“They were going to make the sequel without Jensen” – inside Deus Ex with actor Elias Toufexis

By Kirk McKeand, Monday, 29 July 2019 18:10 GMT

Elias Toufexis always wanted to be an actor. As a child he sat, beady-eyed, watching Top Gun, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, enthralled by the dialogue as much as the action scenes.

Like most youngsters of the time, Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk were his icons. Fast forward a couple of decades and here Toufexis sits, invited to sign the Golden Book of Montreal – a celebration of the achievements of Canadians, like being handed the key to a city – sandwiched between Michael Ironside and William Shatner.

“That was one of those things where you’re like, ‘Why am I here?’,” Toufexis tells me in his signature growl, a voice that’s now synonymous with the automatic sunglasses and spindly arm-blades of Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen. “You know what I mean? Signing this book of my hometown, and I’m signing it with William Shatner, Michael Ironside, and Brent Spiner was there signing it too.”

In this moment, sitting next to Captain Kirk himself, Toufexis felt like an imposter. “I felt that the whole time,” he remembers. “As if somebody’s going to come out and go, ‘What? Sir, please get out’.”

Toufexis didn’t make his start in video games – his career was born in the theatre, inspired by a love for Shakespeare. He spent three years honing his craft in a Montreal theatre school. Once done with school, he started his own theatre company and toured all over Canada and did a couple of plays in New York as well, “Off-off Broadway”.

It might sound glamorous, but Toufexis remembers his time touring in less optimistic terms: “Starved to death, and no money, literally no money.” He returned to Canada with nothing to show for his time touring, except for the kind of experience only theatre can provide – a direct link between the audience and performer, with little room for error.

Moving back, that was when he got his first break, appearing in a sci-fi film called Decoys. The gig paid out $15,000, which might as well have been $150,000 to him at the time. “I think the budget was around four million bucks,” Toufexis says. “I played the best friend of the lead, I was the co-lead. It was a teenage comedy with horror elements in it. It was alright, it was fine, but it really opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of money to do things for a little bit. That money didn’t last very long. But money to do things, and agents to have something to look at, and that got me more agents, etcetera, etcetera. And then my first video game was in Vancouver, actually, which I auditioned for like a film. It was Need for Speed: Carbon.”

This was on the cusp of when full performance capture – where motion capture suits track body, face, and voice in unison – was beginning to be widely adopted. Instead of using the new tech, Need for Speed: Carbon went old-school and had FMV cutscenes where the actors were actually filmed as themselves for their roles. But outside of these cutscenes, when you’re tearing and drifting around the tracks, you might hear a distinctive sounding voice guiding you along the racing line. “There was a section where you’re racing and you’re talking to my character, so that was my first foray into voice acting for video games,” Toufexis recalls. “You know, ‘Turn right up ahead!’ Things like that.”

If you told someone who wasn’t familiar with Toufexis’ work to listen to Adam Jensen, the protagonist of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided – the actor’s most well-known video game role – you’d forgive them to think he was putting on a voice. It almost sounds like Bruce Wayne slipping into his Batman growl to throw off the bad guys. But Jensen is actually very close to Toufexis’ natural inflection – like a motorbike humming to life in the depths of his throat. With his first few video game roles, Toufexis never even considered using his natural, distinctive tone, though. He describes his role in Carbon as a kind of “Joe Pesci impression”.

“I remember during Decoys, my girlfriend at the time said to me, ‘You have a really interesting voice,’ and I never really thought about it,” Toufexis remembers. “I was always doing voices. So when I started auditioning for voice work, I was auditioning for all these cartoons, and these crazy things. I remember a sound guy in Vancouver, Rob, while he was giving me direction for a cartoon voice, I would obviously answer in my own voice, and he said, ‘You know what, you should try just doing work in your own voice.’ And it hadn’t even really occurred to me. I was still young, so in my mind, it was always, do crazy voices and that’s what gets you the work.”

That realisation happened to hit at around the same time as military-based video games began to boom in popularity. Toufexis’ tone was perfect for all the tango-downs of that era. Back then, the actor was living back in Montreal, where one of Ubisoft’s major studios is based. “So I started suddenly getting these auditions for games like Rainbow Six,” he remembers. “And then I was suddenly the lead bad guy in Rainbow Six. Or games like Splinter Cell, where I played, not the lead bad guy, one of the main bad guys in Splinter Cell. And then in that whole mix came the audition for Jensen in 2008.”

Like most auditions, Toufexis didn’t know what he was auditioning for when he went for the role in Deus Ex. He had no idea what type of game it was, or who he was playing. The only direction he had was that he was playing some kind of Clint Eastwood-influenced character – a very stoic man with a sense of justice.

“A little too stoic, for my taste, in the first one,” Toufexis says. “So I said, ‘Okay,’ and I just gave it to them. I did the audition, I did their stoic kind of Clint Eastwood thing they wanted, and then a few weeks later I got the call. They said, ‘You got this game, and it’s the lead.’ And I had never done a lead in a game before. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is really cool.’ And I honestly thought it was going to be like a week of work, like my other games had been. And it ended up being four years that I worked on the game.”

His life ended up completely intertwined with Jensen’s. In fact, Megan Reed, Jensen’s girlfriend in Human Revolution, is actually played by Michelle Boback, Toufexis’ wife.

“That was completely coincidental,” he explains. “They didn’t know she was my wife when she auditioned, and she got the role. And she came back saying, ‘I got this role in your game, Megan’. And I’m like, ‘Oh, I think you’re playing my girlfriend!’”

At one point in Human Revolution, Jensen finds out that Megan, presumed dead, is actually alive and has been using his DNA to solve issues with the human body’s auto-immune rejection of augmentations. That morning, in the real world, Toufexis and Boback had been having an argument, as people who live together sometimes do. “And we said, ‘Well, we’re not going to make up, let’s just go in and do it.’,” Toufexis laughs. “And so that fight is us really angry at each other, for other reasons, but fighting in the game.

“I’m like, ‘Oh man, this game is taking over my life, this character,’ which I adored in the end. I love it, I love that I’m completely involved in this game. And when the trailer hit, which was only when we were about halfway through recording, and then I realised, ‘Okay, this might actually be very big.’ And it turned out to be much bigger than I thought. And then when the game released, and was a big – it wasn’t a massive hit, but it was a big cult hit.”

There are many ways in which you can measure what makes an iconic character. One of them is design – most people remember Lara Croft because of her dual pistols and adventure getup, while people remember Jensen for his sharp beard, carbon arms, and frameless shades. But not many people could recite a famous line from Miss Croft, whereas there’s always someone ready to reply “I never asked for this” whenever Toufexis puts out a tweet.

“Yeah, people say that still all the time, which is why I don’t know why we’re not, well, we haven’t started on the new one yet,” Toufexis says. “But you can go look at my Twitter, no matter what I tweet, inevitably somebody is saying, ‘Did you ask for this? I bet you didn’t ask for this.’ It’s the craziest thing, the fact that Jensen got pumped into this top tier of video game characters was very surprising.”

Initially, things went quiet after Human Revolution. Toufexis was still busy working on games such as Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed, but he had no idea if he would ever go back for a Deus Ex sequel. “And then they called me for the sequel,” he recalls. “And it was a great thing to hear because initially – and I don’t know if anybody knows this, I think it’s okay to say this now – initially they were going to make the sequel without Jensen. They were just going to make another Deus Ex game. And from what I remember when I was told, the marketing team said, ‘No, you can’t do that. Jensen has just bumped into this,’ like I said, ‘this discussion of top video game characters ever. You can’t just not make a game without him, when you have him ready to go.’ And they agreed, and they continued the story of Human Revolution. And we worked on that for two years, two and a half years.”

Because Toufexis was so tied to the character at this point, it meant he could make some requests. Rather than asking for a rider with a bowl of specific M&Ms, he asked to do more work. You see, the actor only portrayed Jensen’s voice in Human Revolution while someone else did the motion capture. This was due to technical limitations, with Jensen being 6’2” and the actor being 5’10”, but the developer managed to capture his performance and stretch the results in Mankind Divided, allowing Toufexis to fully inhabit the character.

Another big difference between the two games was how much knowledge Toufexis had. Scenes are usually filmed out of order in video games, so he only had a grasp on the individual pieces as he performed them in Human Revolution. For Mankind Divided, he requested the full story outline, as well as meetings with the rest of the cast and the opportunity to perform together where possible.

“Not only was I more comfortable, but I had this, ‘power’ is a stronger word, but people were deferring to me – ‘Would Jensen say this?’,” Toufexis recalls his time on Mankind Divided. “It was the same overall writer, Mary, who’s amazing, but she had all of these other writers who were writing different missions and different parts of the story, and they would all ask me. ‘Is this good for Jensen? Does Jensen do this?’ So I had all of this leeway, and I don’t know if you noticed, but my Jensen in Mankind Divided is much more laidback and human and realistic than he is in Human Revolution.”

Though much of it is due to these technical limitations and the performance differences between the two games, it makes sense for Jensen’s arc. In Human Revolution, Jensen had his humanity stripped away from him without his consent. Not only was he almost killed, he was reborn as a killing tool. Rather than simply giving him prosthetic limbs, the company he worked for deemed it fit to embed blades into his arms, and shrapnel explosives into his elbows. He wasn’t allowed to simply die – he was turned into a weapon for a corporation. He lost his humanity. Between Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, he found what it means to be human again.

“So if you go watch the performance captured scenes in Mankind Divided, they’re my favourite,” Toufexis says. “Because they’re subtle, they’re realistic, every little movement I’m making is captured. It’s very human, and I love that about it. And it makes it much more engrossing, for me, than when I’m being very stoic and then another actor is capturing my body. Personally I think Human Revolution is the better game, but acting and performance-wise, I like Mankind Divided better.”

One of the things that makes Human Revolution the better game is that it feels like a proper, standalone experience. Mankind Divided feels like the first two acts in a larger story and ends abruptly, cutting Jensen’s story short.

“Yeah, I’m not too ecstatic about that,” Toufexis admits. “What had happened was – and I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, so I’m going to be vague – we had filmed about two months of an entire game, and it was going to be a completed game, if I remember correctly, and me and a couple other people had a big problem with where the story was going, and it wasn’t working. So they rewrote the entire thing, and they made it much bigger.”

The rewrite happened around two months into recording. Many of the actors and writers weren’t happy with the quality of the script, and the team ended up parting ways with the writer, getting new people in to start from scratch. Obviously this decision had consequences – it’s not cheap to throw away two months of performance capture and development work – so this may have impacted Square Enix’s expectations as well. Of course, this is just speculation.

“I remember even doing performance capture, finishing the day, and then going to the writers, and going, ‘What do you think?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And I think we all decided, we shouldn’t be saying, ‘Yeah, it’s okay,’ we should be saying, ‘Yeah, that was fucking great.’,” Toufexis recalls. “And we were going to, as far as I know, finish up where we finished up in Mankind Divided, and continue into whatever the next game was going to be. And I don’t think that Mankind Divided shipped their goal in terms of sales that they wanted to hit. So it immediately back-burnered. But I know that they said, I knew we were going to go right into it. In my mind, I had said, ‘Okay, we’re doing this one, and then we’re doing the next one.’ And then suddenly I stopped getting phone calls.”

Both Square Enix and Eidos haven’t explicitly said the sequel is cancelled, but the developer is currently working on a new Marvel Avengers game. Who knows what the plans are once that’s out the door. “But one big fear with this, is that they go, ‘Well, we’re going to start all over.’ And they don’t finish the Jensen trilogy,” Toufexis says. “So I hope they finish it. Personally, it’s not as an actor, about money and things like that, I’m fine, I’m doing other big projects. But as a fan, I want them to finish this game, and I want to bring closure to Jensen. I don’t even care if Jensen becomes a secondary character, as long as they close his story. There’s so much to tell, and there’s so much I know about where they were going, that they could change, but I know about where they were going that I want fans to experience. Nothing was set in stone. But what they told me about what was coming was really exciting. More exciting than Mankind Divided’s story. I remember going, ‘Oh man, God, I can’t wait to do that!’ And then, we still haven’t gotten around to doing it, so, hopefully.

“I’m not disappointed in the ending story-wise, because I know where the story is supposed to go. So I look at it and go, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly where it’s supposed to end.’ What I’m disappointed in, is that we haven’t finished it yet. When we move on, if we ever do finish the story, I don’t think Mankind Divided is going to be the sticking point that it is right now. I think people will go, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ It’s like, imagine they did Infinity War? And then they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, one day we’ll get to Endgame.’ [laughs] You’re like, ‘Come on!’ That’s kind of how I feel about Mankind Divided. Everyone’s pissed off about it now, and that makes sense, but once we finish it, you’ll see why it ended where it ended. We just have to fucking get on it.”

Speaking to Toufexis, all of this comes across as genuine. He’s not a struggling actor hoping for more work – he’s currently working on an unannounced triple-A, a new IP where he plays the main character in a “complex” storyline, and he’s been busy in television playing a terrifying alien antagonist in The Expanse. It’s just that he wants Jensen’s story to be finished for the fans who tweet him every day, ironically, always asking for it.

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