Sean Gunn is a rarity in the acting world. Whereas most actors are breakout stars, or feature in a career-defining role early on in their career, Sean Gunn earned his lumps working his way up from bit parts and cameos. First known from Gilmore Girls, he has now stretched his talents into the worlds of multiple fandoms. Marvel fans know him as Kraglin and as the on-set performer for Rocket Raccoon first appearing in Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by his famed brother James. Sean Gunn has since reprised these roles in 3 more Marvel films, with another on the way.
Though he is now making his way into the world of DC with The Suicide Squad, once again written and directed by James. A stealth follow up to the 2016 film, The Suicide Squad is already proving to be unlike any other DC film from Warner Bros… and we got to ask Sean all about it. We catched up with Sean Gunn amidst the ongoing COVID lockdown for an exclusive interview! We discuss his acting origins and what it’s been like to collaborate with his brother for all this time. Read on how they became the two to bridge the worlds of Marvel and DC on film.
So I wanted to start off with asking something we’ve asked a lot of creatives since the COVID-19 lockdown has happened, what have you been doing creatively?
SG: Well, the toughest part for me is not acting. You know on one hand, actors are very well suited to something like a lockdown because we’re used to having large chunks of our lives when we’re not working. You know, it’s not unusual for me to go four or five months without a job, if you look at my career over the past 20 plus years.
So on one hand, I’m cut out for it. But on the other, I really start to go stir crazy if I’m not working on a character or working on something in particular. So it has been very tough to not just be at least auditioning, you know? So I try to keep myself creative, doing other things. My wife has made a few little micro shorts here inside our house and I’ve sort of watched her be creative. For me, it’s mostly been writing. I have a couple of different projects that I’ve been working on. One is a little larger and one is just a kind of screenplay idea that I just picked up. But I’m a tourist as a writer, occasionally I’ll have an idea for something and I’ll try to get it down on paper, but I’m not a professional writer.
So I don’t have the discipline to sit down and write for eight hours a day, the way that writers do eight hours or more – 15 hours if you’re my brother. So it’s a challenge. But I also don’t want to feel like I’m doing nothing. So I have been trying to work on some things, get some things done. I think we’re getting more into the grind of the lockdown, because I think from my point of view, I’ll probably be inside through to the end of the year. But for the most part I just hope I can kind of stick with it. Fortunately, the basketball playoffs are starting, so that’ll occupy a lot of time.
So take take things back for a second, I was wondering where you actually got your start in acting?
SG: I’ve always aspired to be an actor. So from the time I was a child, I was geared towards it, in one way or another. Even when I was like six years old, I was taking little acting tutorials. When I got to high school, I would do plays whenever I got the opportunity, whenever there was a chance to get in front of people and perform, I always would take that opportunity. Then I really, even then as a teenager, geared myself for going to a college that focused on acting.
I went to DePaul university theater school, which I had to audition for, and it’s a very small program and they make cuts every year. It was like a very intense conservatory program. So I had this runway of where I was trying to go, but still the acting business is very tough. I climbed the ladder very slowly. I mean, I graduated from college and I started a theater company and was doing plays. Then after about a year I started doing commercials and working a little bit professionally here and there. I did an independent movie that I was cast out of Chicago and I worked with some LA actors and that really convinced me, I got to move to LA. And I moved to LA and it was very gradual.
I got one line here and there on TV shows. Then a couple of things hit. Some people liked me and would ask me back. So I would do an episode and then they would be like, “Hey, we liked that guy” and I would do a second or third episode, I was recurring on a couple of different shows. Then I got Gilmore Girls in 2000. I really just auditioned for a one scene co-star role of a DSL installer. Fortunately, Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of the show, really liked my work. She thought what I did was funny. I think that it’s the classic thing they say about acting where it’s not all luck or all talent. You have to have the luck to get the opportunities, but when you get them, you have to have the talent to make the most out of those opportunities.
And so Gilmore Girls was a good intersection of those two things, because it was lucky for me to kind of walk into that role, but I also understood the material very well and I just got it. I just understood the tone of the show sort of intuitively. So she really liked what I did and then kept asking me back, I didn’t know how long that was going to last, but it turned out being a seven year gig and really kind of being the foundation of my career.
So you’ve obviously had a lot of success with that, then going on to star in the Guardians of the Galaxy films and now The Suicide Squad. On top of that, your brother [James Gunn] obviously directed the latter two and many other things. Your other brother Brian also wrote Brightburn with your cousin Mark. I was wondering whether there were any formative influences that led to this? What is your opinion on how the Gunn family became so successful in the industry?
SG: Well, I also have a brother who’s been a writer on Real Time with Bill Maher for 15 years, and I have another brother who’s been an executive in the film industry for a long time. And then my sister’s a bad-ass attorney, she’s not in the entertainment industry, she’s rad. I think that there’s six of us, we’re very close in age. Less than eight years separate the six of us in age, very Catholic sort of background. I think that part, the personality of it, is my parents. My dad was a very outgoing, gregarious guy. My mother was very big on fostering the imagination in kids and we were together all the time and we would amuse ourselves.
So we would, you know, play make believe and James would make movies with a super 8 camera when he was young. We would have these elaborate plot lines with our action figures. And we all loved movies. We would watch tons and tons of movies in my house. But there’s an element of that question that I would have to answer with, “I don’t really know”. I think there are a whole lot of families that grew up close in age and love movies, and they don’t all end up in the movie business like we did. Particularly when we grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri – it’s as far from Hollywood as you can get. But we all were very creative and I think pretty bright if I can say so modestly.
We all came at it from different angles eventually. I mean, even though we did all that stuff as kids, it’s not like we kept working together as we got older, you know? James and I worked together because our jobs fit together so well. He’s a writer-director and I’m an actor, so it’s kind of a natural fit, but he would work with all of us and in some ways have. That’s how James and Brian worked together on Brightburn. Yeah, it’s wild though!
How do you think it differs when you’re working with your brother James on a project versus when you work with other directors, is it massively different because obviously you’re brothers or is it just pretty much the same, just with a closer relationship?
SG: It’s largely the same, but it’s easier for the most part to work with James. I mean he and I have such a shorthand for communicating that I don’t ever wonder what the director wants, in the way that I often do with other projects. I think that the relationship between a director and an actor on any piece, it’s going to be different every time – it’s something you’ve got to learn. It’s like a coach and a player, it’s something you got to feel your way around and figure out how you best collaborate with one another. It’s part of the job. But it’s a part of the job that James and I can skip because we already know how to collaborate with one another.
I don’t think he ever worries that he’s going to ruffle my feathers by giving me a note. He never has a concern about that. He knows he can tell me exactly what he wants and I’ll either know what he’s talking about, or it’s easy for me to ask or to get clarification. And also we’re friends, we hang out a lot. Usually I’m closer to any piece that he’s working on. The first Guardians for example, I had a lot to do on that set, but it’s not like exactly a lead character. But I was there early, I was in the production office. I had heard him give a ton of information about everything that was going to happen in the movie and what it was going to look like and all these things.
So I sort of had a front row seat to the whole production. It also helps that my brother James is incredibly good at that with all of his actors. So even if he weren’t my brother, most actors that work with James end up saying that he’s very communicative – very easy to talk to and collaborate with, to bring concerns to and discuss things. I mean, he’s really super good at his job, but to give a short answer to what I just gave a long answer to: it’s a little easier with him.
For those who don’t know, as well as Kraglin, you also do the onset work for Rocket Raccoon. Leading on from what we just discussed, would you say that was born from that familiarity with James, because you knew what he wants in terms of physicality, or were you always supposed to be doing the onset Rocket work?
SG: I didn’t know for sure what he wanted for physicality at the beginning, but I was hired to do the onset work as Rocket because my brother had worked with me so much and he knew that he could trust me to do whatever it took to make it work best. We didn’t know what that was when we started, we didn’t know what that was going to look like. He just knew that he didn’t want a PA holding a script and reading lines. We both knew I wasn’t going to voice the character, but he also hadn’t cast the voice of the character yet. Bradley Cooper wasn’t cast until very late and until the movie was almost completely shot.
So he didn’t know what exactly that was going to look like, but he did know that he needed his actors to be working with an actor and for them to feel like Rocket was real for Chris, Zoe, and Dave – to really feel like they were talking to a real entity there. So when I got hired, I got hired to play Kraglin. I think it was just called the First Mate in the first script that I read. And then I got hired to do Rocket and then just showed up and we just were like, “We’re just going to figure this out.” He knew that he wanted me to read Rocket in the read through and then to start to reading his lines when we did rehearsals.
When we did the first rehearsal, it was my idea to actually get down to Rocket’s height. To basically squat down, use some of what I learned in acting school about how to pretend to be an animal. But really, it was primarily about the eyes. It’s primarily about getting my eyes to where Rocket’s eyes would be, because that’s what really helps an actor is to look, to be able to turn and look down. You’re not looking at like, you know, a green rectangle – you’re looking at an actual pair of eyes that have a living person that are responding to you. I knew that is what would be the most helpful thing for the other actors. And then add on top of that, I’m fortunately very, I don’t know what the word is, pliable?
I can squat down and get into really small positions and can kind of move around down there. So I just started doing it in the first rehearsal and it worked, and so we just didn’t mess with it. So then I started doing it on set and what we found was that it was most helpful for the actors, ended up being also incredibly helpful to the visual effects team. When the visual effects team got in the editing room, they would do shots where I’m in there. Originally we thought like, “Oh maybe I’ll just do it in rehearsal and then they’ll take me out and it’ll be empty when they shoot the shot.” But what we found is that if they did a shot or two with me still in there, the visual effects team liked having the reference to look and see what I was doing so that then they could start to animate Rocket. They would know where Rocket was looking and maybe what his hands were doing and all these kinds of thing.
What most people don’t quite get is that it’s not motion capture, because I’m not wearing a little suit and they’re not doing it digitally. I’m just actually doing it in the scene. And then when the visual effects team, they watch what I do and they use it as a reference to animate the character. So they don’t have to use what I’m doing. If they want to, my brother can go in and say, “Oh you know, see how Sean shrugged in this moment. I don’t really want Rocket to do that. So just don’t make him do that.” They can change it, but they just found that it was incredibly helpful for the actors, the VFX team and all that. And for everybody, it streamlined the process and made it so much easier. Now I don’t know Bradley at all, but I’ve heard that Bradley Cooper also finds it helpful when he gets into the recording booth. Part of it is because the other actors are responding to something real. And then I think his vocal performance is terrific.
There’s more back and forth because there’s someone there for them to actually interact with.
SG: Yeah, I guess so. We just didn’t mess with it. We did it for the first movie and then they were really like, “We have to keep this going for the second movie.” Then I was surprised when Kevin Feige came to me and said, “Hey, we’re doing these Avengers movies and Rocket is in them.” We talked about it and just thought, why would we change the process? So then I did two more movies, the Avengers movies, which was like an entire year of my schedule. Now I’ve done four movies as Rocket and I’ll be doing a fifth at some point.
So with The Suicide Squad, this means you’re going to be in DC now as well as Marvel. How does it feel to have joined the DC universe and with it, an esteemed group of actors who have acted in both DC and Marvel?
SG: It’s so funny because this is true for Guardians and it’s true for Suicide Squad too, I feel like I’m playing for like a championship team, but I’m one of the last guys on the bench. I am part of it, but when people say that I’m a part of it, I’m always like “Oh yeah, I guess I am”. I often feel a little more like I’m just on the outside looking in, but it’s been great. Warner Brothers has been excellent to work with and all the DC people who we’ve been speaking to have been great. I guess it is a rarefied air to be in both Marvel and the DC universe, but I don’t see them in competition with one another the way that a lot of people do. I’m more incredibly fortunate to work with talented actors and directors. I don’t give it a whole lot of thought, the fact that it’s Marvel and DC, you know?
What was the atmosphere like on set? Because the first Suicide Squad was quite well known for that – they all got squad tattoos and seemed very close on tight-knit set. Was it like that with The Suicide Squad?
SG: Well, we haven’t gotten any tattoos to my knowledge. I’m sure Pete Davidson has got some tattoos, I would imagine! It was quite a joy to work with that cast. And I think everybody got along great. They’re really seasoned professionals. It was a really stunningly talented group of actors. I don’t need to name all their names, but it really was an amazing cast and it’s a big cast. I had about as much fun as I’ve had shooting something. The professionalism struck me as much as anything else. I mean, everybody’s professional on big movies like that for the most part, but they’re still really good.
I think everybody enjoyed working on that film, to kind of circle back to what I said before. I think it’s easier for the actors to enjoy working on the film when my brother is directing it, because he is so open, communicative, and just enthusiastic. He’s so excited about all of the awesome stuff we’re doing and that’s infectious. So it really was fun itself and it helps that I just think the movie’s fantastic and you don’t have to take my word for it, just go see it. I’m very confident that people are going to love it.
So we obviously can’t really say anything plot wise, but can you talk a little of what we can expect from The Suicide Squad? Like almost tonally from what you can say?
SG: I wonder what I’m allowed to say (laughs). It’s got a little bit of an old school quality because it’s almost like an old war movie, but it’s funny. It’s really cool. In some ways it feels to me like it has some of the magic that Guardians had, but it’s for a bit of a more grown-up audience. And it’s my brother, and he can’t not be funny. So it’s got everything, there’s a lot of action, a lot of comedy, a lot of heart. There’s something sort of epic about it.
You’ve had to promote this film almost entirely online, and a big part of that is going to be DC Fandome. What can fans tuning in expect from The Suicide Squad panel?
SG: Oh, the Suicide panel is going to be very cool. Everybody’s going to be there first of all, which is awesome. I guess that’s one thing that was possible because of the pandemic. I think if it was live, it would’ve been much more difficult to get all of those actors in the same room, but since we were all able to sort of connect online, every one of the principal actors is there and that’s a lot of them. Oh, it’s just going to be fun. It was so great to see everybody, it’s going to be great! I think fans will really like it.
So to finish this out, is there anything else of yours that our audience should look out for in the near future outside of The Suicide Squad?
SG: Well I did a couple of independent movies towards the end of last year. I did a movie called Agnes that I’m, I’m excited to see. I haven’t seen a copy of it yet. And that’s very small, I’ve been very fortunate to sort of bounce between these massive Hollywood, huge budget movies, and then also doing these very small, personal movies. Im fortunate to be able to do that. So I’m excited to see that one, and then mostly, I’m just kind of biding my time until the world’s a little safer. And then I’ve got two very cool projects that I’m going to shoot next year. So there’ll be more to come.