One of the first things we saw as we stepped out of our bus on the Shepperton Studios lot outside of London was a golf cart carrying Captain America.
Suffice it to say, spending a day with The Avengers is very strange.
While I've attended set visits for many of the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I did not visit the set of “The Avengers.” I've met each of the individual members of the team, many of them in costume as these characters, but there's something different about being on a set with all of them at once.
Between now and the May release of “Avengers: Age Of Ultron,” the mega-sequel to one of the biggest films of all time, we'll have a number of reports from the set, where I joined a large group of journalists to not only watch a key scene from the film being shot, but also to interview pretty much every major member of the cast.
At this point, Robert Downey Jr. has become a familiar face, and I've had many conversations with him about his work as Tony Stark. The latest began with another reporter asking Downey about his reaction to Joss Whedon's script for the sequel.
“First of all… he”s a good writer.” Downey loves it when he gets a laugh out of a group of reporters, and when he does, he steers into it, enjoying the reaction. “I always tend to think, generally speaking, is this a movie I wanna see? 'Cause all the fine points are gonna get worked out. There are gonna be so many squeaky wheels along the way, many of them practical and others… creative departures or differences or whatever. To me, this kinda started with the third 'Iron Man,' which is like, 'I'm gonna read the script. Who wrote it? Shane Black? I like it.'”
Another big laugh from the assembled reporters, and Downey seemed energized by it. “I was done with the first draft and I said, 'Cool. I like it.' Kevin was, like, 'Wait, what did you just say?' I'm sure there [were] a bunch of iterations and things that changed over time. I read the second and then the third draft, and he”s continuing to write even as we”re setting up shots. He”s going, 'Oh, I want it to be [this] or I'm bringing back in a line that was in the first draft or whatever.'”
We brought up some comments that Whedon made about how he had many of his ideas for the second “Avengers” even before he officially signed on to make the first film, and asked Downey if he knew where Whedon was heading, specifically with Jarvis, The Vision, and Ultron.
“Not really,” Downey admitted. “Honestly, I didn”t really even get to know Joss until we started this movie, because 'Avengers' was so… I don”t wanna say disorienting, but it was a thing where it was like this very kind of well-managed, compartmentalized attempt to do something unprecedented, and I didn”t feel necessarily the stress of it. But I could tell that it was a little bit of a different approach to the process. I remember the first time saying, 'Look, scene one should be Tony.' And he was like, 'Alright, scene one isn”t Tony.' I was like, 'But it should be.' As it turned out, it was really smart the way it all worked out for everyone.”
We asked where “Age Of Ultron” finds Tony as the film begins, considering where we saw him at the end of “Iron Man 3.” One reporter suggested that the end of “Iron Man 3” saw Tony reach a place where he didn't want to wear the suit anymore, a suggestion that Downey didn't totally agree with.
“I would counterpoint that by saying that I thought the third 'Iron Man' was about him transcending his dependence on the merits of continuing to wear your wound. And I thought that was kind of what Shane and I thought was the real win, was that he throws that thing that had become a dependency away. That was the question I was always asking, like, 'Why doesn”t he get those shards out? It”s dangerous.' So it kinda reminds me of all that stuff, particularly as you get a little older or if you have any existential queries whatsoever. It”s like, 'Why aren”t I dealing with that which is going to destroy me any second anyway?' The armor was kind of an extension of that, and also there were just so many suits. I think he realizes that tweaking and making all the suits in the world, which is what he has been doing, still didn”t work for that thing of his. His tour of duty left him a little PTSD, so his focus is more on how can we make it so that there”s no problem to begin with, so that there”s a bouncer at our planet's, uh, rope. That”s the big idea.”
We mentioned another comment from Whedon, where he said one of the big themes in the film is the way power destroys, and we asked how that applies to Stark. “I mean, honestly, I think it”s probably the best thing Joss decided to go after.” Downey struggled to find the right way to describe it without giving too much away. “There are a lot of dots that could have connected a certain way… [and] there”s that theme of 'Could it be that we”re the problem and therefore the bad guy?' It”s hard to call Jimmy Spader the bad guy. He”s scary and he”s bright and hurting and all that, but his thought is, like, 'I see what”s wrong here. And guess what? It”s y”all.'”
Downey knows the value of a well-deployed “y'all,” and as he rode out the laugh, we asked him about one of the sets we visited, where we saw the aftermath of a party thrown in what used to be Stark Tower, since rebranded as Avengers Tower. “I see it's just leveled,” he said. “This guy can't throw a party. I don't know why that never gets old. Maybe it would get old if it happened again, but this time, it just feels like it's the norm. It's like when [John] McClane has to run over the broken glass.” He went out of his way to praise production designer Charles Wood before talking about the difficulty of working on the actual camera-ready surface, which he described as “future ice,” saying there was a fair amount of slipping and sliding while trying to do stunts and action scenes.
Asked about Tony's relationship to Ultron, he considered his answer. “Every impulse starts off as a positive impulse. Even the impulse to kill starts off as an impulse to change, to rail against, to challenge the authority in a very direct and permanent solution to a temporary problem. Tony's solution… becomes the problem in a way that”s really kinda interesting and also ties in to The Vision.”
One of the most revealing things Downey said was about the way the market is in danger of becoming oversaturated by superhero stories, especially ones told at a certain scale, aiming for the same audience. “I feel like there's a half-life to it. Have you noticed just how flooded the market is becoming and likely to become potentially even more so? There has to be a bit of, uh, a transcendence of formula. And so without giving too much away, and why I generally just kinda rubber-stamped it when the first draft came in, was ’cause I thought, 'Oh wow, it didn”t fall into that trap.' And I read the last page and I got chills for a reason I definitely can”t explain.” He seems optimistic about the film overall, and not just because of the script. “There”s a lot of new talent coming in, with Aaron Taylor Johnson and obviously Lizzie Olsen, and just even seeing Paul Bettany within a thousand miles of the set where we”re shooting is just, like, wow. This is gonna be really cool.”
I thought it was interesting that Downey talked about how sequels can sometimes struggle with ambition. “There've been a lot of movies that, even if they didn't entirely work, they headed towards something that was new territory, you know. Whether it was 'Watchmen' or the second and third 'Matrix.' I always feel like if you”re a fan of the first one, I don”t wanna hear anything bad about the next seven.”
He went back to Bettany, and it was obvious that he's been looking forward to this for some time. “There is no one I would rather have the delight of seeing in extreme discomfort than Paul Bettany.” He went on to describe the glee he took each day to watch them applying the various make-up pieces that it takes to transform Bettany into The Vision, and just how stoic Bettany was, no matter how bad things got. “It's the Brit approach to being boiled alive which is just like, 'I apologize, my skin is sloughing off.'”
We talked to him about how Stark's attitude towards Nick Fury has evolved since the end of the first “Iron Man,” especially after the events of “The Winter Soldier.” Downey said, “Regardless of principles… there is a personality factor there that was represented initially in Colson and then in Fury… friendships that developed under bizarre circumstances that are kind of genuine.”
For Tony, “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” marks an important transition. After the end of “Iron Man 3,” Stark feels like he's finally dealt with his first issue. “One of my fifty core issues,” as Downey put it. “Job one roughly taken care of, and I think this is job two. Job two was go back east and get people organized and do what I can. I love that Tony's not one of those superheroes who”s ever lost his money. Which is great. He”s never lost his dough.” He made an interesting comparison between Tony's position in this film and the role of Chris Townsend, the visual effects supervisor on the film. “I think what [Tony] is trying to do is set up shop where eventually this can be… like with our visual effects guy… eventually, you've just gotta hand this over to the vendors so they can finish the job. I think that's what Tony's thinking. Tony is very much a man of science and technology, so how does he reconcile some of the things that some of these characters can do, [things] which are very much not of this world.”
Aha. That opened the door to us talking about The Scarlet Witch. “She's got some different kind of abilities that we've really seen from anyone. I love it. [Her power] can get inside your head. So I just think of it as a kind of a metaphor for relationships. And she's that girl from college who was crazy. Quicksilver, and the way they've been put together and their origins [by Joss] is just like, 'Dude, I never would have thought of that. That's the absolute coolest way you could have done it.'” He had high praise for his young co-stars, calling Aaron Taylor-Johnson “wise beyond his years.” He laughed. “I also think he's just youth, you know? As I'm pushing 50 now, I realize youth is an incredible advantage. Whether you use it or not is another matter.”
Asked how much of the movie deals with Tony and how much deals with iron Man, Downey described the process. “I'm happy to do it for Joss because I trust him. There are a lot of times where, by nature, we're standing around talking about the plot. I would rather do that now than do it in November when the first test screening says, 'Hey, we need you guys standing around talking about the plot more.' As far as action goes… you know I got my beak wet to the point of shutting down production for a couple of months last time, which I enjoyed,” he said, referring to his injury on the set of “Iron Man 3.” I remember learning about it standing on the street in San Francisco, on the phone with a Disney publicist because I was supposed to fly out the next day to visit the set for the film, a trip which was obviously canceled.
He seems to be well aware of the way his role in the film works. “Joss is leaning on me a little bit.” Downey feels like if Tony gets to be snarky about certain things, it lends them a credibility. People are going to buy it if Tony pokes a little fun at it first. “This time around, I just wanna say, in summary, it's been fun. We all have become close. Last time was kind of like, 'Thor's in, Cap's out, Tony's in, everyone's together… twice. That's all they could manage 'cause it was like working with mercury and herding cats. This time, it's that, but we've also all been genuinely developing relationships with each other. I think the start and the end of it is in trusting Joss, that he really, really knows what he's doing.”
Mark Ruffalo is a very different animal when you put him in front of the press than Robert Downey Jr. Downey is one of those guys who loves the game of it. He'll sit there, smiling the entire time, hoping someone will ask him something he can really dig into, and he'll bat back the softballs and never once make anyone feel bad about any of it. Ruffalo is much more of a defensive player. I get the feeling there's a whole lot of himself that Ruffalo's not willing to offer up to the press, and that's perfectly fine. He's always easy to talk to, but there is something essentially guarded about him, which is perfect for someone playing Bruce Banner.
As we sat down to talk to Ruffalo, some of the reporters teased him, asking if he had any good stuff to show them on his phone, referring to an incident that happened on the first “Avengers.” Ruffalo was so excited by the design of the Hulk that he showed it to the people who were on-set, and it seems like Marvel learned how to make sure that couldn't happen again. “I don't have my phone with me. They purposely left pockets out of my costume for some bizarre reason. Maybe that's it.”
Talking to Ruffalo about his character was far more like a sparring match, because he was protective of almost any details. We asked him about a rumored relationship that blooms in the film between Natasha and Bruce, and he looked at us like he had no idea what anyone was talking about. “What kind of relationship?” When he was pushed on it, he seemed like he was about to give it up, but then he shook it off. “I was just happy that I was in the movie at all, um, and any scenes that I got to be in with her were, were, were a big bonus.”
That's a perfect Ruffalo answer. We told him how it feels like Marvel finally cracked how to do the Hulk on film with “The Avengers,” and asked him what sort of balance they strike in the sequel between Bruce and the Hulk. I'm going to run the exact way that Ruffalo answered, without cleaning up any of the stammers or stops or starts.
“Um, there”s, uh, more of him, and, um, and I think there”s still a… I, I don”t think he”s… Banner and Hulk kinda got a… have come to a detente. Um, they're.. I, I, I, I think there's… you know, we left the last time with this idea that, you know, I'm always angry, and, and, and therefore… I have some control over it. But, um, but, like, anger, um… when you think you have control over it, you absolutely don't. And, um, and, so… there's still, uh, a, a, a wrangling going on in the… there is a confrontation, uh, brewing… between the Hulk consciousness and the Banner consciousness that's, uh… that I think we're starting to head into right now.”
I love Ruffalo. I really do. I think he is completely real, and that's why he's guarded. We asked him about the relationship between Tony and Bruce in this film, a fair question considering the way “Iron Man 3” ended. We asked how important they both are in the creation of Ultron, and Ruffalo told us that Tony has made a place for the “orphan Banner” inside the newly-christened Avengers Tower. “I have a lab, and Banner's working on a lot of stuff, and Tony's working on his own stuff, and, you know, they complement each other. You could tell that… they've been working together, and they've gotten even more of a short hand together. That's been built out quite a lot and it's fun. It's cool. It's cool.”
Now that you've seen the “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” trailer, you've seen the Hulkbuster armor versus the Hulk, and we asked about that fight and the motive behind it. We asked if it was a mutual decision, just to see who's tougher, or if there's something else behind it. Ruffalo's whole comment was, “It's a surprise,” and even then, he looked at one of the Marvel employees hovering nearby, carefully monitoring what was said to us.
Instead, he talked more about how Banner's dealing with the group in this film. “I think he's trying to become more a part of a group. I don't think he's ever felt like part of a family or part of something. He's always been outside or on the run or trying to shun humanity. He's trying to really be a part of something and feels more comfortable with the fantasy that he could actually be a part of something. I still think it's a struggle for him and I never think that he quite has it under control. I think in this, he's as close to having a normal life as he possibly could, which might include some romance. Um, but, uh, uh, you know… is that ever possible for Banner really is the question.”
When we asked him how much character building there is for him in the film, he broke it down in a way that no one else did. “There are eight of us, and you're sort of… I worked it out. It's ten minutes of screen time for each of us, and then if we include the bad guys… it's hard to really do a lot of character development in it. But I think this movie goes even more into that than the last one for everybody. You're sort of playing catch-up, but I also think you want to be ambiguous enough not to cover too much ground, so you have somewhere to go if they ever do want to do a… a stand-alone.”
We asked him about how much performance capture there was in the film this time and how he worked with Andy Serkis on the film. “We've done a lot more with the motion capture,” he told us, “and because the face capture and the motion capture can now be put together, you just got a lot more latitude as a performer. So Andy”s been working on this new frontier of taking motion capture, and instead of it just being a place holder for CGI, it becomes more of a collaboration, and the actor really can add performance to it. The last one, we were trying to do that, but it was, it was difficult. Now the technology is taking another step forward. Andy has created a kind of space and this new attitude towards motion capture that kind of honors the actor a bit more than it was in the past. Not that there was dishonor, it”s just an organic process of making those two things work really well together. I see the motion capture as this incredible new place for us to go in performance that we never had before, that”s more like kind of a puppeteering. You are no longer constricted by the attributes that you have as a person, your age or weight or size. None of that matters anymore. And so there”s this whole exciting place to go that is kind of unknown.”
Here's the thing about Ruffalo. I worked with him back in 1994 in a theater festival where i wrote a one-act play that was produced as part of a full evening of one-act plays. Earlier in our same evening was a play that starred Ruffalo, and I used to show up early every night to watch him work. I told him that it feels like he's drawing on the skills you hone in theater like that, tiny black-box theater work, when playing the Hulk, and he agreed. “It”s very much like theater because it”s all, it”s all imagination. You know, you don”t have a forest in front of you in the theater. You don”t have a castle, but you have to put that there for yourself. Whatever theater training I had is very, very much in tune with this, oddly enough. The oldest form of acting all of a sudden meets the newest form of acting, and they”re very compatible to each other. It”s very exciting. Andy has really done a lot to make it so the actor”s driving it.”
As with Downey, we tried to get some comments out of Ruffalo about the powers of the Scarlet Witch and the way she affects the team, the way she gets into their heads. “That's a bad trip,” Ruffalo replied. We asked if that means that she can actually control the Hulk. “She's able to bring out the worst in us,” he said, “and there are people in our lives who can do that. Somehow, when you're an actor, you tend to gravitate to those people. She's that bad. It's like Sid and Nancy. She's the Nancy. She's everyone's Nancy.”
Best. Quote. Ever.
Ruffalo told us that he love “the new kids on the block,” and when we brought up The Vision, he told us, “He is so dope, and, uh, he's my baby. He's pretty incredible, and the idea of him, and where he comes form, he's not… he's very independent. He is a really great character. People are gonna love The Vision. And Ultron's amazing. He's amazing. It's really good.”
We asked him how much one-on-one time he had with Spader as a performer, and he told us they did a number of scenes together, and he could barely contain his glee as he tried to figure out how to describe Ultron. “He's great, and he's… he's gonna be… it's like King Lear. It's great.”
After seeing how much Downey enjoyed Bettany's physical torment, we asked if Ruffalo enjoyed seeing that as well. “All I know is I”m happy that I walk in and I leave the trailer and I can go back an hour later and Paul Bettany”s still in make-up. I”m 46 years old. That makes me feel good. You should see him. He”s, like, he”s, he”s, he”s a specimen when he walks onto that [stage]. He”s like the perfect man. He”s the Vision.”
By this point, Ruffalo seemed like he was having fun. Once he starts smiling, he can't stop, and when we asked him about the party that the Avengers have, the main question was whether he was at the party as Hulk or Banner. “Banner. Indoors, I have to be Banner. That's kind of the rule. It's like leave your shoes at the door. Leave your Hulk at the door. And Hulk still has a little bit of an ADHD kid thing going on.”
In the first film, Hulk didn't speak much, but he made most of those very few words count. “Puny god” remains one of the finest moments in recent blockbuster cinema. Ruffalo said that the amount of dialogue that Hulk would have in the sequel was still in flux at the point that we were on the set. “He's not gonna have a soliloquy,” he pointed out. “Joss has a couple of ideas of where to put the lines. I know where we're headed with it, but he hasn't given me the line yet.”
He discussed the way Banner's story plays into the theme that Joss Whedon mentioned about how power can destroy. It seems like Banner is one of the clearest examples of this, and Ruffalo laughed as he agreed that it is “the essential struggle” of Banner's existence. “He does have that destructive side in him that's not gonna ever go away. [It is] a little fantasy that that might be under control. There might never be a resolve to that. That's because that power is really destructive.”
We asked him how active Banner's search for a cure is in the film, and he told us it's not something that is driving Banner at this point. “It's like you get to be a certain age and you're like… you have to start to practice radical acceptance, or you just keep banging your head up against the same wall. I think he's starting to get to that place where he's like, 'Okay, how do I live with this? How do I make it work for me?' It's like management. It's like having a slipped disc.” Evidently, Stark is encouraging him in this process. “Tony's mantra is like, 'Embrace it, dude,' you know?”
Ruffalo compared the Hulk to a nuclear bomb, something you harness and use in a very particular targeted strike, and he said that it's not just because of the Hulk's destructive force that it's dangerous to use him often. “The weird thing about the Banner/Hulk relationship is the more he turns into the Hulk, the more established the Hulk becomes in his identity. You have these two identities that really want to dominate the other. It's not getting easier to refer to one or the other to be the dominant driver.” Ruffalo isn't sure they can co-exist. “I don't know. It's tough. They're gonna have to work it out, 'cause… there's serious tension there, and it's only growing.”
We'll have much more on “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” between now and May, but hopefully this conversation with two of the returning Avengers has whet your appetite for what's still to come.
“Avengers: Age Of Ultron” opens in theaters May 1, 2015.