Named as the UK’s best unproduced screenplay in 2011, Charles Barker’s ambitious sci-fi thriller The Call Up finally hits the silver screen this May.
Set in a futuristic facility for trialling cutting-edge tech, the ensemble film sees eight gamers invited to test-run a state-of-the-art, shoot-em-up-style augmented reality experience. By donning suits of sleek, otherworldly armour, complete with digital display visors, the players watch the world around them transform from clean, white and clinical into a war-torn wasteland. The transformation is achieved by layering graphics and sound effects onto a real-world setting, allowing the characters to move through the game world and interact physically with what they find there. There’s a generous cash prize on offer for the highest score, but needless to say, not all is as it seems, and our trigger-happy team soon realise the serious toll the game is taking on their bodies.
Back in 2014, producer John Giwa-Amu joined members of the cast for a panel at MCM Birmingham Comic Con, not far from where the film was shot. As The Call Up prepares for its release later this month, we take a quick look at the eight players competing for the promised prize money, as well as their virtual drill sergeant.
Carl – Max Deacon
“Carl is kind of the audience’s eye into the world of The Call Up,” said Max Deacon (Into the Storm). “He’s been struggling with his personal life for reasons that become clear as the story develops, and has retreated into the world of online gaming as a form of escapism. The invitation offers him the chance to do something exciting and to pull himself out of the rut he’s been in, as well as to make some money, which he needs.”
With eight clashing personalities thrown suddenly together in a high-pressure situation, there’s bound to be tension, and Carl finds himself becoming a sort of leader for one of two teams.
“We talk about there being an Alpha and a Beta group, the Betas being the less gung-ho, more introspective thinkers – those are Carl, Shelley, Taylor and Zahid. One of the main plot points is this power struggle within the group, and like with a lot of great sci-fi and horror films, in the end, it’s maybe not the threat of the outside world and the game itself, but the threat that comes from within that becomes interesting.”
Shelley – Morfydd Clark
“Shelley is quite a tough character through nurture more than nature. She’s on her own, she’s had a lot happen to her during her life, and now she works in a hospital where she sees difficult things day-to-day, so she’s put up a bit of a wall,” explained Morfydd Clark (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). “She’s got a really big journey to go on. She’s often the voice of reason, and turns into the kind of mother of the group, but as the experience becomes more horrible, you see her becoming less and less the person she’d like to be.”
Shelley’s background and experiences leave her better equipped than some of her fellow gamers to deal with crises as they arise.
“Shelley doesn’t fall apart like some of the other characters do. She doesn’t see the point of histrionics or making a big fuss about things. She’s quite pragmatic and stoical when things happen. I think often she’s driving everyone else to go on.”
As the story progresses, Shelley develops a close bond with the rather more naïve and sheltered Taylor.
“What I really love about this script is that I think the female characters challenge the norm. There are only two of them, but they get on really well, and often in stories where there are only two women, they’re made to be at loggerheads.”
“Shelley’s definitely not a girly girl,” she added.
Taylor – Adriana Randall
“Taylor is the only character who isn’t really interested in the game – she’s just in it for the money,” said Adriana Randall (The Price of Desire). “She’s from quite a well-off background and she went to art school. She’s always been very confident and sociable, always had boyfriends and never really had to deal with anything difficult.”
As things take a darker turn, Taylor’s lack of experience makes it very hard for her to cope.
“Taylor’s not stupid, but she’s got no idea about gaming. She just thinks it will be fun and easy-peasy to win. Part way through, when she realises this game is becoming reality, she feels very scared and vulnerable, but by the end, having to fight for her life does help her to gain her confidence.”
Luckily, Taylor finds a good friend in Shelley, who does her best to help her out.
“Shelley’s quite a strong character from the beginning, so Taylor sort of latches on to her and feels safe with her because the men are all quite daunting. It’s lovely that the two female characters actually become closer and more like sisters when most of the characters are turning more selfish and nasty.”
Zahid – Boris Ler
“Zahid comes from Sarajevo in Bosnia like me,” said Boris Ler (In the Land of Blood and Honey). “He’s an illegal immigrant, but he works in a coffee shop during the day and during the night he plays video games online. At home he has friends and a relationship, but here, he doesn’t have any family or anyone to lose. He’s a very good player because it’s his whole life here.”
For Zahid, then, taking part in the trial offers not only a chance to try out an exciting new game, but also to meet some new people and perhaps make some friends.
“Everything happens so fast, and it is a process that allows you to build relationships. At the beginning of the movie, my character is very introverted, so while everyone else is talking and trying to investigate what’s going on, he just sits silently until someone asks him something. Zahid is closest to Shelley and Carl, and it’s interesting to see how those relationships develop.”
As someone from another country with a different first language, Ler found it easy to relate to his character’s outsider status.
“When we were doing the rehearsals, I was trying to communicate with everybody a little bit and just trying to manage in the environment. It was interesting because I discovered things about myself and about other people. When you’re shut out like that and just sitting listening, you find out who is interested in talking with you, who is interested in building a relationship and who is not.”
Andre – Parker Sawyers
“Andre is an elite gamer with no family. He’s from Kentucky and he’s a former soldier who did three tours, but came back after his mother died while he was at war. Understandably he went through quite a rough time, and sort of fell into the gaming because it allowed him to be alone but still do something,” said Parker Sawyers (Monsters: Dark Continent).
“He’s a natural leader, not like an a-hole tough guy, but he knows his skills, knows what he’s capable of and he’s not afraid to take charge. I suppose Andre is the Alpha dog in the Alpha team, but I think from his perspective, he doesn’t really care. They’re told at the beginning that the person with the highest kill count will win a large sum of money, so I think he’s just focused on that initially. He does take care of the others, but they’re not like his brothers-in-arms or anything,” he added.
Unsurprisingly, Andre’s military experience comes in pretty handy for this realistic combat style of gaming.
“He’s the only one who knows how to use the weapons and he demonstrates it to the others. In terms of tactical manoeuvring, he knows how to enter and take a room. He uses those skills to help the others, too – he does save a couple of lives. I think because he’s used to people popping out of corners and to being in a place that he doesn’t know and having to get around and survive, he just reacts and does his thing rather than freezing up.”
Adam – Douggie McMeekin
“Adam is a bit of an odd kid. He’s 19 years old and he plays a huge amount of computer games – probably more than is healthy. He absolutely loves them and thinks he’s pretty good at them. Deep down I think he’s quite a sweet guy, but he squirrels himself away to the extent that interacting with real human beings is not something that he’s particularly used to or good at,” said newcomer Douggie McMeekin.
As an expert gamer, Adam enters the world with a confidence bordering on arrogance, but he soon discovers that things aren’t exactly how he imagined they would be.
“He’s very excited and in his element going in, thinking that he’s going to be the best and take over the world of this game, but he realises quite quickly that that’s not the case,” McMeekin said. “Adam really believes in computer games and in their total comprehensiveness. He believes he can complete any game as long as he plays by the rules, so when other people start questioning the game, he really doesn’t like it. He wants to play it right, first out of excitement and then out of fear.”
“I think it takes quite a toll on him because he remains convinced for a long time that it’s just a game and that it’s fun, even when things start to get a bit weird, so when he finally realises it’s not, he doesn’t really know what to do,” he added.
As someone relatively unaccustomed to a lot of social interaction, Adam is perhaps not the best judge of character, and finds himself caught up with the film’s biggest bully.
“The relationship that I really love performing is with Marco, who is this big, arrogant, gym-going, pretty nasty guy, whose main aim is just to be the highest status person in the room at all times. Normally that would lead to people competing for status, but Adam just kind of ignores that and bowls in. When Marco’s being really full-on with Adam, he just won’t understand that he’s being intimidated and will say something really out there, and then Marco will just be like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
“I think when I first read the script, Adam seemed very arrogant, a bit rude even, but Tom’s decision to be quite bold and arrogant himself made me change things, so now he’s just a bit naïve and weird. He’s certainly a bit of an odd fish,” he laughed.
Edward – Ali Cook
“Edward is one of only two English characters in the story along with Taylor. Apart from them and Zahid, the rest are all American,” explained Ali Cook (The Anomaly). “He’s very successful and highly educated. There’s not too much about his background revealed in the game, but I’ve imagined him as someone from a wealthy family in the north of England, who was put through the best of the best schools and now has a high-flying job in the city, maybe in law or something like that.”
As one of the wealthier gamers, Edward is definitely more motivated by the chance of a unique experience than by the potential prize at the end of it.
“The thing that really excites him is his obsession with the game. He’s there for the thrills and spills – he goes in thinking this will be a fantastic bit of entertainment. He’s very slick and very good at the game – almost like a professional gamer.”
Edward’s business-like focus on the game is part of what determines the nature of his relationships with the other characters.
“At the start he gets on really well with Adam because he likes anyone who loves the game. I think in a way he keeps himself to himself, but he does get on with everyone. He knows there’s no point getting involved in bickering and fighting: he just loves the game and wants everyone to get on with it and enjoy it.”
Nevertheless, in terms of the group dynamics, his journey is an interesting one.
“Edward falls a bit between two camps: he’s a fit, dynamic guy but he doesn’t have the skills or the brute force of Marco or Andre. He’s sort of in the Beta team to begin with, and at that point you see him mucking in, but slowly and surely over the course of the film, he finds his way to becoming a sort of Alpha leader. It’s hard to tell whether that’s down to circumstance or him trying to gently manipulate everyone.”
Marco – Tom Benedict Knight
“Marco is one of the main antagonists of the movie, and what I’ve tried to do with him is make everyone who’s watching the film just want him to die asap. He’s a brash, loud, Italian American musclehead, a bit older than the rest of them, and he causes a lot of conflict and tension among the Alphas,” said Tom Benedict Knight (Dracula Untold).
But there’s more to Marco than an obnoxious attitude: behind the tough guy persona is a complex backstory.
“He’s vying for control of the group, which he gets for a short while, but then things start to go horribly wrong for him, which is when we start to peel away the layers of what he really is,” Knight went on. “Marco is divorced, and he’s just lost a custody battle with his wife. He also owns a gym in Brooklyn and is going through some big financial difficulties. So for him, the incentive is the fact that you can win a large cash prize, which he sees as a way of getting him out of a bad situation and enabling him to get back with his family. There’s a lot of emotion and anger behind this guy, and that pushes him through the game and causes him to act in a certain way.”
Unlike the others, Marco also obtains his invitation by less than honest means.
“He actually managed to steal an invitation from someone he knows. He’s not particularly good at gaming, but he essentially bullied somebody into giving him one of these tickets.”
The Sergeant – Christopher Obi
“The Sergeant is from the virtual world. Nowadays games are moving towards making characters more realistic, so we’ve tried to make him as human as possible, but every now and then, you will know that he’s not,” said Christopher Obi (Snow White and the Huntsman, Burke and Hare). “I think my main influence was probably Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now – I wanted to imbue him with that sense of charisma.”
Knowing that things take a turn for the worse, it might be natural to suspect the Sergeant of being part of some sort of sinister plot as part of the game world, but the truth is much more complicated.
“Like any drill sergeant, in Full Metal Jacket or An Officer and a Gentleman, I think this character initially appears like a bad person, but really he’s just trying to get these people into shape and make them capable of surviving the world. In my mind, this is something that he’s done time and time again – it’s not the first time he’s taken recruits through. So he is a disciplinarian and quite full-on and severe, but he’s not the bad guy. I think in this world we often make excuses for ourselves, but this character isn’t like that: he’s relentless, and he has a purpose which he will achieve by any means necessary.”
THE CALL UP is in UK cinemas from 13th May and on DVD & Digital 23rd May.
Written by Heather Kincaid