Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, JK Simmons, Sam Richardson & Cast - Fighting Today to Save Tomorrow
Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, JK Simmons, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, Betty Gilpin, Jasmine Mathews, Keith Powers, Zach Dean and Chris McKay
Fighting Today to Save Tomorrow
By Jay S. Jacobs
What if you learned that the whole world – everyone and everything you know and love – was going to be decimated in 30 years. Would you take your life in your own hands to potentially save your loved ones and the rest of the Earth?
This is the conundrum which faces a bunch of everyday people in The Tomorrow War, a new action/adventure film starring Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, JK Simmons, Sam Richardson and more. In 2051 the Earth has been decimated by White Spikes – a group of alien creatures made up mostly of tentacles and teeth – and some of the leaders of the dying planet use time travel to set up a draft of soldiers to fight off the threat.
Pratt plays Dan Forester, an Iraq War veteran turned professor who is one of the chosen masses to cull the alien horde. With help from his estranged father (Simmons), fellow draftees (Richardson, Hodge, Mary Lynn Rajskub), he goes into the future to save his wife (Gilpin) and his young daughter (Ryan Kiera Armstrong). In the future he is aided by a brilliant scientist (Strahovski) and future soldiers (Mathews, Powers) to fight off the existential threat and to try to save the world.
A few weeks before the Amazon Prime premiere of The Tomorrow War, stars Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, JK Simmons, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, Betty Gilpin, Jasmine Mathews, Keith Powers, writer Zach Dean and director Chris McKay took part in a couple of virtual press conferences celebrating the release of the film. We were there and this story is culled from the two conferences.
What was your most intense or challenging or what is the biggest adrenaline rush you had during your part in the making of this film?
Chris Pratt: Man, you could ask me this question on 10 different days, and I might give you 10 different answers. It really was a physical film and there was so much to choose from. Off the top of my head, there's a really great sequence… when we make that jump to 2051, there's this transition and we fall from the sky in Miami and land in a pool.
Edwin Hodge: Everything was exhilarating. This entire film was just action packed non-stop. There's the sequence when running around. I'm not going to tell you exactly what it is but running around after the drop from the sky there. I feel that scene itself took a month to shoot alone. We were trying to film on the weekends buying that time here and there.
JK Simmons: I didn't get to work in the water, but I work in the frozen water [in a different sequence] which was a different exhilaration, and fun, and challenge, and coldness. It was great.
Chris Pratt: There was some serious water work that we got to do. That is a lot of fun. We got to jump off of this high dive that we built out of a forklift and jump off into the water. The camera followed us down and then you had stunt people jumping down and landing on top of you, forcing you under water.
Sam Richardson: Yes, that was really fun. You see a scene like that in a movie and you're like, "Oh, they must have done that once or twice." You do that all day for three days, but tend to drown for three days, and exhaustion.
Chris Pratt: That whole sequence probably took two or three days. [It] was really cool, really fun, really physical. There's a camera down there. You're trying to get smashed into the ground and come up, and struggle into a closeup underwater. It was a lot of fun. That's something that stands out.
Yvonne Strahovski: I keep thinking of that moment where Chris and I were at the top of a power plant. We had to run across this steel beam at the very top of the power plant, but you could see the ground. Everything in a power plant is made out of metal grade, so you can totally see through each level all the way to the bottom. I'm not too afraid of heights, but this was a moment where I was like, "Oh, God." Getting up on that steel beam, I wasn't sure if I could actually run across it.
Keith Powers: We were like 100 feet up, and I had to shoot the 50 cal on top of it. That was crazy. I'm truly afraid of heights, but in-between takes, I had to stay up there. It would have taken too long for me to go down the ladder and come back up in-between takes, so I had to stay up there. I just remember it had an open surface, so you could see through it. I just remember looking down, and I was just like, "Yo, no, this is crazy."
Yvonne Strahovski: We were obviously on wires, but just doing the first few walks across, you really get to channel your inner Zen, and then just have blind faith that you're going to run across that thing and not fall off. If you do, they're going to catch you, but still, a little terrifying.
Chris McKay: That was like the first day or second day, wasn't it?
Yvonne Strahovski: Yes. [laughs] Welcome to the movie.
Jasmine Mathews: Welcome.
Chris Pratt: That beam was narrow too. Yes, they're going to catch you if you fall, but not before like careening your shins, chest, face, and elbows off of this beam. You won't fall to your death, but you'll certainly be hurt. That was intense. You were so good at it, way better than me. You're like, "Oh, God, let me get a couple of chances at this." You walked across, and then you ran across. I was like, "This is crazy. These beams are narrower than my foot." I don't know, you have a good center of gravity or balance or something. Maybe it's because of all your work on Chuck, you just know how to just jump right into the action stuff, but that was hard.
Yvonne Strahovski: Maybe I'm just good at pretending I'm not scared. [laughs]
Chris Pratt: Maybe. It didn't seem like you were scared.
Jasmine Mathews: My opening scene when I'm flying into the soccer field. I'm afraid of heights, terribly. I have to come in and command the stage and deliver this very important monologue that sets the tone for the entire movie. I just remember rehearsing at normal speed and flying down with this heavy gun in my hands, and you can't stop.
Edwin Hodge: It was just amazing to run through Atlanta, shooting guns, blowing things up. What more could you ask for?
Keith Powers: Chris McKay would check on me and, and Chris [Pratt] would check on me too. Yvonne, you checked on me a couple of times too. I'm going to be real, I was like, "I'm good," but I think it was like the first or second day, I'm like, "I can't go out like that. I got to get through this." I got through it, but it was terrifying.
Jasmine Mathews: Once your feet touch the ground, you have to keep going. The camera is super close, so I had to stop before I ever hit the camera. I was really scared about that. Just the simple fact of overcoming my fear of heights was incredible for me. I remember Chris McKay a couple of times, he was like, "Jasmine, relax. Fix your face. It's okay. You're not coming to kill these people. You're coming to deliver a message of peace. Don't make them think that you're coming to kill them." Once I just found my breath and trusted Tommy, our stunt coordinator, and just got into the character and the gravity of the situation, it worked out pretty well, but I was terribly afraid.
Keith Powers: It's weird because I love roller coasters. It's the weirdest thing ever. I love roller coasters, I guess I can't just be up high and sitting while moving really slow. It has to be quick. It was fun now looking back and looking at me shooting 50 cals, like, "I did that."
Jasmine Mathews: Your own video game.
Keith Powers: Yes, exactly.
JK Simmons: I'm still a little miffed that McKay let them drag my traumatic slide down the glacier, but that will be in the sequel, I guess.
Chris Pratt: I remember being up on top of a glacier in Iceland. [Chris McKay] is walking with sticks and a camera on his shoulder, trudging through the snow and looks at me. He's like, "This is what I fucking got into this for, man. This is what I fucking got into this for." He does say the F-word a lot. I'm quoting him. He says, "We're up on a fucking glacier making a fucking movie right now."
Betty Gilpin: Not as much action for my character. I play the frowning therapist wife. I mostly sob in a cardigan, which is action emotionally. There was a day where Chris had a ton of action stuff and was training really hard. There was a day where I had a bagel and I thought, "I want a second bagel." They announced there are almost no more bagels and my adrenaline was sky high. We were rolling and luckily, I ran outside, got a second bagel and came back just in time for action.
That's harrowing. I'm glad you're okay.
JK Simmons: Did you have an “everything” bagel? Did they still have those ones?
Betty Gilpin: I had two “everything” bagels.
JK Simmons: Good. Good.
Zach Dean: Two. Wow.
Edwin Hodge: You earned it. Right on.
Betty Gilpin: Yes. Should have just cut out the middleman, duct tape them directly to my thighs.
Zach, in writing the film you've got to conceive a lot of these set pieces and these action beats. What's the backstory behind the plunge into the swimming pool from how many hundreds of feet in the air once they make the leap back in time? How did that scene originate?
Zach Dean: There was high jeopardy. The water scene had a lot of different incarnations, but it was always that horrific idea of you leap into the future, and you end up in an environment that you didn't expect at all. This submersive idea that suddenly you're struggling through your life, you're already taking this leap into whether or not I'll even know what I am in the future. Then you land in the space that's high jeopardy. There were a lot of different versions of that horrific scene and the one that I ended up with was fantastic. I love it.
There is a family theme in The Tomorrow War. We're going to try to avoid spoilers, but JK you play Chris's father. I think the film deals with the notion of what one generation owes to the next. Do you feel it's important for science fiction to tackle these more intimate themes?
JK Simmons: Well, I think one of the things that drew me to this, aside from, obviously, the opportunity to work with Pratt, is the making for the house laugh on that. Come on, come on.
Chris Pratt: I think people were shocked. They just thought didn't know…
Edwin Hodge: I thought that was really sentimental there. I was like, "Yes. No. I feel the same."
Chris Pratt: He's got this relationship with his dad that he's estranged from. He's blaming his father for all of his issues. His dad wasn't around, et cetera. He realizes through the course of this story, that in fact, he has more similarities with his father than he’s even realized. In coming to grips with that, [he] gets to a place of grace and of acceptance and forgiveness for his father because he sees that it wasn't easy for his father either. That's a real pivotal moment that comes in adulthood, I think.
JK Simmons: When I read the script, what it really does, we do see the micro and the macro. There's beautiful family stuff with Chris' character at home with Betty and their daughter. When my estranged dad kind of non-relationship, when we first get a glimpse of that, I was claiming that there was going to be some kind of a worthwhile journey there. There is. [laughs] No spoilers.
Chris Pratt: When we look at our parents and as these deities in our life, we come to a moment in our life where we realize, "Oh, wow, that was just a kid who had a kid." When you realize that, you can forgive them for their any shortcomings they had because they didn't live up to the God-like status you'd given them when you were young. You realize, "Okay, now I'm in the same dilemma, my kids are going to look at me like I'm some sort of infallible person and of course I'm not."
JK Simmons: It's all there on the page. Then the beauty of working in this scenario and with a guy like Chris is that we can take the page, we can incorporate all that. Then we also have the freedom to, whether it's goofing around, being funny, or finding other angles into the drama and the conflict and the emotion of it. We felt free to make it our own too, so you end up doing six or seven takes of a given scene and really then the director has six or seven significantly different versions of the emotion, and the passion, and the drama, and the comedy to choose from.
Zack Dean: I would say that in its conception, I wanted to do something with the idea of conscription / the draft for a long time. The idea of not having it be about necessarily an ideology or patriotism or loyalty to produce your country but being about literally your desire to save your own kids. Who doesn't sign up for that? It's a different thing. We're not asking for an abstract idea. It's about parenting. That's what it's about.
Chris Pratt: I think that that's a big part of this. In the beginning it seems like we’re two different people, but in fact, I think we have a lot more in common than Dan would like to admit, including some pretty big arms.
How did you get those arms, JK?
Sam Richardson: Was that CGI?
Betty Gilpin: Were you doing the bagel thing too?
JK Simmons: Yes, with bagel. Just watching for that workout and trying to imitate him, but with bigger plates on the bars.
Chris Pratt: I can't tell you how many times I've talked about JK's arms on this, and I am all for it. That was the two guns salute, man. You look freakin’ jacked in this movie. It is so cool.
JK Simmons: If nothing else comes from this movie, I'm happy.
Also, there's an element of environmentalism to this story given that we sort of bring this on ourselves in a way through the climate change and pain we've inflicted on our own planet. Again, the question is what are your thoughts on how science fiction deals with these sorts of deeper, more intimate, or more contemporary newsy things?
Keith Powers: I always think it's super cool when a film like this does have all those elements. It always reminds me of underground music being on a radio type of thing. It's like underground music meets that radio song. It's like a radio song with great lyrics. It's like you're getting all of it. You can listen to it every day, but you're getting some game every single time you listen to it. That's how I feel about this.
Zach Dean: At the beginning and the end of this movie, for many ways, it's really a family story about this thing. It's what made it easy to write in many ways, and important to write for me…. We look at generations behind us, where we came from. We look at the generations where we're going. It's a lot to do with Sci-Fi. It's one of the great things about it.
Chris McKay: There's always a little bit of the human story and the drama. I want any movie that I do to have a big epic scope of this and amazing performances with a beautiful cast but also can have a little bit of heart and a little bit of something to think about. That was why I wanted to do this since it was real. The script in this cast and crew was a real gift.
JK Simmons: It was great to be able to incorporate that small picture with the gigantic picture of, "Are we going to save the world or not?"
Chris McKay: What was really important about the scripts to me was the idea of what do you owe the future? What do you owe the world? How do you leave the world in a better place? Do you count your blessings that you have in front of you? All that kind of stuff was really important. I love genre movies, science fiction, action movies, and horror movies. That's the stuff that the little kid in me that wanted to make movies, that's the thing that I responded to, but also, I'm caught somewhere between John Carpenter and John Cassavetes.
Keith Powers: The funny thing, when I first read it, a lot of that stuff didn't even hit me and as I kept reading the script. [Then] as we were shooting, I was like, "Whoa, that whole environmental aspect." I mean, after the crazy year we had, just the parallels between the pandemic and us fighting a war for tomorrow in the present, all of it just hit me like, "Oh, wow, it's crazy. God's timing is crazy. The timing of this coming out and where we are in the world."
Jasmine Mathews: What was also cool for me is that it gave me a sense of hope. I would love for people to be able to take that message. We have this idea of everyday regular people coming together dedicated to one mission, and everyone has their purpose. Everyone has something that they can do to help save the world. You need a Norah [Mary Lynn Rajskub], you need a Cowan [Mike Mitchell] to do what they did in order for the world to be saved as well. It's this idea that it's going to take all of us together, focused, and dedicated to save the world and make this a better place. I just love that idea, that unity aspect to it.
Keith Powers: It's much needed. It's definitely needed. People need something like this, and it is dope that it gets to be this way, that summer blockbuster, fun, action packed sci-fi, all that.
Yvonne Strahovski: Everyone has said it really well, but I echo that last sentiment too. It's something I've been talking about. The unity factor is really interesting coming out of the pandemic and how we've all been unified during this time of isolation. This maybe comes at a really good time where it echoes [where] we've been, and hopefully, where we should go to really focus on the environmental aspects that we face all together as a people and the reality that we live in now.
So many wars have been fought by the youngest people. We pull them out and throw them into battle. In this case, it is not old people, but older people, the people in their 30s' or in their 40s' who are drawn to fight.
Chris Pratt: It's interesting. In terms of our history of conscription, if it's World War II or Vietnam, we've seen these movies where it is 18, 19-year-old kids getting thrown into battle. They're just kids forced to become men. It is a different relationship when it is an adult.
Betty Gilpin: I think it's a very beautiful thing that we're meeting Dan in a very handsome middle age, but farther away from 19. He's at a point in his life where it's very relatable, especially with this last year where suddenly there's these pencils down, who are you moments, a freeze on looking at who you are, and you aren't the person that you thought you would be.
Chris Pratt: Yes, 100%. It's tricky to navigate this question and give an answer without getting into that spoiler territory. There is a nod to It's a Wonderful Life at the beginning of this film. Even with him doing this "hee-haw," that moment was lifted from It's a Wonderful Life. Thematically we have some similarities there. This is a guy who’s not happy with his station in life and through the course of the events in his life.
Betty Gilpin: It's the blessing and curse of being in love with the right person. I, his wife, see that there's something in him that he wishes he could channel into something. [He] maybe felt that as a veteran, when he was at war, he could use that internal passion and purpose to funnel into something. Now as a suburban dad [he] is like, "Where do I put this energy?" and can't really find the right outlet.
Zach Dean: That's one of the angles we look at because he's got to. Chris has got a little kid. He's got to figure out how to be a dad. At the same time, he's looking at his own father's thing. I don't know what I've learned and what I didn't learn from that, but I have a lot of angles in the beginning, so there we go.
Chris Pratt: I don't think this is a spoiler. Everyone who goes forward into the future is over the age of 30 and everyone who's come back to train us is under the age of 30 because you realize that you can't live in both timelines at the same time. They're really just drafting a crop of people who are going to be dead in 2051. I hope that's not a spoiler, but if it is, oh, well, it's not that big a spoiler.
Betty Gilpin: It's this strange thing that this burst of soldiers from the future announcing that humanity is going to be wiped out if we don't try to save the world. [That] is the outlet that Dan was looking for, and the very outlet to funnel that sense of purpose into. I think that as big and action-y of a concept that is, that's a very familiar thing, especially with what's going on in the world now.
Chris Pratt: You are dealing with people who are making life decisions based not on the life that they could lead, but rather the world that they're leaving for their children. My character, Dan is doing this because if he doesn't go, they're going to take his wife in his place. This is something he has to do to protect his family and to protect his daughter and leave her with a home life of having her mother there. It's a different theme to think about someone being drafted away from their children rather than children being drafted away from their parents.
Betty Gilpin: I think our souls were born to be revolutionaries, and our daily life looks a lot more “iPhone-y” and “BuzzFeed quiz-y” than we thought it was going to look. Apocalyptic stakes and Greek stakes are much more relatable. That's why I like science fiction because even though some of the circumstances may be outlandish, it feels a lot more how I feel inside than vocal fry and Starbucks.
There is a balance of comedy and tragedy in this film. Sam, the character you're playing brings a lot of lightheartedness to the story. I would say he's not the same as Richard Splett from Veep, but I think they would be friends.
Sam Richardson: Richard would be friends with everybody.
Tell me about bringing your own comic sensibility to this character and what you wanted to convey in The Tomorrow War?
Sam Richardson: I play Charlie in the movie and something that's comedic about him is that he is an “every man.” To achieve that, it's interesting, they had to like CGI out my six pack to make me more relatable. For the craft of it, I got that, because of all the work that went into it, it's fine. They cut it out, they put up a belly in front of it, which was weird.
It was weird.
Sam Richardson: That's just fine. It's for the character, and they blabbed my arms, and I was like, "That's unnecessary."
Sam Richardson: I feel that everybody is in defense mode when they are in this thing, and so truly people do rely on comedy or humor as a defense mechanism. That's very real. I wasn't trying to play very broad wackadoo comedy. You need that release valve of all the action and so much happening in these high stakes, and so it was fun to get to play that release valve. I was also trying to at least ground that with emotion. With Charlie, he's a bunch of emotions and emotions that people typically would hide. He's very fearful, he's afraid. I think the emotion of fear is what I was playing with.
Edwin let's talk about the tragedy of what happens to these people who get thrust into the future. Let's explore Dorian. He seems to be like a representation of the person who comes back but doesn't really leave that conflict. That's also a very real thing that happens to people who've experienced heavy combat. What were you channeling for this role and what can you tell us about the person that he is and what he stands for in the story?
Edwin Hodge: Well, just to simply channel Dorian, I can look at the men and women in service. I've spent many years with Wounded Warriors talking to vets who suffer from PTSD, things of that nature. Just to understand a different perspective of how we deal with war and the consequences that reflect on us physically, emotionally, mentally. We find Dorian, we think he is just [chuckles] a man amongst men. He's done three tours, but also we understand and find out that he has cancer. He feels like there is no hope for him either way, whether the aliens were going to take him out or whether this disease was going to take him out. He was going to go. There wasn't a hope for him.
Edwin Hodge: Then he meets Dan who has this huge weight on his shoulders and simply everything to live and fight for. I think it's that turn, that meeting that sets this precedent for Dorian. Though his future is bleak, there is no positive outcome that in 2021, something positive could happen with the defeat of the aliens in 2051. It's a mix of different emotions wanting to be courageous, but also be vulnerable, not showing that vulnerability, but he's an everyday man to just like Charlie's character. He's tormented. He's seen death. He's taken lives and it's not hard or not easy to come back from that.
Chris, I'd like to talk about the creature designs for the White Spikes. I think it's fair to say they're extreme. They're jarring. They're disturbing-looking animals. Tell me about the development of their look and how you reached the version we see in the finished film.
Chris McKay: There's a couple of key points in the script. There's the claws and the fact that they were white and had spikes on them and things like that. That's a lot of room to interpret, and a lot of room to kind of play. Obviously, there's a couple of high watermarks as far as alien designs, it's whether it's the Xenomorphian alien, or whether it's the Predator, but then there's everything else. It's trying not to get close to that, but also trying to find something that serves the purpose of the film and was memorable and on its face horrifying.
I can see that.
Chris McKay: I wanted something that felt ancient. I wanted something that felt like it was hungry. Those are the words that we used when we first started talking about it, that it needed to feel like it had just an insatiable hunger. I wanted the texture to really come through so that you would feel that that surface texture was really hard, that it had lots of chips and chunks and nicks and cuts, things like that because it had been around forever.
What were you guys looking at while you were supposed to be dealing with the aliens? I assume a lot of reference points and things like that, but was there any…
Chris McKay: Troy, the stunt guy.
Yvonne Strahovski: A lot of the times, there was nothing to. To me, the process was fascinating. That was my first time having to perform with something that isn't actually there. We had Troy sometimes and they built this great prosthetic half-alien with the head and the front legs, but then we would often do a take with nothing at all. At first, [it] feels a little funky.
Jasmine Mathews: Do I look stupid? [laughs]
Yvonne Strahovski: In the end, I found it pretty liberating because you're creating. You're really just free to create the action and the physicality of what is going on that then later in post it gets built around what you've done. I thought it was really fun. I was definitely impressed with Chris Pratt's ability to work with a non-existent tentacle.
Keith Powers: Yes, that was good.
Chris Pratt: It's true that it's more liberating when you don't have a prop to work with because you basically force the animators to do whatever they have to do to make your choices work. If you have a real tentacle, you're moving it around like this. [Mimes movement] You're limited to how you can move it, but if you have a fake one, you can be like, "Oh, whoa, whoa, whoa," like that. Then you just imagine an animator pulling their hair out being like, "Oh, great. I have to make that work somehow." It's pretty fun. I've had my fair share of experience of running from and fighting against creatures that aren't there. Yes, there's certainly a craft to it.
Chris McKay: Well, the thing is most of the time we ended up using the stuff that you guys did on your own. For the majority of the visual effects shots because you guys were using your imagination and it was very playful at times or whatever, you were making up this reality. That stuff ended up being better than when you were acting against Troy or when we had the dummy and stuff like that. There was all this stuff that you guys created. It was the stuff we ended up using in visual effects.
Chris Pratt: You could have a whole podcast episode about the way to achieve it, but it's a combination of various things you're going to look at, whether it will be a tennis ball, or the guy named Troy who's seven feet tall, a mountain of a man, and very scary. You look at Troy and you think, "That's certainly a person who could lift me up and break me in half." He becomes significantly less scary when he's put in a giant gray leotard. Still, he's scary.
Keith Powers: Chris [McKay], you really helped though with how you directed. Especially in the nest, how you would direct how you want my body to move. I always started doing over-exaggerated stuff, didn't seem as real, but maybe like how Pratt was saying, maybe it's just because I felt so embarrassed doing it. I was like, "I don't really want to go too big," but when you would come in, you would come into the nest, you'd be like, "No, really pull it." I was like, "Okay, I look nice, you're right. Let me do that." I felt like that's probably what was used. It feels awkward, but when you watch it, it just makes so much sense. I was like, oh, it really looks like I really have a resistance that I have to play with here.
Chris Pratt: Then you've got the prosthetic and then you're sometimes in the big wide shots, you may have nothing. It really depends on the angle that you're in because these big sequences consist of so many shots and sizes. If you're doing a close-up and it needs to be really scary, in this case, it's mostly going to be really scary. You're not trying to have an emotional relationship with one of these creatures, but in a close-up, you might be looking into the eyes of an actor. You have something you can pull from. They can draw something out of you. It really depends on what the shot is. It's the most embarrassing acting you'll ever do. Acting opposite something that's not there and fighting something that's not there is particularly embarrassing,
Jasmine Mathews: That was my favorite part, being able to use my imagination too. Once you say I look stupid, whatever, I don't care, it allows your inner child to come out and play. Given the times where I couldn't pull from my imagination and my image of the White Spikes, I would just substitute somebody who pissed me off and I never could reconcile my emotions with them. I put them up there and just take all my anger out on them, which was really fun.
Chris McKay: Chris and JK on the glacier that at the end, it's towards the end of the movie. We shot it. We're fighting daylight and trying to get the shot. The sun is setting, and it's really this really beautiful thing with the creature in the middle of them, and JK and Chris are fighting with it. If you look at that raw footage, it's just two guys who are just throwing themselves in the snow this way and then throwing themselves into that way, and then rolling around and rolling out of the way, and getting back up, and then getting back down. I really wish we had choreographed that to some music, or something like that because it is really fun to just see. "Up, down, roll and go back," it was really fun.
Chris Pratt: You really put your trust in the director, that they won't allow that to become a viral YouTube sensation.