We’ve heard about the tight-knit core Guardians of the Galaxy cast, wrapping up their three-movie arc as a team, but what’s it like coming in at the tail end of that? As it was for both Will Poulter, as Adam Warlock, and Chukwudi Iwuji playing the sinister High Evolutionary? Paul Rudd once told a story on Conan O’Brien’s podcast about his time as a recurring character during the last two seasons of Friends. After filming the final episode, the core cast and producers were all huddled together in an emotional embrace. And Rudd, as a joke, joins the group hug and says something to the effect of, “What a ride.” According to Rudd, this didn’t go over very well. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, there’s a similar scene involving Poulter’s Adam Warlock deciding if he should join a group hug that looks like there’s at least a hint of truth to it.
Both Poulter and Iwuji have tough tasks. In a movie with, already. a lot of characters, Poulter has to define Adam Warlock to audiences. Here’s a character who was incubated in a metal cocoon (teased back at the end of Guardians 2), and in the comics can come across as a very serious blowhard. Poulter’s version does retain some of that self-seriousness, but because he came out of his cocoon too early, he retains some childlike qualities that makes him an interesting nincompoop.
Iwuji has quite the challenge. His High Evolutionary is, well, a pretty sinister dude. A villain who snaps the universe’s population in half? That’s so big and ludicrous that it’s just a fun thing for a superhero movie. A guy who performs experimental surgeries on animals? And kills animals? Well, that’s a thing that can get the blood boiling in audiences. His High Evolutionary wants Rocket (voiced by Bradly Cooper, and Sean Gunn in flashbacks) back, considering Rocket his property. He sends Warlock to retrieve Rocket, setting off the events of the film that find the rest of the Guardians in a fight for their friend Rocket’s life. With all this, Iwuji, who has a long background in theater, decided to take his performance big. And, ahead, he explains why this was critical.
(Also, it’s nice that Puolter and Iwuji both genuinely seem to like each other. This isn’t always the case during paired interviews.)
This movie messed me up. There are laughs, but the underlying theme of this movie is sinister.
Chukwudi Iwuji: It is. Honestly, I mean, you can’t really have one without the other. I think from the moment that James started working on this, he knew he wanted to end with Rocket’s story. And we have been offered the luxury of not lingering too long with Rocket’s darkness because of his sharp wit and how we love him and his banter and stuff. But we’ve had all these clues from the first moment he takes off his shirt in the first one in prison and you see the marks of torture and stuff. So, if we were going to really go for his story, and that’s what we were just talking about with James is that he doesn’t sell himself or the audience short.
This could have been done where we do Rocket’s backstory, but we avoid pain and we avoid too many tears. We really go there so that when you do laugh, it’s earned. The relief of laughing. I was cleaning my eyes with tissues because Rocket reminds me of my dog and I’m doing these horrible things to the dog.
I think we’re all thinking about our pets during this movie.
Chukwudi Iwuji: Exactly. Something hilarious then happens and Drax says something funny that just makes you laugh so hard. So, it’s the wonderful embodiment of the tragic clown. You know what I mean?
I am curious when you first read the script, when you’re like, okay, what’s this guy’s diabolical plan? And you’re like, oh, I see, this is really intense. Look, destroying half the universe’s population is one thing. It’s so big it’s like, okay, whatever. That’s fun. But doing operations on animals, I think people can relate to that and it really affects people, if that makes sense.
Chukwudi Iwuji: It completely does. In fact, my agent saw the screening before I had seen it and she said she went back home and hugged her dog. She talked to me funny for two days after that. But no, honestly, you’re right. I think by bringing it into the microcosm of our lives, you know what I mean?
But, actually, to bring it back, which was sort of the Guardians in the first place – in the sense that we’re talking about misfits. It’s one thing to have misfits that are actually really competent and superpartners, and that have misfits that are really sad, broken people. James Gunn’s greatest strength is character. And the whole point is that we can have the Thanos of the world and stuff and we love that stuff. Or you can have someone that you recognize when you think of the stuff that goes on with animals all the time, the rescue centers.
When you bring it to that, the microcosm of our lives, it hits hard. And having a filmmaker that can give you that microcosm set in this galactic world and make you really think and cry for real and associate yourself with things you deal with every day is very rare. And if there’s a superpower, that’s James’s superpower in doing that.
Did both of you know these characters very well before doing this? Because I assume no. I’ve read comics my whole life. I had to buy a reissue of Strange Tales #178 to catch up. You’re both in it.
Chukwudi Iwuji: Oh really?
In the comic Adam Warlock can be a blowhard. And you play him so well as a kind of a nincompoop.
Will Poulter: Right, right. Yeah, that’s a great one, “nincompoop.” Makes me think of The Wind in the Willows. I was given a first edition by my agent and yeah, it was very, very cool to get that as part of research materials and read through that and see the crossover and the backstory between us – and understand that and the expectations on Adam’s shoulders and then how he falls short of that. He emerges from his cocoon early and comes out in this sort of underwhelming way. It doesn’t live up to what the Sovereign or the High Evolutionary hoped for him. And that was really kind of necessary to read that and kind of inform my prep and then how James and I crafted the character.
Watching a blowhard on the screen isn’t always that interesting. So, it’s funny to see a guy who is a blowhard, but also, like I said, is kind of a nincompoop, which is really funny. Did James come up with that? Do you come up with that?
Will Poulter: I mean, I think James has take the credit for that kind of idea, certainly. And I’m just lucky that my kind of interpretation of it aligned with what he was going for. And I think that we were looking at someone kind of in the infancy – someone at the early stages of their introduction to the world – trying to navigate lines of morality and establish who he wanted to identify with, what he wanted to represent, and literally working out the rules of life and making mistakes along the way. And that gave rise for, I think, some humor. But also the opportunity to play the drama of making those mistakes and dealing with themes of life and death and good and evil. So it was a really, really fun complex tapestry to unpick with him. And I was really grateful for a multi-dimensional character and not just… I hadn’t heard the term blowhard, but a “blowhard” character.
To get these roles did either of you think about, or at one point try to pretend that these were your favorite characters your whole life?
Chukwudi Iwuji: I mean, for me, I didn’t quite go as far as saying he’s my favorite, but he quickly became that because…
Oh, now I suspect he is. Yes.
Chukwudi Iwuji: If you said to me, like five years ago, okay, we need to plot a away for you to end up in five years time in a Marvel movie, let’s do it now. That would’ve been impossible. It was not in my history. It was not likely to happen. And suddenly, to be given this role, of course he’s going to become my favorite character because it was just not in my trajectory at all as far as I was concerned. So, he is just such a joy to play them. So, he is by far my favorite comic character because I’m having a chance to play him.
Will Poulter: Yeah, I would echo the same. I didn’t know Adam prior to getting the role, but now kind of has to be my favorite. And you know, you’ve got to make friends with that part of your psychology, certainly, when you’re playing the role.
With the High Evolutionary, you’re really going for it in this. I’m sure you’ve put a lot of thought into how do I play this sinister person who’s doing these terrible things? Were you like, look, this guy’s doing some fucked up stuff? I have to have some fun with this is going to be too grim?
Chukwudi Iwuji: Yeah, you have to find that balance, you know, you really do. I mean, playing a villain is deceptively tricky because you need to know your audience. How I would play a villain in a Michael Mann movie is very different from how I would play a villain in this. There are a dozen things you have to do. We wanted to be true to the villainy. We want it to be true of the grotesqueness of what this guy does. But at the same time, it’s a Marvel movie. People have to want to watch you, right? They have to want to enjoy you. They have to love to hate you. They have to for this to really work.
So yes, it was a balancing act, which was a combination of whatever I brought to James watching it, knowing the genre better than anyone out there. But also what the script was telling me. But I think there’s something innately fun and seductive about a villain. You have to find a way of having it grounded but really enjoy playing it so that people will enjoy to hate you. So those people will hiss at you, but at the same time can’t wait for you to come back – whether it’s so that you can get your comeuppance or whatever, they want to keep watching you. What a great lesson for me in my progress as an actor, as a performer, to learn how to try and put all those things together. Because I was thinking about the Bond villains. I’ve loved Bond villains.
Oh, yeah, I was thinking of Bond villains while watching you…
Chukwudi Iwuji: The mad scientist. The Dr. Frankenstein. I was thinking of Dr. Moreau, all these people I’ve watched. I’ve been thinking about everything Gary Oldman did for that period when he was Dracula to whatever, how he could bring the theatrical and tame the camera screen.
I kept thinking of him in The Fifth Element with you…
Chukwudi Iwuji: Yeah, The Fifth Element! When in The Fifth Element, that was the biggest… Basically, everything that guy has done from True Romance, Fifth Element, Dracula, all that was there. Alan Rickman was another inspiration.
Gary Oldman is off the charts in True Romance, by the way.
Chukwudi Iwuji: I know! You have to be able to go big, but go. And I always make this distinction that when you’re acting characters like this, it’s not about real life, it’s about whether we believe you and whether you believe yourself. It’s more about truth than real life. That’s the important thing.
Something you said, I have to follow up. Do audiences still hiss?
Will Poulter: [Laughing]
I haven’t seen an audience hiss in a while, but we should bring that back.
Chukwudi Iwuji: Well they did clap when the High Evolutionary does some stuff.
Will Poulter: [Laughing] Yeah, there’s definitely a very visceral vocal reaction.
Chukwudi Iwuji: But you’re right, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a hiss in my life, actually.
Will Poulter: If I may say, though, so much of what he does in this movie is so arresting and captivating that you know you are so scared and simultaneously so kind of magnetically drawn to him that sometimes all there is to do is just kind of watch and be completely silent. And he kind of commanded hundreds of people’s attention in the room at multiple moments throughout the film that it was unbelievable to watch, to be in a cinema experience and literally see a giant screen completely tamed by what he was doing. It was unlike anything I’ve experienced.
Chukwudi Iwuji: I just Zelle’d you. And coming from this guy who, I saw this guy in the Son of Rambow.
Oh, yeah, last time I talked to Will was for Detroit. Very different performance.
Chukwudi Iwuji: The versatility, it’s kind of slightly sickening because he’s also a very nice guy.
There’s a scene with Will where you do an awkward hug, basically a, “Should I join in or not?” situation. I feel that was real. Because you two are coming into this close-knit cast. It reminds me of this story Paul Rudd tells about when he was on Friends. He basically says after filming the final episode the core group is hugging and crying and as a joke he joins in and says, “What a ride, right?” And they did not find it funny at all.
Will Poulter: [Laughs] I hadn’t thought about it like that, but it was literally a physical metaphor … yeah, yeah, exactly. Although, the only difference being, without wading into spoiler territories, if I may say, coming into this as a newbie, I felt like we were both embraced massively by the core cast, by the legacy cast and the legacy Guardians. They couldn’t have been more welcoming and accepting and made us feel more at home. And that makes your job as an actor coming into these situations a lot easier and a real joy.
Chukwudi Iwuji: But there is a weird dichotomy of it being the end of the story for this group in many ways. But literally being our first introduction.
Will Poulter: Right!
Chukwudi Iwuji: Hopefully, very much a beginning for us. So you have to say, okay, how do I navigate this moment and stuff? Because it’s a very different end for them than it would ever be for Will and myself.
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