When Jennifer Holland wrapped production on her partner James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad in early 2020, she had no intention of reprising her role as the NSA agent Emilia Harcourt. But during the early months of the pandemic, Gunn was in the nascent stages of post-production on the film when he began penning scripts for a new HBO Max show that explores the origins of Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith, played by John Cena.
“I had absolutely no idea in what capacity [Harcourt] would be included. She ended up becoming integral to the story that he was writing, and I didn’t find out about it until pretty late in his process,” Holland says of her character, who works with A.R.G.U.S., a government organization, to monitor the Suicide Squad. “James, generally, doesn’t want to get anyone excited prematurely. Until it’s a locked script, anyone could get cut at any moment based on whatever is best for the story. I didn’t really know it was happening until we were almost moving to Vancouver to start pre-production.”
Before joining the DC Universe, Holland, who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles shortly after her 17th birthday to pursue a career in acting, guest-starred on a couple of procedural dramas (CSI: Miami, Bones) and played Becky Phillips, the wife of American record producer Sam Phillips, on the CMT music drama Sun Records. In a recent phone interview, Holland spoke with W about the appeal of returning to the DCU in Peacemaker (which premiered on January 13, with new episodes airing every Thursday), her biggest personal and professional takeaways from working with Cena, and the process of filming the show’s opening credits (a sequence brimming with Gunn’s signature style).
Following the most recent Suicide Squad film, you were granted a lot more time to develop and flesh out your character, Emilia Harcourt, in a television series. What parts of Harcourt’s character were you most looking forward to exploring?
I was excited to explore her in every way. James had a hard time fitting in the stories he wanted to for [The Suicide Squad] with the main cast because of how big the cast was, so there was just a blank page to go with Harcourt. The things about her that I loved so much are the things that make her incredibly complicated and flawed. She’s a well-rounded version of this tough-girl character that you might see in a lot of projects. James wrote a fleshed-out woman who is strong, tough, and cold—and has all kinds of issues that she’s working through.
In addition to that, I can’t even tell you how excited I was to do all of the physicality of the role. I’ve always dreamt of getting to play a character that I would need to meld the physicality and the athleticism of myself with the acting that I love, and this role gave me the opportunity to do that. I competed as a gymnast as a kid, and I think that instilled in me a lot of interest in being athletic in general. Just being able to take on these physical challenges with the stunt team and the fight coordinators, it was just a dream.
Harcourt is a ruthless person by nature, but she chooses to isolate herself outside of work. How would you say she evolves from this lone wolf to a person who has found a sense of family and community with this eccentric group of people?
The interesting thing about Harcourt is that when you first meet her, she absolutely hates Peacemaker, because she thinks he’s a traitor and she knows he killed one of his team members [Rick Flag, played by Joel Kinnaman]. But I think the interesting question about Harcourt is… Does she possibly hate him so much because she can see so much of herself in him? She puts the mission at the top of the priority list, and she takes her job very, very seriously, so you have to question whether or not Harcourt would have done the same thing if she was presented with the same task as Peacemaker in The Suicide Squad.
She’s incredibly cold, and in order to not let [her work] break her down emotionally, she has to close herself off. She has to be able to kill people, she has to be able to watch people die, so she had to build a big, thick wall. Having emotional relationships can be a liability to you in that type of work. She also doesn’t trust people very much. She’s been let down a lot in her life, so when she first starts off in the series, she doesn’t think she needs a team. The journey we go on is finding out whether or not she’s willing to open herself up to the possibility that, maybe, she wouldn’t be better off alone. It’s interesting, as a viewer, to find out whether or not she is going to want to continue with the team at the end of the series—and whether she even makes it out of this series [alive].
As Peacemaker, John Cena has this ability to make you cry and laugh in the same scene with some absolutely outrageous one-liners. What was it like having him set the tone for the rest of the team?
I could not think of a better person to lead this show. He just blew me away when I started to get to know him and his character. He’s the type of person who’s at the top of the call sheet, but he doesn’t care—he would ask that he not be at the top of the call sheets. He is the first person on set and the last person to leave. He is just one of the most humble, prepared people that we could ever have asked to lead us in a series, and he is fully 100 percent giving himself, making himself vulnerable, putting himself out there, taking risks.
Do you have a particular memory or story that stands out from working with him?
We were at the bar in that bar scene for hours, just sitting there while they were lighting us and setting up the cameras. We’re just kind of shooting the shit, and he’s telling me about his life and his wife, and I’m getting a glimpse into what type of person he is, and he’s one of the most down-to-earth guys. He’s so dedicated to self-improvement, and it’s just not something that you expect to see in someone who is where he is in his life. It’s just not a place where you would expect someone to start asking, “How can I be a more well-rounded person? How can I be more empathetic towards other people?” Those are all the questions he’s asking himself all the time, and I feel like I’ve learned so much from him. He’s a great friend.
Music plays an integral part in expanding the world that James built for The Suicide Squad, but Harcourt isn’t a huge fan of Peacemaker’s taste in music—at least, initially. Do you have any favorite rock-and-roll songs from the ’80s or any other decade?
Gosh, I don’t know. I’ll tell you this: The soundtrack at first, for me, was something that I didn’t understand. He probably based the storyline of Harcourt not getting the music off of me. [Laughs.] It slowly grew on me as James was writing the show. We live in the same house, so every time he’s sitting there, spending hours and hours writing the scenes, he’s playing the music that he’s going to be putting into the series. And I was like, “Yeah… It sounds great. Cool.” [Laughs.] And I got to say: I’m blown away by how much I love it in the series. It works so well. I rock out to it, I sing it after I’ve watched the episodes, and I think the theme song for the opening credits [“Do Ya Wanna Taste It” by Wig Wam] is going to be forever seared into my brain.
When James first pitched you this spinoff, did he tell you about his plans for that sequence as well, or is that something that came later in the creative process?
It was in the scripts from the very beginning. I remember sitting at our breakfast table at the house we were quarantining in at the time, and him coming down and pitching me this opening credit dance sequence. I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but that sounds… fun?” [Laughs.] He was talking about some sort of very stiff, robotic dance, and everyone’s faces would be emotionless and very serious.
These things that he creates live in his brain, and he has to find a way, always, to explain to everyone that he’s working with what it is that we’re creating, because it’s usually something so unique to his creative process. And he did that with the choreographer Charissa Barton. He told her, she totally got it, she created this incredible sequence that we all worked with her on for many, many days, and we had a great time. We all danced at the same time together—it wasn't something that was put together in [post-production] or anything like that—so it was this really incredible day that I’ll never forget.