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The secrecy that shrouds Marvel releases is so well established that in the moments before a Zoom call even Angelina Jolie seems unnerved at the prospect of discussing Eternals. The threat of disclosing too much and exasperating studio execs is enough to drive fear into the heart of even the most polished Hollywood veteran. As she reviews her notes before a long and chatty call with her costars, she wonders, Is there anything I can say?
The burden of maintaining the mystery, as tremendous as it may have been over the year that the film’s release was delayed, was well worth it for Jolie and castmates Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, and Lauren Ridloff. While being in a Marvel project is a coveted gig for almost any actor, Eternals brings a whole new level of prestige. The film introduces the Eternals, a band of heroes who have protected Earth for thousands of years and reunite to fight off the Deviants, monstrous figures who have resurfaced after a long absence. Eternals boasts lush shooting sites, including cliffs at the edge of the Canary Islands, and more substantial diversity. But it’s the leadership of director Chloé Zhao, the Oscar-winning director of Nomadland, that gives a new shimmer of possibility to the entire genre. Her independent film pedigree, her artistic approach to cinematography, and her track record for capturing ordinary people with beautiful depth and understanding just might make Eternals the film that gets atheists into the church of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Each of the actresses arrived at Eternals from a very different place. Jolie and Hayek, despite their lengthy and varied careers, are both playing superheroes for the first time. Hayek is Ajak, a healer who leads the Eternals and connects them to their creators, the Celestials, while Jolie plays Thena, a legendary fighter with an array of weapons at her disposal. Chan is making her return to the MCU fold after 2019’s Captain Marvel. As Sersi, she plays an empathetic Eternal posing on Earth as a museum curator. Ridloff, who stars in The Walking Dead and was nominated for a Tony for her performance in the 2018 production of Children of a Lesser God, is a relative newcomer to Hollywood, and is making her debut on the global stage as Makkari, a master of speed.
The film, most of which was shot on location—contrary to the tradition of studio-shot superhero flicks—has a more epic physical scale and covers a much wider span of time, giving it the feel of one of the grandest films we’ve ever seen from Marvel. It introduces a slate of Marvel characters yet to be seen on film, including Phastos (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), Kingo (Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani),and Ikaris (Bodyguard’s Richard Madden).(“There are so many of us that wrangling us is going to be like [rounding up the kids in] my house,” Jolie joked about future press conferences.) Zhao also made updates for 2021: Ridloff and Hayek’s characters were both men in the comics, and the film features Marvel’s first LGBTQ hero. In another first for Marvel films, Makkari, like Ridloff, is deaf. “I have to say, it was something that I didn’t even think about. I just knew it was the right thing for me to do, for somebody like myself, a woman, a person of color who is deaf,” Ridloff says of getting the offer. “And the fact that I would be appearing as a superhero, obviously, I felt like this was my duty and I was called to action.”
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This movie has been hugely anticipated. What do you think it will offer to people emerging from a very difficult period?
Lauren Ridloff: I feel like we are experiencing so many climate dooms right now. The timing of this movie really responds to that. I feel that Chloé just had that intuition. She knows the importance of showing our love for the planet.
Gemma Chan: I definitely feel that theme of connection. Connection to each other, connection to the planet.
Salma Hayek: It’s magical. There’s some-thing extremely special about it. I felt there was something different about this world—about the people that were cast in this movie, about the tone, the sensation of the images.
Angelina Jolie: I remember Chloé was describing it as a love letter to humanity. When we were all together on set, we felt something.
With such a big cast, what were the connections like on set?
LR: I feel like people think that we’ve just come out of an AA meeting because we’re all so different and have nothing in common. You really care about those moments of connection that you have with the other actors, as colleagues. In the makeup trailer, I was sitting next to Gemma and having a conversation, waiting for the next take. Just having a chat with Angie. Salma was so loving, the way that she was welcoming us into her home even during the holidays. All of those moments are so precious and nice and warm and felt supportive.
Chloé really took care of bringing us into the story line with the sense of femininity. It’s that underlying tone. I don’t know if it was intentional on Chloé’s part, but it is definitely there in this story.
SH: I felt that we had the freedom to be strong on the set. I don’t always feel that.
How did that happen? Was that because of Chloé?
AJ: Yes, but I’d also give credit to the male actors and the crew who were so supportive. They were encouraging of our strength and partners to us. And we were able to just be ourselves. Normally you come with all you are as a woman and then the environment you walk into kind of shuts you down. And we just didn’t get shut down on this one.
SH: There was one scene where I was saying something and I looked at Gemma. For one moment, there was a connection that gave me the permission to see so much more in her. I really felt for that moment, there was a window to her soul. This kind of thing happened a lot with Lauren, because of course you have to talk with the eyes. Something about that made me feel so close to her. Angie was different. I discovered a soul sister who is similar to me in so many ways. I felt like I’d known her for my entire life. I got to know her a little better than everyone else, and it’s very precious to me.
How did the four of you come together?
AJ: A lot of times as an actress, you’re that individual strong woman, or you have one sister; you don’t often have this family where you really get to know women and see all the different strengths. Gemma’s grace and elegance and the way she walks through the world. Salma’s motherhood and power, and Lauren’s connection and intelligence. Everybody came as themselves. Maybe there’s something to that, that the characters weren’t as far off [from ourselves]. I think there’s a secret that we don’t know that our director knows, because if you look at her films, she casts a lot of real people as their roles and it shapes her films.
SH: Even the suits kind of bonded us. I’m like, “Let me see your suit. What is it?” And the creation of it: “How is yours going?” It was a big deal already, we like fashion and stuff, but it was becoming an alien, something else. This suit represented that. We were all very excited about it, our suits, and very nervous.
LR: Do you remember the very first time that all of us actually had all of our super suits on and we saw each other for the first time? We spent a good amount of time just checking each other out: “You have this” and “Look at mine.”
SH: No, it was emotional. Like, “Damn, Angie, how did you come up with that?” “Oh my God, Gemma! I don’t have those legs, it wouldn’t look like that on me.” It was this thing of relation and wanting to have that other part of the suit.
GC: Salma, you had that amazing headpiece!
AJ: You’d come out and everybody was so supportive of each other. You’d think that you’d walk out and say, “Oh, well, yes, I’m in my suit, it looks crazy.” But everybody had a different feeling of, Look at our new family, look at all of us together.
What did the prospect of working with Chloé Zhao mean to you?
SH: One day I got the call and I’m like,“What?” And I thought, Okay, I’m going to play the grandmother. I never thought I was going to be one of the Eternals. It doesn’t happen. It’s never happened to me like that before without a fight and like, “I can do this, please hire me!” When she told me I was one of them, I was like,“Me, Mexican, Middle Eastern? Me, in my fifties? I’m going to be a superhero in a Marvel movie?”
Sometimes as a woman, as a woman of color and with the age, you feel so overlooked. It was one of those moments where you think, Okay, I held on in this industry, survived for this long. I just felt acknowledged by somebody I admire and didn’t know she was watching me. I kept feeling like, Shit, this one is cool. She’s got balls, she’s interesting.
LR: The first time I had a one-on-one meeting with Chloé, she invited me into her office and said, “Come on, let’s just sit down on the floor.” She didn’t hav eany shoes on. I loved that about her. She has that unicorn mug that she always walks around with, and she’s always with her peanut butter sandwiches. Those little things about Chloé informed me how much she cares about individuality—screw the universality of it all, you don’t have to be stereotypical. You can be yourself.
SH: I had some problems with the script and we got into a serious fight at my house. We were both passionate. And she was like, “No, but that’s not how I designed it.” The people outside my house were calling it a fight, because we were kind of screaming. We continued to talk and talk, and it went on for a long time. The people outside were so nervous that I was going to get fired. I came out and I said, “Wow, I’m in love with her brain!” That was the best creative conversation I’ve ever had with a director in my life, and she felt the same. She told me, “Wow! That was amazing.” It was just complete freedom. We found our middle ground. While finding it, we came up with other ideas. It was super exciting.
AJ: It’s true what she’s saying. There was no ego. There was no time for it, no room for it with everyone. That’s part of who Chloé is. I was very drawn to the idea of her taking on Marvel because it didn’t seem obvious. Then you meet her and you understand her personal connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and her love for these types of films—how she grew up, what they mean to her, then it makes a lot of sense. I knew whatever it was going to be, she was going to bring something unique.
SH: What happened there is that I realized, she’s super strong. She knows what she wants. She had a clear vision of the field. She’s open to hearing, but you have to really make a smart point.
Was it difficult maintaining the secrecy, and having to keep things from your family and your friends and reporters?
AJ: I think, in part, there were things we still didn’t understand, so that helped.
SH: It freaked me out and I hated it and I was angry about it. They didn’t want me to keep the script. I’d make my notes and they’d take it away. They give you another one, but they take the [old] one. I like to keep my stuff. You say, “Oh my God, what if I go to jail?” I couldn’t write my notes there. That’s my whole process. They would take away the script, and I was offended.
LR: They had a man in a trench coat—I’m not making this up, I’m not kidding—a man in a trench coat who’d come over to my house at 11 at night with new script pages, in a manila envelope. You had to trade them off with the old script pages. Then he’d just walk off into the night. It was very undercover, covert.
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SH: There were [plot details] that even if you tried to tell, nobody would understand. One time when we walked into one part of the ship, I was blown away by the set design, the world, how they did it. I came home and tried to describe it to my husband. I said, “It was like everything in the ocean—like inside the ocean, the plants.” He’s like, “What? This spaceship comes from underneath the ocean?” I go,“No, the decoration.” “You mean there are fish?” But there are no fish. See, I can’t even explain it to you. He kept asking me for days and I kept telling him the best that I could, but it’s impossible.
AJ: It’s hard. I thought my kids were going to press me, but they haven’t. I think my kids were still getting over the shock of me walking out in that outfit.
There have been some arguments that Marvel films aren’t real cinema. What do you think they bring to society?
LR: The MCU has such a huge impact on our culture. It instills a sense of hope in us. The value of humanity is one consistent theme we see in all the films. That’s something that we need to be reminded of, from time to time. For this film, what really makes it unique is that we go through several millennia and it makes us rethink our history—where we come from, who we are. The MCU offers that safe space to explore, to question, to dream.
SH: I mean, how many movies really bring a contribution to humanity? To what degree? [People] go and watch them and like them. It’s doing something for them, otherwise they wouldn’t go. What is interesting for me is there are so many of them and people cannot get enough. That says something. The way they reinvent each of them, how do they make it so that people are still interested? I had a different image at the beginning. I really loved working with them. They’re brilliant in the way they keep it going. The choice of Chloé, even the choice of making this movie. I think this is a different sensation. Even though it’s a superhero movie, there’s a lot of humanity in it.
GC: There’s a place for different kinds of films and different kinds of storytelling. For me, one of the most powerful things about Marvel films is that they are seen globally—the reach of them. That’s an incredibly powerful thing. I love the fact that Marvel has been bringing in directors from the independent film world who have a unique point of view on the world. You think about the diversity of this cast and what message that’s going to send to all corners of the globe. I love independent film, but the reality is that maybe a smaller indie film is not going to have that reach. There is something about the potential and the impact that these films can have, which is amazing.
SH: I also want to say something about diversity, because of course we all come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We’re all very unique people. I cannot say that what I’m bringing to it is only based on my ethnicity. What Angie’s bringing to it, it’s not her ethnicity. I cannot say Gemma, everything that she is has to do with her ethnic background....
AJ: Yes, I agree. That just felt right and balanced. It was about how unique each person was—their soul and their unique force. And what we brought to the table to solve problems together, to work together, was then all the other aspects of who we were.
SH: There was no cliché....
LR: With this film though, Salma, I think it’s an opportunity for us to show representation on the screen. It’s clear, it’s not hidden. Obviously our differences are apparent: our race, our culture, our values, our abilities. But I think our representation, it doesn’t carry the story. It’s not the point of the story, but it’s still refreshing. It’s new.
Jolie: Hair by Renato Campora for Fekkai; Makeup by Matin for Tracey Mattingly; Manicure by Emi Kudo for OPI. Chan: Hair by Neil Moodie at Bryant Artists; Makeup by Alex Babsky for Premier Hair and Make-up; Manicure by Michelle Class at LMC Worldwide; Photographed on location at the Ritz London. Ridloff: Hair by Vernon François for Redken; Makeup by Autumn Moultrie at the Wall Group; Manicure by Emi Kudo for OPI. Hayek: Hair by Peter Savic for Navy Hair Care; Makeup by Genevieve Herr for Lancôme; Manicure by Ashlie Johnson at the Wall Group. Chan produced by Bob Ford; All others produced by Jonathan Bossle at Tightrope Production.
This article appears in the November 2021 issue of ELLE.
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