Imagine having a body that people say could be an alien, or a giant, or Chewbacca. This has been the story of Ian Whyte’s career for the last 17 years. You may not realize it, but you’ve almost certainly seen him on screen, either as an Alien or a Predator, a White Walker. At 7’1”, Whyte is the go-to guy to play large (and often scary) things in fantasy and sci-fi tv and movies. But before he was one of the best creature actors in the game, Whyte was just a really big dude. He played pro basketball all over Europe in the 90s and early 2000s, when a call came out of nowhere and changed his life.
“A casting director tracked me down through the basketball team I was playing for at the time,” Whyte remembers. “She said, ‘Listen, will you please come in and audition, because we’re looking for someone exactly like you to play this part.’” The part was the Predator in the weird, wild, wonderfully ridiculous Alien vs. Predator. If you don’t remember, it’s exactly what it sounds like—the alien hunter species known as Predators fight the giant parasite aliens known as Xenomorphs. Carnage ensues.
Whyte had never acted before, but he was about the same height as the original Predator actor, Kevin Peter Hall, and he had the same tall, slim, and fit physique. It turned out that prior experience wasn’t nearly as important as the right build and good physical fitness. He watched the original Predator movies over the weekend and showed up for the audition.
“It was the hottest day of the year and it was a tiny studio near King’s Cross Station. They gave me a wetsuit and a mock-up of the Predator head with the thick ropes and said, ‘Okay, just start running.’ And after about 40 minutes, they said I could stop. They asked, ‘How was that for you,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but I can do it.’ That was the audition.”
So began a nearly twenty year career playing aliens, monsters, and giants. His role as the Predator led to other opportunities in creaturely universes from Harry Potter to Star Wars to Westeros. “I never approach these characters as monsters or beasts. I always approach them as characters in their own way. They’re heroes in their own story,” he says.
These days Whyte has pivoted from ice zombies to satanic plague monsters: he plays a plague doctor in the Netflix series teen adventure series The Irregulars, and he’s the devil in the period plague horror The Reckoning. He went movie by movie with GQ to talk about some of his favorite creatures, learning to speak a made-up language for Ridley Scott, and the connections between Game of Thrones and Akira Kurosawa.
Alien vs Predator & Alien vs Predator: Requiem
Ian Whyte: [Predator] is one of those timeless classics because everyone’s in a military uniform. It’s in the jungle. There’s hardly any reference to the era whatsoever. It’s just one of those things that ages really, really well.
My wife had said to me, “Do as many of your stunts as you feel comfortable with. I’m happy with that. Just don’t let them set you on fire.” But one of the first scenes we did was the scene where Lance Henriksen, playing Weyland, sets fire to an oxygen bottle and torches the Predator. Week one there was a stunt double to do the full body burn. But the closeups, they had fire gel all over the costume and for a great deal of the take I was ablaze.
The whole point of Alien vs. Predator back then was to bring these characters to a new audience, which they achieved gloriously. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem was released on Christmas day, and I went to a movie theater in Los Angeles to watch it on the screen with an audience. There were entire extended families in the movie theater. Literally babes in arm. Children, teenagers, adults, and grandparents, an entire extended family. It was astonishing.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
I was familiar with [Harry Potter], they’re really good stories completely wasted on children. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, there is a character called Madame Maxime, the headmistress of one of the visiting schools of magic, Beauxbatons, and she is 8′ 6″ tall. The glorious actress, Frances de la Tour, who actually plays the character is not 8′ 6″. But they wanted to use the same process that they used for Hagrid to bring this character to life. All the long shots and wide shots are done with a body double and they just do the closeups [with the main actor].
We had all of these dancers from the West End playing the visiting Beauxbatons students, and all of these martial artists playing the visiting from the boys school, whatever it was called. And honestly, the level of on-set flirting was Olympic standard.
I really enjoyed working with Ridley Scott. I think Prometheus achieved the impossible in dividing Alien fans from Ridley Scott fans. The assumption was that it was going to be a bit more of an Alien film rather than a Ridley Scott film, [but] it was definitely a Ridley Scott film rather than an Alien film. It was more cerebral.
[For the Engineer language], we had a linguistics expert from a university in London. She spent months devising a language for the aliens that was based on a root language about 10,000 years old, just before European languages and Asian languages began to branch off of their own accord. So there were a lot of clicks and guttural sounds from the back of my throat, which I had to find way deep down.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens & Rogue One
In Force Awakens, I doubled for Peter [Mayhew]. He was a legend. He created [Chewbacca] out of thin air, out of nothing, and brought humanity, and empathy and pathos to this hairy, alien creature, and he created an icon in the process.
Game of Thrones
I played the White Walker in season one. I played the Mountain in season two. I played a giant in season three and four, [another giant] in series five and six, and some of the undead characters in seven and eight. Three separate giants, all told, because one of them was undead. [My favorite] was Wun Wun, the giant I played in series five and six, because it was the very first time that we got to see one of these sort of semi-savages display anything approaching humanity. He was a character of great action and few words. Everything about him was largely unspoken, but he had a goal and he had a purpose, an objective.
I did enjoy his death. A friend of mine pointed out it was very reminiscent of an old Japanese film called Throne of Blood. The hero dies in a hail of arrows. And I was watching it with my wife, and she says, “Have you looked at your Twitter account?” I hardly ever look at social media, and she says, “People are going crazy that you’ve died.” I had absolutely no idea because I had no idea how popular a chaWracter he was.