In the Wizard of Oz-like world of alternate realities and dual identities that is Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, Carla Gugino plays an experimental psychiatrist who morphs into the madam of a brothel/burlesque parlor after the film’s institutionalized protagonist, Babydoll (Emily Browning), retreats into fantasy. Whether this character switch is intended as some sort of wry commentary on the mental health profession, or is simply a coincidence, is unclear. What is clear is that the sexy and cerebral Gugino is the rare actress who is uniquely equipped to play both roles – psychiatrist and madam – with equal credibility. Plus, she’s got that whole preternatural hotness thing going for her, which is always a plus.
In an exclusive interview with Hollywood.com, Gugino spoke with us about teaming up a second time with Snyder, why she chose to give her character a Polish accent, and why men have always been suckers for “sexy” versions of feminine archetypes.
While you were shooting Sucker Punch, you talked a lot about a burlesque song-and-dance bit you performed with your co-star, Oscar Isaac. But I didn’t see it in the film. What happened?
Did you stay for the end credits?
No. Is that where it happens?
That’s where it happens.
It was actually [in the initial cut] and it probably will end up being in the body of the movie for the Director’s Cut. I know that Zack has said that there are about 20 minutes of the movie that are not in this cut but will be in the director’s cut. And I’m sure that whole section will be one of them. But yes, where it is now, it’s cool as the end titles. It’s just that it’s a bit of a tease because you don’t get the full breadth of the deal. But, Oscar and I do a duet of “Love is the Drug” by Roxy Music. And we do it in the style of a Bob Fosse/Moulin Rouge kind of vibe. Marius de Vries, who did Moulin Rouge, Kick-Ass, and a bunch of cool movies, he’s the music supervisor and he’s a really, really smart, really interesting British bloke. Everyone but Emily’s character, Babydoll, all the other girls, each of them has a really interesting dance. So you get a taste of that in the end titles.
Did you at least get to see a cut of the full-length performance?
I’ve seen various versions of it and it’s really cool. It was the scariest thing for me because I’m not a trained singer or dancer. and Oscar is. And I don’t like to do anything if I can’t do it well. [Laughs] So it was terrifying. But we, along with our choreographer Paul Becker, came up with some really cool choreography and worked on it really hard, so it was really gratifying when we actually did it.
You seem to enjoy digging deeply into the characters you play, into their backstories. What kind of research did you do for Dr./Madam Gorski? She really elucidates much of the philosophy of this film.
It’s interesting because as that voiceover was coming into fruition — the voiceover that Sweet Pea does at the beginning and end — one of the keys into my character, for me, that I thought was interesting was that ultimately that line, “You have all the weapons you need now fight,” ended up being very important in the culmination of that. And that was my key into this character. Because I didn’t want to make her — she never should be a softie, and I didn’t want her to be the cliche of the big sister or mother hen or teacher or something you expect. That can be fun to play, but that wasn’t this character. But, when someone says something like that, you’re like, this is the one who’s telling them they have the goods and if they don’t actually own up to it, this will be a very bad situation for them. It’s like, you don’t have a choice; you have to believe in yourself and go do it.
Blue is much more verbal and we get a lot through looks and what doesn’t happen on screen with her. For example, that scene in the office with Blue [Isaac's character] and Madame Gorski, you get a sense of the power play that’s going on where he thinks Babydoll is ready and she doesn’t and it’s sort of like an ultimately you’re like, she has something over her and we talked about that a lot and even contemplated on maybe having a scene where, something like, did she have a daughter that Blue had? Was there some sort of agreement going on here that she had to protect something? And all of it was really helpful for those of us playing the roles, but Sucker Punch already has three movies in one. It was too many other things [to cover] and it was kind of better to leave it mysterious.
She didn’t have a Polish accent originally. Zack had originally contemplated German, but we thought maybe that was a little on the nose, archetypally. Then we talked about American, but the dialogue is so heightened and almost poetic; like there’s a scene that’s not in the movie where she talks about the “goddess that life had crushed.” And with all that, I felt like English had to be her second language. It just didn’t seem like an American kind of way. I also felt that if she was Eastern European, it would make sense that she was into Freud, for her psychiatrist aspect. And also, as a dance teacher we know that there are capable of some really tough love – they will hit you with their cane if you don’t do it right — but they will make you a star also.
So when we did in at the table reading I was like, well I don’t know if that’s going to be right or a terrible disaster, but because I’d worked with Zack before and he’d worked with me, we trusted each other. It was kind of risky because in front of the entire studio at the table reading I was like, “I think I should try her as Polish,” and he was like, “Let’s go for it!” And after that, he thought that was a really interesting way to go with her. And then that became so intrinsic and she became the character. So that was some of the prep that went into it.
With the amount of effort you put into breaking down these characters, it strikes me that you might have perhaps been psychiatrist in another life.
You know what it is? I really think that, to me, life is about gaining empathy anyway. That’s why we’re on the planet with other people. And the biggest gift as an actor you get is that you literally get in the skin of other people. And you can’t judge them, because if you judge them then you’re not really them, you’re playing something. So I do feel like every character I play, some of them I want to be more like and some of them I’m like, whew, thank God that’s not my life. But it’s true that I’m fascinated by people, I definitely am.
This is your second time working with Zack. Did you get a sense that things were a little bit difference for him this time out?
It was definitely different, as far as the process goes, in regards to the fact that with Watchmen, we were all so — and he was so — committed to being really, really allegiant to the graphic novel. So when I first met Zack on Watchmen he sat down and showed me all these story boards that he had done. He personally does all his storyboarding, which is pretty insane. But with that, though it didn’t necessarily feel limiting — it actually felt like a great exercise, to really do that properly — but always questions would be answered by referring to that graphic novel, to Watchmen.
And in both cases, even though that was such a strong piece of source material, his script was still a bit of a blue print because he is so visual.. It’s like that thing where they say that a movie is made three times — in the script, in the filming of it, and in the editing room. And in this particular case with Zack, in the editing room, that third is gigantic, because he’s so amazing that way. So this is a long, roundabout way of saying that what was interesting with this, was that any time there was a question with this or something to explore in terms of the mythology of it or what the rules of the game were, he was the graphic novel.
It was interesting, because for example, Oscar Isaac and I, that relationship between our two characters was hinted at on the page but wasn’t really flushed out in the initial draft. So Zack and Oscar and I really kind of found what that was just because it seemed like there had to be some history there, and some power-play dynamics, to make what was going on work. And so it was cool because he wasn’t limited by anybody else’s perception of something, although obviously he had the final say.
This film plays a lot with the “sexy” archetypes — there’s the sexy nurse, the sexy schoolgirl, etc. — what do you think these appeal so much to men?
I don’t know. What I really do like about what people consider to be “genre” movies is — because truth be told, my favorite aesthetic or movie is much more like the Age of Innocence, Dangerous Liaisons period film or costume drama. But still, those have melodramatic elements to them and a certain heightened reality. And I do think I’m more interested in extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances as opposed to naturalistic. Sometimes a beautiful, naturalistic movie can work really well but I also feel like that’s kind of what we live in life.
It’s an interesting question and I don’t even know if I have a good answer for it, but I do think is interesting is I think it’s one of the reasons that we have graphic novels, that we’ve had these sort of archetypal stories even going back to Greek mythology. Who is a goddess, who is a whore – religion is filled with these kind of things as well. I don’t know if it’s just something about the need to separate something from ourself and be able see it bigger than life, whether it be on a level of something that you find sexy or this or that. There is something about removing it from everyday parlance, everyday stuff, and so you’re looking at it differently.
It’s a difficult question to answer, but I think it’s what I like about movies that take things to a heightened level. But still, with this, what our job was to do — and it’s a tricky job, I’m not even sure if I fully succeeded at it — it’s that you have these big action sequences that are visually absolutely spectacular and you have these actresses who are really doing the fighting and who’ve trained for months and months and months to do so. So I find that aspect of it believable — they really are kicking ass. But then there’s also the side of the story that Oscar and I had to really bring to the brothel world and the psychiatric world, bringing actual genuine emotion [to them]. So therefore you’re playing that for real on an emotional level so that there’s something to hold onto.
Sucker Punch opens everywhere Friday, March 25, 2011.