One of the things I often struggle to talk about as a critic is acting. The art of performance is so important to how we enjoy a film or TV show — but it’s also hard to boil down into words. Even some of my favorite video essayists struggle to pull out just why a certain performance works while another doesn’t.
But one of my favorite actors who can elucidate, perfectly, what makes one performance work where another doesn’t is Griffin Newman, who plays Arthur, the moth-man sidekick on Amazon’s The Tick. Newman also co-hosts my favorite podcast, Blank Check with Griffin and David, where his discussion of acting has helped me understand, among other things, why one of the hardest characters to play is someone who’s unfailingly good and decent (because the psychology can be harder to tap into) and why he so reveres Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work.
That meant when I wanted to make a list of the five best superhero performances of all time for my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, Newman was a natural choice to join me. The two of us traded lists back and forth, and I was pleased by how idiosyncratic his list is (just wait until you hear which performance he picks from the Marvel universe!), but also by how perfectly thought out his choices were. You can also listen to me speak up for Christopher Reeve as Superman, which I know is going to be a hugely controversial choice.
But I also wanted to ask Newman about the art of acting in a superhero suit, something he has to do in every episode of The Tick. His answer was, unsurprisingly, nuanced and full of elements I hadn’t thought of before.
From the moment I did the first costume fitting and I was in this room full of mirrors where they were going to poke me and prod me and pin me and try to figure out how to make the suit look better — they’re pulling at the seams, and I’m just catching glimpses of myself in these reflections, and testing out every little move I do. You very quickly realize there’s a certain iconography and a power to wearing one of these suits.
It’s not like Arthur is Spider-man where everyone knows the suit, and also, this suit is pretty dramatically redesigned from the previous versions of Arthur, so it’s not like it has that iconic power, but there’s a language of how these costumes look and the weight they give to everything you do.
Michael Keaton always said, “The thing I realized when I got Batman is you have to work that suit.” He realized how much lifting that does. But the other end of that is they are physically restricting in all these weird, weird ways.
My suit was essentially like a wetsuit, and a thing I realized very quickly is that it’s a little, not spandex-y, but it has that sort of tension to it, so if I’m not making a concerted effort to take on a certain position, it wants to go back to neutral. It wants to go back to square one. As an actor, you’re trying to figure out ways to use your body to make gestures that imbue the character with certain meaning or reveal certain things about your psychology, and this is a costume that wants to rob you of that power of physical subtlety.
I look at the show now, and certain scenes I go, like, “Wow, it’s crazy how much the suit adds there,” and other scenes, I look at it, and I go, “I should have been fighting harder to do something with my body.” Because sometimes it just looks like you’re standing there blankly.
Give the rest of the episode a listen for Newman’s tips on how to dress up as Arthur for Halloween, his thoughts on a terrific performance in the (unjustly neglected) superhero family comedy Sky High, and his consideration of how to play the emotional realism of a character when his entire costume seems to be working against him.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.