Starr struck: The Boys Antony Starr doesn't pull his punches
Antony Starr has his own form of laser vision. It's less flashy than his character, Homelander, on Amazon's The Boys who can actually saw a man in half with the beams shooting out of his eyes. But it's why, even against the cacophony of a church filled with extras, a zealous Aya Cash entertaining a skirmish of press cameras in the role of Stormfront, and Nathan Mitchell's Black Noir juggling rolls of paper towels off to the side, you feel the presence of Starr's dagger glare across the room. It's like a viper's penetrating stare, both beguiling and precise.
Then the cameras cut and it's like this subtle terror attack never happened. Starr offers a warm chuckle as he slips out of his Supe suit for a break on the Toronto set of The Boys season 2, months before the coronavirus would become common knowledge. His birthday was just three days prior in October. "I've never had a birthday on set. Never had it," he says. "They filled my trailer with balloons. There was no cake, which was probably good for my waistline, anyway." Starr is used to this headspace of oscillating between extremes. He revels in it.
With season 1 of Amazon's blood-drenched superhero satire, based on the comics by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the 44-year-old Kiwi transplant from Auckland delivered one of the most complex villains on television. In a world where the premiere team of superheroes are secretly vile narcissists with God-like egos and powers to match, Homelander, the leader of this Supe team, the Seven, is the worst. He teeters as, Starr says, between "the extreme good guy" he shows his adoring public to "the extreme psychopath" he really is behind closed doors. Now, as The Boys returns for season 2 this Friday, Starr goes much deeper into the dark depths.
"I think playing the 'bad guy,' you just get so much more license," he says. "I can take bigger risks and I'm not the vehicle for the audience. I don't have that responsibility on my shoulders, so I can play a lot more."
Starr has been taking risks from his very first scene on the show: a boardroom discussion among the Seven in the headquarters of Vought, the team's corporate backers. They started small. His audition had been like "putting on a blindfold," he remembers. "There was no context for the scenes that I was auditioning with" — which all happened to be from Homelander's conversations with Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), the head of PR at Vought from whom the character would, in later episodes, drink breast milk direct from the source as she coos about her "good boy." Context is key. When Starr arrived on set for Day 1, showrunner Eric Kripke and director Dan Trachtenberg gave the cast permission "to take risks and bring whatever we could." So, Starr ad-libbed a few lines that made it to the final cut. "Once you get inspired by that creatively, you start thinking in a different way," he says.
Now, as Starr thinks about it in August on a Zoom call this year from his West Hollywood home, he's trying to wipe the word "psychopath" out of the lexicon of Homelander. Yes, Homelander is definitely a psychopath with no regard for human life. But, "when we get down to broad brushstrokes and simple labels," Starr argues, "we get into trouble. I'm trying to avoid that."
Season 2 is about "destabilization," he notes. Homelander is dealing with the consequences of his actions towards the end of season 1. (E.g. spreading Compound V to Syria to create supervillain terrorists and get Supes in the military, killing Stillwell in a spur-of-the-moment act, torturing people to learn his Supe son survived, and just generally terrible things.) "The emotional consequences for him are really tough," Starr explains. "It's really tough not having his wing-woman. It was always tempestuous, but it was also a massive security, even in the discomfort. There's tremendous anger and pain, and not having that [safety net], he's really isolated and on his own."
That's when Mr. Edgar, the head of Vought played by Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito, steps in to take a more active role with the void left by Stillwell's absence. "Edgar is quite a force to be reckoned with and he really destabilizes things for everyone in the Seven, but particularly for Homelander who maybe has a little more dealing with him," Starr mentions. "There is, of course, certain scenes throughout the season that reconnect with Madam Stillwell through... her child's food." He means breast milk. In season 2, Stillwell may be gone, but "Homelander really enjoys reminiscing about the good times while sipping some titty milk," Starr jokes.
This is a far cry from when Starr was first getting his start in New Zealand in his late teens. Around 19 years old, he landed a role on Xena: Warrior Princess as David of "David and Goliath" fame. That, Starr says, was him taking his first big risk: "I'd never acted before. I just sort of winged it through the audition and then ended up on a TV set on this show."
You can tell there are some roles, like David on Xena, that he'd like to forget. ("I really didn't know what I was doing then and the result was pretty bad, but we all gotta start somewhere.") Or another TV gig where he says the network was not supportive of the show. He wouldn't say which, of course. Only that "it pretty much f—ing blows when you know that the network is not really supporting you in the way you believe you should be supported." Banshee, on the other hand, is something that still sticks with him.
His role of Lucas Hood, an ex-con who takes over the identity of a Pennsylvania town's murdered sheriff, became part of a collective wave of antihero leads that populated TV and film. Looking back, he finds a lot of similarities to The Boys. "I thought the violence on [Banshee] always had a little wink to the audience, a little tongue and cheek," he says. "There was a truck of cows that got blown up! And it's horrible, it's horrific, it's disgusting, but there was a hint of some black comedy coming through. It's in a lot of things that have a pulpy feel to it."
And now in The Boys, they are blowing up a whale by ramming a speedboat through it at full speed. This is from episode 3 of the new season, when The Deep, Chase Crawford's disgraced Aquaman-esque "hero," tries to stop Billy (Karl Urban) and the Boys by riding in on the back of a whale. It doesn't go well. When Starr first read that part in the scripts, he thought they were "going too far." Now, having actually filmed it, it's one of his favorite moments from working on the show. It reaffirmed that, no matter how crazy things seem on the page, the results will be worth it.
"When you see a big sequence like that, it's still anchored in the needs of character," he says. "The story is still being driven by the character's needs. The Boys are trying to get away and The Deep is trying to get back into the Seven. So, whilst, yeah, it's pretty whacky and kooky, it is anchored in very strong character needs and story."
The Boys received an early season 3 renewal ahead of the season 2 premiere, and Starr can only imagine the craziness that will ensue. "The only words that Eric said to me about season 3 were 'homicidal maniac.' [Homelander's] a homicidal maniac anyway, so I'm not sure what that means," he says. But it's hard for anyone to know when they could actually start filming. For both seasons 1 and 2, casting and preproduction had to start early, just because it takes so long to make and fit the Supe suits. The season 3 news, however, arrived in the midst of a global pandemic. The industry at large is trying to return to business as usual, yet it's anything but. "I don't want to go on a film set that isn't safe," Starr admits. "No one does, obviously. I don't think anyone would say anything different, to be honest. I think it's about waiting for the right window to come up. You don't want to start and then there's another outbreak and we have to quarantine in the middle of nowhere. I think once there's a little more solidity around getting a complete season in the can, then I think the dates will firm up."
At the moment, Starr and the rest of the cast are eager to get season 2 out in the world. "If you want to deep dive, then there's a lot of messages and social commentary in there," he adds. "But, for me anyway, the most important ingredient is fun. If you wanna turn up and have a light, slightly bizarre romp through a show, then you can have that." That is putting it mildly.