Conan's Sidekicks Tell All
Twelve thousand years ago, between the time when oceans swallowed Atlantis and man first recorded history, the evil sorcerer Hissah Zul tyrranized the land of Cimmeria. Only one man could free his people...well, one man and his sidekicks.
Conan, played by Ralf Moeller, may be the ultimate hero of the Hyborian Age, but in the syndicated TV series, he couldn't get the job done without his friends Otli, Zzeben, and Bayu. The dwarf, the mute, and the wild man, played by Danny Woodburn, Robert McRay, and T.J Storm respectively, have joined the barbarian leader to defend their homelands. These three serious actors spend six grueling days a week in the sweltering heat of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, performing most of their own stunts, attempting to get inside the heads of these unique characters, getting poisoned, captured by cannibals, engaging in dramatic dialogue like...
"Hey! Tell Danny that Sir Flatulantalot said hi!" This from McRay, who plays Zzeben, who adds, "I think they gave me the role of the mute because they wanted to shut me up." Mmm-HMMM. Are they spending too much time in the sun, or are they just having a good time? "It was a great, very fun shoot," McRay laughs, admitting that he always wanted to play Sinbad or Jason (of the Argonauts) when he was a kid, so being on Conan is the next best thing.
Storm sums up the delight of the show more directly: "I get to be a growling, snarling, sword-wielding barbarian. It's like playing a big kid. What guy wouldn't want to do that? I get paid for riding horses, saving damsels in distress, and flipping away from swords. It's a blast!"
All three actors actually had serious dramatic reasons for becoming involved with the series. For the 4'0" tall Woodburn - best known as Mickey, Kramer's little friend on Seinfeld - Otli represented the chance to play a dwarf who wasn't a stereotypical comic sidekick. "It was something where I could work with the writer to make it more realistic, not what you traditionally would see a little person portraying on television," Woodburn explains. Otli does contribute a lot of the show's humor, but he's also an escapee from a wizard's lair who fights alongside his friends.
For McRay, the lure was the difficulty of playing a man who doesn't speak. "Playing a mute is supposed to be the most challenging thing an actor can do: you're dependent on facial expressions and body language, and I wanted to see if I could pull it off," recalls the actor. "I went to places like the deaf school, and I watched how they moved their bodies and how they communicated with each other. Then I had to invent a sign language, because we didn't want to use American sign language or another that had already been established. So I have about three hundred symbols that I use - it is a consistent language, not just throwing around the hand."
The biggest problem for McRay was how to make Zzeben an endearing character, "not just wallpaper." McRay had mostly played villains on film, "and it's funny, because I use my voice as my weapon - I'll do a British accent, or I'll do a raspy Russian accent. Playing a mute, I tried to look for what the show didn't have when I came on board - Danny supplied the humor, Ralf supplied the fierce warrior, so I thought what I should do with Zzeben was to make him the strong, sensitive type, which nobody else was doing. That way I got to be emotionally expressive."
The last of his race, Zzeben's beard and bald head commemorate his lost tribe, but his tattoo is McRay's, from the actor's days with the Navy. The actor put in long hours in the gym before his audition to sculpt Zzeben's impressive physique, putting engine oil on his muscles when he realized that most of the other contenders were bodybuilders who'd oiled up for the role. In addition to the difficulties of playing a mute, McRay must continue to work out and adhere to a strict diet to keep Zzeben in shape.
Meanwhile Storm, whose biography on the series web site calls him "the ultimate combination of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Fred Astaire," was drawn to playing what he describes as "the equivalent of a Klingon on Conan." The world-class martial artist, who holds belts in Arashi-Ryu, Karate, Shito-Ryo, Tae Kwon Do, Ninjitsu and Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, is also a professional tap and jazz dancer, and enjoyed the process of finding a style for the savage barbarian Bayu, a warrior who couldn't appear to have been trained in any traditional fighting skills.
Bayu was a latecomer to the series, introduced in the episode "The Siege of Ahl Sohn-Bar," and his physicality has been popular with audiences - which surprises the actor, because they're not recognizable martial arts. "It's a different fighting style and a totally different character, kind of a wild card - he just goes ballistic sometimes because of his animal nature," Storm notes. "My character is from an island where they worship animal totems. His first instinct is kind of animalistic, thus the growling, so I have to figure out what his first reactions would be on a real primal level. I did some study on Mayan stuff and a whole bunch of tribal rituals and ceremonies...and a lot of comic books."
The actors praised one another and their co-stars highly, but all agreed that the shoot has been the most difficult they've ever been involved with. New York-based Woodburn laughs that the nickname 'Sir Flatulantalot' should give people some idea of McRay's problems with the cuisine in Mexico, but the 4' actor hasn't found the shoot any less strenuous. "Down there, there's two seasons: hot, and 'Oh my God.'" The crew filmed six days a week, often from five in the morning until ten at night, meaning that he rarely was able to get two days off in a row to travel home. "It was crazy, it was very strenuous - probably the hardest job I've ever done."
McRay, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and has a wife and 15-year-old back home, spent his days off visiting children in Mexican orphanages, where the kids are packed in with no air conditioning. "They don't know anything about Conan, it's just four walls and these kids who can't go outside because they'd get kidnapped. I used to do ventriloquism shows for a hospital for burned and crippled children." Despite the pressure and the sometimes miserable conditions, he enjoyed being in Puerto Vallarta and working out for the role, practicing with the wooden staff Zzeben uses when he fights.
"I never did a stunt in my life before this show, and now I'm doing most of my own stunts, including all these horse stunts! I want to see what else I can do with it, now that I've reached this point, so I can point to the screen for my grandkids and say, 'See, your old man did it once.' I got hurt a lot but I wouldn't change a day. I tried to keep it as rudimentary as possible - I wanted to appear as a barbarian fighting, though in some episodes I ended up flipping around. My big fear about Conan is that the last thing people want to see is a half-naked old tan guy flipping over!"
Storm grew up in Hawaii, so the temperatures weren't as much of a shock to him, though he brought a bunch of long-sleeved shirts "because nobody told me what it was like - it's a hundred degrees and a hundred percent humidity. I took two steps off the plane and I already had a sheen of sweat on my forehead." Of all the actors, however, he sounds the most enthusiastic about the landscape where Conan films. "It's beautiful, and there's incredible wildlife down there, massive tarantulas and beautiful snakes and birds, there's horses and everything. We're running around through tropical forests and jumping off cliffs."
The physical work of the role wasn't a stretch for Storm either, since he'd trained in martial arts since his first year of high school, when a growth spurt made him uncoordinated and his high energy made his teachers worry that he was hyperactive. "My mom put me in karate because I needed discipline, coordination and focus. I loved it. I think it's so much cooler than bodybuilding, because not only do you walk away with good fitness, you walk away with knowledge also. With bodybuilding, if you quit, you lose your muscle pretty quickly, but with martial arts, you retain the memory and you retain the reflexes. But it is a way of life - if you want to get really good, you have to dedicate a portion of your life to it."
A basketball player in school, he groans when asked the origin of the nickname "T.J.": "I did this dunk where you swing your arm like a gorilla - the Thrilla Gorilla, it was named by Darryl Dawkins. When I slammed the ball for the first time in a game, my mom and my friends were chanting, 'Thrilla Gorilla!' but everyone just thought they were saying "Thriller." They all knew I was a dancer - all the breakdancers have street names, so everyone thought that was my name. This was around the time Michael Jackson's song came out, the shirts were all over the place, so everyone called me Thriller J. When I moved out here, my friends started calling me that, and I went, 'Oh, no! Just T.J.!'"
All three actors have definite goals for next season should the series be renewed - in particular, they want to know why none of them has gotten a girlfriend. "Conan is kind of like the James Kirk of the Hyborian set - he gets all the women," laments McRay, though Woodburn's real-life fiancee made an appearance on the series in the episode "Red Sonja." They each have ideas about ways in which their characters could become heroic without infringing on Conan's territory.
"I would like to see Otli use magic, but I don't know if Conan would be too happy with that!" laughs Woodburn. "I always sort of played him with the notion that he had something magical going on, and maybe Otli is the reason that everything came out OK."
Since the show's writers have not yet revealed how Zzeben lost the use of his voice, McRay got an idea from a fan comment on the Internet. "Somebody suggested that since I'm the last of my tribe, maybe a spell was put on me that took my voice, and if I should ever talk, the evil would be released again. I would like to see Zzeben get his voice back, but maybe at the expense that the spell would be transferred over to Conan. So I would have a voice, I would have to give it all back up again, to choose the friend and go back to being a mute. There's your sensitive nature coming out!"
"I'd like to see Bayu develop into a miniseries, Bayuwatch," jokes Storm, reiterating his frustration at his character's enforced celibacy. While it's unlikely he'll get to use his dancing talents on the show, he would like to see the character channel his great strength and fighting skill.
The three performers come from very different training and theatrical backgrounds. Danny Woodburn, a Temple University graduate who has won awards for his stand-up comedy over the past eight years, co-starred in Baywatch Nights and appeared in Jingle All the Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger in addition to his well-known role on Seinfeld.
Woodburn's not sure what his next project will be - when I talked to him, he was in the midst of doing interviews and appearances to coincide with the final episode of Seinfeld. "I'm going to keep plugging along as an actor, and the notoriety I've received from Conan and Seinfeld have definitely been benificial for me. This year I'm also getting married, so I have a lot of plans."
Robert McRay has performed in musicals as well as several feature films, but his most recent projects are scripts he's written himself. "Right now I'm working on a pilot called Dim Bulbs; we're going into production in a few months. It's a sitcom - there was a character that I did ten years ago who didn't have a clue about anything, really a dim bulb, and my writing partner plays a dim bulb too. We're dumb and dumber who look completely normal. I have this pilot placed with a company, so we're going to see what happens from there."
McRay has already sold four screenplays, including a sci-fi Western and a children's movie called Grover's Field. Strongly influenced by meeting Edgar Bergen on Romper Room as a child, and later Steve Reeves, who played Hercules, McRay says his real goal is to inspire young people the way his youthful heroes inspired him. "My charity is children," he says. "I'm just a guy who's trying to do good."
T.J. Storm echoes the desire to influence kids. "I love it when they ooh and ahh, or they laugh. It makes it so worth fighting for two hours in a hundred degree weather. That's how I was when I was a kid - I was inspired when I came out of the theater to want to try things that I saw in the theater - I remember I went to watch the Ninja Turtles, and the theater was filled with kids, at the end of the movie, they were climbing and jumping and spinning. I thought that was so great, to see the raw impact on people. Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan did the same thing to me."
Storm studied acting at the D.W. Brown Studio, an actor's school in Los Angeles which he describes as "very intense," an offshoot of Meisner technique. "It's a wonderful way to study," says the actor, who notes that there are simply no excuses for missing classes or arriving late unless one is working on a shoot.
The veteran of several virtual reality and martial arts films, Storm appeared in Mortal Kombat and in the Chinese box office smash Once Upon a Time in China and America, the sixth in a series of films by Jet Li. "He's the star of that whole series, it's kind of like Lethal Weapon in China," Storm explains. While he names Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armageddon) and Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) as the directors he'd most like to work with - "and John Woo also, he's the man" - Storm is getting ready to direct his own film next month.
"It's called Citizen Pain, and I play a bounty hunter," he reports. "My parters and I wrote it. I'm so inspired by people like the Good Will Hunting team, and even the South Park guys, it takes so much energy and so much discipline to keep on with your vision." Storm describes Bay and Mulcahy as "masters of rhythm and editing and action," and hopes to emulate their work.
Storm's next project after Citizen Pain is Virtual Freedom, a futuristic thriller about a virtual reality game show that pits death row inmates against one another in a fight for freedom, vaguely reminiscent of The Running Man. Storm will play an innocent man framed and put into the fight of his life on the show, on which he has no chance except via the martial arts skills he learns from the virtual computer. "My character's name is Chris Worthy, the innocent man they choose simply because he's a nobody," Storm explains.
Fans can keep up with Robert McRay via his fan-run web page, http://plaza.v-wave.com/CreeFire/tribute.html, and with Storm at http://www.eyeofthestorment.com. "Every time a fan compliments me, it's like a pat on the back saying you're doing a good job - I can't say enough good things about them," McRay says. "This whole fame thing has given me just an open door to meet people who I might not otherwise have met. I'm a people person, and because they know Zzeben, I find out about them. It's kind of cool."
Concludes Storm, who's hoping for a couple more seasons of Conan, "I want to be the next super action-star leading man in Hollywood. Though if I do a romantic comedy, I'll finally get the girl!"
Danny Woodburn Says Goodbye To Seinfeld
Though he just wrapped a season on Conan and he's about to get married, Danny Woodburn's got Seinfeld on his mind. Having played Kramer's little friend Mickey for the last time, he's ensconced in a hotel in New York for the series finale media circus. "Absolutely I'm going to miss it," Woodburn says. "Obviously not as closely as the rest of cast, because I didn't do 22 episodes a season."
Introduced in "The Stand-In," the episode in which Kramer got a job as a stand-in on All My Children, Mickey caught on quickly as a popular comic foil for Kramer, but the actor describes that first experience as somewhat chaotic. "I auditioned three times in two days, and after the third audition, Larry David, the co-creator of the show, came out and said, 'Can you start work in fifteen minutes?' I jumped right in with both feet kicking!" laughs Woodburn, a veteran of West Side Waltz with Shirley Maclaine and Liza Minnelli and Jingle All the Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In subsequent episodes, Mickey , an actor whose jobs included a stand-in role for Punky Brewster and a stint as department-store elf, became a legend among medical students for having triumphantly portrayed Bacterial Meningitis while poor Kramer was typecast as Gonorrhea. Lifts never exactly helped Mickey compete with people twice his size, but that never stopped Mickey from taking them on. He's successfully wooed women desired by Kramer, and his parents bear a suspicious resemblance to Robert Wagner and Jill St. John.
"I think the brilliance of the writing is that the height issue doesn't need to be addressed," notes the actor. "A good part of television humor is visual, and we don't need to hear the jokes, it's just going on. There was one joke I remember which had to do with my character playing a role in a production, and George says, 'It just goes to show you there are no small parts, just small actors.' That was very clever writing, and it wasn't hammered in."
The 4' tall actor, who co-starred in Baywatch Nights and made guest appearances on Lois and Clark and Hunter, is a fan of Seinfeld as well as a performer. "I think all the characters are really out there," he laughs when asked whether he thinks Mickey is as bizarre as Kramer or just playing along. "All the guests that have been on this show...their characters are definitely something that you might have only seen part of in people. I think that you needed to have that sort of 'out there-ness' to have somebody hang out with Kramer."
Woodburn says the notoriety he's received from Seinfeld has been beneficial to his career. He's particularly enjoying playing Otli the Dwarf on Conan because the role wasn't stereotypical, "not what you traditionally would see a little person portraying on television, though originally, I think it probably had something to do with the comedic sidekick, somebody as comic relief for Conan." The shoot requires him to film six days a week in Mexico, "where there are two seasons: hot, and ohmygod." He describes his current gig as "probably the hardest job I've ever done," particularly being apart from his fiancee.
The Temple University alumnus has done stand-up comedy for more than eight years, which served him well on Seinfeld. "The cast has always been warm to me and very generous as actors," he notes. "I definitely share something with each of them."