Set Visit: Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone on sisterly bonds and dance sequences in 'Sucker Punch'
VANCOUVER - One of the things that became evident as we walked around the sets and production offices for Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch" was the many different skill sets that each actress would have to draw on as they played each facet of their character.
There are three different levels of reality at work in the film, and the characters are slightly different in each level, refracted back through the imagination of Baby Doll (Emily Browning). As a result, finding something that united each version of the characters became very important to the girls in the movie.
For Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone), the thing that they focused on was their bond as sisters. In the film, Rocket was the one who ran away from home first, and Sweet Pea followed, determined to take care of her sister no matter what. And in each of the fantasy segments of the film, that same drive is present, and crucial.
When we sat down with the two of them, it was the day of Jena shooting her big musical number. And when I say that, I'm sure many of you reply, "Wait… musical number? They have MUSICAL NUMBERS?" One of the major sets I mentioned in my first set visit report was "The Theater," which is a gymnasium of sorts in the first level of reality and a giant plush theater in the second level. In that level, each of the girls working at the brothel has a personalized burlesque number that defines them, and they had to train just as hard for those sequences as they did for the action scenes. We'll get into that near the end of the conversation.
But first, as they walked in, I remarked on Jena Malone's wild spiky anime haircut. Abbie laughed. "It stays, too. It's awesome. No matter what you do."
Jena nodded, pleased. "They have to bring in extra big fans just to have my hair move. Everybody else's hair is blowing all over the place, and my eyelashes are moving more than my hair."
Both actors are used to working in the independent world, with Malone having just shot "The Messenger" and Cornish having just wrapped "Bright Star" before they started this film, and I asked them if the experience on a film of this scale with this many different things going on was an adjustment for them. Jena replied, "Amazing. Totally life-altering. It's completely different than anything I've done in 15 years of working. It's like being a kid again."
Abbie agreed, continuing, "It's so dynamic too, because we do so many different things in the one film. Whether it's martial arts or gun work or working with the swords or dancing or singing or acting… it's crazy."
When talking about the process of making the film, it sounds like it was very fluid, with things changing frequently. Even in post-production, there has been a long period of experimentation before ending up with the film we'll see on March 25th, but when asked how much of the action was in the original script, Jena tried to explain how the process worked. "The script… hasn't really changed in a sense of the story and the drama and what we’re saying and the locations. But the action pieces, the way they are written in the script, they change almost all the time. You have to learn to speak [Zack's] language, which is so exciting and he has a complete universe in his head that you can try to pull from and ask as many questions as you can. In the script, the action sequences are 2 to maybe 7 pages, but really in Zack’s mind they’re like this completely other thing."
Abbie added that the real trick is just understanding where you're coming from and where you're going. "That and the environment and what it is that's around you. In the times where you can't see it because it's a greenscreen, you really have to know where you're at, or it won't make sense."
I told Jena that Vanessa Hudgens, who joined the film late after the other girls had already been training for a while, specifically mentioned how intimidating she found Jena. She mentioned how cut and defined Jena's back was. Jena and Emily Browning and Abbie trained for almost three months before they were joined by Vanessa and Jamie Chung, and then they spent almost a month together as a group. "That was also when things were getting crazier and there were all the additions of rehearsal and wardrobe and set walkthroughs," Jena noted.
I asked why there was so much more time built in for the three of them. "Well, there are four action worlds," Abbie replied, "and it's just Em in the first one. Then in the second and third, it's all five of us together. But Vanessa and Jamie stay up in the plane while we go down and fight, so there was just a lot more choreography for us to learn. Kicks, punches, guns, swords, and in the final sequence, it's the four of us minus Vanessa. So we definitely had more to learn."
The girls were taught a full range of fighting styles, including Muay Thai, regular boxing, karate, street-fighting. "There was actually a lot of stuff we learned in those three months that we didn't use, but that informed how we move. So that was awesome."
As Jena waxed rhapsodic about fight master Damon Caro, it was obvious that the experience of doing all of this physical work was an important one for her personally. She wasn't talking about it like an actor doing publicity, but like a student who is enthused by this thing they've learned. It was genuine and endearing, and it's great to see someone who takes something so personal from a process like this. She loved how each of them was taught to fight based on character, not just because of what looks cool. "Abbie's weapons were these rod swords, and she had these really wide stances and she was always very strong. I was always on the ground, you know? Really sharp and fast. I've got a little knife and I do more sort of intimate maneuvers. Em's really beautiful with her samurai sword in her left hand. So there's all these different elements."
Abbie agreed. "I think for Damon, he was just covering all bases so that when we went to shoot, no matter what happened, we were ready to go."
One of the journalists asked them about having to play different personalities in the different levels of reality, and both Jena and Abbie said that's not the case at all. "Personalities don't change," said Abbie. "You're seeing different facets and different sides of those personalities, but even though I'm playing Sweet Pea in the asylum or the brothel world or dragon world or train world, it's always the same character."
"Right," said Jena. "Who are you in your dream life, right? You’re perfect, you’re beautiful, you’re strong. You know? Who are you when you wake up in the morning and you’re having a shave? Do you know what I mean? It’s like there’s different levels of who you are as a person and Zack’s really attuned to that, and he’s actually really interested in that within levels of female sexuality, creativity, and, you know emotional life."
I asked them about how the fight training paid off in having to perform elaborate dance sequences, and whether the physical training in general prepared them. "It was a different kind of thing, you know?" said Jena. "Getting into the fight body, everything is precise, whereas the dance is very much about letting go of the harsh lines and perfect symmetries that we've been learning and letting our bodies speak a little more."
"If anyone had a crossover from the action world and the dance world, the closest would have been mine," said Abbie. "My [musical number] is based on Joan of Arc."
"You actually had some fight pieces in your dance," said Jena.
"Yeah. People were stabbing at me and I was trying to run away and they take me to this cross. All sorts of stuff. Whereas Jena's was very sensual."
I asked them if it changed the dynamic having lots of extras on-set during the dance numbers that are watching them.
"Oh, totally," said Jena. "The burlesque numbers have been terrifying. Terrifying and thrilling."
"Yeah," said Abbie. "We had this week where we shot everyone's dances back to back."
There was still dread in Jena's voice when she said, "Performance week."
"And it was amazing. We were all here every day even though we didn't have to be, just to be there for each other. And it was the most beautiful thing to see. I was the last one up, so I got to see Jena go through it, then Vanessa, then Jamie, and it really was the most beautiful thing to see these girls that I love so much work so hard towards something, and then that day rehearse it up to the point where it was technically ready, and then get transformed head to toe."
"It's a spectacle," said Jena. "It's a huge space, with back-up dancers and the most beautiful sets and the most beautiful lighting. I'll never get to do that again, you know? I'm not going to go and do a Broadway dance theater piece, you know?"
Jena had to learn pole dancing, and Vanessa Hudgens had to learn belly dancing for her scene, so it sounds like each of the musical numbers is very different in style and content. Abbie said it wasn't just the musical numbers that felt contained. "Each week we've shot on this movie has been its own entity. We've had action weeks, we've had drama weeks, we had death week, we had dance week, and we've had song week."
I asked if the experience had spoiled them for other movies, and they exchanged a secret smile before Jena answered, that smile still in place.
"Totally spoiled. I'm going to have to become a whole new fruit."
We'll have more from the set of "Sucker Punch" next week, including talks with the other girls and the people in the art and costume departments as we look at what it took to bring all of these different worlds to life.
"Sucker Punch" opens in theaters and in IMAX on March 25.