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The 16th century!
The series focuses on members of the House of Borgia, a noble family prominent during the Italian Renaissance.
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Who would you rather f#@k?
“[Woody Allen] can write women better than anyone,” Keaton said during the footage. Allen, the 81-year-old Hollywood icon, is a longtime collaborator and friend of Keaton’s. He’s made limited public appearances since 2014 when his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, wrote an open letter in the New York Times alleging Allen abused her as a child.
Tom Cruise’s new movie The Mummy has something to sell you. And it is not Tom Cruise, who is still gamely devoted to giving the people what they want, whether that means hanging from airplanes, or grinning his way through press tours, or looking spookily untouched by time at the age of 54. Cruise is a star of the old guard, but stars old and new just don’t open movies the way they used to (not even the Rock is reliable).
Watching Cruise fit himself into a prefab brand like the one The Mummy is part of brings back the sensation of seeing Will Smith as a mere part of the Suicide Squad ensemble last year. It’s the bemused realization that while the age of the A-list actor has passed, the era that’s succeeding it — the age of the franchise — has yet to fully sort itself out.
And a franchise is what The Mummy is peddling — the “Dark Universe,” which is the name Universal Pictures has given to what has hubristically been planned as a potential 10-plus film series reinventing the studio’s library of classic monsters, from The Wolf Man to The Phantom of the Opera. Already in the hopper is a 2019 remake of Bride of Frankenstein, with Bill Condon directing, Javier Bardem playing Frankenstein’s monster, and Johnny Depp on board for the eventual role of the Invisible Man.
Which means that as the first Dark Universe installment, The Mummy, which was directed by Alex Kurtzman, is effectively a $125 million pilot. It’s tasked with hawking what Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) refers to as “a new world of gods and monsters,” with said monster-gods being targeted by or allied with Prodigium, the secret evil-fighting organization that Jekyll runs. And hawking a whole cinematic universe turns out to be an especially tough ask when The Mummy can’t even conclusively hawk itself over the course of its labored 107 minutes.
What The Mummy does have to offer is Kingsman’s striking dancer-turned-actor Sofia Boutella as the title character, a strategically bandaged undead Egyptian princess whose powers come from a deal she made with the god Set, and whose sparse lines at least spare her having to deal with much of the film’s clunky dialogue. Annabelle Wallis fares far worse as Jenny Halsey, Cruise’s archeologist love interest, a character charged with getting rescued, populating some strikingly awkward reaction shots, and making irrational swings in behavior as needed to guide the plot along. (The film’s third woman appears in a flashback, and dies almost immediately.)
Jake Johnson is underused as a comic sidekick with a twist borrowed from An American Werewolf in London, and Courtney B. Vance is even more so as a military type. Crowe, as the Dark Universe’s Nick Fury equivalent, flounders mightily with a character who’s meant to be a brilliant mastermind, but whose decisions are baffling, right down to the way he times the injections that keep his Mr. Hyde side at bay.
And then there’s Cruise as treasure hunter/grave robber Nick Morton, sparking to life only in the action set pieces in which he fights off zombie attackers while driving, and gets tumbled around a crashing airplane like socks in a dryer. Otherwise, he looks as lost as The Mummy feels, never clicking with a character who’s supposed to be a rogue with a heart of gold. The early scenes in which Nick and Jenny spar over having slept together before the start of the movie are actively painful, what’s supposed to be sparky banter instead as convincing as Steve Carell trying to describe breasts in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Nick, even in the grips of a curse, never actually feels torn between good and evil, making the moments in which he has to choose between the good (blonde) and evil (brunette, mummy) ladies in his life absurdly underwhelming.
Nick never seems like much of anything, really — anything more than just Cruise, doffing his shirt and deploying that hundred-watt smile and projecting a palpable hope that everyone watching is having a good time, even if he’s not sure what’s going on. There’s nothing he could have done to save The Mummy, or to have further ruined it either. The sad truth of The Mummy is that Cruise doesn’t matter all that much to it in the end. The movie grinds its way toward a will-be-back-again-soon finale that, tellingly, stages Nick’s biggest emotional moment so that you can’t see his face. It’s as if The Mummy is already setting up a way to go on without him, if it needs to.
It probably won’t. International box office numbers are unpredictable and have saved many a disappointing studio effort, but it’s still hard to imagine much of a future for the Dark Universe if this is the best pitch it can make for its existence — a film with no distinguishing characteristics or distinguished characters. It instead feels like an object lesson for the age of the franchise, one about how name actors may not matter as much as they used to, but characters definitely do. The Mummy promises a fantastical world of supernatural beings colliding and collaborating, forgetting that if no one cares about any one of these beings in particular, they’re not going to be sold on seeing them together, either.
In the fourth episode of American Gods, the new Starz series based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name, Laura Moon calmly dips into the sickly green water sloshing around inside the hot tub in her backyard. She’s clutching a bottle of Git Gone Household Insecticide. Laura closes the cover on top of herself, creating a tiny, insulated, coffin-like space. She sprays the poisonous mist inches from her face, holding her breath until her body forces her to take a deep, desperate breath. She punches the cover off of the hot tub, painfully gasping for air. But at least she feels something.
When Laura Moon’s alive, all she thinks about is death. Once she’s dead, all she thinks about is life. “Everything she does is informed by her fascination with death,” actor Emily Browning, who plays Laura, told BuzzFeed News at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. However, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green never categorized the character as suicidal. “[That scene] was more about pushing her boundaries and seeing what she could take,” explained Green, noting that one of his own friends practiced a similar form of self-harm in a small attic space. “It was an expression of massive, soul-level dissatisfaction with her life.”
The hot tub scene is one of many expansions Green and Fuller have made on the novel — and, more specifically, the story’s foremost female character. “When I read that [scene] in the script, I thought it was so brilliant,” Gaiman told BuzzFeed News. (He serves as the show’s executive producer and “guardian of the purity of the project.”)
Laura Moon is a key player in the source material — we just don’t get to see nearly as much of her journey. As Browning put it, “it’s all happening off the page.” The 500-page novel chronicles the battle between the Old Gods who once ruled America — Odin, Anansi, and Anubis, among other predominantly male gods — and the New Gods — Media, Technical Boy, and other deities who feed off of the time Americans devote to their phones and computers. The story is told almost entirely through the eyes of Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), Laura’s husband, and centers on his journey across the country with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), his mysterious new employer. The two men are the indisputable lead characters.
Laura makes essential but sporadic appearances as she posthumously stalks her husband — popping in and out of the narrative to brutally murder Shadow’s enemies, spring him out of jail, or wait for him in a hotel room so they can talk about the regrettable state of their marriage. Laura’s point of view only splices with Shadow’s blanket narrative near the book’s end — when she, in true Buffy fashion, saves the day by impaling a man. And we never see her alive.
Gaiman understood that a camera lens could afford the storytellers a new opportunity to grow the narrative beyond one male protagonist’s perspective and to include more from the characters who got less page time. “We knew going into it from the very beginning, women become much more important [in the show] because we’re out of Shadow’s head,” Gaiman said. Fuller and Green were “hyperaware that the book was a sausage party” and were eager to “go beyond those first-blush interpretations” of the women in the show — especially Laura. “[Green and I] both love writing for women and female characters, so it was at the top of our agenda in the adaptation to expand the female roles beyond what they were in the book.” That expansion included introducing a surprise third lead in the show’s fourth episode.
The first three episodes of the show portray Laura exactly as she’s seen in the book’s beginning: a soft, disembodied voice on the other end of a phone cooing “I love you, too,” an ethereally beautiful goddess who glows like a beacon in Shadow’s dreams. Then the fourth episode, “Git Gone,” hits, and all that impossible luster fades. American Gods the show suddenly and starkly stands apart from American Gods the book.
“In the first three episodes, the audience is dealing with Shadow’s perception of his wife,” Fuller explained, “and then we have to meet Laura Moon on her own terms to truly understand who she is. Because we’ve only known her through one man’s interpretation of her.” Fuller and Green wanted to lull book-readers into a false sense of security before revealing Laura’s revamped story arc. “We were going to sneak up on them and say, You forgot there’s a third lead in this show, and that’s Laura Moon!” Fuller cackled. “The two most important points of view in this world are Shadow’s and Laura’s.”
Before she dies, Laura does everything she can to feel alive — and we watch it all play out. She gets a cat, names him Dummy, and, when he dies, drunkenly admits, “I never even liked him.” On the day she marries Shadow, she deadpans, “That was fun,” while standing outside the church in her wedding dress, looking resplendent and painfully bored. She tries to stay present during sex, but her gaze keeps drifting to the bedroom window, and the hot tub bubbling outside in the backyard. Everything Laura does is a means to an end; the problem is, she doesn’t know what she wants that end to be. So when her attempts at emotional attachment fail, she convinces her husband to help her rob the casino where she works — a plan that lands him in prison for the three years leading up to the story’s beginning.
“Are you unhappy? Do you still love me?” Shadow asks his aloof wife after she lures him out of bed with coffee, only to reveal she wants him to commit a felony. “Yeah, I still love you,” Laura says too quickly. “I’m just not happy.” The “love” part of that sentence never quite reaches her eyes, and so she returns to the only thing she knows will make her feel: One morning before the botched robbery, Shadow asks Laura if he can pick anything up for her at the store. “Bug spray,” she says, not looking up from her phone as he kisses her forehead.
Browning likens Laura to iconic TV antiheroes Tony Soprano and Walter White — “people doing deplorable things and you can’t help but root for them.” It’s not a far-fetched parallel: Laura Moon is an adulterous, emotionally unavailable criminal. She’s the definition of a doubting Thomas (and not just because she ends up at an Easter party surrounded by various incarnations of Jesus Christ near the season’s end), a pragmatic cynic who doesn’t believe in anything she can’t see. “When you die, you rot. There’s nothing to believe. Trust me, I’ve looked,” she tells Shadow one morning in bed as they debate the existence of an afterlife. “Stories, snake oil — but worse, because snakes are real.”
And Browning relished playing all of it. “It’s more important [that] she’s relatable. I’m not going to play her like, I hope everyone thinks I’m pretty and I’m nice and I would make a good wife,” she said with an eyeroll. “Fuck no. We have a show with some really complex, interesting, flawed female characters.”
But Gaiman wrote Laura — who he categorizes as the second most important character in the book, after Shadow — like he would any other character, regardless of gender. “I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and gone, Hm, flawed women. I’ve gone, Hm, whole people. Whole people is always the point where you start from.”
When Fuller and Green first approached Browning about the role, she refused to play a woman who had to be, above all, likable. “I hear it in every single audition or meeting: the audience really has to love her,” Browning said. “And I’m always like, Oh, fuck you. People are not idiots, they don’t only love a woman who is sweet.” Fuller, however, assured her that Laura wouldn’t serve as the heart of the project, but more as the spleen — a parallel Gaiman agreed with. “She is the splenetic heart of the show. There is spleen in there. Also, bile.”
Fuller believes Browning saw the character of Laura “as a very particular role model for young women — to not give a fuck about what other people think of them.” He and Green were both keenly aware of the actor’s feedback about “social microaggressions against women” that they, as men, were not aware of, from broad strokes to smaller details like body hair (Browning chose not to shave her armpits for the duration of production). “It was a fascinating experience for us,” Green said. “It would never have occurred to us, as two men, that because of her size and how she looks, she’s constantly [told], Hey, I’m doing this dark thing but I need a heart and soul, I need someone to redeem everyone else. And her point is, I am sick and fucking tired of redeeming you assholes.”
Fuller also touched on how he and Green tackled Laura’s “fridging” — a popular term used when a female character is killed off in order to give a male character motivation. “We talked about the un-fridging or de-fridging of the character,” he said. “After Episode 4, the series and season are much more balanced toward Laura’s journey having as much real estate as Shadow’s,” Fuller explained.
Gaiman never saw the character as fridged. “No, Laura isn’t fridged. Laura, for me, is the classic dead wife. Laura does not give Shadow motivation. The whole point is that Shadow and Laura get the closure in death that they did not get in life.”
Fridged or not, Laura Moon dies: She’s thrown from the passenger side of a car during a wreck while giving a man (who wasn’t her husband) a blow job. But through the magic of a mysterious gold coin her husband later drops on her fresh grave, Laura’s brought back to life. She meets Anubis while deposed to her personalized purgatory — a sprawling, desolate landscape of stars and sky (which Fuller, Green, and director Craig Zobel designed to signify her absence of attachment). “In life you believed in nothing,” the god tells her stoically. “You will go to nothing.” Laura almost finishes enunciating her “fuck you” when she’s yanked skyward, back to the realm of the living. So long as it stays burrowed deep in her embalmed chest, the coin will continue to tie her spirit to her body, giving her superhuman strength — even as her flesh continues to rot.
“She has a very interesting relationship with her dead self,” Green said. “She enjoys her freedom, [but] she finds that saying goodbye to her old life is more complicated than she thought it might be.” Throughout the first season, we watch Laura tirelessly chase down the promise of a god who can resurrect and restore her body, suck down an inhuman number of cigarettes, and even steal an ice cream truck. In many ways, she learns to love her life in death more than she ever did before — which includes realizing that she did, and does, truly love Shadow.
“He’s the light of my life,” Laura tells her friend Audrey (Betty Gilpin), another female character who’s gloriously expanded from the book — and the wife of that guy Laura died blowing.
“You did not love him while you were alive,” Audrey laughs bitterly. “Not love him love him.”
Laura considers this. “Yeah, well,” she says, “I love him now.” And the “love” part of that sentence finally reaches her eyes (which are turning milky blue with decay).
“In death,” Gaiman explained of Laura’s awakening, “the idea is that you’re not lying to yourself. You’re very clear-eyed in death. The emotion went with the living and the breathing and the blood.”
Beyond the fourth episode, Laura’s arc (and screen time) keeps pace with Shadow’s through the eight-episode season’s end. “I signed on thinking [Episode 4] was going to be my one big episode and then I was going to be a small character,” Browning said, “but I was there for six months and I worked every day.” She begins an entirely new plotline with the leprechaun Mad Sweeney (which Green describes as a “long-scale arc”) and even gets the last line in the finale, setting her up for a strong, continued presence in Season 2.
Laura Moon’s story might last even longer than book fans are expecting; she might get a different, less Buffy ending altogether. “We’re in love with Emily Browning,” Fuller said. “She will be on the show for as long as she wants to be on the show.” The series has been picked up for a second season on Starz, and there’s the tentative promise of an American Gods sequel from Gaiman should the show surpass its source material. “Hopefully, by the time we got to that point, four, maybe five years from now, there would be another American Gods novel,” Gaiman said.
Green and Fuller believe the first book may take years to tell in its entirety — the first season makes a small dent in its formidable timeline — but they have already discussed the prospective second book with Gaiman. “It was kind of really weird for me,” Gaiman said, “because it was like taking somebody into your secret places, explaining things that would be in the next novel to Bryan [Fuller] and Michael [Green]. I’m going, Look, these apparently inconsequential lines of dialogue are really important. They set up for something that happens way down the line.”
Whether those secret places include more Laura Moon is anyone’s guess. “The book comes with an ending, and we’d like to do justice to that,” Green said cryptically. But no matter how her story ends — in life or (final) death — it feels safe to bet that Laura will continue to split the spotlight with her male costars next season. “Our show allows women to be full people,” Browning said, tapping her palm twice for emphasis as she pointedly pronounced full people. Perhaps Laura was always, as Gaiman said, a whole person — she just wasn’t really seen until now. And if Laura’s story teaches us anything, it’s that seeing is believing.
Wonder Woman — the first solo female superhero film in over a decade, and the first superhero movie period directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins — opened this weekend with an estimated $100.5 million at the domestic box office. Jenkins now holds the record for the best domestic box office debut for a female director, surpassing the $85.2 million earned by the opening weekend of Sam Taylor-Wood’s Fifty Shades of Grey in 2015. Add in $122.5 million in international grosses, and Wonder Woman has already earned more in one weekend than any other female superhero movie has made in its entire theatrical run. In short, it’s crashed through one of Hollywood’s hardest and highest glass ceilings.
After decades of false starts and second guessing, the first movie based on the iconic female superhero is an unmistakable sensation. Critical raves are driving moviegoers who rarely if ever see superhero movies to buy a ticket to Wonder Woman. There are many reports of audiences breaking into spontaneous applause multiple times. And the film’s “A” CinemaScore grade suggests a long and healthy theatrical life — many enthusiastic fans are already tweeting about seeing the film twice.
Most hit movies are just that: Good for their studios’ bottom lines and their makers’ careers. Occasionally, however, a feature film’s success makes a far deeper impact on the way Hollywood does business. Jaws invented the summer blockbuster. Toy Story created the computer-generated animated feature. The Avengers introduced the cinematic universe.
Wonder Woman‘s success has the similar potential to change the way Hollywood regards women in movies, both in front of and behind the camera. Or it should.
Wonder Woman should get more women hired to make blockbuster movies.
As if her box office record wasn’t enough, Jenkins has accomplished something even more impressive: She is the first female filmmaker to successfully open an expensive, visual effects–driven action blockbuster — practically the only thing Hollywood studios seem to care about these days — since Mimi Leder’s comet-hitting-the-Earth adventure film Deep Impact debuted in 1998.
And it’s not like droves of women have been able to compete for this particular box office crown. Studio executives rarely hand a giant pile of money to a woman to direct anything, let alone a property this invaluable — which makes Jenkins’ achievement that much more singular.
Wonder Woman is a cornerstone of Warner Bros.’ efforts to create a cinematic universe with its DC Comics characters that could equal the commercial success of Marvel Studios. The studio’s previous DC films — 2014’s Man of Steel, and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, all directed by men — certainly have made money, but they’ve also been received with an increasing degree of indifference and outright derision. Had Wonder Woman also proven to be lackluster, the sense that Warner Bros. had squandered its chance to build its own superhero movie empire would be as hard to escape as Wonder Woman’s golden lasso. Jenkins herself was acutely aware that the fallout would have also set back not only her career, but the already paltry opportunities for all female filmmakers with major ambitions. One article from May even noted how much of a “gamble” it was was for Warner Bros. to hire Jenkins given that her only other feature as a director, 2004’s Oscar-winning independent biopic Monster, had a budget of just $8 million.
Instead, Jenkins made the absolute most of Wonder Woman‘s $150 million budget, and she’s now heralded as no less than DC’s savior, winning fulsome praise for bringing just the right mix of winning humor and unironic heroism to a cinematic universe woefully bereft of both. If her failure would have caused a setback for every other female filmmaker hoping to land a job making a big studio picture, her success should at the very least remind skittish studio executives to take at least a few more gambles on seemingly untested female filmmakers. After all, as many have already noted, Monster cost more to make — and earned more at the box office — than the debut features of many male directors who have recently been handed massive studio tentpoles.
A few women are already breaking through: Ava DuVernay (Selma) was the first black female filmmaker given a budget of over $100 million for Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, which opens in 2018. And Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) was just hired by Sony to direct the Spider-Man spin-off movie Silver & Black. Jenkins, meanwhile, told BuzzFeed News’ Susan Cheng that her next big movie will likely be a Wonder Woman sequel.
But with just 7% of the top 250 films of 2016 directed by women, Hollywood needs to disabuse itself of the absurd notion that women cannot handle massive budgets and valuable properties. It can — by hiring them.
Wonder Woman should help get more female superhero movies made.
Before Wonder Woman, there was no such thing as a successful female superhero movie. Characters like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique certainly figured into the success of their respective ensemble superhero films, but studios just did not believe that a woman could successfully headline her own superhero movie on the wrongheaded belief that men wouldn’t go see it because it was a woman in the lead, and women wouldn’t go because it was a superhero movie.
Yeah, about that: According to Warner Bros., Wonder Woman‘s audience was 52% female, and 48% male, and both genders gave the film an “A” CinemaScore grade. And with $100.5 million, Wonder Woman earned a better domestic opening weekend for a superhero’s debut movie than Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Batman Begins.
It turns out the issue wasn’t so much that people wouldn’t go to female superhero movies — it’s that people wouldn’t go to female superhero movies that were bad.
There are several more female superhero movies already in the works. Marvel Studios will first introduce Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War before she will headline her own feature directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Mississippi Grind) for 2019. (Evangeline Lilly will technically beat Larson to the finish line, co-headlining Ant-Man and the Wasp for Marvel Studios in 2018.) Joss Whedon is working on an undated Batgirl movie for Warner Bros. And Prince-Bythewood’s Silver & Black for Sony Pictures will focus on female Marvel Comics characters Silver Sable and Black Cat.
Hollywood, however, has sunk a fortune into bringing a seemingly endless parade of impossibly muscled male superheroes to movie screens, and the risk of audience fatigue is real. Wonder Woman‘s rapturous audience reception should be a giant flashing neon sign for studio executives that reads, “PEOPLE WANT TO SEE FEMALE SUPERHEROES TOO, MAYBE MAKE MORE MOVIES ABOUT THEM!” Granted, that would be a long sign. But Hollywood should heed the message.
Wonder Woman should help get more female action movies made.
If Diana Prince has anyone to thank for finally starring in her own movie, it is Katniss Everdeen. While the Twilight franchise made clear that movies geared towards women could make mega-blockbuster money, it wasn’t until the Hunger Games franchise that Hollywood understood that people want to see women kick ass.
You can also draw a straight line from Katniss to Daisy Ridley’s Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Add in Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and it suddenly becomes clear that a lot of people want to see women kick ass.
Thankfully, Hollywood has started to pay attention: In July, we’ll see Charlize Theron do just that in Atomic Blonde, and Cara Delevingne do the same in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Ridley will presumably also kick ass again in December’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And in 2018, along with Ant-Man and the Wasp, Alicia Vikander will play Lara Croft in Warner Bros.’ Tomb Raider reboot, and Rosa Salazar (Parenthood, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) will headline Alita: Battle Angel, written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis and directed by Robert Rodriguez.
Note, however, that (apart from Salazar) this is exclusively white women kicking ass. One of the most refreshing sights in Wonder Woman was the uncomplicated diversity of Themyscira, with women of many races — and body shapes — sharing the screen and fighting together. There are so many stories about these kinds of women waiting to be told. All Hollywood has to do is make them.
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. Wonder Woman* — $100.5 million
2. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie* — $23.5 million
3. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales — $21.6 million
4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — $9.7 million
5. Baywatch — $8.5 million
6. Alien: Covenant — $4 million
7. Everything, Everything — $3.3 million
8. Snatched — $1.3 million
9. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul — $1.22 million
10. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword — $1.17 million
We get it! That whole “tough on the outside, sensitive, tortured soul on the inside” thing is hot. But, they’re also a lot of work. Maybe you think you can change them for the better — but that’s harder than it looks. Sooner or later, you’ll have to move on.
It’s easy to fantasize about “the one that got away,” but sooner or later it’s time to move on — might as well be sooner! Set your sights on someone new! You may be surprised.
We know it’s not easy, but open yourself up to love! Sure, being guarded can help protect you, but it also blocks you off from what could be. Proceed with caution, but be more generous with your feelings!
So, there’s a good chance that you’re a little picky. We all have that criteria for our perfect match, but if someone doesn’t meet every item on your list, don’t shrug them off. Who knows, the one you’ve been waiting for could be right in front you!
You might have heard of the term “fridging,” which refers to a trope in comic books, TV, and movies wherein a character is killed to further the emotional arc of another character. It’s also sometimes known as “Women In Refrigerators,” because of an instance in the Green Lantern comics when a woman’s corpse was literally left in a refrigerator for her boyfriend to find. If you want another example: After Gwen Stacy plummets to her death in Spider-Man (both in the comics and the movie), Peter Parker is so heartbroken, it motivates his heroism forever after.
The character who ends up dead is, most often, female; and the one whose story is pushed forward by their grief is, more often than not, male. In Wonder Woman, though, it’s Steve who dies — in his own heroic moment, sure, but he’s dead. Super dead. And his death is designed to deepen Diana’s dedication to her cause. It’s a symbol, and one that has more power because of the trope it’s subverting. Steve’s death really hammers the point home: This is Diana’s story, and any man who plays a role in it — no matter how great he might be — is not going to outlast our girl.
To many children of the ’90s, Larisa Oleynik will always be associated with her starring role on Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack. The series, which centered on a teen girl who gains superpowers in a freak accident and wears a lot of era-appropriate hats, doesn’t veer far from Oleynik’s current aesthetic, most notable when she shows up for an interview in overalls and a red flannel.
“I walk around in cosplay of [Alex Mack],” she told BuzzFeed News while laughing. “I tell people this all the time. … I don’t know which one came first.”
It’s been nearly two decades since Oleynik left The Secret World of Alex Mack behind. Since the series ended, she’s had roles in film and TV, as well as theater, where she got her start as an 8-year-old in a San Francisco production of Les Misérables. And she’s now appearing in her first musical since then, Baghdaddy, a sharp, darkly funny look at the people whose mistakes and misinformation — both willful and otherwise — spurred the Iraq War.
“As someone who hadn’t done the show before and hadn’t done musical theater in a gazillion years, I should have been more prepared than I was,” Oleynik admitted. “I was not prepared at all.”
Oleynik first appeared in Baghdaddy in a 2015 production at the Actors Temple Theatre. But after completing that run and a year and a half off, she’s now fully aware of just how much effort she has to put into the show that’s running at St. Luke’s Theatre.
This is live theater, and a low-budget off-Broadway musical where no one can hide behind elaborate sets. “It’s a big, energetic commitment, and that’s actually what I love about the show,” Oleynik said. “All we have are each other, and we have to be locked in.”
In talking about her work, Oleynik frequently returns to the idea of community: It’s a word she uses often to describe the chosen families she’s found on film and TV sets, and onstage. It’s also a major driving force as she’s transitioned from child stardom to the more nebulous world of adult acting.
But Oleynik is also driven by the desire to take on challenging work and continue to prove her worth as an actor, acknowledging the stigma that follows former child stars, who are often regarded more as props than as professionals. She’s not resentful toward those who know her as Alex Mack — even when people who come to see Baghdaddy have expressed surprise that Oleynik is, in fact, a real actor — but she’s eager to show them what else she can do.
“I don’t take it personally,” she said. “Let me prove myself. … I’m constantly feeling that way, like, put me in. Put me in, Coach. Let me show you what I can do.”
Oleynik wasn’t sure she wanted to be a professional actor when she was doing Les Misérables. She was only 8, after all. But it was during the run when she met fellow child actor Rider Strong, who was playing Gavroche, and decided to follow his lead. She started working with the same agent and acting coach, and accompanying the Strong family on trips to Los Angeles to audition.
“At a certain point, I lost some anonymity, and that was a bummer.”
At first, it was just something to do, but eventually something clicked for Oleynik. “I remember being 10 years old and thinking, I want to be good at this,” she said. “It wasn’t about, I want to be on TV. It was more looking around at the other kids and being like, I’m not good at sports, I’m not really smart. I think I could be good at this, though.”
Once she started putting in the effort, Oleynik began booking work; her first gig was a guest spot on a 1993 episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The following year, she got her big break when she was cast on Alex Mack, after a short audition process she no longer remembers well. But while she was clear about the anxiety that goes into most pilot seasons, she felt an instant ease with this project: In playing Alex, she saw herself. Alex felt like a real 13-year-old trying to make sense of her life, with or without the ability to melt into a puddle or zap things with her fingers.
For those who weren’t raised by Nickelodeon, it’s difficult to convey what a smash The Secret World of Alex Mack was. It had the 8 p.m. lead-in on the Saturday night line-up SNICK, replacing the similarly iconic-to-millennials Clarissa Explains It All in 1994. SNICK was event television at the time, and the show’s success transformed Oleynik from “just an average kid” into a celebrity.
Oleynik maintains that she led as normal a life as possible, attending the same school she’d been going to since kindergarten. But her first time being recognized in public was a wake-up call. “I was like, This is weird. Is this my life now? And then it did become my life for a while,” she said. “At a certain point, I lost some anonymity, and that was a bummer.”
While Oleynik stayed grounded — with help from Nickelodeon, which she said wanted to let its young actors lead normal lives — she did have moments of discomfort with her new public persona. She was going through the rough early teen years that most of us would have rather spent hiding behind closed doors. Oleynik did enjoy some of the perks, she confessed, like Converse shoes sent to the cast. (“Is this what being a celebrity is?” she recalled wondering. “You get Converse?”) More importantly, she was glad to be a part of something that resonated with people.
As the show’s popularity rose, Oleynik continued to strive for normalcy. “We were pretty driven to do what we had been doing,” she said. “When things like that happen, they just kind of happen.”
The Secret World of Alex Mack could have gone on longer; it was Oleynik who decided to step away from the series in 1998 after four seasons. “Something was instilled in me very early on that you keep doing a thing as long as you want to do a thing,” she said. “Then I went back to high school and I was bored.”
But while she was ostensibly back in high school full-time, Oleynik was still acting as well. One of her most noteworthy jobs came around this time, when she played Bianca in 1999’s Taming of the Shrew-inspired 10 Things I Hate About You. But she also wanted to pursue higher education. While filming, she remembers applying to college alongside fellow 17-year-old costars Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Strangely enough, Oleynik ended up at Sarah Lawrence, the liberal arts college Stiles’ character Kat regards with reverence in 10 Things. At college, she almost fully moved on from acting, going on the occasional audition but focusing most of her energy into school. At the time, she doubted if she would ever return to her former career.
“I thought I probably wasn’t [going back to acting]. I didn’t study theater while I was there,” she said. “I just wrote a lot of really bad poetry.”
“I liked kind of starting over and having a little bit of a clean slate.”
Oleynik gushes about her time at Sarah Lawrence, saying she’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. But after graduating, she realized that her acting career wasn’t actually over. “What I thought was me wanting to leave the business was actually just me saying, no, I’m ready to be a different kind of actor,” she explained.
It wasn’t easy to step back into the acting world. For one thing, Oleynik had been mostly off the radar for a few years. For another, those who were familiar with her work knew her as a teen star, which meant she had to reintroduce herself as an adult actor. But that endeavor didn’t bother her — she appreciated that she was going out for smaller, more character-driven roles in movies and guest spots on TV shows.
“I liked kind of starting over and having a little bit of a clean slate,” she said. “And as soon as I got back on set, I was like, Oh, right, I love this.”
Most of what Oleynik has done since then has been lower-profile than her early work, but she’s managed to find roles that excite her. She did episodes of Malcolm in the Middle, Mike & Molly, and Without a Trace, and had recurring roles on Hawaii Five-O (where she got to die onscreen) and Mad Men (where she got to be married to Ken Cosgrove). She even returned to the world of teen television with an arc on Pretty Little Liars.
The way Oleynik sees it, acting is a relationship, and as long as she’s checking in with herself and making sure she still enjoys it, she’s glad to keep doing it. It helps that the hard-work aspect of being a character actor is something she treasures. When Baghdaddy came along, it was exactly the kind of endurance test she was looking for.
“I always find things that are challenging, but for me, roles like this come up about once every five years,” she said. “Whatever life this show has or doesn’t have, it is a reminder of the way that you want to feel in your work and the kinds of stuff you want to be seeking out. It’s always more fun when you’re challenging every part of yourself.”
That challenge included dancing. Oleynik admitted to being a bit taken aback when she first met Baghdaddy choreographer Misha Shields: This was going to be a real musical. And then, of course, there’s the singing — and rapping — as Oleynik’s CIA analyst Berry wrestles with her complicity in the Iraq War through song.
The show is largely lighthearted in its approach to recent history, but it’s not without somber moments. And the larger-than-life story is made all the more poignant and enraging by the fact that, as the actors remind the audience, it’s based on what really happened. Baghdaddy isn’t just challenging for the actors who perform it; it takes something out of the audience, too.
“At the end of the show, I get a chance to look around and feel like I’ve really, really shared in something with a whole new group of people, and it’s exciting and thrilling every time,” Oleynik said. “Most people leave with more of a sense of community and what’s possible with community, and being a little bit more vulnerable than you’re usually comfortable with.”
Doing the show has required Oleynik to step back into the public: She’s far more active on her Twitter account than she had been before the run, engaging in conversations with followers as she encourages people to come see a show that she believes is important.
To be fair, she hasn’t been totally MIA over the past decade — she’s just been more removed. But over the past few years, she’s picked up on the uptick in ’90s nostalgia that once again boosted her profile, as Alex Mack reruns returned to television and sunflower dresses popped up at Urban Outfitters. And even if she weren’t more actively involved in promoting Baghdaddy, she’d still be meeting people constantly. Oleynik said that she’s recognized at least once a day.
While some fans praise Alex Mack or 10 Things I Hate About You, there are also the people who don’t really know why they’re approaching Oleynik. They see her and feel compelled to say hi, because they’re sure — on some level — that they grew up together.
“People just constantly think they know me, but that we went to camp together,” she said, smiling warmly. “I take it as a huge compliment. Makes me feel cozy.”