On May 18th, 2010, Rockstar Games cemented their name once again in gaming history with Red Dead Redemption. As if Grand Theft Auto wasn’t enough, the open-world developer tried their hand at a western in an era where the genre had well… “gone the way of the western”.
Yet against the odds, a classic was born and spawned a sequel that has sold over 30 million copies. Red Dead Redemption tells the rich story of a man named John Marston on a quest to bury his past as an outlaw and fight for his family. It’s a tale of, as you may have guessed, redemption. For the 10 year anniversary, I had the pleasure of talking to actor Rob Wiethoff for about 40 minutes about inhabiting the role of Marston over the years.
The following interview contains spoilers for both Red Dead Redemption games and has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Man Behind the Bandana
Despite playing a cynical cowboy with his rough and tumble ways, Wiethoff is not all that much like Marston. The voice I had heard for the last decade personally greeted me with a warm and sincere “HEY CADE!”. Though I couldn’t see him on the other end of the phone, he spoke as though he was grinning throughout our conversation. Wiethoff runs a rather positive and fun Instagram page where he posts videos with his contagious smile, spreading joy and kindness as well as his goofiness.
His bio reads: “I believe that there are three things we all truly deserve (no matter what). These things are love, acceptance and inclusion. Be kind. Enjoy life.” It’s something we all need in a time like this.
“It’s a wild, wild world right now. I’m trying to keep a positive attitude. And, um, I think that as long as people are willing to receive it, you can be sort of a light in a dark time. I think that the tricky thing is that my immediate family, my extended family, we’re all healthy as far as COVID-19 goes. I think that, you know, for people who, who have experienced a real, real situation with family members being sick or possibly even dying, they’re not really looking for someone to be a jokester so you have to be careful and be respectful. But I think one of the things about me is that I don’t take myself too seriously.”
He immediately let out another one of his incredibly positive and contagious traits: his glorious, hearty laugh that feels authentic and warm, something that was peppered in many times throughout our call. He’s the kind of person you want to talk to and surround yourself with, something that you may not say about John Marston in Red Dead Redemption.
“You know, I think, I think that we all need to try to be positive in any way we can. I think it’s the best way to tackle any obstacle and overcome any obstacle. And I think that it’s helpful to see someone smile it’s contagious. Hopefully.”
Still, despite the sharp contrast, people still compare him to his Red Dead Redemption counterpart.
“What has happened is that people can not separate me from John Marston and I love, love that. I do love that! But I’m nowhere near close to John Marston! I’m just not the same person at all” *laughs*
GameZone: “Well yeah, I’d hope you haven’t killed anyone or anything.”
Wiethoff: “No! *laughs*”
Since games are often shot with long breaks between shoots, Wiethoff sometimes had trouble getting back into the more self-serious nature of John Marston between shoots. He says he never really considered changing his voice for John but there was still a clear distinction between Rob and John despite sounding exactly the same.
“They’d say, ‘Alright great, cut. Um, so you know your lines and that’s great, but you’re saying them as Rob. Say them as John.’ and every time I would say, ‘You’re right. Why do I do it every time?’ Like you said, I’m a positive person. And I looked for ways to just find happiness in situations and that’s not necessarily John Marston. So yeah, that happened a lot.”
When Wiethoff showed up for his first day on the job on Red Dead Redemption, he didn’t have a lot of information. He didn’t know it was a video game and… there was also another major surprise for him.
“One thing that stuck out to me was a lot of people were getting, you know, 10, 15, 20 pages and I got a, I got a book. *laughs* I don’t know how many pages I got, but I thought, ‘Oh, wow. Wow, alright.’ And so, our director came over and he said, ‘Yeah, you’re the playable character.’ And I said, ‘Awesome, that’s great.’ I had no idea what he was talking about.”
GameZone: “Wait, you didn’t know you were going to be the main character?”
Wiethoff: “No! *laughs* I had no idea. And uh, everybody was telling me, Hey man look at you, and I thought this is crazy! This is great, whatever. Um, but no, I had no idea. And so then, we signed our nondisclosure agreements and then we got all this information, but we did some cold reading, which did not go well at all. And it’s something that we still joke about today about. I don’t know. I don’t know if I got nervous or what happened. I just absolutely couldn’t read.”
The performance capture process on Red Dead Redemption was a challenge for Rob Wiethoff at first. He had to imagine styrofoam balls were rocks and envision a sprawling landscape around him despite being on an otherwise sterile performance-capture stage. He also didn’t get the entire script at once, something that would carry over into the sequel. Instead, he received them in sections and stuff would be shot out of sequence, making it hard to have a full grasp on the story. He had to adjust to a lot of new things that an actor, especially one who hadn’t been in many projects before, wouldn’t normally be used to.
“I learned really quickly that I needed to trust the director and that was very easy to do. Rockstar knows what they’re doing. They’re good at what they do, obviously. That’s why they’re so successful, but they know how to make people comfortable and trust them, he said. “Basically, the director just said you have to trust me and I said ‘Okay, I will’.”
Sometimes Wiethoff would be asked to play one of the pedestrians or other NPCs but was told he can’t talk because of his distinct voice and also had to change his movement. He even tried to fill in for a drunk Arthur Morgan during the infamous bar scene with Lenny in Red Dead Redemption 2.
“Oh my goodness. So, so funny when we did that, we did this take and the terrible thing about it is that they were stuntmen and this guy was getting pummeled. I mean, he was getting tackled full-speed and we did it three or four times. Then finally they pulled me over there and they were laughing so hard. They said, ‘You have to watch them, look at what you’re doing!’*laughs* and I thought ‘Oh no!'”
You can get an idea of how Rob looked when doing the scene in the video below.
Bringing Iconic Moments to Life
Since Wiethoff didn’t have the full story of Red Dead Redemption given to him and was shooting out of order, he was piecing it together as he went. He shot his actual death scene early on but didn’t know what greater purpose it served in the story. It wasn’t until he shot the moment just before getting gunned down, where he talks to Abigail and Jack one last time, that it really made sense.
“The scene leading up to that where John is telling Abigail and Jack, ‘Just get out of here, don’t look back.’ Abigail, her voice cracks, she’s kind of crying. And when that happened, I knew, I knew this was a huge emotional thing. I got caught up in it and I had to fight back tears myself, honestly, that whole getting that horse to take off and then walking towards those barn doors. That was a really emotional thing. I thought I’m going to cry right now. I wouldn’t have expected that either. You don’t know what I did know up until that point.”
We talked about the varying emotions and tones of Rockstar’s writing. There’s plenty of room for humor and levity but also lots of raw emotional beats as well. From the almost sickening death of Arthur Morgan that leads to him getting shot in the head by Micah (in the “evil” ending) to the heartwrenching goodbye between John and Arthur.
“Like you said, it can be funny. It can be really tragic. It can be all these different things. I never expected for myself to feel that way, but I absolutely did at that moment. And then again, in the moment with Roger [Clark, actor for Arthur Morgan], that moment that John and Arthur shared when Arthur tells him to go be a man with his hat and all that, that was the last thing we shot. And that did make me cry for a lot of different reasons.
The Legacy of John Marston
Given Rob Wiethoff spent 5 years on Red Dead Redemption 2 and another 1 – 2 years on the first game, he has a deep understanding of that character’s journey.
After spending years acting selfishly and foolishly, John finally makes an effort to settle down and put his family first at the end of Red Dead Redemption 2. I asked Rob about the arc that led to that moment. His answer was 6-minutes long and he went down the rabbit hole of breaking down one of the most iconic characters in gaming.
“It’s tough to say that John could have known any better. He didn’t have a lot of guidance, he fell in the gang because he ran away from an orphanage and he was accepted and he was loved and cared for. And he was included in the group, which is something that all of us need. We don’t just want it, we actually need those things.” he said. “It was family. And, and I think John felt so much comfort from those parts of being in this gang.”
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to the first game but it informs so much of what we know about John Marston already from the original game. Most of that comes from protagonist Arthur Morgan who has a brotherly relationship (both the good and bad parts) with John.
“He really looked up to Arthur. Obviously, he wanted to be Arthur. He wanted the respect that Arthur had gotten. He wanted approval from all these people. He respected them and it meant something to him to have the approval. And then once he realized, this is not what I thought it was, I’m gaining more experience in my life. I’m growing up. I’m realizing that this is not what I want and it’s not working and it’s not what I’m looking for in my life. And I’m capable of maybe doing something different. I’ve got confidence now.”
To Rob, it wasn’t until towards the end of the game when Arthur began to push John to leave this life behind when John really understood who he wanted to be for the rest of his life.
“And so basically through Arthur, I mean, he didn’t find that on his own obviously, he had good guidance even from one of the members of the gang. But once he got out of there, he knew what he wanted. He was determined to make it happen, not just for himself, but for the well being of his family and the happiness of his family. I think that is something that makes people like John so much, his determination and his willingness to fight for what he wants.”
So, when we see John’s fight to keep his family together both in the epilogue of Red Dead Redemption 2 but also the main story of the first game, it’s because he doesn’t want anyone to take away what he has ultimately been searching for his entire life.
“He had found his purpose and he had earned that discovery and he was not going to let anybody take that away from him. If there was anything that I enjoyed the most about doing the epilogue is that I knew now why he had that determination and that willingness and that drive. I get it, you know, I respect it and I get it. It was really great.”
The Cowboy Who Rode Off Into the Sunset
I could tell when Rob went down that rabbit hole that it was coming from somewhere that felt truly personal to him. This focus on family and sense of purpose is where the line between John and Rob gets blurred. Rob met his wife while making the first Red Dead Redemption. Shortly after completing the first game, the two moved to Rob’s hometown in Indiana, got married, and had twins.
Right around the time that his kids turned two, he got the call asking if he wanted to come do something again with Rockstar but he didn’t know it was Red Dead Redemption 2. He thought it was just some little cameo or being part of something like Grand Theft Auto V. It wasn’t until he started having actual conversations that he realized what they were asking of him.
He spent the next 5 years or so going back and forth between Indiana and New York where Rockstar Games is mainly based and does their performance capture.
“I had to travel back and forth. There was a two-year stretch where I was in New York, more than I was home in Indiana, which I loved. I mean, I wouldn’t trade it, but it’s wild to think about that.”
Even 10 years later, Wiethoff still hasn’t finished either of the Red Dead Redemption games. He says the reason being is that he’s too busy spending time with his family and making sure he is there to be able to connect with his children. His twins are now 8 years old and he hopes when they’re older, he can sit down and experience the games for the first time with his sons at his side.
Rob Wiethoff is still greatly appreciative of his experience on the Red Dead Redemption series, even years after hanging up his virtual hat. It’s something that even he seemed to know words can’t describe.
“I am so fortunate to have been able to be part of such a wonderful successful series. And, I certainly wouldn’t ask for anything that they have provided me. I mean, I just wouldn’t, I just couldn’t, it’s been too great of an experience, it just kept getting better. I mean, everything just kept getting better.”
Thank you to Rob Wiethoff again for being kind enough for his time and his thoughtful answers. Here’s to another 10 years of Red Dead Redemption!