Spoilers for Peacemaker Follow!
Peacemaker quickly rose through the streaming ranks early this year as filmmaker James Gunn’s first foray into television was as successful as HBO Max and DC had hoped for. Spinning off from the critically acclaimed hit The Suicide Squad, the show follows Christopher Smith (John Cena) as he attempts to come to terms with who he is and if he is the kind of human that deserves or is even capable of redemption. Peacemaker has been praised for its balance of both levity and drama to tell a compelling story that isn’t short on action. The series found a large following, even at one point being the most-streamed series in the world over heavy hitters like The Witcher and The Book of Boba Fett, thanks to Gunn and his hilarious crew, of which Nigerian-British actor Chukwudi Iwuji plays a very special role in
James Gunn’s early roots in comedy permeate throughout Peacemaker, with hefty character work being interwoven with some of the funniest scenes Gunn has ever produced as a director. John Cena and other talent such as Freddie Stroma, Jennifer Holland, Steve Agee, and Danielle Brooks really shine as comedic actors who know how to turn the most absurd scenarios into some of the funniest. The leader of the team known as ‘Project Butterfly’ in the show, Clemson Murn played by Chukwudi Iwuji, is another perfect example of Gunn’s trademark balance of humor and heartbreak. Out of all the players in Peacemaker, Murn perhaps has the most tragic role, seeing him go from mentor and friend to disgraced martyr.
We had the lucky chance to sit down with Chukwudi Iwuji and discuss the complexities of Peacemaker. From his initial discovery of the project to the delicate balance of comedy and drama, Iwuji breaks down his very collaborative process with James Gunn and how the filmmaker evokes the same manner of storytelling as legend Mel Brooks in his eyes. This, of course, takes our conversation into his upcoming role in Gunn’s next big feature, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and how his working relationship with the fan-favorite director isn’t just over yet.
You’ve said in previous interviews that a lot of your work in the past has been theater-based, so what drove you to pursue the role of Clemson Murn and the hyper-realistic world of Peacemaker?
Chukwudi Iwuji: Around that time, one of the things my whole team and I were discussing was how I really wanted to focus a bit more on film and TV. So when Peacemaker came along, I was in a stage where I hadn’t done any theater. I still haven’t done any theater in four years, which is the first time in my entire career I’ve gone without doing so. It just happened to fall during the time when we were trying to put more of a focus on TV and film.
I didn’t know anything about the project. It was an email from my agent that turned up, and I initially wasn’t going to do it because (laughs) I thought, “I’m never going to get this. This is the sort of role that Lance Reddick would play. In fact, they should go cast Lance Reddick. He would be perfect for this!” But I sent my tape anyway. We did it in one take. We laughed at the end of the take and were like, “That’s it. That’s the one. We’re not going to do it again. We’ve got it. Send it up.” And it turns out that James, who was thinking of casting Lance Reddick as he admitted to me later, saw my tape and said, “Who is this guy?” and then they made the offer. It was one of those things that happens as an actor. You wake up one day, you get an audition, you do the tape, and someone decides they love it. Then everything changed, you know?
James Gunn and members of the Peacemaker cast and crew have spoken a lot regarding the improv on-set. How comfortable were you with riffing in between takes and experimenting with this type of spur-of-the-moment comedy?
Chukwudi Iwuji: I found it terrifying if I’m going to be honest with you. Again, coming back to my background in theater, you don’t improv Shakespeare or Chekov, right? (laughs) You don’t. That route leads to very bad results. So I love being told what to say or written what to say. But the great thing is when you add Steve Agee, Jenn Holland, and Danielle Brooks, a lot of their work is comedy. They love that stuff, the riffing.
So I felt like, “Okay, I must somehow find a way to do this and not look like an idiot,” which is my modus operandi. Every day that I can come back from filming, not having looked like an idiot, it was a good day! It was very important to go with the flow because what James does is make it seem like it’s the norm to improvise in between takes. So there isn’t this sense of, “Oh, we’re doing something special now.” It’s just how it is. Everyone was doing it and he really encouraged it. And when someone encourages that, and you can hear him laughing in the background at what you’re doing, it then gives you more confidence in what you’re doing in return.
It also helped that John [Cena], who did the most improvising out of all of us by far, would just leap straight into it without caring what came out of his mouth. That encourages everyone else to do it and, honestly, some of the funniest things and tweaks came out of that. When you get more comfortable, you look forward to adding something to the script, if you can. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s improv, it doesn’t matter. You just keep going at it. It’s not about being right or wrong. So I had to let go of my attachment to what was written down and just have fun, which is a good lesson for life in general.
Murn can at times be seen very much as the straight man who brings the rest of the cast back down from their moments of levity. Did you feel a certain responsibility as your character to sort of balance the humorous moments of the show with some seriousness?
Chukwudi Iwuji: I didn’t think of it in those terms exactly. James wrote it that way, so I knew he liked a lot of what I did in those tapes I sent initially. I thought, “Okay, my instinct with Murn aligns with what James wants.” Yes, he was very much the straight man, but, for me, that was the comedy of it. One of the reasons why I have never done a one-man show or something like that is because I believe in serving things up to your scene partners. I believe that’s where great performances come from. That’s where drama comes from, people serving up for the other person.
Then there’s something about being so dry and grounded, and still being funny in that seriousness. It was all about embracing the nature of Murn’s comedy, which is this guy that hardly ever cracks a smile but can still be so hilarious, given the situation. I particularly love my interactions with Steve Agee. The fights we would have out of him being so fucking stupid and me trying to get to him were hilarious for me. It was hard for me to keep a straight face, even though I was being the straight man! Does that make sense?
The best part about your straight man act is that it often delivers the funniest moments. Like when you find out what Vigilante tried to do in prison and it just cuts to you in a room saying, “Every time I turn around, one of you is doing something…
Chukwudi Iwuji: (laughs) something fucked up.”
It’s one of my favorite lines!
Chukwudi Iwuji: And you can’t be condescending to the audience. The only way that line worked is by being absolutely grounded in seriousness and anger, and letting the cutting around it and the reaction of people bring the laughs. If I tried to wink at the audience with that, because I wanted to be part of the joke, it just wouldn’t have worked. It’s funny you mentioned that because I loved shooting that scene, there was so much laughter. That day was a particularly joyous day of filming.
How has James Gunn’s balance of Comedy and Drama in Peacemaker helped you evolve as an actor, if at all?
Chukwudi Iwuji: First, when you’re working with someone of his caliber and he decides that he wants you to be part of the journey, it helps in your confidence as an actor. James completely knows every aspect of his projects, storyboarding every scene. He’s an actor so he knows what the acting beats are. He’s very specific about his language and what he wants. But at the same time, as you mentioned earlier, he loves this improv. He loves you to bring what he recognizes as your X-factor. There’s only so much a writer can do, however good he is. There’s this part of it that must be: what does the actor bring to the floor?
So when you would step onto these big stages with hundreds of crew and everything, you’re doing the scene and then he spots something you’ve done and asks you to expand on it. It really builds you up as a performer. There’s a huge element of trust that comes with that. In episode six when it’s revealed that I am a butterfly, it was a challenging scene as multiple levels were being asked to be played at the same time. For all the craziness and hilarity in James Gunn’s set pieces, he also puts this focus on character. It’s always been character. If you look back to the comic books, which is why he’s so great with these comic stories, they were all about developing character in these great set pieces.
When you have someone that, in this crazy world, is still asking me to do what I fundamentally must do even when I’m on stage playing Othello or Hamlet, which is to actually find the complexity and the ambiguity of this character and the conflict within himself as well as the conflict outside, you’re very excited about that. And when he says “Cut” and “We got it,” you sort of want to take off. You want to fly because he doesn’t make it easy to play. He makes it truthful, however hard that might be in the moment.
Your upcoming work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and your time on Peacemaker can both be considered in ensembles. Did your theater work prepare you for the dynamics of an ensemble comedic show like Peacemaker?
Chukwudi Iwuji: I know we’re talking about it as a different medium from the theater, but James wouldn’t have hired me if I didn’t have the experience. So the simple answer is yes. I don’t know whether it’s specifically about working in an ensemble or whether it’s the skillset developed over the years, but certainly, there was nothing strange. In fact, it’s weird for me because I notice now that people are always excited about ensembles when it comes to film and TV. “What a great ensemble.” But you’re right, theater is always about the ensemble, even in a show like Hamlet.
I never separated it and thought, “Oh yeah, my ensemble experiences helped me do this.” I didn’t have to think of it in those ways because like I said about not wanting to do one-man shows and things like that, I look for the ensemble in every scene. The fact that there are all these characters goofing off in an office, for me that was natural. I never once thought about it in the sense of, “Oh, what a great ensemble piece.” It’s very strange to me that there’s often that sort of distinction for certain projects when it comes to film and TV. Then you realize that most films and TV focus on one or maybe two characters in most of the scenes, and people pop in here and there. I’m so used to sharing the world with your other actors.
Speaking of that, is there a specific moment or scene in Peacemaker that convinced you of the cast’s capacity to make viewers laugh in one scene and cry in the next?
Chukwudi Iwuji: From day one. On my first day of filming, I thought I was going to get fired because I didn’t know how to use an electric drill. There’s that scene, drilling into the tree, and everything was going wrong. Steve Agee was cracking me up. When I come down from the ladder, he’s so scared of me and he backpedals. My brother told me he almost wet himself laughing in that little moment. The specificity of everyone I worked with on that set, finding the moments and beats, was quite extraordinary.
Sometimes it’s hard to know that you’re doing something special while you’re doing it because you’re at work. But it was very clear to me, certainly from the reaction of the crew… I mean, the camera was shaking so often because the cameraman was laughing so hard! And I would be like, “Are they going to get this shot?” I knew from the reaction of those hardened professionals. When they start reacting and start really paying attention, as opposed to paying attention to their job or paying attention to the scene, you know you’ve got something special.
There were moments when I was shockingly surprised about how emotional I felt. Then me having to do that Murn thing of, “Don’t cheat the audience. Just swallow that down and keep it real.” When you, as an actor, have to make those decisions and then fight against them, that’s real conflict. That means interesting things are happening. We got all eight scripts right from the start. I read all eight scripts and went to my wife and said, “This is a hit.” I know it sounds a bit contrite saying it now.
What are your thoughts on using a largely comedic series like Peacemaker to tell such an intense story with powerful and resonating themes, like the capacity for change in even the darkest of people?
Chukwudi Iwuji: I genuinely think it’s the only way. James reminds me very much of Mel Brooks. I think the great satirists and the great human observers have always known how to use humor. And, in many ways, when you’re trying to deal with the themes, you think about how they can be represented. Danielle’s character represents America right now with everything that’s going on. If you try to lecture people, it would be too much. I think people would switch off before you even got halfway through the show.
If you make people laugh and they can’t wait for your next scene or the next episode, maybe a day or two later they’ll realize, “Oh my god, they were actually talking about this.” That’s when you hit the nail on the head. Blazing Saddles, for me, is one of the funniest films ever but, my god, what it talks about was great. How it so intricately talks about the different levels of racism is the way forward. So I genuinely believe that James’ style of questioning humanity is second to none. When people can laugh and then cry, and then laugh again at the person they just cried with, you’re going to be attached to them. Then maybe you will listen to the messages that person is trying to give you.
What experiences from Peacemaker did you carry with you going into your next collaboration with James Gunn in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3?
Chukwudi Iwuji: I certainly suppose he likes my work, so that’s a start. There was a sense I felt in Peacemaker like, “They’re going to see through me. I’m going to get fired” but by the end, I understood that James loves actors. I know that sounds like an obvious thing but that’s not always the case. James genuinely loves actors. He micromanages every stage of his work and literally lives the characters he writes. James speaks to them out loud as he’s writing them. But for all that, I was very aware in Peacemaker that he’s so ready to be surprised and taken to different levels by you [the actor] if you can make it genuine. That gave me such leeway, in the sense of coming onto Guardians. The scope of it was another level up from Peacemaker, it’s as big of a movie as I’ll ever make – simple as that.
It made me think, “Here’s someone who trusts you as an actor, loves it when you bring something more than he ever imagined, and is ready to take big risks.” When you have those factors walking in, you know the world is your oyster in many ways. It’s as perfect a situation as you want. And because he wrote it, James is hoping that you can evolve it further than his imagination. When you have a director-writer like that, you’re in very good hands. If you were to narrow down our process, I do a take, and if he feels like it’s spot on, he’ll say, “Great, now do whatever you want.” If he feels it’s not quite there, he won’t let me stop until I find it. If he feels it’s there, but there could be something else, we’ll keep going at it. So it’s as rigorous or as smooth sailing as it needs to be.
But he knows that I’m an actor that really likes to leave it on the floor, and I really love being directed. The number of times in Guardians that we would start a scene one way, the way I felt it was written, and by the end of the scene, it would’ve flipped completely in its delivery because he saw something I brought. I heard something he directed at me that I hadn’t thought about, and then we find a completely new scene. It’s collaboration at its finest because it gives me everything I want. I need someone with very strong ideas who will be ready to direct me. But, at the same time, you eat your cake and have it too because it’s someone that wants to explore also. It wasn’t that I was just working for him, even though, technically, I was. We were really collaborating. I felt so proud. There were days I would come home to my wife, who was with me in Atlanta, and I was just so happy. I would say, “We found something in the scene together.” That is the best feeling to ever want to have.
What do you hope to do next with your acting career in film and television?
Chukwudi Iwuji: Well, as you said, it’s weird that I’ve been doing this thing. Everyone’s going to be talking about my career since Peacemaker when Guardians comes out, which will encompass maybe three years. I want to see where it takes me. When I think of my heroes that are actors, one of the things that you could use a word to describe them is they’re completely unpredictable in what they do next. I know that sounds like a cliché, “I want to do something different.” But my whole life, when you do theater, it’s so vast. The body of work that exists, including new plays, means that you can pretty much play the one completely different character to the last one for your whole career.
That’s what I want to do in film and TV. The norm is to find a role and exploit it as many times and as successfully as you can. I hold onto the hope that the work that has led me up to James – when you think of the projects I did before like The Underground Railroad, Designated Survivor, and The Split I did in England – to Peacemaker and Guardians, that all those characters were so completely different from each other. So my main thing to look forward to is something completely different. It’s not about whether it’s an indie or studio movie, it just has to feel different, that I’m sharing a side of it that surprises me. Because of all those projects I listed off, I was always surprised when I got them because I didn’t think that was a character people would see me as… I would like that trend to continue.