movie magic

How to Un-Cast an Actor

When an Army of the Dead star got called out, Zack Snyder called on Tig Notaro to save a role.

Tig Notaro filming a scene for Army of the Dead on a green screen. Photo: Scott Garfield/Netflix/
Tig Notaro filming a scene for Army of the Dead on a green screen. Photo: Scott Garfield/Netflix/

During the weeks Tig Notaro spent working on Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder’s new zombie-heist movie, one thought kept running through her head: How on earth did telling jokes lead me to this moment?

It was Notaro’s first action gig, and the 50-year-old was stepping into a role originally performed by fellow comedian Chris D’Elia, who had recently been accused of pursuing multiple teenage girls. The allegations against D’Elia had surfaced in June 2020 and within weeks, his agency, CAA, had dropped him and Netflix canceled his deal for an unscripted prank show. (D’Elia continues to deny the allegations.) By that time, Snyder was deep into postproduction on Army of the Dead, which follows a team of mercenaries led by Dave Bautista that infiltrates zombie-ridden Las Vegas to recover millions of dollars from a casino vault; the comic played a supporting role as a wisecracking helicopter pilot named Peters. In August, Snyder announced that he would digitally erase D’Elia from the movie and reshoot his part with Notaro.

It wasn’t the first time an actor had been replaced in postproduction after being accused of sexual misconduct. In 2017, Ridley Scott spent nine days reshooting Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World with Christopher Plummer. The same year, the animated series Gravity Falls redubbed a character originally voiced by Louis C.K., a former friend and collaborator of Notaro’s. Snyder’s task was more demanding: It would have been a logistical nightmare to bring back Army of the Dead’s cast for reshoots during a pandemic, so Notaro would have to film almost all of her scenes in front of a green screen with no other actors in sight, and Snyder’s team would then edit them into the existing footage. (The director wouldn’t reveal how much this process tacked on to the budget — but he did say it was cheaper than creating the movie’s CGI zombie tiger.)

Notaro and Snyder look back on the convoluted filming process with a mixture of awe and relief. “We kind of knew what we were getting into,” says Snyder, “but had no idea how hard it would be.”


Step 1: Get Tig

When Snyder’s casting director mentioned Notaro for the role, the director recalls, “My brain just went, Wait. Tig. Yes. That’s it. [Then] I’m like, ‘Do you think she would do this, though?’ ”

“I was so baffled,” Notaro says of learning Snyder wanted her for the part. “I felt like there was some sort of misunderstanding.” As an actor, Notaro had almost always played a variation on herself. The closest she had come to something like her role in Army of the Dead was in the series Star Trek: Discovery, where her stunt work was limited to falling onto a mattress. She’s also significantly shorter than D’Elia and has a wry, intimate sense of humor, while he skews bombastic and vulgar.

Snyder sent Notaro a screener of the movie, in which the editing, CG effects, and sound were nearly finished, and explained how the filming would work if she signed on. It was reassuring, but Notaro had seen D’Elia’s footage, too. “It didn’t seem possible for me to take on what Chris did. We’re such different actors and comedians,” she says. “I honestly thought, regardless of what’s going on in his personal life, that his performance was excellent. But Zack said, ‘We want you to do exactly what you do.’ And, in turn, that’s all I did.”


Step 2: Re-create the action.

Notaro prepped for her role as Peters by studying the script — and learning how to handle a prop weapon. “I did firearm training over Zoom in my office while my children were playing Lego in the next room,” she says. “I hid it from them, not because they’d get hurt but because I didn’t want them to think I had a machine gun. That lasted probably 20 minutes.”

Meanwhile, the movie had to delete D’Elia to make room for Notaro. Her footage couldn’t be pasted over D’Elia’s — matching their movements beat for beat would be too complicated, and the actors’ size difference would make Notaro look unnaturally large. “I had to do this incredibly technical experiment, re-creating every scene, shot for shot,” Snyder says. “My visual-effects supervisor, Marcus Taormina, did the work of taking Chris completely out of the movie so Tig could have freedom [to move] within the scenes.”

The original footage had been shot in Albuquerque and Atlantic City in 2019. For the new shots of Notaro, which began filming in early September 2020, Snyder and the visual-effects team replicated the physical spaces and camera angles of the original scenes at a studio in Simi Valley, California, referencing the old footage on a monitor and using greened-out props, laser pointers, and tennis balls hanging from stands to approximate where Notaro should be looking. And there could be no ad-libbing: Notaro’s dialogue had to sync with the other characters’ reactions.

Save for a half-day shoot with co-star Ana de la Reguera, the scenes in which Notaro physically touches another character were either pantomimed or filmed with her assistant, Patrick McDonald, wearing a green suit. “They’d line up a piece of tape on the ground and say, ‘Okay, you’ve fallen in line with a group of people. You’re walking into a building,’ ” Notaro recalls. “I’d be like, ‘Is it kind of a mosey? Okay, I’ll mosey.’ Then Zack might say, ‘That’s a little too fast with the moseying,’ and we’d start over again.”

For the film’s climax, she pretended she was flying a prop helicopter away from a nuclear-bomb explosion while Bautista — who’d filmed his part a year before — battled a zombie behind her. “That’s where I’m like, ‘I am not a trained actor,’ ” she says. “I had to be yelling lines, I have a zombie in the back of my helicopter, I have to press the right buttons and flick the right switches. You’re sitting there with all these adults standing ten feet away while you’re alone, acting like you’re crashing. I thought, Oh my God, I feel like an idiot. Can we be done with this?


Step 3: Swap her in.

To begin the next stage of postproduction, Snyder and his team sifted through all of Notaro’s footage to pick not only the best takes but the ones that synced with the dialogue and action. When things didn’t match up, they used a CG scan they had made of Notaro’s body to create a digital version of her they could insert into scenes, mostly for background shots.

“Some of the trickiest shots were where she’s walking in the group — I had to match the [camera] pans, and it was difficult to get the perspective to match,” Snyder says. “It was a few months to get all the individual effects and make it seamless. Marcus was able to fudge it around and get it to work, and [her footage] went in surprisingly easily.”

As Notaro jokes, filming this way went to her head. “Because I was the only one on set, I started to think I was the star of the movie. Then I told Zack that I realized, Oh, not only am I not the star, but a lot of these shots are me blurred out in the background.” Snyder rewarded her efforts with a fake Oscar statuette for Best Out-of-Focus Actor.

When Snyder first announced he would be replacing D’Elia with Notaro, many D’Elia fanboys were upset about both his replacement and what they saw as his undeserved cancellation. But when the first Army trailer was released in April, a quick shot of Notaro pouring gasoline in her pilot outfit, complete with aviator sunglasses and a cigarillo dangling from her mouth, immediately went viral.

“My phone started blowing up: ‘You’re trending on Twitter! Everybody’s talking about how you’re sexy AF,’ ” she says. “I was so confused. I really thought there was going to be a backlash from me replacing Chris. I didn’t think I was going to be trending for being a badass.”

How to Un-Cast an Actor