DC and HBO’s Peacemaker has been one hell of a ride for audiences. The weekly superhero series follows John Cena’s The Suicide Squad character as he joins a secret government task force for “Project Butterfly” — a name that means more and more as weekly episodes roll out.
Among the team is Agent Emilia Harcourt, who is first introduced in The Suicide Squad and is played by Jennifer Holland. Ahead of episode 7’s debut, Holland spoke to Mashable about the dynamics of Peacemaker‘s unlikely team, James Gunn’s writing style, and of course that outrageous title sequence.
MASHABLE: I love Harcourt so much as a character, and I want to know a little bit more about what it’s like to play someone like that. Usually, in these types of shows and movies, these female characters have to be kind of soft at the center. But so far Harcourt is just really unapologetically tough, and I love it.
JH: For me, it was just a dream character to play. The thing about her from my perspective is that she’s just such a well-rounded character. She’s not larger than life in the way that some characters can be on TV and in movies. She’s very flawed, and she has a lot of different layers. And she’s complicated and complex, and she doesn’t always say and do the right things.
I see her from a very empathetic standpoint as someone who has adapted to her lifestyle and the way that she has to build up this harsh exterior in order to deal with all of the tough things that she has to do in her life, and all of the things that have made her who she is. I see her as this very sort of tragic character. She’s lonely, and she doesn’t even know that she’s lonely. She thinks she’s fine just by herself doing her thing, and she thinks she’s probably better off alone.
So yeah, I just love her. She’s just such a wonderful, wonderful character to get to play.
And then this week we did see what you mentioned: we see her starting to warm up to Chris a little bit. How was it to kind of play — it’s a very, very subtle build-up to that moment. How was it building that relationship not really explicitly?
For me, it was really, really beautiful. I just love that it’s nuanced, and it’s not so in your face, and you’re not expecting it necessarily to come. I think you might be hoping that it will come.
We had a lot of directors come in, and they wanted to put their own sort of stamp on the project. And one of the directors really wanted to push for my character to have a big sort of revelation in their episode. It was really hard for me to toe the line of respecting them and their vision, but also protecting the really nuanced writing that James gave to this character. I didn’t want her to learn anything too soon or to change too soon. I wanted to give it that space to breathe. I think that the way that it’s written in such a slow and sort of nuanced way throughout the series is perfect. I’m really glad that it ended up the way but it did.
Yeah, it doesn’t feel out of character — but am I correct in thinking that we can expect more of that in the remaining episodes?
I think in the remaining episodes — it’s hard for me to talk about it without giving anything away. But yeah, she has started to let her guard down. As you can see from episode 5 when she takes the photo of the team and she sends the group text out to the 11th Street Kids, she’s really starting to accept that maybe she’s not better off alone. Maybe she can have a family, and that’s okay. Maybe that’s even better than what she’s had before.
I think that the journey that follow is one where either she deepens that bond with them or something breaks … it’s just a really interesting thing to get to explore what happens when someone, who has never really opened up… What happens when someone like that does start to open up?
Speaking of breaking up the 11th street kids, I do think that Harcourt — it feels like she might hold a grudge. I can’t imagine she’s gonna take it well if and when she finds out that Leota is working for Waller.
Oh, gosh, I mean — yeah, if Harcourt finds out that Adebayo is working for Waller, that’s certainly not going to go well. Because at this point she has no idea. She doesn’t know that Adebayo is Waller’s daughter. She’s just totally out of the loop. And she’s really started to build a friendship with Adebayo. I think she was always really hard on Adebayo because she originally saw her as someone who just should not be in this line of work, who was in the wrong profession. She didn’t really trust her, didn’t know how she even got there.
As [Harcourt] started to have some empathy for [Adebayo] and started to understand her a little bit, I think that then she just was afraid for her because she seemed like she just couldn’t hack it. The way that she started to build her relationship with Adebayo and with the team in general, it’s going to be difficult if Harcourt ever figures out that she’s been betrayed or lied to. I think it’s gonna hurt that much more after she opened up the way that she had.
Completely. I think it started like very professional and now it’s very personal.
Credit: courtesy of hbo max
In episode 6, we find out that Harcourt has known about Murn this whole time, which was a big surprise for me. Did you film in an order where you were able to play that in episodes one through five?
We did get all the scripts at the very beginning. James had all of the scripts pretty much 100% completed before we even started shooting the first episode, which is like a rare treat. You never really get that. Sometimes you don’t even know what’s happening two episodes from then. That can be frustrating. Sometimes a couple of episodes down the line, you get some information and you’re like, “Well, that’s weird. That doesn’t really line up with something I did.”
But we were lucky enough to have all the scripts before we started shooting any of the episodes, so I was able to sort of track when Harcourt figured it out. She didn’t know from the very beginning, but I think Harcourt started to suspect when Murn was — I think it’s an episode, oh, episode 3, I believe? When we are at the Goff residence, there’s that experimental ARGUS device that isn’t working, and Murn gets blown up by the ARGUS device that Adebayo has stuck on the wall. He gets basically blown up by this thing, and then he kind of just gets up and coughs a little bit and he’s fine. I think she starts to suspect something at that point.
It was even sort of written into episode 5. You see, right after they get back from the mission, they’re standing around, and Adebayo’s like “We defeated a gorilla!” And I have this really odd exchange with Vigilante, where he’s like it would have been cool if — something about a chihuahua — it’d be cool if a butterfly took over a Chihuahua. And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” But right at the end of that scene, I have this tiny little moment with Murn where I’m staring at him, and he says, “Are we cool?” And I say “Yeah, we’re cool.”
You can go back and look at that scene, and you can go, “Oh, she knew then.” But at that moment you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know what they’re talking about. He knows that she knows, so that’s kind of the trajectory it takes. And it’s never something where you want to be able to suspect from the performances that we’re giving, but if you go back and watch it, you can go, ‘Oh, cool!’
I’m so glad also that you mentioned the Chihuahua exchange because that is what prompted one of my questions: James Gunn has such a distinctive sense of humor, and it really stands out in the show because other superhero fare tends to be super serious. So how is it getting to play some of those jokes, being one of the straighter characters sometimes amongst like, really goofy superheroes or aliens or whatnot? Is there improv or is it really, really planned out?
Most of the show is completely scripted. Every once in a while after we’ve gotten the scripted version done, James will either throw new lines out for someone to do. Or he’ll let Cena improv or whatever. It’s usually John, he’s the master improv-er on set. James also will improv on set all the time. It’s amazing. He’ll make himself laugh, while he’s like thinking of some new lines to say, which is really fun.
But yeah, that was totally written into the script, the exchange about the chihuahua, and I love playing the straight character. I could also play the comedic character, but the straight character to me is so much fun because it’s almost like… you’re kind of the audience to some degree when you’re the straight character… It’s easy for the audience to connect with that character. It’s fun to play the character that is having all of the questions that some of the audience is probably having about all of the crazy characters that are around. And without the straight character, the crazy characters just aren’t as funny, you know? It’s such a necessary part of comedy. I just love it. I love all of it.
The thing about the way that James has written this show, and most everything that James does, is that all of the comedy is pretty grounded. He wants it to be really grounded, even if it’s the most insane thing, like him making a joke about a chihuahua or whatever. These stupid things that he has to say, James always wants the tone to stay grounded and real. When you have to try to balance the drama and the comedy in a show like this, it’s all just coming from a real place. So, it makes it easy.
And then, of course, things are about to get much crazier. The butterflies really remind me of a zombie movie.
What’s that like to film — whether it’s a human actor doing all of those kinds of physical moves or having to deal with the actual acting around what’s supposed to be like an alien insect? It’s a very unique situation.
It is; it’s unique. But again, the way that it’s played in this series is [James Gunn] doesn’t ever want it to be obvious that one person is or isn’t a butterfly, right? They’re all for the most part acting like just normal human beings because these butterflies, these aliens, are trying to assimilate to human life and just blend in. So it’s not really until you start to see them at the moment that they get taken over and they’re still adjusting to the new body that they’re in, it’s not until that moment that you really see them acting weird.
You do see certain times early on in the series when Murn is talking about how he doesn’t really have feelings. I don’t know if you remember the scene. He’s outside with the drill. He’s with Economos, and he’s like, “You’ve never said I’m chilly?” And he’s like, “Is chilly a feeling?” And Economos is like “Yeah.” And Murn says, “No, I’ve never felt chilly.” And they have that whole conversation about how Murn doesn’t really have feelings, and you don’t really know what that is until you go back into the earlier episodes with the knowledge that he’s a butterfly. And you go, “Oh, that’s why they had that really weird conversation.”
Credit: courtesy of hbo max
I can’t let you go without asking about the title sequence, which has of course been such a fun thing for the audience. Did you know you were signing up for a full choreographed dance number when you joined this project?
I did. I did. Yes, it was written into the script. So I mean, I knew what was happening. James had explained that it was going to be this sort of robotic, emotionless thing. And I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was like, “Cool! Whatever you say, man. I’m up for it.”
It came together so well. It is kind of what you’re talking about — that balance of like the comedy and drama — to have these really stone-faced actors doing all these moves, it’s very effective.
I think James had some idea that he needed the opening to be something that would really set you up for, as a viewer who didn’t know what they were diving into, who maybe isn’t the James Gunn fan or whatever, would sort of allow you to go “Okay, all bets are off. I better buckle up because I don’t know what I’m about to get.”
It’s kind of a crazy series and he wanted to make sure that people understood that it wasn’t your average superhero show that you might be thinking that you’re jumping into. It can be a little jarring if you don’t know what you’re jumping into, you know? So it gives you a little bit of a taste of what’s to come, for sure.