By David Weiner
Make no mistake: Margot Robbie runs the show onscreen and behind the scenes of the 2018 crime-thriller Terminal, in which she plays a vengeful femme fatale with an agenda taking on hired assassins and shadowy characters in a neon-lit, anachronistic film-noir setting.
“She’s a quirky waitress with a morbid fascination with death,” actress-producer Robbie told me about her duplicitous character, Annie, who holds several aces up her crimson sleeve. “As she says [in the film], she has an unquenchable bloodlust of darkness and depravity. She gets immense enjoyment out of carrying out sadistic pleasures.”
Writer-director Vaughn Stein’s darkly playful debut feature gleefully riffs on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with a touch of hard-boiled edge reminiscent of Sin City. Co-stars Simon Pegg, Mike Myers, Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons are players caught in Annie’s sinister web of intrigue.
As the film’s producer, Robbie — who received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her lead role in I, Tonya — was a key architect in bringing Stein’s story to life. With her LuckyChap Entertainment production company, she worked to develop the script, secure financing, line up the ideal crew, hunt down locations and proactively cast the story to achieve a fine-tuned hum. “And then we were off to the races,” she said, beaming. Indeed, the Australian-born star has a right to be proud of pulling off her latest project, given the challenges of indie-budget filmmaking.
“Vaughn had so many great ideas,” she recalled of her first read-through of Terminal. “I started asking questions, but I wasn’t expecting him to have an answer [regarding] backstory and motivation, and he had these incredible answers. And I was like, ‘Well, put that in the script, it’s so good!’”
As Stein said of the film’s version of the fable, “I really wanted to be able to convey the urban fairytale, and I think [Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland] was a really elegant way of doing it; we really stitched it into the DNA of the film. The iconography within Alice is so universal — everyone knows and everyone recognizes the Mad Hatter, the smoking Caterpillar — these are sort of totemic things in the collective conscious.”
Packed with “Easter eggs” — from the signage and costume design to pointed dialogue and five original Alice in Wonderland–themed songs written for the film by Newton Faulkner — the trick to watching Terminal is trying to determine who reflects whom from the classic Carroll tale, as most characters are not what they seem — including Annie. “It fits the world well,” Stein said. “It has that sense of surreal hypnosis and kaleidoscopic elements to it, so weaving it into Terminal made sense.”
The casting of Pegg as the sickly schoolteacher, Bill, also lends itself to the narrative misdirection, as no character is a saint in Terminal. “You fall into the trap of loving Bill and thinking he’s this nice guy,” Robbie said, “and there’s this certain comfort level, I think, with audiences when Simon’s onscreen. And then to have the rug torn out from under your feet like that, you feel even more deceived.”
“The script was very artful and it felt like theater,” Pegg told me. As his high-profile projects — the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises — have required heavy emoting and lots of physicality, he applauded Terminal’s subtlety and plot twists. “It wasn’t just exposition. I wasn’t just running around, not detonating bombs or saving the universe. I really loved the idea of playing something which was very much in contrast to other things that I’ve done. Maybe he starts out to be the kind of character you’d see me play, but he turns out to be someone you wouldn’t.”
Robbie’s eye for casting also impressively lured Mike Myers out of the woodwork to play a mysterious, limping janitor who may just hold the key to the heart of Terminal’s labyrinthine plot. What was the trick to luring Myers to the film? “Bananas,” Pegg joked. “We left them outside his place in New York.”
“And then a trail all the way to Budapest,” Robbie chimed in with a laugh.
Despite his in-disguise experiment as the quirky host of TV’s updated The Gong Show in 2017, Myers had not appeared in a major feature since 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. The prospect of getting the former Austin Powers comedian to do the film felt like a long shot.
“We were trying to find someone really unique, someone totally off the wall,” Stein recalled. Robbie added, “We kept saying we want a character actor, someone who really incorporates physicality into the role. … And with most things on this film, we thought, ‘Why not just try? Give it a go.’”
Robbie fully credited Stein with sealing the deal with Myers because the writer-director has “such a way with words, a way of explaining his vision and building a world in front of your eyes that you just want to dive inside it.” Stein says that once Myers was on board, his devotion to the role was intense, developing an entire backstory for his character. “He is impeccably prepared when he comes to set, and he pushes and pushes everyone around him as hard as he can, all in pursuit of the best it could be. It’s amazing to be around.”
The mission statement of LuckyChap, which Robbie founded in 2014 with partners Tom Ackerley and Josey McNamara, is a dedication “to championing strong female talent and stories, while providing a platform for a new generation of filmmakers to explore their craft.”
In that vein, Pegg, for his part, perceived Terminal to be a contributing voice to the empowering #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. “It’s a very timely film in that it’s essentially kind of like a ‘Time’s Up’ film,” Pegg said. “It’s about a woman taking revenge on all the toxic masculinity that’s affected her all through her life. And if Alice in Wonderland is about a woman being terrorized by a perverse society, this film is about a woman terrorizing a perverse society and taking revenge. It just feels like, ‘Wow, this is really on point.’” Though Terminal was written in 2015 and filmed in Budapest in the summer of 2016, Pegg opined, “This feels like it could have been written last year as a reaction to everything that’s happened rightly in society recently.”
On a high-speed career climb thanks to her head-spinning bad–girl performance as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad and her acclaimed turn as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, Robbie has demonstrated that she will not be satisfied simply to wait for great projects to fall in her lap — even if her phone is blowing up these days. Going down the rabbit hole with LuckyChap, she’s aggressively moving forward with a diverse slate of projects in film and television. Guiding Quinn’s return for DC’s Birds of Prey with Cathy Yan directing — along with her attachment to multiple other in-the-works Quinn projects — Robbie is also taking on juicy roles that include Queen Elizabeth in Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, trapeze artist Lillian Leitzel in Queen of the Air, a revisionist take on Maid Marian that twists the Robin Hood legend in Marian, a fugitive bank robber in the Dust Bowl thriller Dreamland and many others.
Explaining her nothing-ventured-nothing-gained, can-do mindset, Robbie said matter-of-factly, “I guess the idea is that you wait until someone says they’ll do your project. And then [at LuckyChap] we’re like, ‘If that’s not going to happen, why don’t we just do it?’”
After seeing the results of Terminal, the star’s trajectory is clear: It’s her time on and off screen.
(First published in L.A. Weekly on May 11, 2018)
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