‘The Suicide Squad’ Actor Nathan Fillion Thinks Batman Needs a Therapist [Interview]
The supervillain known as “TDK” thinks he’s the star of The Suicide Squad. And writer/director James Gunn‘s longtime collaborator, Nathan Fillion, plays him with confidence, as if he has the powers of Superman. The character has more arrogance than actual power, which is TDK’s charm and kryptonite in Fillion’s eyes.
Gunn and Fillion first worked together on Slither (there’s nice wink to that horror-comedy in The Suicide Squad), and Fillion has continued to pop up in Gunn’s work ever since – he even has a small cameo role in Guardians of the Galaxy. During a recent Zoom interview, Fillion told us about his relationship with the filmmaker, his memories of Arm-Fall-Off-Boy, and why Bruce Wayne needs a therapist, not a cape.
You definitely see James Gunn’s personality in this movie, but as someone who’s worked with him a long time and knows him, how do you see his voice in The Suicide Squad?
What’s great is his projects change, the grandeur of his projects, they just keep throwing bigger and bigger projects at him. So watching those projects grow and this career path snowballing, it’s incredible. At the same time, James does not really change. I mean, he’s certainly growing as he continues but the things that make him great are locked in already. It’s why so many people trust him, not only trust him with projects like this but when he says “I have a part for you”, you got it. He just keeps building a repertoire of people that will work with him over and over and over again.
At the same time, he pulls out obscure folks from “Oh, remember this guy and, oh, here’s a brand new person you probably haven’t seen before.” We all trust in James. It’s hard not to when you just look at his pedigree, you look at what he’s achieved, look at what he’s done. Look what happens to projects in his hands when you just leave him to his own devices and that’s what they’ve done with this one. They just left him to his own devices and I think this is just a really nice case study and what happens when you give the art to the artist and just let them be.
What do you recall about your very first meeting with James?
I met James when I auditioned for Slither. I was just some guy who had just finished a couple of projects that I was very proud of. I just dipped my foot into the major motion picture just by default because we made a failed TV show, Firefly, into a major motion picture in Serenity. So I finally got a lead in the film, which is really hard to do, especially the first time, and from that I got into a room with James Gunn, auditioned for Slither. I asked him where are you going to film this? And he said, “Oh, we’re going to film up in Vancouver. As I was leaving the room, I said, “Oh, I’m Canadian.” And he wrote that down.
I think that’s one of the reasons I got the role and I think it’s very easy to succeed in success when everything’s going right. It’s very easy to succeed and be great and be wonderful. It’s can you succeed through adversity? I think that’s far more telling of your integrity and your character and if there was something that could have gone wrong on Slither, it went wrong on Slither, that’s how I got to know James was watching him deal with adversity and still maintaining his integrity and everything we love about James and that’s why I trust him that’s why I’ll always work with James.
Did you also get a Slither vibe from this movie at times, especially in the third act?
I think what you’re seeing is more James. I think you’re seeing James’ personality but in the same way part of that personality is he likes to honor the things that he’s done in the past. I don’t think there’s a movie he’s made that doesn’t have Lloyd Kaufman in it. Lloyd Kaufman gave James his start in the very, very beginning and he continually honors Lloyd Kaufman, and that tells you who James is. It speaks to his integrity. At the same time, my character got to do a lovely swig on a giant Mr. PIB. It is a little nod and a wink to fans of Slither, they’ll see it and go out, “The only coke I like.”
Does it just take a simple text from James Gunn for you to sign up?
The last text I got from James was about, “Here is a role.” I remember he’ll often say, “Hey, I’d like you to come and do this is the project and I want you to play, here’s the role, here’s a little bit about him.” I guess he has to add at the end, and I don’t know why, but I think he has to add up whether your character lives or dies. I guess because he has a reputation for killing people. I think maybe people say, do I live or die? I think his friends know him well enough that they have to ask but that’s the formula for the request and my answer is always the same. “Jesus, please yes, God, please God, yes.
For TDK, he’s got quite a sense of bravura about him.
I think that’s his kryptonite. I mean, he has an incredible superpower and no vulnerabilities but that I think his kryptonite is this overconfidence. He thinks he’s prepared, and he thinks he’s so superhuman. He’s barely superhuman. You say he can do this, yeah, but why and who cares? If someone says that about your superpowers, maybe slow your roll a bit, maybe back up before you, A, start robbing banks, which got you into prison in the first place, or B, get on a suicide squad.
For you, what were some of the characteristics that defined that character to you?
I think a blissful unawareness of his own lunacy. I think he feels like he’s an A player. I think he feels like he’s a heavy hitter. I think he feels like he belongs up there with the Bloodsports and the Harley Quinns. He does not.
How was your experience shooting the beach scene?
The shot took place on a beach that was constructed at Pinewood Studios on the backlot of Pinewood studios. They stacked up these massive shipping containers and built onto it a giant curtain that you could pull a green screen or a blue screen or whatever screen you wanted, you could pull them back and forth to control all the lighting. We had an ocean with waves, we had a proper beach, there was sand and then there was a jungle beyond and that was all constructed for us. When it came time to really shine, there are squibs going off. There are blanks being fired.
There are giant explosions going off behind you and you don’t just cut, let’s go back and do it again. It’s an hour and some to reset all those things happening so if you can get it in one take, that’s the goal. You want to be that guy that goes boom, nailed it, that’s all you need, let’s move on, so that’s where my hip was. Let’s just do this right the first time. I don’t know, that’s your job as an actor you do that job. I think TDK was loving every minute of that moment, which made it easy for me because I was loving every minute of that moment of his.
Again, just the sheer size of that scene can be incredibly intimidating. Never mind looking around at the incredible celebrity power and just the incredible talent going on all around you. I could see how it could mess with one’s mind because of the stacks could seem awfully high but the fact is these are all really actually great people, who just actually are fantastic at their jobs and that’s why they’re there and they can enjoy it just as much as anyone else can and I think we all understood that we were doing something fun, great and we’re enjoying it as we were doing it.
Flula said there’s not much improvising in the movie, but that James allows it on the set to loosen actors up. Say for the scene with the squad on the airplane, is there much room for playing around?
He allows for a great deal of, and it’s not to say that all that improv is going to end up in the picture itself, but what it winds up doing is it really gets people in tune with their characters because you have to listen now. Now you have to be present, not as yourself but as your character, which means you have to draw on all your skills to be informed and make choices in the moment based on character but also you are playing and trusting other cast members to keep this thing rolling.
This improv that you have going and so now you’re building relationships, not only as actors but your characters are not building relationships. All that improv, even if it doesn’t end up in the movie, you’ve now built a comradery between not only actors but also the characters. You’ve built something that allows for the scripted things that are or the other moments that do end up in the movie. Now we’re invested in those things, we have found rhythms, we’re sussing out relationships. There’s a lot of work being done there that’s of a lot of value that you’ll just see innately in other parts of the film.
Arm-Fall-Off-Boy inspired the character, but did he inspire you much?
I know the character was inspired I think by Arm-Fall-Off-Boy and I knew who he was. I remember who Arm-Fall-Off-Boy off was. First of all, he’s great at pulling obscure characters like that because that was an obscure superhero team, the Legion of Superheroes from an obscure timeline, the future and it was actually a bunch of people that were auditioning that didn’t get in, these were the rejects and I think they became a little sub Legionnaire team. So I mean, we’re going way back to when they were just running out of names for superheroes and used anything. “I got it, Calendar man, that’ll be one guys, that’ll be great.”
Audiences are far more sophisticated now, but reaching back into a time when audiences were not very sophisticated, where we would just consume whatever came up but the assumption was comics are for kids, they’ll eat this up. Now we’re adults, now we are a sophisticated audience, now we know story just because we’ve been inundated with story all the time. Our needs are more.
I love when James Gunn can take that kind of obscurity, that kind of a simplistic look at characters and say but what if they were real? Case in point, Polka-Dot Man, what a lame character, probably one of my favorite in the film.
Such a great balance of tragedy and humor.
When you look at the origins of heroes, something like Batman, and you think, “Oh, that’s great, his parents were killed, so now he dedicated his life to solving a crime.” No, that kid’s traumatized, and that man’s fricking crazy. He dresses up like a bat and he beats the crap out of people, that’s trauma. I mean, what if it were real, that guy should talk to somebody, he needs a therapist, he doesn’t need a Batmobile, he needs to get some thoughts out of his head, I mean that guy is haunted. Batman is not a crime fighter, he’s a traumatized child beating the crap out of people.
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