Early in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the team is hired by an alien race called the Sovereign to help protect their planet from an extradimensional menace — a plan that goes south when the arrogant, superior Sovereign, who are genetically engineered to be perfect beings and want to make sure you know that, get pissed off at our scruffy heroes. Leading the Sovereign’s pursuit of the Guardians from that point forward is their high priestess, Ayesha, whose ravishing gold skin and perfect physicality mask a creature who’s just as capable of screwing up as any “imperfect” being out there.
Ayesha — who has a somewhat different background in the comics — is played by Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki. Her tall frame and cool demeanor immediately made her stand out to director James Gunn as someone who could play an utterly exotic humanoid alien. After going through formal theater training at university, Debicki got her first big break playing Jordan Baker in 2013’s The Great Gatsby, following that with roles in Macbeth, Everest, and as the villain in Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (“I would totally come back” for a sequel, she told us).
Now viewers will watch her as the luminous yet ruthless Ayesha, a character we dearly hope comes back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and later this year we’ll also see her in the mysterious new Bad Robot sci-fi film that may or may not be called God Particle. We spoke about both — but mainly about getting into character as Ayesha — when we sat down at the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 press day in L.A.
Den of Geek: Congratulations on becoming part of the Marvel Universe. When you got the role, did they show you what she was going to look like? Did you have any sort of inkling of how this is going to go?
Elizabeth Debicki: James had spoken to me about her, you know. I was in Australia when I got the role. He sort of told me a little bit, but in true Marvel fashion, it was all very under wraps. It wasn’t actually until I went to Atlanta quite a while before we started shooting — I sort of dropped by after finishing filming, had a sort of workshop with them and workshopped things like the costumes — that I really saw the artwork for her.
What was your response to realizing you’d be gold?
It’s completely surreal and I was really excited. I mean, what I love about Ayesha is I’ve never really seen anything like her in the Marvel Universe, and I’ve never seen a creation like her, you know, on screen before. I think that she’s really unique and there’s a power to that. The gold is, I mean, it’s quite an intense process to go through. It’s nothing on Zoe (Saldana) and Dave Bautista, so I really can’t (compare), but I was excited.
Is any of that digital?
It’s all there. It’s all painted, yeah, and the contacts, and the hair, and everything. They went old school.
What’s the sensation like of having that done to you?
It’s rather unpleasant first thing in the morning, but Zoe had been there since 3 a.m. or something and I had come in at a very reasonable hour, 6 or 7, so I swore to never ever complain about my process in comparison. She gave everybody good advice, which was you just have to be really patient and calm. You can’t get frustrated. You can’t want to get up. You have to just sort of be Zen about it, so it was good. I used it as an opportunity to sleep, or listen to the radio, or have a cup of tea.
Does it help put you into character when you see yourself with everything on?
Completely. It’s a very strange experience as a human, but as an actor as well, when you sort of walk past the mirror and you catch yourself and you don’t even recognize the shape of you. There’s something about the gold of it. It changes the shape of people’s faces. It makes certain features of their face sort of stand out more and, you know, the bald cap in the beginning on the throne with the headpiece and the hair.
She progresses from the three looks we see her in. It shifts hugely. She sort of morphs in a funny way with the hair and the costuming. It informed so much for me as soon as I had the full hair, and makeup, and the costume. She’s very clear about the presence she wants to give and the effect she wants to have on people. It’s sort of an epic one. It’s huge in its scope. She wants to be in an Elizabethan way, in a queenly Elizabeth I way, she really wants to present as this kind of woman, a formidable sort of force. The costume, and the hair, and makeup really did that for me, you know. I felt like so much of it was done already I just had to sit back into it and let it do its work.
But what’s funny is that as majestic she is and how alien the Sovereign are, they can be bratty. They have these recognizable human qualities.
Yes, yeah. I mean, and that was in the writing, but it was also in what we found in the doing of it and how James really wanted them to appear. I mean, it is kind of ironic in a way that they’re these genetically perfect, you know, designed to be perfect creatures, and yet they’re completely fallible and human. She is. That for me was the intrigue of her. You have this queen, high priestess, this regal entity and this sort of arch-villain in a way, but actually what I was really interested in was finding little moments that made her very human and you understood that she was fallible and imperfect.
Her history’s a bit different in the comics. Did you read up on her? Did Marvel send you a stack of stuff?
No, they didn’t. James and I spoke about that, because I think we wanted to take her in a different direction. I think he didn’t want me to be too informed. I mean, obviously I read some and I looked at the artwork of her, but I knew that we were going to take her in a different direction. I wanted my version of her to be James’ version of her, if that makes sense.
What was the experience like on the set? Were they physically built out or did you do a lot in front of green screens?
Actually, the throne room was quite complete and we had a lot of the extras there. The throne itself, really, how you see it on screen is how they built it. It was remarkable, then that great big sort of cavernous hall set and all the extras and other people, that was all there. That was pretty amazing, actually, to not have too much green screen. I had my fighter pod and there are scenes where it’s all CGI. I think there were three or something. The first time I saw the movie was the first time I saw the Sovereign, and the planet, and the sort of scale of it. That was interesting. I thought, Oh, that’s where we live. It’s huge, you know.
What was the atmosphere on the shoot like? What kind of set does James run?
It’s a fun set. There’s an ease to it, because of who James is and how he likes to run the day, you know. There’s a huge amount of enjoyment. He really wants you to have fun when you’re making the movie. I probably came on very nervous and rigid in a way. He sort of released that very quickly, because he just loves to roll with whatever you’re throwing out there. If it’s not what he wants, he’s just going to gently take it in a different direction, but he really likes to know what your impulse is on the line or the scene. If you want to take it in a different direction, he’ll just run with that. That’s what I really like about him.
Any hints of whether she’ll be back? Has he said anything to you?
My lips are sealed.
You have a couple projects coming up, and one I’m curious about is God Particle, which is the next Cloverfield movie.
I can tell you that it is part of Cloverfield, that it’s the third Cloverfield movie. That’s about it. I can tell you that I think it’s going to be really, really interesting and an excellent film. I’ve never read anything like it before, so I’m very excited to see how it comes out. But I can’t tell you any details.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is out in theaters Friday (May 5).