Arrival: Male Characters–Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien

COLONEL WEBER (Forest Whitaker)

“Colonel Weber’s in Military Intelligence and when we first meet him, he’s in the process of trying to find a replacement for a linguist that wasn’t able to deal with the pressure,” explains Whitaker. “He goes to talk to Louise to see if she’s capable of doing this job. That’s the first, the first time we get to know him. He’s putting together a team, a linguist to break through the language barrier and a physicist to see if you can communicate through numbers, so that he has the proper tools to understand [the aliens].”    Renner knew Whitaker from working together before. “I’ve known him for a long time and got to work with him back in 2005,” says Renner. “He’s a very quiet, gentle soul. Very giving as an actor. He brought humanity and intelligence to a role that could have been very one note-ish. He’s really smart that way.”  “We all know he’s one of the best actors living today,” enthuses Villeneuve. “Forest Whitaker is a master, and I saw that, because he had the toughest part on this movie. Colonel Weber is a character that was difficultly written, because he is in scenes as an obstacle, as an abrasive character. He didn’t have a lot of depth on the page and Forest was able to bring a gravitas, wisdom and dimension to this character in a way that I was very impressed by. It was not an easy process for Forest, there was a lot of work on set and I’m very grateful. He was very generous.”

Villeneuve and Whitaker discussed the role. “When Denis spoke about Colonel Weber it was [often] about the fact that he plays out as a father figure, in some ways, to the characters in the film,” says Whitaker. “He’s watching out for them, overseeing and encouraging them, and helping them move past their fears and understand their own potential.”   Whitaker found it quite challenging to portray what he describes as “quiet authority and assuredness.” He continues, “It’s been difficult to play the father figure, to be able to reprimand but do it with quiet strength.”   “He’s a figure of doubt, someone that represents common sense that [is under] pressure,” adds Villeneuve. “He’s the one who has to deal with pressure from the government and the population. He’s trying to protect them and to be a good leader. He brings a dignity to this character that I was [hoping] for.”    Whitaker did some research for the role. “I was looking at some of the linguistic things to try to understand what that was with the technical things and some of the references,” explains Whitaker. “I’d played some military men before so this time I didn’t spend the same amount of time going to onsite training and all that, I had conversations with different people from the military and had very specific questions, often specifically about a scene. One of the characters, the CIA agent, pulls a weapon and I wanted to understand how we would respond. I felt that would spark a certain response from me and from everyone else, so he explained some of the things that I would probably say when, for instance, [Agent Halpern] was with us and he was holding that weapon on Amy’s character. He’s telling her to get off the phone call with someone in China. They all pull their weapons and train them on him and if he didn’t adhere to what I was saying they would fire. That little simple thing was interesting.”    However, Colonel Weber’s role isn’t entirely benign and he pressures Banks and Donnelly to go in directions they wouldn’t choose on their own. “He keeps pushing them,” says Whitaker, “and ultimately when he pushes them to communicate the word ‘weapon’ to the aliens it sparks a chain of events.”

AGENT HALPERN (Michael Stuhlbarg)
“Michael is an actor that I loved in the Coen Brothers’ movie, A Serious Man,” explains director Denis Villeneuve. “I was so enthusiastic that he agreed to do the part. The way Halpern, the CIA agent, was written was a bit monotone—he only had one color. Michael brought layers and intelligence to the character, a wit and feeling of density, that was not on the page.”

“Part of what this gig was about for me was the opportunity to figure out who this somewhat cryptic guy is,” says Stuhlbarg. “I followed Denis’ lead here. I brought in ideas—physical ideas about what he could look like, who he might be based on—but in the end we found it scene by scene. I’m curious to know how it’s going to come out, because sometimes you come into these jobs and you have a strong idea of what you think you want to do. This was an occasion in which I wanted to collaborate with the director and try to fulfill his vision within the larger vision of what the piece was going to be. That’s been absolutely fun.”    He did do some research. “I met with an ex member of the CIA and asked a number of questions regarding what my responsibilities might be,” explains Stuhlbarg. “He suggested James Olson’s book ‘Fair Play,’ which talks about the moral implications of spying, which is interesting in terms of what the inner life of this person might be. It broke some myths for me about the kind of people that work for the CIA. They come in all shapes and sizes, there’s no particular CIA behavior. That’s interesting to me, trying to dispel myths and find the humanity behind somebody who asks a lot of questions and is primarily interested in getting down to what’s going on.”  “He represents the government so he is the eyes and ears of the President and the State Department,” explains Stuhlbarg. “In terms of the understanding of the other characters, he becomes a kind of obstacle for them. I thought that might be fun to play. He’s as baffled as anybody about what happens [next], but at the same time his job on a regular basis is to accumulate information and try to assess it. In this case it happens to be visitors from outer space. He’s used to being in high stress situations.  No matter what comes at him, he can filter it through what he has to do and make very logical decisions under pressure. That’s what he does all the time.”  His relationship with Colonel Weber is all business. “With Colonel Weber, he’s in charge here, I’m a guest in his house,” explains Stuhlbarg, “yet at the same time I have the ear of the government. It’s one of those frenemy relationships between the military and the CIA. Who has the power in any particular moment? Who has the might? What do we need to know, what information do we need, to get us where we all want to go.”  “One of the interesting parts of the story is the fact that these ships are hovered above twelve different spots on our globe,” says Stuhlbarg. “One of the most difficult things in life in general is communication with each other in our own languages. To have to communicate with other countries, with other customs, cultures, beliefs and superstitions, and to try to glean knowledge from countries that may be our political enemies, presents an interesting challenge.”  “Yesterday we did a scene, which on the page seems to be maybe seven lines scribbled down by the screenwriter that’s turned into physical action. Something that you may have passed over in reading, all of a sudden became this huge thing,” recounts Stuhlbarg, who was impressed by the scope of the movie as it was realized. “You have 150 men and women dressed top to toe in fatigues carrying huge boxes here and there, it’s basically the evacuation of the space that we have commandeered in the middle of this prairie because we think we’re going to get attacked at any moment. So what seemingly was nothing on the page came to life in this remarkable way.”

CAPTAIN MARKS (Mark O’Brien)

“I play Captain Marks,” says Mark O’Brien. “The first time we meet him is when he meets up with Jeremy and Amy’s characters. He has to guide them through this process, bringing them to see the aliens. He brings them into a world that they don’t know yet. They don’t know where they’re going, they have never seen this before, and they aren’t part of the military. They don’t even know one another and they’re brought into this situation. It’s a lot of confusion for them and everything is new.”  “I’ve always played big, opinionated characters,” says O’Brien. “This is a very straight, reserved but strong person and it’s different for me, it’s a cool challenge. There are a lot of moments in this movie where it’s stillness and just being there, a lot of the time I’m supporting the other actors as a presence. Sometimes you don’t even need to say anything, just be there and experience it with them.”  O’Brien says Villeneuve compared Captain Marks to a shark in a tank. “The way he reacts is with reserved calm but on the inside he’s ready for anything,” says O’Brien. “We don’t know what’s going to happen here. Trying to contain that is much more interesting than letting it out.”  In many ways, Captain Marks represents fear, even though the character remains calm on the surface. “The natural reaction from a lot of people around the world, including civilians and media outlets, is that it’s danger. Everyone is always afraid of something new,” explains O’Brien about the general reaction to the ships arriving on Earth. “Imagine something from another planet and what that creates, it shows the animosity that we have within our own world. You see how different parts of the world are trying to handle it and how, if one part of the world handles it differently than another, that can create a rift. It shows all these different conflicts, which are so silly when you actually look at it.”   “Maybe this is just my theory,” says Ryder, “but deep down in most people’s brains we’re almost waiting for this to happen one day, to turn on the news and see that we’ve been visited or approached by an alien species. I just feel like it’s out there. It’s possible. If it happened there would be a panic and fear, and there would also be a tremendous amount of curiosity. When we set out to make this film we wanted to capture that fear, that curiosity and certainly that panic with having these things arrive.”