Warning: This article contains spoilers from His Dark Materials episode 7, “The Fight to the Death.”
Welcome to the Monday Night Smackdown. In one corner, weighing in at a solid several tons with an appetite as big as his ego, it’s Iofur Raknison, the current ruler of the panserbjørn kingdom of Svalbard. In the other, weighing approximately the same with a heart of a gold and weakness for spirits, it’s Iorek Byrnison, the ronin panserbjørn wrongfully exiled from Svalbard, who returns to claim his rightful throne.
It’s a face-off readers of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass novel have been waiting to see come to life in HBO and BBC’s His Dark Materials TV series, and Monday’s episode, “The Fight to the Death,” came through. “Honestly, I’m super-nervous,” Iorek voice actor Joe Tandberg, who also stands in for the character on set, tells EW of the awaited fan reception. “It’s a big moment, and it means a lot to the relationship between Lyra and Iorek. I’m very, very proud and very, very nervous.”
In the aftermath of the battle at Bolvangar, Lyra (Dafne Keen) flees in the hot air balloon of Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) with Iorek, only to tumble out of the vessel when they’re attacked by creatures called cliff ghasts. When she lands, she finds herself in the company of Iorek’s people. Taken and imprisoned in Svalbard, where her father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), is being held, she plays on King Iofur’s desperate need for a daemon and tricks him into betting his crown on a fight against Iorek. As we learned earlier in the season, it was Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) who helped trap Iorek in Trollesund after Iofur orchestrated his exile.
Mike Marsland/WireImage; HBO
When these rivals reunite in the halls of Svalbard, Iorek emerges the victor when he kills Iofur to defend Lyra from an attack. Speaking over the phone from the U.K., Tandberg discusses the challenges of filming a scene like this, why the series made a significant change from the book, and his own past involving a different kind of polar bear in Telltale’s Game of Thrones.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I think congratulations are in order. All hail the bear king!
JOE TANDBERG: Well, thank you. It’s so weird, it’s been such a long time since we filmed it and we [shot] everything back in Wales, so it’s still surreal that now people are going to see this glorious moment.
I’ve already seen some behind-the-scenes images of you on set, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of the kinds of things you have to wear. When you think about the fight between Iorek and Iofur, did you have to do anything special to prepare?
Yeah. When we first started talking about the fight sequence, they had a rough idea of how they were going to choreograph the fight, and we thought that it’s easier for Dafne to have something to react to, even though it’s going to be fully animated, versus a blank canvas. Me and the other guy, who played Iofur, we actually sat down and practiced the fight ourselves, choreographed it exactly how the animation was going to be. So when we were in the space, we actually ran the fight, which was a lot of fun. The way that you film characters like this, you have to have a puppet pass as well, which is when we’re not in it, but it was actually one of the things I wanted to do because it’s such a big moment for Iorek. I thought it would be a missed opportunity if I couldn’t do what he does in the books to reclaim the throne.
When you talk about rehearsing, what were you guys actually doing physically? Were you holding prosthetic bear heads and charging at each other?
We dropped the bear heads and we had face cameras with the dots and the white suits, and we basically wrestled as close to what the bears do in the fight. Our hands went from being paws to being jaws. When they’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder or they’re smashing into each other, we would use our hands to get the most accurate feeling that you would get from watching those two bears fight. It’s a tricky thing because, obviously, we’re not shaped like bears. We’re never going to get exactly like them, but it was trying to mimic the behavior between biting and slashing. We had to work around that: When he bites Iorek and drags him across the floor, he would basically grab onto my collar and pull me with him. Hence, his hands would be close to his mouth and he would try to pretend like they were jaws.
Did you have to train your body to be prepared for something like this?
In terms of capturing his movements and the weight of them and the rhythm, I decided in rehearsal to put weights on my ankles so that when I move my feet that would be the same thing as him moving his front paws. The reason why I wanted the weights is because of his sheer size. Polar bears or panserbjørns don’t really shuffle their feet, but when they move they are very determined. Having the weights would allow you to have the same determination and the same weight distribution that Iorek would have if shrunken down to my size. So, when we did the fight, we still had the ankle weights on so that it was a physical and strenuous thing, but at the same time it would become more natural because of the determination in every single movement. That’s something I had through the entirety of the shoot.
When you’re dealing with an action sequence like this, how does it compare to the other work you had to do for the series?
The main thing is that you have very little dialogue in most of the action sequences, so it’s trying to keep the sounds as much as you can alive so that people have a feeling of how these animals are sounding. That’s something you have to incorporate into the movement. The continuity of each take might be a little different compared to when you have text, but it’s a completely different approach because you have to listen and mimic all the sounds that they make. When can I snarl? When can I roar? When’s the heavy breathing? That’s something you go through in the choreography and rehearsal, and then on the day of you go full bear.
I noticed that Iorek and Iofur start and finish the fight without armor. In the book, they start with armor and then tear it off each other as the fight goes on. Watching the episode, it made sense because it felt like a ceremonial battle that’s very much ingrained in the panserbjørn society. Did you ever have conversations with the writers or producers about what it means for these characters to be fighting each other without armor, which is so significant to them?
It’s definitely a question I knew fans would ask when the episode came out. It’s a tricky situation that you put yourself in because you want to showcase one thing, but the fans of the books have seen another thing. We talked a lot about the importance of this fight in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish. One thing is that Iorek shows up in his armor. If it wasn’t for Lyra’s deception and trickery, he would’ve been torn apart before he even entered the palace, even with his armor. For Iofur, who is king, to take off his armor and challenge Iorek is almost a religious thing. We wanted him to be as animalistic as they are, that part of their nature. They’re warriors, and you can imagine Vikings or Samoan warriors or Maori warriors. In a fight to the death, you would imagine it being man-on-man and you would have little protection and very little weapons. That’s just the way they fight and settle disputes like this. The fact that they fight without the armor, to me, means the sheer size of Iofur means more than him with the armor on. It just makes him more powerful as a king to make that choice, and for Iorek to have to obey those orders. I think it’s a very, very awesome thing to do. It shows that they’re more animal than I think most people anticipate, and the more bear we can get out of them, the better it is.
How deep into that mythology do you like to go, especially aspects of the character that aren’t explicitly laid out on screen?
I go way too deep. I like to go as deep as I can. I think it’s just the more prep you do prior to filming, especially for a particular scene, the easier it is to just live in those moments. The toughest day for me to film was the scene between Iorek and Lee in Trollesund [in episode 4]. I remember just mentally feeling the emotional turmoil that bubbles under the surface every single take. You want to show people the real emotions and connections for each character and the relationships that they have. For Iorek, Lee is a very, very important person and then, it changes with time, he falls in love with Lyra, as well.
Pullman released a lot of companion material to his Dark Materials books. Did you ever read Once Upon a Time in the North, which tracks Iorek and Lee’s relationship?
I did. I had to. I was talking with Lin about it and he said, “You should read it.” Thank God I did, because instead of just going off of what people tell you, when you read it, it makes a complete difference. Your approach is completely different. I love Lee and Iorek’s relationship, and how that was formed, and how deep it is.
Something else I found in my research is that your first credited role was a voice role in the Telltale’s Game of Thrones videogame series. Your character is a warg, and his animal companion is a polar bear. It seemed like it was foreshadowing something.
Looking back now, I would say, yeah, that’s a sign. It’s very strange. Obviously, I had no idea at the time, but people talked to me about that. It’s in the cards, so you just gotta do what you gotta do.
How did you get into videogame acting?
It’s mostly coincidence, really. I studied drama both in California and in England; I moved from California to England. I thought I was going to become a theater actor and work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that was going be my career, because that’s what people tell you. But I got an agent while I was still in school and you go through questions of, what are you looking for in your career? How do you see yourself in a couple years? I said, “I’m actually in the position where I don’t have much experience with either film, television, or voice-over.” But I’ve always made voices [through accents] for certain characters. When I play on stage, as well, it’s part of the core of the character, that version of yourself. I got the agent and she asked me to audition for Telltale Games, and that was my foot in the door. After you do that part, there’s this snowball effect. I still do a lot of videogames and I still do a lot of voice-over. I love it because it’s getting more and more theatrical because of the motion capture, and it’s becoming more and more like film and television because of the way that they shoot it. The scripts are getting really, really good as well.
Were there any tips you learned while recording roles for videogames that made it easier for you to take on a role like Iorek, which is also very much based on a voice role?
The thing about Iorek is that the movement and the presence of Iorek is defined by his size and his voice. When I’m in the suit and doing ADR, I have to physically move and engage like I was on set. It’s just because the movement augments the voice and they go so well together. It is a character voice, and I thought they were going to alter the voice a lot more than they did, so it was a lot closer to home and I appreciate that. I feel that also the animal sounds and the little nuances that you add in make him come alive, and you need movement for that. That’s the same thing in videogames: You learn to rely on the character’s movement. Even when I’m filming in a booth, I need to move. I can’t just stand there and provide a voice, because there’s so much more to it, I think.
James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson were saying they had a lot of conversations with Jack [Thorne, the writer] and Jane [Tranter, lead executive producer], giving their own input on how to evolve their characters or present certain scenes. Did you have a similar experience?
Yeah, that’s one of the most surprising things. I was really a nobody when I showed up, and you remain that way because of all these amazing actors you get to work with, who’ve done so much more than you, and you can just marvel at their talent. But they were so inclusive. Your opinion meant so much to everyone on board, to the creature effects [team], to the VFX [team], to the sound guy, to directors and producers, which I didn’t necessarily know was going to be the case. It turned out it was very important for them because it was a labor of love, this project. You don’t often get that. With Iorek, you show a particular version of Iorek and, obviously, your thoughts are important to get that character across. They listened.
Was there any aspect of the character you suggested that you’re most proud of?
His humor. I think that’s the only thing that I can say. The one-liners. He has a couple of punchlines here and there, and that’s something I wanted to put in to show a different side of him.
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