STACK visited the set of Birds of Prey to chat with star and co-producer Margot Robbie about the ‘Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn’. 

Smiling demurely through a dizzying award season where she’s in the mix for roles in both Bombshell and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, STACK got to witness a very different Margot Robbie earlier last year on the set of her upcoming movie, Birds of Prey. It’s on the movie set where Robbie really comes alive, never more so than with Birds of Prey, pulling double duty as the film’s co-producer.

This is no vanity title, given that she fought for this film to be made – and without her input it’s quite likely it wouldn’t exist at all, given the failings of Suicide Squad (2016) where she debuted her Harley Quinn alongside Jared Leto’s Joker.

“I first pitched the idea when we were still shooting Suicide Squad in 2015, so it’s taken almost four years to have it fully realised to where it is now,” says Robbie, who has amassed an impressive collection of Suicide Squad/Harley Quinn comic books.

Her one-sentence pitch? “R-rated girl gang film – with Harley!” she laughs.

That pitch doesn’t stray far from the truth. Essentially a Harley Quinn film, we see her, post-break-up with the Joker, joining up with superheroes Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to rescue a young girl from an evil crime lord.

“It seemed crazy to me that in real life I was always hanging out with a girl gang – whether it’s my London girls, my Aussie girls, my American girl group – we always roll in a gang and yet I so rarely see a girl gang on screen, so I crave that and I’m sure audience members do too,” she says.

“Plus, when we were shooting Suicide Squad, of course many of our characters who exist in the DC world are quite dark, so I felt we might have a little more liberty with a [US] R-rating to really delve deeply and explore the characters in an unbridled fashion.”

With director Cathy Yan, she found a kindred spirit – another member of the girl gang, if you like. If an independent filmmaker with little proven track record might not be the first choice of a major studio, then Robbie was convinced from hello.

“Cathy did this incredible film called Dead Pigs, which she shot in China with little time or money. Therefore, you feel very confident that someone can pull off a giant film when they do something as extraordinary as that. But it also had an ensemble cast and a huge aspect of this is: How do you give, with little real estate on screen, people the opportunity to understand everyone’s characters and their motivations, and then enjoy watching them interweave? Cathy did that so beautifully in her film and when she came in with her pitch; her understanding of the characters and what she was going to bring to it and how she was going to elevate it, included things that we hadn’t even considered. You need someone who’s going to add all those extra layers.”

L-R – Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez and director Cathy Yan on the set

With an ever-expanding female superhero universe – be it Black Widow, Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman – Robbie believes there’s room for many more women.

“I think all women – not just on screen – express their femininity and feel empowered in different ways, and we certainly have a very eclectic group here; different age ranges and different walks of life. You can tell obviously that everyone is different. I think it’s important to reflect different aspects of female empowerment on screen.”

Following the success of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, Robbie’s co-producers Sue Kroll and Bryan Unkeless, were certainly keen to hire women in all key positions.

“It is a female led movie with a strong feminine perspective. We’ve always said we wanted the right person for the job and we‘re thrilled that it’s Cathy Yan directing and Christina Hodson as our writer. We have a lot of really interesting women involved with the production,” Robbie says.

On set, she’s been pulling 15-hour days between shooting her scenes and fulfilling producer duties.

Yes, she could easily have handed her baby off to someone else once the project was green-lit, but she was determined to see it to the end. “When I first pitched the idea four years ago, at that point, I hadn’t produced anything. But I guess if you’re there at the inception of the idea and you want to see it develop in the creative spirit that you initially pitched it as, the producing aspect occurred organically. Obviously I’ve spent so long on this and have so much passion for it that I definitely wanted to be involved in that capacity.”

Surprisingly, Tina Fey was a big inspiration: “I’ve produced a few times now and really enjoy it. I don’t mind wearing two hats and don’t feel like one role is sacrificed in lieu of the other. Tina Fey once told me when I did a film with her where she was acting and producing, ‘It’s kind of like a wedding day. If you do a lot of planning in advance, you can just enjoy the day’. Unforeseen things often crop on the day that, no matter how much planning we do, you must deal with it in the moment, but we’re a really strong producing unit, and when I’m on set, my co-producers have got everything covered.”

On the day we visit the Birds of Prey set, Robbie is filming a sequence with Winstead and Perez, the three women escaping an angry assailant by jumping down a fairground slide in a funhouse.

Serving as an origin story for the Birds of Prey, Robbie enjoys the group dynamic, adding, “In the world of the comic books, there’s just a million different scenarios you could see Harley in; all as exciting as the next,” she says with undisguised enthusiasm, her blonde/pink hair drawn back in Harley’s trademark pigtails.

The Birds of Prey loosely come together after a girl named Cassandra [Ella Jay Basco] steals a diamond from Ewan McGregor’s powerful and dangerous nightclub owner Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask. Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to recapture that diamond, Cassandra becoming the most wanted person on the outskirts of Gotham that day. Taking place over a 24-hour period, the film further utilises flashback sequences.

“Harley is hugely motivated to get this diamond back and it also puts her into a very strange predicament where she’s also hanging out with a child who she feels the need to both protect and potentially betray,” she adds.

This time out, Robbie aims to show a more personal side of Harley Quinn. “You get to hear her story from her perspective; obviously she’s a very unreliable narrator, but she’s the narrator nonetheless and you get a glimpse of what it’s like to be inside Harley’s head – whether it’s some scenes being shot from her perspective or whether it’s just the spin she puts on the narration, or whether it’s something as simple as going back to Harley’s apartment. You really get to know Harley in a more intimate way.”

Birds of Prey is in cinemas on February 6