HEAT VISION

Gemma Chan on 'Let Them All Talk' and How She Wound Up in 'Eternals' After 'Captain Marvel'

Gemma Chan
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
The actor thought she was done with Marvel, until Kevin Feige approached her during awards season 2019: "We'd love to have you back. We’d love to make better use of you."

Whether she’s playing an alien sharpshooter, android or powerful socialite, Gemma Chan has emerged as one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. Such adaptability is again on display in Steven Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk, as Chan plays a literary agent on behalf of Meryl Streep’s acclaimed novelist, Alice Hughes. While Soderbergh and screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg provided the actors with a “bible” that included key exposition, Chan and the rest of the cast improvised their dialogue for the duration of the film. Besides the pressure of improvising, Chan had to do so alongside Streep — one of the most, if not the most, celebrated actors in Hollywood history.

“You can’t not be a bit intimidated and a bit over-awed when it’s Meryl Streep, and you improvise opposite Meryl Streep the first scene in the film. It was really nerve-racking and you could’ve heard a pin drop in the restaurant,” Chan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We did the first take and we just jumped in. There was a little bit of a stop-start thing that was slightly awkward, and she just reached over, squeezed my hand, looked me in the eye and said, ‘We can do this.’ She was so gracious. And I’m sure that Steven, in his way, engineered that to be our first scene together. My character is meant to be on the back foot a bit.”

In August 2019, Chan turned heads when she was cast in Chloé Zhao and Marvel Studios’ Eternals since she had just played Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel five months earlier. The Kree tactical sniper also met her end courtesy of Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), which further complicated matters. But, as expected, it was eventually learned that Chan would play a different character in Eternals, an immortal named Sersi.

“My character dies in [Captain Marvel], so I thought there was no chance that I would really be coming back, which I was a bit bummed about,” Chan explains. “But then I encountered [Marvel Studios boss] Kevin Feige during the awards circuit for Crazy Rich Asians and out of the blue, he just came up and said, ‘We'd love to have you back. We’d love to make better use of you. We want you to do something else, so let’s find that project.’ But, to be honest, I had no idea that it would be so soon.”

Chan still had to go through the audition process as she was one of the last actors to be seen for the role of Sersi. She also screen-tested with Richard Madden, who plays Ikaris. Overall, the experience ended up being markedly different from her first go-round in 2019’s Captain Marvel, and the same goes for her character.

“It felt very different. It’s a really epic story. Very ambitious,” Chan shares, “I feel like it’s going to be a superhero movie that is not like a superhero movie. That sounds like a very obvious thing to say, but they’re trying to do something different with this film. So we’re all crossing our fingers that it works and that people respond to it. We shot a lot on location, using a lot of natural light. There wasn’t that much bluescreen stuff, which I did quite a lot of on Captain Marvel. [Sersi is] very empathetic and her powers come from an unexpected place.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Chan also discusses what it was like to shoot a movie on a working ocean liner, the unusual filmmaking methods of Soderbergh and her experience on Olivia Wilde’s highly anticipated Don’t Worry Darling.

So Let Them All Talk kicks off with a lunch scene between you and Meryl. Was it as intimidating as most of us might expect?

Well, yes. You can’t not be a bit intimidated and a bit over-awed when it’s Meryl Streep, and you improvise opposite Meryl Streep the first scene in the film. It was really nerve-racking, and you could’ve heard a pin drop in the restaurant. It was weird because it was an improvisation, but I had 20 bullet points of important exposition or information that I had to drop into the conversation. So I was running through those in my head and wondering how I could steer the conversation in that direction. So it was the trickiest scene to do for me, but she was amazing. She was really lovely, really warm, but yeah, I was definitely shitting my pants. (Laughs.)

Did she find a way to disarm you since she probably encounters this on every single set?

I imagine so. She was really sweet. We did the first take and we just jumped in. There was a little bit of a stop-start thing that was slightly awkward, and she just reached over, squeezed my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “We can do this.” She was so gracious. I was just super anxious. And I’m sure that Steven, in his way, engineered that to be our first scene together. He’s incredibly smart, and yeah, hopefully it added to the dynamic of the scene. My character is meant to be on the back foot a bit. (Laughs.)

Are you able to handle the food as you see fit? Or does Soderbergh give direction for how much or how little it’s addressed?

He left it up to us, really. I think we were asked what we wanted to eat and we were given a tomato salad thing, so it wasn’t going to be too difficult to eat. But yeah, in the back of your mind, you have the continuity of it. You just have to eat and drink as if it was a real lunch, otherwise it would look weird, I suppose.

Was there a moment early in production where you first realized why Soderbergh has the reputation that he has?

Yes, I’d heard that he shoots very quickly and that he’s incredibly efficient, but I had no idea until we got onto the ship and you see how he’s doing everything himself. It’s a really skeleton crew. He’s in a wheelchair because there’s no traditional dolly or any of that stuff. So he’s in a wheelchair, holding a camera, and we would do these tracking shots along the deck and he’d just be rolling along in a chair alongside you. He’s very hands on, but he’s just so unfussy and he creates such a great atmosphere on set. He really allows you to just get on with the work and be completely in character. He gets out of the way, and I just love that about him. I can’t really speak highly enough of him. He’s wonderful.

Was this your first time working with a director who also photographed their own movie?

No, I’ve worked with a couple before who either shot it themselves or they’re very hands-on and shoot bits of it. But this is definitely the first time I’ve worked with a director who shoots his own movie and then goes away in the evening and edits it while you’re in the bar. So he’ll be sitting in the corner on his laptop, doing it as you go along, so that was definitely a new one. He’s just incredibly efficient. I just don’t know how he does it.

Since you play a literary agent, did you pull characteristics from your own agents? I know it’s a different focus, but did you call them for insight?

(Laughs.) There were elements that I pulled from agents that I’ve encountered and known. I actually shadowed a literary agent in New York before we started filming because I wasn’t as familiar with the ins and outs of that kind of agenting. So I was lucky enough to go and spend some time in the offices, eavesdrop a bit and have a look at the kind of contracts and the deals that they do for their clients. Obviously, nothing confidential, but they very kindly allowed me to glimpse into that world, so that was really useful.

So what was shooting on a real ocean liner like? Did you just shoot around everybody else on the ship?

So there were just passengers on the ship. It was a regular crossing. We shot around, but also, I think Steven wanted to include people that wanted to be included. So there would be notices up saying, “If you would like to be an extra in this scene, then go to the planetarium at 2 p.m.” So there would be a little group of people waiting when we arrived to set up for the scene and they would be put into the scene as background. So yeah, people on the ship, if they wanted to be involved, they could. It was really nice. It was very relaxed. It wasn’t too crowded, and people seemed to really enjoy us rocking up at different parts of the boat. “Oh, hello again,” and then we’d set up and start shooting. (Laughs.) It was a unique experience. It feels like such a world away from where we are now, the idea of taking a cruise with hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Gosh. Well, hopefully, that might be a possibility another time.

I loved your disguise during the speech.

(Laughs.) Thanks. I actually had a more dramatic disguise on at first. I should also say that we used a lot of our own clothes in the film. Ellen Mirojnick, who’s a wonderful costume designer, also brought in some extra bits for me. I don’t think my wardrobe was quite fancy enough for some of the things that my character would’ve worn as a high-flying agent from New York. But she said, “Oh, just bring some of your stuff that you might want to wear as a disguise in the scene.” So I wore glasses and the hat, and then I sat there for ages in the audience. And Steven didn’t even recognize me. (Laughs.) He said, “Where’s Gemma? Are we going to do our coverage?” Then I raised my hand and I was like, “Steven, I’ve been here for the last hour watching things.” (Laughs.) And he was like, “OK, that’s too good of a disguise. You’re going to have to take away some of the bits.” There we go.

You touched on it already, but how much did you actually improvise?

We improvised a lot. So Deborah Eisenberg is a brilliant writer and I really enjoyed her short stories. She worked with Steven on the overall “bible” of the film, as we called it. So it’s a detailed scene-by-scene treatment that was almost written like a short story or a short novel, but the dialogue was almost completely left up to us. So yeah, like that first scene with Meryl, I just had the bits of information that I knew I had to mention, like the Pulitzer Prize and how to offer her the crossing on the QM2 [Queen Mary 2 ocean liner]. But the actual back-and-forth and the dialogue was up to the actors. So it was a lot of that.

Does that include your incredible response to a certain question that Lucas Hedges’ character asks?

Yeah, completely. We did two versions of it. I didn’t know exactly what he was going to do. I just knew that this was a scene that was going to end up with a very awkward moment, and that it was the crux of what we’d been building up to. And it felt really real. What I love about working in this way is that you don’t say anything you don’t mean. You’re not forced to say words that don’t feel right, so you just completely go with it and you get these moments of absolutely raw tension or excruciating embarrassment or whatever. It’s just completely organic and real, and when it works, it’s brilliant like that.

There’s a scene where you have to explain yourself to Meryl’s character, and instead of hearing the dialogue, Soderbergh placed music over the entire exchange. And yet, you can still interpret exactly how the scene is playing out. I presume these circumstances would disappoint most actors, but when something is executed on that level, do you immediately say to yourself, “Yeah, that’s the right choice”?

At the end of the day, you do have to defer to your director, especially if it’s Soderbergh, and trust their judgement. I think it works beautifully at that point in the film. No, I don’t get too hung up on things like that. I generally trust their choices — if it works. (Laughs.) Which it does.

Shifting gears, in Captain Marvel, your appearance was heavily altered as Minn-Erva. In similar cases, there’s usually language in the contract, or an understanding at the very least, that you’re still eligible to return in another role that more resembles you. So even though you probably knew that the door was still technically open, was there any indication that another Marvel job would come along so soon in Eternals?

No, not at all. Not in the contract, really, and not during the job. I enjoyed the job and I loved working with Brie [Larson]. But my character dies in the film as well, so I thought there was no chance that I would really be coming back, which I was a bit bummed about. But then I encountered Kevin Feige during the awards circuit for Crazy Rich Asians and out of the blue, he just came up and said, “We'd love to have you back.” I’m going to paraphrase really badly, but I guess he’d seen the film and said, “We’d love to make better use of you. We'd just love for you to come back. We want you to do something else, so let’s find that project." But, to be honest, I had no idea that it would be so soon. So, yeah, it was just really nice of him to say that.

Did you still have to do the usual audition process, or was it streamlined in a way?

No, I definitely still had to audition. I screen tested with Richard [Madden], and I think I came in right at the end of the process actually. I believe they had seen a lot of people for this role. It was the most difficult role for them to find the person to play this part. So I believe I was the last. Again, I don’t think they were particularly expecting to bring me back within a year of Captain Marvel coming out. I imagine they thought it might be sometime in the future, if at all. So it took us all a bit by surprise.

We’ve been hearing some amazing things about Eternals, and it also sounds very different from Captain Marvel, not just the material but the way it was made. Generally speaking, how would you describe the experience?

Oh gosh. What can I say without alerting the Marvel spoiler police? You’re right. It felt very different. It’s a really epic story. Very ambitious. There are lots of new characters. I feel like it’s going to be a superhero movie that is not like a superhero movie. That sounds like a very obvious thing to say, but they’re trying to do something different with this film. So we’re all crossing our fingers that it works and that people respond to it. We shot a lot on location, using a lot of natural light. Yeah, again, it felt very different. We did some stuff in studio, but a lot of stuff on location. There wasn’t that much bluescreen stuff, which I did quite a lot of on Captain Marvel.

If you had to tease Sersi with one adjective, what word would you choose at the moment?

She’s very empathetic and her powers come from an unexpected place. That’s more than one adjective, sorry. (Laughs.)

Going back to Captain Marvel, please tell me that you actually shot the Nerf dart in Brie Larson’s face. The movie cuts to a close-up of her so you can’t really tell who or what fired it.

(Laughs.) I did! We had a lot of fun in that scene. Yeah, I absolutely loved that.

So I first got to know you via Humans, and I thought you gave one of the most convincing performances ever in terms of Synth or android-related characters. In your own estimation, what was the key to playing an effective android of sorts?

Well, I loved doing that show. The key for us was a lot of physical work with a choreographer who devised the Synths’ movement in the show. Everything came down to first principles in that no movement would be done unless it was the most efficient way of doing something. So that basis informed how we moved our eyes, how we would turn around and what would lead the movement. We had to relearn how to do every little thing from just how we would walk across a room to sitting down to how we would get up and open a door. So we did a lot of movement workshops on that, and you had to have that embedded in you. I found it really, really difficult, and we also had to learn to be ambidextrous. You couldn’t really lead with your dominant hand and I’m very, very right-handed. And apparently, I have an overactive left arm when I walk, which means I swing that arm more. So all those little things that you wouldn’t realize that you’re doing all had to be taken to a neutral place because you definitely don’t want to be thinking about them when you’re acting. And then, the other challenge was that my character had to be showing signs of sentience and that something else was going on in these staggered layers beneath the surface. So yeah, it was a challenge to plot what would be revealed, and when, in terms of showing those signs of something going on underneath. I found it really, really hard, and people often say to me, “You made it look so easy.” But I think I came home from the first day of shooting on that job and was almost in tears. I was like, “I just can’t do it. It’s too difficult. No one’s going to believe it and I just don’t know how I can be me as an actor within the constraints.” The constraints were all the things that I’ve just described. So thank you for saying that it worked. But yeah, just for now, I’ll stick to playing human characters. (Laughs.) It’s a lot easier. And then, you can cry, you can be snotty and you can do all of those things that are just normal. So that’s what I’ve pretty much done since then.

Did you find yourself moving like a Synth during your off days?

God no. Absolutely not. I took every opportunity to slouch or collapse onto the couch. It was a relief!

Is there anything new to report regarding Astrid and Crazy Rich Asians?

I don’t have much more news beyond what’s already out there. I know that the studio wants to make another two films. [Director] Jon M. Chu, who is a very busy man, is really keen. I know [novelist] Kevin [Kwan] is really keen. I think everyone wants it to happen. We’re just trying to figure out when that might be. So hopefully, there will be some news next year. Yeah, I mean, I’d love to do another film.

What’s the most insightful note you’ve ever received?

I worked with a director called Dominic Savage. Coincidentally, his work is mainly improvisation. So he will also write an overall treatment, and then you will improvise the dialogue. It’s very intimate, the way he works. So I did a one-off TV drama called I Am Hannah and it’s about a woman at a crisis point in her life. So he said, “Bring your own shit.” I think he was giving me permission to really allow my own thoughts and feelings around the subject matter, and what my character was going through, to come in. When I first started acting, the emphasis was very much on transformation. The drama school I went to was all about giving you tools so you can really transform, which can be an amazing and incredible thing when that’s appropriate. But I’d always been a bit weary of bringing too much of my own stuff. Not that I didn’t, but you always felt like you had to coat it or slightly disguise it. Whereas he really gave me permission to just go there. I suppose it helped that it was improvised as well, so I could just completely access my inner feelings about what was going on in the scene. So that was freeing, and when I allowed myself to do that, I was just like, “Actually, do you know what? It’s OK. I don’t have to necessarily do an accent, put on a different voice or a different mannerism and try to cloak the parts of me that were coming through.” So now, I do feel that it works the best when it’s that sweet spot between something that’s not you, but is a lot of you as well.

Generally speaking, how is Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling going for you so far?

We’re currently still filming. Olivia is brilliant. I jumped at the chance to work with her. We had a COVID shutdown for a couple of weeks, so we’ve been slightly delayed. So we’ll be shooting till after Christmas now. But no, it’s great. I love the world that they’ve created in the film, and the cast is amazing. I love Florence [Pugh], and the rest of the guys are great. So yeah, hopefully, it’s all going to come together. And yeah, I can’t say too much about that either. There’s a lot of secrecy around the plot.

Do you feel safe on set for the most part?

I do. I feel very fortunate to be working during this time. I think everybody feels that. The fact that we’re able to even attempt to get a film made makes us feel very, very, very lucky. And we have an incredible team who are really on the ball, so they caught it. Yeah, the processes and the safeguards are all very stringent and rigorous, so you do feel safe. It’s very different. What I love about being on set, usually, is getting to know the crew. They’re like your family when you’re filming, but it’s much harder now. There are crewmembers whose faces I have never seen and probably will never see on this shoot. (Laughs.) So I’m getting to know people in a different way. And yeah, everything does take a little bit longer, but this is the world we’re in now. So, again, we just feel very lucky that we’re able to be working.

Interview edited for length and clarity. Let Them All Talk is now available on HBO Max.

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