Actor/Writer/Director Leif Tilden talks about playing Donatello in the first two TMNT live action films of the early '90s.
TeenageMutantNinjaTurtles.com: What types of restrictions did the Donatello suit have on you as the actor? Was it difficult to see or breath in it? Was it a hot inside of the suit?
LEIF TILDEN: All of those! You're completely restricted as the actor. But when you first put on the suit as the actor you have to ignore those restrictions because you've just become Donatello the character. You can't see in the suit, but you have to convince the world that you can. You can't allow the camera to see that you as the actor are out breath, because Donatello wouldn't be as the superhero. Wearing the Donatello suit was about creating a perception that the character was invincible even though I wasn't.
Then, also, you have to remember that I was wearing a suit of latex and computer wires. Playing Donatello really added a exoskeleton to my body. When you work like that, you're covered up and you don't have to worry about how your face is expressing emotion. Plus when you work in a costume you're working in sync with a team of artists that are manipulating the characters' eyes and mouth. So it was a wonderful and intense collaboration.
When you were first cast in the film to play Donatello….What was that audition or try-out like?
LEIF TILDEN: In my try-out, I went in for [Director] Steve Barron and I did a flip right in the center of the room and I ended up putting a dent in the wall.
When I got the role, I was more interested in the process of creating the character Donatello then I was actually performing in front of the camera. Now with that being said, I am credited as being the performer who played Donatello in the film, but I was really just a small piece of it. You have to consider all of the people and work that went into the sculpting and painting of the suit for Donatello and all of the guys who operated the electronics that made his eyes move, and then of course, Corey Feldman, who did his voice for the film as well. I just physicalized him in the film. All of those people that worked on the character, those people are really responsible for bringing Donatello to life for the Turtles movies. I don't think that gets pointed out enough.
You've no doubt heard about the upcoming Michael Bay Ninja Turtles movie that's coming out in August 2014?
LEIF TILDEN: Yeah, of course. What's funny about that….When I was cast as Donatello in the first Turtles movies I had no idea that the Turtles would become a sort of Archie comics Turtles. Because if you go back and look at Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's original TMNT comics, the Turtles are assassins out to eliminate 'Shredder'. When I was first cast in the movie, I had went down to an underground comic book shop in NYC and I found one of the first TMNT comic books. In the original early Turtles comics they didn't each have a different colored bandana. They all wore the color red. They were kick-ass too. Today, when I meet someone and they find out that I played Donatello in the first two Ninja Turtles movies I tell them to go back and check out the original Eastman and Laird comic books. It would have been really cool if this new reboot of the Turtles would have done something like they did for the Batman franchise with THE DARK KNIGHT (2009). It would be so cool if they would do a Turtles movie that matched those early comics.
Considering how popular the Turtles were in the late '80s….Was there a buzz on the set that the first Turtles movie was going to be something really big?
LEIF TILDEN: For sure. The Henson Creature Shop was involved. It was a very exciting time for everyone involved. Everyone that worked on the first Turtles movie were very committed to the project and it was very fun and intense to make. No one felt that it was just another job. I mean, just to work with the Jim Henson Creature Shop was amazing. The guy who operated Donatello's eyes was David Greenaway. I mean, this is the same guy who worked with Frank Oz in operating the eyes of "Yoda" in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1982).
What about the shooting of the second Turtles movie, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE (1991) ? Did that have that same buzz about it during the shooting?
LEIF TILDEN: Well, it was a different experience than the first movie. What made the second movie exciting to me was that it was more collaborative. With the first Turtles movie, we had to spend so much time learning how to function in the Turtles suits. With the second one, we didn't have to worry about that any longer.
TURTLES.COM: What was the deal with Vanilla Ice in the second Turtles movie though?
LEIF TILDEN: Vanilla Ice was a douche. When he was on the set he had a huge attitude and he didn't want to talk to anyone. He had an entourage with him, and the producers really catered to him. I remember at the time thinking about how weird it was that he was going to be in the movie. It seems now that having him in the movie really has given it a scar all these years later.
Did you have to do any martial arts training going into the shooting of either Turtles movies?
LEIF TILDEN: Yeah, we did. Three of us were set up in the East Village in NYC with this guy. We really got the cliff notes of it though. Then, we all had our stunt doubles too. They did some of that stuff for us. Ernie Reyes Jr. was my student double on the first film. What was really crazy about that, was that they had all of these stunt guys coming in from China. It was really crazy because the stunt coordinators didn't really believe in crash pads. There would be a stunt and the guy would get injured and then he would leave and we'd never see him again. Then a new stunt guy would come in to work. These stunt guys from China would come in and they'd only get paid fifty dollars a day to work. The stunt coordinators really abused those guys.
What are you working on now?
LEIF TILDEN: Well, I'm getting ready to direct a movie. It's called LIFE AT THESE SPEEDS. It's based on the New York Times best-selling book of the same name. It stars Billy Crudup and Anne Heche. And it's being Executive Produced by Sam Rockwell. It's about this runner who gets addicted to running. His girlfriend and his friends all died in a horrible bus crash. So he runs to forget about it, but something happens to him when he runs. He gets into this zone and it allows him to connect with his girlfriend and all of his friends again in this new world. We'll be shooting the film in Mississippi in August of 2014.