On screen in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (opening this Wednesday) all three men currently in a downtown Toronto hotel room with me have to act mistrustful towards each other despite ostensibly all being on the same team. In reality actors Jamie Campbell Bower (the stylish one of the group, irreverently dressed and laid back), Robert Sheehan (the eager and energetic one), and Canadian actor Kevin Zegers (the elder statesman of the trio, and the thoughtful and analytical one) couldn’t be happier to be around each other. It’s a bond and ease that the trio developed not only over the course of filming in Toronto during the last year, but also across a massive promotional tour for a film many believe to be the next big Harry Potter or Twilight styled teen and tween franchise.
In this adaptation of the first book in Cassandra Clare’s bestselling series, the Irish Sheehan plays Simon, the best friend of Lily Collins’ heroine Clary Fray, a Brooklyn teenager who gets drawn into a magic and mythical underworld full of demons, vampires, warlocks, werewolves, and other assorted beasts in order to save her kidnapped mother. While Simon has an unrequited and unspoken crush on Clary, the apple of her eye is really Jace, played by Londoner Bower, a Shadowhunter that protects the real world and the underworld from demons. Zegers plays Alec, another Shadowhunter who’s deeply wary of Clary’s potential to become a fighter, but mostly because he has deep feelings for Jace.
Despite their characters, they have an ease around each other, trading inside jokes and riffing on the difficulties of doing press for such a large film and with such high expectations from both the studio and fans. Dork Shelf talked to the guys about the hard work they’ve been putting in, their anxiety to do right by the material, how they first never even knew if anyone would be interested in them being a part of the franchise, and why the books and the film seem to resonate so strongly with teens and adults.
You guys must be excited to be a part of something that everyone says is going to be the next big franchise. You guys should be set for quite a while if this thing takes off.
Jamie Campbell Bower: Oh, I hope you don’t mean financially. (laughs) I’m getting paid in magic beans, buttons, and hugs. (laughs)
Robert Sheehan: (laughs) But you can’t forget all of the wonderful food! (laughs) But the reaction to the work is its own best reward.
And you guys are already up here and getting ready for the next film.
RS: Yeah, it starts in September again for us. I think I come back on maybe the 23rd?
Kevin Zegers: Yeah, I think I start back up on the 6th.
JCB: I come back straight after a trip to Hong Kong and to New York.
And if it’s a success, certainly people are going to want to see even more and more of you guys.
RS: And that would be great.
KZ: We’ve been going at this for the last month and a half with the press in the US, and we did a mall tour, and that was crazy in itself, and we go right into the next movie which should be wrapped just before Christmas, and then we’ll get a bit more of a break to maybe go and do something else before we have to go right back into the press thing again. So certainly for the next year and a half it will be a lot of this. I think it’s great that we all picked something that we really liked to work on, because you can get roped into something that you sort of didn’t realize was going to be this big or will take up that much time. I mean, it’s a really privileged problem to have.
RS: “Champagne problems.”
KZ: But travelling around and being away from your family is always hard. For me at least, it’s always been that you go out and shoot a movie, in a few weeks you’re done, then you go home and then maybe you do a day or two of press or a week. But this thing is significant. It’s like shooting another movie.
JCB: Yeah, we’ve been on the road non-stop now for about five weeks. It’s probably why we’re all starting to go a bit mental. (laughs)
RS: Well, I wasn’t actually out like these guys and Lily were. I was out working on something else. “Whoring myself out to another movie” as it were.
KZ: And I still have a week and a half left, and Jamie has…
JCB: Three or four because I go to Hong Kong and New York.
KZ: And then after this for us is Europe for a week.
RS: I have the UK, Berlin, and then I am making a trip to Oslo. And Oslo wasn’t even out of any sort of mandatory obligation. I just told our Norwegian director Harald Zwart that I would go and do the premiere there! (laughs) By the time I’m done you guys will be rested and I’ll be coming into rooms and kicking over tables and running around naked. (laughs)
JCB: Oh! So it’s going to be just like we were on set again! (laughs)
KZ: Did you know that the theatre where the Norwegian premiere is taking place is named after Harold?
JCB: Is it? Is it called Harold Theatre? (laughs)
KZ: (laughs) No, it’s really the Zwart theatre. He’s a pretty big deal there.
It has to make the workload a bit easier at times when you know that you are touring around a franchise where there will often be a lot of appreciative people who will come to show how much they like the material.
KZ: We really didn’t know that, though, when we started out on the mall tour, though. We had done Comic-Con and Wonder-Con, and those are things in and of themselves, but people will be there anyway. I remember that the mall tour kicked off in Minneapolis, and we had done our press for the day talking to reporters and doing that before we went to the mall, and that felt normal. I remember turning to Jamie in the car on the way to the mall and I just said…
JCB: “What if nobody shows up?”
KZ: There’s no guarantee on how many people are going to show up.
JCB: It’s kind of like your birthday party, you know. There’s a lot of expectation, but never a guarantee.
KZ: It’s not like something that they sell tickets for, you know? Or like a premiere where you know they are going to pack the house because they paid a lot of money for it. It’s just something where we will be there to meet with fans and if they want an autograph or to say hi, they can come. Really, up until that point I didn’t know if anyone was going to come before that point. And obviously since then it has gotten really crazy. Then you have last night with the premiere where everyone was really excited and lined up around the block and that’s even crazier.
RS: How was Minneapolis?
JCB: It was huge. It was at Mall of America and you could just see people all around you.
KZ: People were lined up on levels above us that we could see.
JCB: And yeah, it’s great like you said because we have this sort of built in, pre-existing fan base, but within itself that creates a level of expectation in all of us that’s kind of like… I don’t know… it’s almost like an anxiety because we have to deliver on what everyone else thinks, you know? It’s up to us to balance the way that we see the characters with how they see the characters and you want to do right by it and do right by yourself at the same time.
It’s a strange thing as an actor because it’s always great in this line to have steady work in this franchise that could go on for a long time. Does having the first film done lessen that anxiety at all?
JCB: (shakes head) It’s a Catch-22, really.
RS: You really can’t dwell on it too much. You would go kind of mad if you did. You just have to focus on what your interpretation is. You just have to jump back on the ship and know what the job is that you have to do. When you read a book, the words encourage the reader to use their own imagination and paint their own world inside their head. It’s a very organic and deeply personal thing. Film, on the other hand, is like a form of dreaming. That’s the world right there and it’s done and there’s nothing you can really do about it besides just staying on top of your own work. We can only give the one adaptation. It’s very easy to say you don’t have to be anxious about it, but that would be a lie.
JCB: If we were to do something wrong, I mean we could always say that it was someone else’s fault (laughs) but inwardly we would always know and think that it was our own.
But it is great that you can go into something like this with a certain degree of self awareness about what your role in the franchise is.
JCB: Well, I suppose the advantage to this movie is that for all of us this isn’t our first motion picture. Yes, for us to be sitting here at this point in time we are the male faces for this movie, but we’re all super aware of how this industry works. Ultimately we’re doing a job. It’s a sick job, and a fun job, and one that we’re all fans of doing, but it’s still a job. You know?
What do you think it is about these books and the film that appeals to this audience that you’ve noticed after being around fans for a while?
RS: I think what’s great about this world that Cassandra has created is that it offers a more thoughtful sort of escape from reality for the reader. It helps them to think about their own reality in a different light. That’s sort of the beauty of great fantasy or science fiction. Someone realizes the world in a completely different way and it helps inform your own world. One of my favourite authors is Neil Gaiman, and his take on the world is just so wonderfully detailed and fantastical that you would love to delve into his mind, but it’s all about what you’re putting back into the story, as well. It’s about perception and I think that’s why people love these books. The fantasy is sensational and so magical. It has something that appeals to us all and is so inspiring.
KZ: I think part of the reason I like this really not being a teenager myself anymore is that I sometimes watch these kinds of films and I can often see them as a bit patronizing, because I have nieces and nephews now who are brighter than I am sometimes, and they are so attuned to when they are being talked down to or something is being over explained. Part of what we wanted to do is not to really overly simplify or dumb down the fantasy. People can get when something is complicated or complex. You don’t have to explain and spell our every nuance for people to enjoy themselves. That exposition doesn’t need to be there all the time. That’s what reading and being literary does. You can take which parts you’re interested in and focus on that. And the point of a movie like this is that you would want to watch it again, and certainly some of the people who were waiting outside the premiere last night would go and see the film five or six times of the opening weekend. It is one of those films where you can watch and follow along with the characters as their dynamics shift, but there are a lot of different ways that you can look at those shifts.