Until the Iron Giant, star of 1999’s The Iron Giant, appeared in the trailer for Ready Player One this summer, I assumed he was missing. He was lost to us. But he was always with himself. And I wanted to know where that was.
With Ready Player One in theaters this week, I reached out to Warner Bros. to see if he was doing any interviews. I told them big fans like me want to hear what happened. Why did he disappear? Where did he go? To my surprise, he agreed.
We met at one of those too-hip hotels where it seems like no one actually stays, but the lobby is always filled. He seemed instantly uncomfortable, but I thought, Maybe that’s just how it always feels, being a giant among men. I’d soon find out that’s not what it was. The Iron Giant had a story he needed to tell — but not one he wanted to.
Nice to see you.
Nice to meet you.
It’s been awhile.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I guess so.
How did you get involved with Ready Player One?
Nothing exciting. My old agent emailed me.
What made you say yes? I just ask because you haven’t been in anything in awhile.
Yeah. Of course, [Steven] Spielberg. But, mostly, it was that my agent told me I wouldn’t have to audition.
Were you a fan of the book?
Not really. Nostalgia isn’t really my thing.
Did you know that you weren’t the first choice? The part was originally for a different character – Ultraman – but they couldn’t get the rights.
They were weirdly forthcoming about it. Oddly enough, I think I preferred knowing. It seemed like less pressure. If I knew I was some beloved character from the book, I’d be nervous I’d be disappointing. Like, I am not people’s childhood memory of me.
What did you think, then, when you actually got the script?
There’s this moment, when I’m first mentioned, where that one character — umm, I don’t remember her name — is like, “Whoa, you have an Iron Giant!” or something. I just found that so funny. To imagine a kid in two-thousand-whatever giving one shit about me.
And I really, really liked the ending. Well, parts of it. There is this second, and I’ll be vague, where you think it’s all going to end. The whole thing. And I started tearing up a bit because I know that feeling of just wanting a button. Wanting a reset. Wanting an extra life.
There were some parallels to your role in the film and your real-life narrative. In that, you know, you’re dormant and then are brought back to life for your moment in the sun, if that makes sense.
No. It doesn’t. I’m not trying to be a dick, but I don’t see it that way. I’ve not been dormant. Just because someone isn’t in stuff doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t exist.
Sorry. Umm, how did working with Spielberg compare to Brad Bird?
The Iron Giant was Brad’s first movie. Steven Spielberg is Steven Spielberg. I think that’s all I’ll say.
Have you kept in touch with Brad since?
I have to go to the bathroom.
[Iron Giant leaves. He comes back 5 minutes later.] Sorry about that.
Is everything okay?
Can you just ask me the question you’ve been dancing around for the last 15 minutes?
What do you mean?
Okay. The Iron Giant came out in 1999. What happened?
What happened? You know, when you’re tall, like me, you quickly realize that people can see you. You get used to the idea of people looking at you. Then when you have success in this business at a young age, again like me, you start thinking you deserve to be looked at. Not only that, but your worth is in being looked at. So, what happens when people stop looking at you?
When did this feeling start?
Before I.G. came out, the town was buzzing. Man, I was taking so many meetings. This was years before the Michael Bay version, but I was in early talks to star in and produce a Transformers movie. Not to mention, we were all but guaranteed a sequel, you know, with how The Iron Giant ended. I even hung out with the Pussy Posse a few times. I didn’t really like it. David Blaine kept on asking me to stab him.
And then the movie came out?
Yeah, then the movie came out. Growing up, I thought once I star in a big movie, everything will make sense. I thought success was going to tighten that screw that always felt loose. But the truth is, there wasn’t a loose screw. There’s just a hole that no screw will ever fit in correctly. It’s a design flaw.
It was extra hard because the early reviews were really strong. My team was pumping me up all week. Then around Thursday … Eventually, it opened to less than $6 million on a $70 million-plus budget. There wasn’t going to be a sequel.
Where did that leave you?
The thing about Hollywood and all that La La Land dreamers bullshit is no one tells you to quit. So, I’d go on auditions. I’d show up and there’s a hallway with 20 other giant robots that look just like me, but shinier.
What was the low point?
It was 2004. I hadn’t worked in five years. You asked if Brad and I stayed in touch. After I.G. bombed, I think we sort of blamed each other. I’d see him around and it was just super weird, but he’d tell me about The Incredibles, even if I didn’t ask. I’d be like, “Cool.” What he didn’t tell me was that there was a fucking giant robot in it. Look, I knew I wasn’t his fucking muse or anything, but I thought he thought I had range to play different types of giant robots.
Is that when you left L.A.?
No. There was another year or so that I’d prefer not to talk about. But that whole time, the Iron Giant was developing a bit of a cult following, so I was able to support myself by doing the convention circuit, until I had to stop.
I don’t remember where I was. They blur. But this little boy came up to me, wearing this amazing costume of me. [Starting to choke up.] And he goes, “What are you working on next?” I don’t remember what I said, probably some joke about irons in the fire, and then I just got up and left. I didn’t even sign anything for him.
You went back to L.A.?
No. I had nothing left there. I flew to Maine.
Yeah. We spent a lot of time there on I.G. I remembered it was quiet and there’s a real libertarian streak, which I’m not in love with politically, but no one bothers you. And I just stayed.
Wait, what was it about the boy’s comment?
You know the fable of the scorpion and the frog. It’s like that.
I used to think I was the scorpion. Then I thought I was the frog and Hollywood was the scorpion. I didn’t know it exactly at the moment, but I figured it out in the years since, but when the boy said that, I realized I’m neither. I’m a fucking robot. I have no nature. I can do whatever I want, except injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, of course.
And what did you want?
Well, for awhile I just wanted nothing. Then one day, I was at the diner, and the principal at the local high school asked if I would be willing to come talk to the theater kids. That one time turned into every day. What people don’t know about teaching is actually you learn just as much from your students as they do from you, if that makes sense.
What did you learn?
It was the opening night of Grease and the kids were singing “You’re the One That I Want” and having literally the best time of their life. And it all became so clear: It’s about doing it because you enjoy the work, not because you want what comes from it.
I guess the question is the same question I started this with then: Why do Ready Player One?
Honestly, not auditioning. Also, I didn’t want to end up in one of those shitty click-bait articles, you know, like, “19 ’90s Stars Who Are Now in a Shallow Ditch Somewhere.” More than anything though, through therapy, I realized I can’t just pretend that wasn’t my life once. I said before nostalgia isn’t my thing, but I have accepted the sort of inverse of what the movie suggests at the end — mostly the real world, with the occasional stroll down memory lane.
Is that why you agreed to this interview — a stroll down memory lane?
Well, mostly I didn’t want people see Ready Player One and start wondering where I’ve been, so much so that they’d look for me, and disturb the life I’ve built. Also, if I were to be honest, I guess part of me hoped that kid from that convention would see this and know how he changed my life.
It was me.
I was that kid.
[Crying] Do you want an autograph?
I’d like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.