Interview: The Stars of Valiant’s ‘Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe’ Swing for the Fences [NYCC 2016]
After weeks of hinting at a top secret project with fan-favorite actors Michael Rowe and Jason David Frank, Valiant Entertainment finally pulled back the curtain on Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe at New York Comic Con. The first trailer for the upcoming digital series brought out the first appearances of familiar Valiant characters like Ninjak and Bloodshot, but we also got glimpses at Archer and Armstrong, X-O Manowar, and the villain of the first season, Roku.
Developed by Valiant Digital in conjunction with Bat in the Sun --- they of Super Power Beat Down --- Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe isn't set to arrive until 2017, but we had a chance to chat with some of the stars at NYCC to learn more about breaking new ground and setting the pace for Valiant's live-action efforts.
Not to be confused with Valiant's partnership with Sony for big screen adaptations, the upcoming digital series is a completely different venture. Though pop culture is dominated by comic heroes at the cineplex these days, Valiant's CEO Dinesh Shamdasani found there was an unexplored avenue in the digital space that the publisher could use to its advantage.
"We have a very analytical approach to the business as a whole," Shamdasani said. "We’ve done the same thing in broader media as we did in publishing, which was we took a look at everyone out there --- we made spreadsheets of everything every publisher had done --- and we did the same with broader media. We found that with the companies that succeeded, they had a step that people don’t often talk about which was Saturday morning cartoons."
Shamdasani cited the likes of the 1990s X-Men animated series, Batman: The Animated Series and Spider-Man: The Animated Series as prime examples of how DC and Marvel were able to reach entirely new audiences, but noted that the Saturday morning programming we grew up on had disappeared. More importantly, he discovered the demographic that once spent those Saturday hours in front of the television migrated to the internet.
"Saturday morning shows don’t exist in the same way they did back then," Shamdasani said. "That demo migrated online. We loved finding that out. Here’s a space that Marvel, DC and others have stayed away from. They’re scared of it. They don’t know what to do with it.
"About two years ago, we made it a mandate in this company to be very aggressive in this space, to figure it out and to be a first mover in this space. That’s resulted in us partnering with Bat in the Sun, who built the incredible Super Power Beat Down show, which is a mega success. I think doing something like that is the most ambitious thing anyone’s done in the digital space."
That kind of thinking helped attract the cast to the project, though a few of them being friendly with Bat in the Sun founders Aaron and Sean Schoenke certainly didn't hurt the recruitment drive. Such was the case for the man inside X-O Manowar's armor, Derek Theler.
"I’ve been friends with Aaron for a couple of years now, and I’ve been a fan of Super Power Beat Down," Theler said. "When he told me about this project I was really interested. I thought it was a cool way to do a project like this digitally, and to introduce this whole world by having Ninjak fight a different character every episode."
It didn't take long for Theler to get on board with X-O either, even though he didn't know much about Valiant or the character until the project was brought up. After catching up on everything Visigoth, Theler was sold.
"I got the comics sent to me and read them all," Theler said. "I thought X-O was such a dynamic character, and his suit is very unique. It’s this alien substance that protects him and lets him shoot weapons from his hands. It’s something I’m super pumped about, and I’m stoked I’m the first person that gets to do this as X-O."
Being first is something the actors involved with Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe had to wrap their heads around, but it was a big draw for Jason David Frank. You might remember Jason from his time on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as the Green and White Ranger, but soon, he'll hope he's just as synonymous with Bloodshot as he is with the tokusatsu hero.
"I just want to be the first version of this character. That’s what’s exciting about us, being the first," Frank said. "I researched it all, I liked it. Then the next question was, 'Will I look like Bloodshot?' You look at the casting, Bat in the Sun did an amazing job with the casting. To see these superheroes come alive is like whoah. People come up and are like, 'You look like you just stepped out of the comic book.'"
For Chantelle Barry, playing the series core villain Roku was the big draw. Typically cast as the "good girl," Barry saw Roku as an opportunity to explore what it would be like to finally be a villain --- even if she doesn't see Ninjak's frequent foil as an inherently bad character.
"The villain is really fun role to play," Barry said. "Not because she’s born evil, but because of the motivation. All of the stuff that makes Roku is what really drew me to the character. To not just play evil is my intention here."
Without Ninjak though, none of Valiant's plans work. It's fortunate then that Michael Rowe seems more than up to the task. After spending some time in the world of heroes and villains in the Arrow-verse as Deadshot, getting a chance to play another character that isn't quite as black and white as some of his contemporaries make Ninjak an appealing part to play. That Rowe was serving as the foundation for an entire live action universe didn't seem to faze him very much either.
"To be honest, I’m grateful I have this cool character to play," Rowe said. "All I’m trying to do with my adventure in acting is be challenged, and find stuff to do with cool characters and cool people. I guess a lot of people are going to have eyes on this, but I try not to think about that. I just have to do my job properly.
"Some people are going to love it and some people are probably going to hate it, but I can’t be too concerned with that because that gets in the way of the decision process when it comes to art. Even if you don’t realize it, you’re going to try to impress people. Nobody likes desperate art."
Even if the cast seemingly came together rather easily, and they all had experience in front of the camera, this was still the on-screen debut for Valiant's characters themselves. In the history of these characters, we'd never seen their armor or costumes in real life, let alone heard what any of them sound like in person. With so many moving parts introduced in this first salvo of Valiant content, the challenge was immense to get it right.
"It certainly was a challenge because you have to cast everyone up, you have to create all the costumes in three dimensions which we’ve never done before," Shamdasani said. "You have to figure out what the voices sound like. Some of these characters have been around for 25 years, and you’ve never heard them before. We gotta make sure you get all that right, and that the fans don’t hunt us down."
Getting the characters right was a team effort according to the Barry and Theler, who both appreciated the give and take the production team offered in shaping Roku and X-O respectively. Though he hasn't shot much of his part yet, it's not that hard to believe the 6' 6" Theler didn't have too much trouble getting into the role. The same could be said for Frank, who has a history with action heroes, even if Bloodshot happens to have been through a bit more drama than Tommy.
"I think I understand Bloodshot more than any other character in this whole Valiant universe," Frank said. "It sounds weird, but the process in his head is so messed up, and in my life, things crisscross in my brain, like, 'Is this real? Is it not real?' There's so much stuff going on, I can really relate to Bloodshot. He’s been through a lot of trauma and so have I. My mentality is the Bloodshot mindset. Work hard, be a machine."
For Rowe, it's all about finding the humanity in the character, and building the "Frankenstein" from influences like professional wrestling. That's the first kind of storytelling Rowe remembers being immediately addicted to as a kid, and even though he eventually grew out of it, he still subscribes to the idea that wrestlers are living, breathing superheroes. The Ninjak we see in this series wouldn't be who he is without some of Rowe's musical inspirations though.
"I’ve got some theme songs in my phone, that I use to give Ninjak a riff for certain scenes," Rowe said. "I've played a couple of these characters now that are not very clear cut good guys or total villains, you know what I mean? The figures I was always attracted to, even in music ---you know like Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins --- these bad asses would have to fight their way out of their shows when they started. I was really attracted to that aura and energy that surrounded these projects. I started playing this post punk style stuff, just getting into the history of these characters, and I feel like I use a lot of it in these roles."
If you're looking to build your own Ninjak playlist, these songs hand-picked by Rowe should provide some inspiration:
- "Rise Above" - Black Flag
- "Pure Rock Fury" - Clutch
- "Wild Side" - Motley Crue
- "Ace of Spade" - Motorhead
- "Wolf Like Me" - TV on the Radio
Rowe had his music to find the spirit of the character, but it wasn't until he got into the costume that he felt like the character completely. The outfit started out with just a simple, shimmering body suit, but after several fittings and additions, Ninjak started taking shape on screen and in Rowe's mind.
"After several fittings and seeing it all come together, it kind of blew my mind, not only how it looked in the room but how it looked on camera," Rowe said. "They designed it to have little accents for the camera to pick up. It really did change my posture and the way I walked and held myself. You hear often when playing a part, the last thing that seals the deal is putting on the costume, but I never felt that as much as when I put on this one.
"I can sprint in the suit, but it's hard wearing the mask. It’s like wearing a snorkel when you’re trying to fight someone."
Something Rowe himself wasn't even aware would be as a big a deal was Ninjak's hair. The character has a signature look, which is easy enough to keep maintained in a comic, but once you transition to live action, getting the Ninjak flip just right takes a bit more work.
"There are constant touch-ups with the hair, and now I’ve become incredibly OCD about it," Rowe said. "I'm like 'Hows the hair? hows the hair?' The hilarious part is, the CEO Dinesh is on set with us, and he’s turned into the hair guy. He’s like, 'The flip is not right; It’s all messed up from that last punch you took. Let me fix it.' It’s a team effort."
Since Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe isn't out until next year, there's very little footage anyone has seen or shot to this point. That didn't stop the cast from hinting at some of their favorite elements from episodes fans should be watching for in 2017.
"I’m super-pumped for this next thing I’m shooting. Pretty much every standing structure in the building we’re in is going to be destroyed," Theler said.
Barry too was eager for some of the more effect-driven elements, like Roku's killer mane. "Roku’s hair comes to life, and that’s something we’ll see in the pilot that I’m excited about." Barry said. "We have an amazing special effects team. I haven’t seen it in action, but we’ve done things while shooting that I’m excited to see come to life."
As both Rowe and Frank play characters that are a little bit more grounded in their combat abilities, the fight between Ninjak and Bloodshot is one that's on their radars. Particularly because Bat in the Sun got a bit ambitious with one-take choreography.
"We’ve done some brave filming styles where we tried to do big, long fight scenes in one shot," Rowe said."Hats off to these guys. They hired me to do this gig and didn’t know what my stunt or fight skills were like. When they saw I could get in there and perform a lot of moves and do them safely, then they started adding to it.
"We’d try 10 moves and then we’d do it, and they’d want to do 30 moves in the next fight. It was ridiculous, but they were like, 'Look, we’ve got all day to do it, it’s you and Jason. He's a consummate professional. You’re in good hands.' I’m not a dancer or anything, and it's all this choreography. It’s a lot of knowing where your foot is going, knowing your body angles, and getting slammed around. These are things I’ve never been challenged to do on other shows, and they’re really pushing it. I like the results."
That kind of ambitious effort is just what Shamdasani is hoping will set Valiant's digital series apart. Where he believed most other publishers failed in bringing their franchises to life was in trying to copy the tone of Marvel and DC live-action programming. For 25 years, Valiant has marched to the beat of its own mantra, with obvious success given the company's staying power and devoted fanbase.
"We wanted to do this because we’d rather swing for the fences and fail spectacularly, interestingly, than to shirk our responsibility doing something safe and small, and then have the audience be indifferent towards it," Shamdasani said.