Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and the joy of playing villainous goddesses in Shazam! sequel

Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren in Shazam! Fury Of The Gods. PHOTO: WARNER BROS DISCOVERY

NEW YORK – If superheroes have one thing in common, it is 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,” 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 played Hespera and Kalypso’s younger sibling Anthea.

Sandberg quickly realised 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 light-hearted 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?

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.”

Mirren: See, I love being an actress. It feels very Belle Epoque, 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.

Remote video URL

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.

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: 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.

Zachary Levi (left) and Helen Mirren in Shazam! Fury Of The Gods. PHOTO: WARNER BROS DISCOVERY

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

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 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.

Liu: 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 categorise it in order to make it sellable. Now it’s very different. It’s moving in the right direction.

Lucy Liu in Shazam! Fury Of The Gods. PHOTO: WARNER BROS DISCOVERY

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. NYTIMES

  • Shazam! Fury Of The Gods is showing in cinemas in Singapore.

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