Movie monsters have proved to be fertile material for actors. Boris Karloff became one of the most popular film stars of the 1930s after his turn as Frankenstein’s monster elicited both sympathy and horror. Robert Englund’s comic timing as Freddy Krueger carried the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series through eight films. Bill Skarsgard even generated Oscar chatter for his unpredictable take on Pennywise in last year’s “It.”
Compared with them, Michael Myers, the masked killer in the “Halloween” movies, is not exactly a juicy role. He is silent and does not emote. He just stalks and kills, like a land shark in coveralls. In the original 1978 film, the character was billed as the Shape. How do you portray something called the Shape?
The answer is unexpectedly complicated.
Eight actors have tried to play him over 10 films, not counting “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” — which didn’t feature Michael — but including the many sequels, remakes, re-imaginings and reboots, the latest of which, simply titled “Halloween,” opened Friday.
John Carpenter, who directed and wrote, with Debra Hill, the original, described the character during a recent phone interview: “He wasn’t human and he wasn’t supernatural. He was somewhere in between. He was the Shape. He could be anywhere at night. He could be in the shadows. He’d watch you. And even though he moved like a human being, there was something about him … different.”
When casting the Shape, Mr. Carpenter handed the mask — a Captain Kirk item spray-painted white — to Nick Castle, a friend from the University of Southern California. “Nick had a grace to his walking, his gait,” Carpenter said. “I saw his body and the way he moved and I said, ‘That’s Michael Myers.’”
An aspiring filmmaker, Castle accepted the role after figuring that being on set would demystify the moviemaking process for him. But he required direction when filming started. “I remember distinctly the first time I was going to be on camera,” Castle said in a phone interview. “I walked to John and said, ‘Hey, this is the first time we’re going to see the Shape. What am I supposed to do? How do you want me to do it?’ He says, ‘Just go over there and walk towards me.’”
He described Carpenter as his puppeteer. “He would say, ‘Walk faster. Walk slower. Tilt your head.’ It’s his performance, in a way.”
When production of “Halloween II” (1981) interfered with Castle’s directorial debut, “Tag: The Assassination Game,” the role was handed off to a series of actors and stuntmen, each of whom added their own spins to Michael Myers.
Don Shanks, the title villain in “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers” (1989), had experience playing silent characters. A theater major who had studied mime and dance in college, Shanks got his big break in “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams” when he was cast as the Native American friend of the frontier woodsman. “A lot of times, I didn’t have dialogue or spoke in an Indian dialect,” Shanks said. “I had to listen and see what’s going on.”
For his “Halloween 5” audition, Shanks listened as the director, Dominique Othenin-Girard, shared his vision of Michael Myers, then asked Shanks to walk like wood through water. Shanks strode as if he were “rigid, but able to flow, where there is resistance you are still able to move.” He got the part.
Chris Durand had not seen Shanks’s performance or even the original “Halloween” before picking up the butcher’s knife for the 1998 “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later.” But he knew that the role required more than stunt work. “If you don’t bring something extra to it, you are just some guy in a mask standing in a hallway,” he said.
Durand found inspiration in a big cat. “If you’ve ever seen a tiger lock eyes on its prey, it’s really intense and they are single-minded at that point,” he said. “I would ever so slightly tilt my head down and lock on whoever I was going after. I even did a low, guttural growl that a sound guy picked up on.”
As Michael Myers in Rob Zombie’s 2007 version of “Halloween” and its 2009 sequel, Tyler Mane had more material to work with than his predecessors did. The Zombie films revealed an origin story for Michael Myers, making this incarnation less of a shape and more of a fully formed character. Mane also had the benefit of being able to use his eyes to convey emotion because the masks in these films revealed more of his face.
Mane researched serial killers in preparation. He also mined his own background as a professional wrestler for 11 years. “All that training helped me,” Mane said of his time in the ring. “It’s body movement, body language, using your eyes, and how you carry yourself.” Mane’s size — 6 feet 7 inches, 255 pounds — also worked to his advantage with Michael Myers. “Rob wanted to make him more aggressive and intense and that’s how I got hired.”
Like Durand in “Halloween H20,” the director of the latest “Halloween,” David Gordon Green, envisioned Michael Myers as catlike — “like some sort of feline in the wild, always observing and conscious and moving his head before his body.”
(Green didn’t dwell much on aspects of Michael that have bothered fans, like how he learned to drive despite having been institutionalized since he was 6. “There are so many off-camera things where either you buy it or you don’t,” he said, “but somehow I just surrender to the mystique of Michael.”)
In addition to bringing back Nick Castle for a cameo, Mr. Green cast James Jude Courtney as Michael Myers. “There was a beautiful sensitivity to him,” Green said. “Jim was also very studied in the manner of the original film and Nick Castle’s work.”
Courtney, a 61-year-old actor and stuntman, said he absorbed Castle’s performance after screening the original film. Courtney’s eureka moment came when Michael Myers walked through a backyard. “In that moment, I captured the essence of the Shape,” Courtney said. “It was a vibrational thing.”
Courtney had a Zenlike approach to getting into character. “I accept that the universe is one big information field, and so the information that was created when John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote the Shape and when Nick Castle intuitively inhabited the Shape, exists in the universe,” Courtney said in a phone interview, explaining, “I just created the space and downloaded the information.”
During his audition and later on the set, he said, “I would breathe into that. I would breath it in, open myself up, and the character would come in.” After the scene was finished, “I would exhale it. I would let it out, so I wasn’t carrying it around because it was very, very deep. I was essentially a different being when I was on. In between takes, I would just stand off to the side, motionless, and just stay in that space. I wouldn’t talk to anybody.”
Castle, on the other hand, didn’t change his approach a bit. “I had about as much forethought prior to the new one as I had in the old one,” he said. “I think I always disappoint fans when I tell the story because they want to think that I did something deep and mysterious. But it really was putting on a mask and walking.”