At some point, most working actors today will start to think of where they might fit into one cinematic superhero universe or another. But even though Erin Kellyman had broken out in another massive franchise -- playing resistance fighter Enfys Nest in Solo: A Star Wars Story -- she hadn't dared daydream about what Marvel property she could join, let alone what character she would play.
"That was never in the cards for me at all," Kellyman tells ET over Zoom, beaming and shaking her curly head as if still in disbelief. "I just didn't expect-- I don't know what I was expecting of myself. Definitely wasn't this."
As would soon become clear, it was very much in the cards. Producer Zoie Nagelhout had seen Solo and, coming up on two years ago, Kellyman was asked to audition for an undisclosed role in an unnamed Marvel project. "I auditioned, and then tried to just push it down and not think about it, because I didn't want to get disappointed." One callback later, she got the call from Nagelhout and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier director Kari Skogland.
"That was when they told me more about the character, and I was like, 'Oh my god. I've been auditioning for this crazy character and had no idea!' And then I booked it," Kellyman recalls. "It didn't sink in straight away. It took a few days, for sure. Also, it's one of those things where you feel like they might just change their minds. Maybe they've got something wrong, and they don't want me. But it was incredible. It was so, so surreal."
The project is, of course, The Falcon and the Winter Solider, one of Marvel Studios' first streaming series, and the role is Karli Morgenthau. Over the first two episodes, Karli is introduced as the super-strong leader of the Flag Smashers, although beyond the group's mission statement, not much has yet been revealed about who she is as an individual. Kellyman got the full rundown during the first call, though.
"They broke down the whole thing. I think Kari may have done it on accident, because we were talking and then she was like, 'Oh, I should probably stop talking now,'" Kellyman laughs. "Once I learned more about her and realized what she was fighting for and understood her more as a character, it was, like, a no-brainer. Why would I not want to play this character? She's frigging awesome."
In the pages of Marvel comics, Karli is actually Karl Morgenthau, the son of a wealthy diplomat who becomes the anti-nationalist superhero Flag-Smasher. That the role had been reimagined and gender-swapped for the MCU was immediately appealing to Kellyman. "It was really brave of them to make the change and make the Marvel show more inclusive in that way," she says.
"It's so important. I feel like young women and girls are going to have this character to look up to and relate to now, which they wouldn't have done if it were played by a man. Or not in the same way, at least," she explains. That, by essence, makes Karli a very different character from Karl. "Our experiences are very different. I'm never going to know what it's like to be a middle-aged white man, so already our outlooks on life immediately are going to be very different and so then our actions after that are also going to be different."
"I don't think she's good or bad. She's in between all of it."
As such, Kellyman didn't spend much time researching the Morgenthau of the comics. It didn't serve her to go back and read any of his appearances in old issues of Captain America, but she did "have a little Google" to see what his deal was. "There were a lot of similarities and a lot of differences," she notes. "He was essentially fighting for a similar thing."
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the Flag Smashers rise up as a reaction to half the world's population returning following the Blip, igniting a renewed nationalism as world leaders attempt to mitigate their respective political and social crisis. The Flag Smashers purport to want a world without borders, a message resonating with viewers who've taken to social media to champion the Flag Smashers over even the show's titular heroes.
"Hopefully, as the series goes on, that will just increase. I hope people understand them more and learn more about them more. And there's more to unpack there. So, when that happens, hopefully even more people will be rooting for them," Kellyman says. "I'm rooting for them!"
As for Karli, she may be positioned as an antagonist within the series, but Kellyman doesn't see her as a villain. "I definitely understand her. And it's quite hard to see somebody as a villain when you do get them," she says. "I don't think she's good or bad. She's in between all of it."
"To me, in a way, she's the glue for the series," head writer Malcolm Spellman says. "What she's able to do as far as authenticity and humanity -- you'll see what I mean in her storyline -- if you don't buy her completely, then the scenes she has with other people who we can't name feel completely fraudulent. And what she did is just-- Aw, man. I consider her the glue of the series."
Kellyman's first day on the set of a Marvel production saw her shooting a scene with the rest of her Flag Smasher co-stars, which she says was a nice way to "just dip my toes in a little bit." But her big onscreen debut in episode two comes when Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) mistakes her as a hostage and attempts to rescue her. Karli gives him a little smirk in return. "She knew what she was going to do," Kellyman says.
Atop a moving truck, Karli unleashes the full force of her super-soldier powers upon not only Bucky and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), but also the new Captain America (Wyatt Russell), too. And she wins. "I was blown away. I thought it was such a cool entrance," recalls the actress of reading the scene on paper.
"It's kind of like playing pretend, but, like, times 100, because it feels like they're actually flying across the room," Kellyman says. "It feels real. There's a lot of strings involved to make people fly, a lot of stunt doubles overreacting and doing these dramatic falls and rolls just from my little punch. But it's a lot of fun. It makes you feel like you can actually do it."
"She's a super-talented woman and badass as hell," Skogland adds. "She worked so hard on her stunts. She spent months working with the stunt team and digging into the physicality. All of these roles are very demanding, physically, in part because I said at the beginning, 'We are not going to rely on weapons.' As a result, we tried to bring something new to the fight sequences. That switched it all around so that the characters really had to fight in different ways, and it was really exciting to see her embrace it."
As for the most difficult stunt Kellyman completed for the show?
"You haven't seen it yet," she grins.
And there is plenty more to come with Karli, though Kellyman has mastered the art of secret-keeping required of all Marvel actors. When asked what she can tease about Karli's relationship with the mysterious Power Broker, she purses her lips. "You're not getting anything out of me. I want to work with Disney again! I don't want to get fired!" she exclaims, whether that's in the MCU or reprising her Star Wars role ("I would love to play Enfys Nest again. I don't know if they will do that again, but if they did, I'd be down for it.") or in one of the studio's many other franchises. "You're not getting nothing from me," Kellyman wags her finger. "I've still got work to do."
New episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier stream Fridays on Disney+.