Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac interview: Sucker Punch, censorship and working with Ridley Scott

With Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch out now in cinemas, we interviewed actors Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac...

Zack Snyder’s latest extravaganza has caused quite the ruckus. Women, very little clothing, lobotomies, threats of sexual assault, and guns. Lots of guns. Sucker Punch has all that, wrapped up in a 12A rating.

It also has, in Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac, two actors who couldn’t be more different than their onscreen incarnations. If Gugino’s Madam Gorski is a fiercely strict dance teacher (think Vincent Cassell in Black Swan, just without the inappropriate touching), she’s the opposite in person – warm, friendly, and chatty to the point where twenty-five minutes in her company seems barely enough time at all.

Likewise Isaac, who’s so relaxed and laid back on a plush hotel sofa that he’s almost horizontal. His big, bad villain, Blue, is nowhere to be seen.

We caught up with them last week, in an afternoon slot that can always go either way. Would they be exhausted from a morning’s worth of interviews? Or would this, their latest sit down of the day, find them in more verbose mood? Luckily, it was the latter.

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Here’s what they had to say about what to expect from Sucker Punch: The Director’s Cut, working with Ridley Scott, and why you should stay for the end credits…

Are we almost at the end of your day now?

Carla Gugino: It’s the end of the day before the premiere, yeah. We were just literally having that – it’s boring to talk about, so I will say it briefly – but that moment of, ‘We were doing so well’ and then jet lag just hit. So, you will get us in a slightly delirious, but I’m sure completely vulnerable, state.

Do you want anything stronger than water, then? We can order in.

CG: We did just order espressos, actually!

That should help. Sucker Punch, it’s a film filled with some enormous action scenes, but you’re not in any of them. Was there any envy on your part at that?

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CG: [Looking at Oscar] You were a little jealous.

Oscar Isaac: I was a little bit jealous. But then as soon as we started dance rehearsals – because we have that song and dance…

During the end credits?

OI: Yeah. I was fine just with my dancing partner, day in and day out.

CG: It’s true, we really did actually – when you see that sequence it is a kind of significant. It was a larger sequence in the movie and it will probably be in Zack’s director’s cut. And so we really did do quite a bit of rehearsal for it.

It was a five minute long number and we recorded the music, and so that sort of took up – I think it would have been more envy-producing if we were sitting round being bored. But we just had a lot to do.

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OI: Yeah, we had a lot of stuff to work on.

Are there quite a few scenes that you’ve done that aren’t in the finished film, then?

CG: Yeah, there’s a few. It’s significant.

OI: Even within a scene there’s little bits that have been cut out. A lot of it has to do with the ratings, to try to get the rating right.

CG: Yeah, what’s nice is that I think the film works really well as it is, but that in the director’s cut – you know how sometimes they just add in filler and then you feel like, “Was that really that different?”

OI: Like, “Oh, yeah, thank God they cut that!”

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CG: There really are some significant scenes that are really interesting that will be in the director’s cut.

Did the script change much from when you first read it, then?

OI: Yeah, the script was written as an R-rated script, you know? So, for example, my character was doing coke [laughs] and yeah, it was a lot more intense. There was nudity. I think at the end the whole scene is about me not being able to get an erection and that’s how she beats me. [laughs]

So, it was quite a bit different and then you just kind of take a leap of faith. And then once I got there I realised, “All right. We’re doing something slightly different than that.” [laughs] “The end’s not going to be about your flaccid penis. It’s going to be about something else.”

CG: Which I feel okay about, actually.

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OI: Maybe that’s okay. [laughs]

CG: I feel you could have done something with it that would have transcended any other flaccid penis film.

We can put a call out here for that: if anyone is making a flaccid penis film…

CG: [laughs] Exactly, that there is someone who’s willing… OI: I think there are quite a few that have been made already. [laughs]

So, it immediately starts to change and some of the structure has changed. I think the whole beginning of the film is quite different than what the original thing was. But that actually happens a lot in films.

CG: I also think with Zack, and even with Watchmen, which I worked with him on, which was a very significant piece of source material, his scripts are like blueprints in kind of a great way. Because I think that, if the director kind of saw that as the finished product, it might be problematic. But in this particular case, Zack has so many things that he wants to do with it, visually, character-wise, and he was incredibly receptive to us bringing a lot to it.

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So, basically, that is a sort of thing to show official people, and then you go and make your movie in a way, you know?

Is that what gets you to you sign on with someone like Zack? The script is one part, but it’s his vision as a director?

CG: Absolutely. And I do think that – it’s an old saying, but a movie is made three times. It’s made in the script form, in the filming, and in the editing room. And in this particular case, Zack is so dynamic as a filmmaker on set and he is so imaginative as a filmmaker in the editing room and in post that – yeah, there were so many exciting things about the script, but you would never expect that to be the end result in a Zack Snyder movie.

Whereas maybe Woody Allen, because we know his style is more of a particular ilk, maybe you might read the script and go, “Oh, this is probably close to what it would be.”

On a very superficial level, your characters have some obvious traits. With Madam Gorski, it’s the Russian accent. With Blue, it’s the kind of cheap, flashy suits.

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OI: There’s nothing cheap about those suits! Come on, those suits? Cheap? They’re incredible suits! I tried to steal like two of them!

Okay, I’ll rewind! Flashy, flashy suits. But they are very bright and show him trying to be someone he’s not, in a way.

OI: That’s exactly right. Yeah, yeah.

How much do you both feed into that? Do you read the script and say, “I think he should have this type of suit,” or, “She should have this accent?”

OI: For me, for instance, that hadn’t really – I think, obviously, there was an idea for him to have a suit on. It did mention some kind of white tuxedo that he has. But when I came in to talk to Michael Wilkinson, who is the incredible costume designer, I said, “I have this idea that it seems like he is someone who’s a little bit OCD as an orderly in an asylum, like he collects things and is very meticulous about how things are and how things look and files and all that.” 

And I was, like, “Maybe there’s something that is reflected in that in his appearance in the brothel.” And I thought of, like, De Niro in Casino. He’s this guy who is so disciplined as far as his look, and everything is perfectly matching and just so, just right. And I thought that might be an interesting character trait. So, it’s not just about the guy in the cheap zoot suit, there’s actually – there’s a little bit more detail than just that, so that was a really cool thing.

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And even down to the moustache. That was less about being evil with a moustache, but more about like, “Oh, maybe he thinks of himself like a matinee idol like Clark Gable or Cary Grant, kind of thing.” So he has this little moustache. And it’s exactly right, it’s a projection of who he wishes he was. Someone who is charming and authoritative.

CG: Yeah, and in terms of the accent, it’s actually Polish, but it was – I do think there are, no doubt, recognisable sorts of totems in this movie, of archetypes and characters you have seen before. And hopefully we are reinventing them to some extent.

And in this particular case she was originally written – she was Mrs. Schultz and she was German. And then when Zack asked me to do it he said, “You know, maybe we don’t need her to be German. Maybe she could just be American.”

And then it did feel that German was maybe a little too on the nose for that sort of character. And then something about Eastern European did feel right and I think Polish is kind of more sensual, yet still mysterious. And then I was also intrigued. I thought, “How did this woman get over here? How did she get to the Northeast of the United States? Did she have a mentor? And oh, okay, well if she had a mentor then maybe that mentor…“

So, because of the psychology of it, her interest in psychiatry and also even the dance instructor, Eastern European did feel actually quite right for it. And Zack sort of took that and ran with it, and so in those instances it was actually very much a collaboration.

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You mentioned reinventing archetypes and a lot of people have commented on how the movie can be read as a comment on how young women are often portrayed within cinema. Do you play on that? Do you think about the layers when you’re playing the character?

CG: I think about it. I thought about it just thematically as I was first looking at the script and talking with Zack initially and even when we were just discussing character things. But once you are actually playing the person then it has to be about…

OI: Committing to the circumstances.

CG: Exactly.

A lot of reviews of the film have been about how it perhaps relies on that, on young boys to watch the film and look at women in that way. What’s your take on it? Carla, you obviously worked with Zack on Watchmen.

CG: I think that Zack is a director who has a kind of provocative nature. It’s just sort of in his bones. And I think he is more of an independent-minded filmmaker, who kind of feels strongly about the story he has to tell. And yet, that is done in a studio system and on a larger budget scale.

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So I think if this were a small movie, people would have a different perspective, I think, on what he is saying. But I think that people expect it to be… I think this is a difficult movie to put into a box, and that is what all of these kind of questions and debates are about.

And I think Zack would be very happy to have people debating, “Is this sexist or is this feminist?” I think any movie that makes you kind of slightly wonder about those two things… I also do think that, for him, he had done 300, where all of these men are very scantily clad and I think he treats this in a very similar way. But because it’s women, it brings up a lot of those kinds of questions.

So, I have mixed feelings about it in that kind of regard. I don’t have mixed feelings about the movie. I have mixed feelings about the perspective on that, because I think there are certainly worthwhile questions to have and conversations to have and I guess I like a movie that engenders these kinds of conversations. That’s a much more interesting movie to me. And I think it is very subjective as to… aside from if you were to speak to Zack, because it is his, he knows.

But I know that he was interested in having kind of immersed himself in these different genres and growing up on graphic novels and kind of pulling from and doing a lot of music videos, in going, “Hey, I’m going to show you guys what we’ve created with these genres in a way that I find interesting. What do you think?” So, I think he is actually asking for all of this.

OI: And there are a lot of self references in the film to that. You know, Sweet Pea’s character, to Madam Gorski, she stops and she says, “Whoa, whoa, what is this? This is stupid. This is not what people want to see. They want to be titillated. They want to do this.” And that’s her saying this in the movie, and later on she says the same thing about Emily’s dance. She says, “All that gyrating and moaning. I want to talk about something that’s more expressive about who I am.”

And so, it is all done with a kind of subversive, intentional kind of eye. I think a lot of it is on purpose. It is to kind of provoke some of those things. And again, the superhero aesthetic is all about the human form and showing the body, whether they be female or male. And comic books were dominated by four boys, four men, but within that all the females, whether it was Wonder Woman or whoever, had huge tits, you know? [laughs]

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And I grew up drawing comic books, and they had huge tits. But that was less about “Yeah, huge tits!’ It was more about that’s just the comic book aesthetic. And the dudes have huge pecs and cod pieces. And granted, there is a more sexual element in this film, because they’re at a brothel. Most of it takes place within a brothel.

So, all of those things run through it, but I don’t think it’s not – it’s deliberate, but there isn’t kind of a deliberate message. And I wouldn’t say it’s done in an unthought of way. Like, it’s by accident we made a sexist movie. You know what I’m saying? Which I think some people would dismiss it as such. And I think that’s not an intelligent dismissal.

And Zack Snyder is obviously famous for his visual style. But how is he to work with, for you as actors? That doesn’t get talked about so much.

CG: You know, it’s funny, because it’s happened several times where I’ve worked with filmmakers who have their visual style precede them, Brian De Palma being one of them, and it’s come up a few times. And I have to say, though De Palma and Zack are very different filmmakers. I find that the two… I think that if you have a love for film and you are a technician on some level, that’s where you paint, that’s your palette, then you are probably going to be visually very good. And I think we have come to a time where there are certain directors who maybe didn’t have that much interest or knowledge in acting and just know how to shoot the movie. Certainly Zack is not one of those.

He really has a love for actors, and a love for the fact that – it’s sort of like, for him, it feels like a hokey analogy, but his sets are very homely. Debbie Snyder, who produces his films as well, they create this amazing family environment. Every department has worked with them on many movies, and are really at the top of their game and want to work their hardest. It’s like a tapestry. It honestly is. He knows what he does really well, and he hires other people who he thinks know what they do really well.

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So, there’s this great thing that, yes, he is the master that we are serving, and I always feel like you need a master. You have to have someone who is really at the helm. But he allows us so much room for creating and for bringing stuff to the table. And so, in that way, I would say that certainly his relations with actors is not hindered by his expertise in terms of visuals. It’s a really nice balance.

You’ve both worked with another visual director, Ridley Scott, who I think unfairly gets labeled as “just a visualist”.

CG: Yeah, that’s what I mean. It seems that that is the case with people who are visually very dynamic as directors. And I think sometimes that happens. But these guys they are just… They make amazing movies and I think to make amazing movies, generally you have a regard for all the pieces of them. I think maybe you might look at some other directors and go, “Oh.”

OI: I think everyone is entitled to their opinion. [laughs]

You’ve both worked with Ridley Scott on different movies [Carla on American Gangster, Oscar on Body Of Lies and Robin Hood]. When you had downtime on the Sucker Punch set, did you compare war stories from your Ridley Scott experiences?

CG: Yeah, but we both love Ridley. It’s more of a mutual admiration society.

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OI: He’s a general. He’s incredible. He works in a very different way, because right after Robin Hood I came into Sucker Punch. Both of these very big movies, but shot in very different ways.

Ridley shoots with eleven cameras and a wall of monitors. And he is a painter as well as a visual artist, so his canvas is this wall of monitors and his palette is his walkie talkie. And he’s just like, “A hundred horses here.” And behind the scenes, people are running around doing everything he says.

And then coming to this film, Zack, single camera. It was a much more slower paced process. It felt a bit more intimate.

CG: And it is interesting, too, because not a huge amount of direction is given by either unless something isn’t quite working.

OI: Yeah, yeah. They’re both very collaborative.

CG: I think it’s a lot about casting. It is sort of getting the people that they know are going to deliver. But definitely Zack is much more like… we were saying that, when they say cut for the camera, he says “Cut her down!”, like everything is football. And then Ridley would be much more… I just remember very clearly in the courtroom scene with Russell and there was a point at which we were acting for a long time with no direction and then he just came up and went, [long pause] “Just, maybe, try a little bit less.”

And then he left and I was like, “Okay.” And then when I did I was like, “That was so much better!” [both laugh] You know what I mean?

But it was such a simple, sort of like he had been pondering. He wasn’t sure, but, “Yeah, maybe just this.” [laughs]

OI: It’s true. For me I was up on this hill with all these horses and we were riding up to see the French invading and I just started kind of improvising like a funny line here. I did it, “Cut. Do it again.” I did it three times, and it felt a little funny. So I was, like, “Hold on a second.” And I jump off the horse with all this chainmail and I go running down the hill to where he is and I go, “Ridley, is that line working?’” ‘No. Try something else.” [both laugh] I’m like, “Okay!” and run back up.

So, the thing with Ridley is, if it doesn’t work, he’ll just cut it out of the movie. So, you’re kind of working without a safety net a little bit.

Can I ask about some of the smaller movies you’ve done? Because we’ve been talking about these big movies with huge budgets, but some of the smaller movies you’ve done have been really interesting.

OI: Balibo [an Australian film about the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975) is a terrific film I saw a year and a half ago at the London Film Festival. But it hasn’t come out in the U.K. since.

CG: Or in the U.S.

Do you follow your films after you’re done? Do you look at that situation where a great little film like that just hasn’t been picked up?

OI: Yeah, absolutely, you wonder. It got nominated for all these awards down in Australia. I was lucky enough to get one for the supporting actor down there. And it’s true. Unfortunately, I’m not in any place where I can be like, “This is my movie. Why don’t you guys distribute it or something?”

But that was one that I was definitely incredibly proud of and completely shocked with. And that’s the thing. You never know how it comes out.

I remember going to see a really rough edit of it and I was like, “I don’t think this really works,” and I thought, “Oh, well.” And a few months later he had really gotten in there and edited it and I saw it again and I thought, “This is incredible.”

So, it’s always a leap of faith.

Have you seen it, Carla?

CG: I have not. I really want to see it.

It’s a hard film to track down.

OI: Yeah, it’s one of these very… it’s like an underestimated… I underestimated it. Rob Connolly directed it. You know, you underestimate it at your peril. It’s a very emotional and incredible true story.

CG: I feel I have already seen it, because we have spoken about it a lot.

And for you Carla, Women In Trouble and Elektra Luxx, which, unfortunately, I can’t track down in the UK at all.

CG: Which is again so frustrating. Yeah, that is interesting. I don’t quite understand what is going on with that either. Elektra Luxx actually just came out in the States, so that will eventually sort of get here. But the Women In Trouble thing is really interesting because I know other countries have it, but I know several of my friends here have said the exact same thing.

So, it’s kind of a fascinating time, I think, for independent films, because those I feel very passionate about, I love them. They were shot in a very specific way, and really as an experiment, and people really respond to them and it’s been an amazing group of actors as well.

But interestingly enough, Elektra Luxx came out in the United States on March 11th through Samuel Goldwyn. It was bought by Sony and came out by Samuel Goldwyn, a smattering of theatres around the country, a small release. And simultaneously this movie called Girl Walks Into A Bar that I did in a similar vein, with an ensemble cast and also shot in about eleven days, similarly to Women In Trouble and Elektra Luux, it was the first feature film ever to premier on YouTube. It has been out for about two-and-a-half weeks and it just hit four hundred thousand people who have seen it online.

And I would say that probably Elektra Luxx will have a life on Netflix, which we have. You folks don’t have Netflix?

We have something similar, a DVD rental service I might not be able to name.

CG: And we’ll be lucky if five thousand people see it before that phase starts. I think that’s the thing about independent films right now: how do you get them seen? Because we are in a culture now where they’re playing at megaplexes. I think it’s actually kind of an exciting time. I do think that there’s a place. It is going to have to happen. People want to see them.

OI: In much the same way as music. The whole thing’s changed. It requires quite a lot of creativity now. It’s like being a band now. Getting a record deal is a meaningless thing now.

CG: But most of my best work, I feel probably percentage-wise, has been done in smaller films. The films that I have been a part of that have been very successful box office are, as much as I might like the films, it is not necessarily the work that represents me the most, probably.

Because, in Sin City, a lot of people will remember you as missing an arm.

CG: Exactly, exactly. Or you know or Spy Kids, or Night At The Museum.

OI: Is that what they remember you from, in Sin City?

Carla: [Laughs] That was polite, that was kind and I appreciated it. Umm, but yes, Night At The Museum and Spy Kids are all movies I feel very happy to be a part of, but the smaller movies are definitely ones where I have got to play fuller characters.

Do you both find that? I guess it’s tough to favour one over another.

CG: I love them all. I really do. I love doing theatre for the same reason, and television. I really like to mix it up, because I think one informs the other.

You can be on a movie that is a huge budget movie and feel like it’s really creatively stifling or that it’s creatively liberating. And the same thing with an independent film, where sometimes you have no money and you are going so fast you are lucky if you get the words out.

OI: It’s also tough to judge it. Is it by the experience of doing it or the result? Because that’s a tough one. Because as far as experience and result, I guess I would say Sucker Punch, to a certain extent. For me, it was one of the ones I felt very proud of and my intent matched, to a certain extent, what I saw. 

CG: And I do feel that way as well. I really do love that the characters and their dynamics.

OI: All the stuff that we had intended and worked on.

CG: Yeah, is there.

Have you seen then the Director’s Cut of Sucker Punch that is maybe in the offing?

CG: No. We’ve seen some. There is a bit more Jon Hamm. We’ve definitely seen chunks that are not in it now, but in terms of a fully, sort of designed, Director’s Cut, no.

That’s something to look forward to, then?

CG: I know. It is exciting. It really is. You have to tell people also to wait for the end titles, because people don’t know…

The Busby Berkeley routine…

CG: Exactly!

Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac, thank you very much.

Sucker Punch is out now in cinemas.

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