Writer/director Joss Whedon, second from left, and the stars of ‘Age of Ultron’

Friday is our Summer Movie Preview issue, so to kick it off, here’s a mega-interview with some heavy-hitter — indeed, the  lineup alone would create a nerdgasm: Scarlett Johansson. Joss Whedon. Elizabeth Olsen. James Spader. Mark Ruffalo. Chris Hemsworth. Robert Downey Jr. Chris Evans. Jeremy Renner. Paul Bettany. Cobie Smulders. Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Kevin Feige. All these folks make the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) come to life, which is does especially on May 1 with the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron (my review comes out Friday). They were all present for an interview discussing the new film, their characters, and their favorite superheroes from childhood.

Question: This is a question for Joss Whedon. If you could talk about bringing Vision and Ultron to life. It almost seemed like they each embodied Stark’s nature, both the good and the bad, Ultron being the bad, and the Vision the best of both natures. Whedon: Yes. [Laughter]

Kevin Feige: A man of few words.

Whedon: No, you’re right, they do embody a little bit of him, but they’re also their own people. But I do see them as two sides of the same coin. I like the sort of accord between the two of them. I think there’s something beautiful about the fact that they see the same thing and react to it differently emotionally.

Joss, what were the biggest challenges that you faced putting together the story and then shooting the film? What were the things that surprised you on your journey? There’s like 47 of these people. I really didn’t think that through, and I regret very much doing this at all. You know, it’s just making sure that everybody’s, you know, got their moment, that everybody’s got their through-line, that it’s connected to the movie. I have all these people. I love all these people. They’re extraordinary. But making sure that they’re not just all being served, but all within the same narrative structure, that they’re in the same movie, that it’s all connected to the main theme. At some point during the editing process, I could not have told you who they were, who I was, what movie I was making, I got so lost in it. But I think it all came together, and you know, it’s just about making these guys look good, which takes a long time.

So how do you go about even beginning to start to create the sequel to one of the greatest, largest, most successful movies of all time? With the smallest thing I can think of. The thing that drew me back to the movie was: what little moments are there between these characters that I haven’t gotten to do yet? What conversations have they not had? How can I, you know, what haven’t I shown? It’s never sort of the big picture stuff, it’s never “and then we can have an army of robots” — although that’s cool, too — it’s always just: where do they live, or how can I get inside their hearts, what’s funny about them? Those are the moments … just, I write just reams and reams of paper just thinking about, you know, the tiniest part, that’s really the heart of the thing.

For Kevin Feige: You started with this grand plan almost a decade ago, so what’s it meant to you to see it all coming to fruition, working with filmmakers like Joss and the rest of the cast you’ve had through all your movies? What’s that experience been like for you, and to see the world connect with the MCU in such a powerful way?   Well, it’s been great, of course. I mean, it started with the notion of making these movies ourselves, and becoming Marvel Studios, and then it continued with Robert in Iron Man, with the notion of having Sam Jackson come in at the end and say: you’re part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet, thinking that most people wouldn’t know what that meant, but occasionally somebody would go: what did that mean? I’d go: it means maybe that we’ll introduce all the different characters and put ’em together. It’d be great. But the minute that happened, the world sort of got it, much more quickly than I anticipated, and it was awesome, and it continues to be — it’s daunting now cuz the expectations before, they didn’t exist. They thought: what are they doing, let’s go on to the next thing. And now it’s crushingly overwhelming expectations, particularly on this movie. But it’s incredible, and it’s incredible, to look down the line and the table keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s the greatest ensemble ever assembled in cinematic history, and it is amazing to be a part of it.

image004Robert Downey: And you’re welcome.

Maria Hill is one of my favorite characters in the [Marvel Comic Universe] because she’s one of these threads that ties everything together, both in the Avengers, the other MCU films, the television series, brings it all together. Now, Maria went through a lot of a change in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Talk a little bit about where we find Maria now and the kind of Maria Hill you wanted the audiences to see in Age of Ultron Cobie Smulders: Yeah, well, Maria’s now under the employment of Tony Stark and you know, she’s now working with him to privatize security. And yeah, it’s very fun being a thread to be able to tie the TV show and the movies together. That’s been a lot of fun. But yeah, she’s got a bigger job now, she’s working, like I said, with Tony, and she doesn’t have S.H.I.E.L.D., at her disposal anymore, so it’s a much more difficult job.

This is for Paul Bettany. So what does it feel like now to be more than just a voice?  Bettany: Well, the main difference is I have to show up. You know, the great thing is being able to work with all these incredibly creative and talented people. However, I also now have to show up at junkets, so everything’s a double-edged sword, you know?

For Elizabeth and Aaron: You have worked together before, and the chemistry between the twins is so important for those scenes to have like emotional impact. Was the fact that you guys had worked together previously an advantage, or was that an additional challenge in making their relationship work so well in the film? Aaron Taylor-Johnson: Yeah, she’s so far away from me right now.

Elizabeth Olsen: I think it’s only a benefit. I mean, Aaron and I had a lot of … but we didn’t really work that much on Godzilla together. But I mean, it’s kind of intimidating joining this group, so like, I got to do it with Aaron, by my side.

Taylor-Johnson: It was comforting to know, like stepping on set, when it was such a big ensemble and cast that you kind of had some to feel comfortable with, absolutely, yeah.

This is a question for Robert. We get to see a lot of sort of fatherly side of Tony Stark this time, I think, and also you sort of take care of Hulk/Bruce Banner, like a father [to a] son. So were you having that kind of thing in mind when you’re playing this role this time?  Downey: I must be mellowing with age, but I want to say this very clearly. The next time I’m not asked the first question, I’ll fucking walk out [Laughter]. I read Joss’s script, I said, I think this is great. Now, ask Kevin, didn’t I say that? I said that.

Feige: You did say that.

Downey: I said: I think this is great. Kevin said, “You never say that. You can’t mean that.” I said, “Yeah, I think it’s great. Let’s go shoot it.” I thought it was a Swiss watch to begin with and Joss really created some great new situations for Tony to be in, so rather than dig in my heels and try to rewrite every scene, to make them even better, if possible, I showed up and it turned out great.


Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are two of the newcomers to ‘Avengers’

This question is for James Spader. I was wondering if you could talk about, as an actor, doing the motion capture, and how you were really able to bring life to this killer robot. Spader: I really don’t have any idea what was happening at all — it happened very quickly. I really was just trying to hold on and then stay on the train that was moving very, very quickly. But I will say this, that I arrived in London, and within the first half hour I was … they put on a suit, they put on all this gear, and I’d gone through a range of motion, and then within 15 minutes, I was watching me walk around a big room, moving and doing this and that and everything else, and watching Ultron, or at least a formative stage of Ultron, on a monitor in front of me. And it just started right there. And the next day, I was on the set shooting a scene with Scarlett. And so really that pace was what it was, through the entire project. And luckily I’d had some conversations with Joss and one fantastic meal with a whole bunch of wine to figure out who this guy was. And that was it. That really was it. It was just trying to hold on.

This question is for Robert, James and Chris Hemsworth. Growing up, who was your favorite superhero, and why?  Hemsworth: Superman was probably the only film they’d made, I think, back when I was growing up. You know, that was the one that sticks out for me. There wasn’t really … you know, Iron Man hadn’t been created yet, or Captain America, or Hulk, or Black Widow or Vision, everyone on this table.

Spader:  Growing up, I didn’t have any comic books at all, but my friend Will Brottis has a trunk full of ’em, and so comic books were like candy for me. I’d go over to his house for a sleepover, and I would be really just devouring everything I could get my hands on. I don’t even know if this question was to me, was it? … Anyway, I just devoured whatever I could get my hands on because the sleepover was going to be over and I was going to go back to my house and it was going to be, you know, Kipling.

This one is for Jeremy Renner. There were a lot of Hawkeye fans that felt a little shortchanged actually in the first Avengers because one of their favorite heroes wasn’t focused on as much as they would have liked. But we see a much greater emphasis on Barton in this particular film. Talk a little bit about what you were hoping to see, you know, Barton evolve into in this film, and your first reactions when you read the script and you saw the role he was going to play in this one. Renner:  Well, I speak in this movie, which is awesome, and I become part of the team, which is awesome. And dive into some really killer aspects of … when sitting down with Joss, and even Kevin back in the day, about why I liked him, why I wanted to play Hawkeye, is ‘cause I didn’t understand, I could never do like what these gentlemen do. I don’t have that creative of a mind. I understood Hawkeye in the sense of he’s a human just with a high skill set, so I could tap into that, and I feel like I got to explore a little bit more of that, even outside the skill set, and I thought that was a really, really endearing and thoughtful sort of secret that he had, and I’m excited to kind of see where that goes.

We’ve seen Black Widow not only evolve depth-wise but we see her role getting larger and larger as the cinematic universe progresses to the point that we see her play such a significant role in Age of Ultron. Talk a little bit about where you see Black Widow even going from here, once we get to the end of this film. Johannson: Oh my goodness. I think that in the beginning of Avengers 2, you know, this kind of … there’s some sense finally of there being a kind of normal, in a way. I mean, it’s a well-oiled machine where, you know, tag teaming each other, it’s finally, like, the introductions are over and we’re, you know, everything’s kind of, you know, we’re at work, like we’re digging our heels in, and at the end of Avengers 2, I think Widow let her guard down, she was hopeful for something. I think she had this moment of false hope where she kind of felt like she put in the work and there should be some kind of personal payoff and she was ready to accept it, and you know, she realizes that her calling is a greater one and that’s not necessarily something that she’s thrilled about, but that’s kind of what is most heroic about her is that she’s accepting the call of duty, even at her own personal loss. And I think it’s an interesting place to kind of leave her there, because there’s many different directions to go. I mean, is she going to be able to withstand this huge weight that’s bearing down on her or is she going to crack under it, and sort of crumble, not being able to take this huge hit, this huge personal hit that she does. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see, right? Yeah. There you go.

This one’s for Mark Ruffalo. One of the great things about Dr. Banner is that we see so much of Dr. Banner in Hulk, but yet you find a way to make Dr. Banner feel like such a distinct character from the Hulk at the same time. Talk a little bit about Banner’s evolution in this film and the Dr. Banner you wanted the audiences of Age of Ultron to see.  Ruffalo:  I was helped out by the fact that I’m green, and huge, to help me with the distinction between the two characters, so I can’t take full credit for that, except for the accent that I was using, maybe. I’m done.

This final question is for Joss. It’s the nerd question of the day. Why is the armor designed to contain the Hulk called Veronica?  Whedon: I just decided to call it Veronica because I used to be in love with a woman named Betty, and Veronica is the opposite of that.

Ruffalo: I was always wondering that, but I thought I’d be breaking some Marvel taboo by asking it. You know, we have a Marvel app on our iPhones and if you say something wrong, it literally shocks you.