12 tantalizing things we learned during our Thor set visit

We went to the Los Angeles set of Thor in March, and even though we wanted to tell you all about it immediately, we've had to sit on it all year. But now the embargo has lifted and we can share the things we learned from director Kenneth Branagh, producer Craig Kyle and the actors playing Asgardian warriors.

Chris Hemsworth himself had the day off, but we still got to see Tom Hiddleston, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas and Jaimie Alexander run across ice blocks tilting on gimbals. At Raleigh Studios Manhattan Beach, we learned 12 things about next summer's big Marvel superhero god movie.

God-speak isn't so different from English, but it's fancy English

"I don't want them sounding like Shakespearean types," Branagh assured us. "I don't want them sounding in any way nonhuman in a strange way. So the blur of the comics is always to make them feel they are, at one and the same time, they're gods and they're just like us." Of course, Branagh's pedigree is Shakespeare. He did the complete Hamlet, as well as adaptations of Henry V, Othello, etc.

Ray Stevenson plays Volstagg, and he was inspired by Falstaff, William Shakespeare's bad influence to Henry V in three plays. "He is very much Falstaffian," Stevenson said. "I think that helps as well, but also the way Shakespeare is slightly larger than life, it's like heightened language and everything. That's the genius of having Ken Branagh here as well. Shakespeare doesn't require you to have a doctorate in the English language or whatever to understand it. It just has to be directed well and played right."

Jaime Alexander plays the warrior Sif. She's playing it British, so that's her contribution to God-speak. "It's not over-the-top Old English, like Lord of the Rings would be or something like that," Alexander said. "But there is a very sophisticated air about the Asgardians in their dialogue. I'm doing an English accent in the movie. Anthony [Hopkins] is kind of Welsh, but on that side of the pond."

The weapons could really cut you

The prop masters let us handle some of the weapons. Thor's hammer felt about 20 pounds, definitely a two-hand job. They wouldn't even let Alexander touch Sif's double sword. It opens up like Darth Maul's double saber, only with real steel, so it could take a finger off. Stevenson got the ax, and Tom Hiddleston throws knives. "I got a two-handed battleaxe," Stevenson said. "I'm swinging a two-handed battleaxe all around my head and all this sort of stuff," Stevenson said. "Of course, you come to do it in full costume, and you can't actually get your arms together, so you're wielding in one-handed."

As Loki, Hiddleston said, "We thought these throwing knives, because I think Loki doesn't like to get his hands dirty in a fight. He likes to be quick, efficient and lethal. I thought if Loki could fight in a way that was as impressive as Thor's but was completely different, like in a way Loki's too quick and Thor can't catch him. He dances his way out of combat, and these knives are his way of keeping his foes at arm's length. But it's lethal. When you get one of those knives in, you're gone."

Hemworth became a Thor-cicle

Today was a studio day, so the actors in full armor kept warm. On location days, Hemsworth wasn't afraid to do things for real.

"There's a scene where it was 35-degree weather and there's water everywhere and he's in it," Kyle said. "He's in a pretty nasty fight, and just, it's visceral, it's violent and brilliant, and you just believe it. As soon as Ken would yell "Cut!", he would just get tremors, he would just start rocking like this because he was so cold. Literally not until he yelled "Cut" would he allow himself to be experiencing the horror that he was in, in all that cold and water. Then he'd throw on this little metal blanket, he'd smile, he'd laugh, talking to the crew, and then he'd tear it off, steam coming off his body because of his own body heat, and then he'd go right back out there and do it again. I'm so glad they killed him in Star Trek, I can't say. If they hadn't we would have been so screwed."


It all starts with daddy issues

Thor is a god and a superhero and part of the Avengers, but this movie starts with his family. "I think it is this sort of a combination of very personal stories," Branagh explained. "We recognize them, we feel certain things between fathers and sons and siblings, but they're amongst families who have enormous power and consequence. When they have an argument, the rest of the universe suffers."

For example, a whole battle with the frost giants starts because Ymir (Colm Feore) has a squabble with Odin (Anthony Hopkins). "[It's] a tiny intimate scene about two guys going, 'Your kid's an idiot,'" Feore said. "'Yeah, I know, but you were an idiot once too.' 'Not that big an idiot. I might have to kill him.' 'Oh, please don't.' 'F--k you.' 'F--k you, too. Then it would go back to the big huge deal."

Craig Kyle describes act one

One detail Kyle gave up is that the film opens on Asgard with some personal scenes of the royal family. "I won't give a specific, but you get to meet Odin and Frigga [Rene Russo] and they feel like a king and a queen, but they also feel like a mother and a father and a husband and a wife," Kyle said. "You get to meet Thor and Loki. They feel like brothers. You've never been to Asgard and you're not royalty, but you get who they are, you understand their relationships, and it's just so genuine. Then I love when you meet the warriors three and Sif, because for me, it feels like my buddies and I in assembly hall in high school or any wedding, or whatever horrible function people should not have invited me and my friends to. It's talking about the crowd and laughing and waiting for your buddy or your friend to come out."

The Warriors Three get some screen time

The Warriors Three (Volstagg, Fandral and Loki) and Sif feature prominently in the Asgard section of the movie. They spent they day on set running across the collapsing ice after Thor's overzealous hammer smash shook up the whole planet in a previous scene. Volstagg even picked up Fandral to carry him along the ice.

"I have a take on Volstagg," Stevenson said. "What you see is what you get. He's a bon vivant, lover of life, epicure and all-around good fellow. He's a god, which helps, and he's full of life. There's a wonderful innocence to him. Steadfast loyalty of a big St. Bernard dog, who would come running through the snow with a keg of beer to save your life."

Josh Dallas added, "Fandral the dashing, a philanderer. He'd like to think of himself, I was just saying, as the R. Kelly of Asgard. He's a lover, not a fighter, you know what I'm saying? Fandral is a fun-loving guy, he's a lady's man. It's always debatable how successful he is at that. He thinks he's pretty successful, he thinks all the ladies love him, and if they don't, they will soon come around to the idea of loving him. He's fiercely loyal to Thor and to the warriors three, and they look after each other. He would rather have a good time, but if he's got to fight, he'll fight. But, um, yeah, he's a great character to play."


Kenneth Branagh knows his comic books

If Branagh ever has a question about Thor, he talks to the authors who have worked on the series for Marvel.

"One of the problems with Shakespeare is you can never give him a ring," Branagh said. "[I can] talk to Stan Lee, talk to Walt Simonson, talk to J. Michael Straczynski, a lot of people that are key to all of this. It's just big-hearted, kind of an account of these incredible characters who have lasted across the several thousand years of Norse mythology and the last 50 years of Marvel, who raided this mythology so brilliantly and with such imagination that you're really aware of a fantastic amount of talent behind you, which you can go and be inspired by and borrow from and ask questions about."

Yoga brought the Asgardians closer

Branagh thought of some ways to get the actors to bond before he filmed with them, and it worked. "He had the weirdest questions for these actors sometimes," Kyle said. "Having them kind of crack these ideas in their heads and think about it really got them corkscrewed deep into these individuals. He had them do some yoga sessions together. He wanted them to really come together so when they stepped on the set for the first time, it really felt like they were friends. The first thing they did when we started shooting was a big battle sequence for almost two weeks. So when they started to have their personal scenes, they had been through two weeks of fighting together. I mean, they had been trying to save each other's lives and killing all these creatures. So when they talked about the old times, they had been through it."

The frost giants aren't just monsters

Walking through the halls of Raleigh Studios, we got a peek at Colm Feore sitting in the makeup chair. He was already covered in blue in the morning. By afternoon he could dance and flex with the blue skin and show off his red eyes and blue crusted teeth. Frost Giant king Ymir isn't just a scary blue guy, though.

"The voice is dropped, Clint in outer space," Feore said. "'Get off my lawn' is going to be my best line. It's going to be fun, because you don't expect sensitivity, humanity, humor, heartbreak from this kind of guy, but the way Ken directs, we've managed to get all that. So it's been a wonderful synthesis of machinery, artistry and just good old craft."


Thor has a thing for brunettes

Once Thor is on Earth, he gets involved with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Darcy (Kat Dennings). If you see Alexander as Sif, you get a sense of what Thor's type is.

"It's funny, the dark hair, the mole, the eyebrows," Alexander said. "[Portman]'s like a miniature version of me, a more fit version of me. The relationship between Thor and Sif in this movie is quite platonic. I mean, they're good buddies, they've grown up with each other, they're warriors, they fight side by side. We haven't taken it to the next level yet. I'm going to throw that in there. She kind of thinks he's a little bit pigheaded, but she loves him nevertheless. She's like, 'That's my buddy, I'll do what I can for him' but she'll definitely call him on his s--t, which I like, because it's kind of how I am with Chris."

Something's up with Loki, but it won't be obvious

Loki is famously known as the god of mischief, and in Thor's world he's the brother who takes the darker path. Hiddleston said he's crafting his performance so the wheels are turning even when he's not speaking, but you won't notice.

"Ken talks about the racing mind," Hiddleston said. "He said, 'Every time I put the camera on your face, I want to see your brain going at the speed of light. But I don't want anyone else in the scene to see it.' So there's this very private thing of someone who's just thinking 10 steps ahead of the game, every time. But not making it so obvious that it'd be like, 'Guys, somebody look at Loki, because he's cooking up something bad.' There's a fantastic shot of me on the throne, where it's straight out of that sort of iconic image where he's got the staff and he's slouching and he's like, 'Got a problem with that?' There are certain things that people, that fans of the comics, will already know, but hopefully you see Loki learn certain things about himself for the first time."

It's Thor first, then the Marvel Universe

Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) mentioned the New Mexico incident in Iron Man 2. A few of you knew that meant Thor. Any references to other Marvel characters in Thor will be just as subtle.

"Kevin [Feige]'s got a very strong mandate about this," Kyle said. "The movies have to support themselves. It's not about torturing people and saying it's so inside baseball, if you don't know every little clue for every movie, you're not going to get what you need. It's icing on the cake for the hardcore fans and for those who are really enjoying the films. So those little seeds are there, but you shouldn't need to know them, see them or understand them. You should see, scripts we get in sometimes have so many frickin' easter eggs you can't see the grass where they're hidden. It's like everybody went to the same college and everybody knows each other and it's so incestuous there's no movie for anyone else, so, it's just important to use that stuff sparingly. It's getting to the point where people see what isn't there anyway."

Thor opens May 6, 2011.

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