The director of 'V for Vendetta' talks Natalie Portman and politics 15 years later

The director of V for Vendetta, James McTeigue, talks to Yahoo Entertainment about Natalie Portman's first grown up role after Star Wars, and how the film holds up 15 years later.

Video Transcript

- You have one chance, and only one chance, to save your life. You must tell us the identity or whereabouts of codename V.

ETHAN ALTER: Touch on Natalie Portman, briefly, too. Like this is her, sort of, her first grown up role, in a sense, after doing Star Wars movies, that sort of thing. That this is really-- she's playing an adult character, really, for the first time at the time. Was that part of the attraction to her to the project?

JAMES MCTEIGUE: Yeah, it was one of her first adult roles, but I had never had any doubt in my mind that she would, you know, be perfect for it.

ETHAN ALTER: And, certainly, one of the big deals at the time was that shaving her head. That, that-- whenever an actor changed their hairstyle in an extreme way, it gets a lot of attention.

JAMES MCTEIGUE: We got some of the best publicity we ever got by the mere fact that we shaved her head because, you know, on the Wednesday, I think, I shaved her head. And then, I think on the weekend, she went to Cannes for the very last Star Wars movie that was coming out. So all of a sudden, she had a shaved head. Everyone asked her why she had a shaved head. She said, I'm working on this movie called "V for Vendetta." I was like oh, amazing. So, you know, it just, like, ricocheted around the world and all of a sudden, everyone knew who and what "V for Vendetta" was. So that was pretty great.

ETHAN ALTER: And so that scene that's in the movie actually is her getting her head shaved for real. And she's acting as the character when that's happening?

JAMES MCTEIGUE: She's actually doing it. And, you know, I just rolled three cameras on it, and Jeremy, who was our hairdresser, he's the bad, mean guy doing it. But, you know, I didn't want, you know, another actor or another day player, like, trying to shave her head and getting the clippers stuck halfway through or something like that. So I did it pretty much in one take. You know, he did the whole thing. I just shot a whole bunch of different angles. That was pretty great.

ETHAN ALTER: Well, jumping into the politics. What I love about the movie later on is, as you said, you updated it. And it feels like, I think, maybe a Fox News version of a dystopia, which I thought was really interesting. Like you made it feel contemporary and also futuristic, in that way as-- was at some of the discussion behind the scenes? Capturing the flavor of what the future would be?

JAMES MCTEIGUE: I think that what came out of the, you know, Alan Moore and David Lloyd graphic novel or, you know, comics and graphic novel is strictly cool and circular. You know, I mean, I think that they were in that then. We were in it again during the Bush era. And we're in it again during Trump era, right? And you can mix and match those kind of regimes throughout any countries in the world. You know, we're sort of making it, you know, a comment on the Bush era.

So, you know, something-- Evey's smock that she is in. That's a direct rip from Abu Ghraib, right? At the time, you know, us talking about renditioning characters just came out of me reading the New York Times one day and going, what they're putting people in planes with a black hood and taking them to Egypt and torturing them? And I'm like, wow, this is-- you know, and so you don't have to, like, dig and scratch much beneath the surface or have a history and political film just to be able to go, you know, let's put this in. Let's put that in. You know, Lana and Lilly wrote an amazing script, too, right? It was all there.

ETHAN ALTER: Well, speaking specifically to the mask, too. I mean, it's a Guy Fawkes mask that dates back centuries. But I think a lot of people, especially now, remember it with V. And that sort of become the signature thing for it. So in terms of thinking of the mask's place in the story, making it seem contemporary. What were some of the discussions behind the scenes about making the film version?

JAMES MCTEIGUE: I got with Owen Paterson, who was the production designer, and I started updating the mask. I had pretty definite ideas about what I wanted to do. And I didn't change it that much. I, you know-- most of the changes I made were textural. You know, like, some texture in the mustache, you know, bringing that the cheekbones out a little bit and making them a little higher. Because I knew, depending on, you know, how I wanted him to be, I knew I was going to have to light him in a particular way. If I wanted to make him sinister, if I wanted to make him friendly, you know. But, you know, you're right. You know, people recognize the mask with the film because film is like the true 20th century art form, right? And it's, you know, it's a populist art form.

So, you know, I'm sure people will read the graphic novel, but I can guarantee you millions and millions of more people will see the film. And so, when they, you know, drag it out again to put it in, you know, into the lexicon or the vernacular of, you know, how we live our lives. You know, it's the mask from the film. And that's why it was appropriated by, you know, the people from the Arab Spring, or the Occupy Wall Street, or, you know, sometimes, you know, because you have no control over what your art is, but sometimes, by the people who raided the Capitol.

ETHAN ALTER: Even last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests, you got a lot there, too. So again, it's out of-- not the context that is in the movie, but it exists as part of a larger metaphor that you hope people understood.

JAMES MCTEIGUE: Yes, and I think they do. It gives people a voice, right? I mean, that's ultimately what it does. If you think, as a human being, you know, from, you know, your race, your religion, you know, the color of your skin, if you go to a protest and, you know, and you're going to get beaten or victimized for those very reasons, but you can put a mask on. And it can make you anonymous, you know. Like Anonymous, you know, they also use the mask. I think that's amazing to tell you the truth.

I mean, I think that is really a big part of why, at the end of the movie when, you know, all the V's descend, you know, on Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, that was part of our thinking. It's why the people-- why we even brought back dead people. When people start ripping off their masks, you know, I mean, that was exactly what you're saying. It was a metaphor. You know, behind those masks could be anyone. But what they do know is there's power in the voice of the mask.

ETHAN ALTER: Central to the movie, the question is is V a terrorist, or is he a freedom fighter? And that's something that we hear a lot in these discussions, especially when it's push-back from those in power. A significant line is "The government should be afraid of their people." When you see it being used today, and then people describing those people using it as terrorists, does that does that bother you? Did you see-- did you do-- the way it's been described?

JAMES MCTEIGUE: No, it doesn't bother me. What bothers me more is we never, you know, dig underneath what the morality of terrorism is. The discussion about whether he's a terrorist or whether he's the freedom-- that's, like, an age-old discussion. That will depend on what side of the political fence you sit on at any given time, right? Because that can change, obviously.

And, you know, like to use a very contemporary example, I'm sure as many people who thought, you know, the raid on the Capitol building, right, in Washington was right. There's 50% of the people in America who believe it was OK, right? I mean, they do, right? I mean, this is a statement of fact. And so I think, you know, what you want to do is have a discussion about that. Not just go, they're wrong. You know, I'm right. You know, it's like there is a root cause in everything. Rightly or wrongly.

ETHAN ALTER: Do you think that people would have found their way to the V mask without "V for Vendetta" if you hadn't made it until now? Or is it really the movie that solidified it in this generation's mind?

JAMES MCTEIGUE: I don't think they would have. I don't think they would have found their way to the mask. Some of the streaming companies, you know, it's incredible the amount of people you can reach. You know, like I-- you know, if a film comes out and-- you know, V was number one at the box office when it came out. What you do know is it's reached a lot of people. Back to your question, no. I don't think if it was just a graphic novel, it would have been appropriated in the way it has been. Alan Moore would probably beg to differ, but.