Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and the Joy of Playing Villainous Goddesses

If superheroes have one thing in common, it’s not so much capes or extraordinary abilities but memorable foes. As its spoilery title reveals, the new movie “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” (a sequel to 2019’s “Shazam!”) has supersized its antagonist factor by going for immortal divinities, plural.

Which is how Billy Batson (Zachary Levi), whose nom de superhero is Shazam, and his pals find themselves battling the daughters of Atlas as they do the kind of things power-mad mythological beings are wont to do: unleash oversized beasties, flatten entire cities and point menacingly into the distance.

“A good thing about being about magic and gods was that they didn’t have to be in a similar age or anything like that,” the director David F. Sandberg said by phone. “We could just cast the best people we could get.” That turned out to be Helen Mirren as the bossy eldest sister, Hespera, and Lucy Liu as the steely Kalypso. (Rachel Zegler, from “West Side Story,” plays younger sibling Anthea, whose relationship to humans is more ambiguous.)

Sandberg quickly realized that Mirren, 77, had not come to play — or maybe she had. “We had to talk her out of doing certain stunts that she wanted to do,” he said.

In a video interview, Liu, 54, and Mirren displayed an easygoing rapport, along with a few differences in temperament and approach. Calling from Los Angeles, Mirren dispensed lighthearted jokes and pretended to be a quasi-gadfly at this whole acting thing, while Liu, who was in New York, brought up the ins and outs of portraying an antagonist. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Hespera and Kalypso are introduced as gods rather than goddesses. Is it an important distinction?

LUCY LIU We’ve been talking about this, trust me. It’s “Fury of the Gods,” and I was like, “Shouldn’t it be goddesses?” We thought, “We’re already in that realm, as long as it’s not human, we’re fine.”

HELEN MIRREN See, I love being an actress. It feels very Belle Époque, very sort of 19th century. Certainly if I’m a god, I would think of myself as a goddess, I have to say.

LIU During press, we generally say that we are goddesses. [They both laugh.] This will be the only time I could say that.

“It’s ‘Fury of the Gods,’ and I was like, ‘Shouldn’t it be goddesses?’ We thought, ‘We’re already in that realm, as long as it’s not human, we’re fine,’” Lucy Liu said.Credit…Warner Bros. Pictures

What drew you to sign on for your first superhero movie?

MIRREN We’re above the superheroes. [Laughs] I don’t go see a lot of superhero films, quite honestly, but I had seen the first “Shazam” and been utterly charmed. So when “Shazam 2” came along, I thought, “Well, if I was going to do a superhero-type movie, that is the one I’d like to be involved in,” because of the wit.

LIU To have that experience with one another — outside of working on the blue screen and not really knowing exactly what was going on — was really special. I don’t immediately think about the characters as much as the relationship that was built from that time. We were all learning what we were supposed to be doing, and isolated. We were luckily in the same Covid pod with one another.

Were you surprised to see that your outfits would be so gladiator-like?

MIRREN I now have a lot of sympathy and respect for any man playing a gladiator because they are carrying one hell of a load on their shoulders, as I found out. The costumes are heavier than they look. And we were wobbling around on enormous platform shoes — gladiators never had to contend with huge, great high heels.

LIU And the cape! We would ask oftentimes if we could un-cape ourselves because it was so heavy. It would just pull everything down our shoulders and pull the armor back against our necks. I had them cut mine shorter. Helen’s was longer and heavier than mine.

MIRREN With me it’s all about the look. If it looks good, I’m going to suffer it. Also it covered up my bum.

Is playing a god different from playing a regular antagonist?

MIRREN It’s a different psychology because you don’t have to deal with normal human psychology, which is great. We didn’t have to consider “Why is this villain doing this? Was she abandoned by her mother at a young age?” My stand-in did some of a scene when we walk through a marketplace and I was telling her how to do it like a goddess: “You have to walk as if you’re walking through honey or cream or butter or whatever. You have to absolutely own the space.”

LIU I do think there is a delight in having a mission, and having that intention helps you have a straight line that you’re following regardless of what’s happening around you. We worked with the sibling rivalry, the level of experience that each of us had. In the beginning I’m guessing that everyone thought, “Kalypso is going to be so strong and powerful,” but then Hespera grabs her head and pulls her back. That’s the dynamic and those are the nuances that we have engaged in because, as Helen said, we own who we are — we’ve been given this, we were born into it, and so the struggle is the disagreements between each other and our opinions, essentially.

For a long time female baddies used sexuality as a weapon, which is not the case here. Do you feel this reflects the ways we now conceive of women’s power onscreen?

LIU Yes, it’s not a femme fatale. I think back in the day they would not have made “Wakanda Forever” with a female lead — they probably would have replaced Chadwick Boseman or had another male lead take over. I still think there’s a long way to go. And I do think that there’s sometimes a little bit of a stereotype or stigma where if a woman plays what the audience perceives as the antagonist, she automatically falls into a group or some sort of prescription of what was in the past, as opposed to creating something new and dynamic.

MIRREN You did “Charlie’s Angels” and for someone of my generation, it was a huge sea change: full force, fearsome women action. But controlled by a man, so even though it was a massive step forward, there was still that anchor holding it back, in a way. Now that anchor has been let go, thank God. We move forward in a different way, hopefully.

“The costumes are heavier than they look,” Helen Mirren said. “And we were wobbling around on enormous platform shoes — gladiators never had to contend with huge, great high heels.”Credit…Warner Bros. Pictures

LIU If you can believe it, that movie was made 23 years ago. When it was first out on television, it was, “Here’s the sexy one and here’s the one that’s smart.” You always had to categorize it in order to make it sellable: Which audience member prefers which kind of girl? Now it’s very different. It’s moving in the right direction.

Who are some of your favorite movie villains?

LIU One that happens to be in a superhero movie is the Joker, somebody who has mental illness or is different and becomes ostracized, then assumes a position of power. Cinema doesn’t always portray them as people that are just born evil — that’s not as interesting as somebody who has become something to survive. That fight or flight becomes their way to journey through the world. Unfortunately, often it’s just with destruction or pain against others.

MIRREN I would say, Ian McKellen playing Richard III is one of the greatest supervillains of all time. “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” He declares his evil intentions in that very first monologue: “I hate you all and I’m going to [expletive] you up. You just watch me.”

It feels that doing Shakespeare would be great prep for a supervillain’s grandstanding rhetorics. A lot of that style goes way back.

MIRREN I was just thinking the other day that those great ancient verbal poems people learned by heart are superhero stories: They are about guys who have super strength and can go in and kill a whole army. There’s big descriptions of the way their swords cut through everybody. They’re totally superhero stories. I was wondering why superhero movies seem to be eternally successful and I thought, “Well, of course, for thousands of years these are the stories that human beings have been telling to entertain each other and excite each other and frighten each other.”

Do Hespera and Kalypso have action figures?

LIU We have these Funko Pops with our exact outfits.

MIRREN We do? Oh, good, I want one.

LIU Rachel sent a picture of the three of us and said, “It’s like we’re hanging out,” and I was like, “Yeah, during Covid because we’re all in boxes.” Somebody brought it up to me to sign, so now I know it’s real, the project has now been franchised.

Lucy, has your son seen the film?

LIU He’s 7, and I told him, “I think there’s too many scary things in the movie.” He said, “I’ll just wait until I’m 10.” He’s obsessed with Helen, and when he was 5 he said he was going to marry her. She’s magical for all ages.

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