Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and the Joy of Playing Villainous Goddesses

The “Shazam!” actresses say they signed on for their first superhero movie because the roles are a leap forward for women.

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By Elisabeth Vincentelli

If superheroes have one thing in common, it’s not so much capes or extraordinary abilities but memorable foes. As its spoilery title reveals, the new movie “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” (a sequel to 2019’s “Shazam!”) has supersized its antagonist factor by going for immortal divinities, plural.

Which is how Billy Batson (Zachary Levi), whose nom de superhero is Shazam, and his pals find themselves battling the daughters of Atlas as they do the kind of things power-mad mythological beings are wont to do: unleash oversized beasties, flatten entire cities and point menacingly into the distance.

“A good thing about being about magic and gods was that they didn’t have to be in a similar age or anything like that,” the director David F. Sandberg said by phone. “We could just cast the best people we could get.” That turned out to be Helen Mirren as the bossy eldest sister, Hespera, and Lucy Liu as the steely Kalypso. (Rachel Zegler, from “West Side Story,” plays younger sibling Anthea, whose relationship to humans is more ambiguous.)

Sandberg quickly realized that Mirren, 77, had not come to play — or maybe she had. “We had to talk her out of doing certain stunts that she wanted to do,” he said.

In a video interview, Liu, 54, and Mirren displayed an easygoing rapport, along with a few differences in temperament and approach. Calling from Los Angeles, Mirren dispensed lighthearted jokes and pretended to be a quasi-gadfly at this whole acting thing, while Liu, who was in New York, brought up the ins and outs of portraying an antagonist. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Hespera and Kalypso are introduced as gods rather than goddesses. Is it an important distinction?

LUCY LIU We’ve been talking about this, trust me. It’s “Fury of the Gods,” and I was like, “Shouldn’t it be goddesses?” We thought, “We’re already in that realm, as long as it’s not human, we’re fine.”

HELEN MIRREN See, I love being an actress. It feels very Belle Époque, very sort of 19th century. Certainly if I’m a god, I would think of myself as a goddess, I have to say.

LIU During press, we generally say that we are goddesses. [They both laugh.] This will be the only time I could say that.

What drew you to sign on for your first superhero movie?

MIRREN We’re above the superheroes. [Laughs] I don’t go see a lot of superhero films, quite honestly, but I had seen the first “Shazam” and been utterly charmed. So when “Shazam 2” came along, I thought, “Well, if I was going to do a superhero-type movie, that is the one I’d like to be involved in,” because of the wit.

LIU To have that experience with one another — outside of working on the blue screen and not really knowing exactly what was going on — was really special. I don’t immediately think about the characters as much as the relationship that was built from that time. We were all learning what we were supposed to be doing, and isolated. We were luckily in the same Covid pod with one another.

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