How Pablo Schreiber Became Supersoldier Master Chief in ‘Halo’
In the Halo video game franchise, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 is the towering commander to a unit of supersoldiers known as Spartans. Through Master Chief’s perspective, players of the first-person shooter fight an intergalactic threat against humanity known as The Covenant—and, in order to reinforce that personal connection to the Master Chief, 343 Industries purposely avoided ever showing his face in the video game or cinematic scenes.
For the Halo television series, Pablo Schreiber is being deployed as Master Chief and donning the Mjolnir armor. Not only does the actor bring a strong resume of dramatic work, but his 6’5″ frame also fits the bill for an imposing warrior. “I played the game a few times as a teenager, but I had no idea how dense the Halo universe was,” says Schreiber. “There are so many stories that I’m excited to bring to a new medium for fans new and old.”
Men’s Journal sat down with Schreiber to discuss putting on the suit for the first time, acting with aliens on set, and working out in Budapest.
Men’s Journal: When did you first hear about the project and what did you know about Master Chief?
Pablo Schreiber: 2018 is the first time I heard about the project from director Rupert Wyatt, who was attached to lead the first two episodes. The first few scripts were sent along with this super-intense, 12-minute YouTube video by a fan who described the background of Master Chief. The video was very dense, with lots of fast talking and deep pulls. I didn’t know a lot of what was covered in there. I’d played Halo as a teenager but only at friends’ houses, because I wasn’t allowed to play video games at my own. We’d only play the versus mode, and I never had the chance to try the campaigns. So I had no clue how much story was actually written into the games. The first few episodes were written by Kyle Killen; they had an interesting hook to them, diving into that personal story of Master Chief. I liked the idea of demythologizing him, since he’s this symbol for everyone who’s played the games. There’s this sense of ownership of Master Chief and, because they left a lot open, there was an opportunity to create something new and interesting.
Once you got the role, how did you dive deeper into the Halo universe?
The first thing that happened when I got the gig was much rejoicing in the Schreiber household, because my kids were ecstatic I was going to play Master Chief. I still didn’t know much about the whole Halo franchise at that point, so my first stop was 343 Industries in Seattle where they make the game. They put me through their own version of a story bootcamp where they schooled me on the whole journey up until that point. I was there for four or five days getting up to speed.
I was then sent home with research materials, including the cinematics from all six of the mainline games. I studied the performance from Steve Downs, who’s the voice of Master Chief in those games. I chased down everything else I could find from the novels to the animated shorts to the live-action features. I started to understand the depth of the mythology that had been created. I was shocked by how rich and well-conceived it all was—and ripe for a television show. That’s when I really started getting excited.
Casting decisions must have sparked a ton of opinions from passionate Halo fans. How’d you deal with all that “feedback”?
One of the first things I realized after it was announced that I was going to play Master Chief was how much excitement and anticipation there was for a program like this. Of course with all of that, there are a lot of opinions on how the show should be. There are so many fans of these games. Our mission was solely on creating the best narrative possible that would take fans new and old on a ride. So the whole team had to do our best at separating the useful feedback from the rest of the chatter.
How does one physically prepare to play a supersoldier from the future?
I don’t think my trainer Eddie Raburn and I really knew what was in store for us. We’ve done quite a few projects together, starting with Den of Thieves, but this wasn’t something we could really prepare for. We just worked on giving me the right body type. I’m a thinner guy by nature, my metabolism works very fast, so it can be hard for me to put on muscle and keep it. I ate a ton and worked out heavy so I could put on that mass before we got to set.
I felt really well taken care of while I was out there in Budapest. They brought Eddie to help me maintain. We had a chef that was helping me get five or six meals a day for roughly 5,000 calories. There was access to a public gym down the street, and a gym in my building was set up for me. The pandemic hit in the midst of all this, so at that point we couldn’t use the public gym anymore. But the gym at my apartment really had everything I needed—with a whole Rogue setup. I was grateful for that, because at 44 I needed every edge I could get.
What’s it like wearing the armor? Action scenes in that massive battle suit can’t be easy.
The suit is a monster. about 55 pounds of thick plastic and not very mobile. It’s not easy to manipulate. The visibility is great through the helmet, but everything is colored gold. Once I’m inside, it’s impossible not to be sweating tons and that isn’t great for maintaining muscle mass. I’m just shedding weight. I work very hard so that I don’t have to think about how I look when it’s time to act, but it was a constant consideration with this project. Regardless, I needed to get the other elements of the character too, because if people aren’t connecting with him nobody is going to care about the show.
It’s just so cool. The process of getting the suit right and trying it on was very piecemeal. We were constantly adapting it and trying to make it more functional. I went to FBFX Studio in London about five or six times to do adjustments and try it on. During those tailoring sessions the suit wasn’t painted yet, and that paint job does so much for the aesthetic. At that point it just felt like hunks of plastic.
The moment I remember the most is when the suits were all complete and we were on set in Budapest preparing to start filming in a few weeks. They dressed all four of us Spartans that make up the Silver Team—which is the stand-in for the Blue Team in the game—and brought us out in front of the crew. The soundstage in Budapest is one of the biggest in all of Europe and there were 800 to 1,000 people on the crew. Seeing everyone’s reaction to us in our suits was amazing. Their faces were just beaming, because so many of these people worked on the series for so many years and they were seeing it finally come to fruition.
Did you do anything special to help your body recover after long days on set?
I made sure that I was able to properly recover because that’s just as important as everything else. I put a good amount of time into stretching before we started our sessions. Then it’s about doing mobility work during the training sessions, or the Knees Over Toes drills. I was getting massages throughout the week, which were crucial. I’m huge on ice baths. I was doing those at least weekly. I have an ice bath at home that I’ll sit in for five to 10 minutes, so I’m doing that throughout the year.
Can you tell us what to expect from Season 1?
The first season is all about setting up the world. By the end, we want you to be really familiar with the lead character—as well as establishing the dialogue between Master Chief, the soldier, and John, the man, who starts to discover his humanity. Once all of that happens this season, I’m really excited about the subsequent ones. We have a new showrunner, David Wiener, who’s also an amazing writer. The only reason I signed onto the series was to make legitimately great television, and I’m personally going to do everything I can to bring it to its highest peak. Master Chief is an inspiring character. For years, he’s taught us about resilience, patience, and never giving up despite the odds. David Wiener is really digging into that with some of the early scripts I’ve seen for this next season too. We’re setting up the foundation, but he’s taking it deeper and really enriching the characters. We’re tapping into themes that really matter to me—like the effects of war on society and the individual. I’ve done a number of military projects and have a lot of friends who are former service members, so the ability to add to the dialogue for them is exciting.
The aliens of the Covenant look incredible. When did you first see them in their full glory?
At the first premiere of the show at SXSW. Before that I had seen maybe one shot of a Sanghelli during the scene we have in a cave. On set, I’m acting and engaging with stuntmen at various heights depending on the creatures they’re playing. The stunt people playing the Sanghellis were on five-foot stilts and the Brutes were on three-foot stilts, while our shorter stunt people played the Grunts. They’re all wearing tights and the little balls for the effects, so it’s a real acting exercise being intimidated! But seeing everything in its final form with all of the computer graphics was very cool. The creatures are all really well done, but my personal favorites are the Prophets that we see during the situation with Makee and High Charity. The Prophets are actual puppets that they manipulate on set, and the faces are just amazing. They do additional visual effects on them after as well, but they were still very impressive in real life in their floating chairs.
In the show, do you throw some knowing nods to fans of the game.
For fans of the franchise, there are lots of sights and sounds that will feel very familiar from the gaming experience. There’s this one moment in the first episode where Master Chief is being shot by a Sanghelli and he takes a dive roll to get behind cover. Once he’s behind cover you hear that very recognizable sound of the shield recharging. During the screening at SXSW everyone in the audience was cheering when that moment happened.
Have you picked up the game again since taking on the role?
I wasn’t great at the game during those early teenage years. Fortunately I don’t have to be a good gamer to be a good actor and do right by the character—or else I might be in trouble. I’m going to keep practicing though. I’m currently going through the campaign of Halo: Infinite. I do have a really cool gamer tag that I won’t share with you on the record. Maybe when the mics are turned off—and if you share it, you’re done.
Ha! Deal. When does production begin for Season 2?
Our plan is to get back into production as quickly as we can. At this point, it looks like we’ll be back in Budapest filming this summer. The target is a moving one, though, because our main goal is to make sure this next season is really good. I’m excited for people to watch—and to set that stage. I hope the longtime fans can surrender themselves to the experience and enjoy this universe they love in a completely new way. I’m ready to make a great second season—and do it on the fastest timetable possible.
Halo is now available on Paramount Plus