Shooting for the stars | Joseph Gatt

In an exclusive interview, Maltese-born Star Trek Into Darkness actor talks about his journey from the West End stage in London to Hollywood via television and video games, all the while reminiscing on idyllic summer holidays in Malta.

Joseph Gatt: “I’m a bad guy, tough guy, alien, psycho or villain.” Photo by Diana Ragland.
Joseph Gatt: “I’m a bad guy, tough guy, alien, psycho or villain.” Photo by Diana Ragland.

Born to Maltese parents and raised in London, actor Joseph Gatt has been quietly carving out a niche for himself as a powerful and quirky presence in cinema, television and even video games. He can currently be seen in the blockbuster Star Trek Into Darkness and the TV series Banshee, after having also appeared in Marvel Studio's Thor (2011) as the Frost Giant Grundroth and having lent his voice talents and physical presence to fan-favourite video games such as God of War, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Skyrim. He can also currently be seen in the Sky Atlantic television series Banshee, where he plays the fan-favourite recurring character 'The Albino'.

You were born and raised in London, though your parents are Maltese. Did you visit Malta often, and would you say you've inherited any particular 'Maltese' traits? What do you think of Malta now?

When I was young, my parents would take me to Malta every summer for two-month-long vacations. At first we always stayed with my grandparents in Paola, even though we had a house down the street by Paola Square. My father always wanted to be as close as possible to his family. Later, when I was older, they sold that place and bought another just a few doors away on Triq San Guzepp. After my dad passed away in 1995 I went much less often, and since moving to Los Angeles it's become even more difficult.

Finding a window in both me and my girlfriend, Mercy Malick's, schedules for any travel has been tough, but I told her that I would take her to Malta one day. Fortunately, we had a brief trip last year for business purposes, but it was a whirlwind visit. I would love the opportunity to go again with Mercy for a real vacation, so that I can show her in depth the Malta I and my father, Godwin, loved so much. I hope we can make it happen very soon.
It does seem like I've inherited many Maltese characteristics or traits. We all understand two major things about the Maltese people and these beautiful islands: their strength of spirit and their passion! I've inherited both, thank God, in abundance.

I'm convinced that if I wasn't Maltese and didn't have my iron will, I wouldn't be here, both in my current life position and just here on this earth. My life was tough before I ever became an actor, and acting isn't exactly the easiest profession in existence. There were times earlier in my career and life when I had to drag myself back up out of the dirt - so many times after being beaten down, both physically and emotionally, that I felt like the Maltese Islands during the Second World War! So thank you to my parents and my Maltese genes for my survival.

My passion for anything that I do is also unbounded. I never do anything by halves. It's all or nothing. As Yoda would say, "Do or do not, there is no try". When I made the commitment to move to the USA from London, I gave up my apartment and sold everything I didn't need, packed everything I did need into two suitcases and flew to LA. There was no failing because there was no going back. That was it!

Your transition from the West End stage to becoming a superstar in the video game world is an interesting one, in that the 'cultures' seem to be very different. How would you describe this transition, both in terms of adapting to new environments and perhaps making use of a different side to your talent?

It is true that the musical theatre world and the video game industry are indeed very different, but as an actor you develop a toolkit, and the more experienced you become, the bigger your toolkit becomes. Some tools cross over various media, but others are very specific to particular jobs, so all I did for video games was buy some new tools and use some I already had.

I used similar acting tools, but I brought out my stage fighting tools, my weapon handling tools and my military tools, and I left my singing skills, stagecraft tools and so on in the box. Saying all of that, depending on the video game, I might not need a lot of my physical skills tools and might bring out more of my acting skills tools because some video games, like Lair, contain less action than others, where some contain a lot more action, like the God of War game series.

In turn, how did the switch to film and television happen? Are you happy about the fact that you seem to be carving out a niche for yourself within certain 'geek' properties - Star Wars, Thor, Star Trek - which come with a loyal, passionate and dedicated fan base?

Once again, I delved into that toolkit and made choices for which tools to use. Shooting for film and television generally requires much more precision, both in acting skills and in technical media awareness. TV and film are obviously much smaller and closer than stage, and if you mess up, the cost is higher. Then again, you can be a little experimental, because depending on the show, you will usually get at least one other take.

On stage there is no second take. Whatever happens is it. There is no second try. That's super scary but brings its own kind of special energy. I really missed that, so a couple of years ago I grabbed an opportunity to do a stage show. I played Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire. It was a seriously amazing experience and reminded me that theatre is exceptionally fun. I look forward to doing it again as soon as the right opportunity comes up.
In some respects, booking the particular work I've done has just been blind luck of the draw, but from another perspective, what was I to expect? My 'look' isn't often going to book me the 'lawyer' roles or the 'guy next door' roles. I'm a bad guy, tough guy, alien, psycho or villain... and that inevitably means sci-fi, horror, or action roles in genre movies and TV shows.

So ending up in superhero and sci-fi movies isn't too much of a surprise. This is also a super cool scenario for someone who was a geek and fan a long time before I ever stood on the bridge of the Enterprise. In fact, I was a fan before I even knew what acting was, so I guess you could say that the niche is conveniently being carved for me.

What was it like working on a huge production like Star Trek Into Darkness - your role is quite a distinctive one - what kind of discussions did you have with director JJ Abrams and the production team about the direction your character would take?

Working on huge studio pictures like Thor and Star Trek Into Darkness is like being part of organised chaos on the grandest of scales. So many things are happening around you at once, and so many people are involved, it's a wonder they ever get made, but they're totally awe-inspiring to be a part of. I had many discussions with JJ, Neville Page (creature designer) and David Leroy Anderson (make-up SFX) about the look of my character in Into Darkness. JJ just loved the way I looked without any make-up and wanted as little change to me as possible, so the make-up SFX were kept to a minimum, but what was done was impactful. The simple combination of the eyes, voice and head implant, together with the mannerisms and persona I created for the role, gave JJ everything he needed to make the audience take notice.

From a 'jobbing actor' perspective, what is living and working in Los Angeles like? Do you enjoy the atmosphere of the city, and how would you say it differs from, say, London?

Living and working in Los Angeles as an actor is very tough. Being an actor is a tough profession, and if you have any sense at all you will understand this before you get into it for a living. The problem is that the difficulties don't stop when you start becoming successful, they just change. On the bright side, it's also one of the most fun and rewarding professions to be in, and LA is a great city for all the incredible opportunities that are here. As an example, I tried for many years to break into TV and film in London.

The only things I have to show for it are a couple of tiny roles in a couple of TV shows. I couldn't even get a meeting with an agent! By contrast, two days after moving to Los Angeles, I had my first audition to play 'The Albino' in The Da Vinci Code opposite Tom Hanks and read for Ron Howard! Six months later, by the time my first summer was over, I had booked and completed shooting on three feature films. In one [Pulse (2006)] I played the lead villain in a studio feature opposite Kristen Bell, which was shot in Romania. Since then I've pretty much gone from job to job. If I had stayed in the UK I would never have booked the amazing work I've been so blessed with and certainly wouldn't have stepped aboard the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

I'm also just very happy living in a city with an average temperature of nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit during most of the year. The ocean is one hour west of me. The snowcapped mountains are two hours east, and there is a beautiful desert filled with Joshua trees about three hours north. If I have a complaint about LA, it's that you have to drive everywhere for almost everything. I love to hike and walk and try to do it as much as possible, but most travel days are spent in the car. Luckily, an Audi is a pretty nice place to chill out.

Any advice for aspiring actors, particularly those from small countries like Malta?

To make your living as an actor in film and television, you have to be based in a major market. This means being in cities where the work is. A few examples are Los Angeles, New Orleans, Vancouver, Portland, London, Sydney or Wellington. If you don't live in one of these major production centres, then you'll have to get there, by whatever (legal) means possible. Before you do, though, make sure you do your research and get as much tape and experience as possible.

You need to have a full tool bag and, most importantly, an acting reel showing you on camera. In addition to that, make sure this is something you really want to do! You are not just driving from one state to another to 'try out' acting. You may be moving your life thousands of miles, as I did! So make sure every ounce of your passion and commitment is directed correctly, and then go for it! Follow your passion, your inside voice, and do what needs to be done to put yourself where you need to be to do what your heart desires you to do! In the words of another Enterprise Captain, Jean Luc Picard, "Make it so!"

Star Trek Into Darkness is currently in cinemas. Click here for our review.