Sucker Punch centers on a quintet of young women attempting to break free from a mental asylum (and, incidentally, a brothel) by way of five epic battles against dragons, orcs, samurai warriors and more. But those fantastical creatures aren't the only enemies that Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her peers have to face: They also have to contend with Gorski and Blue, the characters played by Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac.
During our visit to the Vancouver set of Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch in 2009, we spoke with both actors to discuss their characters. But it's not as simple as all of that: Because of the film's multi-layered narrative structure where three levels of reality are at play, Gugino and Isaac are playing two different roles.
Gugino told us first about Doctor Gorski, a psychiatrist working at the Lennox House institute.
Gugino: "I'm a psychiatrist who is very Freudian in her ways. Not a big fan of the lobotomy. She's Polish, so as I was doing some research into the character, I found out that in Russia, lobotomies were made illegal in 1950. I think that in her perspective, she's come over [to America] to sort of do the more kind of progressive therapy with music and regression and dealing with, for better or worse, Freud. What he kind of discovered in the later years has been updated and she's not there yet."
Then there's Madam Gorski, one of the leading female authority figures within the brothel layer of reality.
Gugino: "It seems as if what is in Baby Doll's fantasy is a heightened version of what she observes initially. Interestingly enough, in both worlds I use music, as a psychiatrist and also as a dominatrix, choreographer, and Madam. [Laughs] Never thought I'd say that, but that's what I'm playing in the brothel! I've never done anything like this so it's fascinating ... you can keep digging deeper and deeper and finding more and more stuff."
Isaac's character, Blue Jones, is no less complicated. In the first layer of reality, Blue is merely a low-level orderly at the asylum. But in the second world, he holds all of the cards as the lord of the brothel.
Isaac: "Blue Jones, who is an orderly at this asylum, I think he's someone who's generally been pretty powerless in his life and so he uses this position at this kind of unorganized, slightly chaotic old asylum to have a position of power. He kind of hoards information and he collects things and he has a slightly OCD thing about him, and he becomes like the don of the institution to a certain extent.
"Then in the fantasy world, I know literally I guess it's Baby Doll's imagination creating this world. But for me, I kind of imagined it as what the orderly imagines or wishes he was, which is this respected, charismatic … boss. He's liked, he's a showman, he's all these things as well. And I think that throughout the movie, for me, the fun part has been showing the cracks of that, when it kind of goes back to this more powerless, insecure kind of infected guy."
If you're perplexed by the idea of all these different layers of reality, you're not the only one. Gugino spoke with us about some of the challenges that playing different shades of the same character in two separate universes presents to an actor.
Gugino: "When you have a dream and you go, 'Oh, you were in my dream, but it wasn't really you, and you were wearing this other thing, and it was ten years ago, but it happened tomorrow.' There's that leeway in terms of finding something [for] Madam Gorski to have something that wasn't laid in as the doctor, because it has to be from her mind … and yet, obviously playing it, you have to play it as a real person. So, yeah, I think for sure, Doctor Gorski is much more ... she lives in a much smaller space. She covers her tracks, she's that kind of animal. And Madame Gorsky is much more, she takes her space, and is much grander in her expression, I guess."
While there's certainly leeway in the actors' interpretations of their characters, the dream-like nature of Sucker Punch doesn't mean that Gugino, Isaac or their contemporaries can't bring reality to their roles.
Isaac: "Even in a fantasy, it's very specific. A lot of the time, when you fantasize someone, that should be a fully formed human being. So I didn't kind of limit myself to, well, what would Baby Doll see or what did she not see, you know? I just tried to make it as specific as possible. Who is this guy? He's running a business. He's a small businessman. What does he have to do to remain in control with these girls and what tactics can he use? I just kind of went from that standpoint."
This is the second collaboration between Snyder and Gugino, as the two previously worked together on the director's Watchmen adaptation in 2008. Asked about the differences between shooting that comic book adaptation and Sucker Punch, Gugino replied:
Gugino: "With Watchmen, we had such an arsenal of research and background and we were all constantly referring to the graphic novel to various sort of things that were related to the graphic novel. So this one we're flying by the seat of our pants a little bit more, or I feel that I am. Though he has created this world, so what's kind of great is that it's his vision one hundred percent. That's really exciting."
Unlike Gugino, this is Isaac's first time working with the director. For his part, Isaac said that one of Snyder's greatest strengths is his ability to listen to his actors and let them explore.
Isaac: "He, most importantly, listens. Which is great, you know? He'll listen to the idea fully. He almost always will say, 'Let's try it. We'll try it.' And then he'll say, 'Let's do one differently.' Or I think if he strongly feels that it's not the right way to go, he just explains why."
In essence, Snyder's philosophy boils down to letting the best idea win, according to Isaac. Gugino couldn't have agreed with that statement more.
Gugino: "Everything stems from that, which is why nobody besides him could make this movie. I'm sure Warner Bros. wouldn't let anyone else make this movie, you know? [Laughs] When Watchmen came out and it said, 'From visionary director,' I said to Zack, 'You know, that actually is completely appropriate for you.' Visionary, genius … these words are thrown out all the time, but he is a visionary. He really does have his own unique [vision]."
Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch arrives in theaters on March 25.