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'The Avengers': Hero worship

Marvel got seven superheroes into one movie. We got them into one room. Join us for an exclusive roundtable with director Joss Whedon and the raucous cast of ”The Avengers”: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson

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”Hey, remedial class! Sit! Stop having fun!” Joss Whedon is shouting playfully at his cast, which has assembled at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The writer-director says that while making Marvel’s superhero mash-up The Avengers, his biggest managerial challenge was getting the actors to quit joking around. Two days after the movie’s premiere, it still is. Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye, the archer) and Chris Hemsworth (Thor, the thunder god) are laughing about the look of their Lego characters. Mark Ruffalo, in his first Marvel film as the human version of the Hulk, sifts through some Hasbro playthings scattered across the meeting table and picks up — naturally — the big green guy. ”Hulk smash!” he says, making the figure attack a much smaller Iron Man toy. Robert Downey Jr., the life-size Iron Man, walks into the room and throws one of the toy masks over his face, transforming into Captain America.

Even on the New Mexico set of the movie last summer, it seemed momentous when all seven Avengers shot scenes together. In addition to Hawkeye, Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man, The Avengers finds Chris Evans’ Captain America (who was frozen just after WWII and thawed out in the present day), Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury joining forces to fight off an alien invasion led by Thor’s black-sheep celestial brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). With the $220 million PG-13 action-adventure finally hitting theaters on May 4, EW reunited the cast for one more clash of titanic personalities. ”This is like the Last Supper!” Ruffalo says.

As the actors get settled, a cacophony of cross talk erupts, and Whedon tries again to get the gang to focus. Downey, meanwhile, turns tattletale. ”FYI, I’d just like to start this off by saying Mark Ruffalo — three times today — has called you Josh Whedon.” The director replies, ”Niiiiice!”

Under his breath, Ruffalo is repeating, ”Joss, Joss,” and shaking his head. ”I’m sorry.”

Whedon laughs it off. ”Mark Ra-FUEL-oe is one of my favorite actors!” he says, which tickles Downey to no end.

Downey looks at the reporter in the room. ”Seriously, last f—ing question,” he deadpans. It’s time to get started.

You’ve been doing interviews for the film separately or in pairs. What kinds of questions have you been getting the most?
Joss Whedon [Imitating the mellow voice of a reporter] ”Were you worried about fanboy expectations? How do you get all these characters in one movie?”
Chris Hemsworth ”So, who has the biggest biceps?” [Rolling his eyes] Shoot me. Me and Evans talked about our workout program all day. [Evans nods.]
Jeremy Renner ”What was Scarlett wearing under her catsuit?”
Mark Ruffalo Oh, come on.
Scarlett Johansson Ugh. I got that question so many times!
Whedon About your biceps?
Johansson ”What kind of underpants were you wearing?” I’m like, ”What kind of underpants are you wearing?”

Robert, do you wear anything under your metal suit?
Robert Downey Jr. CASH!

You all have stunt doubles, but there are a lot of explosions and death-defying leaps in this movie. What kinds of battle scars are we dealing with?
Renner I sprained my neck.
Johansson Taking his socks off, basically.
Whedon He was turning to the right. Kids, don’t turn to the right. It’s too dangerous.
Renner Sad. Pathetic.

Robert, didn’t you say that if you fall over in your Iron Man suit, you’re not supposed to put your arms out?
Downey Yeah, you’ve got to tuck ’em in or you’ll break your arms.
Whedon Hmm…I’m thinking of a really funny sequence based on this.
Downey Think about it, though: You start falling forward, and every instinct is to break your fall, not go — TUCK!
Johansson And face-plant.
Samuel L. Jackson I had an awful rash from my costume because the neck was too high.
Johansson Oh, here we go…
Jackson Hey, I filed workmen’s comp for that. [High-fives Ruffalo] I’m still getting paid.

Robert, you look like you have a question.
Downey [Pretending to be nervous] My question is for Sam. Um, the eye-patch thing is crazy, right? Because it’s really troublesome to obscure half of your vision for that many hours a day.
Jackson You know what happened? I was trying to remember my lines, but when I got there, I put the eye patch on and could only see half the page in my head. That’s what kept f—ing me up. I didn’t figure it out until halfway through the day. I had to take the [script], cover my eye, and relearn the lines.
Ruffalo Come on… You have a photographic memory?
Jackson There was just something in my brain that wouldn’t let me learn it with two eyes and then put the patch on and remember them. It was f—ed up. Crazy.

Robert, you kicked off this franchise with Iron Man, and…
Downey [Sitting bolt upright] Oh, I thought you said I got kicked off it!

I hate to break it to you.
Whedon Well, we voted, and here’s your torch.

Tony Stark, as part of the Avengers, is kind of a unifier and an agitator at the same time. Do you feel you serve that role in real life?
Downey In the industry, yes. [Laughs]
Whedon Hooo, yeah!
Downey I saw the movie Wednesday, and everybody said that it really worked. We went home like, ”Phew!” Otherwise, I’d be gunning for you, motherf—er! [Points to Whedon] I’m sorry, I’ll never say motherf—er with Sam Jackson in the room again.
Jackson It’s okay. I have different ways of saying it when I hear other people say it.
Downey How would you rate my version?
Jackson You’re there!
Downey YES!

So while you were making the movie, were you all sitting around singing ”Kumbaya,” or did you have knives at each other’s backs? Fans imagine it one way or the other.
Johansson It was a combination. But I will say [the videogame] Dance Dance Revolution is so much fun when you play with all of the Avengers and also the stunt team. It’s amazing. You’ve never seen a worse group of dancers than the stunt team.
Downey So all of the Avengers aren’t enough man for you?
Johansson [Laughs] No! I want their doubles as well!

When we talked on set last summer, almost every one of you said the defining thing about your character is that he or she is desperately lonely. Joss talked a lot about that as well. So which of these characters is the most psychologically messed up?
Downey [Looking at Renner] Hawkeye.
Ruffalo It’s got to be Hawkeye.
Renner [Shaking his head] Oh, I couldn’t tell you.
Downey See, the trauma is buried so deep! But Hawkeye’s origin story is horrible. [In the comics Hawkeye was orphaned young, and in the film he has a bloody history as a soldier.]
Renner [Shrugs] Yeah.
Whedon Black Widow’s got some deep, deep stuff going on in her past.
Johansson Yeah, we all have a little bit of trauma.
Jackson [Pointing to Evans, who has rolled his chair away from the table, over near a window] I’d have to say it’s the guy from the ’40s who’s never had a lap dance. [Laughter]

Chris [Evans], do you think Captain America is the most disturbed of the bunch?
Chris Evans Uh, certainly not the most. Everyone has their own baggage, and that’s why it was an uphill battle to try to marry all the conflict of all these individual characters.

He’s kind of the most idealistic, isn’t he?
Evans He might be the most cynical. He might be the most disillusioned.
Whedon Everyone assumes, ”Oh, he’s from the ’40s and he’s so idealistic.” But [for him] three weeks ago it was World War II. That’s one of the most appalling things men have ever been through. He’s still in that war.
Jackson And you can’t get s— for a bar of chocolate and a pair of stockings these days. [Laughter]

Most of you have played these characters in previous movies. Mark is the one exception, picking up the Hulk role from Eric Bana and Edward Norton. Did any of you have to read up on the old comics as homework?
Evans Joss did a pass on the first Captain America [script], so he had a pretty healthy understanding of who the character should be. I just was like, ”Listen, I trust you. You’re a comic-book guy. You know this character. You’re the fan base. You’re who I’m worried about offending.”
Johansson For me, most of the challenge was physical, learning all that wushu [martial arts] nonsense.
Whedon That nonsense saved your life!
Johansson [Laughs] That was most of the work I had to do. I remember Joss and I talking about how my character has this really painful past and she was probably trained against her will. And he actually got kind of misty-eyed.
Whedon It was allergies.
Johansson I found it to be so endearing, actually. We wanted her to not be just this righteous warrior. She’s a mercenary, but she’s very loyal, and she used her loyalty as a means of erasing a lot of painful memories.
Whedon You had done some research, too, because when we met you knew more about her actual history from the comic books than I did.
Johansson That’s what Wikipedia is for. [Laughs] I just did that in the car ride before the meeting.

Chris [Hemsworth], did Wikipedia come in handy for you, too?
Whedon Chris can’t read, sooo… [Laughter]
Hemsworth Luckily, comic books are just pictures!

You worked with Joss when he produced The Cabin in the Woods in 2009. Did you know you would be Thor at that point?
Whedon He found out while we were shooting.

Chris, you’ve credited Joss with recommending you to Thor director Kenneth Branagh.
Hemsworth You said, ”Give him the f—ing job.”
Whedon It was more like, ”Just get Hemsworth off our set!”
[Across the table, Jackson is playing with a toy replica of Thor’s hammer, triggering a loud lightning sound he can’t stop.]
Johansson Sam! Put the toys down!

Jeremy, you did a cameo as Hawkeye in Thor. Did you start studying his comics then?
Renner I did. I studied and talked to Joss. The sniper mentality came very easily. The physical part was the most challenging thing.

Explain ”sniper mentality.”
Renner It’s a lone-wolf, solo kind of thing where your enemy is at a distance and it’s safe to take out your target. You’re not taking someone out right there, where you see the effects of it. That’s what makes him an interesting character. He’s sort of inward.
Jackson [Roused back to attention] What’d you say? N-word, what?
Renner Inward, yeah.
Jackson Huh? Oh… [Finally understanding] Inward. Oh. I was like, ”Jesus, what the hell? N-word?”
Whedon Hawkeye also has extraordinary patience.
Renner Yeah.
Whedon [To Downey] Patience, not so much with you. [Downey blinks at him.]
Whedon Tony Stark, I mean.
Downey [Sitting up, turning to Renner, and barking] ARE YOU F—ING DONE!? I thought the story should revolve around me from the beginning to the end.
Whedon This is going to turn into a therapy session.

Mark, how did you get into the Hulk’s skin?
Ruffalo We talked a lot about Bill Bixby’s David Banner. I watched the TV show with my 10-year-old boy, who, after the third episode, turned to me and said, ”Papa, he’s so misunderstood.”

Yes, little kids can probably relate to the Hulk.
Ruffalo That’s it! My 10-year-old is the little Hulk, and he has all the Hulk force of nature streaming through his body and we’re all running saying, ”No, you can’t do that. Stop that. Put that down. Stop hitting your sister!”
Downey Get your hand off your donniker!
RuffaloDid he just say that? [Laughs]

Sam, what about your preparation?
Jackson I watched David Hasselhoff…and decided I was not going to do any of that.

Very good choice.
Whedon [Responding to confused looks around the table] David played Nick Fury. In a low-budget movie.
Ruffalo He did?
Jackson David Hasselhoff was Nick Fury!
Whedon [In a stage whisper] He wasn’t available, so we got Sam.

Since we talked about studying up on Marvel history, which character would you add to an Avengers sequel?
Whedon [Sarcastically] I think we need to get some more men on the team.
Hemsworth [Laughs] Yes, there are too few of us.

There are a lot of female superheroes in comics, but why so few on film? Joss, you tried to make a Wonder Woman movie for several years, right?
Whedon Studios will tell you: A woman cannot headline an action movie. After The Hunger Games they might stop telling you that a little bit. Whatever you think of the movie, it’s done a great service.
Johansson A lot of the female-superhero movies just suck really badly.
Whedon The suck factor is not small.
Johansson There are a couple that have worked-ish, don’t you think?
Hemsworth Angelina Jolie tends to do it pretty well, as a dominant female.
Jackson They got to get The Pro to the screen! I love that book!
Johansson What’s The Pro?
JacksonIt’s [a comic book] about a hooker who gets superpowers!
Johansson That is exactly the problem right there!
Jackson It’s a totally dope book, though.
Johansson I’d have to wear pasties to greenlight any of these movies.

So do you think the problem is female-superhero films have just focused too much on sexuality?
Johansson They’re always fighting in a bra, so while it might be exciting for a still photo, it’s ridiculous. I do think superheroine movies are normally really corny and bad. They’re always, like, fighting in four-inch heels with their [thrusting out her chest] like a two-gun salute.

Many fans consider comics to be a form of modern myths. The Avengers is a big popcorn film, but does it have any kind of deeper resonance for you?
Whedon It’s about the idea — which is very old-fashioned — of community, of people working for each other. That’s gone away. The Avengers, for me, is about bringing that back.

During filming, Mark, you said The Avengers reminded you of a fractured America, but one in which people on different sides still come together in a crisis.
Ruffalo Yeah, I think it’s a good analogy for where America is, in a weird way. All these people say, ”I’m gonna do it my way, this is the right way, I don’t want to hear from anybody else.” In the end, nothing gets done. Eventually these guys get past that and fight a common cause.
Hemsworth They all do have to put aside their individual interests and objectives. The first half of the film is about them trying to fulfill their own goals, and that doesn’t work out too well. They end up destroying things — and each other. Any community or family can’t be defined by an individual. It’s by the actions of the group.

So you’re saying the film has a Communist message.
Downey [In a twangy Texas accent] Dang limousine liberals!

Superhero movies are all about escapism. But why don’t we get the same catharsis from seeing powerful figures fight off real-world troubles?
Whedon Hulk smash poverty?
Hemsworth It doesn’t really work that way.
Ruffalo It’s hard to smash your way to a positive outcome.
Whedon The threats are so outrageous, they aren’t really scary. And that’s the point. We tell these stories in which there’s a problem we can solve with our superhero fists because the bigger problems can’t be. Those take time and millions of people and lots of dedication, and can’t be solved in the space of a movie. What’s really out there is a whole lot scarier than that alien army.

Avengers Inc.

Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr.
Billionaire playboy-turned-do-gooder Tony Stark kicked off the modern Marvel franchise with 2008’s Iron Man (worldwide gross: $585 million) and 2010’s Iron Man 2 ($624 million). Iron Man 3 begins shooting soon for a May 3, 2013, debut.

Chris Hemsworth
Last May’s hit about the hammer-pounding god was a major test of the Avengers’ appeal, since Thor would first have to carry his own film. It worked; Thor grossed $450 million. The sequel, due Nov. 13, 2013, starts production this summer.

Captain America
Chris Evans
Last July’s launch of the patriotic superhero took place during World War II, in contrast to the other films’ modern settings; the movie grossed $368 million. Captain America 2 is in the works, aiming for an April 4, 2014, debut.

The Hulk
Mark Ruffalo
Eric Bana played Bruce Banner in Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, which earned $245 million despite cartoony F/X. Edward Norton starred in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, another middling success at $263 million. No word yet on a third solo Hulk film.

Nick Fury
Samuel L. Jackson
The one-eyed S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is the main liaison between the government and the Avengers team. In the comics, the character was remodeled to look like Samuel L. Jackson in 2002; the actor himself has played him on screen since 2008’s Iron Man.

Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson
The Russian agent-turned-S.H.I.E.L.D. commando (a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff) first appeared in Iron Man 2. She’s the lone woman on the Avengers’ fighting squad — but there are no plans to build a stand-alone franchise around her.

Jeremy Renner
The lone-wolf bow-and-arrow-wielding sniper, played by Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol star Jeremy Renner, first turned up in an uncredited cameo in Thor. He hasn’t been assigned a solo movie mission.