A guide to the Kong: Skull Island characters and monsters
When a band of unlikely characters find themselves on an uncharted island post-Vietnam War, they find that Westernized ideas are no match for the grand and terrifying nature of Skull Island. Here we talk to the film’s stars Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts about the Kong: Skull Island characters and monsters (both behemoth and human) that they face.
And if you haven’t had a chance, check out part one of our set visit report, where we dug deep into the core of the story of Warner Bros. and Legendary‘s Kong: Skull Island and its world building to immerse movie-goers in a Kong origin they’ve yet to see.
The Players on the Island
Exploring the location was one thing, but getting insight from the actors about their characters helped fully imagine where each individual’s journey was leading. “This is five days away from home, they all got out of there alive, and they are all looking forward to the West Keys or whatever they are going,” Tom Hiddleston shared lounging inside a tent on the shores of Kualoa Ranch in Oahu with press during a lunch break. “It gives everyone a fascinating place to come from in terms of coming face-to-face with what happens.”
One of the immediate details that struck when Hiddleston sat with us was that his almost synonymous Loki black hair was gone. The actor laughed, “I look like myself. My Mom’s gonna love it! She gave birth to a baby with blonde hair and blue eyes and I look generally like her. So she’ll enjoy that,” he said of returning to blonde roots for his heroic turn as Conrad, an S.A.S. Special Operative who trains American forces in jungle survival techniques. “He’s a survivalist. He’s a tracker. Army lost and found. He’s the guy you send in to find missing persons if a plane or a helicopter has crashed in the jungle, because he has a special tracking ability,” he described of his character.
Conrad’s arc gets set in motion when Monarch operative Bill Randa (John Goodman) seeks him out to work with the US Government on a mission to an uncharted island they’re interested in mapping out – but may be in need of someone with his special set of skills. “That sounds sufficiently shady,” Hiddleston said of his character’s response to the offer, which he ultimately takes out of intrigue and a need to make a quick buck. “He takes the money and there’s a huge prehistoric ape on the island. Suddenly his very unique and special skill kicks in and he becomes indispensable to the team.
Also on the island is a troop of military men led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), whose training and skills result in a different response to Kong, which creates an interesting dynamic between the two. Especially when upon arrival, his air cavalry brigade suffers a tremendous loss that makes him less sympathetic to the island’s inhabitant’s. On the relationship, Hiddleston commented, “Conrad and Packard are both leaders, but they come from very different places. Intellectually and emotionally and how they respond to the crisis. The immediate crisis of being stuck on this island with King Kong is very different and I think that’s what gives you the human drama.”
Jackson elaborated on Packard’s stance. “He’s been in the army for a long time, he’s a lifer. He believes in his men’s lives and sanctity. God and country,” he boasted in the most Samuel L. Jackson way you could imagine. “My character is that standard for people seeing something that they don’t understand and identifying it as the enemy and not realizing their part in antagonizing that particular thing and that you’re responsible for making that thing do what it does,” he laughed and pointed out. “I mean the thing was doing nothing until you got here and here you are and now the things doing something, so what do you think you did to annoy it? Other than show up in its house and decide to disturb everything.”
The main conflict in the film centers on the divide between the group in how they’re going to fulfill a mission they may have gotten in over their heads about. On one side you have Packard and his troop, led by their leader’s relentlessness to kill Kong and claim him for Monarch that way as proof of existence. “It’s very akin to Ahab and the Whale,” Jackson compared. “At a certain point, you got to stand up to this thing that has done so much destruction to you and your people and he has this idea that this thing is not what’s going to save humanity, ’cause that’s what everybody else’s idea is. This is the thing that’s standing between us and these other things that are a threat to humanity. We’ve evolved to the point that we’re the line in the sand. This things not the line in the sand we are,” he pointed at himself in Packard’s gear. His reference clearly asserting the position of military prowess and advancement versus myth. “If us in our infinite, advanced technology, and mental state can’t stop a mindless gigantic ape, then our evolution has been for naught. So that’s part of where he is in that particular place and like you’ve said he does have to exact some measure of revenge for the people he’s lost. That’s just the nature of how we operate. Eye for an eye!”
On the flip side with Conrad is Weaver (Brie Larson), a war photographer inspired more by real-life Jane Fonda than any of the damsels that came before her in the Kong universe. The day we talked to Larson about Weaver, she was prepping for a scene where her character is supposed to be running away from Kong but is more dumbstruck with wonder than fear. “She has a point of view that’s different from a lot of the people that she’s surrounded by,” she explained. “Because of the period – she’s not seen as a valuable team member at first. But she’s incredibly strong-willed and has had to be in an all-male environment for so long, and she has to learn how to blend in– that’s a huge part of her job. So you see at the beginning of the movie a sense that she’s very capable of taking control of the situation and creating boundaries – because she’s just there to get a job done.”
On Weaver and Conrad’s relationship as partners on the opposite side of Packard, Larson explained: “They click pretty quickly – realizing that they’re both the only two people who are not with a group. At first I think they’re sizing each other up, because they both also come from backgrounds where they need to be very discreet and I think they realize that they’re both here for the same thing and that they’re going to need to stick with each other, because nobody else is looking out for them. I think that’s where all of that comes together – because the two of them have different skills they become two halves.”
Hiddleston echoed Larson’s thoughts. “They both make better choices I would say. There’s a great sort of back and forth about who gets to make decisions. She mocks him at the beginning for being kind of opaque and mysterious. When the sh*t hits the fan, Conrad reveals himself to be really kind of handy in a tight spot and she’s really grateful for that, but she won’t let him know.” As an actor, Hiddleston commends Larson’s role. “She has moments of great bravery, courage, and action. That’s what I love about the character. There’s never been a leading female character in a King Kong film like Weaver for sure. We wanted to have completely equal footing. They both start from a skeptical place and their experiences on the island bring them together. They become humbled by wonder and by awe. They become grateful for that. It shows them who they are.”
The name Weaver brings to mind heroine icon Sigourney, of course, and when asked if she thought the film offered a marked departure to how women were usually portrayed in all of Hollywood’s past incarnations of the Kong mythos, Larson proudly responded, “She’s not just falling in line with everybody else. She has her own voice and that voice is also really strong and is valid and is heard.”
Joining Larson is Tian Jing, the Chinese actress playing a Monarch biologist to fill out the cast as much as possible for a film of that time period. “Tian and I are working together to make this a film that I think young girls and women will be excited about,” Larson remarked. “It’s such an exciting time right now that we’re really embracing women taking charge and not just in a way that’s like a man. That it’s their own path and I think that this movie does a great job of embracing that.”
Kong and the Beasts
Honoring the legacy of Kong was something that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts felt an immense responsibility when he took on the challenge to re-imagine the King of the Apes. “When you’re growing up before nerds took over and genre became such a big thing—you know you just had Kong and you had Godzilla. You had those two things and even if you hadn’t even seen that many of the movies you knew what exactly it was. So the iconography of Kong was always really important to me and had always sort of been seared into my brain.”
Getting the film’s setting right was step one, making sure that the place where the actors were running around looked tangible and real. Jackson boiled it down to the history of what has made these movies so appealing – the monsters. “You go to a movie like this when you’re a kid – you go to a Godzilla movie, you go see Mothra, you go see all those things.” Personally to Jackson, films like that were instrumental in getting him to where he was sitting and waiting to be called upon to square off with the King. “I’m an only child so I spent a lot of time in my room fighting things that weren’t there anyway. I just ask somebody how big is it? How fast is it? Where is he? I’m good.” he said of his prep work before transforming into the brutal force of Packard. It’s easy to him coming from the place of a fan. “I still read comic books and I still live in sort of a fantastic world a lot of times in my head. I watch a lot of those movies from the past. I’m always up for those kind of things. Hydra, Cyclops, whatever they got,” he stated bluntly.
To Vogt-Roberts establishing the creatures of the film as more like beasts native to the island instead of devices that just go around smashing things was crucial. “If Kong is the God of this island, we wanted each of the creatures to feel like individual Gods of their own domain. We want to show audiences new things and so having the creatures not feel derivative of Jurassic World, or they’re too alien like, or too H.P. Lovecraft. Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke was actually a big reference in the way that the spirit creatures sort of fit within that. The big thing was trying to design creatures that felt realistic and could exist in an ecosystem that feels sort of wild and out there. Design things that simultaneously felt beautiful and horrifying at the same time. Where if you look at this giant spider or this water buffalo, you stare at it and part of you says “That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!” and “Oh my god that’s gonna kill me right now and I need to run for my life!” he contextualized about a couple sequences that we saw story-boarded, like the bamboo jungle – which is actually composed of thin giant spider legs. Yeah, there’s spiders and creatures called Skull Crawlers that are terrifying!
We also got to see concept designs of a lake’s island that turns out to be a mammoth Water Buffalo. Jackson told us a bit about the wonder of shooting scenes where the environment reveals itself to be something else. “I think it’s kinda cool to have a whole group of people walking on something and all of a sudden that thing kinda stands up and you realize that you’re on the horns of something as opposed to a log.” You can actually watch a glimpse of this very Miyazaki-esque moment in the latest trailer.
“We want to find something that feels real but that sort of pays homage to the fact that Kong is not just a big monkey to us,” Vogt Roberts reiterated his point to depart from mythology that’s previously been established. “He’s not just a big gorilla. He’s his own thing and therefore we have liberties with what we do with that. I think the Godzilla design was really, really, well received because it paid homage to what came before but also felt like something fresh. So we’ve just been doing everything to really get that to a place where you can look at it and you feel like it could be standing there with those people but have it feel like Kong.”
Part of the new interpretation that Vogt-Roberts worked on with his leads was creating a new perspective on Kong’s connection to the characters that seek to understand him – particularly Weaver. “I think that there is a really beautiful thing because I think there is so much myth in this and part of myth is masculine and feminine, anima and animus,” Larson revealed about Weaver’s instinct to come from a place of humility. “…so because of her feminine energy, I feel like she is a little further ahead in having an interest and respect for nature – and immediately clocks that this is not about man overcoming this creature but working with it and she really begins to appreciate it.”
Hiddleston agreed that this is why both their characters create a bond with one another and side with Kong. He added, “Conrad has respect for Kong as an alpha predator. We’re talking about a tracker here. Someone who understands the pyramid of nature and the food chain. So Conrad completely understands his place even though, of course, Kong is unlike anything he’s seen in his life.”
One of the scenes we watched involved Conrad and Weaver encountering Kong. Surrounded by jungle, they and the group they’re with are running away, but Weaver can’t resist the temptation to keep snapping away pictures in astonishment. In the interest of keeping the group together, Conrad has to carry her off before she gets herself stomped on. “It’s interesting how the film relates to him, ’cause at first I think he seems like a beast and towards the end he seems like a figure. Their experiences on the island make them realize there is some extra quality to him. He’s some kind of emblem or icon. He’s more than a beast,” Hiddleston explained of how the humans come full circle in seeing Kong as a majestic being instead of a monster.
The monster of course, reveals itself to be man.
At one point, we sat in on an integral scene where Packard decides to withhold information from his troop about the fate of one of their own. Seeking to keep the morale up, Packard goes on to tell one of his soldiers that they need to get ready to take on the beast that has, in his eyes, struck against them. “It’s a war experience,” Jackson flatly stated about Packard’s mission. “You have an enemy – you fight the enemy. Once the enemy presents itself, then you assess the threat and how you deal with it and what needs to happen. Eliminate it or save the people that are still around. The soldier concept.”
And the beast reveals itself to be more than just a force of nature.
As the director put it: “We want our Kong to feel very human in ways but also very God-like in ways. That actually ties into a lot of the human reactions in our film – where we want people to be able to look at this thing, stare up at it, and see this sort of God-like figure in front of them. This old lonely god, something from prehistory, and see how it affects them.” Vogt-Roberts scanned the nature we stood amongst as we asked: “If we were standing right here and a giant, hundred-foot tall ape happened, what would go through your brains? How does that change you? How does it affect you?”
And despite not seeing Kong, we tapped into the story, the surroundings and could feel how Kong’s omnipotent presence created a new world in Kong: Skull Island that its characters embark an incredible journey on. One, that like some of cinema’s greatest monster movies, we could find ourselves in.
Kong Skull Island opens in theaters on March 10, 2017![Gallery not found]