The franchise is called Men in Black, so why is Chris Hemsworth dressed like a linen daiquiri? Outside, England is staggering into the third month of a record-setting summer heat wave. But in the dim cool of this London soundstage, the Australian-born sun god merely glows, his long legs and trapezoid torso poured into various shades of Creamsicle: blush pants, ivory shirt, mochaccino suede loafers. “We’ve gone to Italy,” he explains helpfully, “and I think it would be safe to say my character enjoys a bit of fashion. Also, he’s about to get beaten up.”
Thankfully, his Agent H has Tessa Thompson’s Agent M — outfitted in crisp MIB-appropriate monochrome and blessed with a mean right hook — to fight alongside him. “I didn’t think we’d be back together so soon,” says Thompson of reuniting with her costar in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. “I thought we’d probably both be in capes. So I was like, ‘We’re in suits?’” she says, laughing. “But it’s such a joy to work with him. And it’s nice to know that people like seeing us together.”
Two has always been the magic number for buddy-cop comedies, of course — even intergalactic ones. In the original 1997 MIB, it was Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones who chased down Earth’s unwelcome visitors and wielded their memory-erasing neuralyzers whenever inconvenient humans got in the way. The film stood out for its deadpan wit and distinctly mod aesthetic (and for its memorable extraterrestrials, including Vincent D’Onofrio’s lurching, bug-fixated farmer and a surly little trash-talking pug named Frank).
“The [series’] style is so deliberate in its design and storytelling,” says executive producer E. Bennett Walsh. “It’s not a standard action movie. It has a certain point of view, and some of the humor is that very matter-of-factness.” The first film grossed close to $600 million globally, and lucrative sequels in 2002 and 2012 brought in another $1 billion combined. Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton, The Fate of the Furious) appreciates the emotional investment longtime followers of the franchise bring. “We went into the project knowing the deep affection we and the fans have for Will and Tommy,” he promises. “We’re not replacing them, simply adding to their team.”
It was a transition producer Walter F. Parkes and the rest of the crew also worked hard to get right: “The first three pictures are very dependent on Will and Tommy’s particular chemistry and on the comic approach that [director] Barry [Sonnenfeld] brought,” he says. “So we knew we needed performers with these vivid personalities and an inherent rapport, and luckily we could see the seeds of that in Thor.” Though Sonnenfeld has stayed on as an executive producer, Parkes adds, “I think the biggest difference [in this story] is that this time the enemy is within. MIB has been compromised from inside, which leads them on a globe-trotting adventure to discover the true nature of the threat.”
As the title implies, Men in Black: International (out June 14) does have places to go — literally. But what it doesn’t reveal is that the series has, for the first time in its two-decades-plus history, a Woman in Black at its center: Thompson, the electric 35-year-old star of Creed and Sorry to Bother You, whose Molly becomes the story’s driving force. “The genesis of the whole thing is a young girl whose life had been altered by an encounter with Men in Black,” she says, “and the idea is that unlike Will [Smith] in the original films, she’s a protagonist who hasn’t been recruited but has found them.”
It’s Agent O (played by a cool, platinum-haired Emma Thompson) who, according to Parkes, “sees Molly’s potential and sends her to London, where there’s suspicion that the agency may have been compromised from within. There she’s teamed with Chris, the charming and legendary Agent H, [who is] known as one of the greatest to ever wear the suit but who’s fallen on some hard times.” When an emissary from a powerful alien government is killed on H’s watch, he and M have to team up to identify the killer — and locate the mole whose existence has become a mortal threat to the agency’s core mission of protecting Earth from “the scum of the universe.”
That scum includes a few returning favorites (“Don’t be surprised if you see the Worm Aliens make a brief appearance,” says Parkes), but the recent retirement of Oscar-winning SFX legend Rick Baker opened the door to a new all-star crew, including Jeremy Woodhead (Doctor Strange, Avengers: Age of Ultron), who estimates that he created somewhere between 400 and 500 individual sketches for production. Among them, Parkes reveals, is “a new alien sidekick” named Pawny, voiced by Kumail Nanjiani. “He’s the last survivor of an alien race that had been hiding out on Earth disguised as a chess set, and he has some major self-esteem issues.” (As for cameos by certain Earth-born alumni from past installments? Don’t hold your breath — but okay, maybe go ahead and put it on standby.)
Technically, the fourth film is both a sequel and a continuation, though it’s also designed to welcome MIB neophytes. Hemsworth, 35, says he likes to see it as “a sort of reinvention, an opening up of the original franchise that aesthetically is a lot different. Like the geography of this one, we’re not just in New York — we’re in Istanbul, Italy, London.” That meant shooting in multiple real-world locations across Europe and Africa, an experience Gray says he found logistically challenging but thrilling, too. Plus, he jokes, “it was the first time I got to take a camel to work.”
And as the cast gets their passports stamped on screen, they may be traveling through eras as well. “Whereas the original look of Men in Black was sort of set in the 1960s,” production designer Charles Wood says, “we’re actually taking it back in time and saying that International exists in many cities around the world, and maybe even started a century ago.” The aesthetic ranges accordingly, from shades of Fritz Lang’s art-deco Metropolis to a showcase moment for the movie’s creature makers that recalls Star Wars’ iconic cantina scene. Wood points to a few of his personal favorites mapped out on a studio wall, including a spherical office he describes happily as “a massive mad snooker ball,” which will serve as a sort of all-seeing lookout for London bureau boss High T (Liam Neeson).
For all the snooker balls and fantastic beasts, though, some of the movie’s best special effects came free with the casting, like 30-year-old Laurent and Larry Bourgeois — otherwise known as Les Twins, the identical French phenoms who first rose to fame as backup dancers for Beyoncé and took home the top prize on NBC’s World of Dance in 2017. On a soundstage tricked out to look like a busy road in central London, the duo work through a fight scene so wildly acrobatic it hardly needs wirework to appear supernatural. “The twins are out-of-this-world incredible, amazing,” says Hemsworth admiringly. “It was Gary’s idea to bring them on, and I’ve just been rapt watching them move. It’s like some sort of high-speed, very postproduction altered state.” Tessa Thompson agrees: “In between takes they’ll teach us some of their dancing, which Chris and I are both to varying degrees pretty horrible at, but it’s so fun.”
The movie’s two main stars may be well versed in big-screen action choreography, but they weren’t necessarily turnkey-ready for MIB’s brand of fight club. “I’ve seen the crossover from the Marvel world,” says stunt coordinator and second-unit director Wade Eastwood — he’s the man responsible for some of the most outrageous set pieces in the last two Mission: Impossible outings — of working with Hemsworth and Thompson for the first time. “Occasionally Chris might reach his arm out and expect a hammer to fly in,” he teases, “but that’s about it. He’s been drifting cars on this and doing all sorts of things that are completely different than anything he’s done before.”
Hemsworth admits that he had to make a few un-Marvel-ous adjustments. “Thor’s stunts are wildly complicated, but it feels like an atomic bomb goes off with each of those [hammer] hits. Everything is sort of magnified to a level that is so nonhuman. Whereas this, we have to keep grounding it. There’s always a part of it where I’m like, ‘Can I do a flip or just sort of leap from this building to that one?’ and they’re like, ‘Nah, humans don’t do that sort of thing,’” he says with a laugh. “So they have to rein me in occasionally.”
One cast member who was happy to join the MIB boot camp is Rebecca Ferguson, whose seductive alien Riza, with her Saturn-ringed hair and third arm, would look right at home in Beetlejuice’s waiting room. (The part was originally meant to be fully CG, but “you don’t want to employ one of the great beauties of our time and then cover her in prosthetics,” says Woodhead. “What’s the point?”)
It was her friend and longtime Mission: Impossible collaborator Eastwood, the Swedish-born Ferguson explains, who brought her on. “He called and said, ‘Honey, I’m doing this thing, I need someone who can learn to fight within literally two days. I want to train you. Do you want to do this?’ And that was it, done.” Saying yes meant she arrived on set just six weeks after giving birth to her second child. “I’m still breastfeeding — my husband’s with her right now in the other room — so I thought, ‘What a great way to get in shape!’ And then obviously it’s Men in Black, which is just bloody cool.”
Tessa Thompson was a self-confessed superfan of the franchise going in as well, and calls herself “such a lover of science fiction, no matter the scope.” But for the actress, who has made a point of choosing roles that showcase black women as nuanced, fully formed characters on screen, there’s also something genuinely subversive happening in MIB:I beneath all the ray guns and Ray-Bans. “I mean, the start of the first movie talks about immigration,” she says, “and Will [Smith] has these really searing jokes about race…. I think you do have the chance inside of all this escapism to say something, and make a movie that has heart and that has satire and that holds up a mirror to our stuff. I think that’s possible, without preaching.”
Hemsworth has his own take, too, on what makes MIB resonate. “I think it’s naive to think there’s nothing else out there — that we’re alone in the universe — on a purely scientific level. But even more so it’s just kind of a boring idea to think that it’s just us, you know? And for the survival of our species, of course, dear God.” He adds with a grin, slapping his linen-clad thigh, “I hope somebody’s coming to rescue us from ourselves.”
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