- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
Eternals stars Gemma Chan and Richard Madden know full well how significant their characters’ love scene is in Chloé Zhao‘s Eternals. After all, it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first bona fide sex scene in its 26-film oeuvre. While the impact of the scene is certainly apparent in hindsight, Madden and Chan, at the time of filming, were just trying to portray a 5,000-year relationship between Sersi (Chan) and Ikaris (Madden) as authentically as possible.
“I just saw [the sex scene] more in the storytelling of these two characters and having that intimate moment between them,” Madden tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So I didn’t really see it in the context of the MCU, the bigger picture or Disney, for that matter. I just thought about this film, these characters and that moment. If I’d actually thought about the scale of that or the significance of that, I would’ve been more nervous than you already are when doing a sex scene.”
While shooting the scene, Chan was especially thankful for her shared history with Madden, as the two actors have known each other for at least a decade.
“It helped that Richard and I have a trust with each other and a history,” Chan says. “I could feel that we had each other’s backs in that scene. To do scenes like that can be quite a vulnerable thing, so I felt lucky that I was with my friend.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Chan and Madden also discussed Zhao’s signature use of natural light and how it impacts their performance, and reflected on the shooting days that they’ll never forget.
So the two of you have history together, and your characters also have some major history together. Did you get together early on to chart out this 5,000-year relationship and to also understand how each other works?
Richard Madden: I wouldn’t say we charted it out. I would say we talked a lot about it. We talked about the concept of people who’ve been in love for that long and have seen everything and done everything and why they keep coming back and finding joy within each other. It’s a really beautiful love story to explore. So I think we just tried to explore that delicately from the start and work out how to bring some honesty to a 5,000-year relationship.
Gemma Chan: I mean, it’s hard. How do you do that? How can you really put yourselves in the shoes of people who have been on and off for 5,000 years? (Laughs.) So you have to just try and relate it to your own experiences. I found the idea of two characters who are pretty different actually, but are drawn to one another, really interesting. They keep coming back to each other, and they’ve been through everything together. I found something quite beautiful in that and it was interesting to explore it with one of my oldest friends. As Richard said, we tried to find some moments of truth and intimacy amongst all the crazy spectacle, time jumps and everything else that you get in a film like this. We just really tried to find those grounded moments. How do they make each other laugh? How do they push each other’s buttons? So it was great to be able to do it with someone that I know so well.
Was there a moment early on in production when the two of you first recognized why Chloé has the reputation that she has?
Madden: We were just getting to know Chloé. I had not seen Nomadland or anything. So we were just getting to know our director who I’d not had any experience with. It was just really interesting to watch her as a filmmaker and how she operates and to kind of feed off of that and see how it works with 10 very different actors. We all have different backgrounds and are very different people. So it was always going to be a huge task to somehow wrangle us all into one family. And hopefully, we’ve managed to do that in the movie.
Chan: I had seen her work and was a fan, so I was just really interested to find out what she wanted to do. I then found out she was a fan of the MCU. But she really wanted to do something different, and Marvel really wanted her to do that and allowed that. They really gave her free rein to shoot the way she wanted, to rewrite the script and everything, really. It was certainly her vision, and I think you can feel that. You can feel it just in the way that it’s shot and I think we sensed that on set as well. The movement of the camera, the cinematography and the huge wides, but also the really intimate character beats that she captures so well. Some of the most enjoyable bits were in the montage of Ikaris and Sersi in ancient Babylon when they were wandering through the village. That was all just the camera following us and we were exploring it together, which was really, really fun.
Since Chloé prefers to shoot with natural light, how does that affect your job in terms of your positions and movements?
Madden: It affects things in terms of timing. You end up with a very limited window in order to get the shot that the director wants, which, in a way, can be liberating because you’re only going to get one or two takes of it at the perfect time and the perfect lighting. So that can make it quite exciting rather than a studio setup where you can do it over and over and over and over. You’ve got to bring your A-game because you’re only going to get two takes before the sun is over that mountain and we’ve lost it. We’d have to wait another day for it. So it’s always quite exciting when you’re shooting like that. It’s dangerous and exciting. (Laughs.)
Chan: It’s a challenge, as Richard said. You do have a small window where the light is perfect and it’s weather-dependent as well. (Laughs.) When it’s a bit cloudy or overcast, you’re trying to match that as well. So you really have to be on your toes and ready to just, at a moment’s notice, be right in it and right in the scene. You’re not getting very many takes, often. But it’s definitely worth it. You get some beautiful, beautiful shots. There’s something about being in the elements, and we certainly felt the elements on that shoot. We were in sandstorms and we were on really windy cliff tops. We were soaked and dusty, and it’s hard to replicate that when you’re in a studio environment. There’s just something about being in the elements.
Have the beautiful locations of this movie ruined soundstages for the two of you?
Madden: I still love the soundstage. There’s some really talented people that can make some amazing sets, and there are really amazing lighting designers that can create such beauty.
Chan: They’re incredible.
Madden: But I love being on location; I really do. It has its own set of challenges, but getting to a location and setting up an army is something I always love. It’s exciting and it feeds you with something. But I also love being on a soundstage as an actor and seeing a lot of people’s art come together.
Chan: It’s incredible. I’ve worked with some really talented DPs and crews, and what they can create is real artistry. So each environment has its pros and cons that are specific to what the project requires, but I still like being in the studio as well. It just depends on the project.
The two of you share the only genuine love scene in the MCU. Was this scene yet another indication that you were part of something wholly unique in this universe?
Madden: I didn’t really see it in that context. I just saw it more in the storytelling of these two characters and having that intimate moment between them. So I didn’t really see it in the context of the MCU, the bigger picture or Disney, for that matter. I just thought about this film, these characters and that moment. If I’d actually thought about the scale of that or the significance of that, I would’ve been more nervous than you already are when doing a sex scene.
Chan: It helped that Richard and I have a trust with each other and a history. I could feel that we had each other’s backs in that scene. To do scenes like that can be quite a vulnerable thing, so I felt lucky that I was with my friend.
Richard, did you recognize Kit Harington without 33 pounds of leather and fur?
Madden: (Laughs.) Yes, he looked just like how I see him normally. (Laughs.) Yeah, it was good to see Kit again. I’ve been friends with Kit for years. So it was one of those days on set with Kit and Gemma where you go, “Oh god, I’m not just standing with my friends. I’m actually here to work.” But that’s kind of lovely in a way.
Gemma, I’m sorry for asking you this question, but after working with Richard and Kit, do you now feel like you’ve guest-starred on Game of Thrones?
Chan: (Laughs.) Well, I feel very lucky to have gotten to work with Kit and Richard. And actually, I know Kit as well. So honestly, I would have loved to have had more time with both of them, really.
When you perform your individual powers, do you eventually feel confident while doing so? Or does it always feel a bit awkward?
Madden: It feels awkward. You have to try and build confidence with it and not feel too silly, but that’s just part of our jobs. The people who make all of the visual effects do such a good job, and the more that you commit, the more you help them out with being able to commit on their side. It actually came out exactly how I imagined it was going to. So it was really thrilling to see that come to life because they really bring out the best elements of you. It’s a really strange working relationship. You don’t get to see or interact with these people, but they feed off of your work. And then you get an idea of what they’re going to do and you feed off of theirs.
Chan: It helps to have someone on set who you can ask, “Does this look ridiculous?” (Laughs.) But there were a few moments where I was like, “I still think what I’m doing might be ridiculous.” (Laughs.)
In 50 years, when the two of you are telling stories about your careers to your respective families, what day on Eternals are you going to share with them first?
Madden: I really liked the day that we were out in Fuerteventura, in the middle of the island, and it was so barren. It’s the part in the movie where Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) are living together in the outback. So it was just a really beautiful, surreal environment with nothing around 360, apart from this gorgeous little set. We built this building in the middle of the desert, and it was quite calm, actually. There were six of us there, I think. Six actors were shooting this scene, this kind of family thing, with this huge vista, and there was something calming, beautiful and comforting about being in that big desert landscape.
Chan: One of the most memorable days for me was when we were shooting in the forest, which was meant to be the Amazon. During this huge fight with the Deviants who have ambushed the Eternals there, Sersi is thrown backward into a pool, and then something happens. Afterward, Sersi is shaken and she has no idea how she’s done what she’s just managed to do. Then Ikaris jumps into the water and holds her, and it’s just this really raw moment. It was also freezing cold. Do you remember that day, Richard?
Chan: (Laughs.) Absolutely freezing! But I got to do a crazy scene like that and it was definitely, definitely memorable.
Do the two of you have any rituals or routines that you perform before you head off to set?
Chan: I have to have tea.
Madden: You have tea?
Chan: Yeah, I can’t really function until I’ve had at least one cup of tea. (Laughs.)
Madden: I just want to get to set. I want to get out of makeup, get my costume on and get there. So no delays for me.
When you tell someone that you had a good day at work, what does that typically mean to you?
Madden: I suppose it’s achieving what I set out to do, especially in jobs like this where there’s so much imagination required. You have it in your head of, “How can I play this? How can I make this world real, big and honest, despite us being in these costumes or doing laser eyes and not knowing what the CG is going to be like?” So getting to the end of the day and thinking, “OK, I’ve achieved what I’ve set out to. I’ve hopefully painted a picture that I imagined in my head. I’ve hopefully had a moment with an actor that I can say was found in the moment and fresh and truthful.” And if I can come away from a day achieving that, then I can say that I’ve had a good day at work.
Chan: Yeah, the best days are when you’re in an environment where you feel like you really have the opportunity to do your best work. And it’s also when you feel like you’ve brought out the best in the other actors and the crew as well. It’s when you’re in sync with the crew, who work so, so hard to allow any of these amazing films and shows to be made. I love it. That’s the best part of the job for me, really. It’s when you’re all working together and there’s a real sense of collective satisfaction. Everyone is able to do the job to the highest standard and in an environment where everyone is valued. It’s special.
Eternals is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day