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Most actors go their entire career without taking part in a groundbreaking blockbuster, but Connie Nielsen has had the good fortune to have done it twice thanks to 2000’s Gladiator and 2017’s Wonder Woman. Returning to the island of Themyscira for the Imax-filmed prologue in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984, Nielsen reprises her role as Diana Prince’s mother, Queen Hippolyta, and teaches young Diana (Lilly Aspell) a lesson that serves as the theme for the rest of the film. Since she helped usher in Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator and Gal Gadot’s Diana in Wonder Woman, Nielsen can’t help but connect the two genre spectacles.
“I do think that the secret sauce in [Gladiator] — just as it is in Wonder Woman — is a concept of who we can be as societies,” Nielsen tells The Hollywood Reporter. “What are the values, guarantees and norms that provide a continuity for a republic? Those were the questions we were asking in Gladiator, and people felt those values. A hero is someone who exemplifies those ideas and this unconscious understanding that their sacrifice will prevent the sacrifice of millions. That’s the idea, I think, of Gladiator and also Wonder Woman. One person is willing to stand for this idea so that millions won’t have to be living in tyranny.”
In May, the entertainment industry was rocked by the news that filmmaker Zack Snyder had reached an agreement with WarnerMedia’s digital streaming service, HBO Max, to finish and release his director’s cut of 2017’s Justice League. By the time the announcement was made public, Nielsen had already given Snyder her approval under certain conditions.
“Zack had already called me to ask if I would be OK with a reissue of the film with changes. And I asked him, ‘Well, will you bring back the Amazon chapter the way you had written it and had filmed it?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely,’ Nielsen shares. “And then I said, ‘And Zack, will you also bring back my quite incredible stunt, running up the walls?’ And he said, ‘You got it.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, definitely. You’ve got my blessing. Absolutely.’”
Nielsen is also opening up about the reasons why she believes the theatrical cut of Justice League (2017) failed to connect with audiences.
“What was really sad was how much stuff we filmed that wasn’t in the film,” she recalls. “And I think that’s part of what made Justice League (2017) less cohesive as a viewing experience. The intent was not the same during the editing as it was during shooting.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Nielsen also discusses her experience on the Bob Odenkirk-led action vehicle, Nobody, which was written and produced by two-thirds of the John Wick brain trust. She also reveals the clever wrap gift that Jenkins organized for the cast and crew of WW84.
Have you had the chance to see Wonder Woman 1984 yet?
No, I haven’t. I’ve been knee-deep in this other project, Close to Me, that I’ve been shooting. Incredibly and miraculously, we went through almost four months of shooting without a single case of COVID. I am almost afraid to say it. We didn’t dare speak about the fact that nobody had gotten COVID so far. So, no, I’ve been deep in this other project, and I haven’t seen anything. Since we haven’t even had any chance to meet up with anybody, I’ve been emailing with Patty about what was going to happen, and she finally emailed me and said, “It’s with a heavy heart, but it’s also a really important thing to give to people.” I think she sees it very much as something that we should give to people right now, even though it means not opening the film in movie theaters alone. It is so important for us, as filmmakers, to get that movie screen experience, but I think Patty ultimately felt that it was worth sacrificing that and giving HBO Max the opportunity to stream it at the same time. So many people are suffering right now, but HBO Max allows you to sit down with your family and watch the movie in the safety of your own home.
The opening flashback to Themyscira’s Amazon Games features another incredible piece of music from Hans Zimmer, and it immediately reminded me of his work on Gladiator. It would certainly make sense for him to reference his own work given the competition among warriors. But since you know both worlds as well as anyone and were able to listen to this piece of music, did you also hear traces of Gladiator’s score during your prologue?
I am of course reminded of Hans Zimmer’s towering talent, for the umpteenth time. But while it starts out with some of the haunting quality that can echo Gladiator’s incredible score, I feel the Wonder Woman 1984 score tells a new story: that of a proud warrior community of equal women singing in unison. There is joy, hope and an underlying confidence inherent to the score that tells the story of Themyscira.
Young Diana (Lilly Aspell) learns a valuable lesson from your character, Hippolyta, and Antiope (Robin Wright) after taking a shortcut in order to win the games. It’s another reminder that our accomplishments are meaningless if we cut corners in the process. Has this lesson come up between you and your own kids?
Absolutely. I grew up religious. I grew up in a Mormon home, and once I became a teenager, I decided that I wasn’t, in fact, religious. I didn’t believe that humans were the overlords of the world and therefore, that a God had a human form, so to speak. But then I asked myself, as I grew up, “How would I impart moral lessons?” And it became clear to me that we have been spending too little time at universities and high schools talking about ethics and values. Too little time. We’re putting so much emphasis on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], and I do love STEM. I love math and I love science. I think STEM is an incredibly important thing, but without an equal emphasis on values, ethics and morals … And I don’t mean morals in order to bump each other over the head, point fingers at other people, be judge-y or cancel people because they’re not as well-informed as we are about the current values. But rather, I’m talking about a kind of thoughtfulness that comes from questioning what your values are. And one of the things that the Amazons always represented for both Patty and for Wonder Woman is this culture of knowledge, and a love of that knowledge. This philosophy and the love of knowledge are what the Amazons stand for, and one of the things that makes Patty’s film work so special is that she comes from such a firm moral impulse. She always starts her positioning from a moral place of strength.
When you work with a young actor like Lilly Aspell, do you ever act as a mentor and give advice, especially when you’re shooting material that is all about the lessons that are passed down to the next generation?
Well, I wouldn’t presume with Lilly Aspell because she is a force of nature. Even though she’s still a child, I almost feel like saying “this young woman,” because Lilly is a remarkable young woman. One of the things I always try to be careful of is talking down to younger artists. Youth isn’t necessarily an indication of capacity. I’ve met many young artists that have many times the talent that some of the older artists I’ve worked with have. So I just wouldn’t presume to give advice. If some of the younger actors that I work with, especially female actors that I work with, ask me for information or advice on how to position themselves in this particular business, then I always speak from a place of, “OK, for every person, this is different.” I think I usually quote Spielberg: [Nielsen paraphrases.] “Listen to your own passion. Sometimes, it feels like it’s a whisper, and it’s your job to listen to that whisper.” I find what Spielberg said to be so compelling. It’s so hard, sometimes, to hear that whisper because we get so overwhelmed with all of the things that are happening in our lives. But achieving something important in your life by learning to listen to that whisper and amplifying it in your mind over and over by pursuing it, valuing it … I think that’s very important. So I will say something like that, but Lilly is unique in that she has an incredibly strong sense of self and an incredibly strong position. From the get-go, she has had that kind of fearlessness that’s really special.
Had you worn this particular costume in any of the other movies, or was it a new design?
It was a newer design. We wanted to stay with the themes that we had developed already, but they also redesigned a lot of things.
The film is obviously set in the ’80s, but since you hadn’t moved to the States yet, did your experience in the ’80s feel different than the one presented in the movie and its marketing?
As part of the crew wrap gift, Patty organized this ’80s yearbook for the crew and cast who were around for that time, and we put all of our ’80s pictures in there. So I sent my pictures off too, and it was hard because I had to find the one that was the least cringeworthy to send. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I was wearing the little loafers with the white socks, the khaki chinos, this Paul & Shark sweater, and this French beret. And at the time, I thought that I was cooler than thou. (Laughs.)
For Wonder Woman, you traveled to Southern Italy to shoot the Themyscira portion, but you went elsewhere for WW84, right?
Yeah, we shot our stuff on this Spanish island called Lanzarote, which is part of the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco. That’s the good part about playing the Amazon parts of the DC universe. The Amazons live on a Meditteranean island, so that does make it nice. (Laughs.)
Did you and Patty get to spend some time together during your downtime?
I was so jet-lagged, to be honest. So I was not very social at the time, and I so regret it. I remember writing texts such as, “So sorry! I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed.” But I felt awful for being the killjoy. It was a missed opportunity for hanging out and having fun. What’s incredible about Patty is that she actually has it in her to take care of all of us and take us out — even after a whole day of intense shooting. She’s amazing.
I know it happened during the last movie, but the feeling of being on set with nothing but women in Amazon warrior attire has got to be pretty cool still. If I asked you about the likelihood of this in 2000, would you have considered it a pipe dream?
I mean, I can’t even tell you. This was a much shorter experience together than last time. We didn’t get to train together like we did last time where we really built up this incredible team. There really was this team spirit, and I really believed in what Patty was doing on Wonder Woman. She really pulled us all together, even during the workouts to build up muscle to become like the Amazons, and I think it was very much inspired by Zack’s experience on 300. Some of the same people from 300 were on our shoot to create that kind of cohesion, I suppose, and that’s stuff that you can’t describe. It’s behavior that the camera catches and that the eye catches without ever being conscious of it. It just goes straight into your unspoken understanding and intuition about a situation, and I really think that those things make a huge difference when you’re watching a movie. All of those unspoken things and prep work will come out and make a difference in the experience. And when we were on set in Matera and in Ravello and south of Naples along the coast there, those things came out. You could just tell. We’d spent this valuable time together for months and months, and we even had our babies there. But this time, the guys were sitting near the playground, unlike other films where the women were sitting on the playground with their babies. This time, the women were working while, at the same time, maintaining family ties. So it was a very, very unique and special experience on and off set, and those things do translate on set and onto film.
Did Patty bring back as many familiar faces as possible from the first film’s Amazon cast?
Yeah, she did.
You’ve helped introduce two significant heroes into pop culture nearly 20 years apart. Are you able to connect Maximus (Russell Crowe) and Diana’s stories thematically?
Yeah, it’s interesting that you’re saying that. I always felt that Gladiator was one of the first big spectacles, and I think that Russell and Joaquin [Phoenix] felt the same way. It was a very big spectacle, and Ridley [Scott] knows how to make things look beautiful. But I do think that the secret sauce in that film — just as it is in Wonder Woman — is a concept of who we can be as societies. You have something that is ahistorical: an emperor decides we should have this different person lead us so we can go back to being a republic. And I sure think that this is a question that we should be asking ourselves again. How many people in our country know what the difference is between a tyranny and a democracy? What are the values, guarantees and norms that provide a continuity for a republic? Those were the questions we were asking in Gladiator, and people felt those values. People have come up to me for the past 20 years in supermarkets, in particular, when I’m carrying four bags with no help. (Laughs.) And I can just tell from their emotion that they have been touched by some idea. It’s an idea. And when people are touched that way, they can’t quite put a name on it; they can’t quite say why. But I can tell you that me, Russell, Joaquin and Ridley had very, very strong feelings about those values, and those conversations came across in the film as emotion. So I think that that’s what a hero is. A hero is someone who exemplifies those ideas and this unconscious understanding that their sacrifice will prevent the sacrifice of millions. That’s the idea, I think, of Gladiator and also Wonder Woman. One person is willing to stand for this idea so that millions won’t have to be living in tyranny. Perhaps I’m overstating it, but I’m an actor. What do I know?
You previously told me a great story about Zack and how he played matchmaker for you and Patty, resulting in your Wonder Woman casting. Well, the day after we last talked, it was announced that Zack was going to be finishing his Justice League movie. Were you pretty blown away by that news?
Well, I have this thing where I can’t lie. (Laughs.) So I don’t know the timing of one or the other, but Zack had already called me to ask if I would be okay with a reissue of the film with changes. And I asked him, “Well, will you bring back the Amazon chapter the way you had written it and had filmed it?” And he said, “Absolutely.” And then I said, “And Zack, will you also bring back my quite incredible stunt, running up the walls?” And he said, “You got it.” (Laughs.) So I said, “Yeah, definitely. You’ve got my blessing. Absolutely.”
Since Zack recently did some additional photography, did you have to do any ADR?
No, I think we did all of our stuff. What was really sad was how much stuff we filmed that wasn’t in the film. And I think that’s part of what made Justice League (2017) less cohesive as a viewing experience. The intent was not the same during the editing as it was during shooting.
Did you do any Justice League reshoots with the other director who took over for Zack in 2017?
I didn’t do any of those either. I don’t think that other director was that interested in the Amazons. I would have to assume that.
So the response to the Nobody trailer has been really positive.
Oh, I’m so glad!
How did that experience come to be?
So I have this thing where I don’t play wives; I’m not into that. But I got a phone call and they were like, “Yep, this is a wife, but this is a very cool project. In the second iteration, this could be something interesting that you would want to partake in.” And then I read it and thought, “This is such an interesting take on the problem with toxic masculinity. It tells most men that if they don’t answer back toward the aggressions of society, they’re nobody.” And I think that the whole team was just working on setting up this really absurdist view. What if this nobody was just pretending to be a nobody? Or deciding to just be a nobody because they want peace? They don’t want to live inside of that other world where they can and will have a reaction against the aggressions that they meet, the aggressions that people visit upon other people over and over again. What if this person finally refuses to take it anymore? It’s that famous line, “I’m not gonna take this anymore.” (Laughs.)
Since Nobody has John Wick producer/co-director Dave Leitch and screenwriter Derek Kolstad in common, were you already a fan of the John Wick films?
Yes, I’ve seen them all. I’ve loved Keanu [Reeves] ever since I worked with him on The Devil’s Advocate. And God, I could not believe how good that stuff is. I love the whole aesthetic of the series, and it’s filmed by a fantastic Danish DP named Dan Laustsen who I worked with on The Lion Woman. I just love them and they’re so well done. They have such a wonderful tongue-in-cheek thing without being superficial. It allows itself to have emotion, and I like that.
As we wrap, what else can you say about your upcoming series Close to Me?
It’s a miniseries that I just finished for Channel 4 and Viaplay here in Europe. I literally just finished shooting it. And while I was shooting it and finishing it, I realized that it’s been such a long time since I felt like I was doing something pedestrian, normal and real. At the same time, it’s something that’s also insanely rare to see, which is the inner life of a woman during a mid-life crisis. So I cannot wait for you to see that and, as a man, to hear your experience with it. Every time I’ve sat with men and talked to them about what’s going on, they are literally like, “Oh my God, you saying this will help me help my wife, or my mom, or my sister.” So I really cannot wait to talk to you about what these six episodes will tell you about women and what we go through.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity. Wonder Woman 1984 is now available in theaters and on HBO Max.
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