‘Dumbo’ Star Joseph Gatt on His Darth Vader-ish Character
Tim Burton’s live-action reimagining of Walt Disney’s animated classic “Dumbo” gives the story new dimensions and lots of brand new characters. Considering the original film ran little more than an hour, that’s not much of a surprise, but the story of the flying elephant certainly has added scope and scale. This became very apparently when we visited the London set of Burton’s “Dumbo” back in the fall of 2017. While most of what we saw has to remain secret (for now), one element that was revealed was the role of Joseph Gatt, the statuesque former model, who spoke candidly about his place in this new, expanded “Dumbo” universe.
In “Dumbo,” the elephant is born into the care of a small circus owner (Danny DeVito) and specifically to a father (Colin Farrell) who has come back from World War I a very different man (he’s lost his wife in the process as well as a limb). Through the course of the movie, Dumbo becomes a sensation and draws the attention of a visionary (and villainous) large circus owner named V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton). It’s in Vandervere’s orbit that we meet Gatt’s character, Skellig.
After we asked Gatt what he could tell us about his character, and he joked, “Nothing at all,” he went into a great analogy. “The way I like to describe Skellig is if you imagine that Vandervere, Michael Keaton’s character is the emperor, I’m Darth Vader,” Gatt said. “So basically, he’s the more powerful, he’s in charge of everything and I just do his bidding and go around just being evil. I’m his head of security and I’m a hunter. I don’t like animals very much. So as you can imagine, I get on really well with Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo. And we have a lot of interesting interactions that don’t end very well, generally for me.”
When asked to describe his character’s relationship with Dumbo, Gatt said, “Most people see Dumbo as this cute, big-eared pachyderm. And you know, he’s very cute, has these big eyes and the lashes. And I see him as a, you know, something that would look nice on my wall, perhaps, or maybe a new jacket, perhaps, something along those lines. So we don’t really see eye to eye, me and Dumbo.” It should be noted that Gatt said all of this with a straight face … and that he was absolutely lovely in real life.
Gatt, who seemed to know the original animated “Dumbo” quite well (maybe because, he admitted, “I only just saw the original animated movie about four weeks before I flew out”), points to two specific moments in this new version that were lifted directly from the first film: in one, Gatt said, “Mrs. Jumbo has a bit of a fit. You know, she goes a little nuts and then she’s taken away and put in her little railcar by herself.” And then in another, Mrs. Jumbo is in Keaton’s modernist Dreamland circus, in disguise, “There’s a moment that’s really very cute in the story, where Dumbo hears or Mrs. Jumbo hears Dumbo in pain and she starts calling out to him from the other side of the park and they start trying to get together. And he escapes from the tent and then starts flying through the park to find his mom.” Of course, given that Gatt’s Skellig is a heavy, “It’s my job to ruin all of that.”
Later, Gatt said that his character isn’t wholly “subservient” to Keaton’s Vandervere, again comparing him to Darth Vader. “[Darth Vader is] his own powerful character, makes his own decisions. And Skellig is exactly the same,” Gatt said. “I mean, left to his own devices, who knows what Skellig would do, probably rid the whole world of elephants.”
And while the self-professed “animal lover” fully admitted that, “Everyone’s going to love this movie,” Gatt also is ready to be the stuff of little kids’ nightmares. He sounded giddy to be the face of “evil scum and villainy.” Maybe a little too giddy. “I cannot wait,” Gatt said. “I love showing people that diversity, that difference. And that stopped so far, people wanting to spit on me in the street and slap me or swear at me for no reason and stuff.” We’ll see if that changes once “Dumbo” opens.
“Dumbo” flies into theaters March 29th.