Interviews Movies

Family Is Complicated: An Interview With The Cast Of Black Widow

In Marvel Studios’ spy thriller Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.

In honor of Black Widow finally being released, Marvel Studios held a press conference with Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Florence Pugh (Yelena Belova), Rachel Weisz (Melina), David Harbour (Alexei Shostakov), Cate Shortland (Director) and producer Kevin Feige.

“I think from the very beginning when we first started talking about doing this standalone film, there was no reason to do it unless we could really dig deep and be brave and go there,” said Scarlett Johansson. “Having played this character for a decade, I wanted to make sure that it would feel artistically and creatively rewarding for me as well as the fans.”

Producer Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ president and chief creative officer, believes Natasha Romanoff has sparked intrigue since her big-screen debut in 2010’s Iron Man 2. “She has such a rich backstory,” said Feige. “We’ve hinted at it throughout all the other films. But we approach it in a completely unexpected way. She’s been up to a lot all along—in between when we see her in the other movies—some of which will be surprising to people.”

Yelena (Florence Pugh) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo by Kevin Baker. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

A plan was set into motion that Black Widow had to focus on two things, which was Natasha as an individual and then what had happened to her and who she was at the beginning of the film, which was she was completely alone. They knew they wanted it to be really fun and to have an incredible exhilarating ride that combines raw emotion and action. “It was always like putting her at the center of it, but making sure that we didn’t let the trauma of her past drag it down, [instead we] answer[ed] it and we often did that with humor,” said Cate.

Natasha, spoiler alert, made the ultimate sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame on the planet Vormir. Despite her death, it was important to fans and the creators to create a movie that honors her life, her sacrifice while giving viewers a meaningful insight into her backstory.

“We very specifically knew there was a large period of her life we didn’t know about. Not just her childhood, but this period of time between Civil War and Infinity War. And that period we felt was ripe to creatively focus on, to be able to discover more about her past and more about her present [which] give a hint at the legacy in the future all at the same time, thanks to Kate Shortland. Scarlett Johansson is an amazing performer and, with each and every appearance you learned more, you saw more, and you wanted to know more. And the fact that we finally have an entire feature dedicated to that very exciting for all of us.” said Kevin.

For Scarlett, it was important to focus on the Natasha fans don’t know, when she’s alone and completely off her game; when life is complicated and when the person who needs saving the most may be herself. Black Widow answers a lot of mysteries about Natasha’s past. Fans have seen her character evolve and open herself up to them. They were  given hints about who she is and what makes her tick. 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 with this movie, it tells the story about who she really is as a human being and what led to her being capable of making that heroic decision.

Taskmaster in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo by Jay Maidment. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

“Natasha at the beginning of this film is really alone for the first time. She’s always been a part of something, either you know, by being of circumstance, she’s been a part of really not participating at all, and being a victim of the Red Room. And then you know joining Shield and then subsequently Avengers. I mean she’s always been a part of something that was part of a greater whole. And then suddenly she finds herself sort of floating in this weird in between space and she’s off her game. And she realizes that she’s got all this possibility in front of her and it’s really suffocating. And then she’s blindsided by this person who comes from her past who is just on fire and is a liability and [has] this crazy energy and is dangerous, and is full of life, and isn’t needy, but needs her,  she’s so thrown off her game in this. It’s great to see her like that. We never get to see her like that. She’s just full of doubt. [It] leaves a lot of openings for stuff to kind of creep in.”

According to the director, the creative team had almost a blank slate in terms of Natasha’s backstory. “I worked with a Russian historian in London to build a history of where she would’ve been born, what her mother would’ve been like, why her mother would’ve given her up and what her childhood would’ve been like before she went into the Red Room,” says Cate. “Then we had to create a whole narrative that fit within the narrative of our film—how she would’ve been trained to be an American girl, to speak English and understand popular culture. I always try to build characters from their skeleton to create real people. Even though this is about a Super Hero, I went through the same process. Black Widow is a femme fatale, but what is she underneath that?”

According to Feige, it was Johansson who reached out to director Cate Shortland to see if she’d consider helming the film. “Cate came to Los Angeles and fell in love with the character and the possibilities,” says Feige. “She realized she could tell a very personal story and do something extremely special on a big canvas.” Says Shortland, “I think what’s exciting about the film is we’re playing with the audience’s expectations. We’re exploring parts of Natasha that the audience has absolutely no idea about. We explore her family, love and passion, and you get to see all these facets of her we have never seen before.”

On of the elements fans will be excited to see for the first time on the big screen is Black Widow’s family dynamic, especially her complicated relationship with her sister Yelena Belova who is also a product of the Red Room’s ruthless training program, and has a secret history with the Black Widow that she is determined to address.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW
L to R: Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Director Cate Shortland, Yelena (Florence Pugh) and Alexei (David Harbour)
Photo: Jay Maidment
©Marvel Studios 2020

When Yelena finds herself caught in a world with dangerous threats around every corner, her only chance at survival may be through a tenuous truce with the person she blames for a lifetime of torment—Natasha Romanoff . “Yelena doesn’t care—she’s going to speak her mind and she’s not going to answer to anybody,” says Cate. “I think young women in the audience will be cheering because she doesn’t have to excuse herself. That’s what we got with this beautiful character.”

Florence Pugh portrays the fiery assassin. “Yelena is hurt and complicated and acts out,” said Florence. “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.” Cate, who saw Pugh in Lady Macbeth, was keen to work with the actress. “She’s really beguiling,” said the director. “She and Scarlett as a team are unstoppable. It was beautiful to see them together.”

Yelena is the perfect counterpart to Natasha, while Natasha is withdrawn, Yelena has achieved a level of emotional freedom. She’s outgoing, assertive and blunt—it throws Natasha off-kilter and brings out more of her personality. “I think Yelena wants someone to apologize,” said Florence. “She wants to stop feeling like she’s insane. This isn’t normal, and she really wants to let everybody know that she did not have a choice in this. The whole of Yelena’s anger, and I suppose her journey, is just trying to get these people that she thought she knew so well to admit that what they did was wrong, and that she was abandoned. She doesn’t exactly fit,” said Florence.

“From the get-go, in the script it was very obvious that they have this connection and they have this relationship. And ultimately despite her skillset she is that wonderfully annoying young assistant that says all the right things in all the wrong times. I think something that I really appreciated was [being able to] figure out how she thinks and how she moves and what she wears. And I think for me that was such a fun part of figuring out this character, because she really comes out of the Red Room and she can buy her own clothes, and she can buy a vest that has lots of pockets and she’s really excited by it. [I was] really encouraged me to find the oddities of her and lean on that. So much so that, in the end scene, you can
see that she’s flourishing; she’s becoming her own being. I really found it such a wonderful and creative space. These two sisters have so much fun together, amongst all of the pain they’ve shared,” said Florence.

(L-R): Melina (Rachel Weisz), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo by Jay Maidment. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Melina is a highly trained spy who has been cycled through the Red Room’s Widow program four times. After various undercover missions, one of which involved a young Natasha Romanoff, the Red Room recognized Melina’s intelligence, making her one of their lead scientists. After decades of service, Melina has been able to distance herself from the Red Room, but when Natasha shows up Melina must decide where her allegiance lies. “She was recruited when she was very young,” says Rachel Weisz, who portrays Melina. “She became a Russian spy and was planted with Alexei and two very young children in America pretending to be a suburban family with a white picket fence. I think Melina was a lot happier in those years. I think her heart really hardened after that. She became hard and maybe a bitter.” According to Cate, although Melina finds herself in a matriarchal role, she’s still a spy. “She would’ve thought of it as a job—but what happens if it becomes more than that? The reality is that it isn’t up to her. She’s part of the Red Room and becomes an apologist for that system.”

“I love stories about women directed by women. I love playing opposite women. I like stories about people, but it was wonderful to tell a story with three complicated, strong women. On the page I just thought she was a really unusual character. I loved her relationship with her pigs. Shooting that family scene where the family gets back together in Russia after 20 years was just completely a delightful thing. And we were upstaged by the pigs most days. It [was] unlike anything I’ve ever done. It felt incredibly intimate and incredible emotional. I had to steel myself most days to stop laughing at David Harbour, because he’s more eccentric [and one of the most] funniest people on this planet and Melina has absolutely no sense of humor, like none,” said Rachel.

David Harbour is just happy the cast laughed with him and not at him as Alexei/Red Guardian he considers himself to be the Red Room’s answer to Captain America; a super soldier and spy who lived a lifetime of triumph during the Cold War. Alexei’s years of espionage are behind him, but he also considers himself the ultimate hero. He loves sharing his greatness with those around him—which these days include fellow inmates in the Russian prison where he resides. Deep down—way deep down—he harbors a lot of guilt about his life as a spy, especially when it comes to Natasha Romanoff, whom he knew long before she became Black Widow.

“In the beginning, for Alexei, everyone is sort of a reflection on of him,” says David. “That’s the narcissist’s MO—he is not interested in anyone else. He’s interested in how he’s reflected in their eyes. ‘So, am I cool? Am I strong? Do you like me? I know you do.'”

Melina (Rachel Weisz) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo by Jay Maidment. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Director Cate Shortland confirms that Alexei is insecure—hiding behind his perceived power. But, she says, “I love the character—he’s like a big Russian bear. He’s a dad joke that does not end.” Adds David, “He grew up in the Soviet Union and was chosen for a program similar to the Americans’ Captain America. While the Americans were creating their hero, the Russians were developing the Red Guardian. The problem was that he did not become as famous as Captain America, and it’s the great tragedy of his life. He feels very unappreciated.”

David was originally attracted to the character’s dichotomy. “He’s a very complicated guy,” says the actor. “He’s like this beastly guy who desperately wants to be liked. He wants people to think he’s funny and charming. The zig and zag of the character in that way was so appealing to me: he is big and strong with all these human qualities.”

“He has to be so bombastic because he can’t stop and feel the failures that he made. So he has to build around him a world of, like, a confabulation, psychotic reality where he the hero. And that’s inherently silly that’s inherently funny. Also the family dynamics themselves are just  so fun. [We’re] all around a
table in these very specific positions, but we’re all in super suits. Right? But you have this almost Norman Rockwell thing of like dad coming in last to sit at the head of the table while eldest child sits here and mother and baby sit over here. And I found us all sort of falling into these traditional cliche roles, riffing off of that. That was like really fun and satisfying as well.”

Just like the fans, David wouldn’t mind seeing more of the character in future movies that explore more of his background. “You have this big 25-year gap that we don’t know about. We see him in Ohio and then we see him in the prison. And even before the prison, there was a time when he was the Red Guardian. He wants to put the suit back on. So there is this period of time where he has all these stories about his life and about what went on. And these [stories] are questionable… whether or not they’re real. I like the exploration [of] what is real and what isn’t real, and how hard he had to construct these realities for himself and how durable those realities are. I do think that the classic cold war thing is a really fun and funny dynamic between [Red Guardian and Captain America] and the fact they basically came up as nuclear warheads, like in an arms race together. I think it’s just a really great concept that could be explored further.”

(L-R): Yelena (Florence Pugh), Alexei (David Harbour) and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo by Jay Maidment. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

“Is Kevin Feige in the room?,” David jokingly asked.

“The notion of exploring the past, present, and future of the MCU is certainly in the cards for all of our characters,” Kevin responded.

Black Widow is now in theaters and available on Disney+ with Premier Access.

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