“I’m Totally Addicted”: Zawe Ashton Has Caught the Marvel Bug
The Marvels star talks playing an alien villain and giving her all to the MCU.
The Marvels was not the first Marvel film to feature a musical number, but director Nia DaCosta’s take on it might be the most memorable. Halfway through their first joint mission, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) travel to the planet Aladna to protect its citizens from the Kree. The catch is: Aladneans speak only in song, forcing Captain Marvel to intone her feelings in order to communicate. It’s all a bit mortifying for her, of course — but it’s all over by the time Dar-Benn, The Marvels’ Big Bad, comes to wreak havoc on the planet. Unfortunately, that also meant that The Marvels star Zawe Ashton wasn’t able to harmonize with her arch nemesis.
Ashton doesn’t have a lot of regrets about her time on The Marvels set, but in an interview with Inverse, she admits that missing out on the film’s big musical number was one of them: “How did I go to that planet and not sing?” As the vengeful Kree warrior with a major grudge against Captain Marvel, Dar-Benn doesn’t have a huge appreciation for lyricism. But Ashton still made an attempt to explore her more musical side, going so far as to pitch a rap interlude to director Nia DaCosta. “I was like, ‘What if Dar-Benn dropped some bars at this point? Wouldn’t she have just a really sick, I don’t know, Nicki Minaj kind of rap style? I don’t get it. Why aren’t I part of this?’”
Alas, Ashton’s role in The Marvels was less about joining in on the fun and more about putting an end to it. But that doesn’t mean that the Velvet Buzzsaw actor didn’t have a fun time on set. Ashton calls her stint in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe “one of the best experiences” of her decades-spanning career. Sure, she didn’t get the chance to flex her musical muscles as Dar-Benn, but she did get her first taste of real, blistering action, an opportunity she won’t soon forget.
In an interview with Inverse, Ashton discusses the importance of diversity in film, the joys of playing a villain, and the challenges of shooting action sequences after giving birth.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’re a big champion of underrepresented voices in film. What made The Marvels a significant project for you?
I am more passionate than ever about the idea of legacy in what I do and the things that I commit to. When I first met Nia DaCosta — our director, who is the youngest-ever director of a Marvel film and the first-ever Black woman to direct a Marvel film — it wasn’t for Marvel. It was for a tiny independent project. And then Covid happened and we weren't sure if our industry was ever going to come back.
On the other side of it, she contacted me to do this film. My entry point was really her and the idea that she was going to represent all of these firsts in this universe. And then, when I found out the detail of the script and the representation that was going to happen across the board… look, it’s not the reason you do a film, but it creates all of this meaning whilst you are doing it.
There also aren’t that many female villains of color, so just the idea of taking that on felt huge in a way. Because inside me was a little girl who loved fantasy movies growing up and loved epic movies growing up. The posters and the movies just didn’t have that representation, so there was never the iconography there to sort of hook you in. Movies just weren’t being made in the same way at that time. So it means everything to be part of this film, and to be able to finally talk about it as well.
Nia DaCosta is a huge Marvel nerd. What were the conversations like when you were building out your character?
There’s not that much that’s really known about Dar-Benn. Dar-Benn isn’t necessarily that huge a presence in the comics. I think that’s why it was attractive to Nia and Kevin [Feige] and the whole team. They could sort of start fresh and build out parts of the backstory that weren't necessarily already on the page in the comics.
Our conversations were really about, I suppose, the genesis of how Dar-Benn had come to be in the position that she was in. I think we kind of did have to start from scratch in lots of ways. I mean, the Kree are obviously a huge part of the universe and that was really an entry point. These people that have had to endure. These people that have had to struggle. As an actor, I love to take those bits of information and just start to really layer it up with real-life examples, and start going deep and start getting really human about it.
Then, of course, Dar-Benn has this rival in arguably, if not factually, the most powerful person in the universe. Captain Marvel was a huge thing to really think about and contend with. How do I fight this person? How do I believe that I could take this person on? Realistically, how do we go at it? Those were big conversations as well.
“Captain Marvel was a huge thing to really think about ... How do I believe that I could take this person on?”
I’m sure the film’s core trio got ample time to bond. Did you get to build a rapport with Brie, Teyonah, and Iman behind the scenes, or were you sort of sequestered?
I did a lot of this film very much in a bubble because so much of what we shot was separate from the three of them. I’d been doing it on my own for a really long time, and then suddenly we were all in the room together and it was like, “Whoa.” Certainly when the cameras were rolling, there’s a different kind of energy, because I was working out who they were and who they’d been for the past two months or whatever, and they were working out, “Who’s the villain? Who have we been talking about all this time?” So it was really sort of a “life imitating art, imitating life” moment when we finally were all in a scene together.
But I don’t know, I just think sometimes when you play a villain, you have the best time. I had jokes, I had fun. There was laughter. It was hard to keep a straight face sometimes. But the chemistry between the three of them is undeniable and was so great to feed off of, and want to break up and get in between.
The fight sequences in The Marvels are so kinetic and fierce. What was it like training for them?
At this point, I just famously get really choked up when I talk about the stunt team and about the journey. It was genuinely one of the best experiences of my life. I guess like anyone coming into these films, you are a blank slate. On my first day in the stunt gym, as we started to work out who this woman is, how she moves, what her intentionality is in her movement, I started to work out how far I’m going to be able to push myself as a person, how far my mental strength is going to be able to go in terms of thinking about sustaining these fights over these long shoot days. There were just all of these pieces that you put together. It can be so overwhelming if you don’t have the most beautiful, kind, gentle (ironically) stunt team ever. These are the people that really make these films.
“I wouldn’t recommend hanging from a harness three months after giving birth, but I did it.”
I started really rubbish, and they really, really empowered me and hopefully made me good by the end. I did absolutely as much as I could. I always stepped up to second unit. “Give me more, give me more. As much as I’m allowed to do, I want to do.” They were girl fights as well. There’s something about women fighting women and beef between women. It has a slightly different vibration, I think. And it was exciting just to throw everything at that: to not hold back, not censor, to just be as full-on as possible.
I did half of the movie before becoming a mother and the other half after becoming a mother. I wouldn’t recommend hanging from a harness three months after giving birth, but I did it. And just as a personal piece of joy and pride for myself. I did it and I was supported, and I was really, really happy every single day. It sounds like a bold-faced lie, but we were happy in that gym.
Do you have the stunt bug now? Are you on the hunt for more action-heavy films?
Oh my gosh, yeah. I do have the bug. You realize all the people who have been making these films for a really long time are so committed and so fit. I thought shooting would just be like, “hair flip, then punch.” But there are all these different ways that you have to commit to the physical life. But I’m totally addicted. Once you get the hang of it, you really do want to do more. I would love to work with this whole team again, Andy Lister and Liang Yang and just everyone.
I know Dar-Benn’s fate is kind of definitive, but have you guys talked about her possibly returning via the multiverse?
Anyone who comes into this universe wants to continue because it’s just addictive. You start to love these characters and you start to love the play of it. You never get to play as an adult, really. Getting back into that child mentality with aliens, lasers, and space… It’s just so freeing.
I would like to do more. But even if not, this is such a wonderful film in terms of what it represents and what it does. If I got to do more, it would be amazing. But I honestly can say, hand on heart, I lived life to the fullest on this movie. Not all of it made it to the screen. Of course, it never does. (That’s why you need to watch the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray.) But I just felt so happy, and I had the best time, and I’m just really grateful. Anything else, honestly, at this point would be a bonus.
The Marvels arrives on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD on February 13.
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