‘I put on 40 pounds of muscle. Holy mackerel!’ Pablo Schreiber on playing Halo’s ripped hero | Television

And so, after 17 years of false starts, numerous failed attempts at feature films (including a Peter Jackson venture), more than 265 drafts, a reported budget of $200m and a production schedule in Hungary decimated by the pandemic, we are finally set to see a TV series of the video game Halo. Will it have been worth such perseverance? Quite possibly. Since the release of the first video game in Microsoft’s crown jewel franchise – 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved – the series has sold more than 81m games, generating in excess of $6bn. If a network sticks the landing, a Halo TV show could be a significant weapon in its arsenal. But it’s a big if.

For the uninitiated: Halo takes place at a time of intergalactic war between humans and a collective of quasi-religious alien species known as the Covenant. The protagonist is the Master Chief, or John-117, a 6ft 10in augmented super-soldier (or Spartan, in Halo terminology) and the poster boy of the human campaign against the Covenant – think Hercules reimagined as a marine space.

No helmet required … Pablo Schreiber on the set of Halo. Photograph: Adriann Szabo/Paramount+

John-117 is video-game royalty and the role of playing him has fallen to the 43-year-old Canadian-American actor Pablo Schreiber, best known for roles in The Wire, Orange Is the New Black, American Gods and Den of Thieves . It’s solid casting, and not just because of his 6ft 4in shredded frame. Schreiber gives the character more complexity and emotional variance than he’s afforded in the games. Though he does have one shortcoming.

“I can definitively say, I will never ever play Halo publicly online,” says Schreiber, laughing over Zoom. “It’s not good for my business; There’s nothing good that can come from the Master Chief showing how bad he is at Halo.”

Paramount really needs Halo to do good business. It’s the flagship show for Paramount+, the network’s new TV subscription service, and will be key to positioning itself as a serious competitor to Netflix, Amazon et al. Paramount didn’t even wait to see the ratings or reviews before commissioning a second season, green-lighting the project in advance of the show’s US premiere in March.

The reaction from critics so far has been mixed to positive (it currently scores 70% on Rotten Tomatoes), with many accepting that this first season has been as much about laying the groundwork for what’s to come in Halo’s expansive universe.

Schreiber as Master Chief ... the helmet is great for creating a blank avatar gamers can identify with, but less so for actors trying to convey emotion.
Schreiber as Master Chief … the helmet is great for creating a blank avatar gamers can identify with, but less so for actors trying to convey emotion. Photograph: Adriann Szabo/AP

Rather than try to replicate the game’s two decades of lore and chronology, the show follows its own timeline. Perhaps the biggest break from the source material was the decision to take off the Master Chief’s helmet and reveal his face. The games have always protected the chief’s anonymity, which is great for creating a blank avatar gamers can identify with, but less so for actors trying to convey emotion. “It inhibits you from going to places of depth and interest that you really want to get to for a long-form story,” says Schreiber.

While understandable, the move was a step too far for the franchise’s most fervent fans.

“People are pissed that their image of who this guy was – which is really tied up in themselves – is being dismantled,” Schreiber says. “Our hope is that … that decision to make the first season as uncomfortable as it is for so many people will pay off over the course of the long-form series.”

The strength of some reactions has come as no surprise to him. “I knew going in that there was a very, very passionate fanbase,” he says. “I learned early on that there’s as many opinions in the Halo fanbase as there are Halo fans and we weren’t going to be able to please everybody.”

Did that worry him, going into the show?

“Nnnnnnope!” he says, bluntly. “There’s not a single part of me that was worried about that. It just comes with the territory, man.”

Preparation for the role was intense. In addition to various bootcamps (both for weapons training and brushing up on the two decades of Halo mythology), Schreiber had to bulk up. A lot.

Pornstache ... as George Mendez in Orange Is the New Black.
Pornstache … as George Mendez in Orange Is the New Black. Photograph: Jessica Miglio for Netflix

“Over the past five or six years I’ve put on 30 to 40 pounds of muscle,” he says. He dropped back down to 190lbs (86kg) after finishing season one of Halo, so that he could play Allan Gore in the recently released true crime series Candy. Now, in preparation for the second season, he is back up to 245lbs (111kg). “I wanted to push the physicality as far as I could push it for my, you know, genetic limitations.”

It didn’t get any easier in production. “It was the toughest physical challenge of my career, for sure,” says Schreiber. I’ve always been a guy who prides myself on keeping my stuntmen on the sidelines. I realised very quickly on this show that it was impossible.”

Was it a relief to finish filming? “I can’t even tell you! Yeah, holy mackerel.”

Schreiber grew up in British Columbia. The foundations for his acting career were laid by his father, an acting teacher, and his half-brother, Liev Schreiber, who started appearing in films by the time Schreiber hit high school. He eventually moved to New York (by way of Seattle and an acting school in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania) to cut his teeth in theater work.

In his first TV role he was cast as tortured dockworker Nick Sobotka for The Wire’s second season. “It set the bar incredibly high for me in terms of what I expected from an artistic collaboration,” he admits, “which didn’t turn out to be the case with most of the things I’ve worked on.”

Setting the bar high... as troubled dockworker Nick Sobotka in The Wire.
Setting the bar high… as troubled dockworker Nick Sobotka in The Wire. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

If he thought the prestige of appearing in an HBO show would radically change the trajectory of his career he was mistaken. “[It] definitely felt like, ‘Oh, yeah man, now I’m not gonna have to worry, right?’ Please! There were so many moments after that where I was fucking destitute and broke and couldn’t buy a scratch lottery ticket.”

After The Wire, Schreiber found critical success on stage and was nominated for a Tony award for his performance in Awake and Sing! on Broadway. But on screen he was largely confined to smaller parts in films (The Manchurian Candidate and Vicky Cristina Barcelona stand out) and parts on network TV (he had a recurring role as a serial rapist on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit).

“The financial realities of being a new father [he has two teenage sons with his ex-wife] probably had me accepting some work that I just had to do because I had to pay the bills,” he says. “I was involved in some not very good network television.”

He was also fired from some not very good network television. “I did a pilot… and I was asked not to come back when it got picked up to series. And it was kind of a low point for me where I was like: ‘Wow, I’m that dude from the Wire, who’s now getting fired from network TV shows. This is a precipitous drop.””

The experience provided a valuable life lesson. “I wouldn’t trade those years where I just had to make some money to feed my kids because I learned a lot,” he says. “The biggest thing I learned is acting is not a trade for me. I never would go back to showing up and punching the clock and just saying words because it’s just not interesting for me like this. It’s totally fine for people that want to do that and are interested in that. But I would rather be a tradesman. I would rather literally like carry a heavy shit or build something, then I would use this craft and this form of my artistry to do something that doesn’t fulfil me. Maybe that sounds a little pretentious, but at least … I know my limits.”

Luckily for Schreiber, a few months after his sacking producer Jenji Kohan (who he had worked with on Weeds) offered him the role of George ‘Pornstache’ Mendez in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. In a cast full of breakout performances, Schreiber’s take on the hilariously despicable prison guard kickstarted his career; he has since had substantial roles across film and TV – American Gods, Den of Thieves and 13 Hours, to name a few.With both The Wire and Orange Is the New Black, Schreiber found himself on projects with networks at the start of their great expansions. In Halo, he’s in a similar situation, though this time, as the leading man, there is more pressure on him to ensure Paramount+’s linchpin show is a success.

“I’m probably naive, but I don’t really think about pressure in that way,” he says. “Literally, the only thing I can do to control that is to work as hard as I can make things better. Everything else is going to fall where it falls. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You move on to the next thing. And that’s no big deal.”