If you’re a fan of blockbusters featuring women kicking bad guys square in the jaw, we’ve got good news and bad news. Bad news first: Margot Robbie’s Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) isn’t quite this year’s Captain Marvel at the box office. It unfortunately brought in less-than-stellar opening weekend numbers, just $33.5 million in the U.S. instead of its projected $50 million per The New York Times. The good news is that a so-so opening weekend won’t kick the glittery ode to female rage out of theaters immediately. But, if you chose to sit this round out because Robbie’s Harley Quinn was never your kind of comic book character, Birds of Prey’s 13-year-old breakout star Ella Jay Basco has a few words that just might change your mind.
“Margot is super inspiring. She was like a big sister to me on set because she really helped me grow. She definitely did teach me a lot of stuff about the industry and how to be a boss in this business,” the actress tells Refinery29 over the phone from the film’s London junket. Robbie, who produced Birds of Prey with the film’s screenwriter Christina Hodson, is part of the reason relative newcomer Basco found herself as one of five leads in the new movie based on DC comics’ Birds of Prey girl gang, which first appeared in the comics in 1996 with Batgirl as its leader. “I love her so much, and I feel like she's a good friend of mine now,” adds Basco.
Basco’s uncle is Dante Basco, who you may know as Rufio from Hook. She grew up among actors (her other uncle is TV actor Dion Basco) in Los Angeles, so she was sort of destined to find her way into the industry. But this movie marks her big break — before Birds of Prey she’d only had a few guest roles on series like Grey’s Anatomy and Veep.
Now, she’s a central character in the new Harley Quinn movie: pickpocket Cassandra Cain, whose comic book counterpart eventually goes on to become Batgirl. When we first meet Cass, she’s throwing out barbs as sharp as Harley Quinn herself and sweetly complimenting old ladies as she steals their watches. But when it’s revealed that Cass swiped and swallowed a massive diamond that drives the entire Birds of Prey plot, it starts to become clear that she’s more than the kid in the raunchy comic book movie.
Ask the actor about filming the movie’s big fight scene in a fun house full of giant, feminine rubber hands and devilish women’s tongues — all of which are used against the henchmen-for-hire representing the film’s toxic male villain — and she gets even more excited.
“I was tossed around like a hot potato,” laughs Basco, whose role is, admittedly, to stay out of trouble during the mega battle. But there was still something worthwhile in it for her: “It was kind of refreshing to see all of these badass women kick the guys. It's so crazy to see it live in person, and something I really enjoyed was just how committed everybody was to trying it again and improving and doing better the next time.”
These words, from a 13-year-old actor who’s just found four new real-life heroes to look up to, is what a movie like this, with all its face-peeling villains and cocaine-addled antiheroes, is really about. Yes, a Suicide Squad spin-off might just give you a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Sure, the film has been shrink-wrapped in fake tattoos and dares to be R-rated. It doesn’t have the mass market appeal of Captain Marvel, with her all-American Steve Rogers-style super suit and massively helpful Avengers: Infinity War lead-in. But when the film title tells you it’s an Emancipation story, it’s not overselling that promise.
Every woman in this film, including Basco’s young Cassandra Cain, is being freed from a storyline she didn’t envision for herself. For Cassandra, the loss of her parents and being forced into the foster system have left her alone, without direction or direct care from the adults around her. She learns to pickpocket as a means of forging her own independence — it also happens to be the thing that gets her on Harley’s radar.
“I think she tries to act really cool, in a way, where she’s sweet to everybody and she robs them behind their back. She has a bit of a potty mouth, and I think that can attract people or lead them away; she's just really tough in a kind of misguided way,” says Basco.
But from the moment Cass teams up with Harley, her once uncertain fate starts to change. And with any luck (see: a bit more box office magic), the same could be true for Basco, too.