GTA 5 Ned Luke Interview – Behind The Scenes Of Rockstar’s Biggest Game
“Why did I move here? I guess it was the weather. Or the… Ah, I don’t know, that thing. That magic. You see it in the movies. I wanted to retire. From what I was doing, you know? From that, that… line of work. Be a good guy for once, a family man. So, I bought a big house. Came here, put my feet up, and thought I’d be a dad like all the other dads. My kids would be like the kids on TV, we play ball and sit in the sun… But well, you know how it is.”
For a while, Ned Luke was done with acting. He calls it “semi-retired”.
Now in 2020 he’s talking to me from his office, flanked by artwork of his GTA 5 character, Michael De Santa, as a PC monitor screensaver flips between family photos and in-game images of his virtual self.
“Here’s the thing, when I did that thing, when it came out,” Luke says, referencing Rockstar’s mammoth open world game, “my son was 11 years old. I made a decision that I wasn’t going to go to Hollywood and chase more jobs.
“I had soured on the business, I took a sabbatical for four years. I went back to my hometown, my brother and I opened up a little restaurant. I was there for two years and I had been out in the desert in LA for two years before that.”
After spending a while in Trevor Philips Land, Luke and his wife decided it was time to move back to New York, where the actor got in touch with his agent. The first audition he was offered was for a video game.
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to do a video game. What would I want to do a video game for? I’m an actor’,” Luke remembers. “They go, ‘Well, it’s Rockstar’. And I go, ‘Who the hell is Rockstar?’. The only one I knew was EA Sports: Big, from SSX Tricky, which was my favourite game.”
Luke had played the GTA games, however. He was familiar with Rockstar’s work – he just didn’t connect the artist with the art.
“So I looked at the audition material and I went from ‘I’m not doing that game’, to ‘Ain’t nobody else doing it’,” Luke laughs. “It was perfect. It was what turned out to be that opening scene with Dr. Friedlander.”
Just when he thought he was out, they pulled him right back in again. Now Luke was an ex-semi-retired actor, stepping into the shoes of a semi-retired career criminal. He was called in with Steven Ogg (Trevor Philips) and two other actors for a kind of chemistry test. The other actors were also fighting for the parts of Michael and Trevor.
“The callbacks were interesting,” Luke explains. “Steven calls it an act-off. They brought in two guys for Michael and two guys for Trevor, and they also had me learn the Trevor stuff. So we get there and everybody had prepared the same material from the original call. So we go in there and the assistant comes up and goes, ‘So here’s the material we want you to do today.’ It was like seven pages. It was ridiculous.”
A dark look came over the other Michael’s face as he frantically began reaching into the pockets of his sports jacket, pouring over the old material to get a grasp on the character and apply it to the new lines. Luke looked on with confidence.
“I knew right then that he was out,” Luke says. “It didn’t worry me because as soon as I read that stuff I had it down. It was so good and it read well. When something really reads well, for me, it’s really easy to remember. I just went with gut stuff because it was very hush, hush what was going on. We had no script, just some lines.”
Steven Ogg was called in first with the other potential Michael actor and Luke went in with the other potential Trevor. Next the other Michael and Trevor went in, leaving Luke and Ogg alone in the waiting room.
“I said to Steven, ‘How did that feel to you, man?’ He wasn’t very forthcoming, but I was like, ‘My guy sucked’.”
Luke and Ogg got their chance next.
“The chemistry was just stupid. It was so on the money. We basically threw the scripts down and just went,” Luke tells me, boxing at the camera. “It was cool, man. It was good. We smacked each other because it was a kind of physical scene. There was a shove, a smack, there was a block – all this stuff going on.”
It was electric. Even the camera operators were into it, eagerly capturing the pair going at it like old frenemies. “When we came out, I said to Steven, ‘I don’t know about me, pal, but you’re booking this thing’,” Luke remembers. “He’s down there getting on his bike like, ‘Oh, I don’t know’. I’m like, ‘Dude, I’ll see you on the set’.”
These kinds of auditions don’t tend to happen in movies and television. There’s usually a reader there to speak your co-star’s lines, but you’re on your own and being judged by everyone in the room. This audition was more like theatre – a back and forth where the actors could play off each other. With a game like GTA 5, where the dynamic and chemistry of its three lead actors was vital, it’s a smart way to do it.
That’s one of the things that stood out to Luke about the whole experience – not just the audition, but the years-long filming process: how refreshing it was. This was an actor who’d lost his mojo, who acted as much out of habit as out of passion. Now he’s one of three leads in what became the biggest entertainment product of all time, where months before he’d wanted nothing to do with it.
“Frankly, the most amazing thing – take the acting out of it – was the crew,” Luke says. “They were just this bunch of young geniuses. They were so much fun to work with. The thing I loved about the whole deal was that it was like someone had taken a can opener and opened up my whole imagination. Nothing was there that was real. The mansion was a series of pipes and conduit and ropes and apple crates. You had to imagine everything that was there. It was like hardcore scene study class, almost. Like being a little kid again.”
The scenes where Luke was driving a car, he’d be sat in a chair, surrounded by pipes. When the scene required him to pump the brakes, he’d have to mimic that inertia, slightly throwing his body forward. When taking a corner, he’d have to turn the pretend wheel and let it come back in his hands. As Luke explains this to me, he mimics a crash scene and begins flying about in his office chair like he’s being assaulted by a ghost. The process reignited his love for acting – his eyes still light up now when he talks about it.
In the scene where Michael tears a house down in the Vinewood Hills after finding out his wife has been unfaithful, a character hits him with a bat. While filming, Luke actually took that hit. Not a bat, but a broomhandle covered in foam – his scene partner hit him with the not-foam part, right on his funny bone. You know, the not-funny part of the arm.
“I’m an actor – it’s what I do. It’s all I can do,” Luke says. “That’s where the connection between me and Michael came in. I’d basically come out of retirement, like Michael had. In that scene he tells Franklin, ‘There’s only two ways I know how to make money – robbing and killing’, or whatever the hell that line was. The only thing I know how to do is being an actor. So I’m back in the business.
“I’ve been in this business 35 years now. I was 25 years into the business. That was right around when the housing market crashed. It was just not a good time. I was like, ‘Fuck this, I’m done’. I had a small child and thought it was best to go back to my hometown. You get that way. You go through phases where it doesn’t feel worth it. You don’t make enough money one year to pay your insurance. You start thinking, ‘If I had a regular job I’d probably have my insurance’, you know?”
This job would last him three years and provide him the security he needed at the time, even if it is a long time to be tied to a project – and a secretive project at that. It helped that the three co-stars had such a solid bond. That tends to be the way with Rockstar games – these mammoth productions. I’ve spoken to a bunch of the Red Dead Redemption 2 cast and they all say the same thing: it’s like a family on set.
“I loved the scene where I fessed up to Solo [Shawn Fonteno], who plays Franklin [Clinton], that I was working with the FBI,” Luke explains. “I loved that scene because to me, that was where Solo became an actor. When he first got there he was stiff. He was a fish out of water. This is an ex gangbanger who’s a rapper and all this kind of stuff, and he’s in there with all these white dudes. Great guy, one of my best friends – he’s my brother now – but it took him a while to get used to this whole thing. If he were here now he’d tell you, ‘Yeah, I almost quit. I wanted to go home and Ned talked me out of it’. But he was so awesome, and that’s why I love that scene because he really got into it. It was an emotional scene and it was really good.”
Much like how Luke’s position as a semi-retired actor mirrored his character, Solo was an inexperienced actor surrounded by veterans – just like how Franklin was rising through the ranks alongside hardened criminals.
“He always gets pissed because Rockstar didn’t let him go,” Luke remembers. “He would always have to defer because he was afraid of Trevor or whatever, and he wanted to kill Trevor.”
If you follow Steven Ogg on Instagram, you probably have a version of him in your head that’s pretty close to Trevor. His roles in The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul aren’t that far removed from his sociopathic GTA 5 character either. The reality is more of a middle ground.
“Our set was very loose, pretty crazy, and a lot of fun,” Luke says. “Steven is very free with his farts. We’d give him shit about that all the time. Then after every day we worked, he would strip down to his underwear and run around the stage. He’s a freak show.
“He’s so far distant from Trevor that you would not believe. In a way, yeah. In another way, he’s not even close. Very artsy fartsy, with an emphasis on the fartsy. I called him a methane actor. We had this thing where we could order healthy food with a lot of stuff in it that makes you fart. He likes to eat healthy. If you see the guy, he’s jacked.”
Each actor was allowed to bring a bit of themselves to their characters, which probably explains why Trevor is often stripped down to his tighty whities when you take control of him.
“I was given a lot of freedom to improvise and that helped my character,” Luke says. “[Director] Rod Edge would give us so much freedom, but if we were doing something that didn’t work, he’d let us know.”
One point of contention was one of GTA 5’s most iconic lines: “You forget a thousand things every day, make sure this is one of them.” The line is actually from a fictional, in-universe movie called Arthur Penny’s Sanitorium, but it reads slightly differently: “We forget a thousand things everyday, can’t we just make this one of them?” Luke hated it.
“For some reason it didn’t flow for me,” he remembers. “I was trying really hard not to say it. Then Rod came up to me and he goes, ‘I want you to say this line exactly as it’s written’. I went, ‘OK, I’ll try’.
“It reminded me of my nephew. When he was a little kid I gave him a Walter Payton jersey for Christmas. I’m going, ‘R.J., open this up, open this up’. And he goes, ‘OK, but if it’s clothes I probably won’t like it’. He wanted He-Man. And that’s what it was like for me. It was like ‘OK, but I probably won’t like it’. I did the line and I stuck a “pal” in it – ‘you forget a thousand things every day, pal, make sure this is one of them’ – and somehow that made it work. It became a line everyone wants me to say all the time.”
Luke had no idea how big this job was going to be, and now he’s doomed to repeat the quote he hated for all eternity. GTA 5’s production feels like a series of these stories for Luke, where he didn’t quite grasp how huge a deal it was. One day he was working on the set and the director pulled him into a side office. He produced a tiny scrap of paper from his pocket and asked the actor to read it in-character.
“I go, ‘OK… Why did I move here? I guess it was the weather. Or, you know, that thing, that magic’, and on through it,” Luke explains. “He goes, ‘OK, thanks’. Then we go out and start shooting.”
A month later, Luke and the crew are called over to watch a big screen of some kind of reveal – the very first gameplay trailer being livestreamed to the entire world. The moment that changed Luke’s life.
The Walk Of Fame
“All of a sudden my phone is blowing up,” he says. “I was outed in like 15 minutes.”
One of Luke’s acting friends recognised him and tweeted out some support. That snowballed to the point that Luke had to delete his entire social media presence until the day the game finally launched.
“My star rating on IMDb went through the roof,” he says. “It went up to like number 115 from being down in the millions. Then when the game came out, I went up to number 42. We didn’t know that’s what we were doing before we shot it. It had this fake name, the characters had fake names, when we did the audition.”
He’s only ever worked on one other game since: Red Dead Redemption 2, another Rockstar behemoth. For that, he mostly did extra mocap work, though he also played a moonshiner at one point, but his lines were redone with another actor.
“I did a cool character voice with a lisp,” Luke says. “Nobody would have connected me with Michael. But they took my voice out and had somebody else do it, and they sound like an accountant. Maybe I sucked. My ego says it was that they didn’t want it to become ‘where’s Michael?’ I wish I had a real part in it.”
For now, Luke is happy with his lot as a once again semi-retired actor. He’s busy supporting his son who wants to be a professional baseball player, settling down and being a family man. He wanted to retire. From what he was doing, you know? From that, that… line of work. Be a good guy for once, a family man. But I have a feeling it would only take a call from Rockstar to pull him right back into a life of crime.
“I would love to do DLC,” Luke admits, “that would be awesome.” With a PS5 release of GTA 5 right around the corner, maybe he’ll find that magic again.
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