Since the Halo games debuted in 2001, Master Chief has always been a mostly faceless hero, hellbent on protecting humanity. He’s definitely got a personality, and we know he has a backstory, but the most important part of the character was that he was a badass who could take on an army of aliens all on his own, and that you could control every second of it.
But after a decade of false starts, Halo has finally made its way its way into live-action, and that means turning Master Chief into a real character, not just an avatar for players, at least according to the actor behind him.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the first episode of Halo.]
“In a first-person shooter video game, the character is created very specifically for the purposes of the game, you’re meant to believe that you’re the Master Chief,” Pablo Schreiber tells Polygon. “But the character is never revealed in any excessive way, so that you can project your own personality onto him.”
After 20 years, this kind of facelessness became a bit of a calling card for Master Chief. To fans, Chief is more his armor and his voice than he is a face, because he never had one. The helmet stays on all the time.
This faceless challenge was one that the show needed to meet head on and early, according to Schreiber.
“It was very important early on that the helmet comes off, you see the face, and you disassociate your version of who you believe the Chief was,” Schreiber explains. “Rather than being co-creator of the experience as you go along and believing that you’re Chief, we’re now inviting you to sit back on the couch and watch Chief start to discover elements of himself.”
The show’s version of the Master Chief sticks to many of the elements from previous Halo canon. His name is John, he was taken in by the UNSC at an early age. Doctor Halsey then treated John and his fellow Spartans like military science experiments, turning the children into emotionless human weapons. But while the game’s mostly leave this lore by the wayside, the series is committed to telling John’s story, and showing audiences the person behind Chief’s famous armor.
“If you’re going to have bring an audience along with you for multiple episodes, and hopefully multiple seasons, you really need to imbue that character with empathy and understanding. And you have to identify with the character in a way that goes beyond thinking you’re him.”