Of all the batshit insanity bursting out of every frame in Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the most delightful surprises is the Doof Warrior. He's the manic, masked guitarist perched atop a giant rolling stage festooned with massive speakers, surrounded by a marauding war party tearing through the desert, as he blasts rock metal licks from an electric guitar fashioned from a bed pan that also doubles as a flame thrower. The character makes a lasting impression without speaking a word, and he is already some people's favorite part about the movie. But that is nothing in comparison to the joy experienced by the man who played him, Australian actor-musician iOTA.
"It was so amazing," iOTA told BuzzFeed News by phone from Sydney. "I was hanging from the top of this truck tearing through the desert, just going, 'How did this happen?! How did I get here?!'"
The 46-year-old started his career as a rock star, releasing five albums between 1999 and 2005 in his native Australia. He first made an impact as a performer when he played the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, going on to win acclaim for lead roles in productions of The Rocky Horror Show and Smoke and Mirrors (which he co-created). But prior to Mad Max: Fury Road, his only other film experience was playing the crazed orchestra leader in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby in 2013. Still, he had grown up idolizing director George Miller's original Mad Max trilogy, so when he first heard about Miller's long-delayed efforts to make a fourth Mad Max movie, he told his agents, "I'd just do anything to be in that film."
Roughly a year later, iOTA got a call for an audition. "They wanted me to basically bring a guitar," he said. "They said the character was somewhere between Keith Richards and a scarecrow. So I just kind of got in my best Mad Max 2 [aka The Road Warrior] outfit: feathers and leather and bits and pieces. I blackened out my teeth and went in there looking pretty disgusting. I played my guitar, and that was it. I got the gig."
It wasn't until iOTA formally met with Miller about the role, however, that he learned that it would require him to dangle from a web of bungee cables as he tore through the desert in Namibia with dozens of vehicles all around him. The idea behind the character, production designer Colin Gibson explained to BuzzFeed News, is that the Doof Warrior is Mad Max's version of an army's drummer boy, meant to inspire the warriors with a constant stream of rousing music.
"We had to go from little drummer boy to Spinal Tap on wheels," said Gibson. "We eventually ended up with an eight-wheel drive all-terrain ex-rocket launcher with drums that are actually reverberating through old air-conditioning ducts, which became a superstructure that we then built the stage [onto] and connected the speakers — the last Marshall [speaker] stack on the way to hell."
The makeshift guitar/flamethrower played by the Doof Warrior, meanwhile, was so heavy — some 60 kilograms (or roughly 132 pounds) — that it also had to be suspended by bungee cables. The first version was a bit lighter, until Gibson realized just how practical Miller wanted it. "Tragically, the first time I built the Doof Warrior's guitar, it hadn't occurred to me that it would really have to work," said Gibson. "I thought that it was enough that it was a flame thrower and that it looked like a guitar built out of a bed pan and God knows what else. Until George said, 'And where do you plug it in?'"
But even though iOTA could indeed make music with the guitar, he wasn't quite churning out complex melodies as the cameras rolled. "You know, the guitar wasn't great," iOTA said. "It spent a lot of time in the sun and the sand and the cold. So it was pretty hard to get a good tune out of it. But it was a lot of fun. … I would just jam. I love [bands like] Soundgarden, Sepultura, you know, just anything wiry and disgusting. I was standing above an amplifier, which you can't see there. But it was lying on its back. I was standing above it, so the guitar was actually blaring in my ears. I just went for it. I pulled out all my rock licks that I could think of."
It scarcely mattered, however, that his guitar wasn't making much by way of usable music. "It was just a dream come true," iOTA said with a giggle, like he still could not believe his good fortune. "I'm such a fan of the films and I just dreamed about it for so long. As a kid, I was always thinking, One day, I could be in Mad Max. It was just the time of my life." One perk of his job: Whereas most of the war party was stuck amid the dust kicked up by dozens of vehicles roaring through the desert, iOTA's higher perch gave him a perfect view of the gonzo tableau surrounding him. "It was like being on a ride at the fair, except the best ride you can imagine," he said. "It was flames and smoke and oil and sound. It was a head-fuck, and a really good one."
Giant action movies have a great deal of downtime, but even then iOTA was able to relax. "There was once when there was a lot of other stuff going on, and I just kicked back and fell asleep in the harness," he said. "You put your feet up on the guitar and lean back, you can actually hang like you're in a hammock. I think there's a moment in the film where I'm actually doing that."
Otherwise, iOTA said he spent much of his downtime during the film's six-month shoot alone in his apartment in the Namibian beach resort city of Swakopmund, when he wasn't getting to know the actor playing the Doof Warrior's master Immortan Joe, Hugh Keays-Byrne. "He actually became a good friend of mine," said iOTA. "I spent most of my time with one cast member, it would be with Hugh. We'd hang out all the time, he and his lovely wife Christina."
Once production wrapped, iOTA focused his attention on his newest rock musical B-Girl, which premieres next month at the Sydney Opera House. (The show is actually being sold with iOTA's unique name as big as the title.) And about that name: iOTA explained he always knew even as a kid that he wanted to change his name, in the same vein as '70s rock icons like David Bowie and Iggy Pop. "I just always like the word, iota, and I thought it would be a good name for a band," he said. "It just happened. Like, eventually I ended up getting a solo show and I thought, This is my chance, I'm going to change my name to iOTA."
As for his name's unique capitalization, iOTA said it was a practical decision — at least, partly. "It would turn up in the newspaper as 'Lota,' which was annoying," he said. "And, it just looks cool."