Don Lee on his chemistry with Angelina Jolie in Marvel’s ‘Eternals’
The superhero genre has made enormous strides in its enlightened creators’ commitment to promote inclusivity and diversity—and we’re not just talking about smashing borders of the racial divide.
Take “Eternals,” which was introduced by Jack Kirby to comic-book aficionados 45 years ago and updated by Neil Gaiman in a series of graphic novels in 2006.
The 25th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which makes its big-screen romp in Philippine theaters beginning Wednesday, doesn’t just field multiracial mighty beings, but also introduces superheroes that persons with disability and members of the LGBTQIA community can aspire to be.
Speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is deaf, while the cerebral Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who controls the Eternals’ starship Domo, is Black, married and gay.
Even Thena (Angelina Jolie), one of the group’s most formidable warriors, is far from perfect—she has been afflicted with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder)!
But perhaps all this talk about “creating harmony in diversity” is best explained by Brian, who attributes his obsession with superheroes and the concept of mankind needing saving to our innate need for survival and redemption.
“It’s something that we all want,” explained the Emmy and Tony nominee. “It literally brings everyone together, regardless of where you’re from.”
Indeed, the Eternals’ wide and all-encompassing reach is something each of us can embrace.
“This film represents all the different communities,” noted Barry Keoghan, who plays mind controller Druig. “So, it sends a message out there that anyone can become a superhero.”
‘Custodians of the Earth’
Aside from Phastos, Makkari and Druig, the Eternals also include the group’s spiritual leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), Bollywood star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), invisible trickster Sprite (Lia McHugh), the empathetic Sersi (Gemma Chan), the invincible Ikaris (Richard Madden), the super strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee aka Ma Dong-seok of “Train to Busan”) and his best friend, Thena (Angelina).
The Eternals are immortal aliens from the planet Olympia who were sent to Earth 7,000 years ago by the Celestials, the mystical cosmic builders introduced in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” to protect humanity from alien predators known as the Deviants.
As “custodians of the Earth,” the Eternals are forbidden to interfere with human affairs, but are surprisingly called for duty when the Deviants, long believed to have been vanquished by the team in 1521, reemerge and wreak havoc on everything and everyone they cross paths with.
While the film bounces around in time, its current story takes place after the Snap (in “Avengers: Infinity War”) and concurrently with “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which is sometime around 2024.
We’ve recently spoken to Don Lee about his experience with the star-studded cast in Marvel’s huge cinematic undertaking.
“I’m very happy to see Asian superheroes appearing in movies like ‘Eternals’ and ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,’” Don said to us when asked what he thought of seeing Asian actors in mainstream US films. “While that’s inspiring by itself, I personally think that isn’t director Chloe Zhao’s point.
“What Chloe really wanted was to bring the focus on diversity itself, on how we as people with different backgrounds and skills can come together as one. Harmony is the key, and not being Asian in a movie like this—that’s the difference. And I am completely with Chloe on this.”
Knowing that his character Gilgamesh is closest to Thena in the film, we asked Don how he established his bond with the lovely Hollywood superstar.
“Our chemistry was very good,” Don said. “I’ve been a big fan of her for a very long time, so when I heard that I would be acting opposite Angie, I was elated. We didn’t really have much time to rehearse together, but when the cameras started rolling, I felt very comfortable with her.
“She made sure that anyone around her was comfortable acting with her, so we were able to build the kind of personal connection required for our roles right away—and you can see that reflected onscreen.
“We’ve both been in the entertainment business for a very long time, so you’ll know immediately if the chemistry is there or not. I felt very much at ease with her … like I was working with a good friend of mine.”
For her part, Angelina was just as pleased seeing a warrior like Thena fight side by side with Gilgamesh—because it sends a strong signal about gender equality.
“Gilgamesh and Thena are like comrades in arms,” the actress said. “They have fought alongside each other. They fight together. There are a lot of strong female characters in film now. But to have a strong woman with a strong man she can lean on, like in ‘Eternals,’ is the kind of partnership and relationship that I’d like to see more of.”
The rest of our Q&A with Don:
Are there similarities between your character Gilgamesh and yourself? What did you find challenging about the role?
Chloe made sure that whatever makes me Don will also be reflected in Gilgamesh. So in that sense, it felt very much like me acting as myself (laughs)—which made it very comfortable for me.
He’s a very powerful character, so I had to be physically prepared for that. But then, exercising and lifting are already part of my daily routine, because I’ve been athletic all my life. Even before I became an actor, I was already into boxing and powerlifting. So, in that sense, I didn’t really have to do anything additional to transform into my character’s physique, because I was already in that physical condition.
In terms of the challenges, I had to study how to act in English, because being able to speak in English and acting in English are two different things. So after every shoot, I’d go back to my hotel room and think of ways to make Gilgamesh more multidimensional and discuss them with Chloe.
If you can work with another superhero that’s not in this movie, who would you want to work with?
It’s hard to pick one. I have a whole list in my head (laughs)—Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Spider-Man, Ant-Man—oh my gosh, who am I going to pick? But whoever (Marvel Studios president) Kevin Feige tells me to act with, I’m going for it!
Park Seo-joon is making his Hollywood debut by way of MCU’s “Captain Marvel 2: The Marvels,” starring Brie Larson. What are your thoughts about Korean actors getting more chances to act in Hollywood productions?
Korean films, K-dramas and K-pop are really expanding their reach all around the world, and I’m really happy to witness this phenomenon. I wish there’ll be more chances given to many talented Koreans who deserve to be seen, like actor Park Seo-joon and filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (“Parasite”).
There are lots of superhero groups in the movies these days. What do you think sets the ‘Eternals’ apart from other teams?
There are several things that differentiate “Eternals” from other superhero movies. First of all, it’s an epic drama that covers an immense timeline—so it has that grand scale.
Second, it’s the first superhero movie that doesn’t just focus on fighting the enemy or saving the world—it’s more about internal things … like examining the characters’ love for each other, as well as their conflicts and emotions.
Third, it’s about creating diversity and harmony by way of the ensemble the production gathered—which is amazing to watch. It also has humor and dazzling action sequences. So, in that sense, I’d say that this movie will define yet another new genre for superhero films. INQ
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