What would Army of the Dead be without … well … the dead? Leading the horde of zombies on the Las Vegas strip is Zeus, played by Richard Cetrone. Team Wiretap chatted with him about stepping into the role, how the team behind the scenes transformed him into Zeus, and how he found ways to bring out the humanity in the character.
You’ve worked with Zack Snyder for close to two decades now. How did that relationship begin?
I was introduced to Zack through my training partner and close friend of many years, Damon Caro. Damon has coordinated pretty much all of Zach’s movies, and Damon is also Zach’s second unit director as well. It started out with being hired as a stunt performer by Damon for Dawn of the Dead. As Zack got to know me over the years, he’s given me more and more responsibilities in his films. The guy’s an amazing person and I think he’s a genius. I always will work for Zack.
When you were first approached about playing Zeus in Army of the Dead, what were you told about the project?
Zack called me and said, “Hey, I have this character, I think you’d be great in it. He’s a zombie leader, but he’s more than a zombie. There’s a lot of depth to it.” Any time I do something that’s more of an acting-type role for Zack, we always meet before we start shooting just because I want to know everything about the character and make sure I give Zack exactly what he’s looking for.
I remember him telling me that Army of the Dead is going to work if the audience feels something for this character – if they have empathy for Zeus. While we were filming, I always kept that in the back of my head. It was a great choice to manufacture the character that way. It was a challenge to emote what I was feeling in the scenes because I don’t have any lines. But it was fun as well.
I know that Zack Snyder is very big on practical effects. Can you share what it was like transforming into Zeus?
It’s a mindset. Over the years, I’ve spent so much time in prosthetics for different jobs. When filming on Army of the Dead started, I was sitting in the chair about four hours a day getting those prosthetics on. If we had a 6 am call, my call time was 1 am so they had time to get everything applied. That team is really good and figured out shortcuts, so they were able to cut the time down to two or two and a half hours. I had prosthetics from my waist to my head. Plus, we were shooting in Albuquerque with temperatures in the 90s, or 100s, so I had to stay hydrated. The silicone that they use doesn’t breathe, so dealing with that in the heat was a big challenge.
One of the most striking scenes was Zeus bringing his headless queen into a swimming pool area and removing a zombie fetus from her body. Can you tell us a bit about filming that sequence?
I knew what was needed in the scene and really prepared myself for it. I saw Zeus as a character who is slowly getting some of his humanity back as time moves along. At the beginning of the movie, he’s more animalistic, but as the story progresses, his posture starts to straighten up and those human aspects of him come out. It’s almost like it’s inside him fighting to come out, and I wanted to show that in the performance.
You can’t see it because of the way it was shot with the bright light behind me, but when I carried the Queen in, I was crying. It was a pivotal scene for Zeus. Athena Perample, who played the Alpha Queen, is a fantastic person with a great heart, a beautiful soul, super talented, and one of the most athletic people I’ve ever met, man or woman. So it was easy to feel those emotions while playing Zeus, with all of those things coming together.
That scene shakes up the zombie genre as well because I can’t recall another time where we’ve seen them able to procreate.
Exactly. And you have to ask yourself if Zeus is technically a zombie.
For the movie, the Las Vegas Strip was recreated on a backlot in the New Mexico desert. What was your first impression when you saw that set?
I thought it was pretty cool, and I’ve been around some really cool sets. Apocalyptic-type movies always fascinate me, especially seeing each person’s vision of prominent landmarks and places. When we did 300, we were in front of blue screens every day and had to use our imaginations. Actors generally prefer to have things as real as possible to help get into the character and scene even more. They did a great job with Army of the Dead.
When you look back at this project, are there any specific scenes that stand out in your mind?
There was one scene that didn’t make it into the movie, and it was my biggest fight in the film. I had a really nice moment with Omari Hardwick where Zeus basically wiped out all of Vanderohe’s men, and we had a standoff. He had a big saw that was inches away from my face, and I was daring him to use it on me. It was a cool scene, and I know it killed Zack not to use it because it didn’t work in the timeline of the film.
And then my fight with Omari towards the end of the film was really cool. Omari is very impressive, and one of the most giving actors I’ve ever worked with. Whatever ego he might have, he leaves it at the door. Whatever is best for the film or a particular scene, that’s what Omari’s going to go with. He definitely enhanced my character through his choices and ideas that we discussed. He’s a wonderful person. I appreciate him and enjoyed working with him.
I also loved any scene that had to do with my Queen, like the scene where I turn Theo Rossi’s character, Cummings. By the way, Theo Rossi is awesome. Before we filmed, I told him, “I’m making this scene about my Queen. I know that I turn you in the scene, but for me, it’s about my Queen. I’m checking in on her and the unborn child. So when you’re whimpering, I’m basically going to tell you to shut up in my Zeus way.”
And Theo played that amazingly well. I love that scene, and Athena played the little intricacies fantastically. It added so much to her character and to the scene. That might have been my favorite scene in a movie that I’ve personally worked on.
What some people may not know is that you were a stunt performer in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, specifically as stunt double for Ben Affleck’s Batman. What was it like to step into the Batsuit?
I auditioned twice for the part of doubling Ben. I’m an even-keeled person, but when I got that call, I was dancing around the house. It was a dream come true. I’m a huge nerd to this day. I love pop culture and superheroes.
When we first got to Detroit, Zack wanted to take some pictures of me wearing the Batsuit in this warehouse. That was the first time I got to wear the whole suit and move around in it, and it was an incredible feeling. It was freezing cold outside, and Zack kept asking if I was okay or needed a break to warm up. I told Zack that I was honestly so psyched that I couldn’t feel the cold. I kept looking at my shadow, the Bat silhouette on the concrete. While filming, I had the best job in the world, and wouldn’t trade places with anyone. It was an amazing experience from beginning to end.
For even more behind-the-scenes stories from Army of the Dead, add Wiretap to your Chrome browser and watch it again on your laptop or desktop with exclusive commentary from Richard Cetrone. And be sure to check out our interviews with Army of the Dead‘s Danielle Burgio (Soccer Mom) and Misha Bukowski (First AD/Producer).
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)