Alumnus goes outlaw

Part 2: Becoming John Marston

 

 

 

 

Feb. 23, 2021

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Video games might as well have been a foreign language for Rob Wiethoff.

On set, people kept mentioning the project was like "GTA," and he would nod along, embarrassed for not knowing that GTA stood for Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games' highly successful series. At the wrap party, co-workers still remarked that Wiethoff didn't know what he had gotten himself into.

The game was released in May 2010 and was met with acclaimed critical and commercial success. Wiethoff did several interviews and traveled around for appearances after the game's release.

While the response to Red Dead Redemption and the Undead Nightmare expansion was flattering, Wiethoff was done playing Marston -- or so he thought -- and was ready for a steady career.

In Red Dead Redemption (spoiler alert!), the game's climax is an emotionally cinematic scene where Marston is cornered by the agents hunting him. With nowhere to go, he's killed in a shootout defending his family. The player can't save Marston, no matter what they do. The story ends with the player taking control of Marston's son Jack and getting revenge for his father's death. It's a heart-wrenching conclusion to a harrowing story.

Knowing how the story ended for his character, the Wiethoffs moved to Seymour in 2010 and welcomed twin boys in 2012. He was thankful to get a job working construction, which had good benefits and gave him time for his new family.

Then Rockstar Games called in 2014 and asked if Wiethoff would be interested in doing another game. He was intrigued, but he knew his character had died. Maybe it would be a brief cameo?

More details revealed that the new game would be a prequel to Red Dead Redemption and follow the creation and downfall of the notorious Van der Linde gang, which Marston was both once a member of and later hunted in the original game.

A screenshot of 12 outlaws from Red Dead RedemptionView print quality image
2018's Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to 2010's Red Dead Redemption and explores the creation and downfall of the notorious Van der Linde gang. The gang is pictured here; John Marston, Wiethoff's character, is fifth from the left. Image courtesy of Rockstar Games

Wiethoff was told he would be needed for a year, and that Marston would be in the game, just not as the playable character. With twin 2-year-olds at home, he discussed the opportunity with his wife, who fully supported the endeavor.

"I liked the people I'm around, and I'm inspired," Wiethoff said. "It makes me grow being in that atmosphere; I really enjoy it."

Wiethoff quickly used all of his vacation and sick days at his self-described "boring" construction job to work on the game. He asked for permission for the next stretch of filming and was told no. Wiethoff tipped his hat and said, "But I am. I'm going."

He quit and started working construction for his brother-in-law during breaks in filming. His schedule was filming three weeks in New York and then two weeks at home working construction. It was tough balancing family responsibilities, and Wiethoff said he doesn't know if he could do it again. He cherishes being a steady presence each day for his family.

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Set in 1899, Red Dead Redemption 2 earned 2018 Game of the Year awards from over 175 different publications. Image courtesy of Rockstar Games

Making video games is a long and tedious process that extends far beyond the acting work Wiethoff did for the games. Rockstar Games is known for its creative acumen and attention to detail.

For Wiethoff, having that exposure to a large-scale, creative process is highly rewarding, but construction work is instant gratification.

"You work hard and at the end of the day, you can see exactly what you got done," he said. "In most cases you can leave it all there and not think about it until the next day."

During the production of Red Dead Redemption 2, the cast frequently tried to piece together the story. The actors were given non-sequential portions of the script and often didn't know what was going to happen in the overall story.

As production continued, actor Roger Clark approached Wiethoff with a theory. (Spoilers ahead!) Clark -- who played Arthur Morgan, the playable character of Red Dead Redemption 2 -- thought Morgan was going to die of tuberculous. Wiethoff was skeptical, but then the realization hit him: Exactly like the first game, where the player becomes the son Jack after spending the majority of the game as Marston, the prequel allowed a full-circle moment of the player transitioning from Morgan to Marston.

"It never crossed my mind that the player would become John Marston in the second one," Wiethoff said.

He ended up spending nearly four years working on the game, not the lone year described initially. The time and effort paid off in record-breaking fashion.

Red Dead Redemption 2 was released in October 2018 and made $725 million globally over the first three days of the launch. A Rockstar Games release called it "the single-biggest opening weekend in the history of entertainment." Red Dead Redemption 2 sold more copies in its first eight days than the original game did in eight years.

Currently, Red Dead Redemption 2 has sold over 34 million units and is the 13th highest-grossing game of all time.

The outpouring of praise and attention for Wiethoff was much more amplified after the release of the prequel.

Rob Wiethoff's home office, a former chicken coop, showcases a variety of fan-submitted art. Images courtesy of Rob Wiethoff

His former chicken coop turned home office is filled with art from passionate fans all across the world. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he was a frequently requested guest for various Comic-Con-type conventions. Panel discussions with his Red Dead Redemption 2 co-stars have views of over 491,000 and 1.1 million on YouTube. On social media or at conventions, fans are genuinely thrilled to interact with Wiethoff.

In an age where online commenting and social media can be vile, Wiethoff is universally loved for his work playing Marston. You'll be hard pressed to find any negative comments on YouTube videos or his Instagram posts. Here's a sampling:

  • "I love this guy more than his game character."
  • "Thank you for being you, Rob. Your posts always brighten my day, no matter what mood I'm in."
  • "His voice is more iconic than Morgan Freeman's."
  • "Rob just seems like such a good dude. Like I could probably just get a beer with the guy."

Wiethoff is immensely grateful for the kind words and compliments he receives, but he humbly deflects personal credit and praises the work of the series' writers and creators. He's blown away by the professionalism and quality of his co-stars and co-workers and of Rockstar Games. At times, Wiethoff said he feels out of place with the praise and acclaim he's received.

A child dressed as a cowboy with Rob Wiethoff kneeling beside himView print quality image
Rob Wiethoff's Instagram has images with his fans at conventions, and videos of him working at his house and cheering on the Hoosiers. Photo courtesy of Rob Wiethoff

"I'm going to these conventions and doing panels and think I don't have any business being here," he said. "It's overwhelming, and I appreciate the compliments very much, but it's so foreign. I do construction work. I'm the guy you see on the side of the road doing construction work; that's what I do.

"To go from that world to a convention, it is overwhelming. I enjoy every second of it, but it's wild. I certainly couldn't ask anything more from Rockstar Games. I've appreciated every second."

For as much of an impact as the games have had on his life, he has only spent brief moments with a controller in his hands. When he comes across a scene in the game or pulls it up on YouTube, he's blown away at the beauty of the finished product and thinks fondly of the production.

He remembers green screens and wearing spandex motion-capture suits with a gun holster and cowboy boots. He remembers his face hurting so much from laughing as the game's gang became an actual gang of friends. He knows how many takes they went through to capture a scene.

"I think I will someday get into the games and run through them," he said. "But I haven't yet. I've got too much going on with young kids and a job. It's not that I'm disinterested in them; I just don't have the time."

Once some of the memories fade, Wiethoff said he will immerse himself in that same experience of exploring the Old West with rich characters and picturesque scenery like millions of other gamers. Having helped create it, he understands the game's immersive magnetism.

"I sit there and think I've been there for five minutes and I've been there for two hours," he said.

Rob Wiethoff sitting on a couchView print quality image

Part 1: Star of Red Dead Redemption is a proud cream-and-crimson alum

Learn how IU shaped Rob Wiethoff and the deep ties his family has to the university.

Read part 1
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