Face to Face: Ian Whyte

Former Eagles player Whyte tells how his 7ft 1in frame has enabled him to take up a dream career with big roles in blockbuster movies.

Ian Whyte

Former Eagles player Whyte tells how his 7ft 1in frame has enabled him to take up a dream career with big roles in blockbuster movies.

Ian Whyte smiles as he does often, draped over the settee in the lounge of his home in North Shields.

He is built like the side of Mount Everest, dwarfing everything and everyone. To say he's big - 7ft 1in tall and weighing 17st 2lb - is as absurd as suggesting Pavarotti can hold a tune.

He had to bend almost double to get through the doorway even though he deliberately bought an old house with high ceilings, and when he stretches out a hand in welcome I feel like my right arm has disappeared into a combine harvester.

Ian has every right to be at peace with the world. He has - amazingly and totally unexpectedly - become a film star without it bringing even a flicker of adulation from those in the street.

Star of the £60m 20th Century Fox blockbuster Alien v Predator he may be, just finished work on the new Harry Potter movie to be released later in the year too, but no-one would recognise a face beaming at good fortune.

Whyte is a former professional basketball player who for five years performed for the Newcastle Eagles and won 80 caps for England.

Retirement to all intent and purpose seemed to signal the end of his `stardom' in a minority sport that was never going to bring nationwide fame. Instead, Whyte has by accident become an actor with a London-based showbiz agent and now has friends in extremely important places.

Two careers, I might point out, that owe much to the fact that he doesn't need a ladder to clean the upstairs windows of his house. His height saw him bullied at school but it is now his passport to paradise.

Ian is the man behind the mask - Scar, the fearsome extra-terrestrial warrior first seen in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Predator, against the acid-dripping monster who first emerged in 1979's Alien.

"The original Predator was Kevin Peter Hall but he died after the last film and they needed a new guy," explained Whyte. "That's where I came in."

The idea of Hollywood director Paul Anderson, Newcastle-born and RGS-educated, was to make the creatures as real as possible, which meant keeping the computer-generated effects to a minimum. Enter Creature Creators and Designers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jnr.

"Scar emerges as a lead in the film and we had to approach him as being capable of carrying scenes dramatically without speaking," said Gillis. "Scar's sculpture is more subtle than others, with a wider range of movement to convey emotions."

Whyte's powerful physique and athleticism were invaluable in creating Scar's performance.

I ask him how, after being a pro sportsman all of his adult life and searching desperately for a new career to trigger his imagination, he became a movie monster and then the love interest of Robbie Coltrane in the new Potter film. Wait, an explanation of that mind boggling thought later!

"I can hardly believe it myself," laughed Whyte. "I'm not a handsome chap or a good actor - I'm 7ft tall and that's about it! I'm a bloke in a costume but it's terrifically exciting, darned hard work, and desperately challenging both physically and mentally.

Ian Whyte, Basketball

"When actors are mentioned, people think of sharp suits, Oscar ceremonies and red carpets. But in reality it's working 14 hours a day for months on end and then being totally insecure about where the next job is going to come from."

Whyte's break actually came through his association with the Newcastle Eagles.

"I was in my office musing over what my next career move might be when the phone rang," Ian told me. "It was Samantha Foggo from the Eagles and she was so excited she was hardly coherent. A casting agent, Suzanne Smith, had phoned asking if the Eagles had any `tall, fit people' - tall being over 7ft - and when Sam asked why, she was told it was for a film to be called Alien v Predator. I'd retired from basketball in April 2003 and this was July. Was I interested? Of course I was.

"I went down to London to find out more, to a studio near King's Cross. It was the hottest day of the year, 35 degrees, and I was squeezed into a wet suit, a Balaclava, and then a mock-up Predator head and told to start running.

"I ran round and round the room for an hour with a cameraman filming me. No-one said a word. It was to see if I was fit and could stand hard labour. Luckily, I could but it was tough all right.

"I was then told that the director, Paul Anderson, was flying in the following day and he'd look at the footage and meet me. I stayed overnight with a friend and by the time I was on my way to his hotel I was quite nervous.

"We shook hands and after a few pleasantries, he concluded `We'll be in touch' and that was it. He just wanted to physically see me. He's a tall guy, about 6ft 4in, but I dwarfed him. I hurriedly tried to show my enthusiasm before I left to let him know how I felt."

A week later Whyte was in Prague to meet the Creature Effects Designers, who took great interest in his body shape and technical aspects of his costume. No guarantees were forthcoming but another week further on Ian's mobile rang while he was working out in the local gym.

"The call was to offer me the part," said Whyte. "I was ecstatic but I'd no- one to share my joy with. It was a Sunday afternoon and my wife Amy was in Manchester."

Such was the excitement for a budding film star that Ian didn't even bother to sign a contract until the night before his first scene was shot on location in Prague.

Prior to that, four days were spent in Los Angeles for costume fittings. "The place was like Aladdin's Cave, totally fascinating," said Whyte. I ended up with a suit and mask that weighed 50 kilos - that's seven stones eight and a half pounds.

"Whereas in basketball I trained and had to be fit for a maximum of 20 minutes on court every game, here I had to be able to carry that weight around for 14 hours every day. That meant huge stamina. It wasn't glamorous at the time, sweating in a rubber costume struggling to gulp down air. It was brutal, like a boot camp - but I loved it.

"I had a stunt double but I did most of them myself. I was shot, blown up, set on fire, had to do wire work, everything." Whyte spent six months filming in Prague with only two weeks off for Christmas.

"Luckily, EasyJet had just started running cheap flights from Newcastle to Prague so my wife Amy was able to come out every so often," he said.

"She was pleased when I retired from basketball because she thought she'd see much more of me. Then I'm away for six months on Predator and work for 12 months on Harry Potter."

Whyte's first movie was released last October - the DVD has been on sale for a fortnight - and he insists the lack of fame is a blessing.

Ian Whyte, Basketball

"Honestly, from an acting point of view the mask is a luxury," he insisted. "I enjoy my anonymity. I don't crave physical recognition."

Such has been the impact of Alien v Predator on sci-fi addicts that UK Trading Cards sold out one of Scar, personally signed by Whyte, even though it cost £17.90.

Within 48 hours of finishing Predator - before he could even begin to worry about work drying up - Ian was offered a job on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

This time it was an even greater twist because he was playing a giant, er, female!

His towering 7ft-plus frame made him perfect to work as Hagrid's love interest Madame Maxine.

Luckily, it didn't mean him having to snog Robbie Coltrane, who plays Hagrid! Whyte is actually the body double for the actress playing Madame Maxine's role, Frances de la Tour, who first captivated us as Miss Jones in Rising Damp.

"A lot of the guys working behind the scenes on Predator had also worked on previous Harry Potter films," said Ian. "So when they were beginning the fourth Potter movie they said there might be a job for me. And there was.

"The reason Frances needed a body double for long shots was that Madame Maxine is eight feet tall - my territory. Francis is a lovely lady, by the way."

Ian worked mainly at a studio in Watford and the film is due out in November.

"I can't say too much about it because it's top secret," smiled Whyte, "but for Potter enthusiasts it's amazing, a massive production. It was very taxing because my work was much more technical than on Predator."

Fitness, always a prominent part of his life as a sportsman, remains essential to his new job as well.

"I have to be in a constant state of readiness fitness-wise," he said. "Since I finished playing basketball I've had a lot more disciplined approach to my general health. I've done Tai Chi, kung fu and kick boxing because they are all movement-based and are good for grace, poise and balance."

Though he was born in Bangor, Wales, and brought up in Brighton, Whyte intends to continue living on Tyneside.

"I love it. I need to be wet," he laughed. "My wife is a Geordie lass and I have no wish to live anywhere else. Indeed, when I was young and single and playing basketball in the south, I fell in love with Newcastle so much when I came up to visit friends playing for the Eagles that I bought a flat here. I think the North East is very seductive."

From sportsman to film star, life has been a huge adventure for Ian Whyte, an adopted Geordie giant. Yet you are left with the feeling that, in many ways, the real excitement is only just beginning.

Page 2: Height made me victim of playground bullies

Height made me victim of playground bullies

Ian Whyte was unmercifully bullied at school - a nightmare memory that hasn't left him with the passing of time.

Whyte's face clouded over as he told how being skyscraper tall was a massive drawback before it became a career asset twice over.

"It was an absolute liability at school," he said. "I was bullied continuously and without mercy and, yes, it hurt me tremendously. I was shattered by it.

"I was no good at sport. I was always the last kid they picked for a team whether it be football, cricket, rugby or whatever. I hated soccer because the kids playing it were the same ones who took the mick.

"What changed things was our sports teacher, who took basketball as well as rugby. I was about 15, tall and skinny with no co-ordination. I towered over everyone - I was about 6ft 4in even then. But he tried me at basketball and I started on the junior programme at Worthing Bears, which later became Brighton Bears. I guess that changed my life."

The gawky lad, a Bambi on ice, wasn't expected to return after the very first session.

"My lip exploded in a shower of blood," smiled Whyte. "The coach thought that was it, they would never see me again. However, I organised lifts from Brighton to Worthing and soon they were saying `we've got to hold on to him.' I was thrust to the front rather than pushed to the back.

"Basketball became an obsession and I was off towards a career."

Bobby and I are Porto heroes

Sir Bobby Robson and Ian Whyte - two men from vastly differing sports - have one thing in common.

"We have both won a national championship with Porto," smiled Whyte. "The football club was the centrepiece of a sporting club which included basketball.

Bobby Robson

"The Porto team was awesome. We won the treble and reached the quarter-finals in Europe. It was the year after Bobby Robson's success and it was Utopia."

In fact, Whyte was a bit of a globetrotter before arriving in Newcastle. He played in Greece, France and Belgium as well as Portugal.

"Greece was unbelievable," he said. "The fanaticism for basketball beats anywhere else I've been. We always had a police escort for away games to get us in and out of town and friends regularly regaled me with hellish stories of coaches being fired at and bricks being thrown through the windows. It was way over the top. They were obsessed."

Welshman earned 80 caps for England

A career spanning nine years during which time he earned 80 caps for England is the basketball legacy of Ian Whyte.

His professional career began in London in 1994 with the Towers and ended in Newcastle where five years' service as an Eagle brought him an appearance in the 2002 Trophy final.

"I didn't set the world alight and never thought of myself as a superstar," admitted Ian. "I worked very, very hard and I was steady.

"I must be the only Welshman to win 80 caps with England - but then I was only born in Bangor because work had taken my parents there.

"The England set-up was amateurish, not well organised or smoothly run. There was talent around but it wasn't harnessed properly."

Looking at then and now, Ian went on: "There are many differences and similarities between what I did as a basketball player and what I do as an actor.

"One of the differences is that I used to spend the week building up to the weekend fixtures but in the movie business you haven't got that luxury. Every day is game day."

Between retirement two seasons ago to the advent of Predator and Potter, Whyte considered other ways of earning a crust and actually sat a Football Association agents exam as well as doing a post-graduate course in marketing.

"But nothing satisfied me," he admitted, "until the day Sam Foggo phoned about receiving a call from a casting agent!"

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