It's fair to say that no one expected to see Cobie Smulders (the Canadian "How I Met Your Mother" knockout) and indie fixture Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right, Zodiac) in a summer blockbuster about the Earth's mightiest heroes joining forces to save the planet but after watching The Avengers, you'd be hard-pressed to think of actors who may have pulled off bad-ass S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill and Bruce Banner/The Hulk any better than them.
Writer-director Joss Whedon's ensemble epic is positively bursting with A-listers who've already had a chance to try on their superhero costumes in other movies from the Marvel universe (Thor, Captain America, Iron Man), putting Smulders and Ruffalo in a unique position where they had to both prove themselves to the rampant fanbase and had the room to explore and redefine these characters.
Though Smulders said she was vaguely familiar with the world of the Avengers, she knew little about Hill or S.H.I.E.L.D., the fictional, top-secret military organization where her character works and, like any 30-year-old, that meant hitting the internet to find out more.
"As soon as I got the call that I was going to screen-test with Sam Jackson [who plays S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury], I was like immediately on the computer," she said with a smile, while seated at the head of a table in a Toronto hotel room. "It was cool to do a ton of research and look online and read the blogs and read what fans had to say about her. It was also interesting, since she's a new character, to take what was already established in the comic books and with the help of Joss Whedon, add to it as well."
Whedon's name came up often while the two thesps revealed the details of their processes and it's clear the man behind "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" was integral to their performances.
For Ruffalo's part, he and Whedon spoke about where Bruce Banner might be after a life of destruction and uncontrolled rage and the answer, it turns out, hews pretty close to reality, especially for a man who turns into a big, green monster with the ability to flatten buildings in one fell swoop.
"We both saw it as a continuation...we picked up [from the last movie] and went from there, " offered Ruffalo in his trademark chilled-out drawl. "He's older now, he's in his 40s, you know, there comes a time at that age where you start to accept your shortcomings as well as your gifts and you tend to turn to face those things. And maybe you'll develop a sense of humour about them and a sense of acceptance."
That very modern conceit of accepting what you can't change translates to a Bruce Banner who is careful not to put himself in stressful situations and a Hulk who is humanized, made possible by CGI technology that allowed Ruffalo to act out Hulk's rampages himself, with a voice provided by Lou Ferrigno, and even retain Ruffalo's likeness, an idea that required some convincing.
| Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in a scene from The Avengers (Courtesy of Marvel)
"I always felt like in past movies, you get to The Hulk and there's a real disconnect, like you didn't feel the human continuation. Even The Hulk, the character, never looked like the guys playing it," said Ruffalo. "That was kind of a fight we had with Marvel early on, was to make Hulk look like Banner because they made it a rule not to have The Hulk ever look like Banner. But I also wanted to really infuse The Hulk, and Joss did too, with something that was human."
While Ruffalo was humanizing a big green beast, Smulders decided that to properly embody Hill, she had to look the part, which meant taking up boxing, hiring a trainer to teach her jiu jitsu, learning how to fire guns and convincingly steer a vehicle in a high-speed car chase, since she insisted on doing as many of her own stunts as possible, and figuring out police protocols so she'd be Maria Hill from the first day she stepped on-set.
Superhero movies don't always require this kind of advance preparation or warrant intense discussion and investigation on character, motivation and intention but then again not every film in the genre boasts talent like Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Tom Hiddleston, or a leader like Whedon.
"Joss is an amazing man and he's very giving and he gives you his time even if he doesn't have it," said Smulders. "Especially with me, being one of the smaller roles in such a huge, character-driven project. He was there every step of the way. He was at the screen test, he was there during wardrobe fittings, he was there during conversations about my bang length! And for him to be like that to me, you can imagine how that translated to the other characters in the film."
Ruffalo, an admitted fan of comic books, Frank Miller, and even an owner of a signed, large-scale Wolverine stand-alone, had a host of reasons why taking on a role that, while smothered in expectation, meant something even more to him that realizing a fanboy's dream.
"My children haven't been able to see what I do. And so I had been thinking it would be nice to do a movie my kids could see, that wasn't a romantic comedy," he said. "And it was a character that I really loved growing up and it was Joss Whedon, who's really smart and really knew how to do this well. And Robert Downey, who I called and I was like, 'What do you think?' And he was like, 'You got this, bro. We can do this.' But he also kind of made this a world that an actor like me fits into. But I was excited."
It's easy to forget that only a few short years ago, it was unthinkable that an actor like Downey Jr. could lead a franchise, given his past substance abuse issues, not-exactly superhero build and arthouse-leaning body of work. But his winking, sly performance in Iron Man proved that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, with histories both checkered and not and what it really comes down to is a movie that's able to mix escapism with metaphor, humour with pathos.
And, as Smulders put it, it's a chance to do some pretty cool stuff.
"I was kind of a pain in the ass on set sometimes," she laughed. "You know, I'd be doing a scene with Sam[uel L. Jackson] and Joss would be like, 'Okay, you're gonna come down the stairs and you're gonna shoot twice. And then Cobie, you're gonna shoot once. And then Sam, you're gonna shoot two more times.' And then I was like, 'Hold on, how come he gets to shoot four times and I get one?' I just wanted to do [more]...it's just cool. It's just bad-ass."
The Avengers hits Cineplex theatres May 4.
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