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Interview: Nicolas Wright Takes Us On a Tour of the White House

Before the American premiere of White House Down, we got the chance to chat to Nicolas Wright about his upcoming role alongside Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. It seems that this experience has led Nicolas Wright to a lot of potentially great future projects, finding collaborators here and there, as well as keeping a watchful eye on proceedings to really learn as much as he can while he can. That’s the type of guy he comes across as, he romantically talking about his involvement in the business with a positivity and optimism that should be sold as a drug. For the second White House invasion of the year, this sees Channing Tatum as the John McClane of the moment, rescuing Jamie Foxx and the world from villains and their sinister plan. Whereas Olympus Has Fallen went for a more serious style and a lower budget, White House Down is more comedic with a chunky budget for Roland Emmerich to destroy the White House yet again.

Before I’ve even asked a question, Nicolas is ready to gush and gush about the movie, really loving his involvement and what Roland Emmerich tries to do with it, some of which was missed out because the recording hadn’t yet started.

It’s like a resurgence of the summer blockbuster movie, it’s just fun action. It’s a great summer movie. It’s got a lot of heart, he’s really good at that, Roland is really good at injecting his characters with a lot of heart making people care about them. It gets people invested in the film. Anyway, I’m blabbering. [laughs]

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You play Donnie Donaldson who is a White House tour guide. Did you originally go into casting for this part or a different one?

I went in for this one, it was a very quick process because I went in, Roland wasn’t there, the producers weren’t there, I just went in for the casting director, read one time and that was it. Three weeks later I got a call saying “You got it!”, I was pretty surprised. Usually for something like this you’ve gotta go through a bunch of hoops so it seemed to just happen very, very quickly so I was very grateful that I got that call.

Why were you so surprised to get the call?

[Laughing] I think when you’re an actor you’re always surprised when you get a job. Normally we just deal with so many nos that it’s nice to get a yes. Especially with this scale and pedigree. It was absolutely surprising because you go on so many auditions… yeah, it was a refreshing thing to hear yes.

Would you say your comedy background helped you get the role?

It did, yeah, absolutely. I have a background in a lot of comedy; I did a lot of sketch comedy, a lot of improv. A lot of the jobs I get are comedic in nature and I think it was very helpful because Donnie Donaldson prefers a lot of the comedic relief in the film. It’s a very intense film. There’s a lot of action and intense moments . Especially with Channing’s daughter who is played by Joey King who is fantastic in the film. There are a few times where the terrorists have a gun to her head, it’s quite chilling to watch but they were able to masterfully weave in these comedic elements that allows the audience to breathe and relax. Just “uhhhh” releases the tension. They’re very good at that. I think my character provides a bit of levity. I’m also kind of a steward of one of the main characters in the movie, the White House. The White House is one of the main characters in the movie and I’m sort of a protector [laughing] of the White House and the history and the dignity, preserving this beautiful landmark. They’re shooting it up. Machine-gunning walls, shooting portraits, smashing vases, smashing down walls and setting the place on fire. [laughs] Then there’s Donny, who’s such a passionate historian that he’s just like “No! No! No!” [laughs] It’s funny.

The film has been compared to Die Hard in the White House, is it actually Die Hard in the White House? I read in Empire that it was like that whereas Olympus Has Fallen said it wasn’t like that all even though it featured beat-by-beat recreations of it.

I actually haven’t seen that movie [Olympus Has Fallen]. There are a lot of similarities to Die Hard and I think that mostly has to do with the situation: there’s one man, there are terrorists that seize the building. I think it’s more compared to Die Hard because of the tone. The original Die Hards there’s quite a lot of comedy even though it’s an intense film. Bruce Willis is hilarious, Reginald VelJohnson is hilarious as the cop and the relationship they have on the walkie-talkies is very funny at times. Even Alan Rickman and the coked-out guy [Harry Ellis played by Hart Bochner] walks in there like “I can tell you…” and there’s a lot of tongue in cheek and catty humour in Die Hard. I think the reason it’s compared to that is because it has incredible action and the tone. They’re able to bring that comedy to it.

When I saw Olympus Has Fallen, I thought it was a grittier, dirtier version of what White House Down looks to be. It does have some humour in it but it’s a lot more serious than what White House Down looks to be.

Yeah, I haven’t seen it but that’s how it came across in the marketing, a very serious and very intense film. I’ll probably watch it later in the fall season when things have calmed down. I’m curious to see it because I haven’t seen the script or anything so it’s interesting to see. Eventually I’ll find it.

James Vanderbilt wrote the script and he writes quite sharp scripts, was there any room for improv?

Yeah, that’s another great thing about Roland that a lot of people don’t know about, he’s a real actor’s director and he cares deeply for his actors. Which is another great thing to see him orchestrate on set, all the sets, the special effects, a huge crew, yet he takes the time to foster an atmosphere of creativity and openness with his actors. They definitely foster all of that improv and they definitely love actors coming in to do their thing. I think Roland, James and Brad Fischer [producer] hire people that they know can bring that element to it, their own creative twists to the characters and indulge them in their own unique way. They’re very, very encouraging about it. There are some funny moments that did make it into the film which I’m pretty happy about, it was quite thrilling to see that they kept some of that fun stuff that we did. I’m excited about that. They’re all very open. Jamie is a such a great collaborator. He’ll totally get involve with you and again if you have any questions or are confused about anything he’s got no ego, he’s the most down to earth, humble guys I’ve ever met. Like you said, he’s already a sharp writer, you’re already working with that material and to be able to embellish it and add your own stuff is a real treat.

You spend most of your screentime with Joey King who is in The Conjuring, Oz the Great and Powerful and so on, and you spend a lot of it with Channing Tatum, was it weird spending so much time with big names? I don’t mean that in a condescending way either.

No, no, it was very surreal. I remember one night, we were shooting at 3 o’clock in the morning, it was raining in White House, there was fire everywhere, grenades going off [laughs], it was the definitely one of the most surreal moments of my career, it was definitely a highlight. I was thinking “This is the coolest moment of my life.” [laughs] Roland Emmerich was there, it was weird. But at the same time it’s never uncomfortable, it’s never weird because Channing is such a decent grounded dude. He’s just such a nice guy that he never makes it weird, he never makes you feel uncomfortable, he’s just another guy, there’s no ego, he makes you feel super comfortable. He’s a great actor to work with because he’s so playful and so present. He’s so good at the physical stuff, it’s amazing how talented he is, it’s incredible. Like I said, there’s no ego, so it’s surreal to be around that but at the same time you’re like “Wow, he’s just a guy” and he reminds you of that, he’s like “I’m just a dude, I’m not special.”

Joey is the sweetest girl and she’s so talented – she’s so talented it’s ridiculous. She’s 13 years old and she’s way more talented than I’ve ever been in my life [laughs]  and I’m 31. “Joey, how the hell did you get so talented?!” She’s a joy to work around, such a positive spirit, making people laugh all the time. They got along like gangbusters. It was fun to see them hang around on set too, just playing together, their secret handshakes and all the stuff they’d do together. It was a lot of fun. They really made for a fun environment on set.

Roland Emmerich really does have something against the White House
Roland Emmerich really does have something against the White House

Did you actually get to shoot anything inside the White House or was it all on a set?

It was all set. Everything was done in Montreal. Kirk Petruccelli is the production designer, he’s a real hero of the movie because he recreated 60% of the White House from scratch. They did the Great Hall, the State rooms, the Senate Hall, the Presidential Bedrooms, the Oval Office, the West Wing; there’s so much work and they nailed it. To be on those sets was absolutely incredible. We were in Montreal the whole time, the whole shoot happened in Montreal, with a few visual effects shot elsewhere. It was all shot in Montreal but you’d never know it. His attention to detail was incredible. All the portraits in there were all legitimate portraits. What I’m saying is he redid all the portraits so they’re hanging on the wall where they are in the White House. The furniture is all the same. Even the wallpaper! They went into such detail with the research the execution is flawless. Then it’s so sad to see it blown up! [laughs] All these gun shots, all these bullet holes in the walls, it’s such a beautiful set, then they just rip it down, set it on fire. All this work! But you know that’s what they built it for so.

We see you around with a shotgun at one point, right?

[Laughing] Yeah…

Did you ever just get the urge to destroy everything when you were running around with that shotgun?

It was really strange. It’s very heavy. That was another surreal moment. “What is happening right now?! I’m running towards a camera holding this shotgun!” It’s very, very silly but very funny. [laughs] It wasn’t the most natural thing to come to me, I’m not a gun guy. It took a bit of getting used to. Hopefully it plays well, it was a lot of fun, that’s for sure.

Do you see yourself as a big action hero from now on?

[Laughs] Oh boy… that’s a good question. I don’t know, man, I won’t rule it out but I’m not betting on it. Anything is possible, let’s put it that way. [laughs] They’re not definitely not breaking down my door for G.I. Joe 3 or anything like that, but in the future who knows? Anything is possible.

You did a lot of background work on the White House as well. Did you study for a month on it?

I got the role late July or early August and we started shooting pretty quickly after that. I had about 3-4 weeks to really get ready about it and wrap my head around it. I knew this character would know like every single detail about the White House because he’s such a passionate historian. I thought that if Roland ever asked me to improvise about any part of the White House I better be able to come up with something. I spent about 4 weeks diving into research. I watched documentaries, I read books, I immersed myself. It was really thrilling actually because I’m a Canadian so we didn’t really learn that much about American history as we did about Canadian history, obviously. It was thrilling to dive into that through the lens of the White House because of all the historically relevant things have happened in this country. It was nice to get into that, gain a greater understanding of how this country is made and all the history that has happened in that house. It’s a really special place.

That’s really impressive dedication from yourself. Apparently you took people on tours around the set, is that true?

[Laughing] Yeah. I remember when I got to set and everyone realised that I knew quite a bit about the White House, it became a running joke on set like if anyone had a question it’d be “Oh ask Nic! He’ll know!” [laughs] There were a few days when press would come visit the sets and one day the publicist asked “Hey, could you give them a tour of the set since you know it so well?” [laughs] So I said “Yeah, sure!” and took them around with Kirk Petruccelli. He and I did a tandem tour but he knew way more than I did, he did way more research than I did. I was there to provide some entertainment I guess.

I hear you’re a big fan of movie soundtracks as well. Did you get to see Harald Kloser at work?

That guy’s a renaissance man. He produced the film, he was involved with the editing, he did the score, there’s nothing this guy can’t do. I’m a big soundtrack nerd and I asked him early on “Listen, I would really appreciate the chance to see you guys score this movie” because I don’t know how many more chances I’ll get to be involved in a production of this size. I wanted to make the most of it and learn as much as I could. He invited me one day to go to Fox where they were scoring and I got to sit in this room with a 92 piece orchestra and get blown away. Watching them score it live in front of me was really incredible. He’s amazing and the score is incredible. It was a real privilege to get to be able to do that. I was very grateful he indulged my request.

Aren’t you a DJ as well? Did you learn anything while there that you could implement into your sets? Mixing and so on.

I don’t know. He’s more of a composer. Anybody who’s musically talented I love to learn from. When I DJ, I like playing music that I love. I don’t do anything spectacular or special, I’m not like DJ Shadow or any of those guys, the mixologists or the cut chemists. I love those guys but I know how much dedication it takes to get to that level and my focus is more on acting and writing. When I DJ I play good music that I love, I don’t DJ that often, once a month maybe. At a party, at my house if I have a party or a bar or something. It’s nothing too fancy. I’m not reinventing the wheel. I just have a great appreciation of musical minds in general because it’s something that I don’t really do so to me it’s like magic when they come up with these melodies. I don’t know how their brains work but I think it’s incredible. I’m fascinated by the whole process. I think the closest I’ve come to playing a musical instrument is being a DJ [laughing] which is kind of lame, but it’s the only way I get to express myself musically is to play music I love. Maybe one day I’ll learn that instrument and maybe then Harald will teach me a few things because he’s certainly got the knowledge to teach that’s for sure.

I know that you have plans to work with Brad Fischer and James Vanderbilt again, is anything set in stone? Is there anything else on the horizon for you?

Right now we’re developing a show so hopefully we can sell that this year and also with Harald’s company as well we’re developing a TV project and there’s  feature film we’re trying to get off the ground. We just got some money to write another feature film script in Canada which is pretty exciting. So it’s a lot of writing, it’s been a lot of writing for the last two months actually. Now we’re just going to push and see how much of it we can get off the ground as we can. That’s really what the focus is for the next four weeks, polishing all of our projects up and taking them out to market and hopefully selling them. That’s the next phase. I did a pilot for Fox as well this year which didn’t get picked up but was a great experience. It was the producers of New Girl, Katherine Pope and it was written by Michelle Morgan, it was a great experience. I was sad it didn’t get picked up but I was happy I got a chance to do the pilot, it was a lot of fun.

Is there anything you can tell us about those feature films: plot, genre or?

Umm, no, not really, not yet. One of them, I’ll say, is an historical comedy which we’re very excited about. We’ve had this idea for a long time and it’s about a specific moment in Canadian history that’s never really been told on film so we’re excited we might get a chance to crack that nut. And, again, we’re trying to bring the same tone. I learned a lot working on this film so I’ll hopefully be able to apply it to this one we’re writing; bringing the levity to it, bringing the comedy to it. It’s a subject matter that has been treated in the past with a lot of… uhh… like gritty, real and intense. We’re going to take the opposite approach, we’re going to go kind of swashbuckling Pirates of the Caribbean style, a lot of jokes, a lot of fun, instead of sticking to the gritty reality of what actually happened. It’s going to be another opportunity to dive into the pages of history and conjure up a story. Hopefully it’ll go well. We’re starting work on that in 3 weeks [This was back in July so they’re probably working on that right now or perhaps even finished]. It’s a lot of reading that I’m gonna have to do! I’m excited about that. It’s going to be fun.

Are they both comedies?

Yes, they’re both- well one of them is kind of not actually. One of them is definitely a comedy and the other one is sort of a dramatic comedy. It has more serious tones, it’s about- I can’t get into it because we’re still trying to sell it. One of them is more comedic than the other so I’m excited to see those come to life.

What’s your personal writing process then?

I have a writing partner actually, James A. Woods, not James Woods, but he’s another actor friend of mine, his name is James A. Woods and we’ve been writing together for 5 years. I’m literally only half of the brain when it comes to writing. I’m definitely a big collaborator. I need collaborators to bounce ideas off of. He and I work very closely together, we bounce it around until it’s right. We just love it. We’ve been acting together many years so we have this kind of chemistry and repartee between us that really brings it to life when we’re working on it. To be honest, it’s so hard to write that it’s great to have someone there to make someone laugh and go through it together with someone. I much prefer doing it with someone because doing it alone I just can’t imagine. I don’t know how writers do it by themselves. I definitely need someone there to make me laugh when it’s not working – which happens a lot.

Please tell me you sing the James Woods song to him from Family Guy.

[Laughs] I love him in Family Guy. It’s such a funny recurring character and the fact that the high school is named after him, it’s a stroke of comedic genius. I’m so happy he did that. It shows you what kind of guy he is. He’s got a great sense of humour and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s like that in real life [James Woods, not James A. Woods], he’s just a laugh to hang out with, he has all these stories. I learnt a lot from him too actually. It was pretty incredible.

White House Down is released in UK cinemas on Friday the 13th. We’d like to thank Nicolas Wright for taking the time out to chat about his role and more even right before he had to leave for the première.

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Tags : interviewNicolas Wrightwhite house down
Ashley Norris

The author Ashley Norris

[Associate Editor] Ashley is a 22 year-old film-lover, film writer, film student. He spent sleepless nights watching films making him love all things film and hoping for a career in the field in any of its many forms. Currently a critic, screenwriter and director. In his head. Follow @ashleyrhys on Twitter for more.