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Like Dejah Thoris, the fierce Martian warrior-princess and scientist she plays in the Disney action-adventure John Carter, actress Lynn Collins isn’t afraid to get a little rough.
A black-belt martial artist who’s been handling swords since childhood, Collins recalled impressing John Carter director Andrew Stanton and his producers while auditioning with a scene that required her to slap her male companion. While other actresses lightly patted the faces of their counterparts, Collins decided to smack her way through the audition and into the role of the film’s female lead.
“Yeah, I think I made some enemies that day!” Collins told Spinoff Online, sheepishly grinning as she remembered the incident. “Even people I worked with before, I was just like, ‘I’ll hit him,’ and I never heard from them again!”
The Texas-born actress is no stranger to science fiction and fantasy roles, having appeared in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and on the first season of HBO’s True Blood. However, getting into the role of warrior-princess Dejah was a little trickier than Collins initially imagined.
“Honestly, I’ll tell you, just before the take — it was the first take and my first scene — I was like, ‘Holy shit, I don’t know what I’m going to do!’” she confessed. The actress quickly rallied, though, opening her mind to outside influences and playing the character closer to herself.
“I just had this moment where I said, ‘Universe, higher self, whatever you are, channel through me this archetypal woman.’ That’s what I drew on,” Collins said. “I wouldn’t dare to say I know enough to know exactly what the movie needed from her, nor what the world needs from a character like this, so I was like, ‘Do it for me!’”
Beyond being the princess of the Martian city-state of Helium, Dejah is the regent of the Royal Academy of Science, on the verge of a breakthrough that could save her world from destruction. Collins noted her role in John Carter was greatly expanded, as the Dejah Thoris in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels isn’t a scientist, and serves as a more conventional damsel in distress.
“It was Andrew [Stanton] who was like, make her a stronger woman, and then we made her too strong and we had to go back and open up some of the vulnerabilities and accessibility. It’s tricky!” Collins said. “Being a strong, intelligent woman, it’s tricky because sometimes people don’t like that and you have to temper it to different ways. Hopefully there’s so many of these role models coming in of women of strength that we don’t have to deal with this crap forever.”
For research, she read A Princess of Mars and its sequels, but neither Collins nor Stanton ended up using anything from the 11-volume Barsoom series when it came to Dejah.
“Honestly with the [novel’s] Dejah stuff I was like, can’t use this. It’s written in a way that I was like, ‘I think she’s stronger.’ And Andrew was like, ‘No no, not the books!’ Even though it is the books, she is not of the books,” she explained.
A Julliard-trained actress, Collins said that while in school she made herself a bucket list of what types of roles she hoped to play. As a result, she felt she didn’t have trouble finding strong female leads.
“When I was at Julliard definitely when they were casting things I had a meeting with Michael Khan, who was head of the school at the time, and I said, ‘Burn me out. I want to leave this school burned out, so give me all the leads next year.’ And he did!” Collins laughed. “[They] were all different characters, but the characters that challenge me to be a better person are usually the ones I’m better at.”
When asked what roles challenged her most, Collins laughed again: “Martians! Red Martians are really difficult!”
“In seriousness, I think there was a role I played in a movie recently called Angels Crest, and she was a mother who had lost a child and had a problem with alcohol and drugs,” she said. “Those are roles where you’re just at your gut delivering whatever you can to make it real. Those are the roles that are really hard for me.”
There were also unique challenges to playing Dejah Thoris, Collins said, highlighting the scene where two versions of the alien princess are fighting and speaking simultaneously.
“That Dejah/Dejah fight I had to learn both sides and do both sides, and the day we shot it I just couldn’t get it,” she said. “I could do the fights but I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth and I was so discouraged.”
In fact, Collins said she was so “pissed” that the scene led to one of her few breakdowns on set. “I cried. I went back to my trailer and put two tissues at the [corners of] my eyes, because God forbid I fuck up the makeup, went down and sobbed, squeezing the sobs out. Then I got it out, went back, nailed it,” she said, a touch of pride entering her voice. “But it took crying to get there.”
“The first stunt, we show up and I see the stunt people do it and I’m like, ‘Woo, this is great!’ Then they’re like, ‘OK, let’s get your harness,’ and I was like, ‘Uh?’ I look at [Kitsch] and he goes, ‘No regrets, Collins,” the actress recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m going to get in this fucking harness!’”
Despite her performance in both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and now John Carter, Collins doesn’t see herself solely pursuing an action career, although she realized many people will be expecting it of her.
“So much of it isn’t in the actor’s control,” she admitted. “People are going to try to pigeonhole me — they won’t succeed but they’ll try.”
Of course, there was only one question left for the serious and classically trained actress: What did it feel like to wear the low-cut 120,000 Swarovski crystal-encrusted wedding dress that Dejah spends a good portion of the movie fighting in?
“That’s when I was like, hold in my gut! Thank you! Good night!” Collins joked, taking a bow. “It was so beautiful and I worked so hard to stay in shape, it was so regal. [Costume designer] Mayes Rubeo is the designer and she’s bar none!”
John Carter opens Friday nationwide.