Before stepping into the boots and short shorts of Lara Croft for 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, actress Camilla Luddington knew as much about gaming’s most famous female hero as fan.
She was strong. Capable. Possessing a razor-sharp intellect. And had an affinity for rooting around in dark, dank crypts and caves.
Then she became Lara, and had to forget everything she knew. Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal were orchestrating a reboot, and Camilla would play an untested and unproven Lara setting out on her maiden voyage—literally. Tomb Raider, aka “Tomb Raider 2013,” opens with Lara, her mentor, and her friends aboard the Endurance before a freak storm dashes the ship on the rocks of an island governed by supernatural forces.
Her friends are in trouble. Lara has to step up and lead her first adventure.
So, too, did Luddington. For half an hour, the Tomb Raider actress and I talked landing the part of one of gaming’s biggest icons, what playing Lara Croft taught her over years of voice work and motion capture, and, in a surprising turn, how loss shaped both Luddington’s and this writer’s perspective on life.
Craddock: I understand that when you went to the Tomb Raider audition, you didn't know what it was really for. How did you get that audition, and when did you realize you were actually trying out to play Lara Croft?
Camilla Luddington: I remember getting a call from my agent and being sent out on an audition, just like any audition, except the project name was originally called Krypted. The character was named Sara. I remember reading the audition slides and thinking she did remind me of Lara Croft, so I went into the audition in shorts. I had the knee-high boots.
I remember the audition was a video diary, which you saw Lara do some of those in the very first Tomb Raider . I got a call back and still not knowing if it was really for Tomb Raider, but it was really interesting, because it was me and two other girls [for the second] audition, and they wanted to see the way we moved: the way we walked, the way we carried ourselves. Which I knew was for motion-capture [footage], but, again, I didn't know it was for Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.
I think I got the call maybe two days after that, and was told it was Tomb Raider and Lara Croft. I remember screaming in my house. Growing up, Lara, to me, was the only main videogame hero who was female, who I knew of. She's iconic. To get to step into her boots and take on the role... I was just so honored.
Craddock: Besides your interest in Lara while growing up, what interested you about Crystal Dynamics' and Eidos Montreal's take on Lara for this origin story?
Camilla Luddington: I liked that [the story] did go back to the beginning. She's this naive, young girl. She's not the Tomb Raider yet, and I thought it was really fun that we got to tell an origin story. But also, it was very appealing to me as an actress that I was playing a character that [the designers] wanted to make more human and more complicated. This is a Lara Croft that has self-doubt, and weaknesses, and experiences pain, and loss, and mourning.
It was appealing to [play] such a challenging role, and because I knew it was going to be a new take [on Lara].
Craddock: Going into the production of Tomb Raider 2013, what materials were you able to reference before stepping into a recording booth? Did you have scripts, screenshots, concept artwork, anything like that?
Camilla Luddington: A lot of the game is motion-capture as opposed to voiceover [VO]. It's definitely a combination, but a lot of it is mocap. For that initial game, and for all the games, we do get concept art early on, because it takes years to shoot a game. As a game comes together, sometimes we're able to watch cutscenes that have been put together, concept art that's more developed. Other than a script, that's what we get to reference to help us create the world around us.
Craddock: Besides having to wear those mocap suits with all the little balls on them, what are some of the biggest differences you've found between acting for a video game versus for a TV show or a film?
Camilla Luddington: I think the biggest difference, and the thing that's the most challenging, is you're not working with a set. You don't get to be out in a jungle, and there's no tomb that's been built for you to look around at. You have to create the world in your mind. Sometimes your imagination is scarier than something that someone could build. So, it's challenging, but at the same time it's exciting to work in that way.
Initially, that was the biggest difference for me. Now I'm sort of accustomed to working that way, but initially, working without any sort of set or many props was a challenge.
Craddock: That was your first mocap experience, then?
Camilla Luddington: In fact, [the Tomb Raider trilogy] has been my only mocap experience, actually. I've done work for other games, but I have not done motion-capture for them.
Craddock: I think even players unfamiliar with motion-capture can intuit some things about it. For instance, they know you wear those suits because your motions are literally being captured and used for in-game animations. What are things that players might not know about motion-capture that wouldn't be obvious to anyone unfamiliar with the process? Maybe some of the things you learned when you were starting out because it was all so new to you.
Camilla Luddington: That's interesting. I've never been asked that question before. I think it would interest people to know what [materials] we do have to work off of. I think people probably imagine that we have some sort of set built, but it's really just the basics. Sometimes it's just literally a stick that's put in the unit where we shoot on a stage, and that's the edge of a cliff--and that's all we'll have to reference. That's all we'll have to work with.
I think when people see how minimal this work is, what we're given, that's pretty interesting to people.
Craddock: How has this experience helped you grow as an actor overall? It's almost like you're doing some of the most involved, technologically sophisticated improv acting because you're working chiefly with your imagination.
Camilla Luddington: Yes! And when you are on camera, when you get to do a TV show or film, you do get a set to work with. But I think this has helped even with things like walking into an audition room. In audition rooms, you don't get sets. You have to make [your reading] work in that room. In that way, doing something like motion-capture is like playing an instrument. You're perfecting that skill.
Craddock: What is some of your favorite work from playing Lara over this trilogy?
Camilla Luddington: I loved working with the other actors who were on the Endurance [ship in Tomb Raider 2013]. I think many of my favorite memories are from the first game because we really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into, and we were all just so excited to do the reboot.
But I think this game [Shadow of the Tomb Raider] has some of my favorite scenes in it, just because they're so intimate in the relationship between Jonah and Lara. I don't want to spoil them for anybody, but some of the scenes I shot are some of my favorite from all of the games.
Craddock: That first game in the trilogy is very special to me as well. After you got the part and were preparing for it, what was it like going back to Lara as this really naive, college-aged kid who was untested? How did you find her voice for that game?
Camilla Luddington: I think that because Lara is immediately put in such extreme circumstances, the best thing you can do [as an actor] is map those experiences, ground them in your own reality. I was new to this part of the industry, so I felt like [Lara and I] were on a discovery together.
The actors did have a lot of people around in those early days to give us direction for where a character was going, what her history had been, who her friends were, what they meant to her, who her family was, her history with [Conrad] Roth [treasure hunter and Lara's legal guardian]. There was a lot of input that helped us give color and backstory to characters so that by the time we started shooting, we understood where they were emotionally in their journeys.
I also felt that we got to take some creative license with Lara because she was a younger Lara. They wanted to make her more human, and I had to put a little bit of myself into her.
Craddock: I wonder if you could expand on that. What parts of yourself did you put into Lara that maybe Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal hadn't thought of?
Camilla Luddington: It's funny, because I feel like I started to feel more able to have creative input and collaboration with our writers and directors with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. That's because we're three games in, so at this point, there's a lot of Lara that is me.
I lost my mum when I was younger. I understand that feeling of mourning, and how that can change the direction of your life, even your outlook on life. There's a lot of Lara's drive that came from her parents: what happened to them, how she grew up, her mourning, and trying to find and recreate family.
In that way, I relate. There's definitely an element of me understanding that part of me.
Craddock: I certainly don't want to dig too deeply into that, because I know loss can be painful whether it happened ten years ago or yesterday. But if you don't mind talking about it, I'm glad you brought it up, because I lost my dad when I was nineteen. That was in 2002. When I look back on it, I think, It's such a shame I lost him then, because when you're nineteen, you're still a kid. You know nothing about being an adult. And I perceived that in Lara. She was trying to find herself without that compass of her parents to help her.
Camilla Luddington: I was nineteen, too, when I lost my mum. That's an interesting age to lose a parent, because you feel like you're being let loose into the world, but you also want to have stability and comfort from your parents. When that's taken from you, it does set you on a different course. I don't know, if she were here, if I would be sitting here doing this interview. I think my life may have gone in a different direction.
I think you never get over that sort of loss. I don't think Lara will ever get over it, because it's indescribable, the feeling of losing a parent, and she's lost both. But I also think there's a strength that comes from having to navigate the world and feeling like you're doing it alone. It's very complicated, as you can understand. I feel like there's a lot of things that Lara does that come from her upbringing and the direction [her loss] set for her.
Craddock: Thank you for opening up about that. I wonder: Playing this character who started naive, but who's become harder and more grizzled from game to game--did you find it important to keep Lara grounded in her humanity as she became tougher and harder?
Camilla Luddington: I definitely think she's grounded in her humanity in all of the games. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, especially, she questions whether she's doing the right thing. I think that if she wasn't grounded, she wouldn't be asking herself those questions and having regrets about some of the things she does.
So, I don't think she's ever lost her humanity. I think there are moments when she's lost hope, but I don't think she loses her humanity.
Craddock: That's an important distinction. You've talked about what you've taken from your reality and put into playing Lara. What has playing Lara taught you about yourself? Or to put it another way, what has Lara given back?
Camilla Luddington: It's interesting because there are have been a lot of scenes in this game where doing them has been cathartic for me. I don't want to get into that because it's probably too personal, but there are times when she's pushed physically and emotionally in a way that, I would walk away [from filming] at the end of the day feeling like, "Wow, I felt me, myself, being pushed the same way."
There will always be other Laras after me, but I believe there will always be a piece of her in me. That probably sounds cheesy to some people, but it's honestly the way I feel at this point.
Craddock: Fast-forwarding all the way to right now, a week or so out from Shadow's launch, you've accumulated lots of experience portraying this character. How was playing Lara different the third time around? Are you still discovering new angles to her?
Camilla Luddington: There are actually moments where there's a lot of banter [between characters], and there are scenes in Shadow of the Tomb Raider where you get to see more of Lara's sense of humor and social awkwardness. That's been really fun to play into. She has these moments with Jonah where you can really see the growth in their friendship and the love that they have for each other.
Those were just great moments that Earl [Baylon] and I got to play with together. There are moments where Earl is flirty. Not with Lara, but Lara is a spectator to it, and she just enjoys seeing him in that way. Those were really fun moments in this game that have not been seen in previous games?
Craddock: On that note, critics have the game, and I've seen screenshots of Lara in portrait mode, smiling and taking selfies while running and gunning and exploring. Have you seen those?
Camilla Luddington: Yeah.
Craddock: There's some backlash because obviously the tone of the Tomb Raider games and Lara's actions have been life-or-death and sensitive at times, but I think if you remove those pictures and Shadow's photo mode from that context, it's a nice way of making Lara more personable. Like you said, she has a sense of humor but is very awkward in normal situations because she hasn't exactly experienced much normalcy.
Camilla Luddington: Yeah, and I think fans will enjoy seeing that side of her.
Craddock: What was your last day in the studio like, knowing that you would be recording your final scene in the trilogy?
Camilla Luddington: It was emotional. I started shooting for the trilogy in 2010, so it's been a long, long time. It felt very surreal. I remember being on the stage with everybody, and we've been with some team members since the beginning. For Earl and I, it was a very bizarre day. We almost felt like, "This can't be over. We'll be back to do [record] something else."We also felt a lot of pride for the work we put into Tomb Raider, and into the last game especially. That last day was definitely a celebration.
Craddock: It's been an honor to talk with you. I've loved the Tomb Raider trilogy, and thanks so much for your time today.
Camilla Luddington: Yeah, I enjoyed speaking with you, too. Enjoy the new game.