'Godzilla: King of the Monsters' Co-Star Thomas Middleditch on Family Drama, Monster Fights and Striving for an Environmental Message
Published May 30, 2019Everyone's favourite Japanese dinosaur, Godzilla, since his 1954 debut, has represented society's fears about apocalyptic destruction as a result of meddling with nature. Not only does Godzilla: King of the Monsters (the new film in Legendary's MonsterVerse and the followup to 2014's Godzilla) feature some thought-provoking themes about just how catastrophic irreversible environmental damage can be, it's also an all-out monster brawl that features appearances by some classic Godzilla franchise kaiju like Mothra and Rodan.
The new film follows crypto-zoological agency Monarch and their attempts to understand why these ancient monsters are hell-bent on humanity's destruction, before it's too late. Exclaim! spoke to Thomas Middleditch (HBO's Silicon Valley), who plays Sam Coleman, Monarch's communications liaison with the U.S. government, to talk about disaster movie lawyer jerks, authenticity, environmentalism and what to expect next from this MonsterVerse.
Your character, Sam Coleman, has an interesting role in this ensemble of amazing people. He has to hold his own against a lot of pretty high tensions, and also the impending apocalypse, in a relatively collected way. Was it a challenge for you, putting yourself in that head space?
It's definitely a very serious movie. It's high stakes all the time. And so for me, coming from comedy, that's not something I do all the time. But Sam Coleman is interesting. You know how in disaster movies, there's always like, a jerk lawyer, and in the end he gets smashed by a comet or eaten by a dinosaur or something? Sam's taking the place of that guy, but instead of being an absolute prick, he's kind of a sweetie. He's one of the good guys — he totally believes in the monster and the Titans, he buys all of Dr. Serizawa's (Ken Watanabe) philosophy, and he can see the emotional struggle that's going on with Mark (Kyle Chandler), and he only wants to help. He occasionally has some funny lines born out of a bit of innocence. Like, he's not the cynic, that's Bradley Whitford's character [Dr. Rick Stanton]. Sam feels sort of young.
Something I liked that came up as a joke a few times is that everyone assumes he doesn't know where things are or what's going on, and they're a little surprised when he knows exactly how to help.
Yeah. I think it's sort of like, because this is a senior position within Monarch as Communications Liaison — he's got a nice job, but maybe he's too young for it. And so everyone assumes that he's a bit wet behind the ears, but it turns out he's been nerding out about this job for his whole life. So he's come prepared.
The other disaster movie archetype that Sam reminded me of was the guy yelling in a courtroom and warning everyone that this is what's going down, but he gets ignored. Nobody listens and then he was right all along.
Yeah, I got my "Mr. Middleditch Goes to Washington" moment.
Considering you come from a sketch and improv comedy background, and this is a film where you're essentially reacting to huge monsters that won't be there until post-production, was that spirit kind of similar, convincing the audience that you're reacting to something that's really there?
Yeah, you don't want to be the one guy where the camera's panning, and all these characters are really acting their hearts out, and it cuts to you and you're half-there, doing the 1930s version of being scared and clutching your pearls. You really want to be as authentic as you can. Especially for me. I had something to prove, I guess more to myself. I'm the comedian coming in with all these like heavy-hitting, real dramatic actors. I want to make sure that I could fit, that it's not like, "oh cool, he's giving it his best." I want to make sure that it feels right that I'm there. I think that was my personal mantra for the whole thing: don't be the one clown who doesn't fit with the other actors.
There are a ton of great actors and characters in this movie and it focuses a lot on not only the destruction, but this close knit-group of people.
It's a balance, right? If you have only that drama and there are not enough monsters, then it's like, "Well, I didn't get what I came here to see." But then if it's only CGI city destruction and nothing else, then you get numb to the cool stuff. So I thought Mike [Dougherty, director/co-writer] and Zach Shields [co-writer, executive producer] did a great job of coming up with characters who are fleshed out, whose emotional journeys are real. There's a whole family falling apart. Dr. Serizawa's character arc has a whole culmination in terms of what he will sacrifice for Godzilla. That, to me, puts a bunch of context to all the monster mayhem that you end up seeing, but if there wasn't enough of that, you'd feel under-serviced. So this movie's got Godzilla, it's got Rodan, Mothra, Ghidorah, and they all get their crazy moments. Their closeups, as it were.
Were you personally a fan of the Godzilla universe, or all the Legendary monster stuff?
I wasn't a big Godzilla-head coming into it — my wheelhouses are Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars, but I guess Godzilla's kind of a big dragon! But Mike worked in a lot of homages to the original. He's lived and breathed it for a long time. Everything from using the big heavy hitters from that monster world to the soundtrack, where there's a lot of Japanese influence.
You were also in The Final Girls, is a film that I liked quite a lot. And like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, it rewrites what we expect from these genre films. On one hand they're sort of fun, throwaway popcorn movies, but on the other hand deal with some serious themes and ideas.
Yeah, with Final Girls, it's about mourning and grief, and revisiting loved lost ones in a weird sort of shadow-bending, going-inside-of-a-horror-movie kind of way. That was a very personal story to tell. And there's a bit of that in Godzilla as well, with the family drama. But what I love about this movie is the theme of climate change and humanity's impact on the world. Vera Farmiga's character [Dr. Emma Russell] is like, humans are too much. We're not going to change. So we need the monsters to get us. And to be honest, I don't really disagree with her! It's a shame that monsters don't exist. But I grew up in British Columbia, Canada, in Nelson, this hippie town. Like, I'm a tree-hugger, NRDC, Sierra Club environmentalist. So to me, if I can be involved in a Hollywood summer blockbuster that is essentially an environmentalist movie, I'm down.
Speaking of those environmental themes — aside from being stoked to see Godzilla smash a couple of dragons, are you hoping people come away from this movie with a renewed understanding of what we're doing and what effect that could have on the world?
I mean, I don't expect that. When you make a big movie, or when you make anything directly about environmentalism, it's a tough sell. Most people don't want to be told they can't drive a Hummer or something. It's always been a hard message to sell within pop culture. So I think, in the end, the number one thing people will get from this movie is the fan service, all the monsters and the monster battles. Number two is probably the family connection and all the various character motivations that are happening within this huge cast. And then three, if the credits are rolling and you're like, "oh man, that's got me thinking about my environmental impact," that would be a huge win. I would be very proud to have been a part of a huge movie that inspired that thought. I mean, I'm not holding my breath. But that'd be pretty cool.
What else are you hoping people get out of the Godzilla: King of the Monsters experience?
There's some big franchises out there, and I think what TV is teaching them is that it's pretty fun to build out a world. To not just have a movie and then let that be the whole story. We have essentially episodic content within a feature-length film, with all the features online. And I think what Legendary's doing with this monster universe is pretty cool. If you end up seeing this movie, see it in the theatre — it's a monster movie, you gotta get the big sound. If you see it and you like it, there's more on the way, and it'll give you a break from The Avengers.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is in theatres May 31.