Chukwudi Iwuji Explains the High Evolutionary, Guardians of the Galaxy 3's "Grandiose" Villain
Here’s how opera and a costume helped Iwuji bring his despicable Marvel villain to life.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Marvel Cinematic Universe fans finally get to meet the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). The character has been a recurring Marvel Comics antagonist ever since he was first created back in the mid-1960s and, in many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s version of the High Evolutionary isn’t all that different from his comic book counterpart. On both the page and the big screen, for instance, the character is a brilliant, vain scientist who is obsessed with understanding and mastering the complex mysteries of genetics and evolution.
Despite all these similarities, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 does make one major change to the High Evolutionary. Specifically, it’s revealed that it was the High Evolutionary who conducted the torturous experiments on Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) that turned the cantankerous superhero into who he is today. Over the course of its runtime, the film follows Rocket and the High Evolutionary as their traumatic connection leads them both toward an inevitable reunion.
His relationship with Rocket makes the High Evolutionary one of the most despicable villains that has ever been brought to life in the MCU. With that in mind, actor Chukwudi Iwuji, who makes his MCU debut as the character in Vol. 3, says he knew early on that his biggest responsibility was to “ground” the villain as much as he could.
Chukwudi Iwuji had already worked with James Gunn on Peacemaker when the chance to play the High Evolutionary in the filmmaker’s final MCU effort came his way. While it’s been quite some time since he was cast as the character, Iwuji still remembers the early conversation he had with Gunn about the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 villain and, in particular, the trick that Gunn needed Iwuji to pull off if they wanted to get their take on the High Evolutionary right.
“I remember James said to me that he loves this character, but he also hates this character and that he needed me to ground him,” Iwuji revealed in a recent interview with Inverse. “I remember him specifically saying, ‘I need you to ground this guy because he needs to be grounded. He does such awful things that he needs to be recognizable.’ That was my remit as the character.”
In true Guardians of the Galaxy fashion, Iwuji says that he often found his way into his eccentric, hateful Marvel villain’s mind by listening to certain songs on repeat. However, unlike many of Vol. 3’s heroes, who most often listen to classic American rock and pop jams, Iwuji was inspired by the High Evolutionary’s own taste to listen to mostly “grandiose,” classical music during his preparation for the film.
“There's a certain way he's introduced and a certain type of music that he listens to, and that gave me the permission to go back and find my favorite arias and operas,” Iwuji recalls. “There’s a grandiose solitude in everything from Don Giovanni to my favorite, which was The Marriage of Figaro. There’s a section in that that’s all about forgiveness and there’s a section in it that just breaks you, and I would just listen to it over and over again.”
Once he arrived on the film’s set, Iwuji was presented with another set of challenges — namely, the fact that his most frequent screen partner, Rocket Raccoon, doesn’t physically exist. That meant Iwuji spent many of his scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 acting opposite the film’s Rocket stand-in, Kraglin actor Sean Gunn. Fortunately, Iwuji says Gunn’s presence and talent made it easier for him to dig into the emotions of his scenes with Rocket.
“The secret weapon was Sean, who’s a phenomenal actor with great dramatic range. He just broke my heart and allowed me to be present in those scenes,” Iwuji reveals. “Those scenes wouldn’t be what they were if all I had was a tennis ball or a stuffed version of Rocket to act against. Working with Sean was a big part of the process for me because I, of course, already had a strong image of what Rocket was going to look like in the film. But having someone that could actually grab hold and come back at me as I looked into his eyes was so helpful for those scenes.”
In addition to Sean Gunn’s unseen contributions to the film, Iwuji is quick to note just how much the work of another Vol. 3 crew member, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, helped him find his way into the High Evolutionary.
“Judianna put together all these details [in the High Evolutionary’s costume],” Iwuji observes. “It’s purple and it's regal and it holds me in a certain way. There are flat pieces on the front that are so ostentatious and then there are even these silver rings that he wears. I saw the vanity in the man once I saw myself in the mirror in that costume. I was like, ‘Oh, I get this guy.’”
Now that he’s worked with Gunn on both Peacemaker and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, one could safely assume that there’s a non-zero-percent chance that Iwuji will end up working with the filmmaker again sooner or later. That doesn’t mean, however, that Iwuji plans on campaigning for any specific roles in Gunn’s forthcoming, revamped version of the DC Cinematic Universe.
“It'd be churlish to start chasing another role, especially since I’ve just arrived,” Iwuji says with a laugh. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. I like the fact that every time James has given me a gig, whether it was Peacemaker or this, it’s been a surprise. So I think I’m going to try and hold onto that.”