Peacemaker Star Jennifer Holland Gives Details On James Gunn, John Cena And More - Exclusive Interview

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Peacemaker Star Jennifer Holland Gives Details On James Gunn, John Cena And More - Exclusive Interview
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

There’s a lot more going on in the new HBO Max series “Peacemaker” than its outrageously entertaining opening credits sequence, and star Jennifer Holland is thrilled to be a part of the action every step (dancing or otherwise) along the way. Holland originated her role as Emilia Harcourt in a supporting turn in the acclaimed 2021 DC supervillain movie “The Suicide Squad,” and in the spinoff streaming series, “Peacemaker,” the no-nonsense ARGUS agent has taken on a significantly bigger duties opposite the title character, AKA Chris Smith (John Cena).

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Kicking off her acting career in 2004, Holland, who goes by Jen (“If you call me Jennifer, I’ll think you’re mad at me,” she said, laughing), has built up an impressive resume over the years, guest starring in such TV series as “American Horror Story,” “CSI: Miami,” “Bones,” and “Rush Hour,” and landing a starring role in the biographical music drama “Sun Records.” Then, in 2019, Holland’s film career got a big spark with the superhero-themed horror thriller “Brightburn,” which was followed by her assignment as Harcourt in “The Suicide Squad.”

As payback for a revolt against ARGUS honcho Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) at the end of “The Suicide Squad,” the series finds Harcourt and computer genius John Economos (Steve Agee) assigned to a Black Ops team with Peacemaker to battle an alien race known as “Butterflies.” Joined by fellow agent Clemson Murr (Chukwudi Iwuji), agency newbie Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), and superhero wannabe Vigilante (Freddie Stroma), the Black Ops team’s mission becomes complicated with the rise of an extremist organization led by Peacemaker’s racist, hate-filled father, Auggie Smith (Robert Patrick).

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In an exclusive interview with Looper, Holland discusses her work with Cena on the series, as the evolution of Harcourt’s character from “The Suicide Squad” to “Peacemaker.” In addition, Holland — who is Gunn’s longtime partner and professional collaborator — gives keen insight into the writer-director’s creative process and his passion to entertain audiences.

Holland is thrilled how Harcourt became an integral character

Peacemaker Star Jennifer Holland Gives Details On James Gunn, John Cena And More - Exclusive Interview
HBO Max

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You were terrific as Emilia Harcourt in “The Suicide Squad” and I really love how you take the character to the next level with “Peacemaker.” Opportunities like this don’t come along too often, do they? When you play a character in one project, generally that’s it and you don’t get a chance to expand upon them in a follow up project, so this must be a real thrill for you.

Absolutely. Thank you so much. When I did the role in “The Suicide Squad” with James, I thought it was going to be this fun time. I’d spend a couple of weeks on set working with these incredible actors and that was going to be the end of it. She was a very, very small character originally. She got a little bit bigger as he was writing it, and so he thought that she should have a name. He gave her the name Emilia Harcourt, but it was basically a fun thing for the fans to see when they watch the credits [since she was a character in the DC comics]. It wasn’t really supposed to be much of anything else. He didn’t think about it any further than that when he wrote her for the film. When she became such an integral part of the series, I was blown away.

Well that’s just it. Emilia’s not only an integral part, but so is Steve Agee’s character, as well as Daniel Brooks’ — everybody on the team, really — you’re every bit as important to the series as Peacemaker is.

That’s one of the brilliant things about the way that James writes these ensemble casts. He’s very, very good at giving everyone a full character.

What I love about Emilia is there’s some growth there. For example, there was a bloody scene where the Black Ops team takes out a bunch of Butterflies and you’re all jamming out in the van afterwards, celebrating. Emilia, who was a real hard-ass up to that point, cracked a smile and took a photo of the crew, and to me, those sorts of actions speak louder than words. I felt that the character took a real big step there by letting her hair down and celebrating with the rest of the team.

Well, I’m so glad that you saw it that way and that’s what you took away from it, because it was something that we had to fight for — for that to be a very nuanced moment and nothing big. It was really important to me, [and that’s] the wonderful thing about the way that James wrote all of the character arcs and whether they are arcs that turn out, that people learn something and grow in a positive direction, or whether the arc is the opposite of that. They’re all very nuanced. There’s a bunch of things in the show that are totally in your face, very loud and not nuanced at all, but the character beats, the character arcs, the emotional beats, those things — the dramatic elements — they’re all very nuanced and beautiful, in my opinion.

Getting into fighting shape

Peacemaker Star Jennifer Holland Gives Details On James Gunn, John Cena And More - Exclusive Interview
HBO Max

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the ass kicking, too. Emilia doesn’t take crap, which I think is wonderful. Somebody messes with her in a bar, man, what a takedown you had with those guys in the first episode. That was so awesome. And there’s another great scene that’s further along that I cannot reveal, but another kick-ass scene. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into doing that. It must be very difficult.

It’s a lot of work, it really is. It’s been a dream of mine to be able to do extensive fights and stunts and a show like this or a film, and it’s been a dream come true for me in that sense, because I was a gymnast growing up. I was a competitive gymnast and because of that, it instilled in me this need for being active. I love sports and activities, and doing anything active is really exciting for me. To be able to pair that with my acting career is a dream come true. I wanted to do this type of thing. Getting to do it so fully in this series was just a dream for me, but I had absolutely no idea. In theory, I knew how hard it was on these stunt actors, and the people who do all of the fighting and the stunts. In theory, I knew that it was difficult on their bodies.

Until you’re really doing it extensively, you don’t get it. I got a feeling for how much these men and women put their bodies through when they do all of this stuff, and how they’re just like superheroes. They’re amazing, the things that they do, and they spent so much time [doing it]. The whole stunt team spent so much time teaching me all of the fights and my stunt double, Julia [Rekaikyna] spent countless hours, down to the minutia of every detail of the fights to make sure that I could do everything almost as good as she could do it so that they were able to swing the cameras in whatever direction they wanted to — and we’d still be able to get the shots since they wouldn’t be so limited by having to hide her face all of the time. I owe so much to her for spending so much time with me making sure that we got it right.

Breaking down Harcourt's psyche

Peacemaker Star Jennifer Holland Gives Details On James Gunn, John Cena And More - Exclusive Interview
HBO Max

I think mental gymnastics comes into play, too, in “Peacemaker,” since you’re playing a character with a mindset of a person who must never second-guess a decision. Sometimes that involves shooting people who may or may not be Butterflies, and even when they aren’t, you have to move on. How difficult is it to wrap your mind around playing somebody like that?

Well, in Episode 3, when she shoots that bodyguard, I don’t see Harcourt as being wrong because the whole point is … it doesn’t matter if he’s a Butterfly. He’s seen us, he’s seen our faces. It doesn’t matter. So, the whole point was that we were supposed to go in there, be [stealthy] so no one would see us, and we’d go in and go out and do our job. Unfortunately, someone saw us, someone saw our faces. Whether or not that person ended up being a Butterfly, they had to be taken out. We didn’t have a choice. The whole point for her was that if we are outed, we’re screwed, we’re f—ed, so we have to stay anonymous in order to carry out the rest of this mission.

He was unfortunately a casualty in terms of carrying out the rest of the mission and completing their mission. What’s interesting, if you think about the types of things that Harcourt is willing to do, at least I have to ask myself, “Why does she hate Peacemaker so much?” She hates Peacemaker so much because he killed Rick Flag, his teammate, and he’s a good guy. He killed Rick Flag, but he did it for the greater mission. He did it because it was his job. That was what he was tasked to do. I’ve always asked myself, “Does she hate him because she sees herself in him?” She knows to some degree that it would be very difficult for her to not have done the exact same thing that Peacemaker did in that instance. So, does she feel like she’s looking [into] a mirror to some degree? That’s why she hates Peacemaker so much.

The subtleties of Cena

Peacemaker Star Jennifer Holland Gives Details On James Gunn, John Cena And More - Exclusive Interview
HBO Max

Well, it’s interesting that you bring up that hate Harcourt has for Peacemaker, because while the character was funny in “The Suicide Squad,” he was somebody that wasn’t that likable because he killed Rick Flag. But I really think John Cena takes things to the next level with “Peacemaker” and really brings nuance to the character at times. I think it’s wonderful enough to see John do comedy as well as he does in the series, but he has really shown how talented he is beyond that in “Peacemaker.”

I’m so glad that people are noticing that and giving him the accolades, because the thing is that James wanted to move forward with this character in “Peacemaker” because he worked with John on “The Suicide Squad.” Those little moments that he has in “The Suicide Squad” — if you watch the scene where he kills Rick Flag, you see this sort of glimmer of regret or sadness, or just this moment of humanity from him when that happens. 

James realized when he was working with John that there was so much more to him and so much more depth to him, and he was capable of so much more in terms of the types of performances that he has ever been able to get the chance to play. I think James was really excited about being able to explore more depth with this character and being able to do it with John. He’s one of the greatest guys in the business. I think he’s wonderful. We were so lucky to have him as the leader of our crew.

The creative mind of James Gunn

Peacemaker Star Jennifer Holland Gives Details On James Gunn, John Cena And More - Exclusive Interview
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Since you’ve had the benefit of working with James several times now, sometimes as a producer, like on “Brightburn,” but also as a writer and director on “The Suicide Squad” and “Peacemaker.” It must be an absolute kick to see how his mind ticks, and how he comes up with more and more inventive ways to entertain his audiences.

I think one of the coolest things about James is that he doesn’t have a whole lot of — he has ego, don’t get me wrong — but his ego [helps] when it comes to his work. He wants to make something beautiful. He wants to make something beautifully written and nuanced, and have all kinds of things that appeal to him — the craziness, very signature James Gunn stuff, but he also wants to make an entertaining piece of art for the audience to enjoy. He doesn’t want to make decisions that are just solely for himself. He wants it to be entertaining to watch. So, the way his brain works is fascinating. Getting to watch him write all of these things and finding out the depth of his imagination is just fascinating. I don’t even know where he comes up with this stuff.

Holland wants to see more of Ratcatcher 2

Peacemaker Star Jennifer Holland Gives Details On James Gunn, John Cena And More - Exclusive Interview
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

If James were to do another “Suicide Squad” movie or hopefully another season of “Peacemaker,” is there another member of the Suicide Squad that you would like to work with in a spinoff? Danielle Brooks told me that she would love to have something with Harley Quinn, and Steve Agee actually wants to go different route and see Polka-Dot Man get a prequel story so he can work with Dave Dastmalchian again. Is there any particular character that you would like to bring into the fold from “The Suicide Squad”?

A lot of people ask me this question, and the thing is that we don’t really know which of our characters make it to the end of this experience. So, in terms of who I would like to see James dive into more? Gosh, I don’t know. I think that it would be really fun to see Ratcatcher 2 again. I love Daniela Melchior — she’s the most lovely, wonderful person. I’d love to see her work with James again because the character is pretty well-liked — and you got to love Sebastian the Rat, you know. [Laughs]

The Peacemaker Dance made for a lifetime memory

Peacemaker Star Jennifer Holland Gives Details On James Gunn, John Cena And More - Exclusive Interview
HBO Max

I have to ask you about the straight faces that you all had to keep during the “Peacemaker Dance.” Steve Agee said, “James had to keep reminding us, ‘Don’t smile. Don’t react. Just have a straight face.'” How do you keep a straight face when you’re having so damn much fun? Because that had to have been a load of fun to film that dance.

It was so much fun. We had the greatest time. We were like, “What are we making? This is crazy.” It was always a little bit hard to keep a straight face. Everyone just such a great time. We’ve got all these quick-witted people around you so it’s definitely difficult. We had the best time, man. It was so great. I loved doing the opening dance credit scene. I think the coolest thing about it was — since these days, you don’t know about these things and how are people pasted into shots — but we were all really there together, doing the dance together at the same time. It was like this communal experience. It was really fun, and I think we’ll have those memories for the rest of our lives.

When are we going to get an Emilia Harcourt action figure and what accessories does she need?

[Laughs] My gosh, your guess is as good as mine, but it better be soon, I want one. Gosh, what accessories would she have to come with? She definitely needs an assortment of guns. And she’s never without a big puffer jacket. So, she’s going to have a big puffer jacket. I think that just any action figure of Harcourt would be the most wonderful thing, they could put her in just about anything. I’d be super excited about it.

“Peacemaker” is streaming exclusively on HBO Max with new episodes dropping every Thursday.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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