Margot Robbie on the Liberation of Going R-Rated with Harley Quinn in ‘Birds of Prey’

     December 24, 2019

Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn was the unequivocal breakout from 2016’s infamously troubled Suicide SquadDavid Ayer‘s 2016 antihero team-up movie took heat from fans and critics alike, but if there was one thing everyone agreed on, it was that Robbie stole the show as the fan-favorite Harley Quinn in the character’s long-awaited big-screen debut.

With next year’s Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn Robbie’s scene-stealer shakes off the Skwad entirely — not to mention her powerfully terrible paramour Mistah Jay — with an R-rated girl gang movie that takes us back to Gotham through Harley’s eyes, in what director Cathy Yan describes as a “parallel timeline.” But she’s not forging ahead on her own. This time, Harley’s got a new squad; the Birds of Prey, and her on-screen team includes Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) for an adventure that teams the former villainess with some of Gotham’s most famed good guys for a battle against the nefarious Black Mask.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit the set of Birds of Prey at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, California, where I had a chance to glimpse the heightened, hyper-colorful world of Harley Quinn’s Gotham through the soundstage-spanning sets and the glitz and glammed up new costumes for the character (who’s become something of an icon of self-reinvention in the comics with her frequent makeovers). We also had a chance to sit down with Robbie during a break in filming, and as both star and producer on the film, she had plenty of insight into how the film was made, from her initial pitch to the studio on the Suicide Squad set, why she decided to bring in the Birds of Prey, settling on Yan as the right director, and embracing the female gaze. Plus, why it was liberating to bring Harley Quinn into an R-rated movie and breaking her free from the Joker.

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Image via Warner Bros.

You’re wearing so many hats with this, what was it about this story that really made you guys want to make this the Harley Quinn movie?

MARGOT ROBBIE: Well, I first actually pitched the notion when we were actually still shooting Suicide Squad, cause I kept saying like, ‘Oh, Harley does so much better when she has people to play with.’ I kept thinking that in real life I had such a girl gang, like my group of girlfriends, and I just want Harley to have a girl gang. I just want it to be like a girl gang for Harley to be a part of. And then obviously I’d been reading a ton of the comics, anything involving Harley, and one of the separate line of comics is the Birds of Prey, which I started reading. And Harley’s not a traditional member of the Birds of Prey, but it was a fun kind of girl gang to kind of dip in and out of, I suppose.

We saw that Harley is going to have a hyena in this one, you talked about going into comics – so with the hyena and everything else, were there other things from the comics that you dove into that you wanted to make sure you brought into this one?

ROBBIE: Yeah, there were a couple of like specific images I suppose that always stuck with me from the comics. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say… Can I mention skates?… Her in a roller derby, for example, I was just like, ‘Ah!’ There’s a couple of visuals I was like, ‘If we could just incorporate this in some way, that’d be great.’ And yeah, her babies, her pet hyenas, definitely, and B.B. of course. I just love how she has such an eclectic group of friends, or loved ones, which I wanted to incorporate.

Can you talk about how this movie is a little bit of an emancipation for your character, to kind of breakaway?

ROBBIE: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s always a question of what’s… something I explored a lot in Suicide Squad, the first film, was Harley’s co-dependence with The Joker, and obviously he has a huge influence on her. But obviously, she was very much in a relationship with him when we first saw Harley on screen in Suicide Squad. I did want to explore what is the version of Harley out of a relationship, and whether she’s out of the relationship on her own accord or if he kind of kicked her to the curb. It still affects her, but in a very different way, and I thought we’d see a very different facet of her personalities. ‘Personalities’ I would say, cause I think she has multiple.

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Image via Warner Bros.

Speaking of freedom, but albeit from a different angle, the language that we’ve been hearing is a bit more adult than we’ve been hearing in these films. I’m curious about kind of the openness of that and letting Harley really just go buck wild.

ROBBIE: I did feel like I had to censor myself a lot, obviously to suit a PG rating, and a lot of the characters that exist in the DC world, to be honest, are quite dark. And a lot of them, Huntress for example, have serious childhood trauma, have serious mental illnesses like Harley. But I felt like sometimes you can’t really go as deep with those things if you have to censor yourself. And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be liberating if we didn’t have to worry about that?’ and really go for it, and then later in the edit kind of find where the tone of movie lies.

When it came to of putting your girl gang together, you’ve got a couple of the Birds of Prey members, but you’ve also picked from like some of the other cool characters. What was it that drew you to like Cas or Renee Montoya, and when it came to like story-wise and building your team?

ROBBIE: Yeah, it’s an eclectic group, which I love – that everyone has a distinct and different personality, and is coming from a different angle, I suppose. You got Renee, whose set of morals… her moral compass points a very different way to Harley’s and Canary’s. Everyone’s kind of got their own rule of ethics that they abide by, and they kind of conflict with each other, which I think is always interesting in an ensemble. It really started with Huntress. I just loved Huntress, and with my initial pitch on the story, I said I wanted to keep it quite contained, get no bigger, and no world-ending stakes. Like the stakes were as big as perhaps mafia level or gang level. That’s when I started reading a lot of Huntress comics, obviously coming from a mafia family, and found her story. Plus, I always gravitate… well, not always, but I do often gravitate towards a revenge story because it is so straight forward, but you are so clearly motivated. So I find myself getting on board with that mindset quite quickly.

And then after Huntress, it kind of fleshed out from there – which other members kind of counterbalance her revenge story, and Harley’s version of what’s right and wrong. You kinda needed a more moral character like Renee Montoya – we needed a cop in there. Canary obviously is so crucial to the Birds of Prey, we really wanted to introduce her as well. And then Cas, Christina, the writer, and I actually spoke about a lot of our favorite films, and wanted to pay homage to a few things, but, Leon The Professional was one of them, and we just loved that relationship – the mentor and mentee, a very unexpected friendship there. We kind of found ourselves gravitating towards that as well.

Are you Leon in that situation?

ROBBIE: I am.

Can you talk about bringing Cathy on as the director for this film and what she’s bringing to it for this particular adventure with Harley and her new pals?

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Image via Warner Bros.

ROBBIE: Yeah, Cathy… I don’t know if you guys have talked to her or met yet. She’s awesome. She’s wicked. No, I actually saw Cathy’s film, Dead Pigs, which is an ensemble. I don’t think it’s been released yet, so I don’t know if everyone’s seen it, but it’s an ensemble cast as well. The design of the film was stunning. I think it’s a very hard thing to do an ensemble piece and give everyone, with so little real estate on the screen, give them the time to understand them or see their point of view. And then, of course, seeing all their storylines interweaving, which is something that happens in this film.

So we looked for a director who could accomplish that in a satisfying and organic way, and I saw Cathy did that incredibly in Dead Pigs. So that obviously put her on our radar to begin with, but we explored so many different directors. I’d said I really want it to be a female director if that’s how it kind of comes together, but of course, I don’t ever think you should force that either. At the end of the day, it’s whoever’s the best person for the job. We met with directors both male and female, and Cathy gave the best pitch.

She came in, she understood the piece. She elevated the ideas that we’d been working on, and kind of took them to a place, and that’s kind of what you need a director to do, to take what you have and then elevate it to another level. She did that. I remember writing copious notes every time we spoke to someone, and Cathy came into my page, there was just a big smiley face. I was just like, “It was perfect. She’s perfect for it.” Yeah, so it was really exciting, that initial conversation.

We heard this was an origin story, so I’m curious for you to just talk about kind of how it is Harley’s origin and story and maybe what it is that’s making this team come together.

ROBBIE: It’s more of an origin story for the Birds of Prey and how this version of the group might come together in its initial stages. Of course, in the future, it could be built out into the more traditional groupings perhaps or all different versions because people come in and out of the Birds of Prey. Harley is the narrator of the story, a very unreliable, erratic narrator, which is fun, but it also gives, I think, the audience an opportunity to kind of be inside her brain sometimes and see the world through her eyes at times. But really it’s about… I guess you’ll wait and see how well she does or does not get along with the Birds of Prey in the end, but ultimately I think she is not a traditional member of the Birds of Prey.

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Image via Warner Bros.

I thought it was very interesting, the first teaser trailer that I saw. It’s like the male gaze versus female gaze is something that I feel like is very hard to define, but when you see it, you know it. I’m very interested in the female gaze that you’re bringing to this perspective of Harley Quinn with this very female-empowered cast and crew.

ROBBIE: Yeah, I guess I kind of think of it like when you’re getting dressed and you’re either dressing for guys or you’re dressing for girls. You either want guys to think you look good or you want your girlfriends to wish they had your outfit, sort of thing. It’s very two different… and I think for me, Harley’s aesthetic, looking at Harley specifically, I’d say her aesthetic is kind of dictated on her relationship status and whether she’s in a relationship with Joker. You’re going to get the version of Harley that is what you see in the Suicide Squad, and then this version where she’s clearly not with the Joker. It is erratic, and it’s different but also the world in general and therefore everyone else’s kind of looks for the film was created by women. We got a female director, writer, two producers, one male producer too. He’s a feminist, so it’s okay.

Erin, our costume designer really, really… When we first spoke a lot of her inspiration were films that feel like a heightened version of reality that can also exist in a world that isn’t too jarring, or you don’t disassociate yourself with immediately. Like Fight Club, for example, is something that she mentioned, and you’re like, “Oh, I’m pretty sure they all dress normal,” but then you look at a snapshot of Fight Club, and Brad Pitt’s wearing a flowery, pink bathrobe. It is quite out there and bright and colorful and strange, but it does feel grounded at the same time. So I guess it’s a combination of achieving a heightened reality that feels grounded and recognizable at the same time and also distinctly from a female perspective.

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