, who is an incredible creature performer, choreographer and movement director. I stayed in touch with him, really made a good connection, and a few months later he managed to get me in the door for a Star Wars movie. I ended up playing a small role on the creature team in ‘The Force Awakens’, and then started to do all of the other Star Wars and so on and so on. It just started from there really. I think a mixture of having done it and gotten my name out in the industry, and roles then started coming to me.  

I also totally fell in love with it, just enamored by it really. It was a world I never thought about and to me one of the most appealing things about performing by acting is transforming, not just yourself but the world that you’re in and the entire transformation of a character or a piece. It can just take you away to some place brand new from the future, history, or completely fictionalized. The limitlessness of that is what excites me. Creature performance is a world that I never considered, where you could take the incredible illusionary aspects of performing and take it to the max and become creatures that don’t exist, become someone else’s imagination, or mythological legends that you get to actually become. 

Your IG bio is “Be the strange you want to see in the world”. Is that your original thought? Or did it come from someone you admire? Either way, why is it a passionate statement to you?

So, the original quote “ Be the change you wish to see in the world”  is a quotation I actually had to look up to see who originally said it and the internet said Gandhi, but Gandhi never said anything of the sort, which I think often happens with internet quotes. Nobody is quite sure who said it. So anyway, the original is erroneously credited to Gandhi but then a fantastic drag queen Sasha Velour said, “Be the strange you which to see in the world!”

I kind of pinched it from her for many reasons, the surface level is that it appeals to me as a concept, “Be the strange you wish to see in the world”, and what better phrase to encapsulate being a creature performer because it’s all about the strange. To me, strange stuff is all about exciting, enticing, and interesting. I just like things that are usual. I like that I don’t necessarily like that they are different. I think that is appealing because we are all different, have unique stories and have our own strange perspective on things. Also, my mom’s maiden name is actually Strange and in another universe I think my stage name would be Robert Strange. So that’s why the IG Strange is capitalized. 

So fascinate me with your own weirdness, whatever it may be. 

With all your success, are you going back to Oxford University/School of Drama to mentor the current students? Or host a virtual class/session?

I have never done that. I would love to do it. I can’t imagine Oxford University would invite me back, particularly the biochemistry department. Although it would be quite exciting, I think my tutor there was quite the muse. I can’t speak for him obviously, but if he ever listens to this he’ll let me know :). He was so wonderful, intelligent, intellectual, and passionate about biochemistry. I don’t think he could quite comprehend why I wasn’t (haha). I would try to keep my theatre and plays secret from him because I didn’t want him to know why I wasn’t doing enough work, which I wasn’t.

Somehow, he would always be there front row for the shows with his wife, which was amazing. He would never talk about it or bring it up during tutorial or anything, he would be there and not mention it and I would just be wondering, if I should mention it or not (chuckling). I loved that, it felt like support in it’s own unusual way. I owe him a lot because it was a very difficult degree, he got me through it, even though I probably didn’t make him proud for some weeks. I can’t imagine the university in terms of biochemistry and my science past have me back to do a tutorial on creature performing. I shall wait and see what happens, I guess it’s slightly more likely that I will go back to Oxford School of Drama to talk to them, which may happen one day. 

Again, I kept an usual path, I haven’t heard of anyone, not even from other drama schools that have ended up on quite the same path as I have because primarily, I didn’t know it was a path, I kind of just made it up myself. So, it would be interesting to go back and talk about it there. 

What would be your dream project to be a part of and why?

What jumps to mind immediately as I’ve just finished re-reading ‘His Dark Materials’ the original books because I wanted to read them again before I read the new trilogy (there are two books out so far). I just fell in love with it all over again, and if you’re a fan and read it as a child, I recommend re-reading it as an adult. I think I read it when I was about 10 years old and there is so much depth to it, that I don’t think I could have understood it as a child. I think that is kind of the point, which makes it so beautifully constructed about coming of age and growing up really. 

The series that is out now, I haven’t watched it because I wanted to re-read it, but I plan to soon and it would be incredible to be a part of that. 

What is the story behind you getting cast in the horror film, ‘The Jack In The Box’ ?

The Jack In The Box was advertised on a website called Mandy. I do a lot with the marketing side of stuff to try and get work for myself because there’s no point in just waiting for things to come to you. I sent them a message with my creature showreel and didn’t have to do an audition but had a chat with the director, Lawrence Fowler. 

How did you prepare for the role of Jack, when he is not a traditional type of character?

To be honest, I often wait until I have the full makeup and costume on, then see how that affects the movement. I really like to look at it in the mirror for a long time, which isn’t always easy depending on the creature, if you can’t fit in a room with a mirror…haha…or you can’t see. Then study how it moves, you want it to move, or what makes sense for the character. Is it going to be fast, sharp, erratic movement or be much more silky, snaky, slippery movements? 

I ended up with this character being silky, snaky, and slippery, I like the idea that he could coil up in the Jack In The Box. He could change his form, become spectral at times, and then physical. 

There is something about clowns and toy clowns that are inherently scary. Did you ever have a Jack In The Box growing up or another toy that may have incited fear?

I don’t think I did have a Jack in the Box, and now I don’t think I would want to have had one or would ever want my children to have one…haha:) 

Robert Nairne non-creature credits include The Crown, Biopunk, and Keratin; and on stage, the world stage premiere of From Dusk Till Dawn with Secret Theatre Projects in London, Hong Kong & Singapore; Hammer Films’ first real-time immersive theatrical experience, The Soulless Ones; and various productions with Secret Cinema including Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (playing Chewbacca) and Stranger Things (The Demogorgon). Robert also narrates audiobooks both commercially and for the RNIB Talking Books library. 

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