Behind The Scenes Of Marvel's 'Big, Cosmic, Crazy Movie' 'Eternals'

The casting process according to Salma Hayek, Chloé Zhao's atmospheric filmography, and everything else we learned on set

There’s a hefty dose of mystery surrounding Marvel’s upcoming film Eternals. Described as “a big, cosmic, crazy movie set on Earth for over 7,000 years” by producer Nate Moore, the Chloé Zhao-directed origin story will introduce audiences to Marvel’s largest cast of superheroes ever when it hits theaters Friday (November 5). The 10-member team, created by comic book artist Jack Kirby in 1976, are immortal superhumans from the planet Olympia who are tasked with keeping a watchful eye over humankind and protecting them from a horde of parasitic aliens known as Deviants. Their synergy successfully keeps the monstrous creatures at bay for millennia until a new strain appears, forcing the present-day team to band together to save civilization.

With a robust cast of stars including Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Richard Madden, and Salma Hayek, it was important to Zhao that each Eternal retain a unique identity. Although they fight for a common goal, the characters all have their own opinions, beliefs, complex relationships, methods of combat, and limitations. “While they are incredibly powerful, there are things they cannot do,” Moore explained. “Part of this film is exploring what the edges of that are and how they come up with smart ways to amplify the power, sometimes to do the impossible.” MTV News visited the United Kingdom set of Eternals in January 2020 to find out all about Zhao’s approach to the film, Hayek’s thoughts on the casting process, and why the film is an “epic romance.”

Eternals is “aesthetically different” from previous Marvel movies.

From the moment it was announced that Zhao would direct Eternals in 2018, Marvel was conscious of the dissonance between the Oscar-winning director’s grounded style of filmmaking and the cosmic brawls of its cinematic wheelhouse. “[Zhao] doesn't seem to be the kind of filmmaker who necessarily wants to tackle this giant sort of visual blockbuster,” Moore noted. In actuality, he revealed, Zhao is “a huge MCU fan” with a soft spot for Captain America.

Instead, he explained that the blending of Marvel’s epic heroism with Zhao’s gritty realism was the perfect combination to “make Eternals feel aesthetically different than any other Marvel movie” that came before it. “She likes to shoot in a lot of natural locations and natural light,” he added. “This film, actually of any Marvel films, has shot outside exteriors more than anything else. I think it's lent it a look that's unlike anything we've ever done.”

Hayek described Zhao’s directing as “very smooth,” leaning heavily into a sense of intimacy and kinship between characters more so than its marvelous predecessors. “There is action — the, of course, big epic moments that are very traditional of the Marvel movies,” she explained. “But there is the intimacy, individual language, and in the moments [Zhao] captures from the characters.”

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Eternals, Gemma Chan

The Eternals each have different perceptions of humans.

While Sersi (Chan), Kingo (Nanjiani), and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), blend into human society by finding partners and careers, others like Thena (Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) seek isolation. Sprite (Lia McHugh) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) are open in their disdain for the mammalian race. “Sprite thinks humans are kind of stupid,” McHugh said. “She thinks they're really dumb and they don't know things and they're really not advanced at all.”

“Some of the Eternals live amongst humans very freely. Some completely live removed from humanity. So when they interact with humans, they interact with them very differently,” Moore added. “Some see the evolution of humanity and societies and some of the ills that come with it as a tragedy, and some see it as just a necessary evil for any intelligent life to expand.”

Interestingly, one of the key characters of the film is a human: Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), who comic fans will know as the Black Knight. Moore described Whitman as “a normal guy who was tortured, to some degree, by his lineage,” but revealed the character won’t be taking up the infamous Ebony Blade anytime soon. “He's not going to be Black Knight necessarily, but that is something that we get to play with down the road.”

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Eternals, Selma Hayek as Ajak

Hayek's Ajak is considered the “Eternals’ mom.”

The healer Ajak is widely considered the leader of the Eternals due to her direct line of communication with ancient space gods called Celestials. In stepping into that role, the actress felt a level of protectiveness when it came to her superhuman family. “I see them like my kids,” she said, adding that there’s “a level of love, of caring, of empathy” that drives her character’s desire to keep the group together. “There's a level of trying to hold onto not just the mission, but the family that is doing this mission which is different.”

Lovingly dubbed “the Eternals’ mom” by McHugh, Hayek shared that Ajak maintains a “different relationship” with each hero. “I know that Kingo is the most vain of them all and the attention seeker,” she said. “Thena is the mysterious one. She's mysterious and you never know what's going to come out in her, because she is the strongest and, in some ways, the most fragile, and that's the beauty in her. This is where I watch out for her.”

Ikaris (Madden) is her “perfectionist” son, while Phastos is her “geek” with a knack for engineering. “He might have to limit the technology time, because if I don't pull him out of that, he can just stay there until he dies,” she joked. The strong Gilgamesh is “the kindest one with a good heart,” and she gleefully admits that illusionist Sprite is “a little bit of a smartass sometimes.” She considers the mind-controlling Druig the dark horse of the family because he’s “always overthinking everything and asks a hundred questions,” not unlike the speedy Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) who “has to know all the facts.” When it comes to Sersi, Hayek says she’s her “sweet, sweet, lovely girl.”

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The Eternals

The Notebook was a reference for Ikaris and Sersi’s relationship.

According to Moore, Ikaris and Sersi are “the central characters of the movie” and their ever-evolving, centuries-long bond created the opportunity to explore a more romantically driven narrative than past Marvel films. “We've made 25-plus movies now at Marvel, but this is the first movie that's really built around a romance,” he said. “[You] obviously have Tony and Pepper, you have Steve and Peggy, those tend to be the side stories. This, if we can do it right, is an epic romance. It's never going to be The Notebook, but that's the goal, for it to be something that is the spine of the movie.”

The immortal Sersi and Ikaris “definitely have their ups and downs” as a couple throughout the film. “You get to see them in all of the happy, joyous parts and the hard parts and the tricky parts,” Moore added of the characters' connection, which includes the MCU's first onscreen love scene. “I think that is really interesting to explore in the midst of all the other things that are going on. How do these two people stay together — if they do stay together — or if they don't stay together, what tore them apart? Again, it's not The Notebook, but in [that film] you get to see all the challenges they have to try to be with each other. I think this is similar.”

It’s during these challenges that Dane Whitman comes into play. In an early '90s run of The Avengers comics, Sersi and Whitman found themselves embroiled in a love triangle with an elementalist named Crystal. According to Moore, that tension was “really interesting and fun to play with” throughout the film as Sersi finds herself caught between Whitman and Ikaris. “It just seemed to us to be a natural piece of storytelling and seeing how Sersi has changed from the Sersi of 7,000 years ago,” he said. “Part of that is who she spent a lot of time with.”

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Hayek opened up about the film’s casting.

Hayek found herself in a state of disbelief when she received a phone call about a potential role in a Marvel movie. “It [was] very exciting at 53 to get that random call: ‘You just got a movie from Marvel.’ I'm like, Now? …  Are you kidding me? This is a joke?

“They approach you without a script and you have to make a decision,” she said. “They tell you the name of the character, but not until you're on the phone call. So I cannot even look it up before the phone call.” After speaking with Zhao about the role of Ajak, she agreed to the film without ever seeing a script. “At the end of the call, you understand some of the information and you have to make a decision: Are you going to do it or not?

What drew her to Eternals with so few context clues? Chloé Zhao. “At the end of the day, I think that it was really exciting for me to be able to work with her,” Hayek shared. “Just from hearing her talk, even without the script, she was strong. She was clear. She was different. She was interesting. You could see images, the way she described things. I could see images. For me, that's really important.”

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Eternals, Lauren Ridloff

The Eternals’ costumes take inspiration from creator Jack Kirby.

When it came to designing the suits for Eternals, Marvel was against the idea of creating a central uniform; with such a large team, donning matching suits could cause them to all blur together. “They had to be individual characters,” Costume Effects Supervisor Ivo Coveney said. “It wasn't like we were making an X-Men suit that everyone was [wearing], but it was trying to make sure that, when you looked at them, they looked like they were from the same place.”

It proved to be a fascinating challenge to unite the characters under a similar style, yet also individualize them. In addition to giving each character a representative color, the costume team divided the Eternals into two categories: fighters and thinkers. “Five of them are more thinkers and five of them are more fighters,” said Costume Designer Sammy Sheldon Differ. “Anything that's more flowing, they're the thinkers. Like, Ajak is the leader and she's got a beautiful cape.”

Then, they added little touches — including their own cuneiform writing system — that would simultaneously link all of the characters and provide a timeless quality to their ensembles. “There's a lot of Jack Kirby circles and lines,” said Differ, an homage to the comic book creator. “And then the texture and everything, we looked into the universe, and nebulas and minerals, Earth and galactic, and tried to pull some texture together that gave it a surface that didn't look like it was just a fabric.”

When the cast stepped into their costumes for the first time, they were taken aback. “Brian Tyree Henry was so scared when he first came, because he didn't understand how we were going to turn him into a superhero," said Differ. “And so in his last fitting, when it was finished, he put it on with his eyes closed and then looked in the mirror and cried with joy.” It was a similarly “glorious moment” when Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Don Lee, Richard Madden, and Lauren Ridloff first saw each other suited up on set. “They hadn't really seen each other in their costumes,” said Differ. “[They] came on set when we were in Spain, and they were all like... looking at each other. They were so happy and pumped."

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Sequel conversations are already happening.

According to Moore, Eternals will “definitely have an impact” on the greater MCU. “Obviously, when you deal with characters like Eternals and Celestials and even Deviants, the ripple is quite beyond this film,” he said. “We have some ideas of, again, how they can help be the spine of what Phase Four gets to be, but we always leave room for invention.”

He stated that Marvel doesn’t “necessarily have [an Eternals] trilogy planned out” like it had with the Captain America and Iron Man series, but discussions about a potential sequel “have happened” already. “To some degree, as the movie is finished and we've started showing it, audiences will tell us what they love, what they don't understand, what they want more of,” he said. “We don't presume to know what's best for people or what they're going to fall in love with. So there is a bit of discovery still.”

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