When Godzilla and Kong Unite: Talking 'Monsterverse' Team-Ups with Rebecca Hall, Dan Stevens and 'The New Empire' Crew

Actors Brian Tyree Henry and Kaylee Hottle, plus filmmaker Adam Wingard, also told us about making cinema's latest monster mash.
Sarah Ward
March 28, 2024

In the space of a mere six months across the end of 2023 and beginning of 2024, Godzilla fans have enjoyed not one, not two, but three opportunities to see the now 70-year-old kaiju trample across the screen. Talk about a new empire. Not all of those projects are officially connected. Not all of them unleashed their giant creature upon cinemas. But just like standing at the foot of the lizard-like behemoth, there's been no avoiding the prehistoric reptile's footprint — in Japan's Godzilla Minus One, the film that finally won the Godzilla franchise an Oscar; in American streaming series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, as led by Kurt and Wyatt Russell playing the same character; and now in Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, the latest Monsterverse flick, which its TV predecessor also ties in with.

Thinking about anything Godzilla-related seven decades into its life brings up a numbers game, then. The Gold Coast-shot Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is the fifth Monsterverse movie and the seventh entry in the US-made saga that started with 2014's Godzilla. It's the 38th Godzilla film overall. Because King Kong is part of the equation, it's the 13th feature in that franchise, too. In other words, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is a flick with a massive history. Director Adam Wingard, who helmed 2021's Godzilla vs Kong first, knows the weight that such a hefty past brings to his second entry in all of the above sagas. That said, the filmmaker behind A Horrible Way to Die, You're Next and The Guest also knows the possibilities that can spring.

One such opportunity: having its two titans join forces, rather than do battle. Godzilla vs Kong wasn't the debut picture to pit Japan's scaly icon and the world's most-famous towering simian against each other — that idea dates back to 1962's King Kong vs Godzilla — and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire isn't the first feature to see how Godzilla can benefit from having friends to fight beside. But Wingard's sophomore Monsterverse film values its titular pairing, which arises to try to save the world from new threats. It also enjoys putting its characters in an action-adventure escapade in Hollow Earth, the titans' home world, as much as being a monster movie. And, it appreciates its human cast, such as the returning Rebecca Hall (Resurrection), Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) and Kaylee Hottle (Magnum PI), plus Wingard's The Guest lead Dan Stevens (Welcome to Chippendales) joining as a veterinarian equipped to do dentistry on Kong.

Each of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire's core quintet came to the movie via different paths, and with an array of backgrounds with the fictional creatures they're now linked with. "The origins of my memories of Godzilla and Kong go back as far as I can remember. I think the Godzilla films and the King Kong movies, specifically the original and the 76 one, they've always existed in my reality as far back as I can remember," Wingard tells Concrete Playground. "Specifically, I think that they were playing on daytime television all the time. That's how I would see movies in general, and that's how I got into them in the first place."

In contrast, teenager Hottle, who plays Skull Island orphan Jia, is deaf, and made her acting debut in Godzilla vs Kong, notes that "I had heard of them, but that's about it." She continues: "I didn't know much more about either of them. And once I acted in the movie, I thought it was, of course, strange, but a great experience."

Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Warner Bros.

Hall's leap into the Monsterverse as "the Jane Goodall of Kong", aka Dr Ilene Andrews, slots in on her resume alongside the vastly dissimilar Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, Christine and The Night House — and Tales From the Loop on the small screen — among other work, but also after featuring in Iron Man 3. Henry, who steps into the shoes of conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes, boasts an Emmy nomination for Atlanta, an Oscar nomination for Causeway and a Tony nomination for Lobby Hero. His recent flicks include Bullet Train and Eternals. And Stevens has period drama Downton Abbey, playing the second half of Beauty and the Beast's title, superhero series Legion and giving German-language dramedy I'm Your Man its humanoid robot on his filmography. Ask them about their time with Godzilla and Kong, as we did, and Hall mentions always wanting to be in "big, iconic kind of movies", Henry says it's a "a place to have fun" and Stevens advises that having the part of Trapper written for him was "a huge honour".

With Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire releasing in cinemas Down Under on Thursday, March 28, we also chatted with Wingard, Hottle, Hall, Henry and Stevens about the sense of responsibility behind any Godzilla or Kong entry, and the kind of preparation required for a Monsterverse team-up flick — plus ensuring that the movie was grounded in its human characters, subverting stereotypes, working together, the film's buddy scenario between its eponymous critters and more.

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On Swinging Into Godzilla and Kong's Huge On-Screen History

Wingard is no stranger to entering well-traversed realms. Before hopping behind the camera with the Monsterverse, he directed 2016's Blair Witch, the third flick in the big-screen horror series that began with the low-budget sensation of 1999. Then, in 2017, he gave Japanese manga Death Note an American live-action adaptation.

Still, there's no denying that making a Godzilla and Kong movie, and therefore working with characters that date back seven and nine decades, involves a feeling of duty. "It absolutely does," says the director. "And it's such an honour to be able to carry on their legacy, because they've been around since the beginning of special effects in cinema, to a certain degree. The original Kong was so groundbreaking in terms of its approach to stop-motion at the time."

"So I don't take that lightly. And what's cool about Godzilla and Kong, those characters, is that there's been so many iterations over the years, and so many tonal takes and stylisations. Even Godzilla as a character, he's existed as a good guy, a bad guy, a metaphor, a character, all these kind of things and everything in-between, and sometimes multiple things at once. So there's a lot to take in, but there's still somehow so many new possibilities of how you can explore them," Wingard continues.

"That's why it was so exciting for me to take on this film. Even though I've even made a Godzilla vs Kong movie myself, I still felt like there was still plenty of untapped potential and ways to utilise these characters to innovate the way movies are made. And to be able to lean into a film that has so many long sequences of nonverbal visual storytelling is something you really couldn't do in any other subgenre than this."

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On Becoming the Heart of a Coming-of-Age Story Within the Monsterverse

In Godzilla vs Kong, Hottle's Jia was in as unique a situation as anyone can be in the Monsterverse: as the last surviving member of the Iwi, the tribe that resided on Skull Island, the adopted daughter of Dr Andrews had a bond with Kong like no one else. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire continues that thread as Jia endeavours to fit in in her new life, and also when she's drawn into Hollow Earth to assist with the ultimate animal pal.

"I think that her journey is very tough, but it's a great journey for her," Hottle reflects about Jia's coming-of-age narrative in the new movie. "She grows up, she's older, and she's figuring out how to belong somewhere that she wants to belong — and she's going to get there in the end of her journey." As for what she hopes comes next for Jia, "I think I can see her helping others," Hottle explains.

Preparing for her role simply requires "trying to understand the storyline of who Jia is, and what she wants to be as well. So I try to think of that when I'm portraying her character," Hottle also notes. But it's equally crucial that the film is grounded in its humans, especially Jia. "If you watch the whole monster movie, of course that's what we want. But the additive of the human factor, making those connections, and Jia's experience in her journey, that adds more to the movie. It's a great connection to show in this kind of movie," Hottle advises.

Ask Hottle what gets her excited about being part of the Monsterverse — and such a pivotal part, too — and she's clear: "my character just being portrayed in a movie — and figuring out who I get to act as, and what I get to act as, as well".

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On Challenging Damsel-in-Distress Stereotypes in Monster Movies — and Having Fun

If you're wondering why Hall initially took on the role of Dr Andrews, "the first time, it was unlike anything I'd done. Also, Adam Wingard pitched it to me as 'the Jane Goodall of Kong', which I thought was such an interesting pitch," she shares. Henry jokes that "he pitched it to me that way too, to get me to come back here" — which is exactly the banter you'd expect about a movie that its three biggest on-screen names, Stevens among them, all describe as plenty of fun.

"I wouldn't say that I wasn't a kid that dreamed of being in a Kong or Godzilla movie, but I was a kid that dreamed of being in movie movies — like real popcorn, like entertaining, like big, iconic kind of movies. And this is that opportunity," Hall furthers. "There is so much fun to be had in that."

"I am a cinephile sort of snob in many ways, but my snobbery includes good popcorn movies. There are some good, good movies. A good movie is a good movie, is what I'm saying."

"So it's everything to me. Plus, there's a history of women in Kong movies that puts them in the damsel-in-distress place, and they're very rarely in positions of authority or capability, or able to call the shots or have any autonomy on some level. And I think that that has been changing over the last few years in this iteration of the Monsterverse. And I think Andrews is a really big step in that direction. In this movie especially, she's really the boss, and that was fun."

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On Being Able to Further Flesh Out Characters the Second Time Around

Henry doesn't just jest about why he joined the Monsterverse. He starts digging into how he prepared for playing Bernie by answering that "channeling my inner neuroses was really fun — to have an outlet to just let it all out, to be able to scream as often as possible, to cry. Oh, were you talking about this movie?".

Bernie might be one of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire's sources of comic relief, but he's still a character that's taken seriously, including by Henry. "I signed on to champion Bernie because I really love Bernie. I love everything about him. I love that he was looked at as a crackpot. I love that he has always been right about his theories. I also love that he found a team," he advises.

"He was kind of out there on his own. No one really received him in any kind of way. And Rebecca's character, Dr Andrews, really coming to me and being like 'hey, you are valuable; hey, we actually could use you' was really exciting. And really getting a chance to go in and show all of who Bernie can be: that he had dreams of being a documentarian, that he had these wishes to see Hollow Earth. And then watching him immediately regret it the minute that he gets down there. To me it was like 'aaaah, I get this guy very much'."

"So, he was a place to have fun. I got to wear leather. Like, that was truly all I really wanted. I was like 'can we put Bernie in leather?'. And Adam was willing to go along with my ride as well," Henry says.

Pointing to Hall and Stevens, he also notes that "to be able to play with them" was among the appeal of returning to the character. "To be completely honest, to be able to play with them, to see that Bernie found a tribe and to find a family — it was a no-brainer to come back."

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On Leaping From Indie Thrillers to Monster Movies with the Same Director

When Stevens starred in The Guest for Wingard in 2014, he'd already amassed a decade of on-screen credits. Downton Abbey had come calling by then as well. But the indie thriller was a breakout performance. At the time, reteaming with his director on a movie about Godzilla and Kong wasn't something he could've conceived would arrive ten years later, however.

"I could definitely see Adam going on to direct big movies like this. He's steeped in fandom. He's a guy who worked in the video store throughout his adolescence and watched every single movie in that store. He just knows this world so well and is able to transmit that to fans, transmit that enthusiasm through the screen," Stevens says.

"I never dreamed that I would be teaming up with him on this. I loved the job he did on the last movie with these two [Hall and Henry], and I just enjoyed that as a fan. So I was giddy when he asked me to join it, really."

"And the fact that they wrote Trapper with me in mind was a huge honour — it made it very, very attractive. But also Trapper is a great character to join this world with. And it really embodies the spirit of fun, I think, that Adam brings to these kind of movies, and enables us to just go on a really wild ride with this one."

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On Letting Godzilla and King Kong Team Up, Rather Than Battle Each Other

Hottle, Hall, Henry and Stevens' on-screen alter egos are Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire's human heroes. Their monster equivalents: both Godzilla and Kong. Neither were born into pop culture as villains. Watching them fight it out, including in Godzilla vs Kong, has always felt manufactured. Here, thankfully, they have other foes to deal with — primarily the Skar King, the orangutan-esque enemy that's been throwing his weight around Hollow Earth — in their roles of protectors of humanity and the natural world.

Not just because he helmed Godzilla vs Kong, Wingard understands the appeal of having Godzilla and Kong face off. "I can remember as far back as being in maybe first or second grade and having arguments on the playground about who would win a fight, Godzilla or King Kong. That's just how iconic they are, that kids all know and love them," he notes.

But with Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, he also appreciates that getting Godzilla and King Kong teaming up is a dream scenario. "As a filmmaker, it's just the ultimate stomping ground of being able to play with toys on a creative level. And we're always finding new, interesting ways to explore their realities. These are 300-foot-tall characters, and so it's always fun to try to find things that you can juxtapose onto them that are relatable," he shares.

"So, for instance, we have one scene in this film where Kong has some dental work done, and that was something that I was really pushing for right out the gate — because I've also had a lot of dental work done over the years, and had some pretty traumatic experiences. So in a way, I had to work in my own catharsis through Kong's experience of dental work in this movie. But that's just an example of how you're always trying to find relatable ways to re-experience the monsters."

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Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire opened in cinemas Down Under on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Read our review.

Images: courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Published on March 28, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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