In a time when so many comic-book adaptations settle for less, James Gunn delivers extremely rare goods with The Suicide Squad. The new quintessential case of “Wow, they actually let this filmmaker do whatever the f*ck they wanted, huh?”, Gunn’s miracle of a blockbuster is full to the brim with gusto and heart. A signature trait throughout Gunn’s work, the film’s emotional core is powered by a band of misfits – this time being DC supervillains with nothing else to lose. Of these grunts is King Shark, everyone’s favorite half-man, half-shark beast with an endless appetite for human flesh, vividly brought to life by talented VFX artists, Sylvester Stallone’s voice work, and last but not least, the on-set physicality of comedian Steve Agee.
Most fans will recognize Steve Agee as a Gunn regular, having small comedic parts in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Super. Outside of film, Agee boasts an extensive TV career, starring in shows like New Girl, Superstore, and The Sarah Silverman Program. Though his role(s) in DC’s latest gave him more creative scope than ever. Aside from playing a more traditional part in John Economos, the second fiddle to the cold-blooded maestro Amanda Waller, Agee took on the task of acting as the on-set King Shark – a very crucial role in visualizing the completely CG heavy-hitter.
As Agee tells us in our exclusive interview, “I worked more days than anybody.” The Suicide Squad is already not only one of the highest praised DC films ever, but of the entire comic-book genre. This is, of course, thanks to incredible work from a well-woven group of focused talent, Agee being one that should not go unsung. We dive into the gritty details of becoming King Shark and how the world of DC has absorbed the last few years of his life, for he also gives us a tease of what to expect from the upcoming HBO Max Peacemaker series.
So someone with your comedy repertoire fits perfectly into the role of Amanda Waller’s right hand man, John Economos. But how the hell did you find yourself going from that part to running around in a rubber suit as King Shark? How did that decision come about exactly?
Steve Agee: I think once James figured out what characters he wanted to use for the movie, he knew that King Shark would obviously have to be CG. And that meant they would have to have somebody really tall or in a costume that was really tall to be on-set to do the reference and the capture for it. And there’s a lot of comedy in the character, so James decided that he wanted someone with a comedy background. I’ve been doing stand-up for a very long time, and have known James for a very long time. I’m also six foot seven. So with the hat that I had to wear, which is like a wireframe version of a shark head, it probably put me over seven feet tall, which is perfect for King Shark.
So I think of all the people James knew, I was the tallest and had a background in comedy. I think it just kind of made sense for him. He already wanted me to be Economos, but as far as having somebody on-set who could improvise and just be funny, it was probably a no-brainer for him. I feel very lucky that I got to do it.
Seeing as the Gunn family circle, if you will, is so tight knit, I’m curious to hear if Sean Gunn gave you any tips on this kind of performance? Seeing as he’s done motion capture work for Rocket Raccoon and now Weasel in The Suicide Squad.
Steve Agee: Sean for Rocket and for Weasel in The Suicide Squad, he was in proper motion capture, like the suit with the dots all over. I’m not very technical, but I feel like motion capture wouldn’t work properly because even with the hat on and the displacement, which is that big chest piece that I had to wear, it still isn’t exactly like King Shark’s body. So it would have been pointless for them to put the dots on me because it wouldn’t have matched the body. So I was really doing reference. We would do passes where I’m in the shot with the characters acting the scene out, so the camera knew where King Shark was going to be. Then we would do takes without me in the shot, and they would just have to kind of remember what had just happened.
And I think those are actually probably what they’re mostly going to be using in post – the shots where my body is not there, so they can just a little more easily insert King Shark. It’s really weird. It was like, “This is where King Shark is going to be. This is where his eyes are. So look up there! And we’ll do it a couple times with Steve and then Steve, you step out and now just imagine he’s still there and let’s do it again.”
While wearing the headpiece, I can imagine that it took a while getting used to everyone communicating above your head, where King Shark’s eyes would be? Especially when you’re acting with names like Margot Robbie and Idris Elba.
Steve Agee: It’s very hard to get used to. Everyone’s looking just above your head and giving you a lot of space. I mean, I didn’t have to wear the hat and the chest piece all the time. I would have to wear the displacement suit and that headpiece if we were actually, oddly enough, in tighter areas – like in the van or in the jungle because they would have to know to stay away from this spot here because his body is going to be taking up this much space, and also for the camera and visual effects crew to know, “Okay, when Steve walks through the jungle with his chest piece on, you’re going to see where the branches are moving here and there.”
It was really bizarre but when we were doing stuff that was really out in the open – like all the slow-motion shots that we’ve seen in the trailers of us walking in the rain – I didn’t have to wear the chest piece for that because I was far enough away from the other actors and there were like no trees or enclosed spaces. So thank god that I didn’t have to wear it all the time, it was kind of heavy and comfortable.
So as fans get deeper looks into the behind the scenes of big movies, especially with CG characters, they’ve been growing a stronger appreciation for the art. I’ve already seen plenty of fans online spotlight your hard work as King Shark. One story I’ve seen is the day you had to keep running back and forth in the aquarium…
Steve Agee: That was actually my first day of shooting, running around in this aquarium with all these fish, and it was just me and it was the entire day. It was really before production had fully started, like they had some time to work on it and I think it was because that shot would take a lot of CG – not just King Shark but the fish in the aquarium. Everything in that shot is computer generated and so it was a full day of me running. And well over the course of the five-month shoot, my chest piece kind of changed.
When they first made it, it was just styrofoam really, but then they spray painted it with this material that when it dried became really hard and heavy. So the first suit they gave me was probably 40 pounds and I was not expecting that. I saw it and was like, “That looks really light! Okay, let’s run around.” Then they put it on me and it was really exhausting. But, also, that was probably the hardest day doing King Shark. So it was kind of awesome that we got it out of the way at the very beginning.
Now with all the hard work that you’ve put in, it would feel wrong to see someone else on-set, in the suit, if King Shark appeared in another movie, right?
Steve Agee: Yeah, I grew kind of attached to King Shark. In fact, for the whole shoot, I think I worked more days than anybody. It was close between me and Margot Robbie. If we mean playing John Economos and then King Shark, cumulatively, I think I worked more days. So I was really attached to King Shark. I loved playing him, I loved acting like this big goofy half man-half shark creature.
It would be really weird to see someone else in the role during production. I mean, even if they still use Sylvester Stallone’s voice, it would be weird knowing that somebody else was running around in the suit. Although, contractually, if they do another movie, I think I’m going to get to play him. I think we’re safe for at least another production!
Going back to John Economos, at what point did you find out that you would be reprising the character in the Peacemaker series?
Steve Agee: Literally, when we were shooting, there was just the one time where it was like, “This is Amanda Waller’s headquarters.” We were there taking orders and relaying information to her, and that’s all it was. It wasn’t until August or September of this past year that James called me and said, “Hey, I’m doing a spin-off with Peacemaker and I want to use your character from the movie.” So I didn’t know until just a few months before we started shooting Peacemaker. He didn’t tell me before because it wasn’t a sure thing.
He was like, I didn’t want to get your hopes up, but now that it looks like it’s going to happen, we’re doing a TV show with John Economos and Emilia Harcourt, which is Jenn Holland’s character, as two of the main roles. So it worked out pretty well, but when we were shooting The Suicide Squad we had no idea. I mean, it was probably a week and a half worth of work for Economos. Viola Davis had a very busy schedule, so we shot for like a week with her and that was pretty much it.
Obviously, you can’t really spoil much about Peacemaker, but I can imagine the show has given you way more to do with the character than say what screen time you had in The Suicide Squad?
Steve Agee: Oh my god, there’s such a huge jump in character for John Economos in the TV show. I’m throughout the whole movie as Economos as we cut back to Amanda Waller, but there’s no like character development or arc for John Economos – I’m they’re taking orders and that’s it.
The TV show is more of an ensemble with Jenn’s character, my character, John Cena, and a couple others. And it’s eight episodes, so it’s closer to eight hours’ worth of material. So you really see our characters and the show develop, change, and have these amazing arcs. I’m really excited about Peacemaker and for people to see it.
You just finished wrapping last month, correct?
Steve Agee: Yeah, my last day shooting was July 10.
So I guess you can say the world of DC has been a very huge part of your life, at least these last few years?
Steve Agee: Two years, I’ve been living out of suitcases. When we started The Suicide Squad in Atlanta, I had to give up my apartment because I was not allowed to sublet. So I was like, “Well, I’ll just shoot this movie, I’ll have some money saved up afterward from not paying rent, and I’ll get a house.” I stayed in hotels in Atlanta and Panama, and then when I got back the pandemic hit and I had nowhere to go.
Nobody was showing apartments or houses, so I kind of just lived in friends’ houses. You know, I just lived off the kindness of my friends for about six or seven months until we went and did Peacemaker, then I relocated to Vancouver. So now I’ve been back in LA for a few weeks and looking for a new house.
Speaking of your life, I have to mention the namedrop James Gunn and the cast gave you on Jimmy Kimmel Live! It kind of feels like things have come a bit full circle, given your history with the show.
Steve Agee: Yeah, that was awesome. Kimmel was one of my first jobs in TV, I started out there as a researcher. Literally, for a couple of years, all I did was sit in a room and watch TV. My job was to find funny clips from really crappy television shows, talk shows, and weird stuff like that for Jimmy’s monologue, that’s all I did and it was really exhausting (laughs).
It sounds like a great job until two years later, you’re like, “Oh, my God, I have to watch The View again today” or Pat Robertson and The 700 Club. And the reason I stuck with it so long was I wanted to be a writer, and Jimmy knew that. After a couple of years, they had a spot open up and Jimmy made me a writer. So I became a writer on the show and that lasted a very short time because Sarah Silverman, who is a very good friend of mine, had just created a TV show and there was a part for me as her neighbor. So I left Jimmy’s show to pursue acting in I think 2007. Acting was what I really wanted to do since I was a kid and that opportunity came up and I haven’t looked back.
From everything you just said, you’ve come a very long way. And making it into the world of blockbusters, specifically comic-book movies, the passion from audiences everywhere is like no other. How have you been taking this all in?
Steve Agee: It’s incredibly overwhelming. When I was a kid, I didn’t see a ton of movies, I watched a ton of TV shows. I wanted to be on TV. I never really thought about movies or just the broad scope of it. My idol when I was a kid was John Ritter on Three’s Company – that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a comedic actor and had no idea how to do it. I grew up in a house where my dad was a doctor, my mom was a nurse. Everyone in our family was in business-related professions. Nobody was in entertainment or the arts. So I didn’t even think it was possible.
Then through weird circumstances, I started playing in bands in college. I ended up in Los Angeles because of a band and then I met a girl who was in a comedy theater, and I went to that comedy theater and saw shows and was like, “Oh my god, I can actually do this.” That was like the mid-late 90s when I started pursuing acting, writing, and comedy. I knew how difficult it was to even guest star on a TV show, let alone being a regular on TV, and movies still just seemed way out of my league. Then, you know, it just slowly started to happen, and somehow through James, I found myself in this world of comic-book movies, which for the past 12 years or so has just been a massive business.
My knowledge of comic-books proper is like, I know about Superman and I know about Batman (laughs). And I think with the general population, it’s the same way. But because of Marvel and DC, we’re now being exposed to characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy. When James told me he was doing that movie, I was like, “I don’t even know what that is dude, a raccoon and a tree!?” So I had no idea what I was stepping into, but I started doing research and getting comic-books. Seeing fans of this world and how passionate they were, that’s why these movies do so well. It’s because there’s a full-on market for people who’ve been consuming comic-books since they were kids.
David Dastmalchian, who’s my best friend and plays Polka-Dot Man, outside of James, I’ve never met somebody who’s more into comic-books. Look, I love doing this and I know how lucky I am to be in it, but David Dastmalchian is on a whole other level. He’s a super fan who’s now getting to do this. David knew who Polka-Dot Man was when James first told him about the role. I didn’t know that was even a character! David knows all about these weird characters. So, you know, I love doing this and I’m very lucky. But one thing I really love to see is people like David, who get to join the world they read about when they were kids growing up. So yeah, the fans have been amazing. James has been amazing. It’s been a crazy ride.
I actually got to interview David last year and he couldn’t have been cooler. I actually remember seeing him for the first time in The Dark Knight in a theater. He has such a specific range of facial expression, it makes him unforgettable as an actor.
Steve Agee: There’s no one who deserves to play Polka-Dot Man more than David. I’ve been saying that David and Daniela Melchior, who plays Ratcatcher II, they’re going to be the biggest breakout stars of this movie. Yeah, King Shark is really cool but David and Daniela are such good actors. And this is Daniela’s first American movie, people are gonna fall in love with her. Her character is so likable and David’s character is so tragic and lovable as well. Obviously, people love Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, and Joel Kinnaman; these are already established, talented actors. So yes, people know who they are and are going to love them. But like, David and Danielle are going to break out of this movie and become massive stars because of it.