Feature Article

Willem Dafoe And James McAvoy Talk The Splendor Of Acting In The Time-Loop Thriller Twelve Minutes

We spoke with the lead actors about the time-bending adventure game, and which of their films they think could work as videogames.

The conceit of a time-loop, its infinite cycles and the stress of finding a way out, is a familiar one. Yet, the upcoming narrative adventure game, Twelve Minutes, focuses on a more intimate and emotional experience about the lives of others and the secrets they hide. A nameless protagonist is caught in an unending time-loop within his apartment, and players will have to uncover long-held secrets about central characters, a girlfriend who's caught in the middle, and an intruder that ends his life.

With every loop peeling back the layers of each character, Twelve Minutes uses the concept of a time-loop to act as an extended lesson in empathy, which is something the creator and actors working on the game found enticing. We spoke with game director Luis Antonio and lead actors James McAvoy and Willem Dafoe about the making of Twelve Minutes, and what they learned about their experience taking part in the creation of a non-linear game

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Now Playing: Twelve Minutes | Xbox + Bethesda E3 2021

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.

For Luis, can you start off with talking about what the initial vision was for this project?

Luis Antonio: The starting point for Twelve Minutes was just exploration of the accumulated knowledge in video games, and how that could become useful when dabbling into these different time loops. Games already have this nature of repetition where you die--you lose, and you go back to the beginning. So I just started to ask myself these questions of what's interesting about it. Like what are the angles that are worth spending our time with, and it quickly became about these characters understanding who they are, where they come from, and why they're doing what they're doing.

Developing these characters became a lot about creating these motivations that made sense to the gameplay beats and kind of the rhythm of the design, as well as restricting them enough. So with every loop you can unravel enough things to know where to go, and learn enough things that will keep you going. The other big element was removing any clear objectives for the player. Willem’s character [The Intruder] coming in and beating up the husband every loop is a big motivator to stop what's happening. But once you jump over that barrier, it becomes a lot about your interpretation of what's happening, and then the nuance of the acting comes in to really make it. A lot of it happens in your head, and how you're reading what's happening as you go through each loop, and you learn more about the characters involved

And you also have a great cast for this game. Willem, I know there’s been much talk about your role in the game, but you actually have a lot of experience working on games. You’ve worked on the Spider-Man video game, played a Bond villain in Everything Or Nothing, and even worked with Elliot Page on Beyond: Two Souls. But Twelve Minutes actually feels more in line with much of your dramatic efforts in film. What initially attracted you to this game, and did you feel you learned something from this experience?

Willem Dafoe: Yeah, Luis pitched it to me and it obviously was a project he deeply considered, and that this was not just an exercise. I knew Daisy Ridley and James McAvoy were already committed to the project, so I thought, “Wow, it'll be fun to bounce off them because they're both very good actors.” I had worked with Daisy on a Kenneth Branagh film called Murder on the Orient Express, and I liked her a great deal. She's very talented, charming and sweet. So I was into that.

But as far as what I learned, I don't know. It's always hard to know what you learn. I think it just confirms certain things that I have a tendency to feel. That is, you can only deal with what's in front of you and how you deal with it. The quality of performing, it always depends on the presence of the actor. And because they're not seeing you [in the case of Twelve Minutes], you will have to have a level of commitment and level of engagement that really makes this stuff stick. Otherwise, it becomes very fast, and it can be very active, but it's not invested. So one of the pleasures is, with any kind of performing, is to kind of, for lack of a better word, lose yourself in the pleasure of the doing and the pleasure of actually yourself throwing in, and being in the moment.

That's all very easy to do when you're in voice work, because you're bouncing off people, and you don't have the same kind of technical responsibilities. You're working quite fast, you're working with lots of variation and you've got the director driving you, pushing in your ear. It becomes an interactive game in itself, I guess the thing I learned is I do enjoy doing voice work. I probably, above all, like to do physical stuff when I perform in the theater or movies, but working with the voice can be very freeing sometimes.

The Protagonist and his significant other start out having a nice evening to themselves, but things quickly take a turn.
The Protagonist and his significant other start out having a nice evening to themselves, but things quickly take a turn.

James, this is actually your first major role in a video game. And in a way, it's also fitting that you probably have the most difficult role in the game, playing the protagonist. You, of course, have experience in theater, film, television, but I imagine there was a lot to consider and keep track of for this game. So what was your experience like stepping into a role for a video game?

James McAvoy: Yeah, it was crazy. Right from the moment they sent me the script, they told me the idea of the game, and I read the treatment about it. I was like, "It's great. I'll do it." And then Luis kind of prepped me about the script before he sent it. And I was like, "This is weird. They're preparing me for the script." I'm like, "It's a script." And he's like, "Nah, it's not really a script, dude." And I was like, "Huh?" When I got it, it was so strange, different, unique, and quite useful, actually, for this particular kind of project. So I got the main central strand [of the story] with a couple of offshoots, depending on what choices the characters make, and that was it. But for the other parts, I had to just sort of learn and perform as we went. So I was kind of learning about the story as it went on, which is kind of awesome.

But it was a weird and quite taxing role [playing the Protagonist]. It almost was like different roles at times, actually. Depending on what the player decides to do, he almost feels like a completely different person. And it was definitely a vocally demanding role, as well. There was a hell of a lot of screaming and shouting, crying and fighting, and all sorts of things.

I generally find that in animated or voice work, you're generally pushed much harder vocally than you are on a film or TV set. In the theater we're so warmed up, and we have to take care of our voices. But when it's voice work for animation or a game, it seems like they just rag you. This kind of work absolutely kills your voice. In fact, my buddy auditioned for, I think it was Battlefield 2042, a little while ago. They made the actor sign an agreement saying you won't sue us if you lose your voice in this audition. My buddy's a really well-known theater actor, and he's like, "Mmm... No, no no no no no no no. Not a f***ing chance." [Laughs] And then they had him lifting weights as they were screaming and shouting, "Under fire! Cover me! I'm going in!" They're all lifting weights to make them more, "Arrrr." It's crazy. So yeah, my experience is the voice work, they generally don't mind f***ing up your voice.

It sounds like you came into something you weren’t expecting, but ultimately came out feeling quite fulfilled.

James: Yeah, man. I love doing my job when I get good material, and I'll do that material, whatever it is. On screen, whatever you like, as long as the material is good. The material for [Twelve Minutes] was fantastic, so it was a bit of a no-brainer. The fact that you're doing it in a recording studio or you're doing it on stage in front of a hundred-odd people or you're doing it in front of the camera doesn't really matter. If you're working with good people, and you're working on a good script that has a compelling story with a dynamic and surprising character.

Depending on your choices, the evening can quickly descend into chaos, ending your loop with tragic results.
Depending on your choices, the evening can quickly descend into chaos, ending your loop with tragic results.

Speaking of theater, I admire this game because it seems to be more of an intimate take on a time loop narrative. It reminds me of a theater play. So for Willem, I know you've got quite the theater background yourself, did that recall feelings of taking part in a play?

Willem: There's that element, yeah, but it really didn't occur to me specifically. There is something, one fact about the theater--regardless of what kind of theater--is that there's always a degree of repetition because you're repeating a score and then every night you have to bring it alive, make it live again. With variation, of course--well, the variation is quite intense. So when you go in the room and you're recording this text and you're working with the other actors, one of the things that's a real pleasure about it is it's very loose. You're bound to the text, but how you pace it and what is happening, you're very free with it, because you're not presenting anything else. You're only working with your voice and with the other actors and the director speaking in your ear. I like that immediate call and response in a performance.

So it becomes like a game in itself because Luis has been sitting with this concept and has been thinking about this, and then we walk in and we generate events that he can guide by saying, "Go this way with it, think about this." So you're working psychologically, you're working just purely musically, sometimes sonically. It's fun, it's a jam session. You're generating material, you don't know where that material is going to be used, so your loyalty is just to try to make each moment have something, have its own truth, have its own reality.

For Luis, you have had experiences working on other games with these elaborate themes and structures, particularly The Witness with Jonathan Blow. For Twelves Minutes, it's all about the characters and dialogue. How did you feel about seeing how players interacted with the setup of the plot and seeing how far and how quickly they can escalate things?

Luis: That’s a tricky question. This game has been in development for a long time, and there was, especially during the writing stage, a moment where I realized that there were these things you have to go through in order to advance through the narrative. But once that aspect of the game was done and the focus was on the characters themselves, it became important to understand what drives them. More in the sense of how they choose to react to the situations that they're in. I had kids at the same time, and there's this moment in life, a little bit on the side but, when you have to put the values into your children and you don't know quite well if the values you've learned are the right values. You start to question what values will we put in your characters, how they react to situations, and if you impose certain values into certain characters, it will condition the way you react to the way they behave.

There was this process of making sure that there's a lot of empathy between all the characters, even though what they're doing might not be something that you believe is the right or the wrong thing to do. Removing all the judgment and letting them be as true as they can. I think that kind of opened up the characters so that you relate to them no matter what's happening throughout the story. That was a big thing for me.

Willem: I think for me, just real quick, that's really interesting because, with all the variations, what you might see sometimes as brutal or confrontational acts, when you see them slightly changed with each different motivation, different scenarios, you really feel your empathy or your understanding of the character shift. Which is terrifically interesting. It's like peeling back the skin of an onion. It's quite compelling.

I'd be remiss not to ask this, but obviously the world has been in a weird spot for the last year and a half with the COVID-19 Pandemic. Since this is a game that deals with intimacy and the importance of empathy, has the necessity to keep distance from people while making this game had any impact on your performance, or maybe your understanding of certain characters?

James: Ah, yes. It has. I think the protagonist feels very alone in this game. He's desperately trying to connect, specifically with Daisy's character, as well, with someone who he thinks he knows. I think this unique experience informs him that he really doesn't know. I think that that's happened to a lot of people during the pandemic, hasn't it? Like, you've lived with somebody for 20 years of your life, and then when you're stuck in the same house and you can't go anywhere for a year and a half, you actually learn quite a lot of new things about them.

In most cases, that can be a wonderful thing. But in a lot of cases, it can be an ending thing. So definitely, there are parallels there, I think. But just in performance, it was just wonderful to get in a room with another actor--Daisy. I think before this, I hadn’t done any acting during the pandemic, with anyone else in person, until this game. So it was pretty cool to jump back in. It was a bit of a treat.

To me, Twelve Minutes is, in a way, a lesson in empathy, which you see throughout the protagonist’s efforts to understand the other characters and break the loop. For Luis, could you elaborate more on the emotional threads you wanted to have throughout the game? And what do you want players to take away from their experiences?

Luis: The main thing I wanted to figure out is when we have situations of conflict, or situations having the characters deal with problems without blame or guilt. If you have that attitude, right, the player will automatically, in a way, relate with the characters because they're not blaming us for how they're feeling or how the situation is developing. That's what makes you automatically be on board with whatever's happening, and try to stay on each character's side. You know the before and the after, I think your interpretation of the situation becomes more personal because there's less judgment on all fronts. Especially in a video game where there's a lot you can do a lot of things to irritate everyone. So yeah, it’s really all about presenting more empathy between the characters.

The Intruder has a serious grudge against the Protagonist, and finding out why is one of the things to uncover in Twelve Minutes.
The Intruder has a serious grudge against the Protagonist, and finding out why is one of the things to uncover in Twelve Minutes.

Lastly, just something of a fun question for both Willem and James, who have quite a number of projects under their belts for acting. For James in particular, with exception for Wanted and the X-Men films, is there a particular project you've worked on that you think could be adapted into a video game?

James: Oh! That's a really good question. What do I think? I think that one of the weirdest, most surreal films I've done, that would allow for some pretty wicked choices, especially if you approached it in the way that Luis approaches Twelve Minutes where the player actually has a lot of freedom of choice, would maybe be Filth. That was an Irvine Welsh book that Jon S. Baird directed and brilliantly adapted it into a film. I think that might be a kind of fun and exciting, visually quite stimulating game as well. But other than that, I mean, of course there's Narnia, a Mr. Tumnus spin-off where it's really all about Mr. Tumnus, and you have to run around collecting sardines.

Luis: Actually, Filth was an inspiration for Twelve Minutes. I don't think I ever mentioned that.

James: Filth? Really?

Luis: Yeah, the way you play that character, the craziness that he gets into as the situation gets worse and worse, it was...for the character artists and just the moods that we wanted to go for.

If I may offer a suggestion, I think for my pick, Danny Boyle’s Trance would probably be an interesting one. I really dug that movie a lot.

James: Yes! It’s quite a mind-bending movie and it’s very action-driven too as well. It’s also very psychologically driven, that would be an interesting one.

Willem: That's a tough one to answer for me. Oh wow. Actually, how about The Last Temptation of Christ?

[Laughs] Oh man, I'm sure someone out there could figure that out, that would be a compelling game for sure. I thought you were going to say The Lighthouse.

Willem: That would be a good one too.

Actually, I don't know if you knew this, but one of your earlier films, Streets of Fire, would be a great video game. In fact, that film actually ended up having an impact on a whole sub genre of video games--which we call beat-em-ups.

Willem: Ah, that’s interesting.

Yeah, it was so popular with certain crowds that it ended up inspiring the creation of games like Final Fight and Streets of Rage, which actually pulled directly from the style and structure of Streets of Fire. That film has a cult following and it's got history in the games industry.

Willem: Oh, cool. You know, I'm going to be working next in a couple of weeks. I’m working with Walter Hill and it's fantastic because he was the director and one of the writers of that movie. That's like 40 years ago. I'm so excited to work with him again. But that movie was great fun and the people that know it, love it. I appreciate hearing that, because it was a lot of fun to make.

Twelve Minutes is set for release on August 19, 2021 for PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S--at launch, it will be available on Game Pass.

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Alessandro Fillari

I'm an editor and producer at GameSpot with more than 10 years of experience covering the Games Industry. I love Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and Metal Gear Solid, and I hope we'll one day see a new game for the latter's franchise. My job entails bringing in opportunities and producing some amazing features and content for GameSpot--I'm basically the Arthur Morgan of GameSpot.

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