Never underestimate the power of a mother and the relationship she shares with her daughter, especially when the mother is a deadly assassin. Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) plays the titular mother in Netflix’s The Mother, the latest global action drama from director Niki Caro (Mulan). Lopez stars as the unnamed Mother, a former assassin forced into hiding after a meeting with the FBI ends in tragedy.
Before Lopez goes on the run, she gives birth to a girl, Zoe, and puts her up for adoption to protect her identity from two dangerous men: Adrian Lovell (Risen’s Joseph Fiennes), an arms dealer and the Mother’s former captain in the army; and Hector Álvarez (Werewolf by Night’s Gael García Bernal), a contractor who first meets the Mother in Guantanamo Bay in 2007. After over a decade in the Alaskan wilderness, the Mother comes out of hiding when Adrian and Hector send assailants to abduct her teenage daughter. The Mother must protect Zoe (Silencio’s Lucy Pez) from the kidnappers by teaching the young girl how to defend herself. More importantly, Lopez’s character has to complete her hardest task yet, to form a relationship with the daughter she’s never met.
In an interview with Digital Trends, Caro explains why she wanted to work with Lopez and details the process of casting Paez, while Fiennes describes the challenges of playing a villain.
Digital Trends: Niki, I was looking at your filmography, and the range of your career is fascinating. You’ve done almost every type of film – small budget, big budget, small drama, giant tentpole action. It’s hard to plan, but when you’re making Memory & Desire and Whale Rider, 20 years later did you think you’d be making Mulan and The Mother?
Niki Caro: No, not at all. I have this chronic inability to see sort of beyond what I’m doing at the time. I have a very, very strong, singular, significant relationship with the movie that I’m making in the moment. It’s very real for me. It’s very important to me, and I love it very much. I’m not looking ahead to the next relationship until I get out of this one. [laughs] I’m very close to getting out of this relationship with The Mother, but will always carry it with me.
We’re at such a different time from where we were with your last film. I feel like Mulan was at the center of conversation at the beginning of the pandemic. It ignited all of these debates about theatrical versus streaming, ideas of who can tell what story, and authenticity. How do you view that time three years later?
Caro: I think there’s going to be an enormous amount of processing still for all of us to do about the pandemic years. It’s the most significant event. Hopefully, there’s not going to be a worse one in our lifetime.
When you’re reading that script for The Mother, you see this relationship between a mother and a daughter. What else was the selling point for you?
Caro: A huge global action movie. That was very big for me. The marriage of action and emotion because for all of its very visceral, high-octane action credentials, this movie is, at its heart, a love letter from a mother to a child. For me as a filmmaker, it’s a great challenge to hold both of those things. I think for an audience to go to a movie that offers all the thrills of an action movie, but also can make you cry and feel something, is a bit of a treat, really.
What is the most important aspect to focus on when playing a bad guy?
Joseph Fiennes: God, there are so many different ways to play a bad guy. This film kind of does it for you in the first act. In the first moments of the film, there’s this act of violence, which sets up for the audience what an atrocious dude Adrian is. It was a scene that I found very difficult to read, let alone enact, on set. That is key to setting up who he is and what he would do, and the lengths he would go to make someone’s life a misery.
While reading about the movie, Jennifer said an interesting thing about how your character’s difficult because you’re this man who might potentially hurt his own child. It’s tough to balance that idea and make him believable. How did you find that balance?
Fiennes: My sense is there’s a backstory, definitely from Adrian’s point of view, an attraction to J-Lo’s character. The attraction is a lot to do with her gifts as an extraordinarily brilliant sniper. He’s come out of the military, and he’s working in the gray area of arms dealing. He throws her into that world, and it seems that she accepts it to a degree, but then rapidly realizes she’s in the wrong company.
I like the sense that there was a relationship in his mind, that toxic masculinity in that sense. I don’t know if they all made the cut, but there were some great scenes, seemingly from his point of view, that there’s some chemistry between them.
Niki does such a great job at showcasing emotion onscreen. Even your character had this small moment where you look at Zoe as a father before wanting to kill the Mother. What stood out about Niki’s direction?
Fiennes: I was super thrilled to get off with this and know that Niki was helming. I, like many other people, was really taken with Whale Rider and her other films. I knew from an independent aspect that she could bring all the nuance and detail. Also, she has the extraordinary ability of big scope and action, so I was wildly excited about being in her company, and obviously, alongside Jennifer and a great team of cinematographers. The combination was something I felt very moved by.
I found myself relating to the quieter moments in Alaska of the bonding between Jennifer’s and Lucy’s characters. Did you give them any notes or ideas on how to grow that relationship?
Caro: Yeah, we did a lot of talking, but not too much talking. I think when you work with children — and I have quite a bit, and I enjoy it very much — a big part of the process for me is not overwhelming them with ideas and not getting in the way of their natural responses to things. For me, as a director, I like for the set to be as real as possible. This is why this whole movie’s shot on location.
We didn’t build a set of that little cabin in a studio. We built that little cabin on the edge of a lake in the freakin’ coldest part of British Columbia. For Lucy and Jennifer, those moments where they’re by themselves, we are really building that relationship as we’re shooting it. It’s happening, [and] it’s a great process.
You touched on working with younger actors and actresses. Is there a secret to finding a young actress, especially on this one when you were casting during COVID-19?
Caro: Yeah, that was hard. These kids are needles and haystacks, but they’re there. I rely on really great casting directors and really rigorous casting searches. The search goes really wide. For me, it’s instinct. I know I have a strong instinct for the kind of kid that’s going to be able to handle the work, for starters. These kids are frequently very bright. They enjoy a lot of stimulation. They’re very open. Generally, the kids I tend to work [with] are not too practiced in the art and the skill of acting. I like that natural rawness.
Jennifer Lopez is a larger-than-life star. You look at her filmography, and she hasn’t done many action roles. As a great dancer and choreographer, it’s a seamless performance that jumps off the screen. What’s one of the subtle aspects of her performance?
Fiennes: One of my favorite moments in the movie is when she is at a gas station, and she has to make this decision. There’s a vulnerability there. So yeah, there’s a whole badass nature. She’s got her military background, but there’s a vulnerability. I think what Jennifer has is this extraordinary authenticity and generosity. Somewhere within her spirit, you look, and you know there’s a good, moral person there.
That aspect really comes through the lens. It’s probably true of her in real life. She’s just a wonderful being. I think over and above what her character does and the running and the action, there’s a compassionate soul who is having to repress that compassion because she doesn’t want to open up a loving relationship that someone else, like Adrian, could steal.
Caro: One of the reasons that I wanted to work with her so badly is her skill and her depth and strength as a dramatic actress. She has such power in the subtlety of her dramatic work. When you pair that depth and that strong, quiet presence with this dynamic, physical performer, you’ve got the most fascinating, compelling package for this particular movie.
The Mother streams exclusively on Netflix on May 12.