In October 2011, I was lucky enough to visit the set of Jonathan Levine‘s Warm Bodies. The film follows R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who falls in love with the non-zombie Julie (Teresa Palmer) after eating her boyfriend’s brains. Judging by the trailers, it looks like Levine has crafted a sweet, funny rom-zom-com.
In addition to getting zombified on the set, I got the chance to interview Palmer. We talked about the scene they were filming that day, why R doesn’t eat her, working with John Malkovich (who plays Julie’s father), her favorite zombie movie, the influence of Romeo and Juliet, playing against actors who have a restricted range of emotions since they’re playing zombies, and much more. Hit the jump to check out the interview. Warm Bodies opens February 1st.
TERESA PALMER: Yes, it was! Basically, this is the last act of the movie and there’s a battle going on between zombies and this other group of zombies who are super-ferocious. They’re sort of at the later stage of being zombified. They’re called the Bonies. I’m sure you can use your imagination there. Sort of these horrible-looking, skeletal type things. They’re very aggressive and vicious. So it’s this huge sort of battle between zombies, the Bonies and then, my father, played by John Malkovich, he heads up the military. So they’re also in on it and they’re trying to find me and R. It’s very chaotic. This is the first time that I come up and I see that there’s literally 150 zombies waiting to help us out. It’s very overwhelming and surreal. But she’s sort of just jumped in the deep end. She’s like, “Well, bring it on.”
How does the relationship between your character and Nicholas’s character begin, him being a zombie and you, clearly, being not a zombie?
PALMER: [laughs] Well, as you can imagine, I’m very wary of him. For the last few years since the apocalypse, all we’ve known is that zombies try and attack humans and eat us. So it’s very much a strange dynamic between them. I’m absolutely terrified and petrified of him at the start, and then he starts to show this super-sweet and endearing behavior. He has feelings and he listens to Frank Sinatra and he collects little intricate pieces and he has a heart. She can’t quite believe it; she doesn’t really know what she’s seeing. But she realizes that they’ve been wrong about these corpses this whole time. They’re not just these dead people without feelings and hopes and dreams. They don’t want to be dead. They want to be just like us.
It’s really sweet; you see their relationship develop. He sort of has her held captive, I guess you could say, on this airplane where he lives with all these really cool little things that he’s collected and their friendship blossoms.
Does she know that he ate her boyfriend’s brain?
PALMER: Not at this point. Later on in the film she discovers this.
PALMER: Well, there’s an amazing scene that we shot the other day. It’s in the first, I’d say the first five, ten minutes of the movie. There’s a bunch of us. We’ve all been doing military training with my father. Everyone who lives in the Green Zone…I don’t know how many humans are left. I think there are like 500 humans left and we’re all living in this one area called the Green Zone. And we have all this training so that we can fight the zombies if we come face to face with them. We’ve been sent out on a mission to the lab to go and secure some medical supplies. There’s about eight of us teenagers there. I’ve got this shotgun, we’ve all got huge guns and we’re prepared to use them if we need to and then all of a sudden, we get bombarded by these corpses and all Hell breaks loose. People are getting eaten and shot and zombies are getting killed. It’s just this ferocious attack. And Perry, my boyfriend in the film, played by Dave Franco, he gets taken down at the point. But she doesn’t realize that R was the one who actually did it.
Do you know where this book takes place? Is there a locale? Just “generic America?”
PALMER: Yeah, just “America.” Like I said, it’s this Green Zone. It’s post-apocalyptic world, so there’s not much left, really. Buildings are crumbling, houses, everything has just been depleted of all life. There’s this one little concrete area that my father secured off with guys with guns. We have to have these retinal scans to get in. It’s really intense and it’s a pretty bleak existence.
So why doesn’t anybody eat you? How did this R protect you?
PALMER: He does. I think what happens at the lab, the scene I was telling you about, he takes me and sort of pretends to his fellow corpses that he’s taking me to eat later, I assume. [laughs] So, we all were sort of just walking for hours and hours and hours and then I get taken into his lair and we hang out. But I think they’re certainly shocked when they see that there’s this live human girl that he’s been hanging out with. I mean, no one has ever done that before. The fact that he can even control his urges to eat me. Obviously, to survive, zombies are supposed to be eating humans. You realize that we’ve been hanging out now for eight or nine days and he hasn’t eaten me and he hasn’t really killed anyone else. So, that sort of is where you notice a change starts to happen through love and connection and life. I sort of breathe life into him. He starts to heal himself and you realize that corpses can heal themselves and eventually go back to being human, which is what they want.
PALMER: It’s very challenging, to be honest. I’m so used to obviously having something to bounce off and you can ad lib and throw things in there, unscripted humor. It’s hard because I’m leading all of the scenes; it’s my motivation. My character, she’s very high-spirited; she’s got a lot of energy. She’s always talking, she’s very bubbly. I remember the first week, it was such an adjustment for me. It’s almost as if I’m doing huge monologues after monologues. But Nick is so expressive with his eyes. He gives me so much without having to say anything. I really can just play off of him and I feel what he’s feeling. He honestly is the perfect casting choice for this role; he’s just beautiful in the movie. He gives me as much as possible and it’s great.
There have been a lot of people comparing this story to “Romeo and Juliet” with the social classes and everything. Did you go back to Shakespeare as a reference?
PALMER: No. One of my favorite films is Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo+Juliet. So I know the story relatively well and as I started reading the script, I noticed there were so many parallels between the two stories and it essentially is the same idea. Even our names: “R” for Romeo, “Julie” for Juliet, and we have Mercutio is “M,” Robert Corddry and the nurse, “Nora.” I started picking up on all these little coincidences. I’m sure they’re not really coincidences, I’m sure that’s paying homage to Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare’s work.
The character in the novel seems to come off a bit tough and a little more rebellious and really street smart. Would you say the movie version’s a bit more innocent?
PALMER: To be honest, I made a point of not reading the book beforehand, because when I met with Jonathan [Levine] he said that they took liberties with the script and it’s not exactly the same as what it is in the book. I didn’t want to be swayed in any way by Julie in the book as opposed to Julie in the script. From what I can gather, though, she’s fierce and she’s feisty, in the book, and she’s a warrior. In our film, she is, too, but she’s also layered with vulnerability and insecurity and of course she’s petrified in these circumstances that she’s faced with. It’s fun, I mean, I get to run around and shoot a shotgun and she certainly knows how to fight. Her dad, played by John Malkovich, is the head of the army. He certainly is going to make sure that his girl knows how to defend herself. So, you see the fighting spirit in her in that way. But, she’s only human and she does get scared in certain situations.
PALMER: I have.
What’s it like working opposite someone of that stature?
PALMER: Amazing. He really blew me away. I didn’t know really what to expect, to be honest. He was so open and gentle and just the sweetest man. I’d ask for advice about different things and he was almost a method actor. We played father and daughter and he really was there for me. We ended up having this wonderful friendship on the film and it was such an incredible experience. He’s just phenomenal in this movie. He’s playing it really sort of understated which makes the fierceness of General Grigio come to life even more. He’s super-intimidating, but he’s such a powerful actor, you can see in his eyes what’s going on and how much he loves his daughter. He’s put up this really tough front. I just had such a blast working with him. I really felt like I was learning from him. I kept just picking his brain about acting and his thoughts on it all. He was so happy to sit down and talk with everyone on the crew. He knew everyone’s name. It was really special and really something.
What was the best advice that he gave you?
PALMER: In terms of acting, I was just saying, because every time he did it, he was just so different. He so existed in the moment between “action” and “cut.” He would throw in unscripted humor and lines and change things. It never felt like it was a calculated move; it felt super-spontaneous and organic. I was asking him about that and that’s what he said, he said, “Let everything go. Let all the work that you’ve done beforehand, let it go.” He said, “You don’t need to be focused.” Because I said, “Oh, sometimes I’m bouncing around, having all these conversations with people and then I have to go in and I don’t find that I’m focused enough.” And he said, “There’s a huge difference between being prepared and being focused. Be prepared and when you get there on the day, just be organic and let anything that happens come to you and don’t be afraid of it.” And I did and I noticed a shift in what I was doing since that advice. It was really wonderful.
You say your character knows how to take care of herself, she’s kind of badass. So, when she gets taken by R, does she try to fight back or keep finding ways to escape?
PALMER: She does, yeah. There are some funny scenes where she starts to plot this idea to get him out of the plane. She pretends that she’s hungry and she wants him to leave. Then as soon as he walks out you see her get up and sprint to the window to make sure he’s gone and then she just legs it and she’s out of there. But, sure enough, she’s in this area where there are just hundreds of zombies who just start attacking her and, again, he’s forced to save her life. I think she realizes she’s kind of powerless. There’s not much she can do. It’s funny though, I think, after the first few days she realizes, “This is my situation and I’m going to make the best of it.” When she lets down her guard like that, that’s when the friendship and ultimate relationship starts to blossom.
PALMER: Yeah, absolutely. It is such a Beauty and the Beast story. Also, I liken it to Edward Scissorhands sometimes. Essentially, he’s an outcast and she, in a way, feels different from other people she’s in contact with. She’s so anti what’s going on with her father and the military. She misses life the way it was and I think that spark in her has definitely been dimmed. She starts to lose hope. And then R, I think, both of them breathe that life and that light back into each other. So it is definitely on par with the Beauty and the Beast story. It’s got so much heart and warmth. I really think audiences are going to respond to that.
Just watching you guys shoot the scene just now, I noticed that Jonathan Levine was sitting cross-legged on the floor. He seems really laid back and chill. Is that his style as a director?
PALMER: Absolutely. We don’t ever see if he gets stressed out. He’s such an amazing guy. He really is very focused on what he’s doing. He’s such a visionary. He knows exactly the shots that he’s doing and where the story is and the arcs of the story. He’s just so connected to this material and super-passionate about it. At the same time, his relaxed energy really sets the tone for the entire crew and our working days. Everyone is just having so much fun on this set. I think we’re working harder because we have a leader like Jon Levine who is just pouring his heart and soul into it, but also just being super-friendly and supportive of everyone. He never gets angry. If he ever gets angry, he’s always like, “Oh, I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry.” He’s just super-endearing. I think that’s what’s going to make him a very, very successful director on top of his talent, just the way he’s so personable with people.
PALMER: We haven’t. We were supposed to work together on Mad Max.
Did you guys do any prep work for that or were you familiar with each other?
PALMER: No, we didn’t. Well, I knew of him obviously when I signed on to Mad Max, which I’m not doing anymore. I knew of him and we kind of Googled each other. Then the first time we actually met face to face was at the audition for Warm Bodies. He had already got the film and I went in there and was super-nervous and had to do my audition with him. He just really had the character down pat from the start.
Were you a fan of zombies growing up? Did you like those movies or did you stay away from them?
PALMER: I was a fan, but I think my favorite zombie film is 28 Days Later. 28 Days Later is just brilliant. But this is very different.
Here’s more from my visit to the set of Warm Bodies:
- Matt Visits the Set of Warm Bodies and Gets Turned into a Zombie
- Director Jonathan Levine Talks about Zombie Movies, What He Learned from 50/50, Horror and Romance, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Nicholas Hoult Talks about Eating Brains, Playing an Unconventional Hero, Communicating without Words, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Rob Corddry Talks about Learning Zombie Moves from Cirque du Soleil, His Love of Zombie Movies, Children’s Hospital, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Producer Bruna Papandrea Talks Working with Director Jonathan Levine, Aiming for a PG-13 Rating, Zombie Sex, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies