In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, British actress Kaya Scodelario plays Carina Smyth, a fiercely intelligent and ambitious young woman whose goal is to study at university and become an astronomer. Of course, this being the 17th century, most of the people — especially the men — she comes in contact with consider her a witch due to her knowledge of the stars and science. But when she falls in with the band of pirates led by Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and abetted by Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), she realizes that she is not only the smartest person on the boat but can use her knowledge to guide them all to their ultimate prize: the legendary trident that belonged to the god Poseidon.
The Pirates films, despite their setting, have not shied away from strong female characters in the past, with Keira Knightley and Penelope Cruz laying the groundwork for Scodelario in the series’ fifth installment. It’s the biggest project yet for Scodelario, whose previous outings include Moon (her debut), Clash of the Titans, Wuthering Heights and The Maze Runner series (she says the third film, The Death Cure, is now back on track after a year-long delay while star Dylan O’Brien recovered from serious injuries sustained on set).
We spoke with the actress recently in Los Angeles about working with Depp, Thwaites, Javier Bardem and Geoffrey Rush in the new Pirates film, what she did to make Carina come to life for her and the highs and lows of the difficult and expensive production.
Den of Geek: You’re following in the footsteps of Keira Knightley and Penelope Cruz, in that this is not a franchise that has had wallflower female characters. Is that part of the appeal, knowing that there’s a legacy of these movies having really strong female characters?
Kaya Scodelario: Yeah, definitely I remember seeing Keira’s character Elizabeth in the first movie when I was about 13. At first, you kind of think she’s just this princess and she’s not really got anything about her. Then as the movie progresses she becomes so cool, and so kick ass, and she’s very kind of stubborn you know and she’s the boss. I loved that about her, I remember finding that really inspiring and great to watch. To get to be a part of that legacy is really cool. I personally think Carina’s probably the most progressive character we’ve ever had in the franchise. From the very beginning she knows who she is and she knows what she want to do, and she doesn’t need anyone’s help, and I really just loved that about her.
It’s so ironic that initially at first all the men in the movie think she’s a witch.
Yeah, I know, right? That’s interesting because it’s the 17th century so for a woman to want to study science it was crazy, and it was unheard of, so they assume she’s a witch. I think until the very end they still don’t quite believe that she’s not. But she’s just brilliant and she’s definitely the smartest one on the boat.
What did you do in your own mind, or even on set, to flesh her out for yourself? Things that maybe we don’t see, little pieces of the costume or things that you carry with you or anything like that?
At a start of a job, I always buy a notepad or notebook. I always find a cover that for some reason represents the character or the movie to me. That’s just like a fun little thing that I like to do and then that becomes my bible for the character. Leading up to the shoot I will do a ton of notes. I’ll do a ton of backstory, I’ll annotate every scene, I’ll just let myself think and almost just write and let the pen go. Then the first day of shooting I close it, and I don’t look at it again.
I try to have a balance of doing the research and doing the backstory but then still letting the everyday work be instinctual. Still letting the character develop as naturally as possible, day by day because there are so many other elements: when you see the set, when you see the costume, when you see the other actor, how he works and how you can bounce off each other. Yeah, I like to do a load of pre-planning and then throw it out the window, which might seem a bit crazy but it seems to have worked for me.
What was the cover of the notebook on this one?
For this one it was really cool, it was black with stars on it obviously, and had a very deep purple color, which I always felt like was her color.
You don’t have too much time with Javier Bardem (Captain Salazar) on screen.
A small bit. I got to see when he was dressed in character, he would always come over to the set and I got to see him when we do the big action sequences where Salazar is coming for the Black Pearl. I was kind of there for all of that so I definitely got a feel of him.
Javier, Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Depp — these guys are veterans and they’ve been around a long time. Did you observe anything about the way they each work?
I think you pick up on the little traits and stuff. Geoffrey does a lot of pre-planning, I think he really likes to sit and discuss every scene and discuss every line, and try find meaning in everything. Which is really interesting to be a part of because he’s had such a long career, and such a good career, so that definitely works for him. I feel like Johnny is a lot more spontaneous in the moment, a lot of improvisation, a lot of seeing how far he can push things, which is what kind of makes Jack Sparrow so great. It works for the characters as well. You know Barbossa’s pretty calculated, so that’s why I feel Geoffrey works in that way. For Brenton, we both had a really good rapport, we felt we bounced off each other really, really well. We’d discuss it briefly in the morning and then kind of see what happens in the scene.
Did you kind of have an instant bond, being the newbies on the set?
Yeah, I mean it’s always great, because every movie set feels like the first day of school, for the first week. It just does, it just strange clique-y world that the first days on are always petrifying, for me especially. Whenever you have someone else that’s in the same situation it’s great. There were plenty of times, we would turn to each other and say, “This is crazy.” He’d be like, “Yeah, I know.” Okay cool, someone else is freaking out, I don’t have to be the only one.
Does Johnny stay in character?
Kind of half and half. You can still have a genuine conversation with him. He’s not so method that you can’t approach him, but there’s always, I think, a little glint of Jack Sparrow in his eye. He’s always kind of got him in there.
This was reportedly a difficult shoot — production shut down for a while and then resumed again. What was the most challenging aspect of it all?
Six months is a really long time to shoot a movie. I think we had two hurricanes come through and destroy the set, which is just heartbreaking because there’s a lot of time and effort put into building these sets and amazing craftsmanship. Luckily we have an incredible crew that just dealt with it. They really kind of picked up their socks and just started again. It’s great to see that work ethic.
I think we all missed home a lot, we missed our family and our friends. With the time difference you can’t just Facetime your mom, she’s probably fast asleep. You Facetime your best friend and they’re drunk and it’s six o’clock in the morning for you. That for me was definitely the most challenging aspect.
Did you get to explore some of Australia while you were there?
I did, I have a cousin that lives on the Gold Coast that I hadn’t seen for five years. That was wonderful for me, I got to really reconnect with her and her kids. My husband and I found an incredible waterfall out in the mountains. It is a beautiful country, and we loved being on the Gold Coast, I think actually just being by the ocean is so energizing, and it’s so great. A lot of film locations end up being very barren towns in the middle of nowhere, like Albuquerque, New Mexico. That can get quite isolating. With Australia, people are happy, people are out there, they feel very free so it was nice to have that input.
You mentioned the big sets, what was your particular favorite that you were really impressed with or enjoyed working on?
Well I just couldn’t believe that they built this entire town, this Caribbean town in this car park in Australia. The detail…there was a pub, there was a bar, there was a dressmakers shop, there was a butcher. I walked on set one day and there was a dog and went to pet him, and someone turned around and said, “No, excuse me, he’s working, please don’t distract him.” He was an actor dog, I didn’t even know that existed so that really impressed me. The attention to detail on that set was absolutely incredible.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is out in theaters tomorrow (Friday, May 26).