‘Peacemaker’ Star Chukwudi Iwuji on That Murn Twist & Working With James Gunn
Things took a real turn with Murn.
First, we found out he’s not a garden-variety emotionless mercenary: He is, in fact, one of the Butterflies, the alien creatures Peacemaker (John Cena) and his team have been tasked with eradicating. And then, in “Murn After Reading,” we discover that while yes, he’s not of this world, Murn — or at least, the creature now possessing his body — really just wants to save humankind from his less-friendly compatriots. Pretty nice of him, right?
We chatted with actor Chukwudi Iwuji about that big reveal for his character, what the success of the mission would mean for Murn (spoiler alert: It’s not looking good) and the scene in which it was hardest for him not to laugh.
I have to ask about that Murn reveal. How long did you know he was a Butterfly? Did you know from the start?
I’ve known from the start. One of the luxuries of working on TV with James Gunn is that he gives you all the episodes before you start shooting! In very early conversations with James and Peter Safran, one of the producers, that was part of my attraction to playing Murn: This huge, wonderful reveal. He has this secret.
At what point did the rest of the cast know you were a Butterfly? Did they also know from the beginning?
They knew from the beginning. Everyone got the scripts, everyone knew it, yeah. But we were all joined in the knowledge of playing each scene as it comes. We all bought into that, instead of giving sly looks or moments. It was all about scene to scene, and forgetting about that until we had to deal with it.
In the scene with Harcourt (Jennifer Holland) and Abedayo (Danielle Brooks), where you’re talking about whether Murn could’ve been redeemed, it hit me that you’re playing an alien inside of a mercenary. There’s layers upon layers there. How did you go about exploring and expressing that?
By stages, you know. I’m very conscious of never playing the arc of a character, that luxury of knowing what is going to happen and playing that in real-time to the audience. I think that’s very condescending to the audience and it doesn’t help with reveals. I took it step by step. The Murn you meet in Episode 1 is the black ops operative that everyone knows about that’s done dark things. That’s what I gave them. The team leader, that’s what I gave them. The scene where I have to bring them together, get them to focus and tell Peacemaker to shut up for the thousandth time, that’s what I gave them.
And then when it gets to the place where there’s vulnerability, as you talked about in Episode 6, it’s as much a surprise to me as it is to you, the audience, because I haven’t had to play that yet. Then I play it. That’s how I prefer to approach my work as an actor, as opposed to drip-feeding it all or letting you find the “clues” in my performance. If there are any clues, I believe it’s in the writing, not my performance. My performance had to be moment to moment and scene to scene. James had written it that way, so that was how I played it. The overall picture is the layered part of it.
Murn is the “straight man” of the group. Everybody else is cracking jokes, but he’s on the mission. How hard was that for you to play?
It was initially hard, but as we filmed, it got even harder. [Laughs] They’re hilarious! Look at that ensemble. Danielle Brooks and Steve Agee and John Cena and Jen and Freddie (Stroma) and then James Gunn, who is, himself, a complete riot. There’s a great blooper reel out there somewhere that you’re going to have a chance to see at some point. There was a lot of laughter, and there was a lot of retakes and stuff, but we eventually got all the scenes. There were some days where I was worried we weren’t going to get the scene for all the laughing that was going on, but we did. [Laughs]
Was there any scene, specifically, that it was really hard for you not to break? Or where you did?
There were many, but the one that comes to mind is the scene where John Cena says, “And if you get 50% in school, what do you get?” And I go, “An F.” That was hard, because I just have to keep a straight face at him when he says, “D!” Yeah, that was very funny. It’s just one of many, though. When he was reeling off names, Ariana Grande and Drake, and Steve Agee’s reaction of “What?!” When you watch that post-credits scene when John is still going off on names, you’ll see me in the background with my back turned, so you only see the lower portion of my body. That’s just as well, because the upper portion of my body is laughing so hard off-camera. Like, I can’t believe he’s still going!
That opening credits sequence is one of the few I’m totally unable to skip. I watch it every time. What was it like to film?
Oh, God. We turned up on the day of filming it — and we’d had a couple of rehearsals, most of the rehearsals had to be at home because we just didn’t have time to work with Charissa Barton, our choreographer, too often. We worked with her a couple of times each, and then we turn up onto this sound stage and there’s lights and the music is blasting for real, and the camera zooming in and out of you like you’re shooting a music video for real. The joy we have to suppress in our characterization when we keep the straight faces, imagine all that joy inside us as we’re doing that dance number.
I’m guessing it was hard to keep a straight face there, too?
Absolutely! The biggest lesson I learned through that project is that I am now capable of keeping a straight face in most situations, having survived this last six months. Going forward, I will have no problem.
What does the success of the mission mean for Murn? If he’s the lone dissenter among his people, and their goal is to wipe the Butterflies out…
It comes back to playing moment to moment. I think in Murn’s mind, what’s important is saving the world. He’ll deal with the consequences later. I see him, after the mission is accomplished, not able to live as the only survivor. He’ll probably do the noble thing and ride into the sunset and end it quietly somewhere. The first thing is the mission, and getting that done. He’ll worry about the rest when that time comes.
You worked with James Gunn here, and you’re also working with him on the next Guardians of the Galaxy. What do you enjoy most about his process?
An artist can never put monetary or quantitative value on someone believing in them so much. The first thing I take away is deep confidence and gratitude for the trust he has in me, because he’s gone on record that he could’ve given this role in Guardians to anyone. Like, big stars. They wanted it. So, it’s given me great confidence working with him. But on a technical level, he pushes me. He really does challenge me. I’ve done so many challenging roles over the years, in Shakespeare and whatever, and I can say that some of the stuff we’re doing here, in Guardians 3, is challenging me in a similar way. He doesn’t hold back in saying, “Okay, you’ve given me this, that’s great. Let’s take it further.” So, he’s stretching me as an actor, and that both instills confidence and instills growth. I’m really enjoying this collaboration we’re having together.
What’s to come from the last two episodes of Peacemaker?
Let me just put it this way: We only have two episodes to wrap up a lot of stuff. You can imagine it’s going to be very explosive, literally and figuratively explosive. Chaos is going to reign. Hilarity is going to be taken to another level. But at the heart of it, if you’ll excuse the pun, is the heart. James Gunn always somehow manages to infuse heart in the most unlikely moments, and there’s a hell of a lot of that left in the final moments.
Peacemaker, Thursdays, HBO Max