When Carla Gugino received a screenplay from the Israeli writer-director Navot Papushado in mid-2019, the title immediately caught her eye. “When I saw the words Gunpowder Milkshake, I thought, Mmm, I think I want to be a part of this,” she says with a laugh in a recent interview.
Directed by Papushado and co-written by him and Ehud Lavski, the female-led action thriller follows Sam (Karen Gillan), an elite assassin who has followed in the footsteps of her estranged mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), whom she hasn’t seen in nearly 15 years. After being raised by The Firm, the ruthless crime syndicate that her mother had once worked for, Sam has become the organization’s ultimate hitwoman, as she is tasked with cleaning up the group’s most dangerous messes.
But when a high-risk job goes wrong, Sam must choose between serving The Firm — a wealthy group that includes Nathan (Paul Giamatti) as its head of PR — or saving the life of an innocent 8-year-old girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman). With a target on her back, Sam reunites with her mother and their lethal associates, known as the Librarians (Gugino, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh). Together, this intergenerational group of female assassins takes a stand against The Firm and its army of henchmen.
It’s not like your typical day involves fighting with a tomahawk in your right hand.
In a phone interview from her home in New York City, Gugino opens up to Observer about her character Madeleine, the “super refreshing” appeal of playing characters who are not defined by their age, the opportunity to collaborate with an all-star group of kick-ass women for the first time, and the way that the industry has evolved over the course of her career to fill an untapped market and growing desire for more female-led stories.
[Note: The following interview contains spoilers for Gunpowder Milkshake.]
Observer: When you first received this script, what was it about the character of Madeleine and her relationships with these fascinating women that really spoke to you?
Carla Gugino: I had a conversation with Navot Papushado, and he was so passionate about what he wanted to do with this and also having a lot of his film references in terms of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez—[who] are people I know well or who I have collaborated with. So I loved the idea of the poppy nature that he wanted to bring to the screen, but also this incredible group of women that he was assembling. I, first and foremost, just really wanted to be a part of helping him bring his vision to the screen.
It felt like there was a creative connection that I really appreciated initially, and at that time, Lena and Karen were attached and I think Angela, Michelle and I were all coming on at around the same time. And I thought, What a total joy to work with these women — which it, indeed, was. We’ve all been admirers of each other’s work over the years, but none of us had ever worked together. And the first day on set, it felt like there was no ego, there was a natural collaboration, there was a very strong work ethic, and we also wanted to have fun. So that was such a beautiful, kind of kismet experience.
In terms of Madeleine, I talked to Navot, just in terms of the backstory that I was working with and what I wanted to bring, even if it wasn’t explicit. We would sort of feel it, which is the notion that she truly is a lover of literature, and the library is her sanctuary. Maybe she’d even sworn off of violence for a period of time, and it’s not until a kid is in there and needs to be protected that she will stop at nothing [to protect her]. I loved the idea that when you live with people, you all sort of take on a role. And we know, in our families, that when we go back home, all of a sudden you’re sitting down and you’re however old you are, you’re talking to your parents, and you feel like you’re 12 again. So I felt like, in this way, I was intrigued about Madeleine’s role in this family of three. I love that Anna Mae [played by Bassett] has this hot-headed nature, and [Florence, played by Yeoh] by nature is this beautiful, zen goddess anyway, and then in some ways, Madeleine represents the heart.
How did you work with the rest of the production team to come up with Madeleine’s distinctive look?
Well, we had such a beautiful team and our costume designer [Louise Frogley] is amazing. There are some early Brigitte Bardot images that came to mind for me, oddly — I don’t know why. It’s the 1960s, so she had this certain kind of hair that was [pulled] back that felt both innocent and kind of sexy at the same time — a juxtaposition that was sort of unusual — and I loved the notion of a little tie or something. I felt like I wanted it to be very feminine, so I found this image of this sort of ribbon, and [with] our costume designer, we started working from there with it. It emerged from there, and she got very inspired as well.
It was honestly 100 degrees in Berlin that summer. So let’s put it this way: It felt like you were doing stunts in a sauna.
The costumes are certainly one piece of the puzzle in this beautiful film, but you ladies definitely put the costumes through the wringer with those unbelievable stunts.
Yeah! Angela and I keep laughing about it because we had a sweater or wool pants, or she had a vest, and it was honestly 100 degrees in Berlin that summer, which is where we shot it. So let’s put it this way: It felt like you were doing stunts in a sauna.
How did the stunt training for Gunpowder Milkshake compare to the training that you underwent for Jett or San Andreas?
Different in the sense that I’ve done quite a few stunts, but I haven’t done a lot of fights. I’ve done certain work with guns or running or jumping or flying or wirework, but I hadn’t done a lot of real flat-out fight sequences. So this is very different in the sense that Laurent [Demianoff] and Sébastien [Peres] — our two main stunt coordinators, they’re from France and they had done Lucy and a bunch of other cool films — they were so fantastic. They designed these sequences like dances, and they also gave us the confidence that we could do it. I think that Karen obviously had many more fights, so she had a longer time to prep. I think the Librarians, we all had a week and a half of training every day until we shot our sequences. And it was intense! It’s always good to push yourself to the limit where you’re not sure if you’re gonna be able to pull it off.
There was no warm-up. Had I known what the fight would have been, it probably would have been good for me to do a bunch of arm exercises leading up to it. (Laughs.) But it’s not like your typical day involves fighting with a tomahawk in your right hand. So, at about day three, I woke up and I could not lift my right arm. I was like, “Oh no… I desperately want to do this fight scene, and maybe I shouldn’t tell them.” But I felt like I had to tell them because they were going to notice pretty soon, and I said it. And they were like, “Oh, don’t worry. Get a little physical therapy, put some ice on it, you’ll be good as new.” And I was! So actually, it was fine. And then I was able to do about 95 [percent of the stunts] — maybe even more. I don’t even know if there is a shot in that particular sequence that is a stunt person, but I was able to do a large part of it, which was really cool. It was very gratifying.
Well, your right arm must have been very big and muscular by the end of those fight sequences!
When you work with a group of seasoned veterans both behind and in front of the camera, do you feel even more pressure to deliver — particularly in a movie that is as physical as it is emotional — or does it breed an even more open and collaborative environment?
I always feel like you want people who will up your game, and you’ll do that for them. So for me, the more skilled and talented people are on both sides of the camera, the more in heaven I am, because there’s not anyone who’s trying to prove themselves or who is defensive. Navot definitely surrounded himself with people who have had a lot of experience, which, I think, was super smart on his part.
It’s been reported that a sequel for Gunpowder Milkshake is already in the works. Even though your character technically dies in the film (as far as we know!) there could always be an evil twin lurking around the corner or another twin who could come back…
One hundred percent! Yes, we are in a world of potential flashbacks and twins and many things, so I know what you mean. There are many possibilities.
So would you be interested in revisiting this world in some capacity and who would you like to add to this intergenerational group of female assassins?
Oh, wow. I would absolutely have such a blast jumping in with this group again. And I hope it would be all of this group, and in terms of what other people, my gosh — well, my friend Jodie Turner-Smith, who’s a fantastic actress. She would be a badass in this genre. She plays Josie in Jett, and she’s obviously done many other things since then. But wow, I mean… (Long pause.) Well, Paul Giamatti was so amazing, even though we never got to have a scene together. It’s funny [that] we were both in San Andreas and we were both in this, and we still have not actually worked together in a scene yet. So, maybe the third time will be the charm on that one. (Laughs.)
But there are so many great actresses that I want to work with. I think the fact that all of us have been working for so long, and none of us had worked together is actually kind of case-in-point that there is usually only one or two women in a movie. So, you don’t usually get to have what guys have where there are five male characters and they get to work with their fellow peers, you know what I mean? Obviously, there were a bunch of wonderful characters in Jett as [writer-director] Sebastián Gutiérrez always does, but I do feel like that list could go on forever. It would take too much of your time.
I was struck by how young Chloe Coleman was when she shot this film, but she has a maturity beyond her years. You began acting when you were 13, a little bit older than Chloe is now. How have you managed to navigate being under the spotlight from such an early age? How has your approach to fame changed over the course of your career?
I think it’s an odd position to be in, to be in the public eye for most of your life and to see yourself grow and change and age. It’s a very unusual set of circumstances. But I think what’s good is that — for whatever reason, and I have my parents to thank for this and the support system of friends that I’ve had around me — fame or recognizability has been just part and parcel with doing the work that I love. It’s never been my driving force, and it wasn’t from the start either. I think maybe now, more than ever, the thing that might have shifted is, I guess, I’ve gone even deeper into the process and [I’m] even less interested in that aspect, though I’m extremely appreciative that I have an audience that I get to tell stories to and with.
I’ve worked with so many kids, and Chloe has such a strong head on her shoulders. She is a super grounded kid, and it’s always super wonderful when you see that because she’ll fare so well in this business. And she’s so talented, obviously.
In this industry, it’s certainly no secret that the roles for most women of a certain age have historically been limited or boxed in to fit a specific narrative. But I loved how fierce and unapologetic the Librarians were in this film. Have you noticed a shift in the types of roles that you are offered now compared to earlier in your career? And was it refreshing to play a character who is not defined by her age?
Absolutely. I think one of the things that is so refreshing about the people involved in this movie is the age is never mentioned, and it’s never even a part of the plot. Because like you said, it’s so often [that] male ages are not mentioned and female ages are mentioned. And as soon as you can say a female’s age, it gets said, so it’s confusing because it would be fine if it worked both ways.
What is encouraging is that, from when I was in my late teens and early twenties, there wasn’t a young woman who was writing, directing and starring in her own show. I think what’s really exciting is now there’s a lot of those, and you have things like Fleabag. You could list a bunch of them, but more importantly, the 25-year-old women in my life are galvanized to create their own material and feel really empowered to do so and feel like there’s a world in which they can make it and that people will be interested in seeing it. So, for me, that is so gratifying. I really do see a really positive shift in that direction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gunpowder Milkshake is now streaming on Netflix in the U.S., Canada, and the Nordics and will be available in theaters internationally this summer.