It’s a hard story to tell right now – a white billionaire, public enemy number one,” says the erudite Jessica Henwick, who plays struggling dojo owner Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, Netflix and Marvel’s latest superhero intro series.
The show recounts the story of Danny Rand, a pharmaceutical company heir who has risen from the ashes of a plane crash in which his mother and billionaire father perished. Presumed dead, Danny was brought up in the wilds of the Himalayas by a group of hardliner warrior monks with whose help he develops the ability to summon the glowing punch known as the Iron Fist by slaying the ancient dragon Shou-Lao.
Now, 15 years on, he returns to his native New York on a quest to piece together his former life and be reunited with his second family, the Meachums, the children of whom – Ward and Joy – now run Rand Enterprises, the company Danny rightfully owns.
For those of you not in the know, Iron Fist is the fourth and final instalment of the Marvel-Netflix series building up to the grand finale of The Defenders in which Rand will join forces with Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage to form a superhero team the likes of which New York, and indeed the world, have never seen before. But as Henwick points out, unlike his cohorts, Rand has come from a very privileged background.
Finn Jones, the affable English star who played Ser Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones, takes on the title role, one that he was drawn to by the contradictory nature of the character.
“On one hand he’s this incredibly fierce, loyal warrior who has this awesome responsibility and on the other, he’s a vulnerable, chaotic man suffering from trauma, but still has a really optimistic and naïve side to him,” he tells Time Out when we meet in New York.
“So there were all these elements that didn’t seem to make sense and that really interested me because it was within those elements that I could thread something in that was really nuanced and not like most superheroes – to see a superhero that is totally wide-eyed, totally vulnerable but also incredibly fierce.”
Danny’s vulnerability and naivety are exposed the minute we first meet him, wandering barefoot and dishevelled through the streets of New York on his way to the Rand Enterprises HQ, where he hopes to be welcomed back into the fold with open arms. However, his vagrant-like appearance causes instant alarm in the corridors he once used as a playground and Danny is immediately shooed away. It is then that we first see the fruits of Rand’s years of martial arts education as he fights his way past the guards before waltzing into his dad’s former office.
Expecting to find his father’s business partner, Harold Meachum, there, Danny is shocked to be met by Harold’s offspring, Ward and Joy, who are now at the company’s helm. After telling him Harold had “died of cancer” 12 years ago, the Meachum siblings have Danny ejected from the building, stunned at the audacity of this “imposter” claiming to be Wendell Rand’s son. Cast asunder by his childhood friends, Danny seems desperate for an ally. And a chance meeting in a park with Henwick’s Colleen provides him with a glimmer of hope. In spite of her initial rejection of him, Colleen soon warms to Danny, especially when she sees him deal with the goons Ward has sent to bump him off.
Henwick says: “I think she’s got a really good instinct for people and she’s a very good reader of people. When she sees him in the park, she’s kind of bemused by him and then he comes and tries to speak Mandarin to her and she’s like, ‘What?’ but again entertained because he’s so earnest and there’s no ulterior motive or maliciousness.
“Everything tells you he’s crazy but her gut tells her there’s more to him than meets the eye. It’s almost like she’s the closest thing to the audience perspective because she’s going through what the audience is going through.”
The dynamic of the Danny-Colleen relationship is one of the driving forces behind the series, their blossoming (and at times fraught) relationship made all the more believable by the actors’ off-screen friendship. “Me and Jess [Henwick] were friends long before this show,” says Jones. “To have my co-star be such a good friend of mine is a really amazing experience. We’ve gone on this journey together and it’s really wonderful. A lot of support, a lot of love. “There’s a natural chemistry. It’s like it’s fate, like it was always meant to be in the story, and because of our past connection, that’s all there. And it only grows, into the later parts of Iron Fist and throughout The Defenders. There’s trouble as well. It’s not really until the last six episodes of Iron Fist that it really begins to kick off, and it all starts to go a bit south in a really interesting way, especially between Danny and Colleen.”
And while two of the main protagonists have a tempestuous relationship, the rapport between the Meachum siblings is similarly intriguing, with Ward acting like a father figure to Joy, although her need for one is caused by the lie he is living about their dad’s demise (spoiler alert: he was resurrected but swore Ward to secrecy). Again, the stars that bring these characters to life, the genial Tom Pelphrey and the charming Jessica Stroup, have ties that run much deeper than the show.
“I randomly got to know Tom eight years ago through mutual friends and we haven’t seen each other in years,” says Stroup. “Tom is one of the funniest people I know – he’s so boisterous and outrageous yet so professional. There’s something to be said for a person you can just chew the cud with and just laugh and be ridiculous and then a couple of minutes later, talk to them about this next scene and their interpretation and how you’re planning for it. For him to be so open is such a gift for me.”
As soon as you meet the Meachum siblings, there’s an overriding feeling that Joy is being indoctrinated by her older brother. However, Stroup believes there are other factors at play on top of the influence of the bullying Ward.
“I think there’s a lot of influence from her father from earlier in her life and I think she would’ve understood you have to do certain things to make the business run,” she says. “It’s not necessarily the influence of Ward, it’s just that this is how things are done and I think the reason she’s able to show that other side of herself is because this guy Danny comes back and he’s got all these other thoughts and just starts saying, ‘But why?’ I think that’s incredibly mind-blowing for her and it makes her ask the same question, ‘Why? Could we not make quite as much money, but do it this other way?’ I think it’s a cool arc that she has, a cool awakening.”
Pelphrey, meanwhile, clearly revelled in playing the tyrannical villain Ward, but at the same time, reveals he was keen to “keep him human”.
“With any character like that, the danger or the pitfall would be just to play a bully or just play someone who delights in their own wickedness, but for Ward, in the flashbacks, you can see there’s clearly a lot of rivalry [with Danny] even when they were kids,” he says.
“But then you have to consider the stasis we enter when the show starts – you go back as the actor and you realise he’s been living a lie for 14 years and what kind of toll does that take on someone, where you’re having to keep a secret from the person you love the most because if you told them, it would endanger their lives? That’s an impossible situation for anyone not to get twisted in.”
Iron Fist deals with a wide spectrum of themes, all with their own moral quandaries, but it’s when the evil ninja organisation The Hand emerges that the true extent of the corruption and underhandedness involved in the plot truly comes to light. And New Jersey-born Pelphrey believes NYC provides the perfect backdrop for such a tale of good versus evil. “I think New York is a great place to explore the psyche of the super-powerful,” he says. “I love shooting here and I love this city so much. And you’re filming on the streets of New York and no-one really cares. It’s like, ‘I’ve got other stuff to do that’s more important, but oh yeah, it’s cool you’re here and I used to love that show you were on, so good job’, and then they walk off. It gives a great energy – the feeling of being part of something bigger than your own self.”
Throughout Iron Fist there’s an underlying sense of East meets West, epitomised not only by the samurai-wielding fiends of The Hand, but also by both Danny and Colleen. For Jones, portraying a kung fu artist was a far cry from his previous screen roles (there’s not much call for it in King’s Landing) and although he’s long held an interest in tai chi, mindfulness and meditation, learning the more combative martial art was much of a novelty.
“All of this was very new to me and picking it up was a baptism of fire, but it was very enjoyable,” he says. “I was excited [to learn kung fu]. I think I would have liked to have had more time to really involve myself in the process. When I first arrived in New York, I had three weeks before we started filming, during which I was very intense, very passionate, very excited and did a lot of martial arts training, a lot of weights training and I was really gunning for it. And then once the shooting schedule started for the show, I wasn’t able to continue the training as intensely as I would have liked, because of the pressures of the shooting days.”
In fact, Jones reveals that scheduling constraints meant he had only a matter of minutes to work with the much-vaunted combat choreographer Brett Chan before filming the plethora of fights scenes in which he was involved. “I was learning them on the day. I’d pick up the fights 15 to 20 minutes before we shot them,” he says. “That’s the nature of it. When we’re trying to do movie-style television on a television budget, there are certain things that have to happen and that’s one of them. I just hope when people see the show, they understand and respect the process, which I don’t think a lot of people do really understand. You just learn to adapt. At first, it took me a while to get my head around it, especially to get my body moving in that way and picking up choreography so quickly. But now it’s a lot easier.”
In something of a departure from the previous three Marvel intro-series, there’s a much more youthful feel to the characters in Iron Fist, something that Henwick believes adds to its allure. “I think it’s just about making sure the four Defenders have a wide fan base and so now, Danny really does appeal to a different fan base from the other characters,” she says. “You’re right, he’s wide-eyed, kind of an ingénu, he’s a bit naive and younger, optimistic, less world-wary and jaded. He’s not standing in dark corners talking soliloquies about the meaning of life. He is younger and the show feels younger. I think that was a conscious decision from everyone to try and appeal to a different audience.”
And as for Rand being that “white billionaire, public enemy number one”, Henwick adds: “I think in terms of once you see the show and especially going into The Defenders, it’s exactly what they needed with the four leads.
I think the other three are very heavy and Danny brings a nice flavour – he throws them off their game.”
Jones, meanwhile, is in agreement with Henwick about the novel dynamic of the show being in stark contrast to its Marvel predecessors. He also prefers television to film as a medium in which to develop characters such as Danny (and indeed Ser Loras), saying it’s “way more intelligent”.
“The great thing about Danny is that he starts off in this place and is there throughout Iron Fist and into The Defenders. But you’ll see that by the end of The Defenders, Danny Rand has become a man and he’s become a hero and it’s really amazing that throughout these shows, it’s not rushed. It’s not like, ‘Hey, Danny turns up and he’s this big, awesome superhero dude!’ He’s gone from an innocent, irresponsible screw-up of a child to becoming a reasoned and responsible adult – and superhero.”
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