Monarch: Legacy of Monsters is one of the year’s best surprises.
After years of mostly fun Monsterverse movies from Legendary Pictures that largely struggled when focusing on the human elements of Godzilla stories, Apple TV Plus’ series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters soars precisely because of its grounded approach to its characters and the strength of its cast. That all starts with the most tantalizing bit of casting in the show: Father-son duo Kurt Russell and Wyatt Russell both playing the same character, Army officer Lee Shaw.
With a story split across two very different eras (the 1950s and 2010s), it would be easy for Monarch to feel disjointed. Instead, it all feels seamlessly connected, in large part on the backs of the Russells’ performances, tying it all together through their combined portrayal of Shaw.
“It has an integrity to it, right?” director Matt Shakman told Polygon. “You’re gonna believe this is the same character. It allowed us to do it in a way that I thought was more persuasive.”
Casting the Russells was a dream come true. Director Matt Shakman and showrunners Chris Black and Matt Fraction all told Polygon they were big fans of both actors, and hoped they’d be able to pull off a casting coup by getting both in their show. They had a few things on their side: The father-son duo was looking to work together (but they weren’t interested in the father-son parts they had been offered) and saw the opportunity to both play the same role as an exciting challenge. Oh, and Kurt Russell is a huge fan of Godzilla. That helped.
The pair took the opportunity and ran with it, creating the character together from top to bottom. Both Russells were involved in “all conversations” about clothing, hair, and makeup, Shakman says, to maintain consistency for the character across eras. And when one was filming, the other was taking notes for his own performance.
“Kurt would hang out on set and watch Wyatt do scenes and be like, Oh, OK, I could do that. And then Wyatt would watch Kurt do scenes,” Shakman says. “They could create the character together, which was special, and bring what they each do well together.”
“They would run scenes together,” Fraction says. “It was really cool watching them build the character as actors as we were building the character as writers.”
While the Russells have plenty in common, they’re very different actors. Kurt Russell made his bones in genre cinema, excelling as heroes in tough situations with rough edges (The Thing, Escape from New York). Wyatt Russell, whose star is still rising, is a former professional ice hockey player who has leaned on a more “sensitive idiot” character type (Lodge 49, 22 Jump Street) or even morally sinister roles (Under the Banner of Heaven, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier).
“Wyatt had grown up watching his dad’s movies,” Shakman says. “So he knew the kind of performances that his dad did that were not like his. He’s a different kind of actor; he isn’t the kind of guy you would put as [Escape from New York’s] Snake Plissken. And Kurt wouldn’t be the kind of guy who would play some of the things that Wyatt’s playing. But they were able to come together and kind of take bits and pieces from each other’s approach and build one character, which was really fun.”
“There were times when [Wyatt] would do a little turn of a head or something,” Black says. “And you would be like, is he doing that on purpose? Or is it in the DNA?”
Shaw is a crucial role for the series as the connective tissue between the show’s two eras, but also as a catalyst for many of the show’s biggest plot points. And finding actors who were so familiar with each other that they could reliably portray the two versions of Shaw as the same man at different points in time was perfect.
“Even as we were writing the scripts, in the past, it was Lee, and in the present, it was Shaw,” Fraction says. “Ultimately, over the span of the season, we watched Lee become Shaw, and we find Shaw being able to reconnect with who he was when he was Lee. There’s moments where you can get whiffs of it, Wyatt kind of doing his dad just a little bit, acting bigger than then Lee normally works. It’s as though Lee was becoming this character.”
And ultimately, it’s that character work that separates Monarch from its recent American Godzilla peers.
“Television is about an appointment weekly with characters that you love and that you’re rooting for,” Shakman says. “It is essentially a different recipe, and it requires building a bunch of characters that you can fall in love with and root for.”
And, of course, it helps when Kurt Russell can lend his charm to a character — and his son Wyatt can go toe-to-toe with his dad to keep that character feeling like a singular voice.
“At one point, [Kurt’s] like, ‘Yeah, you guys write really well for me, you guys really have my voice,’” Fraction says. “We’re like, ‘Yeah, Kurt, we’ve been watching your movies for forever, you’re in my head, man.’”
“‘Since you were the computer that wore tennis shoes,’” Black says.
Monarch: Legacy of Monsters premiered on Apple TV Plus on Nov. 17, with new episodes each Friday.
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