Corey Stoll is incapable of phoning in a performance. Despite ostensibly being killed off in the initial Ant-Man, as every MCU fan knows, dead rarely means gone. Stoll’s blowhard CEO-turned-supervillain Darren Cross returns in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, this time as the cult-favorite Marvel villain MODOK.
Saddled with a giant head and baby arms and legs—do remember, Cross’ defeat caused him to shrink endlessly, banishing him to the subatomic Quantum Realm much of Quantumania takes place in—the Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing (M.O.D.O.K.) toes the line in the comics between being a seriously dangerous villain and a consistent punchline. Under the guidance of director Peyton Reed and writer Jeff Loveness, the MCU’s approach to MODOK leans into that tension; he’s a formidable henchman for Kang yet. Anytime Darren begins monologuing, heroes and villains alike can’t take him seriously due to the absurdity of his appearance. Yet Stoll finds incredible pathos for the character and makes MODOK stand out, carrying through the character’s desire for approval. But the whole thing feels a little surreal. “That came out of nowhere,” he tells GQ. “Who could imagine that I would be playing a giant floating head with baby arms and legs?”
Stoll spoke with GQ about his brief time working with the cast, how he fought to keep a certain shot in the film’s final edit, seeing Jonathan Majors bring Kang to life, and much more.
When did you get the call that you were coming back?
It was a while ago; I feel like it was right as New York was shutting down for the pandemic I got a call from my manager that Peyton [Reed] wanted to talk to me, but they didn’t know what it was about. Obviously, it was all very top secret. My mind went wild, thinking about how they could bring Darren back. I had all sorts of crazy multiverse theories about who Darren could transform into, or what it was about, or if it was just like a little flashback.
Then they told me, “Hey, have you heard of this character named MODOK?” I was like, “Yes! Are you saying that I would be MODOK?” I was just grinning from ear to ear. It’s the wildest role I’ve ever played. So [Reed] was just checking to see if I would be interested in it before they started writing. He didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole and then have me say that I wasn’t interested. But I was.
Was MODOK even on the short list of characters you’d thought you’d play?
No. You know, I had this weird—for some reason because I knew that Peyton was in the conversation for the Fantastic Four movie, and I thought maybe Darren comes [back as] like some weird multiverse variant. And I’m Ben Grimm or something. But I felt like I struck the lottery. When I read the script, I thought it was so funny and weird. It was a delight to film it.
Having MODOK being a punchline is an inspired choice. Did you work with [writer] Jeff Loveness to flesh out the tone, or was it already there on the page?
Just as with the original role, I played the stakes for real. Darren is desperately seeking approval, and that is his main motivation. I definitely saw that it was very funny, but I find Darren’s arc moving. I think it’s very funny and very out there, but I take those motivations seriously.
Was it difficult to find those motivations again after so much time away from Darren?
Luckily, I was able to work with the whole cast the week before principal photography started on the movie. I came in, and we just sat around tables. I had the dots on my face and the camera—we were being filmed just for reference—everybody else was still on book. We were just reading through the scenes, and it was one of the coolest filming processes I’ve ever done. It was this great hybrid between film and theater where you didn’t have to wait for lights or sound or anything. You could just try it one way and then try some alternate lines. It was a very fluid sort of thing. Working with Paul and everybody again, I felt like we found Darren pretty quickly again.
Can we talk about the butt shot? It’s one thing to read that in a script, but it’s an entirely different thing to see it on screen.
Oh, I loved it. That was one of the first things they showed me in the animatics. I thought it was so amazing and brilliant. I learned later that it was cut.
I was like, “You’re really making a big mistake.” I think that shot is really important. So funny and so great. I don’t know if my protests had anything to do with getting it back in or not, but I’m very happy it’s there.
Was having the chance to flex some more comedic muscles something you wanted to do?
I really had as much fun filming this as anything I’ve ever done. I guess I certainly hope it could open doors for me to do that. Comedy is harder in a lot of ways. There’s a level of rigor in your timing and your engagement with the work that is sometimes more precise than dramatic work has to be, but I love doing it. It’s something I got to do a lot of in acting school, very broad, Commedia dell’arte clowning stuff. It’s just not something that has been a part of my professional career. It’s rewarding to do it on such a big scale.
How did Peyton help coach you through that?
I think the best thing you could ask for in a director is to have a strong point of view. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a director who is finding their own way through the material, trying to find the tone, and trying to find language for telling the story. Peyton knows this material, backward and forwards. He showed me a poster for a band—he showed this at Comic-Con—that he was in high school. It was a mock-up of an Avengers thing. He was the drummer, and he was [dressed as] Ant-Man. He goes deep.
In terms of the comedy, it’s very much—I think—his preferred way of telling stories. He’s a funny guy. He’s an energetic guy. He’s engaged with every take, every alternate line. I felt in really good hands. I felt comfortable going for it, to be broad and goofy, because I always felt I was in good hands.
Talk to me about working with Jonathan Majors. He’s electric in this.
It was there right at the very beginning of the process when all of the actors were just starting to say these lines out loud and get into character. It was really just a two-day process when I was with the cast. We had a day of rehearsal and then a day of filming. Just over those two days, to see him starting to feel the physicality of Kang. Kang and MODOK are such polar opposite figures that it was fun to play with that status. He has this very regal status [versus this] let’s say, pathetic [laughs] way of being that MODOK has.
We went to different acting schools, but we had the same teacher, Ron Van Lieu, who was a huge, formative figure in our lives. We really bonded over that and our experiences in theater. I think that shared vocabulary can help bridge the gap between these very different styles that are in the same movie.
Did you know that prior to speaking with him? Or was it a random bit of kismet?
No, I didn’t. He had brought it up. I hadn’t met him before. But he was actually more familiar with my theater work. It was really cool. I’ve been watching his film work; I remember seeing The Last Black Man in San Francisco and was just like, “Who is that?” He has this presence and this ability to use stillness to draw the audience in. He uses that to great effect as Kang.
In your time away, had you ever thought about coming back and doing more as Darren? What was it like for you to give him this semi-redemption?
I hadn’t. I remember on the red carpet for the premiere for the first Ant-Man, Kevin Feige came up to me. He said, “I just saw you the other day, walking down the street in Los Angeles and all of a sudden, I figured out how to bring you back.” I never got to ask him how, and then I hadn’t spoken to him afterward. I just assumed that this was not something that was in the cards. I viewed the first movie as a complete story. We didn’t actually see him die; we just saw him shrink infinitely. I didn’t have any illusions that he was going to come back. To bring him back and to have him have some sort of redemption, gives the trilogy a certain symmetry.
I’ve noticed a pattern in a few of your roles—whether it’s Russo, Uncle Junior, or even Darren—that you’ve played characters who project these fronts but are really something different when you look closer. What draws you to them?
I think acting itself, for me, has been a way to reconcile these two parts of myself: the more vulnerable, more frightened part of myself and the part of myself that has to exist in the world. I think everybody has tension between those two things. For me, there is a lot to mine in that boundary between that inner scared child and the big, deep-voiced man that I present to the world.
Were you able to be on the Volume set at all?
No, I wasn’t able to do it, unfortunately. I was really looking forward to it. I’d seen a behind-the-scenes of The Mandalorian and seen that incredible technology. When I did First Man, we did a version of that for all the Apollo 11 mission stuff. That was incredible because instead of looking at a green screen, you were looking at the moon revolving underneath you. It made that easy and like a fun amusement park ride—albeit wrapped in an incredibly uncomfortable [laughs] astronaut costume. But I didn’t get to do it. Everything that I did for this was just in an empty soundstage. It was stripped down, almost like we’re doing a production of Our Town.
It’s a one-person show at that point.
I did it in two parts. I was in London with the rest of the cast. Then a year later, I was on a stage in LA by myself with the full suit with the dots and everything. That was much harder. It was so much more fun just to be able to be with everybody and talk directly to people.
I don’t know if you’re this intentional about it, but is doing mo-cap stuff a skill you look to cultivate? Do you think of it as, “Oh, this is another tool in my toolbox to use?”
Absolutely. I look at Andy Serkis’ career and the roles that he’s been able to play. He’s obviously the Laurence Olivier of mo-cap at this point; he is an industry standard for how to best use that technology. I don’t want to say that I would be happy to do this for every role, but it gives an opportunity to actors to bridge that gap between theater and film. Even though you’re utilizing millions of dollars of technology, and it’s as complicated as it gets in post, while you’re filming, you’re stripping away all the trappings of a film. You’re not worrying about waiting for lights, the camera, or sound. You’re just providing the raw material of a performance, and then you’re handing it off to this huge team of people. It’s a real collaboration.
Anything in film, you are giving an enormous amount of control over to the director and producers. Theater still gives you that sense of control and delivering on performance. Whereas this, you’re giving the raw materials of performance. I found that liberating.
To pivot to Billions, what is it about Michael Prince that keeps you coming back and engaged and interested in that character?
Unlike those other parts you’re talking about whose insecurities are really driving them, Mike Prince has insecurities, but he’s operating 50,000 feet above the rest of the world. He is very engaged with the world, but at a certain point, everybody around him is beneath him. He has this drive to make money and gain power, but there’s an abstraction to it all. There’s a way he relates to it that’s more like somebody operating pieces on a chessboard. It’s really fun and engaging to play this character. In a weird way, I feel like I identify more with MODOK than with Michael Prince. So that’s where the challenge is.
There’s still a level of isolation to him, though. The money makes it so he can’t relate to a person working in a coffee shop. I think there’s still a loner throughline there, maybe just bundled up in a different set of wrapping paper.
I won’t be able to sort it out until I’m in my 90s when I look back at my career. I get to play these varied characters, I do feel incredibly fortunate to have been to play very different characters. They’re all, by dint of the fact that I’m the one playing them, going to be some aspect of me. One of the most common questions that any actor gets is, “What’s your dream role?” or “What was your favorite role?” It’s always the next one, it’s always what’s new. What part of myself have I not explored or been able to share? The greatest joy that I find as an artist is to surprise myself.