Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network
Charlize Theron is not immortal in real life; she just always gives off that impression on screen. In Netflix’s “The Old Guard,” streaming July 10, she literally is.
“The Old Guard” is the ragtag group of never-say-die mercenaries that Theron’s Andy (short for Andromache the Scythian) has gathered through the centuries. Each member realizes they are immortal only after they die the first time, and now here are four of them: Andy, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli).
“Throughout history, we’ve protected this world fighting in the shadows,” Andy says. When asked if they’re good guys or bad guys, Joe answered, “depends on the century.”
In 2020, the Old Guard are feeling their age. Andy is disillusioned, haunted by the blood on their hands and the feeling that all their efforts are futile. With her axe-wielding, pistol-wielding skills, she is the greatest warrior the world has ever known, but she has never been more vulnerable. Meanwhile, they are being hunted for their gift by shadowy ex-spy Copley (Chiwetel Eji0for) and scientist CEO Merrick (Harry Melling). Then everything gets shaken up when, after a couple of centuries, a new immortal emerges, US Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), and Andy must go and recruit her to their way of life—whether Nile likes it or not. The movie is based on the kinetic, violent comic book series “The Old Guard,” written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Leandro Fernandez, published by Image Comics. The movie is directed by Gina Price-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights”).
“I think the first thing that really grabbed me, that got me excited, was the world,” Theron told Super via Zoom. “I really love this juxtaposition of big sci-fi, but intimate emotion. There was something grounded in the characters, not just Andy but all of the characters, really, really loved the relationship between Andy and Nile. I felt like there was a real excitement for me and and getting a chance to work with KiKi, an actress who just absolutely blew me away with [‘If Beale Street Could Talk’]. So I just feel, I feel like there was so much potential to go and explore with some really great actors, and that was really the first thing, more than just the character of Andy.” By the way, “Andromache” in ancient Greek means “a battler of men.”
The role required Theron take the physicality she’s taken on magnificently proficiently in her recent action roles in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Atomic Blonde” and “Fast & The Furious 8” to an entirely new level. She took a particular interest in her voluminous action scenes, something that will ambush viewers immediately. “With the team, in the sense of just kind of like talking about the broad strokes of intent, what you want to get across, things to think about. I’m not a stunt or fight coordinator,” she told reporters. “And, so, I know my place. And I try to work with the best in the business and I’ve been so fortunate to have worked with some incredible talent when it comes to that field.”
“The Old Guard” serves as a high-profile gate-crashing by relative newcomer Layne, who is best known for her dramatic work in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” “I mean what was really wonderful is that there was a lot in the relationship between Andy and Nile that mirrored the relationship between myself and Charlize,” Layne said. “You know I’m coming into this very different genre and experience and thankfully you know my introduction to it. I got to work alongside Charlize who has been so instrumental in really opening up doors for women in this genre and showing just how much we can lead and kick ass in this genre as well so even. It was such a wealth of knowledge, even down to simple stuff like how do I take care of this bruise on my arm.”
Ejiofor is no stranger to playing complex characters like Copley (he did voice Scar in Disney’s “The Lion King” and was Mordo in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange”). “There’s a certain nuance to this character that is kind of unique to the modern times, I think we’re all, because there is so much access to information, that people can kind of operate with an understanding of what the real world impact is of what they’re doing. Right now these kinds of slightly morally compromised, ethically compromised characters who have a full understanding of the world as it is, you have maybe a lot of empathy to other positions to still operate within a kind of narrow framework,” he told Super exclusively. “Maybe for one nation-state, maybe one international company, or for one multinational organization, but still have this kind of overriding desire to do what they think they need to do for their own benefits whatever those are. So, I think that these kinds of stunning morally ambiguous, ethically compromised characters are all around us. See, we recognize them on all levels, not just in secret agencies. Also, in government, CEOs of transnational companies and so on. So, I think it’s a very interesting, interesting time to play characters.”
Melling knows about interesting characters. After all, he was the one and only Dudley Dursley from the “Harry Potter” films, but Melling, who has acting in his blood, is now playing a CEO who wants to change the world—and make billions while he’s doing it—without a second thought about hurting others to do it. “I researched all these entrepreneurs who had a lot of money and a lot of power at a very young age,” he said to Super exclusively as well. “I looked at Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk—not that I’m saying they’re doing it—but in that situation, you could be corrupted by all that.” Ejiofor adds that Copley and Merrick both have a Shakespearean quality to them: “Avarice and ambition are big things in Shakespeare. So, I think they have those very strong classic arcs.”
The stalwarts of the Old Guard have their own takes on the idea of immortality. Schoenaerts (the Belgian actor was memorable in “The Danish Girl” and “Red Sparrow”) said if immortal, he would travel the world, but, if he had to settle down, would do so in the tiny, beautiful islands of Greece. If Marinelli had to eat just one dish for the rest of his life, he outright refused. “I’m Italian, I can’t eat just one thing, it’s impossible.” Kenzari, who is best known for playing Jafar in Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” remake, said the fact the Old Guard are no longer unknown is what drives the film. “I guess you know they were found out was a good thing or a bad thing. But, uh, I guess it gives a capricious edge to that team, you know, and they’re not perfect, you know, they have selfishness, they have ego, they have a kindness, but they are somewhat capricious. You know they are, I like to look at them like you would, you know, like you would look at the Olympian gods or something, you know. They’re not completely perfect.”
The source material comes from a place of knowledge and damage. Rucka likes to predicate his work on real-world issues with a speculative edge; his work has been on the screen before, often with strong female leads such as Kate Beckinsale in the 2009 film “Whiteout” and Cobie Smulders in the ABC series “Stumptown.” The razor-sharp comic book writer (his dystopian military series “Lazarus” is also in development as a TV show) also wrote “The Old Guard” screenplay: “I was very insistent that Nicky and Joe’s relationship (they are lovers) and any of the relationships of the core four be kept. That mattered to me enormously. One of the advantages of the movie is, due to Gina’s input and to the performance of KiKi Layne, is that Nile is given her moment. The most important thing was preserving the heart of the story as much as about they were immortal and shooting and stabbing, it was as much about the heart and if some of the humor stayed.”
Rucka first worked with the Argentine artist Fernandez on the gritty “Queen & Country” comic book and their chemistry showed. In particular, one needs only to look at the movie’s icon, the striking two-headed axe Andy carries, a modern interpretation of an ancient weapon called the labrys, designed by Fernandez. “It’s amazing, when I heard they were making a movie, I never expected they would respect such a thing as that. When we started talking about the character using a labrys, my sketches of the character during the ancient time had her using an ancient kind of labrys. In the present time, I thought, what would a labrys look made with the current materials. I felt impressed they kept it because they could do whatever they wanted.”
When it started making original films, Netflix was challenged by the big budgets and detail-orientation of more traditional studios. No more. As their last big action film, “Extraction” starring Chris Hemsworth, viewers literally can no longer tell the difference. A thoughtful yet propulsive action film that dares to ask serious questions about the world we currently live in and the things that drive us, “The Old Guard” is Netflix’s best original film at this point.
It’s the kind of film that, sans immortality, should make us want to participate, to protest. This is what Theron thinks the Old Guard would be doing: “I want to believe that they would be out there protesting but they probably would not want to expose themselves. Listen, I think, I think this team really wants to be helpful and I don’t think they necessarily maneuver themselves from a place of always having the answers. And, so, they work really well as a team, there’s a consensus, there’s a concept behind everything that they do. And I think they would probably try to figure out the most effective way to break down a system that’s incredibly broken and leave it up to, you know, people to rebuild in a more proper, more efficient, fairer way.”
Netflix’s “The Old Guard” starts streaming on July 10.