Eternals Director Chloé Zhao On Diversity & Marvel’s First Deaf Superhero

Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP/Shutterstock
Lauren Ridloff and Chloé Zhao at the London premiere of the film 'Eternals'
Chloé Zhao knows all about firsts. Earlier this year the Chinese-American filmmaker became the first woman of colour to win an Oscar for best director with Nomadland, her achingly beautiful and humanistic portrait of van-dwelling nomads in the American West. Her next project, an epic blockbuster of cosmic beings, sees her join the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as one of the first women – and the first Asian – to helm one of its films, historically a role largely reserved for white men. 
In the space of Eternals’ 156 minutes, we meet Marvel’s first openly gay superhero as well as its first deaf superhero, and witness the MCU’s first full-blown sex scene – all landmark firsts. Never have we seen the vulnerabilities and humanity of the superheroes highlighted so acutely, their weaknesses amplified as titanic strengths. Through her independent oeuvre, including The Rider and Nomadland, Zhao has established herself as an immersive and poetic filmmaker, cracking open the innermost core of what makes us tick – the beats and thrums of our existences. And now this extends to the most human Marvel film to date.
Uniting a dynamically diverse cast of Gemma Chan, Richard MaddenAngelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Don Lee, Lauren Ridloff, Brian Tyree Henry and more, Eternals introduces us to a league of 10 superpower-wielding, immortal warriors who were sent to Earth 7,000 years ago by the godlike Celestials and have been secretly defending humanity from the monstrous Deviants ever since. Present during the rise of civilisation but forbidden from intervening, the Eternals have witnessed all of humanity’s catastrophic moments – the Babylonian War and Hiroshima included – right up until the point where we meet our heroine, museum curator Sersi (Chan), in present-day Camden Lock. Most of the Eternals, like Sersi, have assimilated into human life – most comically of all Kingo (Nanjiani), who has escaped human detection of his eternal youth for centuries by hiding as five generations of a huge Bollywood acting dynasty.
Already – perhaps unsurprisingly – there has been furore from diehard Marvel fanboys about Zhao’s perceived 'wokeness'. The director symbolises a threatening newness, an unknown in a universe fortified by archaic tradition. Her choices are a reflection of what the world actually looks like today. Take Makkari. In the comic books, the superhero is a white hearing male; in Zhao’s remoulding, Makkari is a deaf woman of colour, played with incredible force by Lauren Ridloff. For people who grew up never seeing themselves on their screens, Eternals will be an emotional viewing experience, taking disenfranchised minorities and transposing them into powerful immortal beings, saviours of the world who – most importantly of all – are capable of love and of being loved.
We sat down with Chloé Zhao and Lauren Ridloff to talk representation, vulnerable superheroes and the significance of a villain-less Marvel film...
In Eternals, the superpowers feel like an accentuation of already celebrated qualities of many of the actors. Like how Lauren’s deafness is her superpower and Korean powerhouse Don Lee – who is known in the industry for his fists of steel – gets actual superpower fists...
Chloé: [laughing] Well, you know, Don always took us to eat Korean barbecues so [his character] Gilgamesh cooks. Lauren is very mischievous in real life – she's an Aries – so there's a spark in her eyes of mischievousness and a flirtiness that's in Makkari too.
Lauren: When I first met Chloé, I flew into LA to meet with her and [producer] Nate Moore and it was the first time that we actually had a chance to talk about what they had in mind for me. I knew nothing. I thought maybe I'd be playing a villain – or a victim probably more, to be honest. When we started talking about the character of Makkari, the conversation quickly shifted to Chloé asking me about who I was as a person. What do I like to do? What are my passions? My beliefs, my hobbies? The fact that I love to run and read. And Chloé actually integrated all of that information into my character, and with the cast as a whole.

It was such a big moment for me to play not just a deaf superhero but also a deaf, Black, Mexican, female superhero.

Lauren Ridloff
I thought it was incredible that the characters communicate with you in American Sign Language – was this something that you believed to be integral to the portrayal?  
Lauren: This was an ongoing conversation that I had with Chloé and the script really developed and evolved as time went on. The first thing on my mind was, okay, this is a family that have been together for 7,000 years. How do we actually portray that in terms of communication? I’m so thankful to Chloé because she trusted me enough to actually tell her what we needed to make this work. We brought in my husband, who worked as the American Sign Language consultant, and he worked with Chloé and the other cast members to elicit ideas about their characters and if they would sign or if they wouldn’t. It was important because we need to be thoughtful about Makkari, her superpower and how she functions within the world. 
Chloé: Doug [Ridloff, Lauren's husband] is also a poet. They invented lots of the words together, like Celestial. I was quite ignorant coming in, and when the character was written, none of us had any experience. I was hoping there would be an actress that would educate us on how to work with her, educate us on how to portray a character with a different way of communicating. [Lauren] taught me the way Makkari experiences the world. That was a very humbling experience. We wanted this character to be filled with joy, and pride of who she is. And meeting Lauren was a huge relief. 
Lauren, not only are you Marvel’s first deaf superhero but your deafness is actually one of your superpowers. Was it emotional reading the script and knowing what you’re doing for representation?
Lauren: The first time I saw the film, I was [makes crying motion]. It was such a big moment for me to play not just a deaf superhero but also a deaf, Black, Mexican, female superhero. Even though Marvel has been around for a while, it’s only just recently that I’ve started seeing more representation of ourselves and feel a part of movies, especially with Black Panther and Shang-Chi. It's wonderful to see people who are different, living different experiences, like myself. I’m very thankful for this opportunity and what it presents for all the deaf talent and all the other people who have been marginalised and not given an equal opportunity to be a storyteller. On this massive scale too.
Chloé: I feel it’s important that people that may look like us or communicate like us see themselves on screen, but also for people that have nothing in common with us. That they see Makkari and think: I am nothing like her but I understand her and I like her on the inside as a human being.
Lauren: What is so wonderful about this movie is that it actually shows diversity and inclusion but that's not the driving story, which I think is so refreshing. Finally, to see a film like this where these superheroes just happen to be X, Y and Z but that's not the point of the story. 

I wanted a superhero movie that when you have the final showdown, audiences will feel conflicted. Not just cheering for one side without mercy: 'Kill the other one, then we'll be fine.' We can't treat each other like that in real life, and our cinema should reflect that.

Chloé Zhao
Many will find watching Eternals a really emotional experience because of the likes of Gemma Chan and Lauren, these incredible leading women of colour as powerful superheroes. Was this something you had always dreamed of? Putting lesser seen people front and centre so that they can leave the cinema and hold their heads a bit higher?
Chloé: For Gemma, it was incredibly brave for her to take on this role. When I first met her, I said: "Look, you are a woman of Asian descent coming into the superhero genre, and you’re not going to punch – which is the expectation of a strong female character that is a minority. You're actually going to choose love, forgiveness and compassion." And that's a very brave thing in today's climate for someone like her to do: be vulnerable. That's my power: my femininity and my vulnerability and my ability to love. That is very important to see in people that look like us. 
Lauren: I think when we think of superheroes, we always imagine somebody who is perfect, the best of the best. That's what I love about this movie. It really celebrates the imperfections, it shows our flaws, our vulnerabilities. 
There are so many firsts in the MCU with this film: the first openly gay superhero, the first LGBTQ relationship, the first sex scene. How non-negotiable were these things for you to have in the film?
Chloé: Most of them were written into the treatment so that was Marvel Studios. I give credit to them. My job is to make sure they don't just exist for the sake of existing, that these moments feel human, that audiences from all backgrounds can relate to that.
One really standout character is Ikaris [Richard Madden]. In Eternals there is no villain, despite the harm they do. People are viewed as inherently good and their actions are more a result of their chosen path nurtured by their experiences. How much is this your own belief Chloé?
Chloé: In case you don't know, I do believe people are inherently good. I'm Chinese, and that's one of the very important philosophical ideas from my culture. I don't believe in absolute evil. Ikaris is a very beloved character for me. I did a film called The Rider and that deconstructs traditional masculinity a little bit. In a way, Ikaris is a version of that as well, with morality, and faith. I wanted a superhero movie that when you have the final showdown, audiences will feel conflicted. Not just cheering for one side without mercy: "Kill the other one, then we'll be fine." We can’t treat each other like that in real life, and our cinema should reflect that.
Lauren: Eternals really challenges the audience to feel a little uncomfortable with what is so obviously good and bad. And I think that that's a really good response to what's happening currently. In our culture, in the world, everything is so grey. It really, truly depends on from which perspective you're looking at it. In the film, we talk a lot about gender fluidity and intersectionality in this way too.
Chloé: I’m Team Ikaris a little bit on a bad day. You're telling me that if I die that billions and billions of planets will get created, then how selfish are we to say we are the meaning of the cosmos? And if we are, we need to do better. Look how we're treating our planet and each other.
Eternals is out in cinemas on 5th November.

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