June Smollett-Bell plays Black Canary who teams up with Harley Quinn, Huntress and Renee Montoya in this female led action film with attitude.

What drew you to this project?
Oh my goodness!  I love this world of Gotham.  I mean, obviously I’m such a fan of the DC universe, but honestly, what drew me to it was it just felt fresh and different.  It felt like they were showing a different side of Gotham.  And I had never seen like an all-girl gang team-up from the comic book world on film before.  So, the opportunity to be a part of that new chapter, which feels like it’s a new chapter for DC in general, was just so incredibly exciting.  I mean listen, there was no world in which I thought I’d ever get cast in something like this. (LAUGHTER) Right?  It’s true.  I put myself on tape just kind of doing it because I didn’t have anything to lose.

And there you go, it turned out to be the right thing for you, and you exactly right for the role.

Absolutely.  You got to try, you got to try.  You shoot for the moon, you land amongst the stars.

You said that you were a fan of the DC universe.  Were you a comic book reader, or was it mostly movie-based?
 For me it was mostly based in the movies and certain video games, like “Injustice 2.”  That’s how I was first introduced to Black Canary.  And I always loved her “canary cry” because whoever was playing against her would be so annoyed because it would come out of nowhere, and they couldn’t do anything about it! (LAUGHS) She’s very unique in that she, among the birds, has the only superpower.  She’s a metahuman.

And she’s not really there yet, in terms of understanding how powerful she is.
Right, which was fascinating for me because once I was cast, I started researching Dinah Lance.  I went to the source material; I did go to the comics and tried to read as much as I could.  At first I was a little confused by how many times she’s been retconned.

Retroactive continuity is the writers’ favorite thing to do, but I suppose when you have that many years of canon, it’s a great way to start fresh.
Right.  So, at first it was a little overwhelming to understand who she was because there were different origin stories.

Was there one version of her, or a storyline in particular, that helped you find your inspiration?
Yes.  The idea of Dinah Lance growing up under her mother, Dinah Drake, who is this vigilante who is trying to do good in cleaning up Gotham—I connected to that a lot.  And so we pulled from that a lot in this origin story with Black Canary.  What we wanted to explore was what is it like for a woman to be so powerful but be so reluctant to use her powers.  When we meet Dinah in the film, she’s shut down from the world, and she wants nothing to do with cleaning up Gotham or serving or helping people out.  Frankly, I think she feels like, “What have they done for me?”  Her heart’s been broken because she lost her mother to this work.  And what’s interesting about Dinah is, even though on the surface it would seem as if she is most afraid of facing the same thing that her mother did and dying in the streets because of the work, really what she’s most afraid of is coming to terms with the fact that she’s actually capable of being greater than her mother.

And she’s hidden herself away in this job at a nightclub singing for one of the worst villains in the city, Roman Sionis?
How ironic!

She’s literally put herself in that situation.
But at the same time, he’s the only one who has cared for her since her mother died.  I mean, he picked her up off the streets and gave her a job, and, oddly enough, has belief in her.  He sees something in her that no one else really sees.  And the unfortunate thing about human nature is sometimes you just need to survive.  And she’s in survival mode.  She’s not thriving, by any means.

She’s a little bit like Cassandra Cain in this movie.  She’s just doing what she’s got to do.
She’s just doing what she’s got to do, and I think she sees herself in Cassandra Cain.  It was interesting to explore this idea of a woman who’s capable of being more powerful than anyone around her and yet she’s in her own way.  In the film there’s the theme of emancipation: emancipation from a person, emancipation from a system.  But with Dinah, it’s really about her being emancipated from herself.  There’s something that’s actually more powerful than chains.  It’s the mental enslavement.

It’s a different kind of freedom that she needs?
It’s a different kind of freedom.  She needs to be liberated from her own mental chains, her own mental enslavement.

But she’s holding herself back?
Yeah, she’s holding herself back.  There is no one in her way but her.

Weirdly enough, it’s Harley Quinn, this very well-known criminal, who kind of forces Dinah at first to take that step to help another person, to reach out.
Well, the thing is Dinah’s very much a girl’s girl.  And she’s all heart.  I mean, that’s what I loved about the comic books.  And especially about [comic book writer] Gail Simone.  I love the way she wrote Dinah and the way she wrote the interactions, the relationships with Dinah and other women or other people she would pair up with.  What it revealed to me about Dinah’s choices was that she’s all heart and compassion.  So, when we meet Dinah, she’s really in a state of being shut down.  She goes against her nature, though, because she is all heart.  So that’s why even though she can’t stand Harley—she thinks she’s so annoying—she still cannot not do something when someone’s in distress because her heart just pulls at her.

But she just doesn’t want to be defined as a do-gooder, defined as a vigilante.  She doesn’t want to own that yet.  Which was hard for me and also fun for me to play, because I had to have a lot of patience since she’s not yet the Black Canary that we know she’s going to become.  So I had to be very patient in pacing that because, as we see in the comics, she is constantly being paired up in groups because she is a character who needs a tribe.  Even though she is, when we meet her, very much so a loner, again she’s going against her nature.  Because her nature is to be in the pride, be a part of the tribe, to find community.

Tell me a little bit about your on-set community, these amazing actors that you worked with: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez and Ella Jay Basco.  And of course, you work more with Ewan MdGregor than most of the others, and Chris Messina as well.
Oh, I love them!  I loved working with Chris and Ewan.  They were so fun.  They were hoots.  It was a dream.  I’d come to work every day pinching myself that I was a part of this project.  This cast is so amazing.  I mean, to walk on set and everyone was just pushing themselves beyond their limits physically.

Before you even got to set, weren’t there opportunities to bond during your fight training?
We bonded!  And that was one thing that was so great.  Oftentimes as actors you try to build a chemistry before filming.  You’ll hang out, you’ll go to dinner, anything to try to build in a history.  And with this group, Mary and I started training months before we even started shooting.  And then Rosie joined, and then Margot joined.  And so we had these bonding experiences where we were in the trenches.

As Black Canary, you had some of the toughest fight scenes.
Yeah!

The role is really very physical.
It really was very, very physically demanding, and I wanted to do everything.  I wanted to try to do it all.  And [trainers] 87Eleven, one of the things that makes them so great is they train you up so that you can do it all.  And I had an amazing stuntwoman, Anisha Gibbs.  But the best gift she gave me is she would come over to my house and help me train.  I had so much support.  With my trainer, Jeanette Jenkins, I was working out five days a week, and changed my diet.  I mean, the amount of Epsom salt baths I was taking! (LAUGHS)

What did you change in your diet?
Well, as a woman you often are pressured to look a certain way, and with this I felt the freedom to let go of how I looked, but more so I wanted to focus on how I felt.

You probably ate more than you’re used to?
I ate a lot of food.  I wanted to put on weight, particularly wanted to put on muscle, which I did.  I put on a good amount of muscle and felt the strongest I’ve ever felt in my life.  I ate a lot of protein.  I lived on protein shakes.  There was this one shake I would make that my trainer turned me onto, with peanut butter, pea protein, this bullet-proof coconut oil, which is awesome, banana and oatmeal.  And I would eat that several times a day, in between meals.  I was eating like three meals and two snacks.

That keeps your muscle building?
Well yes, because the amount of time that I was working out, you could actually lose too much weight and become very skinny, which was something I was fighting against.  It’s was about keeping the muscle on while staying lean and feeling strong.  If you look at some of the best martial artists in history, like Bruce Lee, he was very small and lean, but all muscle.  That man, you can see every muscle in his body.  There’s no way I was ever going to achieve the level of perfection that he did— I mean, this man dedicated his entire life to it—but I definitely studied him a lot and was inspired by him.

Did you find a mental connection with the training?
Absolutely.  There’s a level of calm and peace that comes from the discipline that it requires.  The discipline, the endurance to push past the pain, to realize that pain is so temporary.  I mean, it really is a spiritual experience, training your body to become a machine.  It’s very, very spiritual because you are in pain, and so you either will focus on the pain and the pain will cripple you in a way where it makes you afraid to do certain moves, or you just throw yourself in it and you get through it.  I have so much respect for athletes because the way they’re able to train their bodies to be an instrument is very empowering.  So, to not have to be on guard, in a way, with my body, but to feel like it was being transformed into an instrument… I felt really empowered by that.

What do you want audiences to take away from this movie?
I think the film’s just a good time, you know, it’s just good old-fashioned entertainment.  We had so much fun doing it, and I think it’s an opportunity to just go to the cinema, leave your life at the door, check all of your baggage and just escape.  It’s so much fun.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously.  And it kicks ass.

 

BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) – Is now showing in Irish cinemas