Video game adaptations have proven to be among the trickiest challenges for television and movie executives. Devoted gamers have often spent thousands of hours inhabiting the lead character, controlling their every move, so it is impossible to satisfy the diverse expectations of millions of fans who have all taken the protagonist in their own direction, creating their own unique personality and story.
‘Halo’ has been the flagship franchise for Microsoft’s XBox since the first-person shooter’s initial release in 2001. The game, set amid a 26th century interstellar war, has sold more than 82 million copies worldwide, earning $5 billion, as various spin-off novels and comics have further enriched the world. Yet it has never quite made the leap into the mainstream broadcasting realm. But finally, after more than a decade in development, the ‘Halo’ TV series has landed on Paramount+ as the network attempts to establish themselves alongside the streaming elite. And with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment among those behind the project, and the legendary director very hands-on with the creation of the $10 million-per-episode series, there’s a lot riding on its success.
So, with the expectations of millions of gamers at their mercy, whoever took on the role of Master Chief, the towering supersoldier who fronts the franchise, was going to need very broad shoulders. Luckily, Pablo Schreiber has no issues there.
We met Pablo the week of the series’ premiere, and fresh from a session working out those considerable shoulders with his personal trainer as he prepares to shoot the show’s second season. But first, he needs to flex all his mental strength to deal with the reaction of the franchise’s fans to the news that Master Chief will remove his helmet in the pilot to reveal the face of the man underneath. This is a very big deal in the ‘Halo’ universe, as the video game character has always remained anonymous and hidden behind his futuristic armor. Before the first episode has even aired, the internet is buzzing with opinions about the decision, both for and against.
“It’s a huge, iconic character that there’s already a lot of love for, and interest in, and that’s a massive plus,” Pablo says. “But there are challenges for sure, with one of the obvious ones being that people feel so connected to the character because they played as him from a first-person perspective.
“The way the character is established in the video game is purposefully vague and opaque. He’s a symbol for bravery and courage, but you don’t go into the nuances of his personality or feelings because they want you to fill in those aspects with your own personality.
“But of course, when you’re making a TV show that no longer works, because you want the viewer to sit back and enjoy a narrative experience. I think that when people see the choices we’ve made, and why we’ve made them, they’ll understand.
“We’re going to learn more about the character as the character learns about himself. It’s long-form storytelling, and the first season is really the process of him coming into contact with his own humanity for the first time.”
For those not familiar with ‘Halo’ mythology, including myself, Pablo then speeds through the crash course. He explains how Master Chief is part of the Spartan program, led by Dr Catherine Halsey of the United Nations Space Command (played in the TV series by the always-engaging Californication star Natascha McElhone). Also known as John-117, he was one of a group of promising children who were kidnapped and conscripted into an army to protect earth and her colonies from an alien threat, with the kids replaced with flash clones who would die shortly after the real child was taken from their parents. Master Chief became one of the most decorated war heroes of the UNSC, and alongside the expected alien-slaying action, the TV series also follows his personal story as he reconnects with his human side, and the show creators decided that couldn’t be done from behind a mask.
Pablo speaks fluently in the language of the complex ‘Halo’ universe (the child-stealing UNSC are the good guys, by the way!). He went to a five-day bootcamp after he first landed the role in 2018, and has been getting deeper into the lore of the franchise ever since. It’s an interesting direction for a guy who was born on a commune in Ymir, in rural British Columbia, before moving to a house in the nearby small town of Winlaw, where he grew up without a TV in his family home.
We spoke with Pablo in his more natural habitat, on a hike through the mountains of Topanga, California — Malibu’s more bohemian, laidback neighbor, where he has lived for the last seven years. Here, Pablo is trying to capture some of the same magical, open air upbringing that he enjoyed for his two sons, Timo, 13, and Dante, 10.
“I grew up on 13 acres in the Canadian Rocky Mountains,” he recalls. “It was a very rich and imaginative place to grow up because you don’t have a ton of distractions. The river had the cleanest, most beautiful water that you can imagine, it’s all glacial flow and crystal clear. So in the summertime we were tubing, whitewater river rafting, mountain biking, camping, and in the wintertime we were skiing.
“I was always very connected to nature and it was a big part of my upbringing, I didn’t grow up with a TV or video games. It wasn’t until I was 12, when my parents split up and my dad moved to Seattle, that he got a TV.
“So for me, having a connection with nature is a huge part of how I survive, and what I need in my life for my mental health, and also what I want to establish for my children.
“So when I found Topanga, I knew this would be a great place to raise kids. Topanga has all of its own treasures and great hikes, and then California in general offers access to places like Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Big Sur. So we’ve got a camper we tow behind the truck at the weekends, and to be able to drive to all these vastly different places is really special.”
As we experience some of these treasures of Topanga on our hike – including a meeting with rather large rattlesnake that Pablo declines our request to wrestle – we discuss what it is about nature that makes us feel so naturally fulfilled. I recall how Mo Gawdat, the author of ‘Solve for Happy: Engineer your Path to Joy’ suggested in an interview with Mr Feelgood that the reason we feel relaxed in nature is everything meets our expectations just as it is. “Nobody ever looks at a crooked tree and says, ‘No, hold on. This tree needs to be vertical,” Mo suggested during our chat last year.
It’s an interesting perspective, Pablo says, but he has his own take. “It’s connection with source, and connection with something larger than us that we can’t quite ever fully understand or fathom,” he says.
“I think for me, nature has always provided the closest thing that I have to religion because I didn’t grow up in a church or with any kind of structured religion that I inherited.
“So from an early age, I started going on hikes and climbing mountains. I’d look around and find the highest peak I could see, and hike to the top of the mountain, and there was this sort of religious aspect to getting to the highest place you could, to have a relationship with something bigger than yourself.
“Some people might call it God, some people might call it nature, but it’s provided me with a connection that I can always come back to.”
Our hike, while rather a rigorous by the standards of our photographer Austin and myself, was more relaxation than exercise for our 6ft 5in leader. He currently works out for two hours a day as he prepares to return to Budapest, Hungary, in June to spend nine months shooting the second season of ‘Halo.’ He’ll up that to three hours-a-day closer to the shoot date, during which he’ll spend much of his working day wearing his character’s 55-pound armored suit.
Pablo Schreiber in the ‘Halo’ trailer
Pablo says that ever since getting into peak fitness to play a soldier in the war thriller ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldier of Benghazi’ he’s been associated with having a certain physique. But in the brief moments that having to look a certain way for his work can be frustrating, he reminds himself how fortunate he is.
He says, “I’m very lucky to have the job that I do. It’s a real luxury, and I never take that for granted. But at the end of the day, it’s a job and there’s so much that’s encompassed in the job, all the way from how you set the tone on set with your work ethic, all the way down to the minutiae, like the physical preparation.
“So there’s the eating, there’s the training, and all of those things, which are super specific and dialed-in. I have a trainer who comes and lives with me over there [in Budapest], and it’s like a science. And yeah, there are times that you have to fast or something for a role, and I’m like, ‘I hate my life!’ But the overarching sentiment for me is how lucky I am to be in this position, and I never let that part go.”
There is more to reaching peak condition than the physical side, of course. Alongside his workouts, Pablo tries to meditate for 20 minutes every day, although he admits he is not quite as consistent with that mental side of his strength regime.
“There is a mental health element to physical exercise around blood flow, oxygen levels, and just feeling good, and it does make you a little more present,” he says.
“But the meditation helps me relax and let go, which in some ways is the opposite of the physical training, which is about creating tension in your body specifically to build muscle. So it’s best when you balance the two.”
The 43-year-old is also open-minded about investigating alternative practices and philosophies to improve his mental conditioning. It’s an interest he inherited from his father Tell Schrieber, an acting teacher who is also dad to the ‘Ray Donovan’ star Liev Schrieber. Pablo and his half-brother Liev didn’t meet until Pablo was 16, with Pablo growing up living with their dad, while Leiv grew up with his mother on the opposite coast. So while they both ended up following their dad’s profession, Pablo says their relationship with their father was very different, and his occupation “had different affects on each of us.” Pablo would then embark on his own personal journey after he went through his divorce to Jessica Monty, the mother of his two boys, in 2014.
“Around the time of my divorce I met an interesting human being who did some shamanic work with me around releasing past trauma,” he recalls.
“He was an amazing healer, who had trained under a Peruvian shaman in the Andes. Around that same time, I also went to Peru and hiked the Inca Trail, which was an amazing experience. So I’m interested in exploring paths of healing, wherever they lead.
“I’ve always been around these worlds. My father was really into Robert Bly, and ‘The Hero’s Journey’ by Joseph Campbell. I remember when I was nine years old, and driving with him and my mom down the coast in 1982, and we dropped him off at Esalen [the Big Sur wellness retreat]. I just have a memory of him going to a workshop at this place, with some guy named Robert Bly. And now I get to the age he was then, I start to realize all the things he was going though at that time, and I feel it come full circle.”
Our own trail today finally leads us to the Topanga Overlook, a graffitied concrete ledge among the rugged hills with views from sea to the snow-capped Sierra Mountains, via the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. It’s a special spot for Pablo, where he often brings his two sons to watch the moon rise in the east as the sun sets in the west.
We all feel that sense of connection and awe that Pablo referred to earlier, mixed with a touch of tiredness that one would expect after climbing a mountain in the Southern Californian sun. All in a morning’s work for Pablo, although us mere mortals may need a rest day tomorrow.
‘Halo’ is streaming now on Paramount+