At last month’s San Diego Comic Con, we got a chance to sit down with the lovely young cast of the Power Rangersreboot movie, set to come out next summer, to talk about the newest incarnations of the Power Rangers characters, what it is like to work with actors like Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks, and the importance of a superhero movie with a diverse cast.
In this first part of our two-part interview, we chatted with Naomi Scott (who plays Pink Ranger Kimberly), Ludi Lin (who plays Black Ranger Zack), and RJ Cyler (who plays Blue Ranger Billy). Here’s what they had to tell us…
How were you cast for this project?
Ludi: We all have very unique casting stories. Mine started way across the world. I was in Malaysia filming something and I once drove into Singapore to visit a friend. Got the casting call from my manager saying you got to tape this today. And I’m sitting in the cafe right now with my friend in Singapore. We’ve got nothing. My friend goes, ‘I know the TV studio, next door.’ So I’m like, ‘Yes, I’ve got this. A TV studio — it’s perfect.’
So we got to the TV studio and I figure out that the Singaporian TV studios are basically like the casting rooms. It’s a broom closet with a table lamp as lighting. And I go, ‘Oh, nice. Camera?’ No camera. The camera’s out on set. So, we use the cell phone, and we tape the audition. And I didn’t hear back. So, once I got back to Beijing, get off the plane, get a call from my manager. He goes, ‘They loved it. The director wants a conversation with you on Skype.’ So, I went from broom closet to an online Skype session with the director. When I got the news, I was flabbergasted.
Naomi: For me, I was just an actor trying to get a job. I got sent the script through and I was intrigued. Obviously, Power Rangers, images came to mind, things came to mind. I actually first auditioned for the Yellow Ranger, for Trini. Which is interesting. It kind of shows how they were looking for characteristics as opposed to ethnicity or whatever.
So, I taped, and I had a Skype with the director Dean, and I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know what type of movie they wanted to make, and he just laid it all out for me over Skype. He showed me images. He was like, ‘Look, this is about the kids. This is about you, taking a character and giving it depth. So, for me, that’s where I was like: I am so on board with this because not only is there the iconic element and the superhero element, [but] it was a chance for me as an actress to really make it something and really have fun with it. And that’s what was awesome for me. And, then I won it, so woo!
RJ: I was in London at the time I got the audition, shooting another project. My manager was like, ‘RJ, they’re making a Power Rangers movies, and I thought it was like one of those smaller ones you see on TV or Netflix. And he was like, ‘No, no, no. This one is bigger. Lionsgate is putting it on.’ I was like, ‘Alright.’
And so he was like, ‘OK, just send us a cell tape,’ but I was working at the time, so then I forgot to do the cell tape. I got a really aggressive call from my agent the next day. He was like, ‘Why don’t we have the cell tape?’ I was like, ‘Ohhh, snap, OK.’ And so I shot it and then I sent it off. I shot it on my computer because my phone was really trashy and I was staying in a glass hotel, practically, so it was like, ‘OK, whatever.’
And so I sent it in and, in my mind, I was like, ‘OK, RJ, this is obviously a really big movie. You’re not good enough to book these yet, but the fact that they gave you an audition is already good. And so I was OK with just having an audition and maybe them giving good feedback because then it’s like, ‘OK, one more audition away from actually getting something.’ And then they called me like two days later and were like, ‘Aw, Dean wants to Skype with you,’ and I was like, ‘Who’s Dean. I don’t got no friends named Dean or nothing like that.’ And they were like, ‘The director from Power Rangers,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, crap.’
And so me and Dean talked, and he showed me the different stills and artwork they were planning for the movie. And it was almost like running into my childhood because I was just getting more and more childish as this conversation went on, and then we were talking about Billy and this and that, and I had so many ideas about Billy because, when we were young, and we played Power Rangers as Halloween characters or whatever, we play our rendition of what those characters are, right? And so I’m explaining to him, ‘Oh, he’s this and that,’ and all these different takes, and he was like, ‘OK.’ I hung up the phone or the Skype. Next day, he called me back and was like, ‘RJ, I would love for you to play Billy in the Power Rangers film with me.’ I kept it cool, hung up the phone, lost my mind, and now I’m Billy Cranston, the boss blue.
Ludi: Yes, Dean is our friend now, the director, he’s become very close to us.
His last movie project [Project Almanac] had a good sense of youth and teen dynamics, so he obviously brings that to this film, as well…
Naomi: I actually completely agree with you on that. I actually tested for that, and I was like, ‘Do you remember me?’ And he was like, ‘Um, no.’ [Laughs.]
I actually agree with you, and that was actually a big part of my trust in him. Again, it’s about these kids. It’s about their relationships. And it has to feel real. Even down to the hand-held aesthetic of what it looks like, it’s as if you’re following them around. It’s very scrappy, you know. Same way in that movie where they kind of banter and they bounce off each other. That’s where I was like, ‘Oh, he knows how to bring that out.’ And that’s exactly what he did with us. So, that was his priority. His priority was us bringing out the friendship and the reality of that.
Ludi: Project Almanac was a found footage film, but a sci-fi found footage film, you know? It’s clearly something that’s not going to happen in real life, but he made it seem real — and that’s part of the look he was going for with Power Rangers. He has a very specific vision in mind, and we believe in it, too.
Can you talk a little bit about what each of your characters is like in this incarnation of Power Rangers?
RJ: As we were filming, we watched each other as we acted, right? So it was like, ‘I know exactly who you are and the character.’ So, it’s like it’s no certain view of each character. It’s a lot barriers that are broken in this film. Billy is very to himself and he’s quiet and he’s very evasive. He doesn’t like confrontation. But then, under that, he wants to be around other people, but he’s very shy. He has a lot of things that he thinks about, like over-thinks. Billy’s very weird, and I like my weird Billy. Because he relates to everybody, just like every other character in the movie. You know how some people are like, ‘Well the pink this supposed to be this.’ And, it’s like, ‘What? What is that? Shush.’
We literally all blew up the stereotype of what each color should be. So people are looking forward to Jason being this hard jock that has nothing but testosterone — that’s all that Jason has to offer — when it’s really Jason is this deeper person who has other things [going on]. You guys will see in the movie. I don’t want to give it all away. Us, as actors, we all did such an amazing job just bringing real characters to life, you know?
Naomi: No 17-year-old is just one thing, especially in this day and age. Kids are into all sorts of things. It’s not just The Jock or The Popular Girl and that, specifically with the writing and the characters, is what they wanted to achieve. So, all of us, although we may have a label attached to us, that’s not who we are. And that is what this movie is. It’s a coming-of-age story.
For example, Kimberly, at the beginning of this movie, comes across as The Queen Bee of Angel Grove. Yes, The Popular Girl. However, is that who she is? Not really. You get to see the geeky side of her. You get to see that she when she does something mean, [it] doesn’t necessarily mean that she is mean, right? Because, when you are a 17-year-old, you are figuring out who you are. That’s the whole point. So, for me, as a female as well, I’m not just The Popular Girl. No, I’m just a 17-year-old girl, and and she’s strong, she’s sassy, and she’s funny. And all of us are smart in our own ways. That was really important, I think, for each character.
Ludi: The message is about togetherness and how that completes each other’s weaknesses, you know complementary characteristics. For example, Zack the Black. He’s wild, but, for me, the black means depth and the sensitivity that’s hiding underneath the wildness and adventure on top. But he’s not able to let that out because there are so many things that are blocking it right on the surface, so many challenges that he’s facing that he can’t handle alone until he meets the friends that he has some safety [with], a place that he belongs. He only finds that through other friends that he meets and once they get together.
I think it was a great surprise for everybody when Bryan Cranston was announced. How did you guys receive this news?
Naomi: We found out like everyone else. Again, I think it feels right that Bryan Cranston is playing Zordon. Obviously, his involvement in Power Rangers stretches back to before this movie. Billy Cranston was named after Bryan Cranston. So, not only does it feel right because of his connection, he’s just an incredible actor that I think all of us were just fans of — whether it’s Breaking Bad or going back to Malcolm in the Middle. He is incredible, so it feels so right, and we are so incredibly excited to see him in the movie.
Ludi: Yeah, and after his scenes, everybody’s jazzed. And it really helps that he’s excited about the film, too.
And what was it like working with Elizabeth Banks?
RJ: It was like working with the perfect martina. She’s amazing. She challenges you, just being on screen because she’s so creative in her own mind. So, it’s just like everything she does is just good. Nothing she does is a bad decision. I’m like, ‘When will you mess up?’ It just doesn’t happen. She raises the bar so much that it makes all of us really good. It challenges us as actors, which makes us better actors. It’s like, ‘Alright, RJ. You know how Elizabeth isn’t afraid to make a decision? You know that really good one you had earlier? It might really suck, but at least try it, and then it turns out to be really good.’ She’s so good.
Ludi: What you said before… Like a martini. She kind of intoxicates you. She frees you, in a way. Because the character, like the acting, the craft, is all serious and stuff, but it’s fun, too.
Naomi: I remember watching on screen. I went to watch Becky’s scene. I was kind of like a support because Becky was like, ‘Nay, can you come with me?’ It was her first scene. Did you see the image of her? That was the scene that I watched. She’s the villain. She plays Rita Repulsa. And so, when I was watching her on the monitor, I remember there was a producer next to me, and I didn’t realize I was squeezing his arm because what she does is she makes you feel like she’s there in the room. She has this wonderful mix of being funny, insane, beautiful, dangerous — all at the same time. She’s fearless and she made fearless decisions, and she made the movie better.
So many movies — especially big budget movies — tend to be about white men or a group of white men, and it seems like such a conscious decision to have a diverse cast here that looks like the real world. Can you talk about that?
RJ: It’s really cool. I feel like Power Rangers as just a franchise and as a message in itself is taking down the barrier of putting a certain look to a certain thing, right? Even for the audition, when we got the breakdown for the characters, there was no ethnicity column. They just wanted to see actors, you know? And some people will make it a thing, like they made Ludi Zack because it’s a poltical reason or they’re trying to be politically correct. I’m like, ‘No, how bout Ludi’s a great actor who knows what he’s doing?’ We all have these things that we bring to these characters.
Naomi: I think it was a conscious decision to be diverse. However, where you disperse that diversity was not necessarily [a conscious decision]. Which I think, personally, is the best way, because it’s important, as you said, to showcase, to represent. However, it wasn’t specific to the character. It was just about the character, which I personally think was the best way to go about it.
Ludi: You see all these movies of white men saving the world all the time. I love the diversity because, for me personally, I was born in China. I am Chinese. I speak fluent Mandarin. And I go, ‘Man, it’s about time a Chinese person could step up to a Hollywood screen, and international screen, and help save the world. It’s a positive message for all because I think this world is not going to be saved by a single nation or a single person. The message is: we need to come together to create something lasting and positive.