Fun fact: Chloé Zhao was one of the filmmakers considered for Black Widow. While that coveted job eventually went to Cate Shortland, the China-born Zhao went on to pitch something else to Marvel Studios: her take on Eternals, based on Jack Kirby’s 1976 comic series about an immortal alien race who has been defending humanity for millennia from monstrous creatures known as the Deviants. Needless to say, her bold vision won over the top brass and the rest is history. Or rather the future. The indie auteur — who would go on to be feted with a Best Director Oscar for Nomadland — is behind many firsts for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): the first LBGTQ superhero, the first deaf superhero, the first South-Asian superhero, and the first musical sequence (kinda). Here, Zhao, speaking to and other journos via Zoom shortly after the Eternals’ world premiere in LA, shares more about her magnum opus featuring a diverse cast, including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani Richard Madden and Brian Tyree Henry.

Were you an MCU fan before boarding Eternals?

I’ve been a Buffy fan my whole life. So when the first Avengers [directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon] came out, “Wow, we are going to do this, we are going to bring the heroes together!”. That got me really into the door. I fell in love around the time of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War.

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A day at the beach: Zhao giving Gemma Chan (as Sersi) some tips on how to save the world from impending doom. 

You hired non-actors in your earlier films, The Rider, and Songs My Brother Taught Me. In Nomadland, you used non-actors as well. In Eternals, you’ve assembled a star-studded cast. Which do you prefer? Professional or non-professional actors?

I believe [German filmmaker] Werner Herzog said — Werner, don’t get mad if I misquote you — don’t think of it as actors [and non-actors], think of it as authentic performances and inauthentic performances. That is really how I feel. Having Nomadland as a transition was very helpful: work with Frances McDormand and see how she was able to adapt to the way I like to work. So coming to Eternals, casting is everything. Sara Finn, our casting director, went out to look for great actors but also someone who has a bit about them that is already in the character we wrote.

One of the many highlights in Eternals is the Bollywood dance sequence featuring Kumail Nanjiani. Do you think you can now do a full-blown movie musical?

Funny that you said it. I think someone asked during Nomadland, what would be my dream project? I said, a musical. I didn’t even think [about the answer]. I cannot imagine myself doing that but I love musicals. It was so much fun. I had such a great time filming it. Kumail and the entire team — the choreographer, the dancers.  everyone — was so excited to do it. For a relatively heavy movie, it was amazing to be on set.

Have you a favourite Eternals character?

Do you have children? I enjoy working with all of them. They each brought something unique [to the table] but, you know, the 10 of them represent different things of what we are, different aspects of humanity. So, yes, my hope is always that audience can watch this and go, ‘I identify with Ikaris or Sersi’.

I would say lately on different days I have different feelings [for certain characters]. Lately, I thought about Thena [played Angelina Jolie] and what she had to go through, someone who went through trauma in her life [and]. She is so [full of] fire and energy but eventually, she realises she has to be vulnerable to allow healing to happen. I think that’s a really universal message. I think a lot of us can relate to that.

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Guiding superheroes: Zhao on the set of 'Eternals' with Don Lee (as Gilgamesh) and Richard Madden (as Ikaris). 

You shot Eternals shortly after wrapping Nomadland. How much of that film influenced the making of Eternals?  

Nomadland influenced this film greatly because I pitched Eternals to Marvel Studios within a month I was prepping Nomadland. I got the call that I got the job three or four days before I started shooting.

Nomadland is very much about a woman leaving her home and going to the wild, trying to form a connection with new people and with nature and find her a sense of belonging and self.

Spending all that time out there in the different landscapes, on some days [some ideas for] Eternals started [to brew]. I read the treatment: How we are going to capture these heroes and make the audience believe they’d walked the earth for 7,000 years and they fell in love with our planet — with us. How do we show that? I look around [the Nomadland locations]: this is how you show it. Big time, I would say. 

Eternals (M18) is now in cinemas; Nomadland is now streaming on Disney+.