Actors often say that they have to defend their characters, including villains, through thick and thin. Well, Chukwudi Iwuji is saying nothing of the sort about his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 baddie, The High Evolutionary.
Guardians of the Galaxy mastermind James Gunn famously took the classically trained Nigerian-British actor aside during the filming of Peacemaker’s indelible title sequence dance and offered him the villainous role in what could very well be Gunn’s last Marvel Studios project ever. Iwuji still had to go through the testing process for the rest of Marvel’s leadership, but he soon won over Kevin Feige and his lieutenants as well.
The High Evolutionary isn’t looking to end civilization like most superhero foes; he merely tells himself that he’s trying to “perfect” it by way of scientific experiments on animals and children. However, whatever perfection he’s pursuing will never actually come to be.
“What he doesn’t realize is that the flaw is in him. He’s deeply unhappy with himself and projects it outward,” Iwuji tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He would always see a flaw that he needs to fix. It would never stop. It’s a tireless and endless pursuit.”
So you won’t find Iwuji echoing what many other actors say about not judging their characters and being a lawyer of sorts for them. He knows the High Evolutionary is as merciless as a Marvel villain can get and he’s making no bones about it.
“I don’t believe that you have to defend your character. He’s sadistic,” Iwuji says. “His way of thinking has led us to some of the most terrible periods in our history and in humanity. People who think they know the right answer, people who want to cleanse, people who think they want to find perfection. So I cannot defend him, but I can defend playing him, because it was a gift of a role for an actor.”
While Iwuji isn’t pressuring Gunn for a resurrection of his Peacemaker character, Clemson Murn, in Gunn and Peter Safran’s new DCU, he still wonders if his John Wick: Chapter 2 character, Mr. Akoni, can reappear someday.
“I still hold out hope that there might be more for him in the future,” Iwuji admits. “They could have a Continental in Africa. That’s what I actually thought at the time, because Akoni is the head of the African cartel. But I’ve always hoped that they kept me alive for a reason. So I need to get on Chad Stahelski’s case for that one.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Iwuji also discusses how he got into his character’s disturbing headspace, before explaining the invaluable presence of Sean Gunn as Rocket’s motion-capture performer on set.
Well, you played one sadistic puppy.
(Laughs.) It was a joy to play!
So there’s an early shot of a hand reaching into young Rocket’s cage. Can you confirm that’s your finest bit of hand acting to date?
It is the apex of my hand acting. It’s never gonna get better than that. (Laughs.) It’s such a beautiful shot. I remember them setting up the light and telling me the right pace to move it for the camera to really catch the motion. It was actually very intricate work.
During Peacemaker, I was the first person to hear about your Guardians casting in detail, so I’ll link to it for the uninitiated. But now I’d love to hear about the first time you had to deliver, in costume, on a Marvel set.
Oh man, putting on the costume was just extraordinary. It was the final piece in figuring out how I was gonna start this journey with this character, because that costume is awesome. It holds you up in a certain way. It flows in a certain way. It sings in a certain way as you move with it. And when I arrived on set, James had put a lot of faith in me, but all of these people didn’t know me yet. We were on this big set in the final chapter of [Guardians of the Galaxy], but at the end of the day, you gotta just shut that noise off and come back to the very reason James hired me in the first place. That’s my job. I had to leave the awe aspect behind and focus on being this really twisted character. So it was great, but I would say the magic of it was putting on that suit and getting a flash of myself in the mirror and saying, “Okay, I’m the High Evolutionary.”
I know you’re a very matter-of-fact actor, so how did you approach the psychology of someone who’s literally playing God?
A big part of it was classical music. He’s living his own opera. He’s living his own tragedy. And so I listened to a lot of arias and opera while walking in Vancouver, during the shooting of Peacemaker. Listening to that music takes me to a very real place of solitude, and as I studied the script, I just realized that this guy has a single-mindedness about him. And so that’s all I had to play. In fact, the psychology of it came simply from looking down on everyone else that didn’t understand the simple beauty of his mission.
And James was very instrumental not only in writing the words I would actually speak, but in my performance. He would just say, “He genuinely means that. He’s not being ironic. He’s not being sarcastic. He genuinely means it when he says, ‘I’m not trying to destroy the world; I’m trying to perfect it.’ Don’t put a spin on that. He actually means that.” And so that was very key to me in how I played this guy, and it was as simple as that. It was believing a hundred percent in what I was doing and that it was the right thing to do, and nothing else mattered.
He says he wants to perfect society, but do you think he’d always find a flaw? Would he keep moving the goalposts?
Absolutely. I can recognize it from the outside, but what he doesn’t realize is that the flaw is in him. He’s deeply unhappy with himself and projects it outward. Rocket says, “He didn’t want to make things perfect; he just hated things the way they are.” And that reflects in the High Evolutionary whether he knows it or not. I didn’t really try to figure that out, but the fact of the matter is that he is full of actual self-hate and he projects it outward. So you’re correct. He would always see a flaw that he needs to fix. It would never stop. It’s a tireless and endless pursuit, which is why I dropped the idea into my head that this guy doesn’t sleep. He just does not sleep. The work that he believes needs to be done, it doesn’t stop.
The expression, “Perfect is the enemy of good,” probably wouldn’t make a difference with this guy.
Yeah, if he actually acknowledged that, he would probably stop. (Laughs.) He has to tell himself what he tells himself. In the film, there’s an almost religious look and delivery of his followers. There’s a monastic following for his work, and in his head, he’s like, “This is the right way.” So it’s almost religious, and it’s gone beyond science.
We learn so much about him based on the way he reacts to another character solving a problem that he couldn’t. What did you make of his unceasing meltdown?
Well, it supports my idea that it all comes from self-loathing. It’s that inability to say, “Herein lies the solution to this problem that has been a problem for so long,” and be happy. He’s unable to do that, which tells you a lot about him. If a shark stops swimming, it would drown. Well, for people like him and his psychology, he has to believe that he is solving the problem. It’s not about actually finding the solution or stumbling onto the solution. If he stumbled onto it by accident, he’d probably find that to be a horrible thing because it was by accident. He has to deliberately and definitively go after a problem and fix it. And the idea that it’s not him that does it, renders it imperfect, and that’s the narcissism that exists within him.
Actors often say that they have to defend their characters no matter what, but could you find any sort of defense for someone this sadistic?
No, and that’s the thing, I don’t believe that you have to defend your character. I think you have to simply enjoy playing them. (Laughs.) So I don’t defend him. He’s sadistic. His way of thinking has led us to some of the most terrible periods in our history and in humanity. People who think they know the right answer, people who want to cleanse, people who think they want to find perfection. So, no, I’m not going to defend him.
What I do know is I enjoyed playing him. I enjoyed tapping into that side of humanity that we don’t and shouldn’t tap into in society. So the joy was that I could do it with impunity and take it to the nth degree, and then help this story come to life, ultimately. So I cannot defend him, but I can defend playing him, because it was a gift of a role for an actor.
Since you have so many scenes with Rocket, did you get closest to Sean Gunn during filming?
Yeah, Sean’s such a great guy. It’s practically impossible to not get close to Sean because he’s such a sweetheart. He was so helpful, and Sean was a big part of whatever worked with the High Evolutionary and Rocket’s relationship. I didn’t have to always act in front of a tennis ball or a stuffed Rocket doll. I was actually acting in front of Sean and looking into his eyes. He would speak the lines, and I could grab him, hold him and tangibly have Rocket in front of me. And that made such a difference.
So working with him as Rocket was a great collaboration, and he brought it all to life, really. And James knew that he would when he cast Sean play Rocket in the previous movies. Acting is reacting. You can have all the ideas in your head, but there’s something that happens when you’re in a room with another actor. They look at you and they react to you, and you can’t practice that at home, no matter how much you prepare at home. So having Sean there to react was a real gift.
You mentioned to me previously that you wanted to bring a bit of theater to this film, and I definitely sensed that during one of High Evolutionary’s Shakespearen monologues. Do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to do?
I think so. When I think of villainous performances, I think of actors like Gary Oldman, Peter O’Toole and Alan Rickman, and the thing they had in common was that they were never afraid of bringing theater in front of the camera. They understood, at least in the way I envision it, that acting isn’t about real life; it’s about truth. So you can be as big or as small as you want a character to be, but you’ve just gotta believe it. And so they were able to push the boundaries to what we think behavior could be, because they were a hundred percent committed to it and they did it completely truthfully. So that’s what I meant by bringing theater to it.
So there’s aspects of this character that are so big and so operatic. Like I said, he is living his own opera, and so I wasn’t gonna try and be small with it. He had to push the boundaries in his rage. He had to push the boundaries even in his stillness and how still he was. And so the important thing was to commit to it a hundred percent and actually be truthful, even though it was big at times. So it’s a very fine distinction, truth versus real life. I like to go after character and truth. If you have those things together, people will believe you.
When you were getting High Evolutionary’s prosthetic work done, how would you pass the time?
Honestly, I find it so relaxing to have my head and face touched and prodded that I would usually fall asleep in the chair. They got so good at doing it, but I would wish that they would take longer, sometimes, especially during those early morning shoots. So I found it to be a very relaxing time to just settle and get a quick nap in before the work really started.
I have to compliment you on your delivery of the line, “There is no God; that’s why I stepped in.”
(Iwuji delivers a quieter version of the line.) “There is no God; that’s why I stepped in.” That was my favorite line. If you’re looking for the key quotes, you’ve nailed it. When you were asking about getting into this character, it’s that narcissistic single-mindedness. James was like, “You mean that. This isn’t just you being angry. You mean ‘there is no God; that’s why I stepped in.’” So that’s the t-shirt for the High Evolutionary. (Laughs.)
So have you half-jokingly whispered possibilities to James about how to bring a deceased Clemson Murn into the DCU?
(Laughs.) As a ghost or something? No, I haven’t. I have too much respect for James’ creativity and storytelling to try and impose myself on him. He’s been such a great champion of me, from Clemson to this, so he’ll let me know if he is ready for me in whatever. I don’t need to push for it.
Was there more to your John Wick: Chapter 2 character than we ended up seeing in the final cut? Claudia Gerini’s character, Gianna, stripped your character of his territory right before John Wick assassinated her, per his obligation to her brother, Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio). And then we later saw your character, Mr. Akoni, shaking hands with Santino, so were they in cahoots all along?
No, they actually weren’t! Well, it wasn’t in the script, but I love that idea. We should pitch that to Chad Stahelski. (Laughs.) Akoni did have quite a big setup, and they went through a lot of trouble to get me over there to film it. So, to be honest, there wasn’t really more to my character in that film, but I still hold out hope that there might be more for him in the future. They could have a Continental in Africa. That’s what I actually thought at the time, because Akoni is the head of the African cartel. So, what you saw was pretty much it, but I’ve always hoped that they kept me alive for a reason. So I need to get on Chad Stahelski’s case for that one.
I’ll do the same.
Please do! (Laughs.)
Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing in front of a crackling fireplace, what day on Guardians 3 will you likely recall first?
It sounds slightly cheesy, but I can’t tell you what it means for an actor who has come through the theater and has been doing it for as long as I have to get a phone call while in your kitchen on a Tuesday morning, with the caller ID of James Gunn, and him saying, “We’re gonna work for another six months together.” And then there was that moment of calling my loved ones and seeing who picked up, because people are busy. So, some people picked up and some didn’t, but just hearing the reaction on the other end of the phone was enough. The greatest part of most jobs — however wonderful doing the job is — is knowing that you won that race. That moment of someone saying, “You got it,” and realizing the odds you just beat to get it, it’s a wonderful thing.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.