Few could have predicted that James Gunn’s hilarious supervillain team-up film The Suicide Squad would lead to one of streaming television’s biggest hits, but that’s exactly what happened when spinoff series Peacemaker gave HBO Max one of its first must-watch shows of the year.
Created and written by Gunn (who also directs all but three of the season’s eight episodes), Peacemaker has John Cena reprise his role from The Suicide Squad as the series’ titular aspiring superhero who isn’t afraid to create a pile of dead bodies in his quest for peace. Two other cast members from The Suicide Squad join Cena in the series, with Jennifer Holland and Steve Agee reprising their roles as black ops agents Emilia Harcourt and John Economos, respectively, who are tasked with supervising Peacemaker on another secret mission.
With season 1 of Peacemaker now concluded and season 2 of the series moving forward, Digital Trends spoke to Holland about her experience with the series, working with John Cena and (her now-fiancé) Gunn, her character’s impressive fight scenes, and that opening dance sequence that became a viral hit.
Digital Trends: Going back to the beginning, when you learned Emilia Harcourt was going from The Suicide Squad to Peacemaker, what was your initial response?
Jennifer Holland: I almost pooped my pants! I was just so excited. I mean, I would have been excited to go on with the character in any capacity, but once I found out that Harcourt was getting such a wonderful arc throughout the series and getting so many badass fight scenes and all of the other stuff that happens for her throughout the season, I was blown away.
Let’s talk about the opening dance scene everyone loves. When did you find out that was happening?
It was written into the scripts from the beginning, and was described as this sort of robotic, stoic-faced dance sequence. I had no idea what that meant, but you kind of put your life in James’ hands with stuff like this. You’re like, “Hey, you’ve got an amazing vision for this, and I’m totally on board, so let’s see what happens.” Charissa Barton, who was the choreographer, took all of his ideas and expanded upon them and created this really amazing dance sequence. James had the idea to include a ton of characters from the season, too, and it became greater than I could have ever imagined it would be. We had an amazing time.
How easy — or difficult — was it to get the whole thing down?
I worked with Charissa and with some of the cast members rehearsing some of the choreography on many of my days off, and it was just a ton of fun. It was hard to keep a straight face because we were having such a great time. Danielle [Brooks] has so much swagger, and she wanted to add that swagger into the dance, but James kept being like, “Danielle, no emotion! Nothing!”
Harcourt has some of the series’ best fight scenes — which is saying a lot, given the show’s cast. What was training like for your fight scenes?
I trained almost constantly throughout the months that we shot with my stunt double, Yulia, and with Wayne Dalglish, who’s the stunt choreographer, and the whole team. Spencer [Thomas], who’s John’s stunt double, spent a lot of time with me. He would step in and be whatever random character I was going to be fighting. He was incredibly helpful. They spent countless hours with me, teaching me all of the stunts and all of the fight choreography.
The camera movement is very fluid in the series, and they’re swinging the camera around in different directions all the time, so they want to be able to shoot with the actors as much as they possibly can. So for me, it was all about trying to get it down almost as well as Yulia does, so that they can shoot in all different directions and use me whenever they need to in a shot. It was a ton of work and was very hard on my body. I got a little taste of how hard it is on the bodies of all of the stunt actors. But I wouldn’t change any of it [and] would do it again in a heartbeat. I absolutely loved it. It was so much fun.
Peacemaker feels like a particularly fun, loose show to make. Was that the case? How loose did it feel on set?
Well, James often storyboards everything that he does to a tee. You could look at his storyboards up on the wall and it would almost be shot-for-shot exactly what’s in the film. That’s how intensely he storyboards everything. But it was a little bit looser with this series because he wanted it to have this very grounded feel, with the camera always moving. He still planned it out, and he still storyboarded, but it was a much looser feel than than his films can can be.
I think that was one thing that was really fun about it: You get the opportunity with a series to take a little bit more time than you can when you’re filming a movie. Everything’s very economized in a film. Only the most important things make it into a film, because you have this finite period of time that you get to tell a story, whereas in a series, everything can breathe a little bit. So yeah, it was a little looser. We had such a great time.
Was there much improvising or riffing off each other on set? It’s hard to tell sometimes, as James has such a knack for fun, loose dialogue that seems improvised, but isn’t.
John Cena improvised a lot, but a lot of times he was totally aware that it’s never going to make it into the show. He’s just doing it to make everyone on set laugh, you know?
There’s this one specific time — I think it was from episode 7, actually — and he was improvising in this one scene, and he’s totally, 100 percent aware it’s never going to make it into the show. I was cry-laughing, walking around set just to try to keep a straight face. It was never going to make it into the series, but he just kept going with it because he’s making everybody laugh. We had a great time.
Everyone I’ve talked to about John Cena has been raving about how great he is on set. What was your experience with him like?
John is absolutely one of the best people I’ve ever met in this business. He is a consummate professional. He’s 100% prepared. He gave 100% of himself to this series and was so enthusiastic about making it, and making it good. I’m so grateful to him.
Aside from how incredibly funny he is and fun he is to be around, he’s also one of the most grounded people I’ve ever had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with in the industry. He is very into self-improvement and learning new things. That type of vulnerability is really rare for someone who’s in the position in life that he’s in. He has a lot of success, and you don’t think that is the moment in someone’s life where they’re going to go, “How can I be better? How can I improve myself?” But he’s always looking to learn new things and improve himself. He’s a great teacher as well as a friend.
Everyone seems to love the show’s music and it’s so deeply woven into each episode. How does James’ approach to music come across on your side of the camera as you’re making the show?
James has this wonderful way of shooting to the music that he’s using for a scene. He’ll often ask his composer to compose music before he’s shot anything so that he’s able to shoot to that music on set, and so the camera is moving to the music. It’s a tall order for a composer, but they’ve created some incredible things. He does the same thing with all of the [licensed] music, too. That’s why he chooses the music while he’s writing: He writes as he’s listening to the song that’s going to be in that scene, over and over and over again, so even in the writing, the flow of it is going with the music. So the music really informs everything that James does.
[Music] is a very big part of the way that he writes and the way that he directs, and as an actor working in that environment, it really informs you as to how intense your emotions can be or whether or not you can keep it simple. Maybe the music is really crescendoing, and if the music is telling the story, you don’t have to do as much work in that moment. I think it’s one of the best ways to work. I love working that way. If I could have all of my directors shoot to music, I would do that. It’s great.
Outside of the season finale, what was your favorite part of making Peacemaker? What are you taking away from the experience of making season 1 of the series?
You should always be open to a new experience, because you never know what it’s going to bring you. You never know what it’s going to teach you. Don’t go into things with too many expectations, because you just never know. Throughout the shooting of this series, I learned more about myself and gained more friends than I could have imagined I ever would have. It was just a really special experience, and I will probably judge all of my future work against this one, because it was really special to me.
Season 1 of Peacemaker is available now on the HBO Max streaming service.