By Nick Romano
February 06, 2019 at 02:53 PM EST
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Netflix

Spoiler warning for Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw

Mark Steger, the actor behind the Demogorgon in Stranger Things, finally got his chance to play a superhero in a movie. Well, technically, he played a robotic art installation in the likeness of a superhero in the movie Velvet Buzzsaw. Steger, who made a Hollywood career out of playing all sorts of apparitions on screen, chuckles at the idea of anyone comparing his latest monstrosity, Hoboman, to the likes of, say, Captain America.

“It’s a very unusual superhero,” the 57-year-old industry vet concedes. “It’s a mechanical sculpture that’s been run over by a truck and is on crutches.” 

Like most of Steger’s work, the actor is hidden behind heavy prosthetics and a touch of CGI in Velvet Buzzsaw, director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler reunion with actor Jake Gyllenhaal. That includes a set of fake teeth and a mask glued to his lips. In a film featuring ghostly art pieces that attack onlookers, Hoboman is one such work that transforms into a killer robot.

“It looks really creepy,” Steger comments on his outfit. “There was something about the mask that had this life to it, but there’s something just off in such a way that it makes you feel just a little uneasy. And then he has this gawdy superhero, red-white-and-blue outfit with a cape that has tire treads on it and is tattered and he has parts of his body have been broken away to reveal the mechanism inside.”

Netflix

“The superhero phenomenon has reached contemporary art in our film,” Gilroy tells EW of his movie that is all about the “uneasy” relationship between “art and commerce.” Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), a prestigious art critic, very much wants to “further the realm” he analyzes but he inadvertently plays into the hands of Rhodora (Rene Russo), a punk creative who renounced her craft to pursue capitalistic success as a prominent art gallery owner. All get their comeuppance, thanks in part to Hoboman, when Rhodora’s assistant (Zawe Ashton) steals the demonic paintings of her reclusive upstairs neighbor after he drops dead.

Hoboman, Gilroy explains, became an attempt at this world’s “social commentary” with the image of a once prominent superhero now forced to live homeless on the streets, spouting lines like, “Have you ever felt invisible?” Once possessed by the same sinister force inhabiting the paintings, it becomes a ghostly vessel.

It’s an interesting inclusion for Gyllenhaal, who will now star in a superhero movie, Spider-Man: Far From Home, after getting attacked by Steger’s walking superhero critique in Velvet Buzzsaw.

“I think these two movies actually play off of each other, in Velvet Buzzsaw and also in the Spider-Man movie,” Gyllenhaal says. “They’re about me as an actor wanting to have a lot of fun and joy. We could have a long conversation about the culture we’re living in, but I think that, for me personally, recently I just thought it’d be great to have some fun. These two choices felt like that. I had so much fun playing Morf and I had so much fun working again with this group of people.”

Steger’s buds at Spectral Motion, the same company who crafted his Demogorgon costume for Netflix, based the look of Hoboman on a piece they produced with artist Jordan Wolfson, a hyper-sexualized “Female Figure” with a grotesque twist. The actor remarks how “Female Figure” was “incredibly fluid” and “lifelike,” attributes borrowed by Spectral Motion’s Mark Setrakian for the Hoboman design.

“Because of the budget restrictions for the film, they couldn’t actually make a full mechanical sculpture,” Steger notes. “So they decided the best thing to do was have somebody pretend to be a robot.”

Netflix

For his truly killer sequence involving Gyllenhaal’s Morf, Steger’s Hoboman was mostly prosthetics punctuated by green screen effects to denote the mechanical innards. Steger can do all “the psychological work” ahead of time — in this case, creating the sense that Hoboman was more “an effigy” for an unseen force than a creature — but he mentions “a good deal of [the performance] is actually created in the environment when you’re on set.”

Steger rehearsed in full makeup ahead of the shoot, but he didn’t realize the full “geography” of the production space until the day of. “I don’t always try to do the scene exactly the same way, I try to offer the director different variations even if it’s the same movement,” he recalls. “Of course, you have to think about continuity”

Steger feels a “kinship” between Hoboman and his work on Stranger Things as the Demogorgon. “The directors had this really clear vision, as well as the intimacy of the production,” he explains. “Stranger Things felt more like a film production than a series. I worked on series before and that can tend to feel a little more mercenary — [in the sense that] it feels like you’re thrust from one thing to another suddenly — because there’s always a different director, whereas [showrunners] the Duffers were there for almost all the episodes actually directing.” Gilroy maintained a similar vibe on set, collaborating with Steger to cement the choreography.

Hoboman wasn’t nearly as challenging as that time Steger played the demon in 2016’s Incarnate, starring Aaron Eckhart and Gotham‘s David Mazouz. That time he literally lost all of his toenails after the production. He’s not kidding. “I was overheating in the suit and the legs were made to look like bird legs so your heel becomes a joint that’s higher up on your leg,” he says of that experience. “What they built the feet around were these fetish boots, like a horse hoof, so you’re on your toes the entire time.”

Throughout his entire career, which also includes I Am Legend and two of “the most interesting” characters he’s ever done in the upcoming Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, that was the one role that almost became his “You have to get me out of here” moment. But fighting through bronchitis while shooting as Hoboman was also challenging. “It was really difficult being sealed into a silicon mask and having this big complicated costume,” he said. “I was a little nervous whenever Jake got a little close to me. I didn’t want to give him anything.”

Nowadays, Steger’s work very much hinges on these highly physical performances, something he started exploring long before Velvet Buzzsaw with a series of “animalistic” live performances through his group called Osseus Labyrint. But it’s the mix of practical and CGI that makes screen work so interesting. “When they’re used together,” he says, “each one can cover up the seams of the other and each one lends the other a little more strength, a little more weight.”

Not that Steger needs the added CG to make you cringe.

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