After talking with Scarlett Johansson for more than a decade about her dreams for a Black Widow stand-alone film, only to have her moment of glory become an early pandemic casualty, it’s gratifying to discover that the long-awaited film showcases not just one powerful woman, but three incredible kick ass babes.
Introducing Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova as Natasha’s hilariously cheeky “little sister” and Rachel Weisz’s Melina, who redefines the term “motherly love”; their dysfunctional family is completed by David Harbour’s droll Alexei, a big bear of a man with a chip on his shoulder about Captain America.
When Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff /Black Widow made her debut in Iron Man 2 eleven years ago, Florence was still in high school, yet to make her professional debut, aged 17, in The Falling , playing a precocious teenager opposite Maisie Williams.
Now 25, the British actress has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses, her role in 2019 horror film, Midsommar, bringing her wide acclaim followed by an Oscar nod for her performance as Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
In Johansson, she found a generous and supportive co-star, the younger actress exhilarated at the prospect of becoming an equally handy action heroine.
Enlisting in bootcamp, Pugh was quickly re-educated. “As an audience member, you think everybody in Marvel movies is doing all of this work and they’re working out all the time, so when I signed on, I really wanted to throw myself into this world and learn how to kick-box and knife-throw and all these other really cool skills”.
That she learned those skills is self-evident, although Johansson certainly helped to manage her expectations, passing down wisdom that Samuel L Jackson had given her when she first joined the franchise, cautioning Pugh not to get too frustrated when she didn’t magically become a professional assassin after a month.
“I said, ‘Look, this shoot is long, and your stunt double is a professional athlete who’s been doing this for 16 years… you’re never going to reach that level of athleticism in four weeks,” recalls Johansson.
Set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War in which Natasha sacrificed her life in exchange for an infinity stone, little is known about the former KGB operative and assassin turned Avenger, aside from a quick peek into her memory in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
“Our movie answers a lot of mysteries about Natasha’s past,” says co-producer Brian Chapek. “We have seen her character evolve and open herself up to us and we have given hints about who she is and what makes her tick. For example, in Avengers: Endgame, we saw Natasha get to a place in her life where she could make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. Now, we want to tell the story about who she really is as a human being and what led to her being capable of making that heroic decision.”
Based on the Marvel Comic book series first published in 1964, production on the spy thriller kicked off in summer 2019, shooting on three continents over 87 days.
Filmed largely at UK’s Pinewood Studios, the film also shot on location in the UK, Norway, Budapest, Morocco and Atlanta.
Before the pandemic upended the world, Black Widow was planned to mark the official start of Marvel’s Phase Four and while it still represents the first film in the new phase, it has been preceded by Marvel TV series, WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki, all of which take place after the events of Endgame.
Helmed by Australia’s own Cate Shortland, the director battled against a heatwave to get Johansson and Pugh’s fight scenes just right. “It was so hot, we had to keep stopping because the set was like a microwave oven. But it was kinda great watching these two women fight and making it look effortless. And when they’d stop, we’d kinda hose them down,” she laughs.
“Many of those fights became messy and raw, and what I always wanted with the choreography, when we first talked about the film, was that it should be about watching humans fight, not superheroes. And then they’d have to really scramble because the fights could not just be perfectly choreographed. There had to be little moments of accidents and mess-ups and things that you weren’t expecting,” she says.
Pugh leaned into it like a pro, called upon to fight Johansson on her very first day on set in Budapest. “Literally on my first day I was, like, throwing Scarlett up against a wall, and she was smashing my face in the sink,” she grins. “And I just remember thinking there was no greater way to break the ice than wrestling Scarlett Johansson to the floor. Like, trying to choke each other. It was great to get that done first because we really got to know each other and became friends.”
“It definitely was an ice breaker,” agrees Johansson. “I’m very lucky because Florence is such an athletic person with a background in dance, so she nailed all the choreography. She was right there, and totally game to go at it in such an emotional fight where there’s no real end goal; just two people expressing their frustration and also their power struggle and their genuine surprise and affection for one another.
“It was such a unique way to bond with another actor. But it also felt like a very safe way to do it somehow, like with no trepidation; we were just in the muck together.”
For Pugh, the timing of their fight scene could not have been more perfect. “These two sisters haven’t seen each other in years, and they don’t know how to be around each other, so I think that newness of our own relationship added to that.”
Describing her fiery assassin character, she adds, “Yelena is hurt and complicated and acts out. One of the coolest things about playing Yelena is just how complex and broken she is for someone who is so sure of what she does. She knows exactly how to function in the areas in which she’s been trained, but she has no clue how to live as a human being. She’s a lethal weapon but also a bit of a kid. That’s been one of the nicest qualities about her.”
If Johansson had no such discovery, given that Black Widow marks her eighth time in the role, then the film certainly represents an exploration of Natasha’s secret past and where she finds herself once she is separated from her Avengers super-buddies.
“When you see Natasha in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she’s often this kind of impenetrable force,” Johansson tells us. “She’s reckless and out of control but still has this amazing intellect. What are her secrets? Her vulnerabilities? I am excited to share her fragility and her strength. She is in a male world, and she projects a certain way of being in that world. But what we really wanted to do with this, is find out about the real Black Widow.”
Commenting on her role as brilliant scientist Melina, Rachel Weisz says in marvelous understatement, “The Marvel Cinematic Universe is probably the most popular and far-reaching contemporary mythology that there is right now and it was definitely exciting to be invited to join them.”
Black Widow is in cinemas now and on Disney+ with Premier Access from July 9, 2021