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Chukwudi Iwuji On His Complex Performance as The High Evolutionary in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3

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“He’s a villain with a God complex who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”

– Chukwudi Iwuji

It’s so hard to say goodbye, but when that goodbye is sheer perfection, it lessens that pain. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is the final film from director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy. Set to the backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #3, we find our beloved band of misfits looking a bit different these days. After acquiring Knowhere from the Collector, the Guardians are set on repairing the extreme damage done by Thanos and are determined to make Knowhere a safe haven, not only for themselves, but for all refugees displaced by the harsh universe. Notably missing is Peter Quill, who we find in the Boot of Jemiah, trying to drown his sorrows over losing his beloved Gamora. 

It isn’t long before the Guardians’ attempt to return to normal is upended by a brutal attack from a new enemy: the mad scientist known as The High Evolutionary, who has a direct connection to Rocket’s turbulent past. After years of experimenting on helpless creatures, The High Evolutionary is set on taking back what he feels is rightly his—Rocket. The Guardians rally to protect Rocket’s life at all costs. This new mission, if not completed successfully, could quite possibly lead to the end of the Guardians as we know them.

It is Rocket’s story that does drive the narrative and it stays true to James Gunn’s original vision for the trilogy’s storyline. From the beginning, James Gunn knew the core of the story was Rocket and his story, where he came from, and who he was.

In making Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, riskier choices were made. There more raw emotion than the first two movies. This movie answers the one question that’s been lingering since the first film, the one question Rocket has refused to answer, “Where did that raccoon come from?” This is an animal who was taken and turned into something he shouldn’t be and felt completely ostracized and alienated from every other life form in the galaxy and was angry because of that and angry because he’s really scared. That loneliness is the center of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Enter The High Evolutionary, the MCU’s newest villain that’ll send a chill down your spine. Both madness and pure genius, he has been lurking in the background unseen throughout the Guardians movies. “The High Evolutionary is a sociopathic, eons-old, narcissistic, genius villain,” offers Chukwudi Iwuji. “His narrative actually starts long before the Guardians, in the sense he is the one who created Rocket. We’ve all wanted to know where Rocket came from and why he is so super bright, and it turns out that The High Evolutionary is a scientist who has been trying to create the perfect world. He thinks he’s bettering the world and the universe by doing it, but he has sort of gone into that very gray area between genius and madness.” This is how The High Evolutionary separates himself from other villains and brings a haunting presence to the Guardians.

“I use the scripts. James Gunn is amazing [and because of his] character development, [his] arc, there were a lot of clues as to what state my character is in depending on the scene. Overall, I would say The High Evolutionary is a narcissistic egomaniac on the outside, who makes sure he is put together and looks amazing in his head and speaks in this manner and patterns that suggest grandeur and control. However, underneath was their absolute awareness that there’s a broken human being underneath it [all] that hates themselves. [They] Absolutely hate themselves and when you have those two things sort of fighting each other, then you start playing the scenes you find that it creates a certain rumbling when you’re being still and calm. There’s still a rumbling, a fury there and then when [you’re in] the scene, it allows you to let go of that. It dictates that you let go of it, it’s all there, it’s ready to come out.”

A lot of villains do evil for no reason, like taking over the world or destroying the universe. But once you really get to know a villain’s motive, you start to understand him, but at the same time, you hate him. Iwuji is able to tap into both of those elements; we understand exactly what his motivation is and what he wants to do, and we also hate his guts. In the science community, the push for perfection and gene selection is ever growing.

The filmmakers created a language especially for the humanimals in the film. The language, called Orbose, is taught to the humanimals  by The High Evolutionary.  When a word is repeated in the Orbose language, it can be used to emphasize something: for example, “domo domo” (meaning run run). (Real-world example: You need to domo domo to the theater to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) The High Evolutionary has a favorite phrase in Orbose that gives some insight into his state of mind and intent: “Mo Ergastee Forn, Mo Ergalone Forn Nort,” which translates to ‘Be Not as You Are, But as You Should Be.’

“Perfection is completely subjective and in that sense it can’t exist. This is The High Evolutionary’s idea of what ‘perfection’ is. Even Rocket corrects him by saying, ‘You just didn’t like you; you just hated the way things are,’ because that’s HIS perfection. The very idea of creating the perfect society is a complete contradiction and therein lies the tragedy.”

To tap into the mindset of The High Evolutionary was no easy feat for Iwuji who was first presented the idea during the filming of Peacemaker’s opening dance number. “We were filming the dance sequence for Peacemaker. And James said, “Can I have a word with you?  I have something I want to talk to you about.” This was when he thought he was being replaced by Chiwatel Ejiofor. Instead, James started with, “I don’t know what your schedule is, but I would like you to play The High Evolutionary in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3. And he said, “I’ve already spoken to Kevin [Feige] about it. We’ll get together at my place or something. We’ll put something on camera and send it to them.”  And I thought that was going to happen in the next few days because between James telling me he wanted me to play the role and doing the screen test, I had a lot of downtime. He was filming an episode that I wasn’t in. I was in Vancouver at the time. The first thing that was written when I met James was [the High Evolutionary] listening to Space Opera.”

“Immediately I knew classical music was going to be a big part of this character because I didn’t know where I was going to go with him. I thought I would just listen to a lot of my favorite arias and classical. I sent it to them, and one or two of them made it onto the film.”

“A lot of finding this guy, for me, was saying, there’s something. If he’s listening to opera and he’s in space opera and he’s this mad scientist sort of person, I just thought of someone that doesn’t sleep. That’s someone that’s obsessed with it, listening to this music. He needs music as he wanders through his castle at night. I thought very deeply about Henry IV.  He has a great speech about, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown. How many thousands of my poorest subjects at this moment, are asleep? And I sent that to James.”

“I’m not thinking, ‘Oh I’m going to play this scene as a narcissist [or] as a sociopath. I’m not, I’m playing the scenes, but all those qualities are in there and it’s up to you as the audience member to see that and decide, ‘Oh this guy is crazy, that makes sense. Oh, that was funny, he’s actually kind of charming.’ That’s up to you, that’s not up to me. I try to play the truth of the scene. I always try and find the truth and not to wink at the audience. I think it’s important not to wink at them when you’re letting loose. It gets ugly, it doesn’t matter if spit comes out of your mouth, or your nose is running. It’s beautiful when you see the mask change as opposed to trying to contain your anger when you’re being calm, but you know there’s something bubbling there.”

“Use your eyes, let the bubble look at the person and let the anger be in there, but speak nicely to them. Play what you’re supposed to play and get rid of subtext. We love playing subtext as actors because we want to be interesting and be the next Brando. Play what you’re playing, that’s how I see it.”

“Overall, he’s a villain with a God complex who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Therefore, it wasn’t really about specifically how I play the character written. It’s ‘how do I bring this guy into the room.’ I knew that would be taken care of in the script because the motivations and the moments and stuff are impeccably written because [James Gunn] deals with character. It was about, who is this guy before he turns up on the set?”

Adding to the in-camera action is Gunn’s love for music—even planning music into his screenplays from the very first draft. Gunn has mastered the art of creating “needle drop moments” where a song pulls audiences right into the moment. Using playback with the selected songs allowed the actors to step into the world, on the other side of the edit, which also helps with their performances.

Gunn’s style of writing the song titles in the script and then playing the songs over scenes on set resonates with the actors. Everything has been decided already, and all of the songs are written into the script. We also received a playlist before starting to get the actors in the zone. Every time there’s a song in the movie, they play it on set whenever the music cue is set to kick in. For the actors, it feels like they’re in the movie already. The music unites everybody in a scene, and it just sets the tone. Gunn tapped British composer John Murphy to score the film. Murphy most recently worked with Gunn on “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special and The Suicide Squad.

“There’s something beautiful about coming from the stage when you know the camera is right, then it’s going to pick up everything. There’s something beautiful about letting the entire story being almost told by what you’re thinking, knowing the camera is right there. That’s [something] you can’t do on stage now. One will even see it in the first row, but at the same time there’s something about James that likes to play the soundtrack on set, to be hearing this amazing music composed by John Murphy blasting. I’m losing it, really roaring and James is screaming, “More more!” and you could let that go and then you go home and you’re tired and you have to drink the lemon and honey tea to relax, and you’ve sweated. I loved both of those things.”

“I’m very excited for people to see it because it’s a very worthy, beyond worthy, contribution to this saga. I feel in this third one, with the depth it is going to and the tragedy of it and the joy, that James has redefined a genre he redefined before. I hope it will surprise you with bursts of humanity, which is James’ forte, delivered in a massive galactic, roller-coaster action flick.”

To learn more about Chukwudi Iwuji performance in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, check out our full interview in the video above.

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