Ask Daniela Melchior about rats, and she’ll immediately light up. Her phone background shows her cuddling a particularly fluffy one, and if she could, she’d keep one as a pet. (Traveling for work as an actress and model makes that too difficult.) While a rat might not be most people’s animal of choice, it makes sense for the Portuguese actress: Rats were the key to her big break as Cleo Cazo, aptly nicknamed Ratcatcher 2, in James Gunn’s upcoming The Suicide Squad. (Why 2? Because she’s the daughter of the first Ratcatcher. Just go with it.)
When we first meet Cleo, she, like most of her Suicide Squad peers, is in jail. That’s kind of the point. The black-ops squadron, led by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), trades years off their sentences in exchange for performing dangerous and illegal tasks on behalf of the U.S. government. If they stray, they die. If they complete the mission... they also probably die. Most of the people drafted into this arrangement are hardened criminals; others, like King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), are animal hybrids with a taste for human flesh. But Ratcatcher is different. Cleo is guileless, almost to the point of naivety. Still, she has a skill that makes people very nervous: With the help of a specialized scepter, she holds sway over an army of sewer rats, ready to answer her call. (If your initial reaction is along the lines of “Ew,” may I suggest you skip this one.) It may not sound like much, but just wait until you see a mountain of rodents take down an enemy.
Likewise, Melchior’s performance stands out in a crowd of heavy-hitters. Whether she’s trading barbs with Idris Elba as Bloodsport, watching Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn twirl her way into several murders, or bonding with Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), so named because of an inter-dimensional virus that makes him shed deadly polka dots, Cleo is a scene-stealer.
Ahead, Melchior describes how she was cast as the de facto queen of rats and why she’d always rather play the villain.
Refinery29: What was your initial reaction when you read the description for the role of Ratcatcher 2?
Daniela Melchior: “I was speechless. I really felt right away that I had a masterpiece in my hands. I couldn’t wait to get on a plane to Atlanta to start shooting. I was really excited because Ratcatcher 2 is a really different supervillain compared to the rest of the Suicide Squad.”
“Many times, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She doesn’t want to be there but not in a Bloodsport way. She doesn’t want to be there because she doesn’t want to be anywhere. She would be fine on a bed with [her pet rat] Sebastian and the rest of her rats in her home country. If she could, she would stay there forever.
I felt that she would bring an emotional side that I hadn’t watched in superhero movies. I was excited to play it in a really pure and the most natural way I possibly could. I didn’t think about giving her layers, or a background story — it was all about the moment and the things that she would be living and the friends that she would be making at that time.”
What was your audition like?
“I did a self-tape from Portugal, and actually it was my worst self-tape I did in my whole life. I hope James doesn’t share it with anyone. My manager called me saying that Warner Bros. wanted to fly me to Atlanta to do a screen test. At that point, I didn’t even know what a screen test was — I’m really new to the industry. Before I flew, the production team sent me an email saying, ‘We can’t wait to have you on set. By the way, we’re having rats in your audition.’
I was like… okayyyyy. I did the scenes with a rat puppet, and in the end they brought the [real] rats, and me and James [Gunn] just looked like two kids, playing with the rats.”
Were you afraid of them?
“I had two hamsters when I was young — I know that’s not the same. The only thing I had to do was forget about the tails. They are actually really smart. They can be trained — they’re almost like a dog. If I called them, they would be looking. I have a picture here I can show you.”
Oh my god.
“They’re so cute!”
Would you get one as a pet?
“I wish! But because I travel, it’s a little difficult. It’s not like a dog. They’re so sweet though!”
This was your first major film role. What was your journey to acting like?
“When I was younger, nobody would notice me or listen to what I had to say. So, when I had my first drama classes, when we got on the stage, I felt like, Okay, now people listen to me. Now people notice me. By the time I started studying drama — I took a three-year professional course — I started understanding the craft and the psychology side of it, and that’s what I love the most. When I was finishing my last year, I booked my first role in Portugal, a telenovela. I booked show after show until I started working internationally.
For so long, it felt like there was only room for one woman character in action movies. This movie has several, and they’re very distinct: Harley Quinn is very feminized, and uses the male gaze as a weapon against those who underestimate her. Ratcatcher presents very differently — was that important to you?
“I’ve been loving watching Harley Quinn’s path because she was supposed to be just Mr. J’s girlfriend. But women are not just girlfriends or wives. We have a lot of content too. The proof is that Margot did a wonderful job with Harley Quinn and now she’s one of the most loved [DC] characters of all time. She’s an independent woman, she has her own attention because of her, and I love the fact that she’s so different from Ratcatcher. It’s a different approach, and why not?
For this role, the less beautiful I was, the better, and I love that. Also the fact that she’s not afraid of rats is another thing that I loved about it, because women are the ones that are always afraid of something. We’re always waiting for some man to save us, and that’s not what happens in real life. So, I’m really proud of it.”
As someone who also has a career as a model, was it refreshing for you to strip away the physical pressure in a way?
“When I was studying drama, my professor on Day 1 told me, ‘For the next three years, I want you to work on the ugly. The looks you already have, but that only means something if you want to only play beautiful characters. But for you, the most interesting thing will be to work on the ugly.’ I love that because I don’t have to be just a pretty face. I don’t only have to be a girl who wants to show that she’s not just a pretty face. My focus is just to be an actor and to play many different characters and find many new things and approaches in everything that I do.”
Harley and Ratcatcher 2 don’t share that much screen time, but did you and Margot bond on set?
“Yes! She’s a really good person, and really generous and friendly.She’s a really good actress but she’s also a businesswoman and that’s why I’m so inspired by her. She’s really smart.”
Did she give you any advice?
“The only advice that I can remember now I can’t tell! Sorry!”
Do you have a dream character that you’d like to play someday?
“Not Harley Quinn, because for me, the one and only is Margot Robbie forever. I hope nobody touches that character ever again. But thinking of the fun I bet Jodie Comer had I would say Villanelle from Killing Eve.”
It sounds like you think playing villains is more fun than playing heroes!
“Of course! Heroes for me, are basic people. They have purpose. And villains can have purpose too, but they have strong motives to be bad. I love that psychological side of it.”
What’s next for you?
“I can’t say, but I can say that I’m really grateful because The Suicide Squad is already opening doors for me. I’m really excited to share when I can.”
Okay, last question: Is Idris Elba afraid of rats IRL?
“Yes. I’m so sorry for him, he really had a thing for rats and Viola Davis too. They’re really honest about it. Not many people like rats.”