From Gilmore Girls to Guardians of the Galaxy: How Sean Gunn became a Marvel MVP
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What’s stranger than playing a quiet space pirate and a highly voluble rodent at the same time? How about playing a quiet space pirate, a highly voluble rodent, and Kirk from Gilmore Girls? Those were the cumulatively bizarre trio of roles Sean Gunn spent the first half of last year portraying as he flew back and forth from the Atlanta production of superhero sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — in which he plays both the Ravager Kraglin and Rocket — to the Los Angeles shoot of Amy Sherman Palladino’s revived TV show, which debuted on Netflix in November. “It’s very trippy,” Gunn admitted when EW caught up with him on the Guardians Vol. 2 set. “Gilmore Girls and the first Guardians were the two most substantial jobs of my career. So, now, doing them both again simultaneously is very strange.”
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Gunn is instantly recognizable as Kraglin, the First Mate of Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned Ravager leader Yondu, in the Guardians films. But it would take a keen eye to identify him as the man largely responsible for portraying Rocket. Gunn’s on-set line readings are later rerecorded by Bradley Cooper while his physical playing of the character is subsequently Rocket-ized via computer-generated visual effects jiggery-pokery. “I really serve two primary functions,” says Gunn. “First of all, I provide an actual living breathing actor for the other actors to work with, when they’re performing the scenes, so that they’re not talking to a blank space or hearing some monotone, disembodied voice. I also provide a visual reference for the VFX team, so when they’re animating the character, they have a reference for Rocket’s face and how he’s moving. If somebody walked on set, and watched me do it, you’d probably see me crouching down on my hands and knees, sitting in tight situations, and doing whatever I can to get my eyes to where Rocket’s eyes would be at any given moment during a take. From my perspective, I approach it the way I approach any role. For me, the input, as it were, is the same. But the output is different.”
To an outsider, the whole business might seem a little thankless. One person full of gratitude for Gunn’s efforts, however, is his older brother James, who directed and cowrote 2014’s hugely successful Guardians of the Galaxy and directed and wrote solo its sequel, which will be released May 5. “Sean is the secret weapon in terms of Rocket, for sure,” says the director. “When people see Rocket’s acting, and all the little weird things he does with his eyes, and his hands, and all of this stuff, that’s Sean’s acting. Sometimes we’ll use Bradley’s stuff and the animators will come up with stuff on their own. But a lot of it is Sean. He is incredibly important building the dynamic on set and this movie is a much more dramatic film in many ways than the first movie. If you have a dramatic scene between Yondu and Rocket, you’ve got to have somebody who’s really committed to it. If Michael Rooker is talking to a tennis ball on a stick, you just can’t create that same type of energy as you can with a real actor.”
The Gunn brothers grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where their recreational activities very much anticipated the pair’s current contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “So long as I can remember, my siblings and I would have Star Wars action figures, or Fisher-Price action figures, and we would build these sprawling compounds,” says Sean Gunn, who, in all has four brothers and one sister. “[We] essentially started doing the work that we do today, which is storytelling. We’d make up these elaborate stories for all these characters. Each action figure that we played with had a different elaborate character that we made up, that would be separate from what they actually were. Han Solo didn’t need to be Han Solo. He’s be a new character that we’d invent. We did an awful lot of that as kids. It was a very creative atmosphere in my family, for sure. James was always making movies and Super 8 films.” Gunn can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be an actor. “I really geared toward it my whole upbringing, almost to any annoying degree.” he says. “Acting is something I’ve loved my whole life and I’m so grateful that I love it now more than ever.”
Gunn’s first film credit was playing Sammy Capulet in 1996’s Tromeo and Juliet, a sex-and-violence-packed retelling of Shakespeare’s play from Troma Entertainment, the production company previously responsible for such low budget cult classics as The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High. The film’s script was written by Troma cofounder Lloyd Kaufman and James Gunn, who had got a job at the company while still studying at Columbia University. “I was in acting school in Chicago at the Goodman School of Drama,” says Sean Gunn. “I was actually taking Shakespeare classes, and voice and movement, and all the things that people in an acting conservatory do. Jimmy was doing his own thing in New York, and he got hooked up with Troma, and wrote a script, and asked me if I wanted to come out. It just worked out that they were doing it in the summer time and, in between I guess my second and third year of acting school, I went out to New York and did Tromeo and Juliet. And it was a blast — even though I had my nose broken, on set, in a scene.” Wait, come again? “There’s a scene in that movie where my character gets punched in the face and I really got punched,” he explains. “The actor who punched me is Valentine Miele, who is in The Belko Experiment (the recent horror film, which was written by James Gunn and features Sean in the cast) and still one of my closest friends. But he really just punched me in the face. If you go back and watch the movie, you can actually hear the sound of my nose breaking. It sounds like a balloon popping.” How much did Gunn get paid for appearing in the film — and having his face rearranged? “I got paid a total of $100 for the entirety of the shoot,” he laughs. “And I was grateful for it. And I believe that Troma told me that I should be grateful for it!”
After graduating from college, Gunn moved to Los Angeles where he landed mostly one-and-done roles on TV shows like 3rd Rock From the Sun, and Yes, Dear as well as being cast as “Traction Sailor” in Michael Bay’s big budget war epic, Pearl Harbor. “My Pearl Harbor story is that I’ve never seen it and I suspect that I was cut completely from the movie, but my name is fairly high in the credits at the end,” says the actor. “So, anybody that’s ever said that they saw me in Pearl Harbor, I think they just saw the list of credits at the end of the movie. That was a crazy couple of days many years ago. I do still occasionally get some really magnificent, you know, 12-cent or 18-cent residual checks from Pearl Harbor. By now, they’re really enough for a stamp.”
Gunn got his big break in 2000, when he was cast in Gilmore Girls — or, more accurately, when he was cast again in Gilmore Girls. “That was really unusual,” he says. “I was in L.A., grinding it out, doing some commercials here and there, doing a line or two on some TV shows. It was just one audition for the role of a DSL installer on one episode of Gilmore Girls. My agent at the time recommended that I pass on the audition. I guess it was because it was a ‘costar’ and not a ‘guest star’ role, or something silly like that. But I said, ‘Let me read the scene, and if I like it, I’ll go in.’ What a monumental decision. I thought it was a good little scene, and I went in, and I did the job. It was one day, it was a fun day, and I thought that was that. But it turned out that, a couple of episodes later, (Gilmore Girls creator) Amy Sherman-Palladino was casting another role and said, ‘Get me a guy like that guy who played the DSL installer.’ And I’ll always be grateful to Jami Rudofsky, the casting director, who said, ‘Why don’t we just hire that same guy again?’ I guess Amy thought thought it was a pretty cool idea, and they asked me back, and they just kept asking me back. After a handful of episodes I became kind of part of the fabric of the town. But, yeah I didn’t think it was going to be more than one episode, I didn’t think it was going to be more than one season, and it ended up being seven. And then it came back! And now it’s more popular than ever! It’s really been the strangest job. It’s the kind of thing you could never ever predict.”
While Sean Gunn was making himself at home in Stars Hollow, big brother James was making a name for himself as a behind-the-scenes talent, writing 2002’s lucrative live-action Scooby-Doo and then 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, the first film by future Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder and another box office hit. In 2006, Gunn released his own directorial debut, the science fiction-horror film Slither, about an alien monster which takes over a small town. In retrospect, the movie seems like something of a dry run for Guardians of Galaxy, both in its berserkly entertaining tone and the movie’s showcasing of people who would prove crucial to the success of the Marvel film, notably Rooker and composer Tyler Bates. Over time, Slither has acquired the reputation of a cult classic and the movie will receive a belated Blu-ray release courtesy of the Scream Factory imprint on July 25. But, back in 2006, the film was a bomb. Gunn’s follow-up, the low budget 2010 black-comedy Super, in which Rainn Wilson plays a depressed man who adopts a crime-fighting alter-ego, also proved a box office disappointment, despite a starry cast which also included Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Rooker, and Sean Gunn.
Around this time, the brothers also collaborated on a series of comedy shorts for the cable channel Spike called James Gunn’s PG Porn, which they co-created with another sibling, writer Brian Gunn (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), and which further evidenced the clan’s penchant for dark comedy. “It’s for people who like everything about porn except the sex — it’s just the story part” says Sean. “It was an idea I’d had many years earlier and then, when Spike approached my brother James about doing some comedy shorts, he put it together and wrote some really funny skits, You can still check them em out online. They’re not for everybody but some of them are pretty funny. I promise you there is no sex or porn in these shorts but ‘PG’ is a misnomer—they’re still pretty racy.”
In September 2012, James Gunn announced on Facebook that he had been hired by to rewrite and direct Guardians of the Galaxy. The project seemed like a risky move for Marvel. Gunn had never directed a hit, the Guardians seemed like desperately obscure characters, and the director’s subsequent choice of Christ Pratt to lead the cast as Star-Lord appeared close to quixotic given that he was best known for playing tubby goofball Andy Dwyer on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation. But Sean Gunn says he never doubted that his brother would turn the film into a success. “I had more faith in it being a hit than just about anybody else in the world,” he says. “Because I knew my brother so well, and I knew how good he is, and how good he could be at making a project exactly like that. And so, when I read the script, and knew how good the script was, and I knew it had Marvel and Disney behind it, and I knew what my brother was capable of, I was like, ‘This is going to be really great.’ I remember going the first day into the production office in England and I had a sense from the very first day that it was going to be special. But then, when it happens, it still seems so much bigger than you could ever have imagined.”
Released in August 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy grossed $333 million at the domestic box office, making it the third most successful film released that year. Buzz on the first Guardians film was so strong that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige announced that James Gunn would oversee a second adventure before its predecessor was even released. So, what can fans expect from Vol. 2? “The Guardians are in this mode where they’re going around and doing work for hire to help people around the galaxy,” says Sean Gunn. “I think that’s a harder transition for Rocket than it is for just about anyone. It’s not really in his nature to be on the up-and-up all the time. As my brother has said, the first movie is about building a family and the second movie is about maintaining that family.” So much for Rocket. What news of Kraglin? “The Ravagers are doing their Ravager thing, as usual,” says the actor. “But they’re wondering why Yondu hasn’t gone after Peter Quill for double-crossing them. They were going to get rich off that Infinity Stone, and Quill double-crossed them, and we haven’t done anything about it, we haven’t gone after them. And so the Ravagers are starting to worry about where Yondu’s allegiance lies. And that’s a tough moral dilemma for Kraglin, because he’s been extremely loyal to Yondu his entire life, and now all of a sudden [he’s thinking], ‘Who does Yondu really care about?'” James Gunn teases that, as Kraglin, his brother plays a bigger role in Vol. 2 than he did in the first movie. “Kraglin is probably the only character in the movie that didn’t have a single line cut, because Sean is amazing in every scene,” says the filmmaker. “He becomes a pretty big character throughout Vol. 2, which is pretty cool to see.”
Gunn’s portrayal of Kraglin has resulted in him hanging out a good deal with the larger-than-life Rooker, who also appeared with him in The Belko Experiment. What’s it like getting up and knowing that you’ll be spending the day standing next to the star of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer? “Rooker’s become a necessary evil in my life,” laughs Gunn. “I love him dearly but he’s certainly a handful. I don’t know how this worked out but Rooker seems to be everywhere I go, whether it’s doing press for Guardians, or press for Belko, or doing conventions together, or actually on set. I seem him everywhere. But I will say this — as much as Rooker can be a maniac in certain public situations, he is a very nice actor to work with on set.”
Although Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has yet to be released, Gunn is already at work on Avengers: Infinity War (out May 4, 2018), which features the Guardians. “It’s been a very cool experience so far,” he says. “I’ve only just started. I worked a little bit in January and February and now I go back to work on that. It’s been excellent. Everyone I’ve met so far — and I can’t even say who that is — but they’ve all been great.”
As for a return to Stars Hollow, Gunn says he would be happy to play Kirk again. “I understand that Netflix has reached out about the possibility of doing more,” he says. “I have no idea what the other creative personalities who would be needed to make that happen think, or if they want to do it. For me personally, I’m very busy, but I love playing Kirk, and if I have the opportunity to do it again, I would love to. It’s a joy. Fans love it and that’s why I do what I do, so people see and enjoy my work.”
Finally, does Gunn ever sit back and think, “My career is a bit strange?” “I think it every day,” he says. “You know, there’s no part of it that I could have ever designed myself. Like I said, the whole idea of Gilmore Girls coming back after almost a decade is insane. And now, I’m spending the better part of the year doing Rocket in the Avengers movies. I didn’t see myself going in that direction career-wise. But, as an actor, I consider myself a lifer and I consider myself a grinder and I go where the work is, you know. So, this is where the work is for me now — and I’m loving it!”