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Allfather Knows Best: How Veteran Character Richard Schiff Became the Year’s Best Villain — in a Video Game

The 67-year-old "West Wing" star went looking for a new challenge and wound up with a career-best performance in 2022's biggest video game.

Richard Schiff as Odin in "God of War Ragnarok"

“God of War Ragnarök”

The prologue of “God of War Ragnarök” peaks with a dramatic moment that fans of Sony’s blockbuster video game franchise have been waiting for since it was teased at the end of the previous installment in 2018: The reveal of the saga’s big bad, a Norse deity whose obsessive desire to rip apart the fabric of fate itself has severely complicated the former God of War’s quest to scatter his wife’s ashes from the highest peak in all the nine realms and establish an emotional bond with the child he seldom refers to by name.

The wall of ice between Kratos (Christopher Judge) and Atreus (“Mid90s” breakout Sunny Suljic) has only gotten more frigid now that the boy is a bonafide teenager, and with Fimbulwinter blanketing Midgard under mile-deep sheets of white snow — the cold snap heralding the deadliest battle the world has ever known — it seems unlikely that things between father and son will begin to thaw anytime soon. That’s when they hear someone knocking outside the hidden safe house where our heroes are trying to hole up until Ragnarök blows over.

Atreus opens the door to find a slender balding white guy in his late sixties, complete with a thick beard, a severe eyepatch, and a coterie of ravens flapping around him. “You know who I am,” the stranger announces with a threatening softness that makes it obvious he isn’t asking. And even if you haven’t played the previous “God of War,” odds are that you’ll instantly know who he is too: acclaimed character actor Richard Schiff.

Well, technically he’s Odin, but unlike the rest of the characters in this photorealistic video game, the Allfather has unmistakably been modeled after the actor whose motion-capture performance brought him to life. Needless to say, it’s pretty jarring to see Toby Ziegler from “The West Wing,” Elijah Wood’s dad from “Deep Impact,” and a middle-aged Jew from New York (via Bethesda) stride into the heart of a Norse mythology and bend the entire world to his whims.

It’s even more jarring to see the immediate effect that Schiff’s presence has on the story, as his deceptively relaxed (and deeply sinister) take on the most powerful of the gods helps ground this convoluted soap opera in raw human emotion from start to finish. While “Ragnarök” can sometimes be guilty of straining to look and feel like a 30-hour Marvel movie, it manages to get away with that for one simple reason: The MCU has never had a bad guy this good.

Video games have been home to a number of similarly affecting mo-cap performances over the last few years, with masterpieces like “Death Stranding” and “The Last of Us Part II” offering some of the richest parts that a modern actor could hope to find in any medium, but Schiff’s work here just hits different. His Odin eschews the heightened theatricality that people tend to associate with cut-scenes and/or cosmic melodrama in favor of the same kind of sotto voce cynicism that made him such a perfect foil to pure-hearted characters in movies as disparate as “I Am Sam” and “Wakanda Forever.”

Desperate to manipulate Atreus into helping him crack the mysteries of the universe, Schiff’s version of the character doesn’t give a shit about fathers and sons, the fate of the Giants, or any of the petty mortal concerns that motivate people to do his bidding. He’s too busy obsessing over a god-tier version of the same existential crisis that we humans know all too well; the difference that drives him mad is that Odin might actually be powerful enough to solve it.

As a result, the Allfather fittingly seems to exist outside and above the rest of the story around him, as if even a larger-than-life figure like Kratos were just a stray thread in a tapestry whose full scope he could never hope to understand. That’s exactly the effect “Ragnarök” director Eric Williams was hoping to achieve when — of all the more famous stars at his disposal — he created Odin for a veteran actor whose energy feels as far removed from video games as it gets.

Sure enough, Schiff was as surprised to be offered the part as gamers have been to see him play it. “It was completely out of the blue,” the actor told IndieWire during a video interview. “The idea had never crossed my mind. My manager called while I was driving in my car with my son and so I put him on speakerphone and he goes ‘I’ve got this interesting offer to do a video game.’ And my son’s head perks up. And then my manager says ‘It’s ‘God of War,’ at which point my son’s head hit the roof and he just started going, ‘Do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it.’ I ask, ‘What is it?’ and he goes, ‘Do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it do it.’”

Gus, then in his mid-twenties, had spent decades trying and failing to get his dad into video games, but nothing had stuck. “I was never into arcades or pinball,” Schiff explained. “I was never into Space Station or whatever…” he trailed off, either referring to “Space Invaders,” Sony PlayStation, or some delightfully Boomer-ized combination of the two. But Schiff’s son insisted that “God of War” was, in his estimation, “the best game ever,” and that was enough to convince his dad to take what must have been an amusingly unusual meeting.

Schiff remembers going into Santa Monica Studios, asking for a synopsis of the story so far, and recoiling in horror at the suggestion that he simply watch them play through ‘God of War’ for him: “I was like, I can’t sit through the whole game.”

On the one hand, that would be a pretty long sit for anyone. On the other hand, you’re probably not going to find Richard Schiff on Twitch anytime soon.

Still, Schiff insists that he was extremely open to the idea, and not only because he’d been in the mix to play Odin in Starz’s “American Gods” show before the role went to Ian McShane, and felt a lingering affinity for the character. At the end of the day, what really convinced Schiff to say yes was that Santa Monica Studios wanted him — specifically him — for a juicy role that would depend on his signature dryness while also forcing him to do something that he’d never done before.

“It’s not like they were coming to me before going to Robert Downey, Jr., you know what I mean?,” Schiff said. “When I get a good part in a film it’s almost an accident, but here I believe they had conceived one with my voice in mind. This was no ordinary thing, and I didn’t quite know what I was getting into.”

Schiff is no stranger to blockbuster entertainment and the special effects that come with it (we’re talking about a guy who was getting eaten by T-rexes in “The Lost World” before some of you IndieWire readers were even born), but he tends to be sidelined from the action in his role as a senator or whatever. This time he’d be right in the thick of things, wearing those silly-looking spandex suits with the cameras and light bulbs all over them, and eventually squaring off against the God of War himself.

“The movie business doesn’t really care about me anymore, and I’m on a TV show now that’s very, very easy,” Schiff said of his work on ABC’s medical drama “The Good Doctor.” “It’s offering me retirement money, but it’s remarkably unchallenging. Here and there I’m in scenes that we collaborate on that I certainly push to get elevated, but it’s a factory and I’m very comfortable in that environment.”

If there’s one thing that keeps veteran actors up at night, it’s the fear of getting too comfortable. “Directors are always saying, ‘Are you comfortable?,’” Schiff said, “and I’m just going, ‘God, I hope not.’”

Richard Schiff on the set of "God of War Ragnarök"

Richard Schiff on the set of “God of War Ragnarök”

To say that playing the lead villain in “Ragnarök” offered Schiff a chance to break free of that deadening comfortability would be an understatement. Not only was it his first performance in a video game, he was being dropped into a sequel alongside an experienced cast of mo-cap actors who were reprising the same roles they had already made iconic within the “God of War” fanbase; it was the equivalent of an undrafted hockey player making their professional debut at the all-star game and the Stanley Cup Finals all at once.

“I think every scene — every single thing I did on this show — had the element of fear of not knowing if I’m going to get it or not,” Schiff said. “And that’s not a bad thing. I was uncomfortable in the way that makes the work better.”

By that logic, perhaps Schiff’s work in “Ragnarök” is so extraordinary because fate conspired to make him uncomfortable in so many different ways. As if being the only n00b on set wasn’t hard enough, the game’s creative team neglected to tell Schiff that all of his scenes would have to be shot in single unbroken takes, as there are no “cuts” in either “God of War” or its sequel (which I have to imagine makes “Ragnarök” the longest oner ever devised). “They welcomed me and my instincts into their world,” Schiff said, “and they encouraged me to play around and improvise or whatever, but shooting everything as a oner means you can’t be bad. You can’t come up with an improv that doesn’t work and then just continue the scene.”

And while seven seasons of “The West Wing” were probably enough to put Schiff’s face on the Mt. Rushmore of walk-and-talks, his work on “Ragnarök” was further complicated by the fact that he had to do it while recovering from being hospitalized with COVID. “I got it really badly,” he said, “and I was still laboring physically when we started shooting in May of 2021. I literally didn’t have the lung capacity to get through some of these takes, […] but it also kept me even more present, because I didn’t necessarily want to do the shots six times.”

Richard Schiff on the set of "God of War Ragnarök"

Richard Schiff on the set of “God of War Ragnarök”

If staying present would seem to be the hardest part of acting out a mythological epic on a sterile Los Angeles soundstage in high-tech pajamas, the one-take approach — combined with Schiff’s inexperience and his rather pressing concerns about asphyxiation — colluded to help keep him in the moment and drill even deeper into Odin’s nature. Whereas Christopher Judge and the rest of the cast had developed a tendency to watch the monitors during takes so that they could see how their choices would be reflected in the game, Schiff made it his mission to get their full attention; to pull every ounce of their focus and put the egomaniacal Allfather at the center of their worlds.

“Their job is to be right with the image,” Schiff said, “but since they’re experts at this they’re able to keep one eye on the screen as they act. So I’d find a way to get their attention and be like ‘Look at me, motherfuckers!,’ which is an easy thing for Odin to do.” That friction between screen and reality allowed Schiff to rediscover his favorite space as an actor: That liminal area where intentions overlap. “I don’t care what I do, I don’t care what you do, I care what happens in between,” he said. “I live for those moments.”

Inexperienced at this in some ways but extremely wise in others, Schiff also looked for Odin-like ways to leverage his weaknesses into strengths. “Christopher Judge could kill me with a pinky poke,” Schiff said. “He’s the size of a tank. Thor [Ryan Hurst] is seven times my size. So that played a part in how I figured Odin out. I remembered a kid name Ricky from my days at P.S. 144; he was the littlest guy in New York, but he was Napoleon. He once asked me if he could cheat off my French test and I said ‘yeah’ and the next thing I knew I was the star of the yard and being invited to all the punchball games because I helped him out. And I couldn’t get over how this kid was able to ascertain that kind of influence over everyone around him.”

That first-hand experience dovetailed with a natural fascination that Schiff inherited from the darkest chapters of Jewish history. Born 10 years after the Holocaust, Schiff grew up hearing stories about the consequences of authoritarianism, the cumulative effect of which moved him to study modern European history. “I could never understand how people can be manipulated en masse to perform at the pleasure of tyrants,” he said, “And now, of course, I’ve lived long enough to see exactly how that can happen.”

Richard Schiff on the set of "God of War Ragnarök"

Richard Schiff on the set of “God of War Ragnarök”

Schiff rightly described Odin as having more in common with Putin (shrewd and unreadable) than Trump (oafish and boring), but his performance hooks into the fatal hubris they share between them, and the insecure loneliness that undergirds the barbarity of all such monsters.

“That’s an easy thing for me to hook into,” Schiff said, “and I have a tendency to be attracted to characters who are alone in the world. If they’re not, I kind of push them in that direction because I think that’s where my voice is coming from. I have a desperate need to understand all the things that everyone else seems to get,” he continued, summoning visions of Odin isolating himself in his study and obsessing over the rift in the universe while the rest of Asgard drank and fucked and enjoyed their good fortune as rulers of the universe.

“Even in high school, everyone understood the social nature of getting together and partying and getting high,” he continued. “I didn’t get that. I didn’t understand. I didn’t know how to do it. And so I was someone who was always alone watching and observing like the other kids were gorillas at the zoo. And I think Odin has some of that because he considers himself to be different, and he needs to control everything because there’s something so desperately shaky about his inner core.”

Without suggesting that Schiff would have become a similar kind of sociopath if not for the human connection he found through the arts, listening to him talk made it easy to appreciate the vitality he gets from sharing the “in between” with other actors, especially when he wearily lamented the consequences that Odin suffers as a result of his all-consuming obsession. “Constantly manipulating for power, status, or whatever else can’t help but result in paranoia,” Schiff said, “and because of that paranoia Odin is never going to have a friend. And just look at his marriage” (for those unfamiliar with Norse lore, Odin’s love life is… unstable).

For his part, Schiff has been married to actress Sheila Kelley, who co-stars with him on “The Good Doctor,” since 1996, and he obviously still spends quality time with their children. More to the point, it’s clear that he still feeds off the energy he gets from discovering the spark in a great scene, and he isn’t at all pretentious about where he’s able to find it.

“I’m not saying this for any political reason, but I’m genuinely stunned by how brilliant the people who made this game are and how much they love what they do and how much they respect and give space to the creativity of the people around them,” Schiff said. “I haven’t experienced that very much in my career. I saw it recently with ‘Till’ director Chinonye Chukwu when I was in her movie ‘Clemency.’ That set had that feeling. ‘The West Wing’ of course had that feeling. And a few other projects.”

Now that he’s gotten another taste of it, Schiff seems as motivated as ever to keep looking for that feeling again. “I’m still very, very hungry,” he insisted, and satisfying that hunger has — against all odds — resulted in the veteran character actor starring in both the biggest movie and video game in the world at the same time.

Well, “starring in” might be an overblown way to describe his role as the U.S. Secretary of State in “Wakanda Forever,” but it would seem that Marvel has a healthy respect for his contributions, as the first thing you see when the movie fades to black are the words: “special appearance by Richard Schiff.”

When asked what kind of wizardry his agents used to make that happen, Schiff insisted that he doesn’t know or care about the credits, but he suggested that it was meant to be the start of a beautiful friendship. “I don’t even know what I’m allowed to say, but I hope there’s more in that universe for this character. I don’t know if there is or not, but I think that credit might have been with the idea that that was coming.”

After his unexpected experience with “Ragnarök,” Schiff has never been more comfortable to let fate take its course, or to embrace the idea that his future as an actor might still be full of surprises.

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