INTERVIEW WITH MICHELAN SISTI
TMNT MOVIE ACTOR: MICHELANGELO


March 01, 2009


RUTGER
Hi everyone, it's the 25th anniversary of the TMNT, and here I am with our favorite Turtle, Michelan Sisti!
Hello Michelan, welcome and thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I know you’re a busy man.

MICHELAN SISTI
Yes, busy is the word, and the way I like it. I've been spending a lot of my time this past month writing and rehearsing a new live action show pitch with an animatronic creature as the star. This past week we pitched HBO, Showtime, FX, Comedy Central, Starz and Spike. So far, the response has been very good, and at least half of them are considering the idea and moving it further along the path to production. Also, I'm prepping for a new animation show Henson Studios is collaborating with Fox on. That test piece will shoot the first week of April. There is talk of new "Sid the Science Kid" episodes going into filming in the Spring.

RUTGER
First of all I’m very curious as to how you got the part of Michelangelo. Could you tell something about that? And were you aware of the popularity of TMNT?

MICHELAN SISTI
In 1989 I was living in New York City and was very happy in my career in the theatre. For 18 years, I made my living on the stage including many Broadway shows and the thrill of working with a number of theatrical heroes of mine along the way. My agent called to ask me if I wanted to audition for this new movie about the TMNT. We both laughed at the prospect and admitted that neither one of us knew anything about TMNT. He convinced me to take the appointment to audition for the role of Raphael, so I went along to read for the casting director, Lynn Kressel. She then asked me to read for the director, Steve Barron. I did so, and Steve told me to come back the next day with a new Raphael scene and my version of martial arts fight choreography to go with it. I returned with my full-tilt-Bozo performance. The only problem was, the office Steve was using was half the size of the space I had rehearsed in the night before, and when I ended my scene with a big flourish and a roundhouse kick, I put my foot right through his office wall!

There I was standing on one leg with my foot stuck. Thankfully, Steve laughed about it. He said he thought that any actor who would be that committed to the energy of the scene and character, should be one of his Turtles, and would I accept the role of Michelangelo! Steve liked the "quirky" comic quality I had and wanted that in his movie. I am so thankful that he picked me for Mikey, and not just because he's my favorite Turtle but, TMNT also marked the beginning of my relationship with the Jim Henson Company and Brian Henson in particular. It changed the direction of my career and my life. I took my cues when creating Mikey's physicality from the fun-loving way he was written, the overall style of TMNT, and the restrictions of the suit.

RUTGER
What was it like acting in a rubber suit? Any discomforts you experienced during scenes, because I know all the wires where in the shell and in the second movie they where in the mask because of the smaller technology.

MICHELAN SISTI
Ah, the Turtle suit. My own personal slice of Hell. You are correct. The technological changes from the first movie to the second were huge. The first suit had all of the largish servo motors and the computer mounted on a large metal plate attached to a backpack harness I wore, and covered by the fiberglass shell on my back. The motors were connected via a thick bundle of bicycle cables to the many mechanisms in the head. This meant that I could not separate my Turtle head from the body. I could take off the head, but I had to hold it on my shoulder or ask for help to support it. Everything, when we were not connected directly by a master cable, was powered by a series of hefty batteries fashioned into a belt or harness to wear. Add to all of this, the foam latex body suit. The body suit was skin tight, as it was sculpted on top of my own plaster body cast, and much thicker than a diving wetsuit. It also acted like a giant sponge that soaked up sweat making it progressively heavier the longer you wore it. When you put it all together, and sweated the body suit, the first Turtle suit weighed more than 70 lb.! It was hot, heavy, and hellacious. Oh, I almost forgot, I also had two audio lines with the "private" feed connecting me to my puppeteer, the Marvelous Mak Wilson!!!, in one ear, and the "common feed", which was the live set sound and director's mic, in the other ear. With my Mikey head on, the only way I could see was to look out the two pencil eraser-sized eyeholes behind my orange Mikey bandana, or down through the opened mouth on occasion.

The second suit replaced most of the largish servos with dozens of tiny servos placed inside the head itself. We did still have a backpack rig which held the very large "jaw" servo and the redesigned computer and battery pack. The connector cables were now electrical couplings and not the bicycle cables. Finally, I could take off the Turtle head completely between set-ups. The second suit ended up being about 15 lb. lighter, but much noisier inside the head because of the sounds of the servos. So, to sum up, being inside a TMNT was a true case of Yin and Yang and not a place of comfort.

RUTGER
Wow thats amazing. So how long did it take to get into the suit? How many parts did it consist of?

MICHELAN SISTI
We had fantastic support from our dressers. The entire Jim Henson Creature Shop crew contributed to the maintenance of the many suits and heads, but our dressers were angels of mercy as well as able to do amazing things under pressure. After a while, getting dressed became more efficient and routine. We got so good that we could go from underdressed to full Turtle in less than twenty minutes. This was good for us too, because the process of becoming a Turtle was uncomfortable as well.

The foam latex suit was designed in nine major elements. Remember, everything is skin-tight, so getting Turtle-ready employed a lot of talcum powder! I started with the top, which covered my shoulders, upper arms and neck (like a mini half-jacket) and the bottoms, which were a pair of long shorts (extending to just above the knees) with shoulder harness. This was the basic state of readiness that we maintained until it was time to film. Next, I put on the backpack (which held the elements listed in my previous answer, depending on which version of the suit I was wearing), and the batteries belt/harness. Then I added the two feet (each a single piece from below the knee to tip of toes, put on like a boot).
Next, I put on the two hands (like a pair of elbow-length gloves). Then came the fiberglass Turtle shell with attached masking gussets (designed to hide the cables coupling and the space between shell and suit behind my head). Lastly, I donned my Mikey head (put on like an American football helmet). The final dressing added the leather pads that wrapped around the spots where the different suit pieces met (elbows and knees), and our individual belts and weapons. Our different-colored bandanas (Mikey's is orange) were attached to the Turtle head and masked the two tiny eyeholes we had for our restricted vision. Everything was held together with laces, zippers, hooks and snaps ("poppers"). Follow these instructions and you got a full blown Ninja Turtle!

RUTGER
Did you do any stunts in the suit yourself, or where all stunts done by your martial arts counterpart?

MICHELAN SISTI
We actually did get to do a large number of stunts (gags) and fight choreography in our characters. The limiting factors usually were if the action was physically impossible to do in the full animatronic Turtle rig, or if the action would put the Turtle head at certain risk. We did have two animatronic heads for each Turtle, but there was definitely an "A" and a "B" head. One head just worked and looked consistently better than the other. This meant that we tried to shoot the "A" heads as often as possible. Therefore, the producers didn't want to risk a delay in filming due to a head getting damaged doing a stunt. We did do more and more action and fight shots as everyone became more comfortable with the idea, though sometimes it did get a bit hairy.

For example, while filming TMNT2, Mikey is fighting Rahzar, who swings Mikey around in a circle by the arms then flings him through the air into a wall. I was doing the "spin gag" lying on my stomach, strapped to a rig that resembled a counter-balance helicopter blade with me at one end, the balance weights at the other, and the camera mounted in the center at the point of rotation. The effect on film was of Rahzar's POV of Mikey as he swings him around.
On one take, the belt that secured me to the swing broke from the building centrifugal force as they spun me faster and faster, and I was literally flung off the rig to land in a rolling heap. As my rescuers rushed to my aid, their cries of alarm were divided between variations of "Is Mich all right!" and "Is the head all right?!" I loved doing more of the action shots, but we were all in awe of the martial arts champions that Pat Johnson, our stunts coordinator, assembled and the incredible fight choreography they put on film. I still think it holds up as a fine example of the genre, and I am very proud to have had a part in creating it.

RUTGER
What was it like on the set working with Judith Hoag and Elias Koteas?

MICHELAN SISTI
Pure joy to work with in both cases and that goes for Paige Turco and David Warner too. In fact, all of the actors in both movies were a treat. In TMNT, Judith and Elias brought their characters to life for the first time for the movie audiences, and they were fine performances. Remember, these accomplished actors found themselves engaged in dialogue with life-size Ninja Turtles that talked back! You know they had to mentally scratch their heads in amazement at times! Oh, and David, a true gentleman, had great stories from his career experiences that I loved to hear.

RUTGER
Any cool or funny moments from the set that you remember and like to share?

MICHELAN SISTI
There were many. Some were widely experienced events, like the time we staged a gag with a mock-up Mikey head that we rigged to explode like a roman candle as we "accidently" knocked it over the wharf set railing into the water twenty feet below! The entire crew laughed at the horrified reactions from the producers who thought they were witnessing the tragic end of a very expensive item. Once they realized what we had done, they joined the laughter too. Then there was the constant mischief that four TMNTurtles will get up to when they have a free second. Things like, commandeering the studio golf carts for a wild Turtle Joy Ride. And, of course, there was an endless line of bloopers and crack-ups on set. It was a lot of hard work, but we had a great time doing it.

Other moments were more personal. Like the depth of emotions we all felt when filming the campfire scene in TMNT. A very special night we all were grateful to share. Then there was the shot I did in Mikey as Raphael, standing on the peak of the barn roof at night. The action called for "Raphael" to yell Splinter's name as he raged at the moon in frustration. For reasons I can't recall, they asked me to do the shot, redressed me in Raphael's red bandana and craned me up onto the rooftop. It was a cold night and the balance was a bit precarious, but between takes, I was free to take in the night sky with a huge harvest moon and thousands of bright stars above, and the bustling crew below in the farmyard. It was a powerful experience for me, suspended between earth and sky as a Turtle!

RUTGER
After TMNT you were again in a rubber suit in the popular series ‘Dinosaurs’, playing Charlene. Was it easier now that you were used to working in a suit or was this very different from TMNT?

MICHELAN SISTI
Of course, I developed and evolved many techniques of acting, mime, and mask work to create my characters and get my performance out through the suit. Every rubber character suit carries it's own uniquely particular version of Hell in its design and construction, and if it's an animatronic, the troubles multiply. Each suit is different and each one is the same. The constant is the difficulty inherent in trying to act through the suit. To paraphrase an axiom Brian and I discussed often, the more layers of technology between you and the performance, the greater the difficulty to get to that final performance. Each additional layer has to be dealt with when you create your character.
You discover the physical and other limitations of the rig, and then create ways and means to work around or incorporate them into your performance. It's a constant dance on the edge, when done correctly. A substantial part of my job is to make the "impossible" appear effortless. For a bigger than life creature to be convincing to the viewer, it must give the impression of being comfortable in it's own skin. If you are being overwhelmed by the rig, your character will seem to be "impossible" to be real. I always enjoy a challenge in my work, and the suit characters added a whole new level of challenge which made it all the sweeter to overcome.

RUTGER
How come you were not in the third installment? Where you not asked or was there another reason?

MICHELAN SISTI
Yes, that was a big disappointment for all of us who were slated to return for the third installment. At the time the producers were ready to start TMNT3, Leif Tilden (Donatello) and I were filming our second season of "Dinosaurs" for ABC/Disney, so Brian asked us if we would agree to be included as part of the "package deal" he was negotiating with the producers. We immediately agreed, and so we became attached exclusively to the Henson package. Somehow, by means that have never been satisfactorily explained, another creature builder suddenly revealed a very similar technology to the Henson tools. He then underbid our package by half (so I was told) and snatched the movie from the Henson shop. We were really ticked off at the time, and, in my opinion, the poor quality of the turtle performances and appearance in TMNT3 was proof that the producers made the wrong choice.

RUTGER
So true, TMNT 3 just didn't have it. This year the TMNT are celebrating their 25th anniversary. Where you approached in any way because of this?

MICHELAN SISTI
Yes! The Henson publicity head called me to arrange an interview with me and Brian about TMNT!

RUTGER
You obviously became a Mikey fan instantly. Are you still a bit of a TMNT fan?

MICHELAN SISTI
As I said previously, Mikey is my favorite. I feel a great sense of pride for being Michelangelo and I always will. I still get the occasional e-mail, letter with signature requests, and even some phone calls from perfect strangers who have made the effort to find a means to contact me to thank me for having had a positive effect on them as Mikey. To me, that is the ultimate pleasure and I am grateful for them. We are all striving to make some mark in the world, and a very important part of my humble legacy, is colored a Turtle shade of green. Always remember, "I LOVE BEING A TURTLE!"

RUTGER
Did you get to keep anything from the set as a reminder of your years in TMNT?

MICHELAN SISTI
Yes, we all got to keep certain items. I received a number of my nunchucks sets, some special cast and crew gifts, and I even got to keep a pair of my Turtle feet. Unfortunately, as happens to all foam latex creatures, the feet disintegrated over time and had to be chucked in the bin. Some items I have donated to charitable fundraisers, but my most precious souvenir is the joy of the whole TMNT experience.

RUTGER
Cheers to that! Michelan, I want to thank for this interview, it was great! I wish you all the best in future projects!

MICHELAN SISTI
Rutger, you are most welcome. I am glad that true fans, such as yourself, keep the TMNT flame burning. I hope that you have continued success as you expand and enhance your marvelous fandom. Cheers!