You may have seen Jennifer Holland on Cougar Town, CSI: Miami Bones or American Horror Story. Now, you can catch her in HBO Max’s newest DC series, Peacemaker. Ahead of the Jan. 13 premiere, she gave LA Confidential the inside scoop on working with John Cena, collaborating with her partner, James Gunn, and why her character, Emilia Harcourt, is such a badass.
From cable networks to streamers, superhero film and TV is quite a rich, plentiful landscape. What do you think makes Peacemaker a standout?
For better or for worse, it's really nothing like anything that is on TV. It's not like any other DC show, it's not like any other superhero show. It's really, really unique. And that's James, that's James Gunn. He's got his own voice and he has melded sort of this incredible depth of these characters that he's created who are real people. They're mostly not super in any way. They are just regular citizens who all have flaws and issues and insecurities, and he's melded that with his incredible comedic sensibilities and the lightness that he tends to have. It's probably one of the more darkly comedic things that James has done. It's more in line with Suicide Squad’s tone than it would be, say, to Guardians [of the Galaxy].
Can you tell us more about Emilia Harcourt?
When James wrote the character in The Suicide Squad, originally, I think she was called, “Communications Tech Two” or something like that. Her character sort of grew as he was writing The Suicide Squad, and so he decided it was appropriate to give her the name “Emilia Harcourt” because he thought it would be really fun for fans to look at the credits and see “Oh, that's Emilia Harcourt!” He didn't really have any plans beyond that, but then COVID happened and we were stuck in doors for the greater part of 2020.
James doesn't ever know how to just kick back and relax, and he needed something to sort of occupy his mind so he decided to create a TV show and sell it to HBO Max. I don't even know how he did it, but he wrote it so quickly, and it just happened so fast. So this character that he had written into the film kind of just grew. He didn't really have any plans to make her a lead character in the TV show. He just kind of sat down to write the best story that he could write.
Harcourt is an undercover operative and she is someone who has been working in this field for a very long time. She's a hardened soldier. The exciting thing for me that I discovered when starting to work on her character was that she was so hard, she was so cold and I had to figure out where that came from. I just realized that working in this type of field for so long, I think you have to harden yourself because you are watching people die and you're killing people constantly. And unless you're just a sociopath, you have to shut yourself off or it's going to tear you apart. I think that she learned that having any type of emotional attachments in your life can get you killed… She's just so different than any character that I've ever played before and she's incredibly complex. And she's also a total badass.
It’s so great learn about how James created the show in the first place. For you, what’s it like working with your partner on a TV show?
Having a partner who is in the industry is probably different for everyone. For us, it's a really cool relationship that we have because, over the six or seven years that we've been together, he has just learned to trust me in a lot of ways. He thinks that I have good ideas and he includes me in the processes of a lot of the things that he does. I would say that he didn't include me in any way, really, in the process of writing Peacemaker. To some degree he did, he would bounce certain ideas off of me… [but] I think he didn't want to get me too excited about my character.
Normally when he's writing a Guardian script or The Suicide Squad, he's just constantly bouncing ideas off of me or just telling me something because he needs to say it out loud to see if if it makes sense or whatver. I just feel like such a part of his life, and I think it would be difficult if he didn't trust me in that way because working is most of James's life.
What is your artistic process like?
When I sit down to start to deal with a new character, I'll go back through the character's life story and fill in the blanks of what we don't know from whatever the writer has given us on a script. And that's so that if you're talking about your past or how something affects you, you have something to draw from. You're not just making things up. You know what the characters' life story is because that's what makes us who we are as human beings.
[With James,] we had only worked with each other for short periods of time previously to this show, so we had no idea how [Peacemaker] was going to go. We were both sort of on edge going, “How's this gonna work? We haven't really melded our professional and personal lives in this way.” And it was beautiful; it was amazing. We both walked away from it feeling closer to each other than we were before the experience.
DC Comics has such a passionate, steadfast fandom. Does it add pressure or does it make things more exciting?
I think that it does add a certain amount of pressure because some of these fans have been with these characters for their whole lives because they've been reading comic books. It's very similar to any series of novels that then get turned into movies. I think that people have certain expectations. And to some degree, people's imaginations, the things they see in their mind's eye when they're reading something is so vivid and beautiful, and it gets attached in their brains. And you think, ‘Oh my god, how am I ever going to live up to that?” Whatever that expectation is. But I know that from being with James for so long, you just can't make everybody happy. Everyone is going to have their own opinion. And sometimes they're gonna like you and sometimes they're gonna hate you, and you just have to do the best that you can. I think, as a person in this position, you just have to put your all into it. You have to commit to what you have decided upon and you just give the fans what you can give them, which is 100% of your effort to create a full story and a full character and a really vivid, complex world for them to enjoy and hope that it meets their expectations.
What else is important to know about Peacemaker?
I want to gush about John Cena. He's the lead character on the show and he is just a larger-than-life celebrity.
I met him on The Suicide Squad… I didn't get to know him that well during the [shoot,] so I didn't know what to expect and he is just the most wonderful person that we could have ever gotten to be the lead of our series. He gave 150 percent all the time. He was often the first person to show up on set. He never complained about anything. I just feel so lucky. It kind of permeates through the whole cast and crew what that person in the main role brings to work every single day. He's a consummate professional. I don't even know where his improv comes from. He's just constantly improving. His brain is a never-ending trove of improv. He's just wonderful. And on top of all of the hard work that he gave to the show, he's just also like an incredibly self-actualized, wonderful person. I've learned a lot from him and I hope to God that someday again I'll get to work with John because he's just the greatest.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Photography by: Jonny Marlow; Courtesy HBO Max