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Elizabeth Marvel is as tickled by the lame joke as everyone seems to be while making it.
The stage and screen actor, best known for roles on Homeland and House of Cards, stars in Hulu’s Helstrom, the latest TV series tie-in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), based on characters from Marvel Comics. She’s Elizabeth Marvel, about to star in Marvel’s Helstrom. Marvel and Marvel. Get it? (That’s it. That’s the joke.)
When we connect with Marvel via Zoom ahead of the series’ premiere this Friday, the actress laughs about the connection. “How they’re getting free advertising just by listing my fucking name?”
At her first meeting with producers about the role, she jokingly said, “Do I have to do anything? Don’t I just get the part due to my name?” Over the years, especially as the MCU has exploded on screen, people have asked if it was a stage name, or even some way of angling toward being hired in a Marvel film—as ludicrous as if someone changed their name to Disney or Star Wars as a casting strategy.
Helstrom is actually the first time Marvel’s been brought in for a Marvel role.
That’s surprising considering Marvel’s ascendance as one of Hollywood’s busiest and most visible character actors; with more than 50 TV and movie credits, she’s recently had roles on the TV series Unbelievable and Manifest, and stars opposite Tom Hanks in the scheduled Christmas release News of the World. Nonetheless, she considered herself well-versed in all things MCU, as the 14-year-old son she has with husband and similarly prolific actor Bill Camp is a “devout acolyte” of the movies and comics.
It’s because of this armchair education that she knew what a departure Helstrom is for those conditioned to expect a certain aesthetic from the Marvel name. (In this case, that could apply both to the actor and the cinematic universe.)
“It’s a whole different wing of the mansion,” Marvel says of the series, which feels closer in tone to The X-Files or The Exorcist than it does to The Avengers or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
Daimon and Ana Helstrom (Tom Austen and Sydney Lemmon) are children of a powerful serial killer, a traumatic upbringing that inspired them to hunt people who hurt others and save those close to them from evil spirits. Supernaturally complicating things is their mother, Victoria (played by Marvel), who has been possessed by a demon as punishment for sounding the alarm on her husband and has spent the last two decades institutionalized because of it.
There’s something about Marvel that telegraphs steeliness and buttoned-up power, hence her years playing President Elizabeth Keane on Homeland or Solicitor General Heather Dunbar on House of Cards. With a mane of tangled hair and an animalistic, almost carnal way of moving—not to mention that whole possessed-by-a-demon-thing—Victoria Helstrom is best described as feral, a far cry from the presidential projection some might be used to from Marvel’s biggest roles.
“I’m really just a silly hippie,” she says, “so it’s hilarious that I play all these people with so much gravitas.”
Helstrom being a MCU series with roots in the comic-book characters, Marvel assumed that she would arrive on set with a wardrobe hanging in the trailer, a wig already set, and strict instructions on how her character would speak. Isn’t that what big-budget operations like this do, insist on control?
Instead, she arrived in Vancouver, where the series was shot, with few parameters. A Juilliard-trained actress with 30 years of stage productions under her belt, both on Broadway and varying exponents of “off,” it’s the kind of process she loves.
She starts by mentioning all the calling cards in her research: Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession starring Isabelle Adjani, Anthony Hopkins’ performance in Silence of the Lambs, Japanese filmmaker Hong-jin Na’s 2016 film The Wailing.
In fact, there’s something endearing about the gusto with which she lists artists, techniques, and craft throughout our conversation, somehow skirting actorly pretentiousness and remaining goofy and breezy the whole time: Kurosawa, Arthur Miller, movement, acting in the frame, Eugene O’Neill, dialects, the difference between European and American theater, poet Hart Crane, the genius of Unbelievable co-star Kaitlyn Dever.
But this might be the first time that Donald Trump comes up in an actor’s list of inspirations. In fact, he comes up twice.
At the time she was trying to figure out how to physicalize and vocalize an actual demon, she was living in a hotel in Vancouver waiting for Helstrom filming to start. Away from her family and unable to stop watching “the nightmare of what’s happening to this country” unfold on the news, she would get so upset and angry that she would grab the sofa pillows and start screaming into them.
“I trashed my voice, and it got to this very gnarly place,” she says. “And then I just kept going. So that became the demon’s voice. And that is something that I can thank Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell for.”
Does she remember exactly what the news was that woke the demon inside her?
“I mean, goddamnit, like, really take your pick. It’s just a spewing geyser of shit. What the original moment was, I don’t know. I could probably dig back but at this moment I’m trying very hard not to feel hopeless, so I’m kind of washing it all away.”
Helstrom is also unique in the MCU in that the majority of its special effects and stunts are practical. Marvel can only remember shooting in front of a green screen once, and she’s not even sure that take was used. “When the room turns to fire, we shot in a room of fire.”
And when Marvel’s character is crawling up her cell walls like a spider monkey, sprinting around them in a circle like a demon’s gravity-defying 100-yard dash, that was really Marvel attached to a “gyrotonical I don’t know what” and running on walls. The primal body shape she holds while executing these stunts makes everything that much more terrifying.
“One of the great joys of being the demon is it’s a lot like being the king,” she says. “You don’t play the king, others make you the king. The less you do and the more they do, the more powerful you are.” To be that powerful of a demon, “you have to be able to summon that ocean, and then still it. Something I played with a lot was very low, feral movements, then stilling to a very sort of clear, almost regal stillness.”
It turns out that regality becomes her, be it as a demon or as the first female president of the United States.
When Marvel showed up for her Homeland audition, there were two male actors there, “famous people,” she says, who were also up for the role. It wasn’t written specifically for a man or a woman. “So it wasn’t a Hillary Clinton thing, just a president thing.”
Still, it’s meant a lot to her to be among the few female actors to hold the highest office, especially with how things have spiraled in the White House since she was first cast on the show.
There was a particularly surreal moment the first time she was back on the Homeland set just days after the 2016 election. Her character was doing a TV news interview, with journalist Martha Raddatz co-starring in the scene as herself. “We landed in this TV world that was better than the world we were living in.” She lets out a cackle. “And it was Homeland!”
Gender-blind casting stories like that make for good magazine anecdotes, but the truth is that more of it has become somewhat of a mission of Marvel’s.
That’s not even to say she wants to play more roles that were written for men, or could be gender-neutral on paper. She’s played the juicy female leads in Hedda Gabler, Thérèse Raquin, A Streetcar Named Desire, As You Like It, and The Seagull. But her successful turn in the traditional male role of Marc Anthony in the Public Theater’s 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar (the one with the Trump-like Caesar and the protests) invigorated a new drive.
“I want to do Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. I want to do Willy Loman. I want to do these roles,” she says. “Why not? It's not about a woman playing. It's just me playing.”
It’s a trajectory that, somehow, fits.
Marvel tells a story about growing up in Pennsylvania, certain that she had been dropped off by aliens, waiting for them to come back and rescue her from her existence on the wrong planet. It’s only when she saw David Bowie perform on Saturday Night Live in 1979 when she was about 10 years old that she felt like she could relax her shoulders and breathe, that maybe there was a place for someone who felt as different as she did on Earth after all.
She still sometimes feels like that alien from all those years ago. “Now I’m really hoping that the aliens come pick me up,” she laughs. “I really need to get back to my own planet!”
One of the more elaborate parts of her alien theory was that they had installed a camera in her brain. While posing as a human on this planet, one of her jobs was to take photographs of what life on Darth is like to then take back to them. If she double-blinked, a picture would be registered in the camera in her brain.
“I still find myself doing that,” she says. “Like if I’m in front of an important building or something, I will find myself double-blinking.”
Just in case? “You never know. Things are so freaking weird these days, I may be right. Maybe the aliens will show up.” She sighs. “Here’s hoping.”