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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Dumbo's Eva Green rode a mechanical bull on set to simulate elephant flying

By Todd Gilchrist
Eva Green in Dumbo

There are few actresses as instantly enchanting — and intriguing — onscreen as Eva Green. Since her earliest roles, she’s constantly surprised and subverted expectations with performances that dug into nuance and substance and absolute complexity, no matter how the character looked on the outside. And in Dumbo, Tim Burton’s live-action update of the 1946 Disney animated movie of the same name, she does so again as Colette Marchant, an aerialist whose polished exterior is melted after she meets an adorable elephant with an unbelievable gift.

SYFY WIRE recently sat down with Green at the Los Angeles press day for Dumbo, where she proved to be as thoughtful and complex in person as she comes across onscreen. In addition to talking about Colette’s surprising clarity as a character, she discussed the physical and emotional challenges of inhabiting the role, her growing collaboration with filmmaker Tim Burton, and finally, the ongoing prospect of finding these incredible creative challenges and opportunities as an actor that repeatedly redefine how audiences see her and reveal the remarkable substance of her talents.

Could you talk about the evolution of your partnership with Tim Burton over the course of these films that you two made together (Dark Shadows and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children) and how, if at all, it might be different than the collaborations that you've had with other filmmakers?

This is the first time that I'm working three times for the same guy. But first of all, it's such an honor and I’m pinching myself every day going, oh my God! But even from day one on Dark Shadows, he was always very collaborative and very open to ideas. He hardly knew me, and he was just very kind and it was such an honor to be in part of his world. He’s such a poet and he's got this kind of bonkers, unique vision. And the fact that he gave me those various different roles as well, I'm spoiled.

Your character is one that obviously is not in the original animated film. But was there anything from the film that you took in terms of finding the tone or a certain element of performance in this role?

Oh, gosh. I mean, what really struck me as a child was the relationship between the mother and the baby elephant- that's what marked me. And then when I read the script, it is a different take on it. It remains very moving, but it’s a Tim Burton movie, and I had to really rely on the actual script. They’re two different pieces.

The first thing I wrote down in my notes about your character was the phrase “utterly fantastic hair.”

(Laughs) I’ll tell my hairdresser.

Dumbo - Eva Green

How much do costumes and makeup tell you things about the character, even that you may not have prepared for or that might've been in the script?

The look in a Tim Burton movie is so, so important. And it took a while to find her style because she has kind of this public persona with this big red hair, and lots of makeup, which is kind of a mask — the mask of the Queen of the Heavens. And then this black bob — Tim doesn't like repetition. He wants a look that nobody has seen before. So we had the most amazing make-up people and hairdressers, and of course, Colleen Atwood is behind all of this and has a very clear idea of what she wants.

I am not aware of any actual elephants that can fly, so what were the things that you did physically to prepare for the role?

For riding Dumbo, there was a mechanical machine, like on rodeos that cowboys would train on. That was moving and it's very, very technical and quite jerky and has very sharp movements. But that helped a lot; I didn't have to pretend — I was really moving. But I didn't have to train on it. What I really had to train on was some swings. And as an aerialist, I had to do some of my own stunts, and I really trained hard with some circus performance to try and achieve some of the stunts, which was a real big challenge because I hate, hate heights, but I need it.

As a person who shares that fear, how did you get over that?

It was physically doing every day three hours of training, strength training and then to go on a swing, that kind of stuff. To even hang from your knees and go to arch backwards, stuff like that, it is not easy at all. It was a big challenge, and of course, I couldn't do that on the first day — I think I would have died. So it was really kind of a patient thing, and it's really thanks to the dedication of those wonderful teachers that I managed to go up there.

How much did playing an aerialist and a gymnast affect the rest of the performance, even when you were away from the swings?

Well, it’s taking place in 1919, so I got a bit inspired to have a kind of ballet pause like when you land, or when you’re about to perform. There were always movements with the arms.

But the circus people really showed me how and gave me some ideas that we had to work out together. And I loved it. It's wonderful as an actor because it helps you to get out of yourself. I have a tendency to be too much in my head, so that really helped me to find her through the physicality.

Obviously having the opportunity to work with Burton again appealing, but was there something about this character that particularly resonated with you?

You know, this is not a very complex character, but I’ve played dark, kind of tormented people recently. So it was nice for me to explore somebody who is kind of light, and at the same time, she's a strong woman and she takes risks. But it was fun to play a character like that. And again, there was the opportunity to be very physical.

When you have a character that is not complicated, what sort of preparation do you do to play a character like that, if you are often drawn to ones that are more complicated?

She is quite clear on the page. She is that kind of haughty, cold woman, and then she meets Dumbo and then her life changes drastically and she becomes this woman who will do anything to free Dumbo and reunite him with his mom. That journey is kind of clear, which is kind of nice.

Michael Keaton and Eva Green in Dumbo

Michael Keaton's character kind of underestimates her — he sees her talent, but he doesn't necessarily see the human behind all. You have consistently found these incredible, diverse roles to play. How have you managed to repeatedly subvert expectations and attract such interesting challenges?

As you know, we depend on other people's desires, but I've been lucky — and I don't like repeating myself too. It’s why it's important to be able to change, to explore new horizons and new characters and new looks. Otherwise, you get kind of stuck in a rut or you kind of get bored with yourself and get a bit saturated. That's the danger sometimes.