Richard Madden and Gemma Chan don’t quite remember how they met.
“I think we met through some mutual friends and ended up falling in together and just really getting on,” Madden said.
The longtime friends co-star as lovers in Marvel’s epic “Eternals,” about an ancient race of powerful beings who struggle against meddling in matters affecting mankind.
After casting Madden first in the role of Ikaris, a Superman-like hero with super strength and laser vision, director Chloé Zhao struggled to find an actor to play his romantic counterpart, Sersi.
“I always try to cast as much from real life as possible,” said the director. “We had read so many women for Sersi and we still couldn’t make our mind up. And then Richard says, ‘You should read my friend, Gemma Chan. We’re really close.’ So then we brought Gemma in to read with Richard but also by herself. Right away, we were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s our Sersi.’ She just walked in and she was Sersi.”
Chan’s casting also came despite her role as a completely different MCU character, Minn-Erva, in 2019’s “Captain Marvel.”
Sersi, an empathetic hero who has the power to alter matter, and Ikaris have a romance that spans over 5,000 years, an intimacy that was easy for the actors to step into thanks to their real-life bond.
“I think the two of them having a decade of life together, and then to come in and to be playing these complex lovers who both had the weight of the world on their shoulders and then still be able to find love with each other — I’m very grateful for the time they had in real life because I’m sure they brought that with them in ways that I could never predict,” said Zhao.
The Times caught up with Madden and Chan to discuss working with Zhao, their dream superhero mash-ups and joining the MCU at this stage in the game.
Spoiler warning: This interview touches on the ending of “Eternals” and the fate of some key characters. There will be another warning before those details are discussed.
Did you get cast as your personal favorite Eternal?
Richard Madden: Absolutely. And the best costume, I think [laughs].
Gemma Chan: Everyone got cast before me, so I didn’t have a choice.
What drew you to Sersi and Ikaris in particular?
RM: It’s the concept of someone who’s 5,000 years old. That was a really fascinating concept for me as an actor get in the headspace of someone who’s lived 1,000 lives, seen and done everything and yet still tries to find some sort of joy and purpose in every day. I think that’s part of why Ikaris is so drawn to Sersi, the beauty she sees in the world that he sometimes doesn’t. I think that’s part of what he loves about her.
GC: Around the time that I was cast, because of all of the things happening in the world, I too felt quite jaded and cynical about things sometimes. So I really loved being able to [embody] a character who looked at the world through more hopeful eyes. It was interesting to imagine having been around for thousands of years, seeing the absolute worst of humanity and still choosing to believe in the best of what we’re capable of.
Sersi [comes] from a place where she’s quite unsure, isn’t really aware of the extent of her powers, doesn’t have the strongest conviction or the loudest voice in the room but by the end of the film she’s grown into herself and learns to trust her instincts and exercise her power. It was a really interesting arc to play. And then also exploring her relationship, what is it like if you’ve been on and off with someone for thousands of years? How do you play that?
What was it like working with Chloé Zhao, particularly in the scenes you shared where her artistic touch feels the most apparent?
RM: Something Chloé does that’s really great is she lets the camera linger on you before and after the scene. And she manages to capture quieter moments between these characters before you think the camera is rolling or after you think cut has been called. She mines those moments and really gets a nuanced picture of these people which, with 10 different characters, is hard to do in the time we’ve got.
GC: It’s a tricky thing to find very intimate moments in a film of this scale. We were encouraged to improvise and the camera would just follow us and actually that was a really useful way to discover the dynamic between these characters. A lot of the time we were trying to make each other laugh and we found joy in those moments which is rare in a film of this size where there’s so much spectacle.
Gemma, how did it feel returning to the MCU and how was this experience different than “Captain Marvel”?
GC: I feel very lucky to be back. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be back so soon. It was great to not be painted blue this time, spending four hours in the makeup chair every morning. It’s just fun to come back to a completely different project and tone and to get to work with an amazing bunch of people. I feel very lucky.
And Richard, you’re no stranger to being a part of a franchise with a built-in fanbase. What was it like for you joining the MCU?
RM: It was really exciting. With “Game of Thrones,” I didn’t know much about it before I began, but the MCU I knew a lot about. I’d seen and loved every movie so it’s surreal joining something that you’ve watched from outside. To be in scenes where we reference Thanos or events that have happened, you’re like “I know that from the movie!” But now to be a part of that universe is really special. I’m such a big fan of what Marvel has done so it’s an honor to be involved.
How does it feel for you both to enter the MCU at this stage where the universe is this huge, sprawling interconnected web?
RM: It’s a really exciting opportunity to emerge in this film as characters who have been there and lived through it all. It really adds another dimension to this world we already know and love.
GC: It felt like a unique opportunity to tell a story like this that is a bit of a departure for Marvel. Having already done one film, I jumped at the chance to come back and make a film that’s so epic, intimate and has really character-driven moments but also takes place over such an epic scale of time. It feels exciting and a bit of a risk as well, not knowing how audiences are going to react to that.
Do you think the Eternals would’ve been able to take Thanos?
RM: I don’t know. I mean, I’d love to have had a go [laughs].
GC: We’d have given it a good go, I think.
What Marvel character or team would you most want to see an Eternals crossover with?
RM: I would’ve loved to see a bit of Ikaris and Iron Man. I’d love to see them flying around and causing some damage, that would be fun.
GC: I’d have to say Thor and Valkyrie. I think Sersi and Valkyrie could’ve gotten drunk together, stayed up all night and had a laugh.
You two share the most suggestive sex scene in the MCU. What was filming that like and did being friends for so long make it easier or more awkward?
RM: I’d say a little easier because me and Gemma have an ease and a trust with each other. Often those scenes are with actors you’ve only known a week or a month and it’s really unsettling. Because we’ve been friends for so long, we know how to take care of each other in a situation that is not pleasant for anyone involved. And also we were outside so there were a lot of elements [baked in] that go against comfort.
GC: I’m glad Richard was there because it can be very vulnerable and it’s important to have that trust.
Final warning: Spoilers for the ending of “Eternals” follow. If you haven’t seen the film yet, come back once you have.
After everything that happened, Ikaris is definitely dead, right? How poetic do you think his choice to fly into the sun was?
RM: I think it was the only way. It was his release and escape from responsibility, finally, after carrying all this weight for all this time. I felt like it was the most just way to end his story because I think he’s heartbroken from letting down the people closest to him. It’s the first time he’s accepted that he’s got a heart and has done the wrong thing so he punishes himself.
GC: I don’t think he’s necessarily dead. Anything can happen. The Eternals have their memories stored in the World Forge so they could make another Ikaris.
Richard, would you be willing to reprise the role? Or to go Gemma’s route and come back as a completely different character?
RM: I don’t know what’s in the future. We’ll see what happens.
Times staff writer Tracy Brown contributed to this report.