Working Lives: Robert Strange, creature actor for Doctor Who and Star Wars

Working Lives: Robert Strange, creature actor for Doctor Who and Star Wars

Thursday, 9th May 2024
Three green Wrarth Warriors stand in the street, pointing guns at something off-camera
Robert Strange plays one of the Wrarth Warriors in Doctor Who (credit: BBC)
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Robert Strange has played creatures in three of TV and film’s classic sci-fi and fantasy franchises, Doctor WhoStar Wars and The Lord of the Rings, marrying the skills of a trained actor with his physicality and build. He appears as the Bogeyman in the new series of Doctor Who this month.

What is a creature actor?

A creature actor plays roles that are usually very physical, with a fantastical, non-human form. At one extreme, I am unrecognisable in costume and prosthetics, being beastly and monstrous.

But Emma Stone’s Oscar-winning performance in Poor Things is also a kind of creature performance; it’s a take on the Frankenstein character, embodying something that is not the regular human experience.

What attributes does a creature actor need?

It can be a very physical performance with lots of movement – as Sergeant Zogroth in Doctor Who I was performing on stilts. When you look around at my colleagues, everyone appears to be incredibly tall and spindly.

It’s not essential but, usually, actors who play creatures are larger than the average human silhouette. It also helps the special effects team because they can build on your shape.

You need patience and serenity as you can be sitting in the make-up chair for hours on end.

How long does it take to get you into costume?

On average four to five hours; a full prosthetic can take longer. My longest ever was the Irish horror comedy film Boys from County Hell, which involved eight hours of make-up.

I started around 2.00am, was ready for set by 10.00am and then we filmed all the way through to 6.00pm or 7.00pm. And then it would take two hours to take the make-up off. You need stamina in my job.

Does it help being a trained actor?

Yes, I bring my background in theatre to every job I do because I don’t know how to do otherwise. I went to the Oxford School of Drama after university and we did a lot of work on movement, mask work and clowning, as well as Shakespeare and straight theatre.

I also learnt how to scream and cry, which I often use when playing creatures. With regular dialogue, I approach it just like I would any kind of dialogue.

Do you usually voice your characters?

Yes, but productions can add something to the voice in post-production: for example, they can lower it or add more snarls.

What was your first role?

John Logan’s brilliant Sky Atlantic show Penny Dreadful in 2014, which combined characters such as Dracula, Dorian Gray and Frankenstein in one story. I answered an ad asking for someone who was tall and skinny with stunt experience, which I said I had, but I didn’t, apart from a bit of stage combat. It gave me six months’ work.

I realised my height – I’m six foot five – was an advantage and found I loved the process of transformation into a creature. However, over the years, I’ve looked back and wondered if my creature roles began earlier.

What do you mean?

At Oxford University, where I did a degree in biochemistry – although I probably did more student theatre than studying – I played a young man who had been raised by pigs in one play; I was fully human but I’d never worn clothes or sat in a chair or held a glass.

For my GCSE performance, I did a piece from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and turned into a beetle. Recently, my mother reminded me that my very first performance was in kindergarten, aged three or four, when I played a thorn in Sleeping Beauty.

How has your career developed?

I met Paul Kasey, a former creature actor, on Penny Dreadful. When he became the creature movement director on the Star Wars films, he called me and I found myself in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens; I ended up doing five Star Wars movies. Paul now works on Doctor Who – he’s been with me my whole career.

Tell me about playing Sergeant Zogroth, one of the Wrarth Warriors, in the Doctor Who 60th anniversary special, ‘​The Star Beast’​. You came to capture the Meep, but died in the arms of Donna Noble.

Doctor Who had always been top of my wish list – it has unlimited monsters and they’re so creative; they combine amazing creative design with these beautiful characters and stories. I’m in the first episode of the new series this month, too; this time, playing the Bogeyman.

What do you bring to work with you?

I have a little creature kit that includes a stylus so I can type on my phone and a gadget that sits around my neck to hold it – often in make-up you’re in costume or covered in prosthetics and aren’t able to use your phone. I also take rehydration tablets because you sweat so much under costumes.

What are the best and worst parts of the job?

The people I get to work with are just the most talented artists – and I get to wear their incredible creations and show off their work.

The worst is the discomfort, at times, of wearing costumes. They can be heavy and bulky, so you can’t sit down, go to the toilet, see, hear or even breathe easily.

You have other strings to your bow – you are also a straight actor and had a role in The Crown

I love my creature roles to bits, but I also like to have dialogue. I have been blessed in the past couple of years to be able to combine the two worlds in The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who, playing these fantastical creatures but also having loads of dialogue.

A creature still has motivation and a character. I have more of these roles coming up, but I’m also keen to do things that are creature-free.

What’s next for you in TV and film?

I’m in the horror film Return to Silent Hill, which comes out later this year. Then I’ve got a creature-­free role in a film in the US, Medora, playing the Marquis de Morès, a French duellist who went to the Badlands of North Dakota in the 1880s and revolutionised ranching.

Are there any characters or creatures you yearn to play?

I would love to return to my Shakespearean roots, and there are some fantastic creature/physical parts such as Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest. He also wrote human monsters, probably better than anyone – Iago in Othello and Angelo in Measure for Measure.

In terms of creatures, I have two dream roles: a live action Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas – maybe because I look like him already! Since I was really young, it’s always been my favourite film. The second would be Hades in Hercules. I’ve also always been fascinated by the artist Aubrey Beardsley, so I’d love to play him, too.

Robert Strange was interviewed by Matthew Bell

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