‘Quantumania’ and ‘Mandalorian’ Star Katy O’Brian on Finding Nuanced Roles

With Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania currently in theaters and The Mandalorian season 3 streaming on Disney+, we have every reason to be excited to see more of Katy O’Brian.

As Jentorra, she leads a band of freedom fighters rebelling against Kang the Conquerer’s oppression. In The Mandalorian, she plays an Imperial Comms Officer who helps inform Moff Gideon of vital intel. And The Nerds of Color got the chance to chat with O’Brian about both titles and talk about searching for more nuanced roles.

NOC: I just wanted to say great job playing Jentorra in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. So how much fun was it for you to reunite with Peyton Reed but for a different franchise?

Katy O’Brian: It was so much fun. He’s just this bright, warm, lovely personality, and he brings tons of energy to the set. So I was honestly shocked that he brought me into that world to work with him again, but also honored and excited.

I think I’ve mentioned before I was shooting The Mandalorian with him. Like, I had in the script, it was like cut up into several different scenes where all this chaos is happening, and ships are exploding. They’re trying to enter our ship. And I had to say these lines that in the scenes are separated.

So it’s like they’re deploying fighter squadrons. And then they say something back, and then I say something. So I told him [Peyton Reed], ‘Hey, man, I don’t know what it is, probably because I got the scripts yesterday, but I need a break before I say these ones because I can’t. I can’t, like there’s just a tongue twister. My brain, it’s not working right now.’ And he’s like, “yeah, go, it’ll be fine.” He was like, “don’t worry about it.” And when it came to shooting it, it was just him screaming chaos, like all kinds of stuff, ‘Okay, now they’re blowing this up, and they’re blowing this up, and Katy line!’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’ So like, I just kept fumbling and bumbling and fumbling. And it took me forever to get it out. And I felt so embarrassed. And I was like, ‘This man will never hire me again.’ And for some reason, he did.

Katy O’Brian as Jentorra in Marvel Studios’ ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA. Photo by Jay Maidment. © 2022 MARVEL.

So I’ll ask you more about that because I did interview Rick Famuyiwa a couple of days ago. But before I get to those The Mandalorian questions, what about Jentorra made you point out and say, “I had to play this character?”

I mean, I’ve always wanted to be a part of the Marvel Universe. Growing up, my brother and I would watch Saturday morning cartoons. I kind of got into X-Factor Investigation because there are very few biracial characters in comics that I felt like me. I found this character in Monet Sinclair. I was like, ‘Okay, I kind of feel like I sort of kind of look like her.’ So, I wanted to relate to a comic book character. So I kept collecting those and so knowing A, how difficult it is for a lot of people to find people they can relate to. Now, obviously, I wanted to show people that, like, okay, if you look like me, I’m here now.

I grew up watching Xena and wanting to be this cool little, like a warrior princess. And when he pitched it as a kind of like a Red Sonja, Conan the Barbarian type, but maybe it was more of a heart. I was immediately drawn to that. So I was just like, “yes, throw me in. I’m ready. Let’s do it.” I want to play where I want to get some action scenes and show off the years and years of martial arts training that I’ve had. And that was really, really rewarding.

So that kind of leads me to my next question because you’ve been getting some fantastic roles in the past, some of which are credited to you being a black belt and a bodybuilder. But you also played an Imperial comms officer in The Mandalorian for more than one episode. You’ve proven that there’s more to a person than what they see. What can you tell us about actively seeking out or asking for those roles where you can defy some of those kinds of perceptions that Hollywood may have?

When I first got started, it was basically all right. A lot of the roles were very straightforward and maybe quick, kind of tropey and more stereotypical. But as I started to build a resume and I had the ability to be more selective. I began to do that, which means I’m saying no to the auditions that don’t stand out to me, and that really inspired me, and it’s a luxury to be able to do that.

So now it is catering to is this a passion project? Is this a project that tells a good story that I can give the truth to? And is this a project that the character can be something other than just what’s written on the page or what people expect? Because so often, you can get caught in a trap, especially with a superhero show or Star Wars show, that things are two-dimensional. But I think that’s kind of doing a disservice to any character. You can make things three-dimensional if you want. You just have to see it.

So yeah, it’s a little bit of, like, it’s just being very selective, but also finding that personality and finding who that person is deeper than the scripts. It’s great to have collaborators like Jon Favreau. He’s amazing. And Peyton, who you can either reach out to and say, “Hey, I don’t want to just play this like a warrior who is fighting just to fight.” I want to show that she actually cares about the people that she’s with, and has a heart and isn’t just a stereotypical, old-school warrior person.

That’s amazing, so I did some quick research and found that you were in a comedy troupe. So what was it like to play alongside David Dastmalchian, William Jackson Harper, and Paul Rudd?

Oh, my gosh, they are. I mean, they’re so funny, and they riff off each other. And it was actually so hard because I was the straight character in this, which can be funny at times, too. But I just got off a very serious and dramatic movie, and all I wanted to do was make it a parody. So, it’s hard for me to hold back and do what’s needed. But I basically just kind of turned it into me getting to watch these masters at play and just kind of enjoying it as like an audience.

So I guess it’s safe to say that it was really hard to keep a straight face, but who was likely the most break character first?

Oh, I mean, it kind of depends. Honestly, I don’t even know if she was trying to be funny. But, still, it was very difficult for me to keep a straight face whenever I looked at Kathryn Newton. Because she was always looking at Jentorra with awe or whatever, which means her mouth is just hanging open, and her eyes are wide. And I’m like, “Dude if anybody looks at me like that in real life, I feel so funny.” So I probably am the one to break the easiest. Honestly, and maybe even for the longest. So I really have been working on ways to reel it in.

Jentorra’s primary weapon is the bo staff, which is the first time we’ve seen you use one for a role. Can you talk about your experience using the weapon for the first time?

I haven’t done much with bo staff work. So, it was day one I showed up, and my stunt double Nilly taught me how to do all the staff work. And they made sure that I was able to do it before they put me on camera. So, there’s this weird paranoia that I have where I filmed the whole thing. And they’re like, “great job, Katie.” And then I leave, and they just make her do it all over again. So, they even just don’t tell me that it’s not me.

But yeah, I probably spent more time on the stunts than I did on set, and I had a blast. And we played around with so many different options and stuff that we didn’t even get to show in the film. So it’d be awesome if they brought me back again, so I could do more stuff. But otherwise, I’ve got a nice little reel I’m sure I’ll put together one day.

I mean, who knows? We’ve seen how the Avengers have time traveled and gone to space. And Kang or some Variant of him is still out there.

I will say more than the bo staff, the hardest part for me as a wire work because that stuff is jarring.

Oh my gosh, I could imagine because you’re just suspended and waiting for something to happen. That must have been this weird combination of surreal, fun, and scary.

The falling was it took some getting used to for sure. Because yeah, like you said, you’re just hanging up there. And suddenly they just decide they let you know but you just fall, and it’s the first six feet. It’s a 15-foot fall, for six feet as a complete freefall, and then they slow you down just a bit. So, you really hit a little harder than you think.

And then there’s actually the wire poles. I had a couple of things where I get blasted back or whatever, and those where they just yank you off your feet and pull you back. I’ve been thrown thousands and thousands of times in my life, but that’s definitely the most jarring.

So, speaking of set work, what was it like to go from one Peyton Reed set, where it’s mostly practical, to something like the Volume, where it’s limited practicality?

In retrospect, I should have asked for a little bit of what is the atmosphere itself like. But it does have reference because we have seen pieces of the quantum realm in Ant-Man’s past.

So I kind of imagined it was more like, I don’t know, foggy, weird colors and stuff. So I didn’t realize there was as much in the overall atmosphere as there was, which was a cool surprise. But on the set itself, they did an amazing job building the world. So we had real dirt we had, we had those buildings that shoot people. They weren’t actually animatronic or anything, but they built those. They had plants all around us. So, what we were walking on itself was practical. And so that was very, very helpful. And then they filled it with extras that were all shapes, sizes, painted beautifully, really amazing costume work. So we had a lot of help in terms of being able to be like we were in the real world.

So this will be my last question. I imagine you can’t talk much about your role in The Mandalorian season three. So, I won’t ask what we can expect from your character. Instead, I’m going to put a little twist on it. What kind of answers or little white lies do you like to give to friends, family, or even journalists like me when they ask for spoilers?

Well, for this, I mean, until they started showing me in trailers and stuff because they never tell me when they’re going to do that. But for this, I just told people, “I’m pretty sure I’m dead.”

So I just kind of like definitely just lie about it. I mean, when they see that I am not apparently, I just kind of say, “I don’t know, I really genuinely don’t know what’s gonna happen in this season.” So it’s not all that far-fetched. I really don’t know what’s, what’s going on. So they’re very, very secretive, even with us.

Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania is in theaters now, and season 3 of The Mandalorian is currently streaming on Disney+, with new episodes debuting every Wednesday.

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