Unless you are a hardcore listener to The Playlist Podcast, you may not recognize Kate Herron’s name. You won’t, but you should. And, based on her success helming the first season of “Loki,” you’ll be hearing a lot more about her in the years to come.
In one of the best creative decisions Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has ever made, Herron went from directing episodes of the critically acclaimed Netflix series “Sex Education,” to executive producing and directing all six episodes of the breakout Disney+ series. It’s not a traditional jump, but the British native’s cinematic eye is apparent in both projects. And, most importantly, she impressed the series’ star, Tom Hiddleston, who has been playing the role for over a decade.
“The thing that makes Kate extraordinary is she has this genuinely incredible stamina for the work,” Hiddleston says. “She’s prepared, she’s precise, and she just knows she can work and work and work and work and think and plan. But her imagination, her references were so inspiring as well. And so she had her own artistic fingerprint and her own love of Sci-Fi and her own particular inclinations as an artist. She has a big heart and wanted the show to have a big heart and a great sense of humor and is incredibly kind. And there was something about, as you say, her humility and her kindness, which created an atmosphere for people to throw their whole souls at what they were doing. Certainly made me feel very safe, but made everybody feel safe to take a big swing at stuff.”
At first, Herron wasn’t in the mix as Marvel looked for a filmmaker to direct the Michael Waldron-written series. In fact, she jokingly says she “stalked Marvel” for the gig.
“I love sci-fi and I love Marvel, and I wanted to do genre so badly and I love Loki, and I just knew they were making a show about the character,” Herron recalls. “And as a fan, I was like, I need to know where Loki has gone. So even just as a curious question, maybe I’ll just get a little sneak peek on to what they’re going to do. Maybe they’ll meet me. Maybe they won’t. So my agents called them and were like, can you meet her? And then they were like, ‘O.K., we’ll meet her.’ And then honestly, I think I was told it was a friendly chat and I’d been sent the first script. And I just basically prepared a pitch because I was like, ‘They’re probably amazed I’m in the room. So Why not just go for it?’ So, character for me is really important, and stories with hope and heart. And this is why I love ‘Loki’ and why I want to see what happens with their story. But also more importantly to me, I love Sci-Fi, and this is why I can deliver on setting up the TVA, and how I think the other parts in the show should look. And just how, at least my interpretation of the story would be.”
Herron says when she got the first two scripts she realized that Sophia Di Martino’s character, Sylvie, a Loki variant, was always attacking from the shadows. Moreover, Loki and Mobius (Owen Wilson) had a detective series vibe going on. That prompted a pitch that Feige wasn’t expecting.
“I was like, why don’t we just go full noir with this? Because she’s in the shadows like this is how I’m imagining it,” Herron says. “And we could give it this film noir look across the whole show because the whole thing’s a giant mystery. It’s like, who is the variant of me is the first part, and then who is the man behind the curtain becomes the second part. And I remember Kevin Feige was like, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that before.’ And I remember that really drew them in. And just lots of different ideas. But I just really went for it with the pitch basically.”
The result was the most distinctive and popular Marvel Series so far. During our conversation last month, Herron discussed Jonathan Majors‘ improvisational acting technique as He Who Remains, convincing Wilson to come on board, and how, despite her not coming back for season 2, “Loki” has “changed her life.”
The Playlist: I thought that the six episodes that you did for “Loki” were stunningly directed. Loved the drama, loved the aesthetic so much. How did the show come your way? Had you met with Marvel before the series was announced? Did they approach you?
Katie Heron: No. I stalked Marvel. So basically I found out that they were making Loki. And I’d worked on a show called “Sex Education,” which I loved. But I love sci-fi and I love Marvel, and I wanted to do genre so badly and I love Loki, and I just knew they were making a show about the character. And as a fan, I was like, I need to know where Loki has gone. So even just as a curious question, maybe I’ll just get a little sneak peek onto what they’re going to do. Maybe they’ll meet me. Maybe they won’t. So my agents called them and were like, can you meet her? And then they were like, “O.K., we’ll meet her.” And then honestly, I think I was told it was a friendly chat and I’d been sent the first script. And I just basically prepared a pitch because I was like, “They’re probably amazed I’m in the room. So Why not just go for it?” So, character for me is really important, and stories with hope and heart. And this is why I love “Loki” and why I want to see what happens with their story. But also more importantly to me, I love Sci-Fi, and this is why I can deliver on setting up the TVA, and how I think the other parts in the show should look. And just how, at least my interpretation of the story would be. So for example, I got the first and second script and Sylvie’s always attacking from the shadows. And I was like, that makes me really excited because it is almost like detective Loki with Mobius in the second episode. And I was like, why don’t we just go full noir with this? Because she’s in the shadows like this is how I’m imagining it. And we could give it this film noir look across the whole show because the whole thing’s a giant mystery. It’s like, who is the variant of me is the first part, and then who is the man behind the curtain becomes the second part. And I remember Kevin Feige was like, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that before.” And I remember that really drew them in. And just lots of different ideas. But I just really went for it with the pitch basically.
You pitched with a graphic presentation?
Everything you can think of. I had like 280 slides and I spoke about architecture in the TVA, taking the Orwellian brutalist ideas, Big Brother is watching, matching that kind of architecture…but they are the good guys of the universe supposedly. So, how do we give a heroic quality to the TVA as well, and bring those together? And I’ve worked in a lot of offices as a temp, which hilariously gave me a lot of ideas for this pitch. I was like, retrofit Jurassic technology. I worked on computers in offices that should not have been any more, but they were like, “It still turns on. So until it doesn’t turn on anymore, you’re going to have to work on it.” And I was like, “Yeah, in a bureaucracy, they’re not going to have the latest tech.” That will be what happens.
If your computer dies, you probably have to file a form that might get answered in three years. And until then you’re taking notes on paper or something. So I brought a lot of that, but I think the reason I wanted to bring a lot of that, was because obviously, I’m aware a lot of our audience will have worked in offices. And it’s fun seeing what is office culture like in a place that doesn’t sleep, where they do pull all-nighters all the time. So that was really important to me, and the entire team was making the TVA feel like a real living, breathing space.
And when you had come on, when they brought you on board, how much of the casting had been done? Were you able to be part of any of these decisions?
Yeah, I was part of all of them. The only person that was cast was Tom Hiddleston. So Gugu [Mbatha-Raw] was in my pitch and is an actor I love. Sophia di Martino was in a short film of mine, and we saw a lot of people for Sylvie. And I remember just messaging Sophia being like, “I can’t tell you what it is, but you’re going to be asked to read for something. You won’t know what it is, but I think you should read for it if you would like to.” So, it was the weirdest massage ever from me. And she was like, “O.K.” [Laughs.] And I think I’d been at D23. So, she probably had an idea it was “Loki.” But she didn’t know she was going to be a variant on a character or anything.
And then Wunmi was someone that auditioned and I just thought that she was amazing. Because originally that character was written as a male soldier and the character wasn’t quite landing how we’d hope. And I was like, look, let’s just open it up. Because in my pitch, I was like, I think we should just open up this role and get loads of actors to read for it. And let’s just see what they bring. And Wunmi comes in and does a beautiful read, and I’m like, we should rebuild this character. And we did, we rebuilt it around her. And with the other actors, I was so grateful to be part of the conversation with Kevin Feige for He Who Remains, that’s a massive role. And that was me chatting with them and the team about who would be the right character for this. Because obviously, they’re going to go on and play a massive part of the MCU.
Was Owen Wilson just on everyone’s mind? Or did someone specifically suggest him?
That was our casting director. So we had all these ideas basically for who Mobius could be. And I remember having a chat obviously with the studio about it, but I’m a massive Wes Anderson fan and I love Owen. I just think he’s fantastic. And I remember all of us because we all write down who we like, and Owen was someone [where] I was like, “I just think he would be really interesting. And I’d love to see what his take on this would be because he’s a genius.” And it was just so fun. Usually, it’d be me and Kevin Wright, my producer, phoning them. So, we had this double act going where we pitched the show. But when it was Owen, he was like, “I only want to talk to Kate.” And I was like, “O.K., I can’t mess this up because everyone’s very excited about Owen being in the show.” And I just did a really detailed pitch for him. But the thing that made me so excited about working with him as well, was that I remember him saying, “I want to do something really outside of myself and something people won’t expect from me.” And we started from the outside in, because physically, he looks so different in our show to what he’s looked like before. He hasn’t got the classic surfery blonde hair. He looks again like a fifties detective. And I think that was so fun for me having an actor that was willing to take a risk like that and play. And then getting him and Tom in a room together was a thrill, because you need the actor playing Mobius to bring such power to the role. Because Loki is a beloved character, but he needs to feel like he’s met his match in that scene. Like the “Good Will Hunting” of it all. He needs to feel like, “Oh I’ve underestimated you.” And I think Owen plays that so well. Because he’s got a lightness to him and a jokiness to him, and then you see him almost turning the screws a little bit in this chess match. And it’s like, “Oh no, actually he does have the upper hand” and Loki also then starts to realize that as well.
I just felt very lucky with all our casting. And then for example, coming up with all our variant Lokis. I remember for a while, we had different actors for President Loki and I remember saying…because we were originally going to put Tom in as just a random Loki…and I was like, “I think we should just have Tom play President Loki because I felt like he should be as one of the more evil Lokis for sure.” And so it’s fun to see Tom do that I think because we all love Loki from “Avengers” but obviously the journey he goes on here, it’s different. He’s becoming a very different Loki from what we’ve seen before. I think that was really fun with the casting. And then obviously Richard E. Grant, and Deobia, and Jack and the alligator. It was just a lot of fun to play and work with everyone.
Did you feel like you had to convince any of the actors, outside of Owen, either Gugu or Richard to sign up?
No, honestly. Speaking to Richard, for example, he and Tom are friends, which obviously helps. But I think it was also talking to him and saying, “Look, this is a show, this is who Loki is.” The exciting thing for me was I didn’t want these other Lokis just to feel like they were doing an impression of Tom’s performance as Loki, because they’re not. It’s nature and nurture, right. They’ve all had completely different lived experiences. There’s similarities, sure. Like they’re all a little bit mischievous, there’s great pain and regret in their lives. But it’s really important I think to let an actor to come in and play. It’s almost like you kind of see the rule book of Loki. You’re like, “O.K., so this is what the rough idea of Loki is, but I’m going to throw that away now and bring in my interpretation,” which to me was way more exciting and I think gave us much more fully rounded characters.
Because that’s the key thing with the variants, they aren’t the same being. I think for me it’s more like a soul thing. There are decisions they might make where, for example, with Tom and Sophia in the last episode, it’s so painful for Loki because he can see Sylvie making a decision that he might have made in episode one, but now he’s changed so much. He won’t do that. But he knows that she’s in so much anger and pain, she’s going to do what she’s going to do, because he knows that they are one and the same. I think Richard was just really excited. He just has such joy and enthusiasm for being an actor. And I think he’s just along for the adventure of it all. And he was happy. I remember even saying to him, “You are like the OG Loki and I strongly feel you should be in the original costume. But he was up for it. He was like, “Yeah, put me in tights, I don’t care, whatever. This is so much fun.” I think he had nothing but enthusiasm and excitement and ideas. And I think that completely radiated among all our casts. Everyone was just really excited to be part of it.
Speaking of someone having fun, I just rewatched the final episode last night. And I had forgotten Jonathan Majors is so good in that episode. How much of was that him playing with the character, and how much of was that in the script?
Well, the scripts we had were brilliant for episode six. I would say credit to all really. The first thing you are going to do as an actor is you’re going to look at the script and be inspired by that. But I would also say Jonathan, for example, when we were blocking it, I didn’t know he was going to jump on the desk. Me and my DP, I remember we had it on track and [cinematographer Autumn Durald] was kind of feeling it out. And then when we blocked it, he jumped up and I was like, “Keep that because that’s so cool. Definitely do that jump up.” Because I think that was the key thing. It’s almost bookended, we begin with a conversation and we end with one. And it’s for me about how do we change blocking here to feel dynamic? When is the camera really close to He Who Remains? So it almost feels like he’s whispering in your ear and getting you on his side. And when should we go wide, because it’s almost like you have to build these mini chapter breaks because you can’t just stay in the same position for the conversation. Because I think otherwise the audience will start to lose attention. So it was amazing working with him. He is a fantastic actor and it honestly felt a little bit like filming a play. Which was really fun. That was the thing. It was such a privilege seeing an incredible actor find this character because it is going to go on to be an amazing character.
You guys were shooting during the pandemic. Was there even time to do rehearsals? Did he have any chance to go through those scenes with Tom and Sylvie?
So I would say with Jonathan specifically, it wasn’t actually pandemics. Just, he’s very busy. So, we didn’t do rehearsals in person, but basically, we did them on Zoom. We did a few read-throughs on Zoom with all the cast. And then I also just had a lot of conversations one-on-one with Jonathan as well, about character and influence. And we would always check in with each other and talk about that. So I think that was really key before we got to set. And then with the rest of our cast, no. I did quite a bit of rehearsal to be honest. It was mainly to be honest, lots of read-through, talking through the characters with the actors, but also because then when you get to set, everyone’s working from the same rule book. And it’s not to say you can’t play on set because Owen would throw in three different alts for every line. That would be so funny. But I think for me it was about making sure we’re all going in and making the same thing.
I have to say what you and what Chloe Zhao did on “Eternals,” no offense to everybody else, is the most genre-pushing aesthetic that anyone has created in the Marvel universe. Did you get any pushback at all?
No. Honestly I think that was the big thing for me with the pitch. I was like, I’m just going to pitch them exactly what I would do. Because that’s where as a director, like you said, you’ll find out if they’re like, “O.K., this we really love, this we’re not so keen on.” And that’s when I guess you discuss your terms, of what’s the story we’re all going to make here. But truthfully, no. Kevin Feige was always like, “Go bolder, go weirder.” Whenever we had ideas. I think honestly I always just felt like pushing it as far as we could. And if there was any kind of pushback, I never felt that, to be honest. It just felt like a very encouraging environment.
Listen, I’m not sure what you are hoping for in your career but you did talk about the fact that you’d come from doing “Sex Education,” which was very different from this. And this was the sort of thing you love. Now that you’ve done “Loki,” do you feel like the industry, producers, studios, and networks, are seeing you in a new light?
It’s changed my life. The meetings I get now – not that I wasn’t having good meetings before – but in terms of genre and big scale storytelling, yeah. There are meetings I’ve had and things that are happening that there’s no way I would’ve got those without “Loki.” So, Laurie Nunn who makes “Sex Education,” I felt like I learned so much from her. But we always spoke about wearing your heart on your sleeve. And I think for me, that’s something really key in just whatever story I do, is I want to tell stories that have joy them, and have hope. And that even if the characters are in a big sci-fi world, or wherever they are, we are always being carried across by warmth and I guess a grounded emotion. And I think for me, that for me is always I hope what will be drawing me into stories. And I think honestly for me next is, I’m a writer, I have a writing partner and we are working on stuff together. So that’s the next fun challenge for me is doing that.
You’re not going back for season two. Do you have anything else booked that you can discuss?
I have stuff, but I can’t say.
OK. I get it.
Oh, a cool thing I can talk about actually. So me and my writing partner wrote a comic book for Skybound and it’s really cool. And it’s part of a horror anthology called “Afterschool.” And it’s based off the Afterschool special and our one is called “The Stalkening” and it comes out in July. July 20th I believe. So that’s something fun that’s happening. But me and Briony are working on lots of stuff. At some point, people will find out what I’m doing, but not today.”
“Loki” season one is available on Disney+