If you’ve been watching the new Apple TV+ series, Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, maybe you’ve been wondering why there aren’t more monster battles in every scene ala the Legendary Pictures feature films that introduced the idea of Monarch.
That’s because the show is about the people who were involved with creating Monarch, and it’s a show that takes place along two timelines, one in the past and one shortly following Godzilla’s attack on San Francisco in the 2015 movie, Godzilla.
The present-day team is made up of Ana Sawai’s Cate Randa and Ren Watanabe’s Kentaro Randa, both relatives of Dr. Keiko Miura (Mari Yamamoto), who was part of the team that first discovered the Titans, as well as Kiersey Clemons’ May, an ex-pat hacker who has settled down in Japan and befriended Kentaro. The three of them have been travelling across the globe trying to find Cate and Kentaro’s father, along with Kurt Russell’s Lee Shaw, who was there with Keiko during her early experiments.
Clemons had her breakthrough in 2015’s Sundance fave, Dope, directed by Rick Famuyiwa, and she hasn’t looked back since then, with recurring roles on Transparent and Angie Tribeca, as well as a trip into Zack Snyder’s Justice League and this year’s The Flash.
Ms. Clemons is also a dynamo of positivity, just an absolute joy to talk to, something Above the Line discovered when we spoke with her over Zoom last week.
Above the Line: Last time we spoke was at Sundance for Hearts Beat Loud, which must have been five or six years ago. While I love Godzilla, I have to say that I don’t watch a ton of television. What are some of the factors in play when you decide to do a series yourself?
Kiersey Clemons: The story obviously, and by the story I mean something that drew me to this specifically was the cultural significance. I’m not Japanese (for clarity), but to have this international show with the leads to be these people of color, I obviously really wanted to be a part of that. And I think that being getting to work with icons, that being Kurt Russell AND Godzilla [laughs], that’s the stuff as a kid that you dream about so. I have to make choices sometimes just for my younger self, even though I feel like, as we get older, actors want to do more just darker, more dramatic things, because we’ve experienced so much pain. I like the kind of inner child that gets to live out her dreams that comes out because of Monarch.
ATL: You’re definitely younger than me, so what was your connection with Kurt Russell? Did you know for his more recent stuff or did you actually see him in things like Big Trouble in Little China?
Clemons: I am a Millennial, so I think we’re right before Gen Z, right? We got Kurt Russell, but my sister’s here. She’s 14. She said she knows who Kurt Russell is. For Gen Z, he’s Santa Claus to them. So Kurt is timeless, apparently. [laughs]
ATL: Kids are really into Godzilla these days, too, as I was, and I’m always surprised that no matter how much scarier they make him, kids that are six or seen years old still just love the giant lizard and other monsters.
Clemons: My little brother is eight, and he LOVES Godzilla. He loves it. I don’t even know if he necessarily understands what’s happening with Monarch, but I think they understand the emotional beats, which is cool, and then he just waits for the monsters. [laughs] And then he goes through the emotional beats again, but I think it’s good balance for him so far. I mean, it’s got his attention.
ATL: How well was May described to you? Did you get a full set of scripts right away, or did you get a few episodes? What did you read?
Clemons: I got what they had, and then I also had a meeting with everybody, Matt Fraction, Matt Skakman, Tory Tunnell, Chris Black. We all got on a Zoom, and I just asked a bunch of questions about why is May here. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just the black girl hacker, to be completely honest. That was my biggest fear. When we got on the Zoom, I just was very straightforward, and I told them that, and they were very reassuring. It was still kind of a leap of faith for me, because that would be one of the worst things to happen to me, at this point in my life. I would hate to be trapped in that situation. But they had answers, even if they were vague in terms of… I knew that May had an arc, and I also knew that she did have this standalone episode, which again reassured me, and then I asked them, “Why do you want me to do it? Why me? I want to know what you guys are expecting from me? What do you want when I show up?” Then I just decided, “Yeah, I’m gonna play and see what happens.”
ATL: You have these two great Japanese co-stars, as well. I just watched Episode 5, which is mainly the three of you back in San Francisco. Can you talk about meeting with them, bonding with them, working with them? And did you actually shoot some of this show in Japan?
Clemons: They shot a little bit in Japan. The episode with Ren, where it’s our flashbacks, our backstory, more of Ren’s backstory. We shot that in Japan, and that was really helpful for me, to kind of feel the romantic energy that they would have been feeling while they were spending that night in Tokyo when they met, to be able to be in that environment was really helpful. And then, we did some of that on the soundstage back in Vancouver as well. But I had a great time in Tokyo. All the locations that we went to, before that I think we had also filmed… I think we did the desert before that. Me, Anna and Ren got an Airbnb – we made efforts to be close to each other, and we really bonded and I think we found safety in one another on-set to support each other, and not get lost in this giant machine. I’m really grateful. The three of us, we recognize that we are so lucky. We also got lucky with Kurt; he could have been the worst. I expected the worst, right? [laughs] I was like, “He’s probably the worst,” and he’s the best!
ATL: I was gonna ask about working with Kurt. He kind of shows up in Episode 3, and he’s a force, so it must be somewhat intimidating… for everyone.
Clemons: He makes it not intimidating. He very much keeps everyone on the same level. He has no desire to create this power dynamic with me, Ren and Anna. We’re on the same playing field, and he knows our characters very well. He makes sure that we hold on to the integrity of them, and he doesn’t have to do that. He really cared about the show, and he cares about the characters. Something that is just so gracious that he cared about if the show were to go on, and we were to have another season – and this is when we were filming – he wanted to make sure that the characters were set up in a way that they had somewhere really exciting to go. And he doesn’t have to do that. That’s a really giving actor.
ATL: From what you said before, there seems to be a lot of moving parts to a show like this. Your characters are in Alaska one episode, and then you’re in a different place, and then you also have directors changing every few episodes. As an actor, is it hard to keep track of everything going on when you show up to work each day? I did get to talk to Matt Shakman a little, but only about the first two episodes.
Clemons: It’s hard when the directors change, because you do two episodes with them. Right as you get comfortable with them, and you start to understand each other, you have to get used to a new person. It was a tough show honestly to switch directors. I know that’s just TV, but I did find myself being like, “I miss so and so.” That’s just how it goes though. They’re all so different, but for the most part, all of the directors we got to work, they were incredible and they were also queer or a person of color. And then there’s Matt Shakman. [laughs] I love Matt. He can just look at my face and tell when I don’t like my line or something. He’s like, “What do you want to say?”
ATL: What are you interacting with in your scenes with the Titans? I think the fourth episode was the one in Alaska with the Pangavark (I think is what the VFX supe called it). Do you have anything on set to look at while the monsters are tearing things up?
Clemons: Sometimes, we look at the tennis ball that everyone knows about. Sometimes, there’s just a piece of tape on the blue screen, they’ll do that often, and other times, it’s literally like, “Look at the top of the crane,” or something. [laughs] I think we just got used to it. At a certain point, it wasn’t really as difficult as you would think, because you use your imagination. You start to get an idea of how big and scary… you just have to think of the scariest thing that you could possibly be seeing. Sometimes, I was never really imagining a Titan. I was imagining just the scariest thing I could think of in that moment that I wouldn’t want to see and be in front of.
ATL: Did you at least to see previs, or what the creature looked like? That Titan in that episode is pretty darn scary.
Clemons: Sometimes. It depends. For the most part, and other times they would just describe it, which I mean is helpful as well, maybe even more helpful, kind of being able to understand the sounds and what it smells like. That’s all you know, through descriptors. You can’t get that from a photo, so I don’t know, I might have liked that a bit more.
The first five episodes of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters are now streaming on Apple TV+. You can also read our interview with director Matt Shakman here.