‘Eternals’ Cast Address Representation, Age, and
Body Image In Marvel’s Superhero Epic
In Marvel Studios’ “Eternals,” the all-powerful Celestials created the titular immortal alien race to live amongst the humans and protect them from the Deviants, their evil counterparts. And have done so for the past 7,000 years. But after the Avengers brought back half the population by reversing the Thanos snap in “Avengers: Endgame,” it released cosmic energy called The Emergence, which reawakened the Deviants. So now, a scattered Eternals team must resolve their differences and reunite to save the world once more.
Though we’ve seen these epic ensemble superhero films before, never has it featured a diverse cast from marginalized communities. As a result, women, people of color, people with disabilities, and those who identify as LGBTQ+ will be able to see themselves as heroes that appear on the big screen. And nearly the cast that was present for the virtual press conference understood what “Eternals” would mean for those who felt underrepresented for far too long.
ThatsItLA joined their fellow journalists to talk to Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Don Lee, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie about the upcoming film and what kind of meaning it holds for everyone not just in the film but for audiences around the world.
As a fan of the MCU and director Chloe Zhao, Jolie was drawn “Eternals” because of the film’s story about family. “As I learned about Thena, and that’s one of the special things that Chloe brings to this is she’s known for bringing reality to film and to somebody’s true self,” she said. “So a lot of us were cast to bring out something from our own lives, something within ourselves that maybe we weren’t even aware of, and then let it let it live and let it grow within the film.”
Though Jolie recognizes that Thena may be the most fantastical character that she’s ever played in her career, she also sees how human she is. “It’s hard to talk about her, but her vulnerability and what she’s trying to balance and that being able to be in the same woman who is also considered very strong,” she said. “I think we often have to present to be fully together, to be strong, and yet, I think she holds both, which most people do. And it’s important is to see it.”
Of course, not all superheroes are alike. For Chan’s empathetic Sersi, she becomes the reluctant team leader whose job is to reassemble her family when the deviant threat reemerges. “She is a superhero. But her powers are not the most obvious or the flashiest. She’s not, you know, the best fighter. But what she does have is empathy and a real affinity for humankind and the earth. And she’s a free spirit,” she said about her character. “That was one of the enjoyable things about the film was going on that journey with that character from you know. It’s kind of coming of age, even though she’s 1000s of years old. But she, she learns to trust herself and to grow into her own power, really. And that was a really interesting thing to explore.”
But something like “Eternals” has a more significant impact on marginalized communities because it allows the audience to see themselves as the characters that appear on the screen. For Hayek, who plays the Eternals matriarch, it was a humbling experience. “dream big. And if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten here at all. But in my big dreams, I wanted to be a superhero, and I wanted to work with the best directors in the world, have big blockbuster movies, and also make movies that are art that is made from a very deep place with great directors. You cannot ask for more. And it didn’t happen for me. It happened that much for me,” she said. “You fight for it in your 20s, in your 30s, and in your 40s you go, ‘oh screw them. They don’t get it. You know, they missed out. I would have been great, you know, in the art films. I would have been a great superhero. They didn’t see it. Screw them. We’re gonna do something else: Let’s have a baby. And they’re dumb. They didn’t see her.’ And you give up. It’s very humbling when in the middle of your 50s, a brilliant director gives you the opportunity to do both.”
The experience changed Hayek’s thoughts about the modern-day offers when compared to the limited offers back then. “To something that comes from a deep place, that it’s also a big blockbuster. I was wrong. Everything is possible,” she said. “It’s such a humbling sensation. And when you think about it, you know, in your 50s, Mexican, I mean, I’m short with big boobs. It’s not the normal superhero. I don’t look like that. I don’t have botox. It’s a Marvel movie. I’m Mexican. I’m Lebanese, and Arab, also, in my 50s and, and they let me do my action myself.”
And Hayek saw all the good that can come from starring in a film like “Eternals,” as it will inspire others who look like her to become Ajak. She later elaborated on that impact when she saw a Latino family dressed like her character, Ajak, during the film’s premiere. “When I came out, I nearly cried because I saw this Latino family, the mother with the three little girls all dressed like Ajax, and I was trying to be sexy, and I wanted to cry. So moving, you know, well, they can see themselves in this thing. So thank you to Marvel and thank you to Chloe.”
Since “Eternals” is this superhero epic with a large international cast, there was no way that it wasn’t going to celebrate the diverse cultures represented in the characters that appear on the screen. For Nanjiani, it meant having to do something outside of his wheelhouse, a Bollywood-inspired dance. “I’m going to put Chloe on the spot. I can’t swear. So put in a swear word here. Chloe lied to me,” he said. “When we first talked about the movie, she was like, ‘there’s a Bollywood dance sequence.’ And I was like, ‘Chloe; I don’t think I can do that.’ So she’s like, ‘okay, we’ll make it a Bollywood action scene.’ And then, as soon as I got to London, she’s like, ‘it’s a dance sequence.’
But with a few months of dance lessons with the film’s choreographer, Nanjiani was able to do something that was outside his comfort zone. “Ultimately, for me, all that came down to trust. It really did. You know, on a macro level, trusting Kevin because he’s made so many MCU movies. And they’re all great. What a run,” he said. “My instinct would be, for an opportunity like this, there’ll be a moment of excitement, and then like fear. But just in meeting her, I was like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to let me suck in this thing. So if she wants me to do something, I’m going to do it.’ Because I completely trusted her.”
And Nanjiani praised Zhao for having this vision for “Eternals” and being able to trust actors like him who weren’t exactly confident in their dancing skills. “She had this whole movie, this whole universe in her head. I didn’t understand it until I watched the movie, but I knew enough to trust her. So for me, I was like, ‘yeah, this doesn’t feel like something I would do. But if Chloe thinks I can do it, let’s do it.’”
And “Eternals” is doing more than just celebrating people of color. It also examines the self and the search for one’s place within the grand scheme of things. For Henry, he echoed Nanjiani’s sentiments on trusting Zhao. “The thing that really attracted me to this part was that I just think about all the images of black men out there and how we are portrayed. And what I love the most about fastest is that one, he’s an ancestor. All of us are ancestors, technically, so fastest, predates everything, and had to probably go through all these things, which could actually make someone lose faith in humanity very quickly,” he said. “I remember when I was coming to this project that, I, Brian, had kind of lost faith and humanity was just looking at all the things that we’ve been through, and just what the images of black men were and how we’re being portrayed, and how we like the power was taken from us, like the lack of power of feeling powerful.”
But even experiencing all that despair, Henry just connected with Phastos’ sense of hope and heart. “What I really loved the most about fastest is that through all of that him being eternal, him never being able to die, he still chose love, he still decided to have a family, even though he may have to watch them perish, he still tried to find a way to bring heart and love to everything he did, even though you know, his genius was used against them,” he said. “And it just really resonated with me, it really resonated a lot with how I felt my place in society was how, you know, we can be kings and queens, and at the same time, they’ll take our pedestal and take our superpowers from us like that. And so what I loved the most about the turtles is that Chloe [Zhao] and Nate [Moore] really just reinstall that power back in me again.”
What’s more, is that Henry got to play Phastos without undergoing any intense training to fit the typical muscular superhero mold. “I remember the first time that they were like, ‘so you’re gonna, we want you to be a superhero.’ I was like, ‘cool, how much weight do I have to lose?’ And Chloe was like, ‘what are you talking about? We want you exactly as you are,” he said. “Again, to be a black man to have someone look at you and say, we want you exactly the way you are is unlike anything that I’ve ever felt. So, it just triggered me to be an 11-year-old kid who is watching these superpower movies, superhero movies, and not ever seeing anyone like me reflected – like how I would take these posters and put them in my locker, and just hope that you know, one day there would be somebody representing me and the way you know that I am.”
“To work with this palette, this beautiful palette of people then make a family because this is what families look like, this is what they are. And if not, this is what they should be,” Henry added. “I think that that’s what Eternals really brings to the surface. It’s that this is a family. This is who we are. This is what we look like. So I just think that that is the one thing that I hope everyone takes away from this movie is that the heart of humanity is still worth saving, and we can still bind and mend and do everything we need to through love. And that’s what Chloe showed.”
“Eternals” opens exclusively in theaters on November 5, 2021.