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            ‘Birds of Prey’: Margot Robbie on Harley’s Psyche and the Freedom of an R Rating

            Eric Goldman
            Movies Comics
            Movies Comics DC

            The new film Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn brings together Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and for Robbie – who is also a producer on the film and developed it over the past few years – putting this group together was a no brainer.

            Robbie recalled, “I pitched this while we were still shooting Suicide Squad, so it was right at the beginning of the process.” She explained, “I felt this huge gap in the market for a girl gang, ensemble action film. No one was doing that and I couldn’t understand why. I hang out with a girl gang all the time in real life, I love action films, so I was like ‘Why aren’t we doing that!?”

            Regarding Joker’s absence in the movie (he’s mentioned, but not seen, as Harley works to move past him) Robbie said from her perspective, “With Harley, she’s so completely consumed with Joker that it’s going to be all or nothing. It’s either going to be a completely Harley/Joker story or Joker is gonna be out of the picture.” That being the case, with Birds of Prey, “From the very beginning, it was a conscious choice that they had to be broken up. I have all the backstory in my head about what happened between what you see in the end of Suicide Squad and what you see at the beginning of Birds of Prey, but ultimately, that’s a rocky road where the movie starts off.”

            Read on for more of what Robbie and her Birds of Prey costars told Fandom about bringing these women together and what their initial reactions are to Harley, along with Robbie’s take on what is going on inside Harley’s head and why it helped to let the movie be rated R.

            HARLEY NEEDS SOME GIRLFRIENDS
            (EVEN IF THEY DON’T LIKE HER AT FIRST)

            (L-R) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell in Birds of Prey

            Robbie elaborated on her first experiences playing Harley and how it made her want to make Birds of Prey, noting, “It’s something I kept saying to [Suicide Squad director] David Ayer when we were shooting Suicide Squad. I was like, ‘Harley needs some girlfriends!’ Harley on her own without people to play with is like watching a kid play on a playground on their own, like it is never going to be as fun. She’s a girl’s girl even though it might not seem like that. She needs a group of girlfriends and really the only other female character [around her] in Suicide Squad was Katana and Katana wouldn’t speak to her so I was really craving just a girl gang for Harley to interact with.”

            Robbie noted it’s not all smooth sailing for Harley and the other Birds of Prey in the film at first, saying, “Of course she’s gonna have the people she butts heads with.” To prove that point, when asked what Renee Montoya’s first reaction is to Harley, Rosie Perez deadpanned, “I think she’s a psychopath that needs to be in jail,” with Jurnee Smollett-Bell adding, “We all think she’s pretty annoying.”

            Ella Jay Bosco as Cassandra Cain and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in Birds of Prey

            That’s not quite true for young Cassandra Cain though, with Ella Joy Basco explaining, “Cassandra, she totally worships Harley and sees her as the ultimate goddess in a sense. She’s definitely aware that Harley isn’t the most perfect person but that’s what she likes about Harley. She really understands Harley and how she’s longing for a relationship and ultimately finds one with Cassandra Cain.”

            On the flip side, there’s the film’s villains, Roman Sionis / Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor, and his murderous right-hand man, Victor Zsasz, played by Chris Messina. Messina noted that when it comes to Harley, “Victor, he hates her. But he hates everybody. He wants to wipe her out and see her gone… and to destroy.”

            COMIC BOOK, VIDEO GAME,
            AND REAL LIFE INSPIRATIONS

            Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in Birds of Prey

            While Robbie had played her role before, when it came to where the rest of the Birds of Prey looked before taking on their roles, Smollett-Bell said that for Dinah’s signature superpower and how it would look, visually, “I drew a lot of inspiration for the canary cry from Black Canary in Injustice 2. I wanted to make it kind of very primal, so that was part of it for me, because it’s not something she [usually] uses, it’s something she’s trying to hide. So to get to the point, to rev herself up, it’s coming from such a guttural point and a primal place. But it was fun, man! They put a bunch of people on strings and ratcheted them back. It was awesome! I felt really powerful.”

            For her part, Mary Elizabeth Winstead remarked, “I had this universe of material to browse through to get inspiration in order to play the character, but I still had the parameters of the script so I had to find things in the comics that were inspirational to me but that were a guide for me to be able to do this version of Huntress that had been created. Together with [Director] Cathy Yan, we sat down and we talked about who this Huntress is and pulled things from the comics from a lot of different iterations of Huntress to really fill her out, and to make her human and real.”

            Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Birds of Prey

            Winstead noted that for Huntress, “She’s steeped in the story of having her family killed in front of her and being the daughter of a mob boss and all of that. But we played with how that manifested her personality as she grows up and being raised the way that she’s raised and the bits that you can see in the comics in terms of how that affects her and who she is and how she interacts with the world.”

            Renee Montoya is a Gotham City cop, but as for whether Perez was struck by how wild it must be to have that job in Gotham, where men dressed as bats and clowns battle around you, she said it actually was surprisingly comparable to real life, noting, “My cousin, Sylvia, she was a police officer in the NYPD for almost thirty years so the stories that have come out of her throughout the years, especially in New York City… [Gotham] wasn’t that crazy, minus the explosions.”

            Cassandra Cain is depicted rather differently from her comics counterpart (who becomes Batgirl), but Basco noted, “She does a lot of sleight of hand. I actually went with a magician and we practiced sleight of hand and really forming the origin of Cassandra Cain, which is so fun to do.”

            VERY MUCH RATED R

            Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey

            While 2019’s Joker was rated R, it was very divorced from the mainstream DC Universe, while Birds of Prey is far more immersed in it, with multiple DC characters present and references to others. As to why it felt right for Birds of Prey to be an R-rated film, Robbie remarked, “The rating can sometimes be limiting depending on the character you’re playing, especially if you’re doing action. And the amount of violence — If you punch someone in the face and you can’t see their nose bleeding, it just removes you from the moment a little bit and I didn’t want us to be limited. It wasn’t about striving for a hard R. I didn’t want everything to feel gratuitous and there for the shock factor. There are moments where it’s needed but we wanted everyone to feel liberated to say and do what they would and for the action to have that visceral — to be as savage as it needs to be. If you’ve got women fighting, it’s going to look pathetic if we’re pulling punches. We wanted to really go for it.”

            Said Messina, “It’s fun when you’re playing villain stuff. To be PG or PG-13, it seems like it would box you in so being able to kind of go off in a rated R way was nice.”

            As Smollett-Bell put it, “There weren’t limitations, especially on the action scenes. They pushed us really hard in learning our own stunts. We wanted to be able to do everything and they wanted us to be able to do anything. The action sequences were really demanding. But the R rating meant we could really go there and not be bound to these limitations.”

            Added Winstead, “And a lot of improv-ing, which meant we could say whatever we wanted. Whatever came out was okay. We didn’t have to go, ‘Oh, we can’t say that!’ There were no restrictions.

            The 13-year-old Basco in the meantime revealed, “My parents were like ‘Okay, you can say a curse word but only for this!’ I think it was definitely more open for me to say different things and different creative curse words that Cathy and Christina would shoot at us. It was fun and a little more open when we were doing any sorts of improv. I feel like it would have been a totally different movie if it was a different rating.”

            HARLEY’S PSYCHE

            Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey

            Fandom recently had clinical psychologist Dr. Drea Letamendi do a profile on Robbie’s version of Harley Quinn, as seen in Suicide Squad. Asked what her take was on Harley’s mental health, Robbie replied, “I don’t have a degree, so don’t listen to me. But what I researched originally, based on the initial Suicide Squad script, was when I’d say something like ‘That’s the voices in my head.’ I was like, what mental illness gives you voices in your head? Schizophrenia. I went down the rabbit hall and watched a lot of TED Talks by people who had a PHD and also had schizophrenia. That’s perfect for Harley. I wanted to know what the voices in your head say to you if you have schizophrenia. I also looked into codependency a lot and viewed it more as a compulsion than just a bad relationship as if you have OCD but you have a compulsion toward a person and this toxic relationship. I also think there are a lot of elements of other illnesses there. A little manic depressive, definitely PTSD, schizophrenia I really latched on to.”

            As Robbie referenced when mentioning a PHD, a fascinating part of Harley Quinn, which Dr. Drea also brought up in her profile, is that Harley herself was a therapist prior to her life of crime. Said Robbie, “It’s so interesting to play someone with a vast understanding of mental illness and maybe has a couple herself. She loves analyzing people. Someone like Huntress, who has massive childhood trauma, that’s so exciting to her. It’s like ‘Oh, I want to get in their brain and pick it apart.’ Someone like Roman is fascinating to her. We wanted to inject those moments into the movie where she has an aside giving her points of view and analyzing his behavior.”

            (L-R) Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Margot Robbie and Ella Jay Basco at the Birds of Prey world premiere in London

            Said Smollett-Bell of Harley’s tendency to analyze those around her, “She’s talking to [Canary] about having a master – ‘We’re nothing without a master,’ and all these things. She’s smart! And that’s the thing about her, is she can penetrate you with one sentence.” When we meet Black Canary, she’s working for Roman, and Smollett-Bell added, “With Canary, it’s like “why are you working at this club with this evil man? This is not you!’”

            Said Winstead, “I think that’s what she’s so fascinated with Huntress as well because Huntress has so many issues. So  that sort of therapist version of her is coming out, going, ‘I want to dig in there and see what’s underneath all that!”

            Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn opens Friday, February 7th.

            Eric Goldman
            Eric Goldman is Managing Editor for Fandom. He's a bit obsessed with Star Wars, Marvel, Disney, theme parks, and horror movies... and a few other things. Too many, TBH.