Actress Lauren Ridloff understands the importance of this moment. Eternals has officially hit theaters across the globe, marking an exciting post-Avengers chapter for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a new standard for superhero movies. “I think that’s what really excited me, to see a deaf Black Mexican woman being cool and kicking ass,” she says of being a part of the film. With Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao at the helm, we are introduced to a new group of immortal guardians (a whopping 10, to be exact!) who more than ever reflect the wonderfully diverse society we live in today. In addition to having Black, Latina, and East and South Asian superheroes at the forefront protecting humanity from alien monsters called Deviants, the representation extends to the deaf and queer communities—a first for the MCU.
For Ridloff, being the first in a major film franchise came with its own set of perks, like having the opportunity to develop a character from scratch. While Makkari, who possesses superhuman speed and reflexes, did exist in the original comics as a hearing white male, Ridloff worked closely with Zhao to ensure that their version of Makkari felt organic to the story and defied stereotypes surrounding the deaf community. “What was really important to me was the fact that I was able to portray Makkari as a very powerful being,” Ridloff tells me. “She has superspeed, she’s been all over the world, and she can hang with all the others and protect the humans, and she looks so cool doing it.” Cool is an understatement, as she zips around her counterparts and the world fighting off dragon-like creatures at supersonic speeds.
Zhao’s beautiful storytelling coupled with the film’s massive star power are what make Eternals one of this year’s must-see films. Following the London premiere, where Ridloff dazzled in Tom Ford, I caught up with the actress to talk about finding her Makkari, the very important lesson she learned from her castmates, and her dream to tackle the YA literary world next.
Eternals director Chloé Zhao was adamant about broadening casting representation for this film, so she revised the character Makkari to be a deaf woman of color. Can you tell me a little about your early conversations with Zhao about the role?
People have actually said that this is Chloé’s film, and I definitely agree. I think this is her signature, and it’s her style of storytelling. In the previous movies that Chloé has made, they are all focused on authenticity, and she works with non-actors. The stories, at first look, may seem very simple and minimal or ordinary, but at the same time, they are so powerful. She wants the superheroes, the aliens to really reflect what the real world looks like. So she chose people like your aunts and uncles or your siblings, your family and friends, your teacher or your boss. They are all there on your screen, and that’s what I love so much about Eternals. And what it was like for me to develop that character, really that’s just one of the perks of being the first. It means that there is a lot of space. There is a lot of opportunity to just create. And we started from scratch. So that was really exciting, to be able to work with somebody like Chloé. She really puts a lot of trust in the actors. She allows us to discover and create our characters as time was going on. I think that’s one of the main reasons why the script kept evolving and changing as we shot. The scripts changed, and by the time we were done shooting, we all were so confused like, “Wait, what version [is this]? How is this going to even end? Where am I?”
Seeing as the character was revised, what was important for you to bring to Makkari?
What was really important to me was the fact that I was able to portray Makkari as a very powerful being. You know, she has superspeed, she’s been all over the world, and she can hang with all the others and protect the humans, and she looks so cool doing it. So I think that’s what really excited me, to see a deaf Black Mexican woman being cool and kicking ass.
You are playing the first deaf superhero in the MCU, a huge step forward in terms of representation for the deaf community in Hollywood. What do you hope comes from this moment?
Well, the one thing that I have realized is I really can’t represent the deaf community globally because I am just one person. I am one individual, and I have so many other intersections in regards to my identity that I also want to portray and share. I am Black. I am Mexican. I am a woman. I’m also a mother, a teacher, a wife, and an actor. So I’m all of those things in one, and I can’t expect to actually represent the deaf community all in one movie. However, as we are going on and doing press, I’m seeing that I actually can have an impact on how my story is told and how I as a person can reframe that. I don’t know if powerful is the right word, but I guess it's important to me. I’m doing important work right now and bringing more awareness and attention to subtitles for the movie theaters. I haven’t talked about it before. I don’t go to movies very often. I would rather stream them because the content is completely accessible to me. I can choose which subtitles I want. And it’s not just me who uses subtitles. I know a lot of people who have perfect hearing who also use subtitles while they are streaming content. But why don’t we reflect that in the movie theaters? We are actually living in a world right now that is very visual and very used to textual information, so why not just change with the times and normalize subtitles? I mean, Squid Game?
If you had Makkari’s superpowers in real life, what is the first thing you would do?
I would probably establish a travel agency and would just be a very successful travel guide. I would write a lot of reviews and notes on the best beach destinations all over the world.
Eternals features an incredible cast, including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Kit Harrington, Kumail Nanjiani… The list goes on. What was it like stepping onto set with this cast? What did you learn from them?
I have to say, swoon. Yesterday on the blue carpet, I was looking at my beautiful friends, and it was crazy. Just beautiful and also, what’s most important, very generous. That is why they are where they are right now, and that is why they are who they are. They are very giving people in terms of sharing the same story. We all are here working on set to tell a story that requires a community and collaboration. I saw my cast truly as collaborators.
I learned several things. I’ve learned, first of all, it’s really worthwhile to have a pet owl. Salma [Hayek] has a pet owl, and I definitely want one. It’s also really important to make sure that, that same pet owl does not poop or vomit all over guests, which did happen. I can’t tell you who, but one day, I think that story might come out. What I’ve learned is, as an actor, we all have needs, and it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what size, shape, abilities. We all have needs. There is no shame in that. I came to set not wanting to make any noise or ask for too much because I was just grateful to be in the same space with these experienced actors, but as time went on, I realized that, no, we are all here to fight for the integrity of our characters so that the story is told right. So that’s what I learned.
You had the London premiere yesterday, where you wore a beautiful Tom Ford dress. Can you tell me about working with stylist Jason Rembert and what you two were looking to achieve for this press tour?
I chose that dress specifically because I feel like it really corresponds with the Eternals, that motif, the circles. That dress was perfection. My experience working with Jason Rembert, he actually reached out to me probably about a year ago—this was way before all of this even happened—just saying, “Hey, I’m interested in working with you.” At that time, I didn’t know who he was, so I started looking at his feed, and I was like, “Wow, yes, most definitely!” I think he saw a challenge and was willing to take it. I love how we have conversations and he listens. He really pays attention to what I say. I feel like he actually looks at the important words that I put out there, and he takes them on and uses that information to pull amazing choices. And he really pushes me to take risks. Some of the outfits that he picks, I was like, “Really?” Like the Yves Saint Laurent romper that I wore last week. At first, I would have never dreamed that I would wear a romper to a red carpet event, but also, that’s Jason. He’s a risk-taker with a bit of a sense of humor. There’s one other thing I wanted to mention. … I did tell Jason that I truly wanted to play with my intersection, my different identities as a Black woman and also a Mexican woman, and I wanted to incorporate my character of Makkari that I’m portraying right now, that I’m representing and think about the clothing I would choose. Also, comfort is very important and for it to be a bit edgy because that’s who Makkari is. And he does definitely take all of that into consideration.
Are there any other actors or musicians who inspire you in terms of style?
I’ll talk about the women in my cast. I just feel like this cast is very thoughtful and purposeful in what they wear. Gemma, she definitely supports Asian designers, and it’s gorgeous. Have you seen her red carpet looks? I mean, really beautiful. Angie, her children are upcycling her dresses. That is such an important message because fast fashion, in general, is one of the leading causes of pollution. So I do feel like Angie is providing a very important message there. And Salma really connects with her roots through fashion. And even Lia. I feel like Lia really explores what it means to be in that transition from being a child when she first joined the film to now as a young woman. I think that is so fascinating. Overall, I feel like the women in Eternals recognize that fashion is a story. It’s a story, and we also all have a story to tell.
You grew up in a creative family. Your father is a musician, and your mother is an artist. Did you know from an early age that you wanted to pursue a career in the creative arts?
Yes, I did. I wanted to write. I grew up loving writing, and I kept a daily diary. I named my diary. It was Virgil. I always started each [entry] with, “Dear Virgil.” And sometimes, it would be writing up stories. My parents got me an electric typewriter. Can you imagine? I had that electric typewriter and spent so much time typing and writing and creating stories. I was a huge Stephen King fan, even before it was age-appropriate, because I was so young at the time. My school teachers contacted my parents very concerned about the fact that I was reading Stephen King novels. When I was writing, I usually wrote horror stories. So I always knew I wanted to be a writer. In high school, I took special writing classes. In college, I majored in creative writing. So I feel like that was my love. My love for writing really supported my career in acting because they both take the same kind of empathy for the character.
It hasn’t always been about acting for you. You majored in English with an emphasis in creative writing, took up hip-hop dancing, competed in California State University’s National Center on Deafness Miss Deaf America competition, and taught kindergarten, and at one point, you were working toward becoming a children’s author. Is that still a goal of yours?
Well, first of all, I have to say it’s a funny feeling to hear you describe my background. I know all of this, but you are right, wow. Yeah, I definitely want to write a children’s book. I want to write maybe a YA novel because I feel like there is such a space there that needs to be filled. You are going through times of transition and identity exploration, so I really want to support that. But I have to find the time.
Outside of Eternals, you also play Connie on The Walking Dead, which is in its final season. I read that you were a big fan of The Walking Dead and submitted an audition tape to be cast in the series. What do you love about the show?
I don’t know why I’m being so honest right now, but I think maybe it’s because this is the last interview and I’m just letting it all flow. Okay, really what I think I liked most about the series in the beginning was Norman [Reedus], his character Daryl. I mean, come on! But as I watched, I really love how they represent the real world and the diversity. It’s there, and it’s a part of the story, but it’s not pushing. It’s not driving the story. It’s not the point. The point is about a group of people trying to survive and also trying to rediscover what it means to be human. I love that! I think that’s why the series has been so successful and has impacted so many fans throughout the world because everyone has someone to connect with in this series. And because Daryl.
I love the fact that they just didn’t stop with one deaf character. They brought in two. And I think it’s a really good opportunity to show the spectrum of the deaf community. We have Connie, who has been deaf since birth and never experienced the loss. But also, we have Kelly played by Angel Theory, and [Angel] in real life is experiencing hearing loss. I was with her as part of that journey in her life, and I think The Walking Dead ended up including that as part of her storyline, which is so powerful. I think The Walking Dead is brilliant.
While you have been involved with the theater since a young age, you kind of fell into acting a few years ago through tutoring and consulting work. Now that you have done Broadway and have starred in a major television series and a Marvel film, what would you like to accomplish next?
Well, my next thing is just to get a good night's sleep. That and writing YA books. I don’t know that that’s next, but it’s something I do want to do, so maybe I’ll get started one day.
Eternals is in theaters now.
Photographer: Erik Carter
Stylist: Jason Rembert
Hairstylist: Vernon François
Makeup Artist: Autumn Moultrie