The struggle for ascendancy between rival queen sisters Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and Freya (Emily Blunt) takes center stage in The Huntsman: Winter’s War, the epic female-centric action adventure directed by visual effects wizard Cedric Nicolas-Troyan in his feature debut. In an icy northern kingdom where love is forbidden, Freya’s elite Huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth), takes a stand between good and evil alongside fellow warrior Sara (Jessica Chastain) who has captured his heart. In this prequel to 2012’s Snow White and The Huntsman, Eric must prevent Freya’s evil sibling, Ravenna, from ruling for an eternity.
At the film’s recent press day at Universal Studios, Theron, Hemsworth, Blunt, Chastain, and Nicolas-Troyan discussed the appeal of being part of the prequel, Blunt’s “queen off” with Theron, what it was like playing a villain in that heightened reality, the change in tone from the first film, how the actresses got to kick ass and show off their fighting skills, Theron’s mano a mano with Hemsworth in a heavy dress designed by Colleen Atwood, how Chastain trained for her role and fought in shoes with 4-1/2” lifts, Judi Dench’s generosity towards Blunt at the start of her career, and Blunt’s upcoming role in Disney’s Mary Poppins sequel. Check it all out in the interview below and be aware there are a few spoilers.
Cedric, this film marks your directorial debut. What appealed to you about being a part of The Huntsman: Winter’s War?
CEDRIC NICOLAS-TROYAN: When you try to be a director, you have to start somewhere. You’re trying to find that first instance. When Joe Roth called me and asked me if I wanted to direct that picture, it was a no brainer for me. I knew that Charlize and Chris were already in and Emily was on the verge of coming in. It was like, “Yes, of course.”
Charlize, what attracted you about coming back?
CHARLIZE THERON: Chris Hemsworth. I had a blast on the first one. I had a really great time working with Chris. I think I was in shock when I got the call, because I die in the first one. Spoiler alert. I was a little bit like, “Well how is that going to work?” Then, when I saw the script and I realized, I was just really flattered that they wanted to bring me back. You’re always wondering what else is there to explore. I realized that I was in a very fortunate position because of the character, Freya. Two things that I never thought Ravenna would ever do was love something and care for something. That was a new thing for me to explore through this character. And, to get to do it with a powerhouse like Ms. Blunt over there was like, “Where do I sign on? I can’t wait.”
Emily, were you excited to be a part of the group?
EMILY BLUNT: I was really excited. It was a big appeal for me to work with all the actors. I definitely was wanting to do a “queen off” with Charlize Theron. It was just so awesome and fun. I don’t think I’d ever played a villain in that heightened reality, and I knew that would be a delicious thing to play. That was a big part of it, too.
Chris, how was it for you?
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: It was great. I had a great time in the first one, but it was a darker in tone film. When we were shooting that, we were talking about the potential of doing a sequel or a spinoff or both. Then, this came together first. I liked the fact that it was an opportunity to have it be much lighter in tone, and have a greater sense of humor to the character, and still have that epic adventure, but it’d be more fun. That’s what we aimed for in the script and Cedric had the same intention.
NICOLAS-TROYAN: On the first movie, the Huntsman himself, as a character, was very different than the tone of the film. He had this swagger. He was coming in and out of drama, and going in doing The Huntsman as his own movie, it was very important to carry that tone. We took a chance there, because it’s a very different tone than the first movie, but it was the tone of the character that Eric is.
We also have a very powerful female Huntsman in the character of Sara. Jessica, how was this experience for you?
JESSICA CHASTAIN: It was great. I had just done a lot of movies where I was playing characters going through very dark things, and I was so bored with what my life was. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m always on a set and I’m constantly playing these sad things. I want to do something fun.” Being on the set with all of these people, we laughed a lot. It’s the most laughing I think I’ve ever had on a set.
Despite the title, this seems to be a very girl-centric film.
CHASTAIN: Girl-centric or princess.
THERON: (pointing to Chris) Chris is the biggest girl.
HEMSWORTH: There’s only one princess in this movie.
BLUNT: The damsel in distress.
BLUNT: Oh god, I have to leave that to Jessica, because Charlize and I spent our time hobbling around in high heels going, “My feet hurt!” That was like the extent of our action.
THERON: “This dress is heavy!”
BLUNT: Jessica would come into the make-up bus just pouring with sweat from some awful stunt-coordinated fight.
THERON: I have a very vivid memory of Cedric one day when we were doing the fight sequence where Jessica jumped from the balcony. I remembered so vividly he said, “You’re a little close to the step right here, but I need you right here on the edge, and then when she comes down, you just have to turn.” I was like, “Do you know what I’m wearing?” Then he said, “And then you turn into ravens and it’s really fast.” I was like, “You lost me at fast. There’s not going to be anything fast about this.” As I’m bitching and moaning about turning in the scene, I’m looking at Jessica who was ready to jump. She was up there with barely a harness on, and there was no mat. I’m just like, “Oh my god, I need to shut up and pull it together.”
NICOLAS-TROYAN: She was in a harness. There was no mat. At the end of the film, there is this mano a mano fight between Chris and Charlize. She says she can’t turn, but that’s half the truth, because what you have to realize is that in a lot of those shots she is actually doing it, not the stunt double. The amount of shots in that sequence that are performed by the stunt double are minimal. There are two or three. Every time you see all the hits, she does it in that amazing dress made by Colleen Atwood.
THERON: You’re being kind. I had four crewmembers holding me up, but I did it myself. Can I get somebody to just hold me right here and support me? Do you remember that? There were five guys surrounding me. I was just holding onto them. They were like, “We need to get Chris in there. We can’t get Chris in the frame.” I was like, “I don’t care. I can do it now, guys. I can do this.”
NICOLAS-TROYAN: But when she does those moves and all that stuff, she actually did it.
THERON: Cedric, you’re being too kind. It’s okay.
NICOLAS-TROYAN: No, but it’s true.
When you started doing things like The Royal Family, did you envision your career going this way? What do you think are the key parts that got you here?
BLUNT: No, I did not envision any of this. I feel like I entered the industry, and it’s not to sound cavalier, but I had a pretty casual expectation of what would happen, because I wasn’t even intending to be an actress. I did a school play and an agent came to see me,
Within a year, I’m on stage with Judi Dench. She was just so extraordinary and so kind to me, because I really was so green and I knew nothing. I hadn’t trained or done anything, and I was 18. She really paved the way for me to approach this industry and to walk into every room with great hope, because you never really know where it’s going to take you. I’ve learned to embrace the unknown and trust my instincts with the choices that I make. There’ve been movies I’ve chosen to do where no one else around me thinks I should do them. I’m drawn to the part for whatever reason. I’ve always just tried to make choices based on what I’m inspired by and not a strategic move that I think would take me somewhere else in the industry. No, I never imagined that I would be here. It’s still a very surreal place. I think we all feel that. You’re breathing very rarified air if you’re able to work within this industry, even just work. You’re just so fortunate to be able to make choices and choose to play people. I think acting is the ultimate form of empathy in some ways. To explore that part of the human condition is so exciting to me. I don’t take it for granted, and I still feel very inspired by what I do, and I love it. But I entered the industry not really knowing what on earth I was walking into. Maybe that helped. I didn’t have any expectations for it.
CHASTAIN: Universal was great. They sent someone to New York to work with me. We had to have a way of fighting that made sense opposite Chris, because Eric is like a wall. He has this brute force, and he can take a punch. He takes a lot before he falls down. Whereas, Sara, if she’s hit, she’s probably going to go down immediately. Just because of our size difference, the fighting style needed to be faster, using the opponent’s momentum and weight against them. Then, I went to London for three weeks to work with the stunt team before we started shooting. The last week I started training in the shoes that I wear which have lifts in them — about 4-1/2 inches — so they look like flats but inside it’s a heel. That was shocking, because I thought after a few weeks with the stunt guy in my tennies, I was like, “Oh, I got this!” Then, all of a sudden, I put the boots on and I was like, “Wow! This is really different.” That was the main stuff I did for the fight.
Charlize, in the “queen off,” how important was body language, because Freya and Ravenna seem to carry themselves in a certain way when they’re in scenes together?
THERON: I think that the costumes really changed my posture. I would say that definitely really came into play. There’s something about a corset that will just make you sit up straight. The cape, for me, was a big one. I don’t know why. I loved wearing that cape because it did something with my posture. I had to veer my neck forward. Otherwise, my hair and my crown would get caught in the neck part of it. It definitely did something. When I didn’t have it on, I could see a difference when I was watching playback. There was definitely a difference. There was almost something coming at you that I just had to naturally do because of the costume. I feel like most of it was just reacting to Emily. Those scenes were written for us to listen to each other and respond. That’s what I loved. I feel like in the first film I didn’t have a lot of that, because Ravenna was not letting anybody speak, and wouldn’t listen to anybody, and was just yelling at people. This was nice because her sister could get through to her and she hears her sister.
HEMSWORTH: It was great.
BLUNT: How much did you love working with us?
HEMSWORTH: I loved working with you ladies. It was great. To be honest, there was a whole difference of energy on this because we all had our kids there on set a lot of the time. Normally, a set is this tense, respectful, quiet sort of place. That was just thrown out the window when the kids came in. They were chasing each other around with the weapons yelling, “Get him! Kill her! Do that!”
THERON: So, we were raising them really well.
HEMSWORTH: We raised them really well and taught them how to survive in a vicious kingdom. I mean, they’re all so incredibly talented and I’d met them prior to shooting. I’ve worked with Charlize obviously, but neither of these two ladies. It was amazing just taking notes and trying to keep up, and being amongst them was a pretty wonderful experience.
NICOLAS-TROYAN: I would say that there was not a girls’ club or a boys’ club at all.
Charlize, what’s new that you brought to your character in this based on the screenplay and your own experience?
THERON: The character was the same, but like I said before, I felt like I could explore her in a different space. I felt with Freya’s character that it was like a breath of fresh air that I could survive on in this film. I think if that wasn’t there that it would have felt repetitive, and I don’t know if I would have been interested in doing it. The core of the character is still exactly the same, but we’re seeing different elements and different sides of her because she’s in different circumstances. In the first movie, I never thought that she’d love something. I think she loves her sister really deeply, which makes it all the more crushing when she destroys the relationship so brutally. I was very interested in that. Emily always says that family is one of the most complex relationships that you can have. She had a brother in the first movie, but she was so abusive to him. It was so one dimensional that relationship. Watching two sisters in this way, there was something intricate about it. I think that family can sometimes do the most damage to each other.
Emily, is it true that you’re about to start Disney’s Mary Poppins sequel?
The Huntsman: Winter’s War opens in theaters on April 22nd.