Lara Croft had approximately 0.6 seconds as the adventurous, crypt-crawling Indiana Jane she was intended to be before she was immediately burdened with absurd physical proportions and tasked with propping up the half-formed sexual fantasies of millions of teenage boys. It’s a fact that mars her achievement as one of the first popular female protagonists in gaming—after all, Mario never had to look like Fabio — and shows that just because you’re polygonal, doesn’t mean you’re three-dimensional. But developer Crystal Dynamics is hoping to change all that with Tomb Raider, their upcoming reboot that hits stores March 5 and serves as a gritty origin story-slash-fresh start for Croft.
The actress who reimagined this iconic character was Camilla Luddington, known for playing Kate Middleton in the royal courtship Lifetime movie William & Kate and more recently for playing Dr. Jo Wilson on Grey’s Anatomy. Not only did the English actress voice Croft, but she also provided her movements, recording most of the game’s action and cut-scenes with elaborate motion capture. We spoke with Luddington about inhabiting the (now somewhat more realistic) body of gaming’s premier action-hero archeologist. (Sorry, Nathan Drake.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you been involved with Tomb Raider at this point?
CAMILLA LUDDINGTON: Three years ago I went in for an audition for something called Cryptids, because it had codename back then. I did three auditions and then when I got it, that’s when they told me it was Tomb Raider and I would be playing Lara Croft in the new game. I think they had told me her name was Sara Something, it’s wasn’t Lara Croft.
Not, like, Sara Toft, right? That would be a little too obvious.
[Laughs] Right. I remember reading the breakdown and thinking she sounded like the Lara Croft type so I went in in boots and shorts and a tank top, just channeling all that anyway. I remember screaming in my car when I heard it was Tomb Raider because it’s such an iconic game and I remember thinking my brothers would finally think I was cool. The first thing they told me is that I couldn’t tell anybody, so I didn’t tell anyone for two-and-a-half years.
Did you get to tell your brothers at least so you could rub it in?
I did, I told them and swore them to secrecy. And they told me that when the game came out they couldn’t wait to kill me over and over.
That’s so sweet.
Very loving, yes. [Laughs]
Did you play video games growing up?
I did play video games. I remember one console we had was a Sega Mega Drive back in England and I played the first Tomb Raider, and I was horrible at it.
It’s not an easy game.
It’s difficult. What’s funny is that I’m totally able to play this new game. It was weird, I had finished the game and they told me, “We’re going to fly you up to San Francisco and we want you to watch someone playing the game for two days straight. We’re going to put a microphone in front of you and a camera and record any little reactions you have.” It’s strange for me watching the game because she sounds like me, she has all of my facial expressions, she kind of looks like me, so when falls or hurts herself I would [sharp intake of breath] so they would take those little noises and facial expressions and put them back in the game.
That’s got a hall-of-mirrors aspect to it.
The game is pretty brutal and it’s hard not to have some emotional reactions to it especially when you’re hearing your own voice. It’s so detailed that she blinks as many times as I do. It’s strange: I feel maybe even more for her than a normal person does because it feels like I’m going through it with her.
At this point, how much is acting for a video game similar to acting in other media?
For me, after two-and-a-half years of doing the game, those scenes I did with the other actors, they ended up becoming very real for me. Someone’s grabbing you and throwing you around and pushing you—I would have things like a rope tied around my waist and I’d be yanked and dragged to one side. I think that physicality of literally being beaten up, it naturally makes you angry and makes you as an actress want to fight back, which helped me get into Lara’s mindset.
So paint the picture for me: What is it like when you’re doing mo-cap for a game like this?
You’re in what they call “the volume” and it’s this huge, huge room and there are cameras 360 degrees around above you. That’s kind of amazing because you’re never having to pay attention to where the camera is like when you’re on a TV show. You’re in motion capture suits but they have flat-screens around the room, and once you get synced into the suits—you have to do all these little actions with your hands and the computer syncs you in—Lara would appear on the flat-screen and I could look up and wherever I would move, or if I cocked my head to one side, she would do the same thing.
In the room they would have these boxes and they would say, “This is a fire” or “This is a tree” or “This is a wall” and I would walk up to it and look up at the flat-screen and see the fire. That was kind of incredible. I was able to constantly refer back to the TVs to see what this landscape would look like. And that made it very real because sometimes you’re standing on a box and they’re saying, “This is a boat,” and you can look up and it gives you visual that I didn’t think you’d be able to get.
But it’s hours and hours and it’s exhausting, and I didn’t tell anyone forever that I was doing it. I remember, I had bruises all over my body at some points because it was rough. I was doing Californication and doing some nudity and they had to cover the bruises. They must have thought I was being abused at home or something. I’d be like, “Oh, I just bumped into this thing today,” because I couldn’t talk about the project, so they were slightly concerned.
Gone are the days of the actor getting an easy paycheck just for doing a voiceover.
Who knew?! I really did think, “Lara Croft, this is going to be a breeze: Go in, kill everyone, and be heroic.” And they were like, “Okay, so you’re going to get beaten up for the next three years.”
You play an American on Grey’s Anatomy. Were you happy to be able to use your native English accent for Croft?
I was, because I’m on Grey’s now, so when I get tired it comes out more. So sometimes those late nights on Grey’s they’d be like, “Hey, can you do that line again, but not British?” I didn’t get any of that while filming Tomb Raider. And it’s obviously great because she’s iconic and British and all that. Of course, it’s kind of amazing thinking maybe one day my kids will be able to play the game and hear my voice. You feel like you’ve been immortalized in some sense in the game.
Obviously, one of the major components of Lara Croft is the way in which she’s been used as a blatant sex symbol for most of her shelf life. What was the plan in terms of making her more of an actual person and less fantasy-fulfillment?
There were conversations to make her more realistic. She can still be a sex symbol of sorts without having to wear a tiny pair of shorts and these gigantic boobs while running around. There was a lot of talk about the fact that with the Batman reboot and the James Bond reboot, those characters became more gritty and less stereotypes of what they were becoming, so they wanted to steer away from that.
She’ll be taken more seriously and that’s what they wanted. I don’t know how well it would have worked if she’s going through these sincere and brutal experiences and she’s in hot pants.She’s just more relatable and I think that’s more interesting for a gamer to play because you want to relate to that person while you’re playing them and get invested.
You also played Kate Middleton in Lifetime’s William & Kate. Compare and contrast…
Compare and contrast? Well, I don’t see Lara wearing a nice dress anytime soon. They couldn’t be anymore different, to be honest. It’s funny, I was still doing Tomb Raider while I was doing Will & Kate, so that was really fun going back and forth between them. I remember for Will & Kate being given classes on, “Please sit up straight and walk like this and sit like this and hold yourself in such a way,” and I would go to Tomb Raider and they would say, “Okay, run and kill this wolf!” I felt like I had a split personality.