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Marwan Kenzari Thought of A Little Life and The Iliad As Inspirations for His Old Guard Romance

Marwan Kenzari Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

An action movie based on a series of graphic novels is not where you would expect to find a ragged, startling, and openhearted speech about love, much less one that happens between two men. But midway through Netflix’s The Old Guard, once the immortal warriors Joe and Nicky, played by Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli, have been captured by enemy soldiers in the back of a van, Joe launches into a whole poetic monologue. “He’s not my boyfriend,” he announces. “He’s all, and he’s more.”

The scene, taken from the original comic written by Greg Rucka, shot in an intimate close-up on Kenzari’s face before he and Marinelli embrace and kiss, is one sign of the many ways director Gina Prince-Bythewood managed to lend depth to the movie’s material, but it’s also an acting achievement from Kenzari, who gets enough directness into Joe’s purple language so that it doesn’t feel overblown. Kenzari’s a Dutch actor with a solid background in its theater world who broke out in America thanks to his thirst-inducing casting as Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin remake. To play Joe in The Old Guard, he drew upon a lot of the physical training he’d used in other roles, blended with some heady thinking about Greek mythology and the characters in A Little Life. Plus, there was the benefit of what he described as real, natural chemistry between him and Marinelli. Over the phone, Kenzari caught Vulture up on how he approached that big speech, the importance of touch in Joe and Nicky’s relationship, and the secrets of his fighting style.

We have to start with the scene where Joe launches into this full declaration of love for Nicky. It’s such a great earnest, emotional moment in the middle of this action movie. What was it like to shoot it?
It was extremely important for me, since that scene is the heart of the character. Right at the beginning, I had conversations with Gina about it, and it moved me — there’s so much depth in those words. And it was tricky, too, because it can quickly turn into a sentimental thing. But Luca and I talked about it, and there’s a moment that may not have made it into the final cut, where I asked Luca’s character if he thinks my words are too swollen, and we comment on our own behavior. But I was determined to get it right, and I was happy with the result. We had fun in that van and we laughed a lot. It was a long night shoot, but it was well set up, since the camera was that close it was a good way to show this bit.

It’s pretty unprecedented to see such an emotionally deep gay love story in the middle of a comic-book movie. What did it take to get the chemistry right with Luca?
We were in London to do a chemistry read together, and the chemistry went from there quite quickly. Luca is a very sensitive, honest, sweet, passionate actor, and I really enjoyed the way he became a friend of mine. It was quite easy to play that connection. As life goes on, we stayed in touch, during good times and harder times. It has been so much fun to work with a group of people that can have good chemistry together, on and off set.

What scene did you do for that chemistry read?
We did that bit where we’re attached to two beds [while being held by The Old Guard’s evil CEO], and we share a sort of cryptic memory, and there was another moment we did that I’m not sure made the end cut. But that was a moment where Luca touched me, and because we play this symbiotic couple, it was really important to feel something that had nothing to do with acting but just with the connection of two human beings. I’m not saying it has to be like that all the time, but it does help. In this case, when he touched me, I thought it was natural and it was safe and it was kind of special.

Well, for an action movie, especially, physicality is so important. On the other side of things, what were you thinking about how Joe moves in the fight scenes?
We have a great stunt team and choreographers for the fighting sequences. They did such a great job with designing these massive fights where we show the skills we have gathered over many centuries. In my case, given that the history of the character was from the Middle East and North Africa, Danny Hernandez, our fight coordinator, came up with the idea that most of the moves Joe had, if you would draw them, would be round. The blade was slightly rounded, and therefore there’s a lot of slicing movements. Luca’s character has a bit more of a King Arthur–type sword, and his movements are bigger, and Matthias [Schoenaerts, who plays Booker] has a military style of dirty fighting, using whatever he finds. Charlize [Theron, who plays Andy] has a signature ax, and KiKi [Layne, who plays Nile] being a Marine. We had a great time learning all those sequences.

We don’t get to flashback to Joe and Nicky meeting during the crusades and falling in love while trying to kill each other, in the movie, but how did you think about that past informing their present relationship?
In the graphic novels, there’s a bit more of a backstory of Joe and Nicky, but, in this case, I thought it was important to focus on the fact that they started as each other’s enemies. There are a couple great drawings in the novel that show them standing head-to-head on the battlefield after quite a bloody battle. It reminded me of epic scenes in Braveheart or Gladiator. It was important because of the fact that they are loves now — soul mates, symbiotically attached forever. It’s a strong message: the one on the opposite side becomes the other side of the heart that beats.

Bringing it into the present, Luca and I focused on what the position of these characters would be in the group. They have this fuel, which is their love, that Andy doesn’t have and Booker’s character doesn’t have, and that creates that balance within this team, and you can only imagine what it would be like if Joe would lose Nicky. That would be such a disastrous impact on their being.

It gets heavy, when you think about how important they are to each other, and what a risk it would be for either of them to lose that.
Have you read Hanya Yanagihara’s book A Little Life?

Yes, I have.
There’s a speech in it that Willem gives to Jude when he tells him who he is, which brought me to tears when I read it. For me, that was a huge engine and inspiration for these two characters.

I’d read another interview where you mention thinking of this as a relationship like Achilles and Patroclus in The Iliad.
That was the other thing! The Greek-mythology aspect for me. You’re talking about characters that are together for so long — if you and I are lucky, we can be with someone that you love for a maximum amount of time as a human being. But you can only imagine what that would be like if you could be 1,000 years old. That creates a love relationship, but also a psychological relationship, a spiritual relationship, and emotional relationship that’s something we’ve never seen or experienced. In Greek mythology, and I especially thought of Achilles and Patroclus, they have this indescribable attachment, a huge rope that goes from Achilles’s heart to Patroclus’s heart — or, at least when reading Homer, that’s that I thought it was. Joe and Nicky, their souls are connected, and therefore I had the thought of bringing a little bit of Greek mythology back into my preparation — without making it too pretentious! You’re trying to figure out where to start from, and that’s where I started from.

To skip back to something far less pretentious, you broke out in American movies through the Aladdin remake, which got you the nickname “Hot Jafar.” What was it like for that to be the primary way people got to know you?
I enjoyed making Aladdin so much. It was so much fun, a lot like this production, surrounded by a group of people that are passionate about filmmaking and getting it right. Will Smith was the sweetest and kindest, the way he worked with us. Working with Guy Ritchie was amazing — I’m a huge fan of his movies. For me, it’s always been about storytelling, whether it’s a small, intimate movie or a bigger movie. I’m happy to be part of it and can only hope that road continues that way.

Wait, you dodged around the part about being called Hot Jafar!
Oh, you know, I’m obviously very, very flattered. I was shooting a movie in Bulgaria as someone pointed that out to me, and of course it was funny, and it was flattering, and I’m very grateful for people being so positive. That gives me energy. I want to do my professional best as I can, so I can at least look back and say: I was born, I tried to do my best to have a meaning — for, I don’t know, myself, my mum. [Laughs] I dunno — the Hot Jafar thing was flattering.

At the end of The Old Guard, there’s a strong hint that there could be a sequel if it’s something that Netflix decides to pick up. Are there aspects of Joe’s character you’d want to get to dig into if that happens?
Obviously, it’s up to the writers and to the creators of the graphic novel. I’m very curious to find out what the second one is about, if there is a second one. But I would love to go back in time and see what certain moments were like between Joe and Nicky — maybe a battlefield moment. Then again, without spoiling anything, I’m very curious to see where this whole story goes after the first one. To be very honest, I know very little. I’m as curious as you are.

Marwan Kenzari on The Old Guard’s Big Gay Romantic Speech