Of the film's many strengths, the five actresses at the core of Sucker Punch are at the forefront. Emily Browning leads the pack as Baby Doll, but she's supported by an excellent cast that includes Jena Malone as field medic Rocket and Abbie Cornish as the fierce Sweet Pea, Rocket's sister.
When we spoke with those two actresses on the set of Sucker Punch in late 2009, it was a particularly good day to talk to Malone. You see, while a healthy chunk of Sucker Punch dwells on action and adventure, there are also numerous dance sequences. The day we were on set just so happened to be Malone's turn on stage, delivering a provocative dance routine that's about as personal as it gets.
Malone: "Today's dance scene was crazy. Each of us girls, except for Emily – because her dance becomes the tipping off of the fantasy worlds – we each have our own burlesque dance. It's our persona coming out, all of the different icons that we represent. Mine's sort of the nurse, because the first time that Baby Doll sees me, I'm done up as a nurse. It's a crazy-dead-zombie-robot-nurse dance. It's going to be so crazy and going to be so awesome."
She added that even considering the grueling training process to become an appropriately skilled action star, that day's dancing sequence was far scarier for her than any of the film's battle scenes.
Malone: "This was the most terrifying thing of the entire film. I could shoot orcs until my fingers fall off. I could be in the gym doing deadlifts until my body gives out. But this dance is totally terrifying me. You have to get out of your mind, which is what they've been training us for – the physical discipline, the mental discipline – and get back into the body – the rhythm, the sex, the breath. We were doing the fighting sequence in the morning and you're there and pumped up with your guns, then you have to let it all go and remember the languid curves and the softness of the body, too."
Switching between sultry dancer and capable fighter isn't an easy task, especially considering the preparation that each actress went through during pre-production.
Malone: "The first three months that the three of us girls were training together didn't come until August – that was the rehearsal. All three of us girls were sweating, crying, figuring out what our pain threshold was. In a weird way, it was like an asylum. We had to eat at a specific time. We had to push ourselves to the limits. We were wearing these sweat uniforms and being instructed. Everything was a regiment. It was a far more interesting style of rehearsing. Getting to know the physical body of the character, the character's pain threshold, how you can work together as a team. Horrible moments, like when I'm doing my twentieth farmer's carry and I'm freaking sobbing and you want to do it for the other girls. You all become strong together. I think that any form of round-the-table, reading-the-scenes, we never would have gotten to that point of closeness and how connected we were in those first three months."
Cornish: "And it was such an unspoken thing. We did talk about it, but there were so many moments when we were all just going hard and doing this thing. For me in particular, during those three months, there was this feeling inside me that was almost zen-like. It was so peaceful, because coming in and doing martial arts and working out and learning how to use a gun, you have to be so careful with a gun — it's a deadly weapon. There was something very focused about that process, very disciplined. Just to be able to exert that much energy and let it out every single day was really fun."
Although Sucker Punch boasts a heavy action component, both Malone and Cornish insisted that the film's character work is just as strong.
Malone: "I think that's a tribute to Zack and the script. He was really adamant about finding these characters amongst absolutely crazy feats of strength and confidence and out of this world of action. But in the midst of it being like, 'Okay, yeah, I messed up. I'm sorry,' there are still the women that we know in the other worlds. It's not all just action: it's humanistic, realistic. Also, he allows us to develop things on our feet. If there's a little look that we can give, he allows those moments to happen. It's about adding the characters to the fantasy."
Cornish cited one of the film's major action set pieces — a scene that sees our heroes battling against an army of mechanical gas-filled German soldier drones in the trenches of World War I — as especially demonstrative of the marriage between violence and drama.
Cornish: "Story-wise, for me in World War I, it was very much about Sweet Pea worrying about Rocket. She's only here for her. Throughout that whole WWI sequence, everything they did, that was my intention. Where's my sister? What's she doing? It's kind of fun, too, because even though you're in this kill-crazy martial arts world, the story still exists."
In his previous films, Snyder has proven time and time again that he's a masterful action director. But Sucker Punch could prove his weight as a dramatic director, as Malone and Cornish had nothing but glowing things to say about Snyder's skills in that department, particularly his ability to write for women.
Cornish: "I think Zack himself is very much in touch with his femininity as much as he is his masculinity. He's very sensitive and caring."
Malone: "Also, the script speaks for itself. If I'd read the script and felt that he didn't know what he was talking about, I don't think any of us would be here. He's exploring so many different levels of female archetypes and allowing them to break and bend and expose themselves, amazing different forms of strength and insecurity, and allowing these women to really be fully-fleshed characters. I was thinking that they could really be men or women. In an action movie, we're so used to seeing these men, but literally we could almost be sexless were it not for the specificity of the world that we're in."
Cornish: "The thing about Zack that I've found really fun is that he knows what he's doing. He's a great filmmaker. He's super technical. He's had this film in his head from start to finish. It's all there, all storyboarded. But at the same time, he's constantly exploring it. He's very instinctual. You don't feel confined or restricted. Every day is that day. He's so in the moment. He's a lot of fun to work with. I've had the most fun on this film than I have on any film."
Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch arrives in theaters on March 25.