From director Joachim Rønning, the fantasy epic Maleficent: Mistress of Evil delves deeper into the bond between the dark fae Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and her human goddaughter Aurora (Elle Fanning), as the complex family ties that bind them are tested. And while the impending nuptials between Aurora and Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) are a cause for celebration and a uniting of two worlds, they also lead to new enemies and unexpected allies.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with actor Ed Skrein (who plays the dark fae Borra) about inhabiting layered and nuanced antagonists, why his character is more than just a villain, the joy of being a part of such a big fantasy epic, bringing a feral side to his character, getting to fly with wings, and then contrasting that with playing a human pilot in the upcoming film Midway.
Collider: When you’re going to play a character that is a little bit more questionable or a little bit antagonistic, is it important to you that there are those layers there?
ED SKREIN: With every character, as an actor, you’re looking for nuance, layers, depth, and something interesting to grapple with, that’s probably opposed to yourself and your own views. I try not to have anything antagonistic about me, in my normal life, which is healthy. However, with characters, people do approach me with roles for antagonists now, so it’s about sifting through them and trying to find the ones that have nuance and balance and some depth. Of course, it’s interesting when there’s redeeming qualities of some sort, but it doesn’t need to be redeeming. It needs to be interesting. This is the epitome of that. He has antagonistic traits, but for an extremely positive reason, and I don’t think there’s really anything villainous about him. He’s a whole other proposition, in terms of antagonists, from my antagonists gallery. He was an incredible character to take on, to inhabit, and to exist in for three months.
There’s something so interesting about Borra because he’s the hero of his own story, but also the villain to somebody else. That makes him someone who you want to keep watching because you don’t necessarily see him as just the villain.
SKREIN: Yeah. Something that was interesting to me was knowing and being aware of how he would be perceived in those opening scenes. It was pretty clear, how people would perceive me and Conall, and that most people would probably align with the notion of peace. However, as a cinema goer, we do also want to see pandemonium and chaos, in the safe environment of the cinema screen, as opposed to on the street outside of our house. So, there’s this undertone with all of us, where we want the Joe Pesci characters to do something crazy. We’re waiting for it to happen and hoping that he does something crazy. The interesting proposition with Borra, and all of these important moral undertones that run through this, are the notions of multi-culturalism, diversity, and otherness and the attitudes toward otherness. I think it’s quite profound, the journey that Borra goes on. It’s quite rare that a character will start as the Borra that we meet, and then end as the Borra that we find at the end. When taking on a role, that kind of arc and narrative is something that you certainly look for, in a character. I was very satisfied, watching that big arc that he goes on. It’s realistic but also interesting, the way that, at the end of the movie, everything is not perfect and everything is not okay. Perhaps he says to himself, “Last week, you were trying to kill my people. Last week, you were persecuting my people. Last week, I was defending myself against you. Today, alone, I’ve watched some of my people perish because of you. However, for the sake of progress for my people and for the greater good, we’re going to stand next to each other and we’re going to give this a go. We’re going to try to make peace. I’m going to stand next to people that have different views from me, and we’ll see how it goes. It may not go well, but let’s give peace a try, and let’s give progress a try.” In these polarized times, where it feels like people are so politically and morally stubborn, in real life, as well as the polarized world of social media, we’re not sitting and having dialogue with our opposition, as it could be called. We’re not listening to each other’s views and being open to them, and giving peace a try, and trying to empathize with people. I don’t think you kind of see that coming from Borra, when you meet him at the beginning. And if he’d have had his way, it wouldn’t have happened. It would have gone a completely different way, but this is the right way.
There’s definitely a certain level of ridiculousness, as an actor, when you do something like this, with the clothes, the make-up, the stunts, and everything like that. Did you have a moment, or were there many moments, where it was just so surreal, and you couldn’t believe this was your job and life?
SKREIN: There were times when we went out on the big lawn, where the final battle takes place, and I would be hoisted 60 feet up in the air, or a hundred feet up in the air, and I was there with horns and my loin cloth, or dress, as I called it, or floating around in my lady trousers, as I called them, and barefoot with my claws falling off and my horns getting tangled up in the wires, and I was thinking, “They’re gonna swing me down, and I’m going to land there and take out all of those soldiers. This is ludicrous. This is crazy. What a mad job I have. Oh, how I enjoy it, and how grateful I am for it.” This job was a real challenge. It was a challenging job, physically. It was an extremely demanding job for me, being four and a half hours in the make-up chair, every day, and an hour, every day, after, to take it all off. And then, there was all of the training that went into it. It was the most physically demanding job that I’ve ever done, and it was the most rewarding. If you ask anyone who was on set, they’ll tell you that I was just grinning teeth, the whole time. I was so happy that I was just skipping around all day, hugging people and having a great time. As well as being the most physically demanding, it was the genuinely the funnest shoot that I’ve ever done. Part of that was based in the ludicrousness of what we were doing, and this fantasy world that we got to exist in. Pretending to fly with horns and claws, if that’s not living the dream, I don’t know what it is.
I love that Borra feels less human than Maleficent does. She’s been around humans more, whereas he seems like he’s isolated himself a bit. Were there things that you specifically wanted to do, physically, or with how he talked?
SKREIN: It’s clear that he hasn’t integrated with the human species, anywhere close to Maleficent and, in fact, has been in direct opposition to the humans. The only time you see him with the humans is when he’s protecting his people and doing violent things rather. There’s this feral quality to Borra, which Maleficent doesn’t have. I was suggest that feral approach all came from the process and the physicality of the horns, the hair, the costume, and being bare barefoot. As soon as I put those contact lenses in, it would change the way that I would hold my head, my neck, and my shoulders. Everything was physically informed by the costume and prosthetics. At the same time, as well as being this fearsome warrior, Borra is scared. He’s acting out of fear, somewhat in the same way that Queen Ingrith is. He’s terrified his people are going to die. This is the final straw. They’ve been ostracized and it’s their last chance for survival, and there’s a body language to fear, that fear invokes and induces. Along with the physicality of the costume, that gave me everything that I needed to make him this feral beast of a character.
When you play a character like this, is it hard to then figure out how to play a regular human person again?
SKREIN: I went straight from this to Midway. I had 10 days off, and then I went straight onto Midway, which is a historical biopic about the battle after Pearl Harbor. It was very different. However, what’s interesting is that I went straight into playing a pilot, so I was flying again. Obviously, they’re very different characters. I do like to change everything up, but all of the battles in the air felt a bit close. This is our job, and I want it to be a challenge. I want it to be different, and I want it to be hard to break out of one and go into the other. If I tell the truth, the difficulty is not in going from one to the other. The difficulty is in finding the truth of each one. As actors, everyone in this cast could jump from one total extreme to another. It’s just about having enough time to sift through information, so that you can play each one in an honest and true and nuanced way. I have to say that it wasn’t too difficult, to jump into it, but it was a shame to have to wear shoes again. What was wonderful was that, when I went for the hair and make-up test for Midway, I was like, “How long am I gonna be in the chair?” And they were like, “Oh, we’re gonna do almost no make-up.” And I was like, “Thank you!” So, I would go in and, as opposed to four and a half hours on Maleficent, the make-up took 10 minutes on Midway. To put my costume on might take half an hour on Maleficent, but it was five minutes on Midway. So, that was a relief.
Was it more challenging to figure out the physicality of flying for Maleficent, or the technical side of flying to play a pilot?
SKREIN: I can’t say which one was more challenging. Both of them are challenging because I have a deep need and desire to sell it to the demographic that I’m playing. When I played a fashion photographer, in a movie called The Model, I really just wanted photographers to believe me. I didn’t really care about anyone else. For Midway, I really hope that I sell the body language of a pilot. And for Maleficent, I hope that all of the feral beasts and dark fae, out there in the world, think that I did a good job, pretending to be one of them.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is now playing in theaters.