Marvel’s Avengers Behind the Performance - Laura Bailey / Black WidowThe Black Widow actor talks the mystery that is the character, the impact of being a new mother, and the horror of sweaty mo-cap suits.
Laura Bailey is no stranger to Black Widow. The actor has played Natasha Romanoff in games and animated series for many years now and for some, her voice is the character’s.
But when Marvel’s Avengers presented Bailey with new and exciting challenges, not only did she have to physically embody Natasha Romanoff for the first time, she also had to explore new facets of the character that she hadn’t done previously.
With the game now out, we spoke to the actor about her long history with Black Widow, and how she brought her to life in a new way.
Hi Laura. Let’s get this going with a simple question. In one sentence, who is Black Widow to you?
Just one sentence?! I thought you said this was simple!
Okay, we’ll give you two.
Black Widow is… an enigma.
I love that you don't know who you're getting with her. She's smarter than everybody in the room and she won't let you know it.
You’re no stranger to the character, of course. You’ve played her on TV, in other video games… what is it that keeps you coming back to Natasha Romanoff?
I mean, let’s be honest - who doesn't want to be a Super Hero?
The first time I got cast as her I was over the moon! I had no idea that it would mean getting to portray her for so many years in so many different iterations.
I'm just genuinely blown away by that. She's such a strong force to be reckoned with that can hold her own amongst literal gods. She can stand shoulder to shoulder with them and kick butt and it feels really good to be able to portray that.
And then in Marvel’s Avengers, to be able to literally suit up and physically embody that character… it felt amazing. And different.
She felt more… grounded. I don't know if that came from playing the part in person with other people, or just from the fact that the struggle she's going through in this game is darker than a lot of the other times I've gotten to play her.
We just got to go harder with her struggle, the grief that she's experiencing over A-Day. The feelings of responsibility.
That vulnerable side of her isn’t something I’ve really gotten to explore before
She definitely has a lot of different facets in the game. How difficult was it to get that across in your performance?
Hmm… it's all about familiarity, I think. She can be herself when she's interacting with Steve Rogers or Bruce Banner. But that’s a different person than what you're going to get when she’s face to face with villains like Monica Rappaccini or MODOK - there, she’s sort of playing a role.
What’s crazy about this story is that she retreats into that role at the start of the game. She’s not really herself with anybody, and everybody that she interacts with doesn’t really know if she’s on their side or not. It’s an interesting edge to walk.
With Kamala, she also shows a different side to her doesn’t she?
Yes, there's that wonderful relationship between her and Kamala Khan, where she takes that mentor role with her - almost a maternal feeling of needing to protect her.
I don't know if it would have had that same impact, had I not just had my own child. That definitely was a factor in how I approached the part.
I think that's the cool thing about what we do - we can bring our own experiences into the playtime.
On that subject, has your take on the character evolved over time?
The cool thing about getting to be with a character for so long, is that you get to grow with them. And they grow with you.
For example, I've been amazed at how much more in touch with my emotions I've been in during scenes since I've had a kid. Everything hits harder now - it's crazy.
It’s not just me though. The character changes too. A director might say: “Okay, this is going to be Widow from 10 years ago. Can you go back to that?” And that’s such a different experience because the character’s changed so much in your mind!
What was it like having to portray the character physically? Did you have to train?
Well luckily, I’d just come off my pregnancy and had started training for other projects before I even knew about this one. So it just kind of added to it.
But for me, the motion capture stage is a comfortable space. Being in that big grey box and world of make believe - it feels natural. It’s like going home when I go onto the stage.
You’re known as one of the best in the biz when it comes to performance capture - but not every actor’s as comfortable with it. What do you think is the key to this form of acting?
It's all about body posture really. And just opening up that imagination that you used on the playground when you were little. I mean, all of us ran around and pretended the floor was lava, or something like that
That's basically all you're doing. You have to imagine that, for example, the foam pool noodle you’re waving is a weapon - and sort of convince yourself it is. That’s what makes it believable.
And when you're in the mo-cap suit, you’re going to move a little bit differently. As dorky as it is, when you're wearing spandex or whatever you feel… streamlined.
And then they put all the gear on you - you have your helmet and you have a computer strapped to your chest and you feel like you're wearing, like, tactical gear. So you just feel like more of a badass.
Not comfortable though…
I mean it's heavy. And it's hot.
The CPU units are getting more upgraded now. So it's not as bad as it used to be. But yeah, you're sweating, because they don't have air conditioning in the room - it's got to be soundproof.
So yeah, it can be a long day. When you have a lot of running it's… ugh - it’s a thing (laughs).
I’ll tell you this - I was so grateful the day I got my own suit! Sony gave it to me for Uncharted - and nobody else can wear it (laughs).
An interesting thing about the game’s cast is that a lot of you know each other very well. Did that help the dynamic of the team?
Well, being married to one of them (Travis Willingham - Thor) helped!
It's so crazy - we’ve all been working together for so long, that when we got on the stage together, we just saw each other as the Avengers. It didn’t feel like that connection had to be manifested.
A lot of times you'll get on set and there's a few days of getting to know each other, of getting that connection to really grow. But with us, it was instant because we've had all the history with each other. I’m sure Troy (Baker - Bruce Banner) spoke to this too, but it really did feel like we were a team.
And then Sandra Saad (Kamala Khan) came in as this new force. She embodied so much enthusiasm and joy - she was so happy to be there and just wanted to do a good job. It just felt so genuine.
The energy that she came in with really did feel like Kamala Khan coming into the Avengers.
So yeah, it was kind of crazy how natural everything felt. I'm sure Shaun Escayg (Crystal Dynamics - Creative Director) did it all on purpose, but it was amazing that he was able to bring this cast together in the way that he did.
As Sandra was the newbie, did you take a mentor role with her in real life too?
I didn't have to give her that much advice. She's really good! When I did, it was like a body posture thing or she’d ask, “how is this going to read if I move my arms like this?”
So a lot of it was about the little subtle things that you don't really think about.
That stuff matters - I remember a project that Travis did where he was cast as a big guy. And Travis is already basically Thor - he’s big and muscley, right? But this particular character was an even bigger guy so he thought he had to make himself look like a super hero.
This wasn’t Thor he was doing, by the way - this was forever ago. So he built up his shoulders and had a stance when he moved. But because he already was so big, he didn’t have to do any of that - the model takes care of it for you.
So really, and this is what I said to Sandra, it's just a matter of trusting what you're doing with the body. Also seeing your digital self up on the screen above, taking the time to move in it and check to see if the proportions are working with yours. Over time, it just becomes natural.
So do you have to think about that stuff when you’re prepping for a role like this?
Honestly, no. When I'm home reading the script, I’m reading it as Black Widow, I'm never thinking about what is my performance going to be - in my head I'm seeing Natasha do all the things that I'm reading. So it comes pretty naturally like once you've already envisioned what that is.
Then at the start of every day of filming, we'll have our table reads, sit down with everybody, and just see what it feels like, you know, get it on its feet. Then suit up and start playing.
So Black Widow comes naturally to you now?
I mean, it’s been a decade coming. So yeah, she’s kind of second nature. I feel like she's a huge part of my life at this point.
And I feel so lucky to be her.
You can see Laura Bailey in action in Marvel’s Avengers - out now for PS4, Xbox One, Steam and Stadia.
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