For Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne, ‘The Old Guard’ action sparked new confidence
Many film productions choose to start shooting with something simple to ease into the long grind of making a movie. “The Old Guard” kicked off with an intense hand-to-hand fight between Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne inside the tight confines of a cargo plane.
In the action thriller, now streaming on Netflix, Theron plays Andy, short for Andromache the Scythian, who for more than 6,000 years has been fighting battles all over the world. Layne plays Nile, a U.S. Marine who discovers her own new powers of immortality when she recovers from having her throat slashed while deployed in Afghanistan. Andy recruits Nile to her small band of immortal fighters from different eras, who battle injustices across the globe.
For Layne, “The Old Guard” was only her third significant role in a feature film, following “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Native Son,” and her first action role. So starting the first day by taking on Theron, star of action extravaganzas “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Atomic Blonde,” was understandably intimidating.
“Are you kidding me? Oh my goodness, I thought she was going to kick my ass,” said Layne. “I mean, that day I was just kinda like, ‘Really guys, I already have first-day jitters, but now my first day is this? I’m going to get on this tiny airplane and I’m going to fight Charlize Theron. What?’
“But looking back on it, I’m actually very grateful for it, just because I think it gave Charlize and I a great place to start off in really building this relationship between Andy and Nile,” Layne added. “The action sequences are just an extension of the storytelling. And that’s such an important moment in the story for those two characters.”
Theron, also a producer on the movie, added, “I felt like it was important for me and Kiki to kick it off just because I wanted us both, not just her, I wanted us both to feel really confident going into this film. I knew it was her first time [filming action scenes], but I was really nervous too. So it was good that it was something that the two of us could really nail and walk away from feeling super confident, and that is what happened.”
For Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed the film from a script adapted by Greg Rucka from his own graphic novels, that first plane fight also set the tone for the action in the rest of the movie. Spotlighting long takes staged to show the actors doing their own fighting whenever possible, the camera is often at eye level so the audience feels they are watching something real right in front of them. Many images in the film are rooted in Leandro Fernández’s illustrations for the graphic novel.
“The Old Guard” makes Prince-Bythewood the first Black woman to direct a big-budget comic book adaptation. Best known for her emotional romantic dramas “Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights,” the filmmaker has spent the last few years purposefully trying to break into the action genre. She directed the pilot for Marvel’s “Cloak & Dagger” series and spent a year and a half working on the superhero project “Silver & Black” before it was scrapped by Sony.
“I love the genre and I love where it was going in the last couple of years, where they really felt like action dramas — ‘Logan,’ ‘Black Panther’ — these great action films that had me crying,” Prince-Bythewood said. “Really cool, interesting filmmakers were given the opportunity to bring their aesthetic, and I certainly wanted the chance too, and so some of the decisions I’ve been making in the last couple of years were definitely about moving toward that.”
The production company Skydance came to Prince-Bythewood with “The Old Guard” almost exactly when “Silver & Black” was shut down. The filmmaker found many of the same themes and ideas to grab onto in the new project.
“Everything happens for a reason, and it really had all the elements that I’d wanted to bring to ‘Silver & Black,’” she said. “It had two female leads, and one was a young Black female, and the characters had depth to them and they moved me. I loved the organic diversity of the whole piece, that it’s this group of warriors from different cultures and backgrounds and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to save the world. I just really loved the beauty of that, and the story kept surprising me. I was hoping I could bring that same thing to an audience.”
Moving from the relatively modest budgets of her previous features to the scale of “The Old Guard,” shooting in England and Morocco, Prince-Bythewood surrounded herself both with collaborators she had worked with previously, such as editor Terilyn Shropshire and cinematographer Tami Reiker, and crew members who had more experience making action films, including visual effects supervisor Sara Bennett, costume designer Mary Vogt, production designer Paul Kirby, fight coordinator Danny Hernandez and stunt coordinator Brycen Counts.
Amidst all the action, the relationship between Andy and Nile — one worn down by centuries of fighting and unimaginable loss, the other newly processing that she will see everyone she loves die — gives the movie its emotional center.
“I talked to Kiki a lot about how her training for this film was going to be a big part of her rehearsal and building the character,” said Prince-Bythewood. “When you’re thrust into that unknown, training is so incredibly hard to do. And she was doing two-a-days, five days a week, for months. But the building of her body, the building of her swagger, her confidence, was absolutely part of her rehearsal.
“It was also in training with Charlize and having an example there of someone who has done it before, who knows what they’re doing, who can show you what it’s going to be like. And that dynamic, that actual veteran-rookie dynamic in training, absolutely translated to the screen.”
Layne agrees that the dynamic between herself and Theron was present both on- and offscreen.
“It was actually pretty cool,” said Layne. “You have Nile entering into this life and Andy, who has experienced so much of it, and it was the same thing for me. I’m still learning about making films, period, but now I’m also learning about making an action film. And then being able to be on set with Charlize, who has such a wonderful career because she’s done so much — she hasn’t been put into a box, like a lot of actors are.
“I have a very strong work ethic, I’ll come to work very prepared, but sometimes I think because I’m still so early in all of this, I don’t quite trust myself as much,” said Layne. “And so it was really wonderful to be on set with someone who very much trusts herself and trusts in the work that she’s done and trusts in what she knows she’s bringing to the set.”
Theron recalled how while training for “Atomic Blonde,” she was in the same gym as Keanu Reeves as he was preparing for one of his “John Wick” pictures and she would look to him for an idea of what that sort of preparation was supposed to look like. For “The Old Guard” she was able to provide that same sort of guidance to Layne.
“If you don’t know what it looks like, it’s nice to see somebody else do it with you or next to you. And so it’s more that than it is, ‘Let me tell you how to do this, Kiki,’” said Theron. “She’s formidable, physically, which was shocking to me to find out that she had never really done anything physically. Her body just doesn’t tell that story, but it meant she had to work really hard. And she did.
“I think our relationship was one of encouragement,” Theron said. “You need encouragement when you do this stuff because it’s tedious and you have to be consistent with it. And the biggest part of it is just actually showing up every single day. If you have somebody else who’s doing that, then it definitely, like, puts a little fire under your ass and you do more of it.”
While Theron has been through the rigors of training for a production before, that did not make the months of preparation any easier. Trying to look like a warrior who has been fighting for millennia as opposed to the scrappier styles of “Atomic Blonde” or “Fury Road” provided its own distinct challenges.
“The biggest difference is just style,” said Theron. “I play a character that’s lived 6,000 years and she’s a martial arts expert, in all martial arts. It’s just humanly not possible to do that. … If you break the movie down, at one point I am doing a move to represent that I can basically fight in all martial arts. So the technique was really hard on this one.
“It had to feel effortless. It had to feel like watching Baryshnikov dance. That’s really, really tough to do if you’re not a martial arts fighter. That was definitely the hardest thing. I think that’s the biggest feedback I kept getting: ‘Make it look easier.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, this is not easy.’”
Both Layne and Theron have taken elements from the film forward in their lives since production wrapped. Layne continued with her boxing training and looks forward to picking it up again post-pandemic shutdowns. Theron got over a fear of horseback riding she has had since an accident as a teenager and now plans to adopt three horses and build her own stables.
As a movie directed by a woman with two women at its center, “The Old Guard” goes against the often regressively macho conventions of the action genre.
“This is a genre that women have never dominated. So it feels really good to say that we made this movie and that we didn’t add on to this problem that we’re facing in our industry,” said Theron. “And that it wasn’t that hard. That’s the thing I want people to know. It’s not that hard to make a movie that feels fair and equal, it really isn’t. And at the end of the day, you only benefit from it.”
With so many big-budget movies moving their release dates, “The Old Guard” is the main action movie of the summer so far. And with the global reach of a Netflix release, the film’s intentionally inclusive ensemble and implicit message of gender equality onscreen and behind the camera is being pitched at an audience as broad as any traditional summer blockbuster.
“My hope is that I can give each character a full life,” Prince-Bythewood said. “But the heart is two women leading it. And what I love so much about that is they are warriors and there’s a normalcy to that in this; there’s no big traumatic event that happened that suddenly made them find their strength.
“Courage has no gender, bad-ass has no gender. They just are. The more that we can start to recognize that in our female characters up onscreen, then hopefully that permeates into the world.”
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