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Something Deeper in Badass Immortal Heroes: Gina Prince-Bythewood and KiKi Layne on The Old Guard

"The Old Guard" uses the characters' near-immortality to raise vital questions about purpose and meaning. It also has stunning action sequences and one of the most romantic declarations in movie history. In an interview, director Gina Prince-Bythewood and actor KiKi Layne, who plays Marine-turned-immortal Nile, talked about setting a fantasy concept in a lived-in world and the visual tribute to the story's origin as a graphic novel.

In the middle of a very heightened action movie with supernatural themes, there is a stunning speech about love. 

GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It was in the graphic novel, and in the script. And when I got to it, I was both surprised and also moved and so connected to those characters; I thought it was a beautiful love story. I love the fact that these men, how they met is so amazing that their love has endured so long. It was past love and just became a soulful thing. That was really beautiful. And that speech regardless of who you are, I think anyone would love their significant other to say those words to them. So, I was moved by it and excited to be able to put that up on the screen, something that felt so different, especially in this genre.

KiKi, you have a remarkable, very intense fight with Charlize Theron in an airplane. There's a lot of character in the middle of that action, the way your different fighting styles come together.

KIKI LAYNE: It was crazy. That was the very first thing that we filmed. So, day one getting thrown right into it. On the day, I was very much like wait, really are we doing this? But looking back I’m grateful for it. It gave us such a great starting place and foundation for this action-packed movie with characters who are so complex and are struggling with so many things within themselves.

That scene really laid out for where we were going to continue to take the scene, and take the film and take Andy and Nile's relationship. But it definitely required very different preparation for me, being in the gym more than I’ve ever been in the gym in my life. Working with weapons and stuff for the first time, I mean they threw it all at me, but it had to get done.

I also loved your character's first scene, which shows us her intelligence and compassion as well as her skills.

KL: Gina made it clear, before even getting on set, that she wanted the audience to really see something deeper in these characters beyond being the badass, immortal heroes.

That scene was an opportunity to show that, and also to even help me as an artist building the arc for Nile of to have that type of compassion and that type of loyalty and that type of leadership. And now she's being asked to do this very different thing and have this different set of morals and ideas about what she believes is worth fighting for. It was a great setup for that, for me, as well.

I thought it was a dope world. It was cool to see people who have been given this ability and are using it to save lives and to serve the greater humanity as our heroes do. But at the same time, they are struggling with these very human things, things that I really could recognize and understand.

So even in approaching Nile, obviously, I don't know what it's like to die and come back to life and realize you're immortal. But I do know what it's like when life just throws a curveball at you, and just turns your whole world upside down and now you can't continue life as you have once known it. Sometimes there is a struggle that we face when something like that happens when you're not quite ready to move on to what has to be next for you. Seeing that type of stuff in a graphic novel, and seeing heroes struggling with that, that drew me all the way in.

Gina, tell me about casting KiKi as Nile.

GPB: I had been looking for a very long time for Nile and saw a lot of really great people, but something was missing. And then KiKi came in, and it's not hyperbole, five seconds into the audition I knew I was looking at Nile. And the audition piece it was two parts, but one of them was when she gets shot by Andy and coming back to life and the shock of that.

It was just fascinating to see KiKi’s chops in that scene. I believed her, and she was playing the truth of it. And that's what I knew I needed for this film. I wanted to play the real grounded-ness of it, and that meant staying true to the moment. Despite the fantastical conceit, despite the fact she got shot in the head, and she's coming back to life. What is the reality? What would you really be feeling in that? And I felt all that in the audition, and that was incredibly exciting.

And then I believed her as a Marine, and that was the one thing that I was missing from some others because that is a different type of person who can embody that. Not only a Marine, but also an innate warrior, someone who had that strength in there and could tap and access that. And KiKi had that, and then that dope vulnerability which makes us want to watch her, makes us care about her. And that combination, it was all lethal, and it shows up on the screen.

So many people dream of the benefits of immortality but this movie has a melancholy tone. Have you ever fantasized about being immortal? And how would you handle it?

GPB: Honestly, prior to this film, I absolutely thought it'd be cool to live forever. Just the courage that would give you the things you would do if you knew you couldn't die. But in reading the script, I realized it is about the tragedy of immortality, but it's also about the truth of it. What would it mean to outlive everybody that you loved and never be able to form relationships? Because you knew that you would outlive them or they would find out your secret. So, I wouldn't mind having it for a little amount of time, but after a while, I think I'd be like Andy where I'm done.

KL: Same. I would say I don't think I ever thought I would love to be immortal. I think we've all thought, "Man if I had a little bit more time. What would I do if the average lifespan was a little longer and what would I accomplish?" But yes, definitely I wouldn't want immortality.

Does adapting a graphic novel to film make it easier or harder? Does it serve as kind of a storyboard to get you started? Do you feel very constrained by that, or is that a good starting point?

GPB: Seeing those panels is an interesting thing. It's also a bit of, "Oh my god, how am I going to do that?" Especially something like the kill floor. But I wanted to honor it. As you see in the film, my use of silhouette really is my connective to the storyboards, to Leandro Fernández's illustrations. They were so visual. It really did kind of jump up off the page. And I love the thought of these characters who are so much in the underground and the underbelly and living in the shadows; I felt that was a really good way to illustrate that.

What makes a good bad guy in a movie like "The Old Guard"? 

GPB: I think the best villains are those that are complicated, where what they want isn't that far-fetched. And for [actor] Harry Melling and [screenwriter] Greg Rucka and I, our template really was Martin Shkreli and Mark Zuckerberg. These young guys who have way too much power and seem to lack some empathy, and seem to be willing to do a lot to control the world. Starting at a real character in a real place I think was really helpful for Harry.

What have you been watching while we're all at home?

KL: I've been kind of all over the place with what I’ve been watching. Most recently I watched "Da 5 Bloods," and I also watched "Avatar: The Last Airbender."  

GPB: I've been very fortunate, which sounds kind of weird, but I've been able to have finishing the film to focus on. So, I haven't kind of felt it that way that has really affected a lot of my friends. I've just been looking forward to being able to binge-watch things that I’ve missed. But one of them I saw, "Never Have I Ever," Mindy Kaling's show on Netflix, is so incredibly dope. I was sobbing in my car in a parking lot because I couldn't stop watching it and I had to run an errand, so I took my computer in the car—I mean that's how deep it was for me. And I'm looking forward to "I May Destroy You." I'm dying to see that.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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