Ancient history: Charlize Theron and The Old Guard cast talk battle-axes and immortality

The Oscar winner and action icon photographs herself at home for EW's latest digital cover.

If you're looking to cast an ageless warrior who's spent the last 6,000 years perfecting every human skill possible, you'd have a hard time finding a better candidate than Charlize Theron.

Need someone who can single-handedly take down an entire room full of bad guys? No problem. What about fighting on horseback? Sure thing. Someone who's as comfortable wielding a handgun as she is slicing through foes with an ancient, two-handed battle ax? Please, what else you got?

And what if you work at a magazine and you need a celebrity who can photograph herself in isolation because there's a global pandemic raging and you can't exactly gather a regular crew? Easy — just drop off a camera at Theron's home in Los Angeles, and she'll execute an entire photo shoot in her backyard.

The 44-year-old Oscar winner's up-for-anything attitude and diverse resume are part of what make her so appropriately cast in The Old Guard, Netflix's new action-drama about a crew of unkillable mercenaries who've lived (and lived and lived) through the centuries. Theron's Andy, a.k.a. Andromache of Scythia, is their leader, and together, she and her squad (Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli) have flitted around the fringes of history, bearing witness to humanity's highest highs and lowest lows, from the Renaissance through the American Civil War.

"When it was first pitched to me, it felt a little bit like fantasy, but when I read it, it felt modern and of this time," Theron says a few days after her photo shoot, via Zoom with her castmates. "That intrigued me: How can you tell this story that deals with the supernatural, but isn't really about the supernatural? It's just about people."

In some ways, The Old Guard (out July 10) feels like your typical summer blockbuster. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) and adapted by Greg Rucka from his and Leandro Fernandez's graphic novel, the Netflix film boasts the sort of action-packed sci-fi flourishes that, under normal circumstances, play out at multiplexes every July. ("Death-defying stunts" takes on a new meaning when your main characters are literally incapable of death.) But this also isn't your standard summer: With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic keeping theaters largely closed, The Old Guard stands as one of the season's few new big-budget releases (and joins Netflix's growing roster of action-dramas like Extraction and Project Power).

And the film isn't your standard comic book movie, either: With Prince-Bythewood in the director's chair, it's the first major comic book movie helmed by a Black woman. It's also led by not one but two women, a rarity in the action genre; in addition to Theron, KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) plays a U.S. Marine and newbie immortal named Nile, whom Andy reluctantly takes under her wing. Plus, the central romance is a warm, unambiguously queer relationship between two men: Joe (Aladdin's Kenzari) and Nicky (Every Blessed Day's Marinelli), two immortal adversaries-turned-lovers who had their meet-cute fighting on opposite sides in the Crusades.

At a time when Hollywood seems to be constantly discussing diversity but not necessarily representing it on screen, The Old Guard feels like a hopeful glimpse of what the future could hold for big-budget movies. The result is a thrilling action flick that's also disarmingly intimate, marrying explosions and gunfights with melancholy meditations on death.

"When I had my very first meeting with Gina, she made it very clear that that's what she wanted to lean into," Layne, 28, explains. "That this wasn't just going to be about the big action stuff and those really big, grand moments in this genre, but the true depth of these characters and really getting to the heart of why they do the things that they do."

And for Theron, The Old Guard presented a chance to try something new, sharing the screen with more female cast members after spending so much of her career as a solo leading lady.

"For all women in our industry, there's this real excitement when you get to do something that has two very interesting female leads," she says. "Unfortunately, we're still living and working in a place where that's sometimes very hard to find. So that was a really nice thing for me, and it's embarrassing that in my almost 30 years of doing this, I haven't had that many opportunities to do that."

Tank: Amo; Pants: Givenchy

When Rucka first conceived his graphic novel about unkillable soldiers, he started with the very eldest: Andy. "I knew she was the crankiest old lady in the history of the universe," the writer says now. "Like, the whole damn world needed to get off her lawn." To play that old lady, Prince-Bythewood looked to Theron, who'd already demonstrated her action know-how in films like Atomic Blonde and Mad Max: Fury Road.

The ageless Andy is an expert at what she does, but years of fighting and the solitude of immortality have left her cynical and exhausted. She and her fellow Old Guard members get a jolt of energy when they discover Nile, an ace Marine who realizes she's immortal after she's killed in action in Afghanistan. Prince-Bythewood took inspiration for Andy and Nile's dynamic from classic veteran-rookie cop movies, and that dynamic played out off screen, too: While Theron has been making action blockbusters for decades, Layne was new to the world of stunts and big-budget productions.

"This being a new experience for me, [I was] able to lean on Charlize, who has the experience and knows her way around these larger sets and around action sequences," Layne says. "It kind of mirrored the relationship that we were playing and helped it to be even that much more genuine."

The Old Guard
KiKi Layne, Luca Marinelli, Marwan Kenzari, Charlize Theron, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'The Old Guard.'

Adds Theron, "Having KiKi on set just really helped me break those walls down through this character, because I think when we meet Andy she is somewhat cynical, and she's kind of given up on humanity and on herself. She's somewhat cold and distant, and this new spirit reminds her [of] many things in life, right? Sometimes, it's that breath of fresh air in front of you that makes you realize the things that you've just completely taken for granted."

The original graphic novel barely touches on Nile's life before discovering her immortality, so Prince-Bythewood vowed to dig a little deeper, as Nile grapples with the emotional inevitability of watching her family age and die. The 51-year-old director has built her career by exploring the inner lives of Black women, through films like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, and she's long wanted to bring that same introspection to the action genre. (She signed on to The Old Guard after Sony's planned Silver & Black movie fell through, which would've centered on two characters from Marvel's Spider-Man comics.)

"Growing up, I never got to look up on screen and see myself [as] heroic," Prince-Bythewood says. "I rarely got to look up on screen and see myself at all. So for me, my fight in my 20-year career now and five movies, it's to put Black women up on screen in a way that we can be inspired by and aspire to be. This character, Nile, is exactly that."

Another key relationship in The Old Guard is that of Joe and Nicky, whose ageless love affair gives new meaning to the phrase 'Til death do us part. The pair met during the Crusades, after they executed each other as enemy soldiers, and after a while, they realized that not only could neither of them die, but they had actually found a soulmate in each other. "It had almost a Greek mythology, Achilles-Patroclus type of relationship quality to it, and I fell in love with that," Kenzari says.

"It's a story of the power of love," adds Marinelli.

Joe and Nicky's relationship is plucked straight from the comic. Indeed, when Rucka signed on to adapt his own story, he made it a condition that any movie made had to include that romance.

"I wanted a happy queer couple," he explains. "I felt the audience needed to see, here are two people who, if not for this, probably wouldn't have found each other. They have what they have because they have this gift. They meet killing each other, and only within that discovery that they can't do it are they able to put down all this bulls--- about religious hatred, about these cultural mandates, and look at each other and be like, 'You know what? You are magical to me. My blessing isn't that I get an eternal life. My blessing is I found you.'"

Also lifted directly from the graphic novel is perhaps the most moving scene in the entire film, when Joe and Nicky are — light spoilers — captured by enemy soldiers. One of their jailers mocks how much they seem to care about each other, and Joe turns to him and delivers a tender, romantic speech about his partner. "I love this man beyond measure and reason," Joe declares, before leaning over and kissing Nicky deeply. It's a heartfelt and distinctly queer moment, made all the more striking by the fact that it's a genre rarity. Other comic book movies barely hint at gay relationships, if include them at all (see: the entirety of Marvel Cinematic Universe). The Old Guard makes Joe and Nicky's relationship a cornerstone of the story, while also briefly hinting at a past relationship between Theron's Andy and another female immortal, played by Veronica Ngo.

Prince-Bythewood says Joe's passionate speech was one of the reasons she wanted to make The Old Guard in the first place, and when she cast Kenzari and Marinelli, she knew she had found her Joe and Nicky.

"We had Luca fly in to do a chemistry read with Marwan, and it was instantaneous," she remembers. "They just clicked. I remember when Luca left, Marwan said, 'That felt so easy,' and it really was. It was an instant connection. Those two just dove into those characters [and] protected each other."

That closeness extended off screen, too. At one point, Prince-Bythewood says she planned to shave Kenzari's head for the role, but Marinelli begged her not to, citing Joe's long curls in the graphic novel. "He convinced me, and he convinced Marwan," she says. "That's how invested they were in the relationship, so it was really beautiful to see. Their friendship that you see on screen is absolutely real."

Bra: Only Hearts; Jacket: Christian Dior

To prepare to play elite mercenaries, Theron, Layne, Schoenaerts, Kenzari, and Marinelli underwent months of stunt training, working with fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez (best known for his work in John Wick and the Marvel universe). Because the Old Guard has been around for centuries, the group's members have picked up different fight styles and techniques from around the globe, so the actors had to learn everything from how to hold a sniper rifle to sword fighting and boxing.

One of Prince-Bythewood's goals was to shoot as many fights as possible with the actual actors — like one early scene, where Andy and Nile show off their skills in the belly of a cargo plane, testing their limits by going hand to hand. "I loved that they are warriors," Prince-Bythewood says. "There's no speech or explanation of why these women are warriors and soldiers and fighters, they just are."

"I still think there is an assumption that we can't be our own heroes and we can't kick ass and blow things up," Layne adds. "That, for whatever reason, oh, if a woman does it, it's not as interesting or exciting, marketable, whatever the hell Hollywood has tried to tell us for all these years. And so, it's nice to be a part of something that kind of speaks to the fact that that's bulls---."

Even for an old action pro like Theron, The Old Guard presented a few new challenges. The film frequently flashes back to earlier moments in Andy's long life, and one scene required her to battle ancient foes on horseback. Theron grew up around horses but developed a fear when she fell off one and was knocked unconscious at age 12. Since then, she's occasionally ridden for roles but never fully confronted her anxieties.

"For some reason on this film, I decided to finally address that fear," she explains. "It was the thing I definitely gave the most time to, even though there was very little of it in the movie. I'm really grateful that I got to have that experience because it was a good one for me to get over. I love horses. I want my children to be around horses. But I always had this fear when I was on them that something could go terribly wrong at any instant. So it was like a metaphor for my life in a weird way, this movie. It was therapeutic for me."

After all, even experts can learn new things, whether they're Oscar winners or 6,000-year-old warriors.

Photographs by Charlize Theron / Additional Photography by Adir Abergel. Additional post-production by Scheme Machine and Good Company.

Styling: Leslie Fremar/The Wall Group; Hair: Adir Abergel/A-Frame Agency; Makeup: Kate Lee/The Wall Group