Eternals assemble… with the galaxy’s biggest boyband hero?
Director Chloé Zhao and star Kumail Nanjiani discuss the MCU’s new direction. But not, pointedly, One Direction…
Zoom, eh? Going by the verdant backdrop shimmering behind them during our interview, two members of the sprawling cast and crew of Eternals are beaming in from ancient Mesopotamia, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Amazon basin in the time of Aztecs or the Australian outback in the time of Neighbours – just some of the millennia-spanning eras and places featured in the latest maximalist Marvel movie.
Or they’re in a London hotel suite.
One of those.
To the right on my screen: Chloé Zhao, Oscar-winning director of Nomadland and, now, of the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To the left: Kumail Nanjiani, formerly of “nerd” gigs like HBO comedy series Silicon Valley, now of bulked-up superhero repute as Kingo.
He’s one of the 10 superpowered eternal alien beings who have been – unbeknownst to us puny humans – guarding us, mostly incognito, since the dawn of time. But Kingo and immortal co-workers like Barry Keoghan’s Druig (can control minds), Angelina Jolie’s Thena (bougie fire swords), Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari (very, very fast) and Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos (can invent, like, anything) are only here to protect us from giant, rapacious intergalactic devil dogs known as Deviants.
That was their mission brief, Gemma Chan’s Sersi says to her human bae Dane, played by Kit Harrington. They’re talking shortly after contemporary Camden in North London has been saved from destruction by the laser eyes and flying flex of Richard Madden’s Ikaris, and by Sersi’s ability to turn a somersaulting Routemaster bus into red flower petals.
That Deviants-only speciality, by the way, explains why the Eternals couldn’t save us from things like the plague, Nazis, Covid, BTS and Elon Musk.
Zhao – who cast Pakistani-American comedian and actor Nanjiani as the Eternal who hides in plain sight as a Bollywood superstar – describes the actor as “a bad boy”. In turn, the 43-year-old admits that he initially thought the power the 39-year-old, Chinese-born filmmaker gave him – “spirit guns” that fire energy from Kingo’s hands – was “so goofy”. What neither will be drawn on is the already-well-documented appearance of a Certain British Male Pop Superstar in the first of two mid-credits sequences at the end of the (already very long) film.
But – no-spoiler alert – THE FACE recommends that you sit tight ’til the very, very end, even if the army of CGI and special-effects artist credits seem to go on for an eternal. You’re welcome.
Chloé, broad-and-vague question klaxon: what was your vision for the film?
There are many different aspects to it. But the one thing I will say is that I wanted to be able to tell a story that is as grand and big as possible – but through the most intimate moments between very messy, troubled people.
And Kumail, what was your vision for the film?
I just had a vision for the character. I understood that Chloé had the movie in her head. She walked me through the movie, the first time we met, in 40 minutes. And I was like: “Oh, wow, that’s a massive universe, [but] she has every detail in her head.” So from the beginning I completely trusted her.
Then working on the character of Kingo, I remember asking what he was like, and she said: “He’s you!” I was like: “Oh, OK… What does that mean?” So it was trusting her to guide me through it, to make sure this character fitted her vision of the story. I think sometimes actors don’t realise that they’re not the entirety of the movie. Actors are just one of the tools a filmmaker has in their toolbox.
And was your Bollywood dancing on-point before you started filming?
No, absolutely not. It was completely off-point! Is that the opposite of on-point? But I will take that question as a compliment. No, I just took a bunch of Bollywood dance classes. Then we shot it over two days and I was like: I just wanna have fun. Because I loved watching those dance sequences growing up and I just wanted to have that experience as I was doing it.
Chloé, how big a decision was it for you to enter the MCU after Nomadland?
What a lot of people don’t know is that I entered the MCU when Nomadland wasn’t shot yet. They gave me the job based on [2017 contemporary cowboy film] The Rider. Then once I wrapped filming Nomadland, I went straight to shooting Eternals. Then I went [back] to editing Nomadland. These two babies grew up together.
Kumail, do you see that connectivity?
Well, Nomadland has fewer visual effects. But are there Deviants hidden in the background of Nomadland?
That’s one for you, Chloé…
Maybe [there are]… It requires a second viewing, on Hulu.
To ask that question again, Chloé, with my facts correct this time: how big a decision was it to join the MCU so early in your career?
I’ve been a fan for a decade. I said to my managers: “Just put the word out in the ether, I want to make a Marvel movie.” And they came to me with Eternals to pitch [for]. I was like: “Yes, give it to me! Please hire me!”
What was the appeal to you, Kumail, of joining the world of superheroes?
Oh my God, how much time do you have! We were sitting on our couch last week at home, right after the premiere, and my wife Emily [V. Gordon, writer and producer] turned to me and said: “We went to see Iron Man, opening weekend, together, in a movie theatre – and now you’re a superhero in the MCU!”
So it was overwhelming for me, and I still haven’t completely processed it… [because] I love these movies so much. And in my career, I’ve gotten to play roles… sort of all in the same world: a nerd, someone who was scared, funny characters. But I didn’t get to play anything outside of a lovely little box – and the only time I got to go outside was a movie my wife and I wrote together [The Big Sick]. And then this.
What were the aspects of the responsibility you felt to play the first South Asian superhero?
I understood that it could be a lot of pressure because there has not been a South Asian superhero in a Marvel movie, or any mainstream Hollywood movie. But I can’t allow that pressure to sit on me, because that’ll flatten me. And no one person can take that pressure. There are over a billion South Asian people in the world, there’s no way I can represent a group that diverse. We’re not a monolith.
So I just wanted to trust Chloé, do the best job I could, and the rest of it is not something I can really think about. And I hope going forward we have more South Asian superheroes so that it doesn’t just feel like one person has to represent so many people. [The cartoon] Ms. Marvel is coming, so she’s gonna carry half the burden now!
Chloé, as has been much discussed, you have a brilliantly diverse cast. That encompasses a guy with a Scottish accent and a guy with a fairly thick Irish accent. What were Richard and Barry’s responses when you told them: yes, you’re millennia-old and in fact predate Scotland and Ireland, but you can use your own accents?
Well, it’s more realistic than if they sound American, isn’t it, haha! [Those countries] are a bit older! But the reality is, why are they even speaking English? So the closest thing I could do was to just follow the way I made my previous films: I like my cast to come as they are. And I love hearing accents in the films. That’s why I love the anthropological approach to filmmaking. Each of my cast comes in with their history as a human being. And I want to include as much of that in the characters as possible.
Did that resonate for you, Kumail?
Well, it’s not just important for people to see themselves reflected on screen – they also want to hear themselves on screen. So I thought it was a lovely decision, so people can watch this movie and go: “Oh, that guy sounds like me!”
One of the elements Kingo brings is laughs. Why, Chloé, was it so important for you that, amongst the epic special effects and the world-building, your film had a sense of humour?
That sense of humour is one of the reasons I fell in love with the MCU. I will say as a director – without [wishing to] discredit everything I’ve done in the past – it’s much, much easier to make someone cry. It’s much harder to make someone laugh.
And what Kumail does is genius, and very difficult to do. So I relied on him a lot to bring the humour. And a lot of the time, it’s pretty brutal on him. Out of nowhere I will say: “Angie, ask that question three times – and Kumail, give me four, five answers, funny ones. Go, action!” Just ’cause I feel like it, in the moment. And he’s like: “Now?”
Kumail, were you down with that?
Honestly, I loved it! It felt like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. It was exhilarating. But the reason I liked doing that was because Chloé created a situation where I felt safe to fail. She said it didn’t matter if those five different things were good or bad. That allowed me to have the courage to do it.
You also had the “courage” to get super-buff in the gym, much to the delight of the internet. How concerned was your wife, Emily, that you might be going too far?
She was more than anything bored by it! I talked about it so much – what I was doing at the gym, what I was eating – that she was honestly like: “Nothing about you has changed – except that the stuff you’re talking about now is boring.” And you know what? She has now started doing weight training and that’s all she talks about. I’m like: “See? This is what it’s like!”
Chloé, whose superpower was it most fun directing?
Oh, that’s a good question… All of them! But here’s the reality of it: I’ve always wanted to fly. That’s my dream. So I love Ikaris’s power. However: I gave you, Kumail, my baby, my favourite thing in the world.
YuYu Hakusho is my favourite manga, it changed my life, and the only power of the lead character Yusuke – an iconic manga character in Japan – is his spirit gun: he channels his spirit and it shoots out his fingers. So I was always thinking: when I make a film like this in the West, I’m gonna save Yusuke’s power, ‘cause it’ll be so cool when they see it.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to give it to this film – but then I had to separate Kingo’s power from Thena’s. Because initially it was written that he also had some kind of energy fire-swords. So I was like: fine, Kingo can have it. Then when I pitched it to Kumail, he said: “Finger guns?” I said: “NO! Spirit guns!”
Speaking of figures with world-bedazzling power at their fingertips, Chloé: what can you tell us about the casting – and shooting – of [NAME REDACTED] as Eros, the figure whose superpower is “pleasure-stimulating” and who rocks up mid-credits?
I can’t hear you… You froze… When is this coming out? Is a spoiler OK? Can I talk about Eros without saying the name of who plays him?
Just so you know, it’s not on us! When you ask that, we hear 15 “no’s” echoing back [from PR people hovering out of earshot].
Fair enough, I respect that. Finally: in Kingo’s best action sequence, when he explodes a Deviant, he goes: “Dishoom!” I’m guessing that’s not a reference to the high-end UK Indian restaurant chain, Kumail?
No, it’s like “bang”, “boom”, “biff”, “pow”. “Dishoom” was a thing that kids said to each other when we were fake-fighting in the playground. And Chloé said to me: “Is there some sort of catchphrase?” We had a bunch of ideas, but we thought it had to be dishoom. It just sounds very expressive. And it’s a sound I’ve been saying all my life. It’s cool – my character gets to do all the playground stuff, like finger guns and saying “dishoom!”
But obviously, Chloé, there’s the other reference…
I went to Scotland for the very first time, during the Christmas break while shooting Eternals, because I had to do the Harry Potter tour in Edinburgh. And I was walking down the street and I saw the restaurant Dishoom. And I had to take a picture and send it to Kumail.
They must love the free advertising. Have you been, Kumail, and have you tried their black daal?
We had it last night. We should have asked for a discount.
When you do Eternals 2, Chloé, they’ll give you naan bread for free for life.
That sounds like a really good incentive to make the film.
Eternals is released on 5th November. Remember: yeah, we know it’s long, but sit tight through the end credits. Is there a fine line between stunt casting and inspired casting? Answers on a postcard…