Hope Springs: Go behind the scenes of Marvel's Eternals
Chloé Zhao can pinpoint the exact moment her unconventional super team became the family she had envisioned. The 39-year-old Oscar winner directs Marvel's Eternals (in theaters Nov. 5), a sprawling saga about a group of immortal aliens keeping watch over humanity. To fully capture the Earth's harsh majesty through the years, Zhao pushed Marvel to leave the blue screens in the studio and film on location as much as possible. For one early scene, when the Eternals first arrive on the planet in 5,000 B.C., she and her cast and crew trekked to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, gathering on a rugged ledge overlooking the sea.
"It was probably the windiest cliff that I have ever been on," Zhao recalls. "You'd have to have a helicopter to achieve the wind that we had that day."
There, with clouds gathering and waves crashing on the rocks below, Zhao assembled her 10 actors into a triangle arrangement, a nod to one of her favorite Eternals comic covers. As she stepped back, she looked out at her cast — Gemma Chan as Sersi, Richard Madden as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Barry Keoghan as Druig, Don Lee as Gilgamesh, Salma Hayek as Ajak, and Angelina Jolie as Thena — 10 heroes that felt simultaneously ancient and brand new.
"We had our whole cast standing on that cliff in their costumes, and we played really loud operatic music on the speaker, just blasting that through the wind," Zhao explains. "Seeing my cast coming together in formation as the Eternals, with the beauty of this ancient-looking landscape, and the ocean and the sky, that was…"
She trails off, pausing. Then, she bursts into laughter: "I mean, I couldn't stand because I felt like I was getting lifted by the wind. But other than that, it was pretty awesome."
It was that sense of joy and awe that Zhao tried to chase all throughout Eternals, a cosmic, millennia-spanning epic that might be Marvel's most ambitious film yet. As a franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has mostly built itself on stories of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations, whether that's the kid from Brooklyn injected with a super-serum or the boy from Missouri who's kidnapped and taken to space, where he befriends a tree and a raccoon. Eternals, on the other hand, has a far grander scale: Inspired by one of the trippiest (and more obscure) corners of Marvel comics, the film starts at the very beginning of civilization and stretches more than 7,000 years, weaving a tale about ageless gods who stand guard over history — and maybe pick up a few human traits along the way.
"I think we bit off as much as we could chew on this one," says producer Nate Moore, "because we did want to make a film that felt urgent and present and had [a fast] pace, but also took time to reflect back over the centuries."
It's also new territory for Zhao: She's best known for intimate arthouse dramas starring mostly non-professional actors, and she made history earlier this year when her film Nomadland took home multiple Oscars, making her the first woman of color to win Best Director. A starry blockbuster about superheroes who can shoot beams out of their eyes seems like an unexpected follow-up, to say the least. But Zhao, a self-professed geek, has been angling to join the Marvel universe for years, and from the moment she first met with Moore and studio president Kevin Feige, they knew she was the only woman for the job. (Zhao even snuck a Marvel reference into Nomadland, featuring a brief shot of a movie theater marquee promoting The Avengers.)
"The truth is, we would not have even attempted this if it weren't for Chloé," Feige admits. "We thought, here's a filmmaker who is equal parts cinematic visionary and genre nerd. She can outtalk any of us when it comes to manga and Star Wars and Marvel comics. It's quite an astounding combination. And this movie, I think, represents all of the immense multitudes of Chloé."
"She's just one of the greatest filmmakers ever, and she's at the height of her powers right now," adds Nanjiani. "Working with someone like that, you'd think it'd be intimidating, but it was the opposite. I just felt very safe. I was like, Oh, she's not going to let me suck at this."
You'd be forgiven if you hadn't heard of the Eternals before Feige introduced the cast on stage at San Diego Comic-Con in 2019. Even for Marvel obsessives, they're not exactly household names, but their legacy looms large: Legendary comic artist Jack Kirby invented the mythical alien race in 1976, when he returned to Marvel after a brief stint working for rival DC. The basic story goes that the Eternals were created eons ago by the godlike aliens known as the Celestials, and this particular group of 10 were sent to Earth to keep watch over humanity and protect the planet from the monstrous Deviants.
"It's a little bit like being on a road trip with nine of your closest friends for 7,000 years," Moore says. "In development, we joked that it's like if Tony Stark and Steve Rogers lived together for that long. That friendship will turn into frenemies, and then turn into enemies, and then come back to friendship because you have that common bond. It's like a family."
For Zhao, she was most intrigued by the film's scale: She leaned heavily on Kirby's original books, both for visual inspiration and for their grand sense of storytelling. She particularly loved the idea of treating the Earth itself as an 11th character in the film, following its journey throughout the centuries. "I thought, I can go as big and as epic as our meaning in the cosmos, but I can also go intimate and explore all of the internal struggles we have as human beings," she explains. "Because these characters have lived among us for so long, [they have] the same struggles like identity, purpose, faith, personal freedom versus greater good — all the duality and flaws that make us human."
Introducing the Eternals also meant bringing 10 new actors into the Marvel fold. Zhao intentionally cast a wide net, targeting everyone from Oscar winner Jolie to 15-year-old newcomer McHugh. Several actors say they were surprised to get the call at all: Hayek, for example, plays the group's leader Ajak, but when she initially heard Marvel wanted to meet with her, she assumed it would be for a small supporting role, not a starring hero.
"I said, 'Forget it,'" she recalls, laughing. "I said, 'God knows what kind of grandmother they want me to play.' I'm used to being [told] I'm going to be the extra or the old prostitute. And then they said the director was Chloé Zhao, and I said, 'Okay! Let's have the meeting!'"
Because Zhao often works with nonprofessional actors playing versions of themselves, she says that for Eternals, she specifically gravitated toward actors who she hoped could identify with their role — even if they weren't immortal warriors from another planet. Still, she encouraged each actor to find a bit of themselves in their character, whether that was their strength, empathy, or curiosity about the world.
"I don't think we realized that until we really got there," Jolie explains. "It really felt like she was pulling out of us something that was more personal, from a deeper side of ourselves. She wasn't looking to put something on top of us, like a character. She was looking for us to reveal ourselves as the character."
Each Eternal is ageless, but all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Madden's Ikaris, for example, can fly and shoot rays of light from his eyes, while Hayek's Ajak has the ability to heal, Henry's Phastos is a brilliant inventor, and Keoghan's Druig is a cryptic loner who can manipulate others' thoughts.
One of the last roles to be cast was the film's emotional center: Chan plays Sersi, who — unlike some of her Eternal cohorts — has a soft spot for humans. In the present day, she works as a museum curator in London and is dating human Dane Whitman (played by Game of Thrones alum Kit Harington). She's particularly close to Sprite, and she has the ability to manipulate inanimate matter around her.
"She's not the most obviously impressive Eternal in terms of her powers," Chan explains. "She's not the strongest, and she's not the best fighter, but her power really is her empathy."
Feige and Zhao almost immediately gravitated toward casting Chan, but there was one hitch: She was already part of the Marvel universe, playing the blue-skinned Kree sniper Minn-Erva in 2019's Captain Marvel.
"I had bumped into Kevin Feige on the awards circuit [when] I was promoting Crazy Rich Asians," Chan remembers. "He very kindly came up to me and said, 'I loved your work, and we would really love to work with you again.' I just thought, 'Oh, well, that might mean sometime in the future, who knows when? Maybe he's just being nice.' I was really not expecting to be back so soon!"
"It would have been shooting ourselves in the foot," Feige says of potentially not casting Chan. "I can go back to Chris Evans being on the list for Captain America, and some people said, 'Oh, well, he played the Human Torch [in 2005's Fantastic Four]. Maybe we shouldn't consider him.' And we said, 'No, that's okay,' and the rest is history."
For Chan, the major perk of returning was not having to spend four hours every day in a makeup chair this time, painting herself blue every morning. "I have to say that was somewhat of a relief," she says with a laugh. "It was nice not finding blue paint in my crevices weeks later."
Much of the film centers on the relationship between Ikaris and Sersi, who have a long romantic history through the ages but have since drifted apart. Adding to the awkwardness is the fact that she's currently dating Dane, making for an uncomfortable love triangle. (It also marks a Stark family reunion for Madden and Harington, who are reuniting for the first time since playing brothers on Game of Thrones.)
"You've got to have this huge compassion for the human beings you're with, but then also, you've got this huge disconnect from them because you've lived through all of this time," Madden says of his and Chan's star-crossed lovers. "That's what is so good about Sersi and Ikaris together, that they are two opposing sides of how they connect with the world. That's what balances them."
Fortunately, Madden and Chan have off-screen chemistry, too: They've been friends for years, ever since they first met as young actors — but Eternals is their first time working together.
"I'm spoiled, in a way, of having 10 years of trust with her," Madden says. "We know how to make each other laugh, and we know how to push each other's buttons, and we're very comfortable in each other's company because we've spent so much time together over the years."
"We've been through a lot of ups and downs together," Chan adds with a laugh. "We've gotten drunk together, and we've consoled each other when we were broke."
Another key member of the story is Jolie's Thena: The actress is also no stranger to action-packed epics, but suiting up as an undying superhero was a new challenge. Still, she found herself drawn to Zhao's pitch about a group of immortals finding each other time and time again through the ages. "I just wanted to be a part of this family," she says. "I have a slightly unconventional family myself, so it felt familiar."
Thena is an elite warrior who can manifest different weapons out of thin air, so Jolie practiced with various swords, spears, and staffs, as well as undergoing ballet training to help hone Thena's natural grace. But it wasn't until she got on set with the rest of the Eternals that she felt most at ease.
"Standing there next to each other, the first time we all stood in our suits together and took off our secrecy cloaks and had to stand there for the shot, what you felt was just a lot of support," she explains. "We were smiling at each other, and there was just a lot of kindness."
Keoghan, who plays the aloof Druig, remembers that first day similarly. "I was the last one to get into costume," he recalls. "When I arrived and put it on for the first time, it was kind of nice to walk out and see the rest of the cast's reaction. They were like, 'Whoa!' It's a weird feeling to see yourself like that. As soon as you put the boots on, your posture transforms. You definitely notice how your whole demeanor and everything just changes."
Thena often fights side by side with Gilgamesh, played by Lee. The Korean actor is perhaps best known internationally for his breakout role in Train to Busan, and he says he's had dozens of offers for Hollywood movies over the last few years, but Eternals was the first he's really wanted to pursue.
"I knew this was the one," he explains. "I've always been a huge fan of Marvel, and I really loved the character of Gilgamesh. I saw the potential for inspiring the younger generation as [the MCU's] first Korean superhero." He adds that he also had a special affinity for the role, since he's trained as a boxer for years, and Gilgamesh has the ability to knock out foes with a single punch.
Fifteen-year-old McHugh plays Sprite, who appears as a young girl but is actually thousands of years old. McHugh (The Lodge) describes her as "a very old soul." She also can project realistic illusions. "She struggles with some issues to do with the fact that she's super old stuck in the body of a child," McHugh explains.
As for Nanjiani's Kingo, he's one of the few Eternals who hasn't stayed out of the spotlight. He's reinvented himself as a popular Bollywood star (which meant Nanjiani had to brush up on his dancing skills). "The other Eternals, to different degrees, have taken themselves out of society, but he's a really high-profile member of society," the comedian says. "He loves it. He loves fighting. He loves being a movie star. He can shoot beams out of his hands. There are no downsides to Kingo's life."
For Henry, he also connected with Eternals' themes of heroism and how these otherworldly figures fit into the world. "I've been obsessed with the concept of superheroes and the concept of mankind needing saving," the Atlanta star explains. "I think that when you get this group of people together, who just have these intimate senses of super powers and saving humanity, it's something that we all kind of need. And it literally brings everyone together regardless of where you're from. I'm still freaking out that I'm a part of it."
Finally, rounding out the cast is Walking Dead alum Ridloff as the super speedy Makkari. Makkari is kind-hearted and can run at extraordinary speeds, and she's also the first deaf hero to join the MCU. Although as Ridloff points out, she won't be the last: Deaf actress Alaqua Cox has joined the cast of the upcoming Disney+ series Hawkeye as Echo.
"What made it even more interesting to me was that they decided to make this switch, this gender swap," Ridloff says. "We couldn't go more opposite to the original with this casting. Traditionally in the comic books, it's this big muscular, buff, blond guy, and he's hearing. And they considered me — a woman, Black, deaf — to play this role."
In fact, before Zhao even signed on to direct, she says one of the things she loved most about Marvel's initial treatment was how it reimagined some of the original comic characters to make them more specific, from changing gender and race to going deeper with certain character's origin stories. Feige has also confirmed that one of the Eternals is openly gay, and although Marvel is remaining tight-lipped about details, it's been reported that Henry's character Phastos is married to a man.
"That really impressed me, how diverse the cast was [in early drafts]," Zhao explains. "Not just in terms of gender, race, age, but overall, I could see the desire to reflect the world that we live in, as much as possible. That is great, but what was most important to me was actually to be able to tell a story and to craft characters to be as individual as possible, and to really showcase what's underneath the surface of what they look like and what they represent. These are unique, flawed, and complicated individuals, just like you and I. That's what drew me to these actors. That's what drew me to the story of each of the characters."
Eternals is largely a standalone story, focusing specifically on these 10 characters and their journeys together. But Moore teases that the film is "part of the fabric of the MCU," comparing it to the first Guardians movie, which was mostly self-contained but introduced characters and story lines that would later pop up in other films. Eternals picks up after the events of Avengers: Endgame, when half of the population has returned after being snapped out of existence. It'll also answer why the Eternals didn't volunteer to help go after Thanos — or help tackle any of the other various crises throughout history. (The short answer is that their mission is to focus on the Deviants and never interfere with human affairs. Still, the Avengers probably could've used the help.) That being said, Feige and Moore tease that the film will have major ripple effects on future stories, and it was a challenge at times to balance the MCU's more grounded tone with the mythic grandeur of Eternals.
Fortunately, Zhao threw herself into figuring out that right tone, marrying both the lofty sci-fi weirdness and the funnier, more down-to-earth moments. As a director, she says she embraced the collaboration that came with figuring out complicated visual effects and action scenes, but she also tried to make room for her trademark hands-on approach. (Ridloff says that the first time she met Zhao, the director invited her to sit on the floor, while Hayek remembers Zhao chasing after horses on set with a camera to capture an improvised scene.)
"She has that sort of DIY aesthetic," Nanjiani says. "I remember one day [the crew] was saying, 'Oh, we can't do this,' and she just climbed up on this piece of set and was like, 'How about here? Just put the camera here!' Everyone was like, 'Oh no, no, no, Chloé get down from there! It's an insurance hazard!'"
In all, the cast says they were surprised by how quickly they meshed, bonding both on screen and off. (At one point, Jolie threw a Halloween party for the cast and crew, dressing up herself as a giraffe.) Together, Zhao says, they form the kind of complex group she'd always dreamed of spotlighting.
"You might not expect them to be in the same room in real life," Zhao says of her cast. "It might be a bit like, 'Oh, I didn't expect this group of people was going to be a family.' But almost right away, I felt like they each found their place in the family unit."
Art courtesy of Marvel Studios. Photography by Marco Grob.