This summer, women are shattering the glass ceiling … with their fists.
The slate includes a number of high-profile releases with powerful female characters at their centers. These fearless women are bad enough to slug it out with men, aliens and even Tom Cruise.
In “Atomic Blonde” (July 28), an MI6 operative conducts a dangerous mission on both sides of the Berlin Wall. It’s hard-boiled genre stuff in a brutal and stylish package with actress-producer Charlize Theron in the lead.
“When we make these movies with women we want to give them so much of an empathetic story,” says Theron. “It has to be a revenge story, or there have to be children involved. … I can’t tell you how many times I said in meetings, ‘You don’t need to excuse her for being a woman. We don’t have to point out she can have babies or she loves her husband or her brother or whatever.’ ”
Theron’s character, Lorraine Broughton, encounters all the things male spies usually do in these stories – the fights and betrayals and sex with femmes fatales.
“The sex scene, people were like, ‘Wow, oh my God!’ like none of this exists,” says Theron, laughing. “Trust me, women pick other women up and have hot sex. The first thing I heard was, ‘No, but does she fall in love?’ She doesn’t need to fall in love; it’s OK.”
Director David Leitch says, “To have this unapologetic female character was the goal – to have no distinction as to whether you cast a man or woman in this role, it would be bad ass no matter what. It is feminist in that way. I embrace that label wholeheartedly. She gives as good as she gets. She has to be smarter. She has to be tougher.”
Indeed, Lorraine’s opponents – all male – are bigger and stronger; she has only skill, guile and guts on her side. Nevertheless, she persists.
Theron, who also stars in this spring’s action-packed “Fate of the Furious,” says, “I don’t want to stand on my soapbox and say it’s not happening; it is. I’m in this movie and I’m 41 years old. That’s a feat. I’ve got to hold that up and acknowledge it. But at the same time, I wish more women would have these opportunities.
“We need some more brave producers and filmmakers out there who want to spearhead projects from the beginning for women. There’s a handful of women out there who could kill this market, and I don’t think we’re taking advantage of that. And audiences love it.”
Leitch knew he was in good hands with Theron as his lead. “With Charlize, I said to her before we started, ‘I’m not going to take for granted I’ve got an Academy Award winner. We’re putting the movie squarely on your shoulders and we’re going to watch you for an hour and 45 minutes go through this …,’ and she was up for it. You can’t do that with everybody,” says Leitch.
“She’s as tough as anyone on my stunt team, and my stunt team will tell you that.”
On the flip side, costar Sofia Boutella, an accomplished dancer and one of the more dynamic physical performers to come along in recent years, relished dialing down the aggression that made her so memorable in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Star Trek Beyond.” In “Blonde,” she might be a master spy or she might be an ingénue.
“I loved playing a character that’s slightly more vulnerable, on the sweeter side,” she says. “It was refreshing to me.”
Boutella shows more of her range this summer by also taking on the iconic title role in the Tom Cruise-starring “The Mummy” (June 9).
“I said no to [director] Alex Kurtzman at first because I had just finished ‘Star Trek’ and I was under a lot of makeup and I thought, ‘This is just never gonna end,’” Boutella says. But Kurtzman sold her on delving into the psychology of the role made famous by Boris Karloff. “To me, it’s more interesting to find out why a monster becomes a monster – more than a monster walking around and destroying everything. There’s a monster in all of us, and what you see is someone who’s unleashing that.”
Meanwhile, “Wonder Woman” gives rising star Gal Gadot a solo movie as perhaps the most famous of all female comic-book characters, after drawing wide praise for being the best thing about last summer’s tepidly received “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Director Patty Jenkins sees it as the business model of filmmaking finally catching up to the demand.
“Look at ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and look at ‘The Hunger Games,’” she says. “You can see that the world has changed. There's a massive audience interested in a female lead, but I also think there are many other types of leads that will finally start to come to the [production] floor as well. The day and age is over where only one kind of person can lead a universe story.”
Strong leading women are certainly no fad for storied writer-director-producer Luc Besson. His filmography includes “La Femme Nikita,” Natalie Portman’s breakout performance in “The Professional,” Milla Jovovich’s memorable turns in “The Fifth Element” and “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” and Michelle Yeoh as Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in “The Lady.”
His new sci-fi adventure, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (July 21), may drop “Laureline” from the “Valérian and Laureline” billing of the French comics, but it expands the female lead’s presence from the stories on which it is mostly based.
“They’re always together, Valerian and Laureline,” says Besson, sitting beside his Laureline actress (Cara Delevingne) in a Hollywood restaurant. In the film, the “spatio-temporal” agents must save a hub of intergalactic trade and culture. But Valerian is a little higher ranked than his female counterpart, which irks her to no end, Besson says.
“The whole movie, I just can’t stand it,” says the laughing Delevingne.
Besson says, “We play [with] that, because it’s a reflection of today. Women are paid an average of about 30% less than men and they don’t have as high responsibility much of the time, so this was a funny way of showing it. She’s saving the day most of the time, not him.”
Delevingne pipes up: “She does most of the work!”
They make quite the odd couple: Delevingne , 24, tall, lithe, haute-couture and mischievous; and Besson, 58, the rumpled seen-it-all, done-it-all auteur, a seriousness to his speech.
“She’s free,” says Besson of the actress casually pinching his ear as he tries to speak. “So she’s not scared to try. Sometimes people fear they’re going to look ridiculous so they try to do half of it. She’s not scared.”