Suicide Squad: David Ayer Made The Cast Punch Each Other In Rehearsals

By Sam Ashurst

For the cast of Suicide Squad, realism was everything. 

“The rehearsal was very intense,” director David Ayer tell us. “It wasn’t a normal rehearsal, we’d talk about their lives, their history, and really got them to open up as people to each other. I also had them fight. I had them fight each other. You learn a lot about who a person really is when you punch them in the face. It gets rid of a lot of the actor stuff.”

It’s late July, 2015, Toronto, Canada. We’ve walked across Midway City streets so bullet-ridden our feet clinked with every step, through a huge train station decimated by black ooze, to suddenly find ourselves in an extremely tight spot with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).

We’re on the set of Suicide Squad, and it’s overwhelmingly real. Midway City might be a fictional location in the DC universe, but it’s not the only aspect of Suicide Squad that’s too detailed to feel fake.  

We’ve been told Jared Leto’s method is total (“When we first met him, he said - look girls, I’m going to be pretty intense, I’m going to be the Joker when I come for fittings,” costume designer Rene Fontana tells us. “Sometimes he tried to terrify us, but we’re strong women. He was growling at us, and we’d play back.”).

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If we see him, we’re to call him Mr J, or Smiley. We’re also told to hope that doesn’t happen as, for the uninitiated, the experience can be intimidating.

We sit in a hastily assembled interview area - this is a real set, with practical props and huge vehicles (including a nearby Black Hawk helicopter draped in a green screen blanket) limiting space. Margot Robbie, in full Harley Quinn costume (tattoos, tights and ‘Daddy’s Lil Monster’ t-shirt present and correct) squeezes in directly in front of us, literally centimetres away.

We silently thank The Batman that Robbie’s not going method like Mr Jared. As curious as we are to read the madwoman poetry scrawled on her baseball bat, we don’t particularly want it to leave an imprint on our face. Though, to be frank, our current location is so enclosed, there’s not enough room to swing a bat.

So, obvious question first. Forget Jared Leto, what’s it like working with the Joker? “It’s really interesting,” Robbie smiles. “Sometimes it can be awkward, sometimes it can be terrifying, most of the time it’s just funny. I’m trying not to laugh, because he says such hilarious things. Jared’s really funny, and terrifying, and just nuts. Absolutely nuts. It’s really interesting to work with someone so method, because I haven’t worked with someone doing that before.”

According to director David Ayer, that method comes from a carefully constructed backstory, with every element of Joker’s look a key to understanding it - including those controversial tattoos. “A lot of it has to do with creating a character with some kind of history and footprint in our world,” Ayer tells us. “And not have this sacrosanct being outside of our continuum, our reality. If a guy like him really existed today, where would he come from? How would he do business? Who would he know? What would he look like? In my mind, I took a lot of inspiration from drug lords on Instagram. It’s a great way to understand the lifestyle of a villain.”

This is the key to Leto’s Joker; do a simple Internet search and you’ll see Instagram shots of customised golden guns (we’re shown Joker’s handgun, it’s customised purple, not gold, but you get the point), flashy purple cars (there’s no Batman hanging off them, but other than that they’re identical to Joker’s ride), and so many gang tattoos… It’s a real eureka Google.

“The tattoos tell a very specific story,” Ayer continues. “And eventually people will decipher them and understand what’s going on, but obviously they’re contentious, any time you do something new it’s contentious. There’s very specific stories and easter eggs in those tattoos. And even his teeth, there’s an entire story behind that which is absolutely canon. It’s putting his history on his body. This Joker is a little more working class, who I believe could live in our world.”

But of course, Joker isn’t the only one with tattoos on the Suicide Squad set. We ask about Harley’s, and Robbie somehow finds space to take a step back, squatting slightly to show us Harley’s leg ink. “She did these herself in prison. They’re stick and poke tattoos, prison-style tattoos, that you do when you don’t have a tattoo gun. She did them herself out of boredom and desperation… There’s I Heart Puddin’, a Joker face, a love heart… that’s obviously reflective of her time in prison.”

She steps forward again, bumping our chair slightly as she does so. She’s at ease, confident and wonderfully charming. When we ask David Ayer about her contribution to the film, it’s clear he’s - professionally - smitten too.

“I don’t know what to say other than a star is born,” Ayer says. “She’s riveting, magnetic, she is the character. I don’t recognise her out of make-up, we spend so much time together on set, I’m uncomfortable around her if she’s not in make-up.”

Above: Margot Robbie applying some ink for real (Credit: Twitter.com/davidayermovies)

“Harley’s one of my favourite characters,” Ayer continues. “She’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this project. She’s so complex, she’s all about dichotomies, so many opposing qualities in the same person, just like all of us. It’s nice to explore those things. It’s rare to have such a strong female character who’s so active in the story, so driven and so powerful - yet has these weaknesses and achilles heels, just like anybody.”

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We’ve been on several film sets, interviewed several costumed characters, but there’s something special about this one. Perhaps because of that level of detail, the depth of realism. Deadshot’s prop wrist pistols are fully automatic, able to fire real bullets. We have this in mind when Will Smith strolls over to give us a spoiler-heavy description of the twist-filled scene we’re about to watch, a big grin on his face. As he lays out the details, we start to smile too - it sounds stunning.

Joel Kinnaman and Jay Hernandez are also in full costume, and Hernandez’s tattoos are terrifying in the flesh, making him genuinely scary to look at. Not quite as frightening as Killer Croc, his prosthetic mask - created by the practical FX geniuses at KNB - looks real, and almost impossibly expressive. He occasionally stalks past us, the crew referring to him by his nickname, Chomper.

We’re told we won’t be speaking to him, when he’s in costume he’s Croc - and they can’t guarantee he won’t try to eat us. It’s a joke - we think - but we still shrink in our seat later in the night when Croc clocks us with a sideways glance. We’ve already spent time exploring his sewer-style cell, seen the installation art he’s made from goat bones, and don’t particularly want to become part of his next collection.

But, despite the intensity of the method actors, and the potentially deadly costumes, this is also one of the friendliest, and most joyful sets we’ve ever been on. The Squad are around us almost constantly, if they’re not shooting the rooftop gun battle we’re here to observe on monitors, Robbie’s standing around, twirling her pink braid and grinning. Kinnaman’s smoking a vape, which glows blue in the dark night, while he laughs with Hernandez. Will Smith occasionally checks in to make sure we’re okay. Croc even briefly breaks character to hug a crew member.

The cast are clearly at incredibly at ease with each other, for which they have David Ayer’s brilliance to thank. “There’s all sorts of little tricks he has, manipulations that fold into the process, you don’t know you’re victim to until it’s in full effect,” Jai Courtney explains. “It’ll be sad to stop working with him, all of us hope that opportunity will come again.”

“You often hear directors talk about a rehearsal period, and it often ends up being an advanced table read,” Kinnaman explains. “But we actually had a month of rehearsals. We were all in one room, rehearsing the script, improvising, and that puts everybody in an insecure and vulnerable position. You feel like everybody is feeling the same things, and you overcome it together. That was really effective on this film. We all had to show our asses to each other.”

“We just had to get out there and do it, build trust with the other actors. It was an interesting process, David has a certain way of doing things,” Hernendez adds.

“He asked questions in front of everyone that were hard to dodge,” Kinnaman continues. “‘What are you most afraid of? What is the most embarrassed you’ve ever been? What’s the meanest thing you’ve ever done to someone?’ Those kinds of questions. So it becomes very honest, it strips the facade and you get to know each other for real.”

“One thing that helped me get to that level of comfort was that [David] did the same thing,” Hernendez reveals. “He divulged a lot of personal information about his life, his experiences, to us.”

“He’s very f***ed up,” Kinnaman laughs.

Leto wasn’t part of that process, and we wonder if that was a deliberate move on Ayer’s part - keeping the king of chaos from bonding with his enemies. “With Jared, it’s tough for him,” Ayer explains. “He constantly has to give birth to himself, he goes away, he comes back, he shoots, he goes away… The Joker is something you have to be, and you can see how exhausting and painful it is for him to be this character. But you can feel it when he comes to work, the crew feels it, everyone feels it. It’s like the birds stop flying. He’s f***ing terrifying.”

It’s time to leave. We pass Will Smith telling stories, surrounded by his Squad and crew. He pauses to shout 'Bye guys!’ at us, still smiling, always smiling. His team grin and wave, merciless villains transformed into happy actors. If we have as much fun watching Suicide Squad as they’re having making it, it’s going to be the greatest movie of all time. 

Forget the DC universe, we’ll want a Suicide Squad universe.

Above: Yahoo Movies on the Suicide Squad set (Credit: Clay Enos)

Now, as we walk towards the sounds of second unit gunfire adding to the piles of spent shells that already covered the pavement on the journey over - this isn’t organised crime, this is organised chaos - all we have to do is survive the trip back to our hotel so we’re alive to watch the finished film.

We see a flash of white and red out of the corner of one eye. Is that Harley, come to hug us goodbye, or… We quicken our step, and hope for the best.

‘Suicide Squad’ is coming to cinemas on 5 August.

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Image credits: Warner Bros.