Marvel fans may recognize him as Kraglin, whom we first met as Yondu’s right-hand man in the inaugural Guardians Of The Galaxy film, but Sean Gunn has an even bigger role in the franchise than many audience members realize. As the on-set mo-cap performer for Rocket, he brings his own physicality to a role that’s a product of many different artists, including visual effects designers and voice actor Bradley Cooper. In Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3, which opened in theaters on May 5, both of his roles get upgraded story arcs. Kraglin has inherited Yondu’s Yaka arrow and is struggling to master it, while Rocket finally comes to terms with his own creation.
Gunn, the brother of Guardians writer-director James Gunn (who is now co-head of DC Studios), has some experience making the most out of small but memorable characters. Prior to joining the MCU, he was probably best known for his role as eccentric jack-of-all-trades Kirk Gleason on Gilmore Girls. He’s practically a jack of all trades himself, comfortable going back and forth between film and TV; comedy and drama; and, like his brother, Marvel and DC. Gunn recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his versatility as an actor, whether the Guardians can continue on without James, and if we might see him following his brother into the DCU anytime soon.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been part of Guardians Of The Galaxy since the first film. This one feels like the end of the trilogy, but also left the door open for the characters to continue in the future. How did it feel to you?
Sean Gunn: I’m really proud of the movie and I think it’s one of the best, if not the best thing that I’ve ever worked on. Really. And so that part of it is really gratifying. There’s a sadness that sets in knowing that it’s the end of something. As you said, we don’t know exactly what’s ending and what could go on, but it’s different from other franchise movies in that it’s not like if the viewers like it we’ll just do another and another and another and another. This was definitely the completion of a trilogy. And so the idea that something was ending was real. There was sadness there professionally, for me certainly, but also for the characters. But it’s also super gratifying because we’re creators and we aspire to be artists. And part of that process is finishing something and then giving it away to an audience. And so that part, I think, is really joyful. So I have mixed feelings, but I’m happy.
AVC: Most fans will recognize you as Kraglin, but you’ve also done the mo-cap for Rocket for all the Guardians films so far. We get his complete backstory in this film, and it’s really touching. Do you feel a certain attachment or part-time ownership of that character too?
SG: Yeah. I feel very close to Rocket as a character. My brother James, who, of course, writes and directs the movies, has always sort of pointed out the fact that Rocket is the character that he feels most strongly about, that reflects his voice more than any other. Rocket’s interesting because it takes a team of people to create Rocket. It’s my brother James, and it’s me, and it’s the visual effects team. And then of course it’s Bradley Cooper. And all the pieces get put together at the end. And in that way, it kind of mirrors what it’s like to make a movie. It takes all kinds of different people to make a movie. So if there’s any character who best defines what the Guardians are all about, it’s Rocket.
AVC: I’m curious if you ever see yourself in Rocket when you’re watching the films. Do you recognize your movements or remember the things you did on set? Or do you just see it as a team effort?
SG: No, I definitely see stuff that I did all the time, because a lot of the stuff, the hand movements or shrugs, or sighs, or things where Rocket’s looking around, like that’s all me. Most of the time that’s stuff that I did on set. So I see that stuff a lot. And then, in this movie, even more so, because when we shot some of the younger Rocket stuff, I didn’t have to get down on my hands and knees. We actually did more proper motion capture, where I’m standing at my full height and moving as Rocket.
AVC: And you had the other actors in mo-cap suits around you to work with, right? Like Linda Cardellini, who plays Lylla.
SG: Oh, yeah. For sure. Working with Linda is a box check on my career list. She’s absolutely one of the finest actors out there. And she’s been a friend for years, but she’s also just magnificent as a performer. And so being able to do those scenes with her was really special.
AVC: So, let’s talk about Kraglin. He’s been increasingly more involved with the Guardians as the series has gone on. Have you ever had any ideas or a story arc in mind for him that you pitched to James? Or did he write the character based on his own ideas and you just followed the script?
SG: Yeah, honestly, I stay out of it. When James is in the creation process and when he’s working on a story, he kind of builds a cocoon for himself and barely comes up for water and air from time to time. But he kind of constructs the whole thing before he shares it with the world. So he told me what he had in mind for Kraglin, but I tend to stay away from pitching anything. You know, I’ll make little character notes and things like that once it’s once the script is done. But in the creation of the script, that’s James’ domain. And I think it works best like that.
AVC: You also got to work a lot with Cosmo in this film, who’s quickly become a fan-favorite character. Because she is a very good dog.
SG: Oh, she’s a really good dog. So great. I mean, first of all, it’s particularly fun for me because I get to see a new actor come in. And Maria Bakalova, she’s so talented and so kind of up for anything. She’s a really creative and generous performer. So being able to work with somebody new is great, but also to be able to see how what she did is a little like what I’ve done for Rocket in the movies. I mean, obviously it’s her voice, which is different, but she’s also there on set. You know, she gets to get down and play Cosmo, so there’s an embodiment of Cosmo on set. We’re not looking at a blank space. And when I look down at Cosmo, I’m looking at Maria and that’s really cool. So just from a performance standpoint, it’s great. But also just as characters, I love that Kraglin was kind of a jerk to Cosmo a little bit, so she hurt his feelings early in the movie. And he’s not immune to having his feelings hurt, so he kind of pays it back. They’re a little bit frenemies. But I think there’s a lot of love there, too.
AVC: You do make a great team. Was there ever a point where you had an actual dog on the set?
SG: Yeah. We had a dog named Slate, who basically looks identical to Cosmo. He’s not really there for any of the actual shooting. They use him as reference. So when we would do a scene, you know, before shooting the scene, Slate would come trotting out and running through and the lighting folks and the visual effects team would kind of take note of where everything was hitting him so that they could then visually create Cosmo later. He’s not actually doing any of the acting, he was more like a stand-in. But he was there and he was indeed a very good dog.
AVC: You filmed mostly on the Knowhere set, which looked incredibly detailed. It was also used for the holiday special, I believe. What it’s like to be on that set because it comes across as very vast and lived-in on screen. Was it even better to be there in person?
SG: Yeah, it’s the biggest, most magnificent set I’ve ever been on in my career. It’s that whole thing, one set. The only part that’s really green screen is when the camera points up and you start looking up, way into the distance, or up into outer space. Other than that, that whole city was built. So we’re there for all that stuff. And it was really, really something to see. It was a magnificent set. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it. Maybe they can move the whole thing up and move it to Disney World or something like that. But they’ve got to do something with it.
AVC: Do you think they might need it again at some point in the future? Can there be a Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise without James?
SG: You know, certainly the Guardians exist. I don’t know exactly how to answer that question other than I never say never. I don’t close any doors. And the Guardians in this incarnation, I think we see a conclusion to their story. But Guardians as an entity and as an idea—the idea being that you can find your family anywhere and it’s our job to look out for one another—that idea is very much alive. So yeah, I think that there’s always potential for more stories.
AVC: So, looking into the future, James is now running things over at DC Studios. Are you going to follow him to that universe? I know you’ve already done some mo-cap for Weasel in Suicide Squad, and played Calendar Man. Does that preclude you from doing more acting roles in DC films? Or is anything possible now?
SG: I think there’s a possibility for other stuff there. I mean, I also just worked on Creature Commandos, which is the animated series that James wrote. I played Weasel, but I also played a different character, G.I. Robot. So I think the door is open to me doing more things in the DC Universe. But I’m a free agent.
AVC: I read an interview with James recently where he said he thinks this whole idea of a rivalry between DC and Marvel is overblown. Do you agree?
SG: Yeah, you don’t want less great movies, you want more. So let’s root for them both to be great, right?
AVC: Well, we might not get any more new movies for a while, since we’re still in the midst of the writers’ strike. As a member of SAG-AFTRA, the actors guild, are you watching this closely to see how it plays out?
SG: Yeah, I’m watching to see what happens. I’m really interested in what happens here with the writers. I support the writers completely, and I know that, in a lot of ways, what happens in our industry is just a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere. And something has to change. You know, when too little of the profits and the overall amount of capital is getting distributed to all of the people who come together to create the products, there’s a problem. And they need to figure that out. It is definitely above my pay grade for me to speculate on what the answer to that is. I don’t know exactly. But I do know that something needs to change.
AVC: Besides these big genre films, you’ve also been doing some television roles here and there. You did an episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which dropped on Prime Video the same day Vol. 3 premiered in theaters. Are you making an effort to go back and forth between different kinds of projects?
SG: This is my goal. I loved doing Marvelous. And I loved doing The Terminal List with my friend Chris Pratt. And I was on the season finale of The Good Doctor, which aired on Monday, so it was a weird confluence of events. Yeah. And some of these projects have been a little bit different for me as a performer, because I’ve always seen myself as a character actor, and I do all kinds of things. But most people who recognize me or know my work, they know me as playing these sort of goofball comedy characters, which I love doing, and I will probably always do. But I like doing the other stuff too. So I kind of want to sort of see what else is out there for me.
AVC: You do tend to work with the same people again and again, like James or Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, who produce Mrs. Maisel, and also created Gilmore Girls. It says something very positive about you, as a performer and as a person, that they keep asking you back for different things.
SG: And I really appreciate it. I mean, you know, it’s been a weird kind of thing in my career. When I went on Gilmore Girls, I played the DSL installer and then stuck around for seven-plus years. And in the first version of Guardians that I read my character didn’t have a name, he was just “First Mate.” And now, you know, I’m just finishing my sixth Marvel movie. Yes, once I get my foot in the door, I try to squeeze the rest of my body in as well.
AVC: So now that Guardians Vol. 3 is out in the world, what’s next for you?
SG: I did an indie film called Give Me An A that my wife, Natasha Halevi, created that’s an anthology of 16 different shorts from female creators as a response to Roe v. Wade being overturned. It’s sort of a counterpunch after the gut punch that existed when women’s rights were trampled on in our country, and I’m really proud of it. And I hope people get a chance to see that.