Connecting with what defines and drives a superhero requires knowing her origin story. The same concept applies to people like Gina Prince-Bythewood, a veteran of TV and film who has made history in directing Netflix's "The Old Guard," an unconventional superhero tale starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne.
Helming this new movie makes Prince-Bythewood the first Black woman to direct a major superhero film, a distinction she was already on target to achieve when she was attached to direct the Marvel Cinematic Universe film "Silver & Sable." She's still attached to that project, which has since been reconsidered as a series instead of a feature.
But to understand why it was so important for Prince-Bythewood to steer "The Old Guard," which casts Theron as Andromache the Scythian, a 6,000-year-old warrior who goes by Andy, look back to the year 2000 and the director's cinematic debut "Love & Basketball."
Very different films, certainly. And yet Monica, the romantic heart of "Love & Basketball," shares more than a few similarities with KiKi Layne's Nile, the co-lead in "The Old Guard." The movie is based on a graphic novel series created by Greg Rucka, in which Nile, a United States Marine, suddenly has immortality thrust upon her. Nobody can explain the why or how of it – not even Andy or her companions Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), each of whom has been around for 100 years and cannot be killed.
Immortality sounds like a hell of a superpower to anyone who doesn't have to actually live through it, and while Nile is new to grappling with that idea, others in the group are long past sick of living. (And in the case of Quynh, played by Veronica Ngo, she lived through multiple drownings after being trapped in the ocean for centuries, but shows up dry and very much alive at the very end.)
The novelty of Nile, though, cannot be overstated. In playing her, Layne, who earned critical acclaim for her performance in "If Beale Street Could Talk," becomes one of very few women of color to portray a superhero in a movie. This is why Prince-Bythewood pushed for Nile's character to have a more central role on the screen than Rucka originally wrote for her in his pages.
She did that for the same reason that she created Monica in "Love & Basketball"; she rarely if ever saw an ideal version of herself on small screens or big. What that meant, she remembers, was "I never felt like anyone's ideal. I was always made to feel like something was wrong with me in the fact that I liked sports, that I was athletic, that I didn't wear makeup, you know. That fact I just always felt less desired."
She's since come to realize what was missing was a fictionalized ideal for her to look up to, that of a warrior and another phrase she uses frequently, a "badass."
"Being female is not just one thing, and showing that breadth of who we can be and the differences within that, that shouldn't be denigrated," she told Salon in a recent and wide-ranging interview.
In it, she also discussed her goals for how Andy and Nile are rendered in "The Old Guard," the ways in which she seeking to reframe the comic book film's portrayal of women, the creation of the character Quynh, and thoughts on continuing this story. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
It's rare to come across a superhero title that is different from the big studio franchise candy that's been coming out in theaters recently. But let's step back a little bit and talk about the road to bringing it into being in the first place. Throughout your career, you've had a very specific visions as a director, and fought very hard for them. So I'm wondering, how much of a battle it was to bring this specific vision of "The Old Guard" to fruition in comparison to some of your past titles?
It's interesting. You know, I've written the majority of what I've directed in my career. And I knew that I wanted to move into this space. I mean, I love action films, I love comic book films, and I wanted the opportunity to help me bring my aesthetic to that. When the script came from Skydance, it had everything that I feel like if I had written it, this is what it would feel like. That's what excited me so much.
So much of the storytelling – you know, the fact that it was this group of warriors from different backgrounds and cultures and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to do good for humanity. The fact that two women were at the heart of it, and one is a young black female warrior, you know. And this lovely love story was in it with Nicky and Joe. It just felt like it touched on all the things that I love to do as a filmmaker and an artist.
And finally, at the end of the day, for me, I want to hopefully create something that you connect to as an audience and moves you. And these characters move me: the thirst that they had for purpose, and the questions of, "Why are we here?" And, "What good are we doing for the world?" Those are things that I've struggled with and thought about. And so the fact that I could connect on a personal level was definitely the biggest reason why.
What were some of the things that you wanted to bring to "The Old Guard" that perhaps hasn't been seen or that you haven't seen and wanted to see, in other superhero films?
Certainly I wanted to look up and see myself reflected in a contemporary way. I wanted to see women who were not hyper-sexualized, who are badass. "Badass" for me is swagger, strength, vulnerability, empathy. Like, those are the things that I love in badass female characters. I wanted to see really a group of characters who reflected the world that I see every day – a very organically diverse world. And I wanted these characters to have depth and be about something. I wanted the audience care about the characters and not just the action set pieces. And so in saying that, that's not to say that those films haven't happened. They're just very rare.
I loved "Wonder Woman." The feeling of sitting in the theater and looking up at her as a female warrior was such a transformative feeling for me even now in this day and age. I realized how rare it was that I got to see that. And "Black Panther," oh my God, just so changed the game and changed culture. The pride it brought me, the pride that it gave to my two boys, the fact that both Killmonger and T'Challa were heroic to them. I just love the direction that movies have gone in over the last couple of years, of becoming action dramas, as opposed to just action. And that's certainly what I wanted, the ability to have the quiet moments be as important as the big set pieces.
It's interesting that you bring up those two movies. Those are actually two of the movies that I thought of when I watched "The Old Guard." I watched it twice actually, and what struck me during the second viewing was that quality in the script of focusing on these heroes who question whether their singular acts are having any impact on the larger world.
When you were looking at the original script for "The Old Guard," and how much were you able to shape it in the direction of posing those larger questions, or did that required such sculpting at all? So many of Andy's questions are central to the plot's eventual outcome.
It's certainly in the graphic novel and definitely in the script, given that Greg Rucka adapted it himself.
I love the character of this warrior who's 6,000 years old and is at a point where she wants it all to end. Here's someone who is mostly immortal, who essentially can't die but wants to die because [she's asking], "Why am I here? I have no impact. I'm tired." That just felt so interesting and relatable to me.
One of the things that was important for me to add to the story, which Greg was absolutely open to doing was, you know, just adding this level of what killing means and the toll of killing.
You know, for "The Old Guard," their mantra really is "kill one to save many." And that's, you know, something that you can wrap your head around. Yet, what does that truly mean in terms of how many people they've killed throughout the years?
I wanted that killing to have an impact on them, and so really bringing that both with Andy, but also Nile, who has her first kill within the story – letting an audience know that it's not an easy thing, that taking a life is psychologically damaging.
I didn't want to treat the violence or death as an easy thing within it. So adding that layer, I felt, was really helpful certainly to Andy and all the characters.
How were you able to do that? Was there any process that you had the actors go through?
I got that information from this great book that I read during my preparation to shoot this. It's called "On Killing." And it talks about how for soldiers, how taking a life is as damaging psychologically as your fear of losing your life on the battlefield.
In reading that book, I pulled all these key moments within the book and then shared that the actors, just so that they could read real things from soldiers and what they went through. Those were really good conversations. And there were a couple podcasts that I listened to about snipers. One was a man and one was a woman. And the toll that killing took on them, just to hear from these real people, what it takes to kill, was really fascinating for me hear, and then to be able to share with the actors,
Let's talk a bit about how the character of Nile shaped up in "The Old Guard," and this question comes from the perspective of a Black woman who grew up reading comics. When people would ask me, I would tell them my favorite comic book hero was Storm from "X-Men." Storm is amazing, but for a long time Storm also was pretty much all Black girls had in terms of representation. So I'm wondering if you had a favorite superhero before making this movie, and whether elements of that character became part of Nile's development.
Growing up there actually wasn't a specific superhero that I gravitated towards except, you know, Spider-Man. I dug Spiderman. But in terms of a Black female hero that wasn't in my consciousness, which is what I love about what is happening now with "Black Panther," with "The Old Guard." And with, you know, Storm. Certainly there's a lot of percolating, you know, about that character getting a film.
I didn't really have a template growing up of that, but it was exciting to me in reading "The Old Guard" and seeing that this character was there.
What was important to me – and again, what Greg was actually open to do – was elevating her character. I really wanted this to be Andy and Nile's story. I wanted their relationship and what the two of them were going through simultaneously, but also affecting each other's trajectory, absolutely I wanted that to be at the forefront.
I wanted to make sure that Nile had a full backstory, had a full arc, that she was integral to the climax and to the plot. And that was something that was missing a bit in the graphic novel.
But Greg had recognized that on his own. I had started working towards that when he got to the script stage. And then when I came aboard, that was something that he and I really worked on a lot. I wanted to see that character, I wanted to put another young Black female hero into the world, and it was certainly important to KiKi as well . . . because so many of us haven't had that hero to look up at when we were little girls, and aspire to be.
I'm going to cue in on a word you've used a lot, which is "warrior" – and partially I'm asking about this because I just wrote about the fact that there've been so many stories over the years featuring white women as warrior heroes and so few featuring Black women.
When you think about, two of the most prominent recent Black female warriors that come to mind are played by Danai Gurira: Okoye from "Black Panther" and Michonne from "The Walking Dead." There aren't that many others onscreen besides those two. I'm wondering if you, as a director, have any ideas as to why it's taken so long to open up the range of who gets to portray these heroes to not just Black women, but women of color in general.
It's hard to say that it was deliberate, but it's hard not to think it's deliberate: the erasure, the invisibility of Black women in stories that Hollywood puts out. And it's not enough that it might be a Black woman as, you know, the third or fourth characters. In terms of us being centered in stories and in different stories that show the breadth of our humanity, that has just not happened.
Given the rooms that I've sat in and the nonsense I've heard from studio execs, I think foremost, they just don't connect to it. And so they have no desire to put money or time or thought behind that.
They see themselves in "Iron Man" even though – give me a break, you know? But they see themselves in that character. Or they see themselves in "Joker." They don't see themselves in Storm. And so if they're not seeing themselves, their assumption is, "Well, nobody else is going to care either." That's what's so damaging, that as opposed to, "I may not have lived this character's life, but I can see the value in this person's life."
They haven't seen our value, and it's incredibly disheartening.
Because it's so important for us to be able to see ourselves in a way to be inspired by and aspire to be, but for the world to see that too. When the world can see our humanity, you know, on film and television, then you hope and pray that that translates to real life. Obviously it's no mystery. The way that we are treated, so much of that is because for decades on decades people were fed a narrative about us, whether it be a negative narrative that weaponizes our Blackness or an invisibility where we don't exist.
And it's been tough and it's gonna take decades to rectify it, but let's start now and put more of us up on screen in these roles with Black folks behind these narratives.
That segues into my next question about the backgrounds featured in "The Old Guard." Greg's choices seemed very intentional in terms of their respective eras and the people what they represent. With that in mind, I want to talk about Quynh. I hadn't read the comic before watching the film, so I'm wondering if she was in there and if so, and what era she would have been from.
In the graphic novel, the character is named Noriko and she's Japanese. When I started casting we cast a wide net in terms of Asian actresses, and Veronica [Ngo], she was great. I was excited about her.
It was just a thing foremost for me, but then also Greg, that we wanted the characters up on screen to be reflected truthfully in terms of their nationality. And so, once I knew that Veronica was really the one, I talked with Greg again to make sure that it could make sense. What era did she come from? Could she had been around when Andy found her a couple thousand years ago?
And he did the research that he does with all of his characters, and it absolutely did have a perfect storyline that worked in terms of when she would have been alive and the culture that she was in. So we wanted to make sure it was truthful to Veronica and then truthful to the story. [Editor's note: Vietnam's history includes a tradition of prominent warrior women.] And I wanted to honor the character. . . . she has such an interesting trajectory in the film.
Without giving away any spoilers, are there aspects of the story that maybe didn't make it into this film that you in broad terms would like to see in future installments? Or have you even thought ahead that far?
Quynh's character obviously has a big part in the future. The one thing that was in the graphic novel and in the original script that we couldn't do – it was really a time thing, and a question of focus – what I would obviously love to see everyone's backstory of how they came into being an immortal. Ultimately we decided we've got to focus on Andy on this one. But in the graphic novel with Nicky and Joe – those two, the way that they meet is so great.
It would've been so much fun to shoot and it's just so visually stunning and emotional. And so I hope that if we gets another film, that that is certainly part of the story.
The ending leaves the possibility very open for future installments. If a sequel gets greenlighted, would you be open to coming back and directing again?
Foremost it is absolutely up to the audience . . . you just never know. I hope that the audience loves it and wants to see more. It was very important that the film itself has a beginning, middle, and end because I get annoyed by movies that leave things wide open. This was absolutely part of what the graphic novel was and how it ended.
Like, as someone in the audience I want to know what happened, ultimately. So I did love that bit of a tease. But it is up to the audience. Greg has always envisioned it as a trilogy, in terms of this graphic novel. So if the story gets to continue, you know, there's certainly more stories to tell.