Actor, writer, model, Cameron Monaghan has a gift for bringing complex characters to life and his deep affinity for the creative arts sets him apart as a truly thrilling entertainer.
The LA-based performer may have found major success with international audiences via his role as Ian Gallagher in Shameless US or as the psychotic Valeska twins in the Batman-based TV show Gotham, yet Monaghan has always consistently given stellar performances since early childhood when he first entered the industry. Whilst growing up, Cameron developed a profound passion for film and would make countless trips to the cinema. After his mother recognised his outgoing personality and appreciation for drama, she gently encouraged him to get involved in his school theatre productions. From there it soon led to child modelling and acting roles, allowing Monaghan to share his seemingly innate talents on a wider scope than before. Year after year, the roles kept getting larger and the now LA-based actor has built a solid reputation for being a versatile character actor. Whatever project Cameron Monaghan is working on, he approaches each role in a meticulous, thoughtful manner and through his love of the arts and understanding of cinematography, the talent can elevate any scene he’s in.
Back in 2019, publisher EA Games and developer Respawn Entertainment released a surprise story-driven video game set in the canon universe of the beloved sci-fi franchise, Star Wars. Entitled Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the game starred Monaghan as the lead protagonist, Cal Kestis. A Jedi and rebel on the run from the galactic empire. Even with a new story and ultimately an unknown protagonist fans weren’t familiar with, Fallen Order was a critical hit and marked the actor’s first foray into motion performance capture acting in the video game sector. As of tomorrow, Cameron Monaghan returns as the now-adored Kestis in Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. A project that builds on the themes of the last game and improves on every minute detail tenfold. In Kestis’s latest adventure, the stakes are raised, the narrative goes deeper, and the gameplay is more ambitious. It’s a far more expansive package. A true step up from its predecessor. Ultimately, it’s another example that showcases Cameron Monaghan’s excellent acting chops and arguably with the release of Jedi Survivor and all the momentum it has behind it, the actor is going to ascend to even headier heights.
In conversation with 1883 Magazine’s Cameron Poole, Monaghan discusses Jedi Survivor, music, a potential future move into directing, and more.
Cameron! The release of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is almost upon us. To start, would you mind talking a bit about how your motion capture work has differed and evolved this time around compared to when you worked on Fallen Order?
Sure, absolutely. I think that my comfort and understanding of what it was that I was doing shifted and evolved over the course of the first game. The most substantive change was from the beginning of our shoot to the end of the shoot of the first. By that I mean it has to do with the fact that there’s no set camera necessarily on you. There is a camera attached to your head at all times that is getting your facial data. Then there are sixty or so cameras around the perimeter of this empty space that you’re performing in, that are tracking your motion data. However, there’s not necessarily a set camera that is going to be used for these cinematics, cutscenes or whatever you want to call them, within a gameplay context.
It’s kind of an interesting thing because you’re doing this movement work that you might associate with theatre, which is great. However, at any moment within that, they could cut up to an ultra-close close-up of your face. And so if you’re doing something super broad movement-wise, that might not make sense for a tight close-up. This is a technical craft that you gain over time of working on camera, film and television. While that is generally very useful, it can become a bit of a pitfall, I think, when working in performance capture, in there’s no easy way to fix that, except to try to have as clear of a understanding or conversation about what it is that they’re looking for, for these moments and how best to deal with them.
The really nice thing about working in performance capture situations is that you’re very free on your options that you have. You’re not limited from doing something because of the way that a prop works, or the way that the lighting has been set up before you got there, or there’s something strange with your wardrobe that doesn’t allow you to bend in a certain way, whatever it might be.
In that way, it’s freeing, but what it means is you need to have a lot more conversations ahead of time just so that everybody is on the same page. And so that when they then receive that data, that information, they understand what is being given to them. That’s a very long-winded way to say that I really didn’t have any concept of what I was doing coming in. I don’t think that anybody does when they first do performance capture. Anybody that I know who worked as an on-camera actor felt very out of their depth initially with it. But going from the first game to the second game, we were able to have a lot more conversations about how best to handle it.
We had a really great cinematic director this time, his name is Dori Arazi. He recently did the new God of War games. He was the cinematic director on those. Something that he does, that I think is really fantastic, is he handholds a virtual camera within the space. Then what’s really useful about that is if you are an on-camera actor, you get to have that kind of rapport that you might not normally have dancing with your cameraman and letting the conversation between the two of you inform and reveal your performance. Having an understanding of what the camera is doing within space is really helpful. Especially it was on this job because—by the time this comes out, I think the game will be out, so I can speak a little bit more openly about it—the cinematics are all revealed as these one take, long shot deals. It’s very important to have an understanding of where the camera is and how to work with it. All I can really say is that Dori was a fantastic partner to work with and had a really great understanding and sensitivity, not only of the visual language, but also of the emotional language of performance and how to meld the two of those together.
Amazing. I can imagine you’re far more confident this time round for the sequel as well as you’ve now previously experienced what motion capture work is like. I was lucky enough to be sent the game a few days ago and I’ve only played a bit so far but I noticed how the transition from gameplay to cutscene is far more seamless this time round.
Oh fantastic. Yeah, absolutely, thank you.
From what’s been shown so far of the game, your character Cal Kestis seems a lot more hardened to the world he lives in now, a bit more brutal as well. I would imagine this personality shift comes from his surprise encounter with Vader and the split of his Mantis crew mates. Before you got the script for Jedi Survivor how were you hoping his character was going to develop?
Well, I had talked to Stig Asmussen, who is the head of Respawn Entertainment and director of our game, as well as Aaron Contreras, who is our lead story director. I don’t know what his official title is but he was our head writer for both the first game and the second. While we were shooting and finishing the first game, I think that we all had a few ideas of where to take it. I specifically remember we had the launch day party of the first game. Stig brought me aside, and we were talking just casually, and he’s sort of like, “Do you have any ideas?” I was like, “As a matter of fact, I do. I have a few.” And I told him that I think that I would like to see Cal, over the course of this game, and hopefully if there’s another, develop in age, and I would like to see him grow and shift and change and—maybe mature is not the right word, because I’m not sure that every decision he makes is necessarily the mature or right one, but he certainly does shift in his attitude and worldview. It was also something that I wanted to see him fighting very aggressively against his circumstances, and raised the question of whether or not that’s necessarily the right way to deal with that.
Something that was really the core of what I had mentioned to Stig was, to me, I’ve always had a question of what it means to be ‘light side’ and ‘dark side’. I think that you could be a good guy or a good person but maybe have to make decisions that are not necessarily good or ‘light’ or whatever that might be. And so I had the idea of what if Cal is in a situation that forces him to not be able to make the easy or good decisions along the way. I think that that is a clear progression for this time frame and for the universe around the characters as well. They’re in a fascistic and horribly oppressive society, one that has been slowly closing the noose around any remaining remnants of resistance or rebellion. I think it’s been a very, very tough road for Cal. I think that at the end of the first game, there was this bittersweet but generally pretty optimistic note that he had of, “Oh, I think that we can still have each other and have this adventure.” I think that some of that optimism has been lost over his last five years of seeing how bad it’s gotten and also disagreeing with the people that he loves.
I think that that’s an interesting thing too of you can have a family or have people that you’re close to, but you might not fundamentally agree with each other. That might cause rifts between your relationships. How you deal with those rifts and what they do to the way that you interact with each other, I think is interesting and something worth exploring. So yeah, it’s funny because I think that we all had somewhat similar ideas of where to take it. And obviously, there were some serious surprises when I received the script, as opposed to what I had potentially pitched. But it was really cool, that somewhere in that core of the idea, we were able to continue the story in a way that made sense for all of us.
It sounds you had a really tight-knit group of people working on this game with a collective vision and passion for Star Wars. So that must have been really nice as i can imagine it can’t always be the case in the video game industry…
Yeah, we got extremely lucky in the sense of we had developed this team of not only these core cast members of Debra Wilson and Tina Ivlev who plays Merrin, and Daniel Roebuck who plays Greez. So we had these core actors who had comprised this crew. But we had this performance director named Tom Keegan, who was essentially the guy on the ground giving performance notes and really trying to help us craft what it was from a performance perspective. Then we had Aaron Contreras, who was somebody who was great from a story and writing perspective. Then the new kind of member of the team was Dori. But he picked up that dynamic really quick.
What was really amazing is we were able to take the dynamic that we had learned and figured it out over the first game and refine and build upon it in a really great way. Something that I loved was we would have rehearsals prior to our shoot days. A lot of times on the rehearsal days, we would figure out the moments that didn’t quite make sense, that didn’t work, that we had questions about. We were able to sometimes pitch new ideas, and sometimes we were able to have ad libs or these open ended conversations that we were able to rewrite, so that the next day when we came in for the shoot, we might have somewhat new pages. With those, we were able to a lot of times resolve some of the issues that we might have had previously.
That is a huge compliment to Aaron Contreras and the entire writing team. I know I’m just listing him, but we actually have a larger team of writers as well. For them to be open to hearing this conversation and to be flexible and quick enough to be able to make those changes is a pretty incredible thing, which is not to say that they didn’t have a cohesive vision or idea of what they wanted to do, because they very much did. If there was a note that Aaron or any one felt was interfering with the core of what they were trying to do with a moment, they would absolutely stand up to defend it. What that meant was, in a creative and productive way, we were able to make sure that every beat had an emotional and logical driving reason and objective behind it, which was great from a performance and story perspective, that it all felt justified in some way. That’s very helpful as an actor.
Obviously, anything related to the Star Wars universe is always going to receive a lot of global attention as it’s such a cherished intellectual property. But I don’t think anyone could have expected how successful Fallen Order was going to be when it launched back in 2019. Especially when it involved a completely new/unknown protagonist, Cal Kestis. Why do you think Cal has become so beloved and did you feel any extra pressure when working on Jedi Survivor because of the previous game’s success?
You know, it’s an interesting thing. When we were working on the first game, the sequel trilogy was still releasing. I believe The Last Jedi, which is episode eight, had come out, but it was well before nine. Around that period of time, stuff like Solo was coming out as well. There was an interesting question of what is Star Wars and what is the relationship that these new stories should have with the canon, with the material, how should it be perceived and received. Genuinely, I think that we had the aspiration going into the first game, that we want to tell a really, really fantastic story that can hold up to the things that we love and admire about the movies. There are specific moments and scenes that we all love from the original trilogy, even from the prequels, from the sequels. We wanted to try to introduce these moments, these characters, these ideas that held their weight and weren’t just some sort of imitation of the things that came before, but rather, we’re trying to carry on that tradition but impose new ideas or philosophies or a new approach. And so I think that we had the genuine aspiration that we wanted to tell a story that had an effect in the way that the films do.
However, whether or not we were going to be successful, or whether or not it would get attention, was a big question mark for us. It’s interesting the first game had a pretty good initial release. We did pretty well critically from what I understand. I think that the sales were pretty good from what I understand. But it was interesting that over the course of the next few months and year, it had legs, and more people started talking about it. It continued to find an audience, and the audience grew and grew. The game had come out of spring of that year, and I think by the holiday season later that year, it was really people were buying it for their kids, their families, and that kind of stuff. The game started to get around. Even over the course of the last three years since the game came out, it has really continued to find an audience. I think that people have started to understand it more for what it was or for what it was trying to do.
It’s been really interesting watching the hype coming up to this game as opposed to the first. The first time around, I think that people were like, “Oh, whatever. It’s a Star Wars video game thing. Who knows?” But this time around, there is a lot of attention being paid to it, which I’m really, really freaking grateful for. And yes, there is a higher expectation from the audience. But the truth is that no one’s expectations of it are higher than are own, all of us working on it. We have the highest of hopes working on it through every means. We have been very hard on ourselves, as I think that you have to be if you want to make something that you’re happy with and it means a lot. You have to put in that full effort and be as brutal in a positive and creative way, brutal critically to yourselves as you can be. The amount of effort, I can say, was definitely as full as possible for it. What happens now with release in this very exciting week is who knows? But I can say that we’re very proud of the work that we put into it.
I’m sure you’re aware that on the internet many people are hoping Cal joins the live-action Star Wars universe, hypothetically if that were going to happen how would you like to see it come about?
I can’t say for certain any way really. Not just because of you know… if there was or was not something, I wouldn’t want to be revealing it. But also because I wouldn’t want to necessarily be locked into any sort of way without conversations about it. The team that have been creating this character, all of us have been very careful as to how we build it. It is really close to us and really important to us, and we want to make sure that, I mean, as it is right now, there’s been some extended media and books and comic books and that kind of stuff mentioning the characters in these situations. Where the game story would go in the future, I think if we were lucky enough to be able to do another one, we would have to be very careful to not conflict, to make sure that it made sense with each other. I think that that’s a greater conversation that would need to be had. We would need to be very careful about it.
But I can say that throughout the entire entirety of the making of both the first and the second game, Lucasfilm and Disney were extremely generous with us with not only providing us with information with questions and giving us information, [and] provided any resources that we might have needed, but also they gave Respawn and EA a lot of room to do their own thing and gave us the performers a lot of room to do our own thing as well. That’s something that really does have to be commended with. I think it’s worked out pretty well. But I can understand also why that is taking a pretty massive risk. Yeah, so anyways, that’s a very long winded way to say that I’m not sure what the future would be outside of video games, but it would be very important for me to be protective of the core of this character, his timeline, his story, and what we’re trying to say with him. So yes, I mean, that’s about all I can say for now.
Just to break away from the game for a moment, apart from playing Cal, you’re most well known for playing Ian Gallagher in Shameless US and as the Valeska twins in Gotham to name but a few of your roles. But I don’t think enough people appreciate or comment on how you’ve loved acting and cinematography all your life since early childhood as your mum instilled such a big passion for the art form in you. What are some of your fondest childhood memories that you think directly or indirectly inspired you to pursue acting as a career?
It’s a funny thing because growing up as a kid, I always loved stories and film. Partially, it’s also because my mom had to work a lot. She sometimes had multiple jobs at once. It was just my mom and I, and we didn’t really have any sort of security blanket or really anything. For a lot of my youth, we were living paycheck to paycheck, or essentially so. That meant that while she was doing work, I would be watching movies and that kind of stuff. I think that it was sort of a necessary thing that she had to be like, “Here, please watch this while I’m doing this.” But which was fantastic because it exposed me to a lot of stories very young that I don’t think that a lot of people necessarily get to. Obviously, there are different philosophies as to what kind of mature material a young person can be exposed to blah, blah, blah, whatever. I think I turned out okay, so that’s all I can really say.
But I would have this little portable DVD player, and I would sit in the back of my mom’s car, and I would watch certain movies, dozens, tens, maybe hundreds of times in some cases. I remember I would mimic line reads a lot of times. One of my favourites when I was a kid, really, really little, was Jim Carrey, because I always felt that Jim Carrey could just throw a line across the room and smack you with it in a way that was so over the top that you have to in some way acknowledge how it’s a feat that he’s able to pull it off and still capture it on a camera. But in another way, it really gained my appreciation for writing and for directing. As a kid, I wanted to not only be an actor, but a director as well and a writer. It’s kind of a funny thing because even nowadays, I wonder if I would not be better suited to be a director than to be an actor. Sometimes I have that question. Yeah, I don’t know. Ultimately, they’re all different methods of trying to convey a story, an idea, something from a human or philosophical perspective. I think that that’s what we’re all really trying to do if you’re an artist in any way, is you’re trying to prompt a conversation or a reaction or something.
I don’t know if I actually answered your question at all. So much as I think I’m just starting to ask myself some questions. But I think, yeah, I guess a lot of my memories are just watching these movies that—Blockbuster was big in my household. We would go and rent a new movie every couple of nights. There’s a period between 2001 maybe to 2009, where I probably have seen pretty much every movie released in that period of time because I was just consuming so much media. So I’m really good at trivia for mid-aughts film. But yeah, watching a lot of those films are definitely some happy memories of childhood and definitely things that I use as reference all the time now when I’m performing: “Oh, it’s like that scene from Go.” “Oh, it’s this moment from the end of A Beautiful Mind,” whatever it might be. You use the context and the references that are given to you by experience.
As a spare time hobby, you’re also a big fan of music and play various instruments. What sort of drum set-up do you have at home?
Oh man, I do not have chops as a drummer, so I do not want to claim that [laughs]. I am such a caveman when it comes to drumming. I’ve got a couple of electronic kits. The primary one that I use is this Alesis kit that’s connected to my MIDI controller. I can use it to, if I’m just trying to produce or mix a song quickly, kind of lay down a rudimentary beat, and then you quantize it and try to fix some of your horrible, horrible mistakes that you’ve made. I wish that I had an acoustic kit, but my neighbours are very glad that I don’t. But my primary instrument by far is guitar. That’s the thing that my brain understands and can wrap its mind around the most for whatever reason, how it’s formatted, and mechanically, how it works and makes sense. I think it just comes down to what is your first instrument usually, and that kind of becomes your fundamentals for how you learn. So string instruments like ukulele or mandolin or something like that are obviously going to make a lot more sense to me.
I can vaguely find my way around a keyboard or a piano. But I do find that that linear layout of lowest to highest kind of—I play the piano like a guitar player plays. Meaning that I like banging out chords, and I find these shapes, and the shapes that I find are maybe not the best inversions or ways of playing it, you know? But yeah, I mean, to me, the only instrument that I truly feel comfortable, at least right now on, like if you gave it to me I would feel relaxed in the experience, would be a guitar or just something that I can do mindlessly and endlessly. I love to just play a chord progression and just augment it and shift it and see if you can just screw it up for as long as possible. So yeah, I mean, guitar is definitely, definitely a beautiful thing. I’m in London right now. I wish I had one currently. But maybe I’ll find a way to get my hands on one while I’m here.
Following that, if a biopic was made about one of your favourite musicians and you could take on the role, whom could you imagine yourself playing?
I mean that’s tough, really. That’s tough because so many great musicians already have biopics, for one. Two, I think that the format can be a little bit tiring at times, frankly. It’s hard to find music biopics that are in some way breaking the mould or doing something new. Which is not a comment on any specific one or anything, it’s just sort of an overall, you know, movies like Walk Hard have done such a good job of parodying the format, that it’s hard to see them without sometimes thinking of the rhythms of those movies. I mean, when I was younger, I always admired David Bowie. But also, I know that his son is very protective of that story and of the estate, and understandably so. I would never want to do a story that was without permission of the family. I think that that dream will probably be one of those things you say, “Well, wouldn’t that be nice?” But it probably will forever stay at that. There are musicians like Jeff Buckley. I don’t know.
Not a musician, but someone who I really have just started thinking about a lot recently, because I was just in Amsterdam, was Van Gogh. I went to the Van Gogh Museum, and I was looking at his self portraits, and I saw something in myself, which maybe it’s just something that his self portraits might do to everyone who looks at them. But hearing his story, especially of his years around where I am in age now, I started to go, “Man, that would be a story that I would really, really like to explore.” And it’s not to say that some truly great actors have not already portrayed him, but I think that there’s something about him that hasn’t necessarily been explored yet. So I don’t know. Who knows? Who knows? There are a few people out in the world that I would love to have the opportunity to try to portray or channel in some way.
Going back to Jedi Survivor one last time, besides the main story and acting involved, as a gamer yourself what is one aspect of the game that really impresses you? It could be anything that amazed you from your time spent working on the game…
God, there’s so many things because we have a team that is truly extraordinary. So, Respawn does something cool inter-office between everyone working on the game. Because something like visual effects or computer generated stuff, things where a lot of people are working behind screens in different offices, and now because of the pandemic, in their homes and far away from each other, it can make you feel very separated or removed. It might make you feel like you’re not all working on the same thing. Something really cool that Respawn does is they do a show and tell once a month, where every Friday, the people who have been working on something that they want to show people will make a little video or something like that, just showing off the aspect of what it is. So someone who is working on hard surfaces might like show, “Oh, this is this really cool passageway that I’m building in this Imperial starship.” Or someone else might be, “Here’s a cool hair design,” or something like that, monster creature, whatever.
Something that I was always really blown away by was—Derron Ross is our stunt coordinator and primary stunt visualiser guru guy. He would show me these really incredible, elaborate stunt sequences that they had shot through a process called previz, meaning they had actually gotten real people in the studio to act out all the moves and cut between wire work and everything necessary that they would have to do. They showed some really frickin’ elaborate like kung fu action sequences for some of our fights in the game. Every time they showed me those, I was just like, I cannot believe how good these are, like in production value, in talent level, that it really does rival anything that you see in modern, especially modern American action movies. I definitely have to give Derron a shout out and the entire stunt team some props because that was some really incredible work that they gave.
Finally, for many actors, the natural progression is to start script writing and producing which I know you’re interested in. But following that would you consider directing as well?
Yeah. It’s definitely something that is a goal that I hope to accomplish at some point in the near future within the next few years. I actually went to college for a number of years for creative writing and studied specifically screenwriting. Over the course of the past year, I’ve been focusing most of my training actually on theatre and stage work. Now I’m in London doing some training for both stage and camera, but also doing some education in directing for both stage and for film. I’ve privately messed around with figuring out some shorts and that kind of stuff, and I’m starting to get more comfortable and confident in directing. It’s something that I would very much like to do. It’s kind of like a both good and bad thing that because I have experience and an audience and momentum as an actor, it means that I have a lot of eyes on me if I branch out to another medium like directing.
I have to be careful that my first attempt to it publicly is one that I feel confident in and one that I want to show, because I do know that there will be a certain level of expectation. Which is okay, I mean, it’s a very positive thing, because most people do not get the benefit of having that audience on their first foray. That being said, it’s about finding the right projects. I would very much like to direct in film. Film to me is where I think I would be more comfortable as opposed to television. It’s about finding the right script or the right opportunity. Whether or not that means that it needs to be written by me too is still kind of a question. I don’t know. But hopefully, at some point in the near future, I would be able to more confidently say, “Yes, there is this project.” But it is very much a goal, and it’s squarely high on my bucket list. So I hope it is something that I am able to accomplish.
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is out April 28th. Follow Cameron Monaghan @CameronMonaghan
Interview + Shoot Coordination Cameron Poole
Photography David Higgs
Location Grandmaster Recorders