Meet the colorful cast of characters that make up DC Comics' latest big screen adventure
Even before 'Suicide Squad' hit theaters in 2016, Margot Robbie had transformed her Harley Quinn into a cinematic icon. Now, as Harley's second big screen appearance heads to theaters, the two-time Academy Award nominee is not just showcasing her talent in front of the camera, but also serving as a producer on 'Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)'.
“I wanted to see what Harley would be like without someone to take care of her," Robbie explains. "It has always been a part of my own life to have a group of girlfriends that do everything together. We’re a very mixed bag of personalities, but everyone loves each other, despite being pretty different. That’s what drew me to developing a story for Harley with the Birds of Prey. To find a group that’s unique, but who complement each other, especially in their fighting styles. Together, they make up all the pieces of the puzzle.”
Helming 'Birds of Prey' is Cathy Yan, whose debut feature, 'Dead Pigs,' was released in China early last year. Although the film has still not seen a domestic release, a screener fortunately found its way to Robbie.
“Cathy’s ability to give each character in an ensemble his or her moment on the screen was one of the main reasons I loved her film ‘Dead Pigs,’" explains the star, "But also why I felt she was the right person to direct this film. When she came in, it was clear she understood the story and the characters and had so many wonderful additional thoughts."
“I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive creative team,” says Yan. “They were amazing. I know it was a very personal journey of many years for Margot, so I felt very honored to be a part of that… Margot is so devoted to her work. She went full throttle both as an actor and a producer on this project, and she was totally unafraid, ready to do anything. She’s also a great improviser, quick-witted, and understands Harley better than anyone.”
‘Birds of Prey’ boasts a screenplay by Christina Hodson, who recently provided the script for director Travis Knight’s ‘Transformers’ spinoff prequel, ‘Bumblebee’.
“Christina and I got along the moment we met and we’re going to be friends forever,” says Robbie. “She’s a genius. I had a lot of ideas that didn’t fit together yet, like this relationship or that tableau from the comics, this character here, that storyline there. She found a way to weave it all in and turn it into something that reflected Harley’s personality and was in Harley’s
With Harley’s ex, the Joker, having just pulled in more than a billion dollars from his own movie, it’s the perfect time for Ms. Quinn to follow suit. Although “Birds of Prey” isn’t directly connected to Todd Phillips’ “Joker” in any way outside of the linked source material, it does share one key trait with its fellow comic book movie: an unreliable narrator.
“At the beginning of the movie, Harley and Mr. J break up,” says Robbie. “Though she’ll tell you it was her choice and that she’s handling it really well, you can see that it very much wasn’t… The film is a wild ride and a lot of fun. A taste of life from Harley’s point-of-view that’s unpredictable, out of order, funny, dangerous, heartwarming. A little bit of everything, like her.”
Of course, Harley Quinn isn’t the only one having a hard time in Gotham City. The events of ‘Birds of Prey’ have Harley cross paths with quite a few colorful characters based on familiar DC Comics heroes and villains. Chief among them is Ella Jay Basco’s take on “Cass”.
“When I read the script, I just loved Cassandra Cain,” says the actress, who makes her feature film debut in ‘Birds of Prey’. “She’s a street girl without a family or a home, so she’s both really misguided and super independent. She has had to fight to survive in this world, until she meets Harley Quinn.”
“Ella was so impressive,” says Yan. “This is her feature debut, so I can’t imagine how she must have felt to show up to set and work with Margot Robbie every day, but she was a total champ. [She is] incredibly mature for her age and she really understood Cass and brought a certain authenticity to her. [She is[ a real kid, not a shiny, perfect version of a little girl.”
“Margot was like a big sister to me,” Basco continues. “We had the best time with each other. She taught me so much about working with people on and off camera. It was amazing.”
Cass enters the ‘Birds of Prey’ story when the character’s pickpocketing habit leads her to accidentally steal from someone she shouldn’t have: Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz. Zsaz happens to be the right hand man of the film’s big bad, Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask.
“I love Roman,” says Yan. “I think he’s hilarious because Ewan was able to bring such charm and even comedy and vulnerability to the role. He really used the trust fund/party boy element that Christina wove into the script. Coming from a great, blue-blooded Gotham dynasty that owns the Janus Corporation, Roman’s the black sheep rather than the elite. He gets unhinged when someone like Harley steals his thunder or his limelight. They both love being the center of attention and that makes them interesting foils for one another.”
“It’s important for an actor to understand the character,” adds McGregor. “You can’t play the ‘bad guy’ or the ‘good guy,’ you have to play the person and know what makes him tick. In Roman’s case, he is an absolute narcissist, which makes him think he can charm anyone, and he has rage issues that come into play, so he loses his temper all over the place. Both were really fun to do.”
When the story begins, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Dinah Lance is reluctantly working for Sionis.
“She’s very much the Dinah Lance that we love from the comics,” says the actress. “What I really wanted to capture was the essence of that character, and one of the things that I love about Dinah is her heart. She's all heart. She's all compassion. She's also this amazing martial artist and expert street fighter. However, when we meet her in the film, she hasn't yet become this powerful Black Canary that we know her to be… She's at this point in her life in which she wants nothing to do with cleaning up Gotham. She doesn't care to be a vigilante, she just wants to keep her head down and do her job as a nightclub singer.”
“[Dinah is Roman’s] new possession,” says McGregor. “It could be construed that he wants her romantically or sexually, but he doesn’t. He likes the way she sings, but he sees her as a canary in a cage. His cage.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the thin blue line, is Rosie Perez as GCPD’s Detective Renee Montoya. Like Quinn herself, Montoya was a character originally created for ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ in the early 1990s.
“When I did my research on Renee Montoya in the comic books, I learned she’s much younger than I am,” laughs Perez. “She’s also very angry about wanting to make the world a better place, but always being second-guessed. What I had to do was not to try to act younger, but to bring the wisdom and the maturity that I have to the character.”
“Rosie is just iconic,” adds Yan. “She was awesome to work with and brought so much grit and such a grounded quality to Renee. The character is so strong, and Rosie is innately just as strong, and she gave Renee the perfect do-not-f*ck-with-me attitude and tenacity that she needed.”
Rounding out the “Birds of Prey” roster is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress. Huntress is a wild cards of sorts, which says an awful lot when one of your teammates is Harley Quinn.
“Huntress is definitely one of those great comic book characters who's born out of pain,” says Winstead. “She witnessed her family being murdered in front of her eyes when she was a child and has trained her entire life to be an assassin, basically, with the very focused goal of tracking down these men who killed her family and systematically annihilating them. Now she's a killing machine on a manhunt. Fitting in with society or being social has never been on her radar and she's not particularly interested in making friends. That's not really part of her strategy.”
Because Huntress is such a physical character, Winstead studied judo, jujitsu and karate to fully prepare for the role.
“I loved that this was a story about strong women trying to find their independence,” she says “And by coming together they find it within themselves and within one another.”
Find out how Harley and her eclectic new friends were originally introduced to the DC Universe
There are any number of insane clown-themed individuals out there in the big wide world, but how many of them have actually earned their PhDs? Harley Quinn, erstwhile psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel, has, since her inception roughly three decades ago, taken pop culture by storm. Despite being a DC Comics character, Harley’s first appearance wasn’t in a comic book at all. Harley made her official debut during ‘Joker’s Wild,’ a first season episode of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’. Incredibly, though, the character’s origins stretch back even further!
Officially created by animated ‘Batman’ masterminds Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Harley Quinn was directly inspired by Dini’s college friend, Arleen Sorkin. Sorkin, who would go on to voice Harley, had played a character named Calliope Jones on the Soap Opera ‘Days of Our Lives’. One episode featured Calliope dressed up like a clown while speaking in a heavy Northeastern accent. When it came time to create an interesting henchperson for Mark Hamill’s Joker, Sorkin became the perfect inspiration.
It was in 1993, exactly one year to the day after Harley’s television debut, that the character made her first comic book appearance in the pages of ‘Batman Adventures’. In 1994, Dini wrote a special graphic novel titled ‘Mad Love’ that revealed Harley’s origin as a psychiatrist who both fell in love with and was drive insane by the Joker. Winning both Eisner and Harvey awards, ‘Mad Love’ was adapted for an animated series episode a few years later.
All of Harley’s early stories took place in the continuity of the television show, however, and it wouldn’t be until 1999 that Harley was finally introduced into the standard DC Comics continuity. There, she debuted during the ‘No Man’s Land’ crossover, an event that saw Gotham in ruins after a catastrophic earthquake. The following year, the first ‘Harley Quinn’ ongoing series was finally launched.
Harley’s debut outside of the comics isn’t entirely uncommon for DC characters. Major parts of the ‘Superman’ mythos – such as Kryptonite and the Man of Steel’s pal, Jimmy Olsen – can be traced back to the 1940s radio show. Gotham Detective Renee Montoya, played in ‘Birds of Prey’ by Rosie Perez, was also created for the ‘Batman’ animated series. Because she was part of the series bible, though, Montoya wound up appearing in ‘Batman’ #475 in 1992, just one week before her television debut on the ‘Rashomon’ inspired first season episode, ‘POV’.
Although Margot Robbie is the first – and, to date, only – actress to play a live action Harley Quinn on the big screen, Harley did play a part in the short lived 2002 television series ‘Birds of Prey,’ played by Mia Sara throughout the show’s first and only season. That show followed an alternate version of Huntress (played by Ashely Scott), who was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman.
Originally introduced in the comics as Helena Wayne, the daughter of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, Huntress existed in a parallel reality known as Earth-Two from 1977 until DC Comics’ worlds-ending crossover, ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’. Designed as a way to smooth continuity issues throughout DC lore, ‘Crisis’ reimagined Huntress as Helena Bertinelli, whose parents were mobsters rather than superheroes. That’s the version that audiences will meet in the new film, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Although Huntress was a later addition to the original ‘Birds of Prey’ roster in the comics, the original team was formed by a partnership between Barbara Gordon (the former Batgirl who, after being paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair reinvented herself as the tech-savvy Oracle) and Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary.
Black Canary’s comic book origins stretch back the furthest. She debuted in the pages of “Flash Comics” #86 in 1947, created Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino. Originally Dinah Drake, Black Canary would fight crime alongside (and eventually marry) GCPD detective Larry Lance. By 1983, things got pretty weird for the heroine. In order to explain why Canary was still young after so many decades, it was retconned that, after an affair with a Wizard’s curse, Dinah Drake’s mind was placed inside the body of her own daughter, Dinah Laurel Lance. It’s the Dinah Lance version that appears in the new film, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell. While there is a reference to her mother being a crimefighter, Canary’s complicated origin is (wisely) left in the funny pages.
Rounding out the new movie’s comic book inspired roster is Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain, who first appeared in 1999’s ‘Batman’ #567 (created by Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott)c and who went on to become a version of Batgirl. In the comics, Cassandra is the daughter of famous assassins. The new film reinvents ‘Cass’ as a streetwise pickpocket whose lack of speech has more to do with her not wanting to speak to anyone than actually being mute.
You’ll get to meet the entire ‘Birds of Prey’ lineup when the new film, directed by Cathy Yan, hits theaters February 7. After that, it’s a pretty safe bet that another Harley Quinn appearance won’t be far off…