Meet the Cast of Guardians of the Galaxy

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The most audacious and unexpected movie of the year (of several years, actually) has to be Guardians of the Galaxy; it’s hard to believe anyone in Hollywood would greenlight a science-fiction comicbook movie starring z-list characters that nobody ever heard of, written and directed by an obscure indie director whose biggest hit was writing the Scooby-Doo movies, starring a second-banana goofball from a sitcom as an action hero fighting alongside a belligerent raccoon and a talking tree, all of it set to a soundtrack of songs from the ’70s and ’80s. Yet that’s exactly what somebody did, and the result is spectacular.

Guardians of the Galaxy second posterThe cast of Guardians of the Galaxy assembled at the Disney studio for a press event; participants were director James Gunn and stars Chris Pratt (Peter Quill AKA Starlord), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Michael Rooker (Yondu), Dave Bautista (Drax), Vin Diesel (Groot), and Benicio Del Toro (The Collector). The conversation ranged from favorite songs on the soundtrack to how hard Zoe Saldana can kick.

James Gunn started things off by talking about his feelings for the Marvel universe and its characters and the choice to do a film that is only tangentially connected to the Avengers’ world. “It was, frankly, liberating. I think I would have had a harder time trying to fit into the regular Marvel scheme of things, and this gave me a chance to take what I loved about Marvel movies and Marvel comics and create a whole new universe, which is really what has been the most exciting thing for my entire professional career.”

Yondu (Michael Rooker) confronts Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) about the whereabouts of the orb.
Yondu (Michael Rooker) confronts Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) about the whereabouts of the orb.

Yondu, played by The Walking Dead‘s Michael Rooker, is the tough and sinister “ravager” who abducted nine-year-old Peter Quill from earth back in 1988. Comparing Yondu to Merle, his Walking Dead character, Rooker said, “they’re very similar in their nature. They’re true believers in tough love, you know, Merle with his brother and Yondu with his lovely son… surrogate, okay, surrogate daddy. I’ll put it that way. Yondu is pretty damn powerful. Merle, inside, close inside, maybe, you gotta go with Merle. But I don’t think Yondu would let Merle get close to him.”

After having gained 60 pounds for his role in last year’s Delivery Man, Chris Pratt had to do extensive training and conditioning to get in shape for Guardians. When asked if he had sympathy for women in Hollywood and the media scrutiny they endure with respect to their appearance, Pratt replied with a question of his own, “are you saying that I might be responsible for giving men body image issues?” When the laughter died down, he continued, “because if that’s what you’re saying, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“I’m sure I can’t relate to what females go through in Hollywood,” Pratt explained, “I’m sure I can’t relate. But I do know what it feels like to eat emotionally and to be sad and make yourself happy with food. And then be almost immediately again sad and now ashamed. And then to try to hide those feelings with more food. I know what that’s like and it’s a vicious cycle and it’s a very real thing and, you know, so I know what it’s like to have body image issues. And I also know that if you just work hard and, you know, enlist the help of good coaches and be coachable and be willing to work hard, you can actually change that. And I offer a course — it’s like $4500 up front. And anyone’s who has these issues, just get a hold of my people and we’ll set it up and I’ll walk you through it. I don’t really offer a course. It’s a bit.”

Pratt then talked about his research in developing the character of Quill, explaining, “the whole process for me on this one was just trusting James really, and taking big swings and sometimes falling flat on my face, and the big challenge for me was just trying to ignore the embarrassment of being an actor. It’s a pretty embarrassing thing to do; you’ve got people pointing cameras at you and hundreds of people watching you as you’re trying to be great, and often, almost every time, you’re not. And then there’s one moment where you are, and the editor will dig through all the s*** to find it and then put it in the movie. So the challenge is not finding the attitude, it’s really just being open and willing to go for it and try different things and having a director that you can trust. And so the attitude is not something that I intended or created, it’s something James intended and created by getting me to try different things.”

The self-described "Guardians of the Galaxy" fly into battle; (l-r) Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Peter (Chris Pratt).
The self-described “Guardians of the Galaxy” fly into battle; (l-r) Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Peter (Chris Pratt).

The character of Peter Quill, an Earthman raised in space by a band of what are essentially space pirates, is a unique role, one that, with its blend of comedy and action, Chris Pratt was uniquely suited for. He says “I’d been sort of having an identity crisis as an actor. I didn’t know what I was; if I was an action guy, you know, or a comedy guy. And I thought maybe I could do a combination of both, but there’s nothing out there that’s like it. Maybe I have to develop something, and my manager just kept saying Guardians of the Galaxy, man. I said all right, maybe you’re right, let’s go meet on it.”

Gunn took up the story at that point, saying “we had screen tests of at least 20 people; big stars, no names, looking for the right person, because I really wanted somebody who could embody this character and take it beyond what was on the page in the same way Robert Downey, Jr. did for Iron Man, essentially. And nobody blew me away. Plenty of people were really good; many people were great, but nobody blew me away. Sarah Finn, our casting director, really deserves the credit for Chris in a lot of ways, because she kept putting his picture in front of me and saying, you know, what about this guy? Why don’t you meet with him? And I was like, the chubby guy from Parks & Rec? You’re stupid. And she kept doing it and kept doing it and finally she — I don’t remember ever agreeing to see Chris. I just remember her saying ‘okay and after this guy, Chris Pratt’s here,’ and I was a little mad. I thought I didn’t wanna see him. But then Chris came in and he started to read, and this is a hundred percent true, within 20 seconds I was like, holy s***, that’s the guy. That’s who we’ve been looking for. Sometimes a role and a person are meant for each other and that’s what I felt this was.”

One striking feature of Guardians of the Galaxy is the solid emotional core to all the characters. Gunn explains what he feels the movie is about, saying “number one, the movie’s about a son’s relationship to his mother and how it manifests itself throughout the rest of his life. That to me is an emotional thing. The second thing is, we live in a world where everybody’s supposed to be cool and act tough and put up fronts and everybody’s so cynical, and there’s a cool contest on the internet; who can be the most snarky and whatever… And this movie is about actually allowing yourself to care; allowing yourself to give a s***. So that’s a naturally emotional thing for me. And then thirdly, I fell in love with these characters as I was making the movie. I fell in love with these actors as I was making it, and I think that my natural sort of sensitivity to that — to the characters, to people, to emotions is something that automatically expressed within the film. It’s a film about family.”

The music is "the emotional core of the film," according to director James Gunn.
The music is “the emotional core of the film,” according to director James Gunn.

The trailers for the film have been very well-received, primarily for the music, and early viewers have been near-universal in praising the soundtrack, which is made up entirely of hit songs from the 1960s through the early ’80s, including long-forgotten acts such as the Five Stairsteps, Blue Suede, 10cc and the Raspberries. Interestingly, the music in the film is integrated into the story; young Peter Quill brings his Walkman to space with him along with a mixtape containing all the songs heard in the film. It’s a clever conceit that works exceptionally well. “There was a script before my script,” Gunn relates, “it didn’t a hundred percent, you know, speak to me, so I wanted to make some pretty major changes and I rewrote the whole script. And the very first thing that I thought of was this idea of the Walkman and the cassette tape which is really this character’s connection to his home planet of Earth. And that was the emotional center of the film.”

Each of the cast members cited a different song as their favorite from the soundtrack; for James Gunn, it was “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, while for Zoe Saldana it was “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways. Dave Bautista liked “Ain’t No Mountain High enough,” because of where it appears in the film. Benicio Del Toro’s favorite was David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” which is the song playing when the group arrives at the Collector’s home. Vin Diesel liked all of it, saying “this is the closet Marvel will ever get to a musical. It was that much fun for me.”

For Chris Pratt, the music became a central aspect of his performance. “That was one of the first things I requested, because this is such the emotional center of the character and of the movie,” he says, “if Peter Quill has been listening to this thing nonstop his entire life, I have a few albums like that in my life that I know all the words to every one of them. So I wanted to be that familiar with the music by the time we shot the movie, and so I had them send it to me and while I was working out, I just listened to it in order on repeat over and over, this album. But one song that really worked for me was that “Ooh, child…” That has a beats per minute that’s perfect for my running pace, so when I was running and that song came on, it put me at a nine minute mile, which at the time was like my mile. So, “Ooh, child…,” that’s the one.”

Zoe Saldana is perhaps best-known for her performance as another alien, Neytiri, in James Cameron’s Avatar. Comparing the two characters, Saldana explained, “Neytiri grew up in a household where she was loved and she was held as a child. Gamora was taken, sort of like the lost boys of the Sudan, she was taken from her village, from her planet and forced into a life of violence and crime. So there’s this pain that follows her wherever she goes, but there’s this last hope that she has, that she can possibly get away. So I did try to find some similarities between them, but I don’t think they would play together on the playground. They just — Gamora’s a hustler. Neytiri doesn’t even know how to lie.”

It was important to Saldana that Gamora have a different fighting style than Neytiri, “I just didn’t want Gamora to look like any typical action person that’s very martial-artsy and does that Underworld jumps and lands and the ground breaks and s***. I wanted her to be a little more graceful and antique, very classy in the way that she fights.” She found inspiration in an unlikely place; a friend of her husband was working on a video project and showed her some footage. “She basically recorded this bullfighter from Spain dancing a duel — a fight — and sort of leading the bull with his sword and his cape. And she shot it at 60 frames per second so it was very slow, and I’ve never seen somebody move so smoothly. It was just such a seductive dance and I thought, well that’s Gamora.”

Benicio Del Toro plays The Collector, who was last seen in the mid-credits sequence of Thor: The Dark World. He plays a crucial role in Guardians. Del Toro describes his experience, saying “I got there and I worked with four actors. Two of them weren’t there. Vin Diesel wasn’t there. So I had a lotta fun with Chris and Zoe and just — what I do remember was I felt like I could explore the character in every way I would have wanted to, and James was very supportive to taking chances and trying different things.”
Gunn adds, “One of my favorite moments in the whole movie is when Benicio came into my office when you were first visiting for your fitting and you sat down with me and we were talking about the character and how we saw the character and where you were coming from. And you go to me, “You know, when I think about it, I think about when I was a little kid, I was the first kid in my neighborhood to have a pet alligator.” And I was like oh, this guy’s my friend for life. This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Usually roles in action films require extensive training, but for Zoe Saldana, it wasn’t that way this time. “Actually, I stepped down from the training,” she says. “I’ve done so many action movies and I was sort of looking at last summer thinking, oh my God, I’m in love and I just wanna chill and go to Italy and eat pasta. And then all of a sudden, James calls and he’s like, ‘Hey, you wanna be in Guardians and be green, work six-day weeks for five-hour sessions of makeup and yeah, be an alien again.’ And I’m like ohhh. So then I did it, but the training process, after I kind of figured out where she was going to be spiritually, there’s muscle memory in all of the things that I’ve done in the past seven or eight years. So I was able to kind of relax with my body and work with the stunt coordinators but not excessively like I’ve done on other films.”

Saldana may have taken a less stressful approach to training, but according to Chris Pratt, she still has the goods. “Yeah, she whacked me really good a lotta times. She can knock you out. I guarantee you. She can knock just about anybody out. She’s got a very strong kick and she’s not even afraid to use it.” Saldana wasn’t the only one who made an impression on Pratt; Michael Rooker got a few good shots in as well. “He was like — he punched me so hard twice in the movie… I don’t know if it even made the movie.” When Rooker protested that he didn’t hit that hard, Pratt argued, “It was so hard. I felt my organs shake. I had Rooker knuckle prints on my ribs. But you know what? I tell you, it was the best acting I’ve ever done.”

For Dave Bautista, the appeal of Guardians of the Galaxy went beyond the Marvel brand. “I didn’t look at it so much as, you know, the Marvel thing,” he said. “I was very familiar with Marvel obviously and I realized they had a winning formula in movies where they’re very well done. But I really looked at it as something new and completely on its own, because it was original and fresh and also I looked at it from strictly the standpoint of Drax, because once I realized who Drax was and how much of an emotional roller coaster his character would be, I just kinda fell in love with him.”

Vin Diesel felt that Guardians of the Galaxy represented a great opportunity, particularly where his family was concerned. “I guess this whole thing started for me with a kind of a social media wave that was adamant about me doing something with Marvel,” he explains, “and there wasn’t really a six month window to do a character at Marvel. So when Kevin Feige called me and said that him and James were talking about me playing a role, I had no idea what role it would be; they sent over a book of conceptual art and I went into my living room with my kids and I opened up the book and I asked the kids what character they wanted daddy to play. And they all pointed at the tree.” Diesel went on to talk about his children’s reaction to the film, saying “something very beautiful happened in playing this role. Something that as an actor I never would have imagined. And that is when my kids see trees, they refer to the trees as my brothers and sisters, and so, they’ll say, ‘Look daddy, it’s your brothers and sisters.’ And the idea to be associated with trees like that is remarkable. It’s so much more gratifying than you would ever imagine.”

Groot’s dialogue (which consists entirely of the phrase “I am Groot” said in a myriad of ways), which was originally expected to take a single day to record, ended up stretching to four days, with both Diesel and Gunn determined to capture every possible nuance of the character. “It’d be wild to actually see my script, Diesel laughs, “because I don’t think anyone’s seen my script. It was, on the left hand side of the page it said, ‘I am Groot.’ And then on the right hand side of the page it could be a whole paragraph about what ‘I am Groot’ meant.”

For his part, Gunn is extremely complimentary of Diesel’s performance, declaring “no one will ever, ever understand, from the bottom of my heart, how much Vin Diesel brings to that role, because I sat and watched the movie a billion times with my voice in there, my brother Sean’s voice in there, and when he came in and said, ‘I am Groot,’ it really filled out that whole character and it’s really quite incredible.”

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