Guardians of the Galaxy is used to aliens. Of all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the 2014 James Gunn–directed romp is filled with more characters who have, say, blue skin or the body of a literal tree, than any other MCU property. So the sequel’s addition of Mantis (Pom Klementieff) — a character with giant alien eyes and antennae sticking out of her head — is pretty fitting. And Mantis does what every good Guardian of the Galaxy excels at: She rules your heart. In fact, that’s kind of her thing.
“I had to bring myself back to something completely innocent and pure,” Klementieff told BuzzFeed News. “I had fun bringing some weirdness to it, and something a little bit insect-like.”
The Mantis of the Marvel comics was a half-Vietnamese, half-German woman with a notoriously convoluted storyline — even for the comics world. Created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Don Heck for the 1973 run of the Avengers comics, Mantis was left by her parents with a religious sect of the Kree alien race. They gave her telepathic powers and theorized that she was the “Celestial Madonna,” who would eventually give birth to the “Celestial Messiah,” a cosmic being of extreme importance. She married an alien who had possessed the reanimated body of her former lover — and eventually had that important child with him.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, though, Mantis gets a bit of a makeover, leaving behind almost everything except for her psychic empathy and aspects of her distinct look.
She’s all alien, for one, and her backstory is relatively simple. When we first meet her, she’s the companion of Ego (Kurt Russell), a god who found her orphaned in the “larva state” on her home planet and decided to raise her alone on his isolated planet as a sort of service pet. Gifted with empathic powers, Mantis helps Ego sleep by easing the pain of his losses. She shows off her abilities while getting to know the Guardians: By simply placing her hand on them, she can literally feel what they're feeling.
She’s also a goddamn delight. Socially awkward because of her isolation, Mantis is nevertheless cheerful and curious — a ray of sunshine among Guardians’ array of hero-antiheroes and their various modes of brooding. But getting Mantis to where she is in the film required some major work on the part of Marvel Studios and Gunn, who wrote and directed the sequel.
“We talked about the character, and the character from the comic books compared to [Gunn’s] version is really different,” Klementieff said. The self-proclaimed longtime fan of superhero movies particularly responded to Gunn’s interpretation of Mantis. “When you read the comics, she’s really different from one version to another. So many writers wrote her story [in the comics], and it’s all over the place. I think James Gunn’s version is much more interesting and original — and a much more interesting female character, I think.”
Part of Gunn’s motivation in bringing Mantis into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was to balance the scales. “I wanted to add a female character who was as quirky and as strange as Drax, and Rocket, and Groot,” Gunn told BuzzFeed News. He was also cognizant of the fact that the existing female characters in the films — Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and her cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) — rock more of a “Clint Eastwood” vibe. “I'm really aware of falling into a trap of making female characters who are just, like, tough guys,” Gunn said.
As a result, Mantis’s innocence and offbeat enthusiasm function like the edges of a puzzle piece in the movie: She fits perfectly into the ensemble, curving around the gruffness of characters like Gamora and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and sitting seamlessly in partnership with the strange, sweet bluntness of Drax (Dave Bautista). In short, she rounds the Guardians out.
Her big-screen story is also one of self-liberation: Though she’s introduced essentially as a servant to Ego, it becomes clear as the movie progresses that Ego is darker than he first seems to be. For a while, Mantis is the only one who knows that Ego’s intentions are actually murderous — and eventually, she decides to tell the Guardians. In the process, she breaks free from the constraints of her upbringing and the loneliness that came with it, and puts herself instead on a path toward friendship, freedom, and heroism.
It’s a journey most of the other Guardians took in the first movie, but this time, it’s Mantis’s turn. She’s key to the film and to the team, and not just because her choices serve the plot. Given that importance, Gunn knew he had to find just the right woman to play her.
“It was the best casting process I've probably ever had,” he said. They auditioned only actresses of Asian descent for the part, and the competition was steep. (“There were so many good ones,” he said.) Eventually it came down to four contenders, who Gunn said “turned in the best screen tests [he'd] ever seen.” After two auditions and a screen test in Atlanta opposite Bautista, Klementieff emerged the winner. “She came in and she was more like an alien than anyone else,” Gunn remembered.
Both Klementieff and her character also had to tap into something eminently human. Connecting by touch with Drax's heartbreak, for example, Mantis feels the loss of his daughter and her eyes well with tears before she lets out an overwhelmed sob. It was Klementieff’s screen test with that scene that really nabbed her the role. “I mean, that's real,” Gunn said. “She touches him, and tears roll down her face. No CGI tears. That's Pom acting. It was incredible.
“I love her more than almost anyone I've ever worked with,” he added.
After her screen test, Klementieff thought it'd be a while before she heard anything about the part. But she got the phone call a day later from Gunn himself. “He asked me, ‘Are you ready to be a Guardian of the Galaxy?’" she recalled. "I remember I had just ordered a smoothie or something stupid like that with a friend, and I just jumped [up and down]. It was hard for me to swallow the smoothie after because I was just too excited.”
Klementieff, who's French (her mother is Korean and her late father was French and Russian), went to drama school in Paris and then began working in the French film world. In 2013, she won a starring role in Spike Lee’s Oldboy, which introduced her to Hollywood. “It was thanks to that movie that I got my artist’s visa and moved to LA and got to live the life that I wanted,” she said.
Now, with a central ensemble role in a Marvel movie, she’s being introduced to the global audience that comes with a major franchise. She’s also not going anywhere anytime soon: Mantis is already confirmed to be in the next Avengers movie, Infinity War, which hits theaters in May 2018, and we can likely expect to see her whenever Guardians 3 — which has been greenlit — rolls around as well.
“I’m feeling really happy to talk about this movie, and defend the movie, and be proud of it,” Klementieff said. “That doesn’t always happen.”
Adam B. Vary contributed reporting to this story.
Pom Klementieff is French. A previous version of this article said she was French Canadian.