Yorick van Wageningen’s role in Michael Mann’s new film ‘Blackhat’ is minimal but it looms darkly over the entire film. He plays, Sadak, the head of a cyber-terrorist network hacking global computer networks. It takes a thief to catch a thief, so a convicted blackhat hacker, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), is offered a conditional release if he collaborates with a U.S.-China anti-cyber theft task force to bring down this Blackhat.
The first five minutes of the film open with a sequence of code speeding through a network, back and forth through the insides of computer systems. As a viewer you are taken on a high-speed journey inside a network, zigzagging along grids and beams of fluorescent lights. The sequence has you glued to your cinema seat and climaxes when the code being manipulated results in an explosion of a Chinese nuclear reactor. It sets off a cat-and-mouse-game in a cyber-crime thriller loaded with action. The thugs in ‘Blackhat’ are as fierce and menacing looking as Waingro in ‘Heat’ or Coleman in ‘Miami Vice’ and they show no mercy in shootout scenes with law enforcers.
Besides the action scenes there are other ingredients which signifies this as a Michael Mann film, including a cast of regular Mann actors, such as John Ortiz (Public Enemies, Miami Vice, Luck) and Ritchie Coster (Luck).
The director’s interest into how cities affect characters’ behaviour comes to the fore in this film which is set in LA, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. He focuses on the cultural differences within the U.S.-China task force team, rendering the film an indirect cultural reflection on China.
There are also subtle real-life observations, for example, an airport scene where someone asks Hathaway if he is okay, as he stands motionless, taking in the scenery of the outside world. This is something Mann has learnt, that recently released convicts do.
In ‘The Insider’ Mann had something to say about the machinations of the Tobacco Industry – and in ‘Blackhat’, he warns us on the impact of cyber-crime. He developed the idea for this film in 2011, and one could argue, that he is a visionary because at the beginning of December 2014 his film addressed a futuristic hacking disaster, but now after the Sony hacking affair the threat of a global hacking disaster may just have become nearer.
In this interview Van Wageningen talks about how Mann’s status as a big Hollywood director inspired his character, that being uncertain is the best way to approach a scene, the difference between working with David Fincher and Mann, and his interest in hacking and cyber-crime.
How were you approached for the role?
At the time I was in Bangkok looking after a friend who was seriously ill and I received a call from my English agent. He told me that Michael Mann wanted to meet me in Hong Kong, so I flew from Bangkok to Hong Kong. It was at the time when the Edward Snowden story was breaking news and I found out later, after watching ‘Citizenfour’, a documentary about Snowden, that he was staying in the same hotel as the Michael Mann crew. I’ve been obsessed with the Edward Snowden case and the NSA practices he revealed. I said to Mann, “My God, you must feel responsible.” He replied, “What do you mean?” “Well your film, ‘The Insider’, it’s the ultimate whistle blower film”. He smiled and tried to play it down.
At our first meeting he launched into a five or six hours monologue about my character. He is a very character driven director and therefore had extensive psychological profiles on my character and spoke at length about hacking and cyber-crime.
Mann carried out a tremendous amount of research into the subject in order to be fully educated on the subject before the filming started. On set there were three cyber experts travelling with us to educate us on the technology behind computer hacking, coding, worms etc. We were fed this information in order to understand the worlds that our characters inhabit. We could talk to the experts and ask them questions about possible motives of hackers and what they are able to achieve. They could explain incredible detail to us, for example, Stuxnet, a computer worm that struck an Iranian nuclear facility – or how a computer virus works. I wasn’t really frightened by these concepts until I learnt the detail from these experts. One is not aware of the possibilities and how enormous the intrusion of our privacy can be.
You said you were obsessed with the Snowden case. What makes you so interested in this subject?
I’m a son of a journalist. My father was an idealistic journalist, who considered his work more vocation than job. Probably the second film I saw in the cinema after the ‘AristoCats’ was ‘All the President’s Men’. My father believed in the very idealistic form of journalism; acting as a watchdog on abuses of power by governments, institutions and corporations. I grew up with that.
I was very fascinated by the whole WikiLeaks affair with Julian Assange, the Chelsea Manning affair about the leaked classified US Army documents and the Edward Snowden revelations. I find it unbelievable that people make these decisions to expose to the world, what they perceive is important information – and at such a high personal cost.
The screen time of your character is limited but he has a major impact on the main character(s). Do you consider these exciting roles to play?
Yes. My part is minimal but it looms over the entire film. My character drives the film and it’s a rewarding situation to be in, but also scary. I can’t talk too much about the character in detail, but these are interesting parts to play. It’s the same with the character I play in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, Nils Bjorman. This character also has minimal screen time but has a giant impact on the main character, Lisbeth Salander. These are exciting roles to play because you have to pull them off in a very limited time.
How did you manage to pull it off?
Quite often pivotal characters in films, are very much a reflection of the director. So Mann himself became an inspiration for me as to how to play my character.
It’s hard to imagine the scale of a big Hollywood film, especially a film like this which is shot in LA, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, with a travelling crew of 200 people, the logistics of it all – a mighty circus. As the director of a big Hollywood film you have incredible power and you become some kind of god. Every decision is Michael Mann’s. And that’s exactly what this hacker believes, he can control everything.
You witnessed how Mann was in control of this whole army which gave you a sense of what being in control feels like, and you used that for your character?
Yes, a lot is taken from the script as well, and in any art form, your work is influenced by what’s happening in your own life at that moment. I’m sure, in this film I was influenced by taking care of this friend who was serious ill. You have to disengage and find a survival mode to deal with that. I arrived in Hong Kong in that survival mode. That certain detachment became quite useful for the character.
When Michael Mann sits in a restaurant with his wife, she will notice him looking at somebody in a restaurant and he’s doing character analysis, imagining what they were like when they were 11. Why are they the way they are? Is this something I want to use and build into a character? Did Mann also gave you specific directions for the hacker you played?
No, before filming he throws in an incredible amount of information, but less so during the filming. What you realise later is that was a giant feeding session; what you do with the ‘food’ is entirely up to you. He tells endless stories about prisons he has visited, psychopaths he has met and this information then seeps into your mind.
You worked with David Fincher on the Dragon Tattoo film. Does he work differently from Mann?
Yes, Fincher prefers to work in the studio and Mann on location so the dynamics are different. What they do have in common, though, is that they both strive for something to come into existence at a moment. They have different techniques of achieving this. Very often, actors need as many crutches as possible: they build in all kind of certainties for themselves because uncertainty is naturally uncomfortable. What a director should do is to break away all those certainties. I have learned, although it is incredibly annoying, that being uncertain is the best way to approach a scene. It’s simultaneously scary and interesting, to hear Fincher or Mann call action and you have no clue as to what you’re going to do. The only backbone you have is your character. It has happened on more than one occasion where I’ve not understood what I’m actually saying until I play the scene and something happens and afterwards you think “oh, that was what that was all about”. To get there, it like diving of a cliff.
Fincher wants you to go in ‘naked’ more or less, go in clueless and fall back on your character – in the knowledge that you know what your character will do in situations they face. If you come in very prepared and you know how you are going to play a scene, you’re fucked with Fincher. He will do as many takes as he needs for you to give that up.
I believe it’s more interesting when everything feels new to the characters themselves, that they experience something in the moment it happens to them. That is drama. That is what the audience connects with. In ‘The Insider’ there is this phenomenal scene where Al Pacino’s character, Lowell Bergman, finds out that his interview with the whistle blower of the Tobacco company will not be broadcast by his network CBS, because it is on the verge of being bought by a giant conglomerate. The deal might be jeopardized if CBS was to be sued by this Tobacco company. The moment he finds out Bergman goes ballistic. I’m 100% sure in that scene Pacino didn’t intend to play his character becoming ballistic, but you see it happening to him. He is totally in the moment and he can’t control his anger about the situation. That’s what makes him fascinating as an actor. It’s the summon of acting that an actor dares to suddenly experience something like that. Lose control so completely.
‘Blackhat’ creates a new awareness for cyber-crime. In your opinion, how serious should our concerns about cyber-crime be?
Incredibly serious. I think we are at the beginning when it comes to cybercrime. The tricky thing with computers is that you don’t have to enter somewhere physically to obtain information, and everything, is hackable. The weakest links are the humans who are operating them. We still use passwords like 123me – it’s unbelievable.
Those people who hacked Sony, whether they were Korean or not, were incredibly advanced in how to leak these e-mails and documents. They didn’t throw everything out on the street at once, they fed stories day after day, keeping the momentum up.
Today it’s a studio, being blackmailed to not release a film, but tomorrow it could also be a bank, an electricity utility, or a government. What if a government had been hacked and was being blackmailed, would the hackers say: “here is the information we have, we demand you to do this or otherwise we’ll do that”. The Snowden affair and Sony are two prominent cases that were reported, but what is scary is what has not been reported.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
With a contribution by Louis Warner