Isabela Merced was already one of the industry’s most sought-after young actors, and then she went on an unparalleled casting streak that includes the likes of Madame Web, Alien: Romulus, Superman: Legacy and The Last of Us season two. She also has her second John Green adaptation, Turtles All the Way Down, releasing this spring, and it happens to be the performance she’s most proud of to date.
On Feb. 14, Merced returns to the big screen in SJ Clarkson’s Madame Web, as her character, Anya Corazon, is one of three future Spider-Women that Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) must protect from baddie Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim) and his premonition that they’re all responsible for his eventual death. Anya’s Spider-Woman alter ego is named Araña, and due to Cassie’s clairvoyant visions, Merced, along with Johnson, Sydney Sweeney and Celeste O’Connor, had to perform multiple different versions of scenes in order to account for the potential future and reality of each sequence.
Fortunately, Clarkson approached this tangled web with subtlety and efficiency.
“[Clarkson] was very smart about not making us too conscious or aware that it was another version of the same scene,” Merced tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We could just focus on the work and not mimic the same things we did before.”
Last July, just three days before the SAG-AFTRA strike, Merced joined James Gunn’s forthcoming DCU reboot as Hawkgirl in Superman: Legacy, the first film to kick off the revamped cinematic universe. Needless to say, Merced is ecstatic about the entire enterprise, and her screen test with her fellow co-stars gave her a proper sneak peek of what to expect when the superhero pic begins production in March.
“I was directed by [Gunn] during the [screen] test for [Superman: Legacy], because I auditioned for this. I got to do [the screen test] with my other castmates, and that was really cool. It felt very professional; it was almost like a legitimate shooting day,” Merced says. “So I’ve already learned so much about his process, and this man … has the best of the best working for him.”
The Cleveland native also signed onto The Last of Us season two as Dina. She’s another teenage inhabitant of Maria (Rutina Wesley) and Tommy Miller’s (Gabriel Luna) Jackson, Wyoming community, and she soon becomes close with Ellie (Bella Ramsey). Once Merced heard that series co-creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann were interested in meeting with her, she binge-played The Last of Us Part II in record time to be thoroughly prepared.
“I had already watched the show, and so I went to my friend’s house and I played [The Last of Us Part II] all in one weekend on the PS5. It was amazing. It did 25 hours of gameplay,” Merced shares. “It was wild, but so much fun. So I really liked the second game, but I haven’t played the first game yet.”
Merced is also starring alongside Cailee Spaeny in Fede Álvarez’s upcoming Alien: Romulus, which takes place between Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). During a recent round of reshoots, Merced and some nearby cast/crew got to watch a significant chunk of the film on Álvarez’s iPad, and one scene in particular prompted everyone but Merced to look away in horror.
“There’s a scene that I’m in, and they all had to turn away. Not one person stayed looking at that iPad because it was so disgusting,” Merced reveals. “And I was watching it like this … (Merced pretends to hold an iPad with a mesmerized look on her face.) I was so excited.”
Merced also starred in 2018’s Sicario: Day of the Soldado, and with Sicario 3 currently gaining steam, she would “absolutely” love to reprise her role as Isabel Reyes, even if it’s just for one scene with Benicio Del Toro. Soldado ends with Isabel thinking Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick has been shot to death, before eventually being whisked away to Witness Protection by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver.
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Merced also discusses the first time she bonded with her Madame Web co-stars, as well as the pros and cons of her Araña costume.
So there’s usually a point where co-stars first bond with each other. Fight scenes are a common answer. Was dancing to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” on top of a diner table that moment for the three of you (Merced, Sweeney, O’Connor) on Madame Web?
(Laughs.) The first moment of bonding was two weeks into it. It was my birthday, so I invited everybody [to a party]. I didn’t really expect them all to come. I don’t like to make a big deal on my birthday. I don’t really like my own birthday. I love other people’s birthdays, though. But they all showed up and it was amazing. There was an accordion player who my mom first saw on the street. There was brunch, but they also brought snacks, treats, cookies, everything. So [my co-stars] didn’t have to be there, but they showed up for me and I thought that was really sweet.
My second wrong guess would’ve been everyone’s first day in Spider costumes. How’d your Araña costume treat you?
Oh, it was like a glove. Honestly, it fit every curve of my body, perfectly. So it was quite comfortable. But when you put the harness on, you then put layers underneath it to protect your skin from the harness and then [more layers] over the harness to smooth it out. So that’s when it gets really tight. You train all these months for certain actions and moves that you’ve prepared, but once you put on the costume and the harness, it’s suddenly like trying to run underwater. So it’s quite hard to do the same things in the costume and harness.
For what it’s worth, I hear that bird-related superhero costumes are much more comfortable.
(Laughs.) You know what? From my experience with that production, it has been …
The three of you received a CPR lesson from Dakota Johnson’s character in a seedy motel room. If there was an emergency situation, would you trust yourself to deploy it?
Absolutely not! I can hold a beat. I can hold a rhythm. (Merced proceeds to sing the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” as CPR classes recommend performing chest compressions to the song’s tempo.) But I can’t guarantee that that person will be staying alive. Yeah, no promises there. (Laughs.) Don’t call on me, please.
You had to shoot the potential future that Cassie (Johnson) glimpses, but then you also had to shoot what actually happens due to her interference. Did things get pretty complicated on the day as you filmed multiple versions of many different scenes?
I will give credit to SJ Clarkson, the director. In the train sequence where we all get murdered for the fourth time or something, there were variations. Once we got up to the part where [Anya] is picked up and thrown, we had to do about three variations before that. So SJ would give very subtle notes and act like it’s still the same scene, but it was really another version of the same scene. Again, she was very subtle about it. So once we finished, I was like, “Oh, did we get it?” And she was like, “Yeah, we got four different versions. I’m going to edit it together later.” So she was very smart about not making us too conscious or aware that it was another version of the same scene. We could just focus on the work and not mimic the same things we did before.
You told me a few years ago that you hoped to avoid more sassy, angsty teenagers if at all possible, but Anya has a very good reason for being that way at first. Her immigration-related backstory is quite heartbreaking, and I couldn’t help but think about it through today’s lens. Did her backstory hit you pretty hard as well?
Yeah, the whole sassy, angsty teen thing, I probably said that I didn’t like it because I was that sort of character in real life at the time. I’m only 22 now, but I understand it more as I get older. I look back at my journal entries from when I was that age and I get it. The world seems so much scarier. You feel so much more vulnerable and self-conscious, and that’s what I love about understanding Anya. Yes, you have the surface-level facts about her life that are quite saddening and you can imagine she feels isolated, but then you peel it back further to the immigrant mentality. She is smart, but that’s because she has to be. She is independent, but that’s because she has to be. It doesn’t mean she wants to be. So I loved getting to know the softer side of her and taking it to something that’s more than just a sassy, angsty teen.
You’re half-Peruvian, and similar to Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Peru is a key part of this story as well. Your character even says the name of the country when Cassie tells everyone that she has to go there. Did they rewrite that scene just so you could have that meta reference to your own ancestry?
I wish I knew the answer to that question so I could give you a solid answer. I think it’s the law of attraction, honestly. I also wish I had that much control that I could be like, “Oh, it says Peru? I’m going to be in that movie.” So I think it’s just the law of attraction, but I love Peru. Apparently, I’m attracting projects that mention it, but that was an added line: “You have to go to Peru.” That was something they just added in there on the day, but I don’t think SJ was thinking that much about it. When you’re directing something, you’re just so invested in the story that you’re not aware of these things. So it’s just a really cool thing that I hope keeps happening. I even have some projects in mind that are centered in Peru, so I hope that I get to produce them at some point.
You’ve worked with the Wahlberg family a few times, and given that you shot Madame Web in Boston, did Mark offer you a list of dinner recs and all that?
I got a list from him a long time ago, and I actually referred to that list, but some of the restaurants were closed down because of the pandemic. I got the list before the pandemic. But I didn’t reach out to him. I don’t really reach out. I’m a terrible friend. I’m also a terrible daughter, especially when I’m working. I’m great when I’m not working, but when I’m working, I’m bad at keeping in touch with people. I just get so invested in my own head.
So how was your Sicario: Day of the Soldado reunion with Benicio Del Toro not too long ago?
Oh, it was lovely. I love that man. I gave him the biggest hug and he was so sweet to me. He’s always been really sweet to me, and I admire him so much. I was just happy to see that he’s doing well.
We’ve talked before about Soldado and Josh Brolin’s tears …
As much as I love that movie, I’ve always wished that Benicio’s character reunited with your character at the very end just to relieve some of the trauma she’d endured. However, it’s still possible as Sicario 3 is gaining momentum. I know you’re busy these days, but is that a phone call you’d like to receive, even if it’s just one reunion scene?
Absolutely. I would be very open to that. We spoke about it, and obviously things change, but I think we spoke about Isabel Reyes going into the Witness Protection Program. [Writer’s Note: Brolin’s character defied his own orders and took Reyes to the U.S. to place her in WITSEC.] So I don’t know how she would be involved in another Sicario storyline unless they went out of their way to make that happen, but of course, I would love to be a part of [Sicario 3]. Soldado is still, to date, one of my favorite movies I’ve ever done, and it was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. It was insane.
Well, I referenced it earlier, but belated congratulations on being employed by James Gunn.
Yeah, it’s awesome! (Laughs.)
You once said that you respond the most to roles that bring out a new side of yourself, and James has always been highly skilled at doing that for his actors. So is Hawkgirl going to potentially show a new side of you?
James Gunn is so creative and he has such a unique style, and whatever he touches, he always adds his own flair to it. And for that reason, I’m very excited. I was directed by him during the [screen] test for this, because I auditioned for this. I got to do [the screen test] with my other castmates, and that was really cool. It felt very professional; it was almost like a legitimate shooting day. So I’ve already learned so much about his process, and this man has such a solid team. He has the best of the best working for him, and they’ve worked together for so long that it’s only up to me to mess it up. So I hope that I can understand and take notes and continue training and just be healthy throughout it all. Then I’ll be able to give the fans the performance they deserve.
It’s fitting that you also joined The Last of Us, because you and Pedro Pascal are both landing every role there is to land in this town. Have you been preparing for Dina and Hawkgirl at the same time, basically?
Absolutely. I’m also working on a script that I’m trying to write, and I have to promote Turtles All the Way Down, which is coming out in the spring. But I’m so excited to meet Pedro. I met Bella Ramsey and [co-creator] Craig Mazin already. I met basically the whole Last of Us team, except for Pedro. I know Kaitlyn [Dever] from Rosaline, but I saw her in Vancouver recently. So I think this is going to be a really wonderful experience. They won all those Emmys for a reason, and it’s a really well-run, well-oiled machine. Craig is just a genius, and I really admire him for the short time I’ve known him.
Have you been playing the Last of Us Part II game on the TV that Adria Arjona gave you?
(Laughs.) Okay, I have a few things to say about that. Adria is one of the most giving people I’ve ever met. This woman gives her things away like it’s nothing, and it’s such a good quality to have. I would love to have that quality, because she doesn’t give too much importance to things. She values what’s actually valuable. So I needed a TV, because I had just bought a new apartment, and she ended up giving me her TV that she didn’t need. It’s massive. It’s such a nice TV, and it’s in my living room right now.
But The Last of Us prep has not been done in my house. I was in a relationship where my ex had a console, and I would play video games until 4:00 am every night. So I have a very unhealthy obsession with video games, and I told myself I wouldn’t get a PS5. But when I heard this ominous call about how the [Last of Us] creators wanted to meet with me, I was like, “Okay, I have to play the game first.” I had already watched the show, and so I went to my friend’s house and I played it all in one weekend on the PS5. It was amazing. It did 25 hours of gameplay. It was wild, but so much fun. So I really liked the second game, but I haven’t played the first game yet. Only the second.
Your list of conquests continues with Fede Álvarez’s Alien: Romulus later this summer. Is it basically a two-hander between you and Cailee Spaeny?
It ends up being a little bit complicated, obviously, as all Alien movies do, however, yeah, you’ll see us together at times. When we were doing reshoots, Fede Álvarez gave me the iPad where he watches playback, and he had the movie pulled up. So I told him I wanted to see parts of it, and he showed it to me. I was the one holding the iPad, and there were ten people around me watching it on the iPad. So there’s a scene that I’m in, and they all had to turn away. Not one person stayed looking at that iPad because it was so disgusting. And I was watching it like this … (Merced pretends to hold an iPad with a mesmerized look on her face.) I was so excited. (Laughs.) I love sci-fi, I do. So he let me watch half the movie on the iPad. I said [to Fede], “If the iPad is heavy, I can carry it for you. I can hold it.” (Laughs.) So I’m really, really excited for that one. Again, I’m lucky enough to be a part of these projects with the best of the best. I can’t believe it. I’m so in shock, and I don’t know when I’m going to wake up.
Lastly, you touched on it earlier, but your second John Green adaptation, Turtles All the Way Down, releases this spring. I was shocked to read this, but was that really the first time you were proud of your acting? Or were you just exaggerating?
I actually don’t think I was. To be honest, there’s a lot of components about movies that are out of your control. For example, you do 45 takes of something, and it’s edited together in a certain way where you’re like, “I don’t think these moods match from one line to the other. I don’t think there was a proper escalation.” So it could be things like that, and when I watch my movies for the first time, I do find myself grabbing onto my seat and clenching my jaw. So I do have a hard time watching myself, but Turtles All the Way Down, I don’t know if it’s personal growth or working on my self-worth, but I didn’t clench up at all while watching it. I felt at ease watching it, and maybe that’s because I knew how much work I put into it and how I felt after each shooting day. So I do feel really proud of myself for that.
Madame Web opens in theaters on Feb. 14.