[The following story contains major spoilers from Nimona.]
Nimona is only Eugene Lee Yang’s second-ever voice acting gig, but it’s a “beautiful” role, he says, and one already for the history books.
The actor, who is best known for his work with YouTubers and media production group The Try Guys, is the voice behind Ambrosius Goldenloin, the presumed hero of the animated Netflix film. Released on Friday and based on an award-winning graphic novel by the movie’s co-producer ND Stevenson, Nimona follows the titular punky shapeshifter, voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz, as she teams with an outcast knight, Riz Ahmed’s Ballister Boldheart, after he is accused of plotting and then killing Queen Valerin (Lorraine Toussaint).
Yang plays Goldenloin, a knight of royal lineage who finds himself cutting off his boyfriend Ballister’s arm while trying to save his ruler. Eventually, he also agrees to track and capture Ballister at the behest of the Director (Frances Conroy), who has since stepped into power following the queen’s untimely demise. Through the movie and graphic novel, the duo’s evolving relationship and romance shapes their respective journeys.
“He is a pretty silly character in the comics. He’s a goofball, a dork. He’s also not a great person. The first thing he does is shoot Ballister’s arm off and refuse to apologize, and so they’ve had this terrible breakup. That’s what the comic is. It’s broken hearts and the refusal to apologize, a relationship that is almost beyond saving, it seems,” Stevenson explained ahead of the movie’s June 30 release.
In the comic, Goldenloin is white, a choice Stevenson said was an intentional exploration of power and privilege. “It’s convenient to cast him in the role of the hero because he’s a white man with blond hair and classic good looks, and ‘You have everything we need for us to make this pitch — to sell this propaganda — of who the good guy is and who the bad guy is,’” Stevenson previously told The Hollywood Reporter. “He’s a deeply flawed person who is clinging to his version of the world that he wants to be true, shutting everything out to the point of behaving villainously, whether he thinks that or not.”
But for the film, the knight — a decedent of Gloreth, the mythological hero revered for slayed a beast — gets a makeover. And it’s a creative choice that slightly alters the subtextual messages around the character and his relationship with Ballister, which for Yang is a look at how two people work to really see each other despite (mis)conceptions or stereotypes.
“I’m fighting with my boyfriend. We have a very stark disagreement: ‘I’m right; you’re wrong. You’re right; I’m wrong.’ There’s no middle ground. Everyone experiences that at some point in their life. But there always needs to be a middle ground, to be able to come together,” Yang said on the carpet of Nimona‘s New York special screening. “And from the queer experience, sometimes we know other people need to make those extra steps to see you, and we as queer people often have to make those first steps.”
According to Stevenson, Goldenloin is one of the roles that changed the most from book to screen, with the story creator telling THR that he loves Yang’s take on the knight but that between the original character and the film’s, “they serve different purposes in the story.”
“When we came in, we wanted to make some adjusts with the characters of Ambrosius, with Ballister, and to start expressing a bit more of the diversity that we see in the world around us, which was important,” said director Troy Quane during a press day for the film. “But it wasn’t just in terms of the design and the new look of this character, it was also discovering the personality. We still wanted Goldenloin this bigger-than-life, rockstar, sports superhero kind of personality.”
“The epitome of heroism in this kingdom. But, more so, we knew that this character was going to be the emotional motivation for Ballister,” director Nick Bruno continued. “All the things we do to that poor character, like cutting his arm off and throwing him into the shadows and teaming him up with a crazy little imp like Nimona — we knew that the audience needed to believe in a relationship enough that that felt real enough and true enough, and that Goldenloin was the kind of character that would drive Ballister to overcome all those obstacles and keep fighting to get back to that connection.”
So for the movie, Bruno and Quane translated the dashing knight by splitting Goldenloin into two characters and giving over some of his less-than-charming traits from Goldenloin in Stevenson’s comic to a new character, Sir Thoddeus “Todd” Sureblade (Beck Bennett). With Todd occupying the “douchebag” role, Goldenloin was left to be “more of a conflicted character like Ballister, who was just put in a bad situation,” according to the Nimona co-producer.
Bruno and Quane also flipped the script — written by Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor — and matched Goldenloin’s race to that of his voice actor, the Korean American Yang. They did the same with Ballister and Ahmed (who is British-Pakistani), meaning two of the film’s lead characters are not only gay, but both of Asian descent — a significant moment in representation for animated cinema.
“Having him played by Eugene, having him be aspirational, showing the perfect knight of this kingdom as an Asian man was important. That was an intention that Nick and Troy came in and expressed, and I was absolutely very supportive of that,” Stevenson told THR.
“Casting Eugene Lee Yang to help us bring that to life was so important,” Quane said. “He is charismatic and fun and funny, but he brings such a sweetness and an emotional fragility to the character that you really get to see the dichotomy of those two playing against each other. And he’s also got incredibly fabulous hair.”
Yang, who said he spoke with the co-directors a lot about the meaning behind his character’s redesign, found the shift to be “really serendipitous.” Mostly because it makes the film a “really interesting think piece about race within the system” along with being “a queer API love story.”
“Especially in this country, Asian Americans, in some ways, have been used as a racial wedge in places and are essentially put onto this model pedestal,” the voice actor told THR. “We see this happening ultimately in a lot of different ways. But we also are, and have always been, an other. We’re all in the same boat. That for me was so especially poignant when I knew Ballister’s the person that Ambrosius knows and loves and everything else should just wash away, but there’s still that feeling of being beholden to some oppressive system, some force — some white woman. That is so powerful when I look at it from my Korean American perspective.”
That woman is Conroy’s Director, the film’s ultimate villain and a character that plays with the kingdom’s and viewers’ conscious and unconscious associations and prejudices in an effort to shape who they see as a hero and a villain. (The darker-skinned Ballister is a former street kid, dons black armor and was handpicked by the queen in his youth to be the kingdom’s first knight not from a noble bloodline.)
“The mustache twirling villain, I think that’s a fantasy for us. We want that to be true, because it’d be very obvious to see who the villain is in that case,” Stevenson told THR. “And that’s basically what the Director is doing. She’s saying Ballister’s that person because he’s convenient for us to cast him in that role. Goldenloin is the opposite.”
Yang heaps praise on Stevenson’s deconstruction of historical perceptions of the hero versus villain. “It is such a dramatic example of this idea of binaries that’s being toyed with in this film. Hero-villain, white, black — all of these ideas, essentially,” he said. “You see it so starkly represented with our central couple.”
When it comes specifically to Goldenloin, the film’s white knight who audiences learn partly through “isn’t the hero” of the story, according to Yang, the character’s “entire conflict and character journey” is centered on the kingdom’s “model” of heroism being torn between being told what is right versus what he feels is right.
“One of the most powerful messages of this film is the question of what institutions are we abiding by? What systems have we been placed into, sometimes against our will or our knowledge?” he adds. “How do we question that in a way that’s proactive, and when do you just need to destroy stuff like Nimona says?”
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