Shazam! fans always knew Billy Batson’s story could be something special, even in a blockbuster genre already filled with superheroes. But even the most confident comic fans didn’t ever expect the movie to introduce the entire Shazam Family–or that the adult cast would be kept a secret until release day.
Yet somehow the Shazam! team managed exactly that, as audiences were unexpectedly introduced to not just Billy Batson’s adult form, but Mary (Michelle Borth), Freddy (Adam Brody), Darla (Meagan Good), Eugene (Ross Butler), and Pedro (D. J. Corona). And with their roles in the DC movie universe now revealed, the cast is finally able to discuss their even-more-secretive-than-usual path to bringing a family of heroes to life on screen.
While most of Billy’s foster siblings were introduced as magic champions in DC’s New 52 reboot back in 2011, his sister Mary Marvel and best friend Freddy a.k.a. Captain Marvel, Jr. are almost as old as he is, created alongside Superman in the earliest days of superhero comics. Screen Rant had the chance to speak with Mary Marvel herself, actress Michelle Borth, about the process of landing an unknown role in DC’s Justice League universe, and the rare opportunity to be part of one of the most diverse superhero teams–superhero families audiences may ever see.
Well I want to make sure that I don’t owe you an apology, because I think we were the first to figure out that you were actually in the movie playing Mary Marvel.
Oh, no way!
I think so, yeah. We ran a piece on the entire Shazam Family cast back in March, that you had all been cast in secret–
Wait a second, wait a second…
We did a photoshop of you and Zac in the hero suits…
Oh my God! Yes you were! I remember being so excited about that! You don’t have to apologize, I want to say thank you. Because listen: if it didn’t come from me, it was fine. You know what I mean? As long as it didn’t come from me. That was my only responsibility, was just to keep my mouth shut. But anybody else…
No! I remember–we’re all in a group chat, we’re all like ridiculous best friends, not kidding. Like, it sounds so cheesy but we really are family, it’s really gross. But I remember seeing that, and I texted everyone like, ‘It’s been leaked, someone’s leaking it!’ And everyone was like ‘Yes! Leak it! Yes!’ Because you know, we all want to talk about it. We all want to shout on the mountaintop of like, ‘We’re superheroes!’ And so we were really excited, thank you.
Then I can’t imagine how happy you are to finally be able to talk about your role in Shazam!
Ridiculous. Ridiculous. It’s been the hardest secret to have to sit on. And it’s coming up on almost two years for me, you have no idea. I’m very pleased with myself, because I didn’t have a big ‘oopsie’ at some point. But it’s such a relief, I’m so excited.
I imagine that going through the ‘superhero movie experience’ must be something, it’s really only been available to a select group of people in all of movie history.
How clear was it, just how top secret this was going to be? How did this experience start for you?
[Laughs] Sooo top secret. This is like classified, C.I.A. material. It was as closed as the Mueller case, I’ll put it that way. So no, I knew nothing, I knew nothing! I got this audition and it was like a three page monologue. The notes that I got from it were, ‘We don’t have a script, and there’s no character breakdown, but they’d like you to do this and put it to a dance.’ I was like, ‘Hold up, hold up.’ ‘Yeah that’s all, we’re really sorry. That’s all the information we have. Just do the best you can.’
I read it and it was just about a woman who was in a wrong class, who had signed up to go to an exercise class and got there and it was a dance class. Long story short, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to have fun with it. I don’t know what it’s for, I’ve got nothing to lose.’ I spent the entire weekend Google-ing YouTube videos of the Saturday Night Fever dance. Like, the whole shebang. I went through every single step that John Travolta did. I memorized it, I got it down, and then I set it to this monologue. And then at the end of the monologue it kind of ran short–the dance wasn’t long enough–so at the end of the monologue I decided to go into an interpretive dance [Laughs]. So I did, I went into interpretive dance and started doing butterfly arms, and I just had a lot of fun with it. Again, had no idea what it was for. And didn’t afterwards, either. I completely forgot about it.
I want to say like two, three months later I get a call and they’re like, ‘By the way, remember that really weird audition you went in for? You’re Mary Marvel.’ I was like, ‘What?’ ‘That was for DC Comics, and they want you for Mary Marvel.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God that’s amazing! When do I test? Do I have to screen test, when is the producer session, I have to prepare.’ They’re like, ‘No no Michelle, that was it.’ So I was like ‘That can’t be it!’ ‘No, that was it, you are Mary Marvel now. No testing, no one else.’ From that tape. From that tape! The magical tape. So you can imagine, when I was told that I started bawling. Like, it wasn’t me laughing, it wasn’t me going ‘Yay!’ When they finally were like, ‘Michelle, do you get it? You are Mary Marvel now.’ I dropped the phone and just started crying. I’m like ‘I’m okay! I’m okay! Give me two minutes, I’m fine! I have to just pull my stuff together.’ And they just started laughing at me. Just like, ‘Cry it out girl! Cry it out!’
We had a chance to speak with David Sandberg on the set. You obviously weren’t there–or maybe you were, apparently.
Or I was hiding around a corner somewhere, yeah.
He spoke a lot about the energy and youthful exuberance he looked for in Zachary Levi’s Shazam, but I imagine it would be the same for all the kids. How did he explain the role, or how this movie was going for something a little bit different?
I think the major difference that sets it apart from more typical superhero films and what we got to work with was… the reference was Big. In the long-short of it. The reference was Big. Once I heard that, because you know, I’m a child of the ’80s, I love Tom Hanks, I was like, ‘Oh I totally get it. They stay the same, they turn into superheroes but we get to stay kids.’ Because up until we got a script I didn’t really know that Mary Marvel was a seventeen year old girl in a superhero costume. So that was the clincher for us. We do have this real playful and light, not so serious all the time. Superhero movies can be really serious where we’re kind of goofballs, you know? We look like we’re really badass, but we’re all just goofballs having a lot of fun like kids playing. So that energy was where we knew we were all coming from, and knew was going to make this movie different. Basically like kids do, this film doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s the beauty of it.
I’m curious to know how much of shaping Mary was figuring it out with David, or with Grace Fulton who plays Mary. That seems like a singular kind of challenge for an actor.
It was.I have to say though, out of all of them, I was probably the luckiest. Because we all wanted to at some point come to set and watch the kids, or be able to watch playback, or a reel, or something like that. We had to get some sort of idea of who these kids were, how the kids were playing their roles, otherwise it’s just not going to work. So it’s a little bit more difficult when you have a really young child. I lucked out because I got Grace. Grace is ridiculously beautiful and talented and smart, so I got to sit down with her like and adult. Because she is an adult [laughs], she just looks really young. I got to sit down with her and pick her brain. Because in essence… WE are Mary, you know what I mean? Both of us are Mary Marvel. And I was like, ‘Give it to me, how are you doing this, how are you going to go about that, what’s in your brain?’ And with her information it was really easy for me to say, ‘Oh okay! Then this is what I’m going to do with my part of Mary Marvel.’ She was like, ‘Perfect, great. So when I shoot this scene, I’m going to do this’…
Mary’s really uptight when you meet her, she has a lot of responsibilities. She takes the role of a second mom, and is always worried. And forgets that she’s a teenager, so Grace plays that. Mary is focused on college, and focused on raising these kids, and forget how to laugh at some point. So my whole job is the best part, in my opinion, because I get to make Mary have fun. I get to let Mary let her hair down, be badass, and have a blast doing it. She’s got her confidence now. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s beating up these sins. You know, playing with it. ‘Oh you want more? You want seconds? C’mon, have at it!’ I get to have fun with her and make her a teenager again.
That sense of fun seems like it will be what a lot of people will take away from it. But anyone who follows you on social media knows that you are outspoken when it comes to the causes that you support and promote…
[Laughs] You do know! Yes I am!
So what does it mean to be a part of not just a superhero story, but one that is based in a foster family, a group of vulnerable kids who are forming a family and getting to overcome all kinds of insecurities and disabilities. Was that a connecting point for you in the story?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s really the heart of the film, to be quite honest. The heart and soul of the film is that… one, I kind of look at it in the sense that foster parents are superheroes. The foster parents who take in these kids and are selfless, and give a home and a good life to someone who is in need is something, to me, that should be celebrated. That they are everyday superheroes. And on the other side, I think no more than anyone else, a foster kid feels very alone, and very isolated. And probably is going to struggle socially through life. I hope the message that comes through is that your family doesn’t necessarily have to be the one you were born to. That you can find a community, and you can find people like yourself, and create a family. Because these days, almost every family is a broken family. It’s true! I mean there are a lot of split families going on, and a lot of kids who feel isolated. Because of technology, and spending a lot of time alone.
Billy Batson is constantly looking for his mom. Even when he’s in the foster home, he’s still looking for his mom. It hasn’t dawned on him yet that he’s been given this gift. So at the end of the movie he finally realizes that this is his family now. Just because he wasn’t born into it, and they’re not his blood mother and father, or blood brothers and sisters, they don’t love him any less. Or are going to not have his back in life. I think that’s an important message to have. Sometimes, if you weren’t given the best situation you can go out there and make that family. Whether it’s at workplace or with friends. You can connect with people.
I always thought that was such a beautiful part of the comic the movie is based on–that Billy doesn’t even have to be alone as a superhero. That was a major surprise in the comic, and I expect it will be one for movie audiences too. Are you just counting down the days until people get to vocally respond to it?
I am! I mean I’m so excited, but I’m also nervous, you know? You just don’t know how people are going to respond. But I’m mostly really excited because when I watch the film I thought it was fantastic. I thought it was fantastic. We all left feeling just… happy. It just has this feeling to it that I walked away feeling really positive. When I know that a couple hours earlier I was feeling really negative about everything that’s going on in our country. You know? I mean all the stuff that is happening right now, particularly here in the U.S. is really unfortunate and really sad. I don’t know how much it trickles down to kids and how much they understand what’s going on, but the thing about this film is that it’s a positive experience.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m really proud to be a part of something that is going to be a positive experience for people today. Particularly in the environment that we are all experiencing right now. I mean I am very tapped into it, I think a lot of people are, it’s kind of hard not to be. It’s kind of hard to not get jaded by it. To not feel some sort of negativity in one way or another. You know what’s so fantastic? I get to offer something really great, like a ray of sunshine and some joy into peoples’ lives. And make them laugh, hopefully make them feel inspired, give them that warm fuzzy feeling, even if it’s just for an hour or two. That, to me, is paramount that we get to do that. That makes me really proud.
People may not expect that from your director, given some of his more unsettling horror films. Can you speak to his approach, even in the marketing and build-up to the movie’s release he’s wearing his sense of humor proudly.
It’s so interesting that you say that. Because he is, he is. I’m going to be completely honest with you: when we first were in Toronto, and we first met David, he was actually very shy. I know, I know, but he was very shy. He didn’t have much to say, was a man of very few words. Absolutely kind and wonderful person, but I remember after our first meeting walking away and being like, ‘Oh he’s so shy!’ I think that… from my perspective, I think, in this process I’ve seen him not only come out of his shell as a human being, but then take on this real childlike… this beautiful, beautiful, childlike way about him that’s been really beautiful to watch. That’s my perspective of it. I don’t know if he’s always been like that! But I saw it as this slow rollout, towards the end.
I can only imagine, I mean I don’t think any of us had done a film of this magnitude before, and David along with us. So I can imagine that he came in nervous, I would assume. I mean this is a huge, $100 million budget, Warner Bros., DC film… it’s a lot to take on. And I congratulate him because he knocked it out of the park. It is so interesting to watch the diversity of people, because you would never think that this director did Annabelle, you know what I mean? You would never think that. But it just goes to the power of the script, and to the power of superheroes. Even the performances, I do a lot more serious stuff, a lot of my work is more dramatic. You get to see different sides of everyone. You get to see a different, fun side that we all tapped into this well. And then overflowed with [Laughs].
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