While actor Gabriel Sloyer has an impressive filmography, with roles in hit Netflix Original Series “Narcos” and “Orange is the New Black,” and more, perhaps his most demanding role to date is that of Javier Escuella of the Van der Linde Gang in the wildly successful “Red Dead Redemption II,” released in October.
With performances in film, TV, musical theatre, and even audiobooks, Sloyer is clearly in-demand. But, as he shared in a recent interview with Variety, he and his girlfriend both take the time to play “Red Dead Redemption II.”
Sloyer joked about the surreal experience of hearing his own agitated voice coming from another room in his home, only to find that his partner was having much more fun pestering Javier then working to complete the in-game objective.
Sloyer talks about that anecdote in good humor, but it relates to another point the actor makes about Rockstar and the way it created a game which players can enjoy in whatever way they choose.
“Weirdly, in some ways, Rockstar is God,” Sloyer said. “In that, they’ve created a living, breathing landscape. It exists independently from the player. So when you’re in it, you’ve got choices within choices, options within options, maybe even more options than you have in our quote-unquote real lives.”
Those choices, of course, have consequences meant to reel in the player and align their moral compass to the play experience they wish to have. Ethically questionable choices might make a more difficult experience as a player becomes “Wanted” and a bounty is placed on their head. They can even close off options that would have been open to a player had they made the more socially conscious in-game choice, as nonplayable characters will act differently toward the player depending on their perceived morality.
“So what [Rockstar has] done is given you these sandboxes to exercise your own choices,” Sloyer said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some people choose to make some scandalous choices— but I don’t think we can sanitize those choices.”
Sloyer used the analogy of Rockstar being like a good parent, one that offers consequences rather than restrictions. He used the same analogy for director Rod Edge, whom he said was an incredible director with which to work.
“Directing is very much the art of getting people to do what you want and making them think it’s their idea,” Sloyer said. “And you’re not going to find a finer director than Rod Edge.”
Working with the cast for five years to capture the performances in “Red Dead Redemption II,” the real-life counterparts to the Van der Linde Gang became something of a family themselves.
Sloyer is similarly enthusiastic about the experience of working with all of the crew at Rockstar Games, though he couldn’t say much about the working conditions those who created the game faced. In the lead up to the game’s release studio head Dan Houser noted that 100-hour work weeks were put in to finish the game. He later clarified that he was referring only to the senior writing team).
Sloyer, who also worked with Rockstar on “Grand Theft Auto V,” voicing Oscar Guzman for that game, said the cast worked three weeks on, and then three weeks off with a pretty standard schedule, working from about 8 or 9 in the morning until 5 or 6 at night.
“I’m not a developer and I cannot speak for developers, I can only speak from the actor’s perspective,” Sloyer said. “And from my experience, it was easily one of the best sets I’ve ever been on. I interfaced with maybe 20 to 35 people every time I was on set there. They were all passionate about being there.”
Sloyer explained that many of those who worked on set were gamers themselves.
“[There’s] one guy I like to recall who got a tattoo that said ‘RDR2’ back when the logo had the number two rather than the numeral that they changed it to,” he laughed. “And then all of us in the gang thought maybe we would get the same tattoo as him to make him feel better. We got close there … And [the crew] were terrific! Honestly, when you’re on set for a film or tv show they’ve got so many other elements to think about— not that they’re not thinking about [those things] here. But the normal, de rigueur way of treating actors is in a workman style.
“Whereas with Rockstar, they’re fans of gaming and they’re fans of what we’re creating. So if you did something really outstanding in your performance, they’d start clapping, they [would say things like] ‘Wow, that was awesome, oh my god,’ and they’d start geeking out hardcore. You couldn’t ask for a better response as an actor.”
While Sloyer was pretty mum on the location where all of this took place, he said the location was about an hour from Manhattan.
“It’s very secretive, I can’t say too much,” Sloyer explained. “But we would drive to this undisclosed location and in there is this gigantic warehouse, like an airplane hangar that’s completely empty. And I remember walking in the first time for ‘GTA V’ and there was nothing and I thought ‘Whoa this is different.’ And people said ‘We don’t use the R-word here’ and it took me a second to realize they meant ‘reality.’ ”
It was within there that all of the games’ movements were capturing, filling the empty space with the reality of the actors’ performances.
“Of course what was so wild about this project was being in this nothing space wherein everything was possible, where they can build things,” Sloyer said. “I remember during ‘GTA V’ if you wanted to— and just riffing off of them being like God— lets say you said, for whatever reason, even just to play around you said ‘Oh I think this knife won’t do it— maybe I should have a flamethrower in this scene’ then somebody would immediately go into an adjacent room and construct, to specifications, that flamethrower.”
In that space, “anything is possible” Sloyer said, adding that such changes were much harder to do for television.
“When I worked on ‘Narcos,’ we blew up a building in Harlem in real life. But that is nothing compared to what you can do with Rockstar,” he said. “When you’re blowing up something like that in real life, you’ve gotta get permits, you’ve gotta set it up, you’ve gotta talk to the mayor. You need time, you can only do it once— none of those restrictions are on this digital medium.”
Working in an empty space asks more of the performers in some ways, but also offers them more room for immersion.
“When I shot ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ when I walked on set it felt like we were in prison,” Sloyer said. “Here you’re in nowhere, but they can create any reality you want. So you’re not afraid to immerse yourself.”
To prepare specifically for the role of Javier Escuella, Sloyer tapped into the experience of his father (who also happens to be named Javier) immigrating to the United States.
“Javier is an immigrant from Mexico who had to flee the country, and came to America in search of a better life,” Sloyer explained, talking about the character. “He finds this family, this traveling itinerant family in the gang. I mean if you think about why people join a gang they’re trying to feel like they belong.”
“[My father] came looking for that same thing,” Sloyer said. “He would always say ‘American family. We want an American family.’ But in so doing, sometimes those people get trapped between two cultures. You know, they don’t really belong anymore with their old country and they’re not fully accepted into the new country.”
Javier is a tragic character in the original “Red Dead Redemption” whose experience becomes much more sympathetic with his backstory in “Red Dead Redemption II” and with Sloyer’s extended performance.
Sloyer noted that many fans of the game have told him that they started playing “Red Dead Redemption II” expecting to not like Javier, only to find him quite likable after playing the prequel, making his end in the original game even more tragic.
Likely part of what makes Javier more human and relatable to players is the inspiration Sloyer used to approach the role, which was his father’s experience as well as the understandable desire to find a family.
“I just kept trying to tap into [the idea that] the need is so strong to find a place that you can call home,” he said. “And, at least temporarily, he finds that with the gang.”
When asked about his feelings playing a major Latino role in a triple-A game at a time when representation within games is still a work in progress for the industry, Sloyer said he is “incredibly proud.”
“I think it’s meaningful and I view it as realistic, [Latinos] were there at that time and were integral in the development of the west and the outlaw [lifestyle]. Having [Javier] be able to show his nostalgia and romantic side and loyal side, and not have him be an antagonist— yes, that is important, and that’s where we should be with Latino characters!”
Sloyer said not having to compromise the integrity of Latino characters to match stereotypes is a refreshing aspect of “Red Dead Redemption II” that fans are taking notice of. In particular, he referenced a moment of high celebration in the game when Javier sings “Cielito Lindo” (“Lovely Heaven”) and the gang joins in.
“That the maximum expression of the gangs’ happiness would come through the songs of the Mexican people — that to me, is so moving,” Sloyer said. “People online say they were crying, they stood up and clapped. A lot of Mexican fans were saying they were reading the subtitles throughout the game so they had trouble, [because] sometimes they had to look at the characters, and they might miss something in the gang because they were reading. But then that song comes on and it’s like viva la Mexico, you know? They feel it in their bones.”
To get to play that role was inspiring for Sloyer.
“How could you ask for more in terms of ‘Yes, here’s a guy who’s going to heal the gang with songs from Mexico and the happiness of Mexican people,’ ” he said. “The industry has a long way to go still, of course, but I’m very proud.”
As for what’s next for Sloyer, in this “world of NDAs,” he said he can’t talk about some of his upcoming work. But, the actor will announce some projects “soon” via his Instagram and Twitter. He will also be in a play running in 2019 at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Manhattan, called “Actually, We’re F–ked.” The play comes from Matt Williams and John Pasquin, the duo behind “Home Improvement” and “Roseanne.”
When asked if he’d like to work on another game in the future or take a break after this five-year-long project, Sloyer didn’t hesitate at all.
“I would love to work on more video games,” he said. “I believe in it, firmly and from what I see from fans, and from players, and from playing it myself, it’s such a unique experience that is now finally getting the praise it deserves.”
Specifically, Sloyer said he would “love” to work with Rockstar Games again.
“Those people are like a family,” he said. “I would love to show up again for them anytime.”