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This is the most aliens I’ve seen on set so far,” says Chris Hemsworth, wearing a white shirt, slim black tie, black trousers and make-up that’s gradually coming off. He looks cool. The Australian actor has just walked off the set of Men in Black: International (this was before the “International” part of the title was made public) and, as he says, to call this workplace anything less than “incredible” would be one of the universe’s greatest understatements.
One hundred actors dressed as aliens are walking around Warner Bros studios in Leavesden, near Watford. Some of the extras are wearing fully prosthetic costumes. Others are covered in motion capture dots, ready for the VFX wizards to transform them into unrecognisable monsters from outer space. Off set are a couple more aliens grabbing food. It’s like the Star Wars cantina, only with less jazzy music and more shushing.
Filming is taking place on one of the main stages, where the Men in Black’s UK headquarters has been constructed. The room is vast, with the most notable features being the huge white columns shooting into the ceiling and the Art Deco stylings covering many of the surfaces. There’s minimal green screen. In this room, Tessa Thompson, two spotted aliens and director F Gary Gray are shooting a scene in one of the corners. Considering it’s one of the least decorated parts of the entire place, it feels almost a shame. Still, due to the framing, Hemsworth’s not needed on set – time is money, and the Avengers star certainly costs a lot of it – and the unneeded extras are trying to stay quiet behind the camera. A couple of them are sleeping in their costumes.
“For an actor this is all such a bonus, to do our little bit and have this set behind us,” Hemsworth says, getting ready to go back into central London. “They have created this world for you to interact with. I’ve done so much work looking at a tennis ball, or where I’ve only realised what the monster looks like when I see the final film. This has left me speechless. It’s such a shame to think it will get thrown away in three months.”
London’s not the only place Men in Black: International has taken the cast and crew. While the original trilogy – which starred Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as two of the eponymous organisation’s secret agents – was primarily set in the United States, this sequel/spin-off will take the new leading duo, Hemsworth and Thompson, around the world. International starts in New York (a nod to the first film), before heading to London, Morocco, Italy, France and back to the States, all because the new twosome are pursuing a transforming villain named The Hive, played by French dance act Le Twins.
“What we really wanted to do was switch everything up,” says producer Walter F Parkes, who has worked on every Men in Black release to date. He explains that the original trilogy kept everything relatively contained within New York, but with International they wanted to break free and explore the fertile ground elsewhere. “I remember the first time I saw Goldfinger and saw the skies of Istanbul,” he says. “There was that international spy element and it felt like a very fresh thing to do.”
Keeping things feeling fresh was also important when casting the two leading agents. Rather than copy Smith and Jones’s funny/straight dynamic, the producers wanted to introduce something different, and they settled on the classic rookie/pro pairing. After seeing Hemsworth and Thompson work together so well on Thor: Ragnarok, the choice of who could take on Agents M (Thompson) and H (Hemsworth) seemed obvious.
Hemsworth says of working with Thompson again: “What was great was picking up where we left off with our chemistry. That we had a rapport and knew each other’s timing and comedic tones, it was very similar which was fantastic. Sometimes we find ourselves going ‘That’s too similar to what we did before’ which has been a challenge. But to have someone who has the same amount of passion, and the same approach to the work, and have fun doing it, that’s a huge plus.”
Thompson’s equally positive about returning to set with Hemsworth. “It’s about finding a new element, something that feels fresh and not like Valkyrie and Thor,” she says. “We call ourselves Rabbids [a reference to the video-game rabbit characters who speak in gibberish] on set, because we just breathe words; we don’t let each other have the last word. When we’re improvising it gets very long. I heard that on the first Men in Black a lot of those best bits were improvised, so it will be interesting to see what makes it in the final cut.”
Thompson – no stranger to Hollywood blockbusters, having also starred in Creed and Avengers – looks equally as dapper as Hemsworth wearing a black suit. Today was a relatively easy day at the office compared to a few weeks ago, when her character entered into a fist fight against Rebecca Ferguson’s four-armed alien.
“She is so tough, but we had so much fun,” Thompson says with a smile. “I was really excited because I took a fall and I felt like I had a minor concussion. The doctor says that I wasn’t concussed, but I swear that I was. I feel like I’m earning my stripes.”
The actor has also filmed scenes with Emma Thompson, who reprises her role from the third Men in Black. The younger Thompson gushes as she speaks about their time together. “Emma and I ... Wow, I can’t believe I said that,” she pauses and reassesses. “I mean, Dame Thompson and I had an interesting conversation about women in film. This franchise is Men in Black and, of course, we’re women. But if we’re making a movie set in the future, then I hope women can do anything. That will be the true sign of equality. And hopefully movies like this get us there. It’s so cool that a generation of young women will see this film and can see themselves as the heroine. I think and hope we’re projecting an atypical heroine on screen.”
Thompson’s character (Tessa, that is) certainly seems an atypical lead for such a big-budget tent-pole film. She describes Agent M as an “inquisitive scientist” who is a “fish-out-of-water type” but has “a real sure-footedness”. The film opens with M as a child who sees the Men in Black in action. However, while they use a Neuralyzer (that iconic pen that wipes peoples’ memories) on her parents, they do not clear M’s brain, and she grows up knowing that aliens exist. From that point onwards, her life’s mission is to become one of the (wo)Men in Black.
“My character has been in pursuit of these places all her life,” she says of the London headquarters, “and it’s easy to play because I’m as astonished by these sets as she is these places. It is just astounding work by all these designers at the top of their game.”
Thompson has a real love for the effects and prosthetic work the team behind International are doing. “I’m the geek who’s always in [the] VFX [room] going, ‘What does this look like?’” she says. When scenes have actors in motion capture suits that haven’t been transformed into aliens yet, she pesters them to know what the finished alien will look like. And if even the VFX designers don’t know, she tells them, “Keep me posted!”
As Thompson leaves the set, the sound of a hundred tired aliens shuffling towards the wardrobe department can be heard. This must be quite a normal sight for Thompson now, who has met monsters in all shapes and sizes (including mysterious mutations in Annihilation, Terminator-like robots in Westworld, and Cate Blanchett’s villainous Hela in Thor: Ragnarok).
“There’s something really interesting about working inside the world of your imagination, which is something working in front of green screen forces you to do, or with people in little green suits with dots all over their faces,” she says. “To project ideas onto them; it tasks you to do something essential to acting, which is to play like a kid. Those people who make you forget it’s make-believe are as gifted as can be. It’s something I love doing, and for some reason I keep doing it with Chris Hemsworth, which is definitely a great thing.”
Men in Black: International is out in UK cinemas now