Photo Credit: Cara Howe/Netflix
Constructed in the nineteenth century and situated inside Central Park, the Bethesda Fountain – with its Angel of the Waters statue – is one of the most recognisable elements of New York City. The area around it consists of two levels; the upper one commands a view of the park, while the lower one features a passage full of decorative carvings, and a tiled-ceiling, flanked by a grand staircase on one side, and the fountain itself on the other.
During the day, the terrace is filled with people, who are either sightseeing, escaping from the urban life, or simply out for a stroll. At night, it’s an entirely different setting. Except for a few joggers, and the occasional passing-by car, there isn’t much activity. On a late September evening last year though, the situation was far from that. A number of large vehicles lined the walkaway, the terrace was lit up by huge fluorescent light fixtures, hundred-foot poles fitted with multiple sprinklers shot up into the air to simulate rain, and about fifty people were running around.
That’s because Netflix was in the middle of production for its fourth superhero television series, Marvel’s Iron Fist. The streaming service had invited us onto the sets, to observe and chat with the cast and crew, as it filmed what would eventually become part of the season’s penultimate episode, due for release in the traditional Netflix style – all at once – on March 17.
Like the other Marvel shows before it, it’s set in modern New York, and features characters that are largely grounded in reality. Except Iron Fist himself, of course. Tweaking his story from the comics, Danny Rand – the son of wealthy parents – is presumed dead in a plane crash. Instead, he is taken in by the inhabitants of K’un-Lun, who teach him in their mystical ways. Rand returns to New York fifteen years later, with immense power and strength in his right fist.
The Marvel-Netflix collaborations have all been about street-level heroes; they've not been about saving the world from aliens or killer robots, unlike in The Avengers. But with Iron Fist, there seems to be a fantastical quality that rest of The Defenders has stayed away from. Until now. Finn Jones, the English actor who plays the titular character, think there’s something else different about him as well.
"I think what makes Danny stand out from the other three is that he has an optimism, and a youthful inspiration, which the other characters don't have,” Jones said. “All the other characters are quite dark; they have been through the mill quite a lot. Danny is fresh, and I think he brings a lot of that to the show."
Even visually, he added, their locations set them apart. “It's also very elegant. Look where we are filming today,” he said, pointing to the fountain behind us. “It's beautiful. And the whole show is beautiful. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, it takes place in like Hell's Kitchen, it's quite gritty. We shoot in Wall Street, [and] Gramercy Park. We're in these big, gorgeous, [luxurious] sets.”
Jones wasn’t alone in Central Park that night. He shot with three other cast members, including Jessica Henwick, a good friend of his through their mutual work on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Loras Tyrell and Nymeria Sand – the characters played by Jones and Henwick respectively – may have never met on screen, but thanks to Comic Cons, press tours, and table reads, the two have known each other for a while.
Henwick believed they were “so lucky” to have access to such iconic places as the Bethesda Fountain. "We have access to a place that is normally flooded with tourists,” she said. “We have it here, and we are filming with a rain machine. Like it looks so epic, and that's always the appeal of these bigger productions, is the scale of it is insane.”
The fame of Star Wars, and chasing after Iron Fist
On Iron Fist, Henwick plays Colleen Wing, a Japanese-American martial arts sensei who owns a small dōjō in New York’s Chinatown neighbourhood. Henwick is of East Asian descent. "Colleen is interesting, in that she's had a very troubled childhood,” Henwick told us on set. “Her mother died when she was very young, [and] she wasn't raised by her father. She was sent to her grandparents in Japan, and moved back to America.”
Owing to that, Henwick remarked, Wing “doesn’t feel at home anywhere”, adding, "she doesn't know which culture she belongs to. She's kind of a chameleon, and so I tried to infuse that in the series, that she shifts when she's with different people. You know, the same way when you're talking to your boss, you speak in one tone of voice, and when you're talking to your friend, you speak in another tone of voice. She does that, but in terms of how New York she gets versus how traditional Japanese she gets.”
Unlike Rand, Wing has no superpowers. “I like that she's ordinary,” Henwick said. "It's nice to see a strong woman, and there's no reason to it. She's just strong. It's not because she was hit by a radioactive bomb, or something.” The 24-year-old English actress seems to gravitate towards such roles, it seems. Her best known role is as a skilled, cunning warrior on Game of Thrones, and now she plays a martial arts expert and talented swordswoman on Marvel’s Iron Fist.
Back when Marvel announced Iron Fist for Netflix, Henwick looked up the list of characters, and spotted Wing. She immediately emailed her agent, gave her Wing’s character traits – since production houses use aliases to prevent leaks; for example, Jessica Jones was called Violet – and told her to keep an eye on auditions that would come in.
“And lo and behold, in December when I made a self-tape, it came in under a false project name, and the character was called 'Christine',” Henwick remarked. “And [my agent] was like 'I think this is the character you were telling me about.' And I said '100%. I have no doubt, that, that is Colleen Wing.'"
A lucky death, and the dolphin story
Jones sent in a self-tape around the same time, though he was introduced to the project in an entirely different fashion. He was at the airport after his last day of filming for Game of Thrones – [spoiler alert] the character died in the fifth season finale – and started wondering what would be next for him. “And I get this email for a television show, and I open it,” he said. “I realise it's a Marvel superhero, and I'm like 'Whoa, this is pretty cool. [But] yeah, I'm never going to be a superhero. C'mon, it's like a million miles away.'”
He travelled to Los Angeles a couple of months later, to take part in auditions during the pilot season, hoping to land a new show. Incidentally, Iron Fist ended up being his first audition, Jones revealed. He described the casting process to be quite elongated – having to do multiple screen tests, auditioning in front of various people, which comes with the Marvel territory, and jumping through “lots of hoops”.
Jones vividly recalled the day he got the nod, last February. “I was on Venice Beach with a friend of mine, and the sun was just setting,” he said. “This sounds ridiculous, but it's completely true. As the sun was setting, these dolphins started like jumping up out of the sea, and I was like 'This is a good omen.'” As he got back to his car, he received a voicemail telling him the Iron Fist role was his. “I lost my mind,” he said, with excitement in his voice. “I called my mum up straight away, I was jumping up and down, I just couldn't believe it.”
For Henwick, a call came in the week after Jones was cast. “I got a phone call saying they want to fly you to LA for 24 hours,” she said. The two, being good friends, had spoken in the meantime. So when she heard from Netflix, Henwick rang up the man who would play Rand. Jones added: “Jess called me and said, 'Hey, I've got a screen test for Iron Fist. I'm coming to LA tomorrow.' And I was like 'No f------ way. Come to my house the night before.' She landed, came straight to my place, [and] we ran through the scenes together.”
Even though Jones auditioned with other actresses for the same role, he noted that they “had a good thing going on”. “We went there as a team together, and we got the job, so it was great,” he added. “It's good to kind of stand by your friends in moments like that, and help each other out.”
When Henwick landed back in England, she got a phone call from Marvel Television executive VP Jeph Loeb: “And he said 'Just wanted to check you got home safe’. And I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I'm home safe, I'm fine', thinking this is a bit weird the head of Marvel TV called me. And then, he said 'Oh, I've a very small thing, and it's four words that are going to change your life: Welcome to Marvel, Jess’.”
Martial arts, and gritty realism
After that, things began to pick up steam. Marvel’s Iron Fist went on the floors at the end of March, but both Jones and Henwick had a lot to do before that – studying their characters, dialect and accent practice, and training in martial arts, and with weapons.
"People train years, [even] all their life. I had two months," Jones said, to laughter. "So it was a lot of work. Before we started shooting, I was working in the dōjō. I was doing two hours of martial arts, and two hours of weight training. I didn't want to bulk up; he's meant to be slender, toned, kind of more agile, and athletic, rather than a muscle-bound gym rat.”
Henwick was assigned to aikido classes in England, straightaway. And when she flew into New York, she worked with series stunt coordinator Brett Chan, and his assistants, who taught her other martial arts styles – including kick-boxing, and Krav Maga – and how to use a katana, a traditional Japanese sword that’s the weapon of choice for Colleen Wing. "It was intense,” she noted. “I've transformed my body over these past five months. I've never felt so physically capable, as I do now."
For Jones, one of the best things about his character, he thought, was that he’s full of contradictions. “He's a corporate, wealthy, materialist billionaire, who has also studied Buddhism, and martial arts,” he added. “And it's in these contradictions, that I think the character excels, really becomes interesting.”
Henwick, for her part, was initially worried that it’d turn out to be a “2D book” performance, seeing as Wing was a comic book character. “But thankfully with Colleen,” she added, “there was so much to draw upon, and the writers put so much in her that I had so many things. I think that's what I liked about her, she's very layered.”
When it came to playing the character, Jones relied as much on the script, as on himself. “With characters, I like them to be much a part of me, as they are the character,” he said. “So I bring a lot of myself into the role, as well as what is written.” He added that even though the showrunner, Scott Buck, had his own vision of Danny Rand, he also left a lot of it up to Jones. “I'm very grateful to Scott, and Marvel and Netflix, because it allows me as an artist to breathe, and put my own stamp on the character,” he said.
Jones continued to sing the praises of Netflix and Marvel’s approach, and remarked on how they are taking out “that Hollywood aspect of the superhero”. “There are so many superhero films coming out, and I think a majority of the audience are pretty fed up with how generic they are,” he said.
While it’s easy to place a larger portion of the blame on Warner Bros/ DC productions, Marvel’s own big-screen fare has threatened to turn into risk-free boilerplate. On the other hand, the Netflix offerings have never shied away from its gritty realism. Daredevil’s two seasons have been brutal, and unforgiving; Jessica Jones dealt with abusive relationships, and was pushed beyond the cliff edge; and Luke Cage couldn’t outrun his past forever.
“More than anything, Iron Fist is about character development and story,” Jones noted, echoing the words of Buck. “And to get that kind of storytelling with the superhero genre, it's a winner. It's intelligent, it's interesting, it's what the audience want.”
When we visited in late September, both Jones and Henwick had another two weeks before wrap-up. The two are now busy filming for the mini-series Marvel’s The Defenders, which will bring all four superheroes – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist – together with other cast members. Like a TV version of The Avengers, but just once.
That’s not due until the summer though; before that, Iron Fist arrives mid-next month. Could we see Luke Cage on the show, and give fans a glimpse at Heroes for Hire? Jones wouldn’t be held down on an answer, and simply said: "It's possible, anything is possible."
Disclosure: Netflix sponsored the correspondent’s travel and accommodation for the duration of the visit.