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FNL’s Adrianne Palicki on learning to be a badass for Red Dawn and Wonder Woman

Few people have seen Adrianne Palicki in her most high-profile roles. She was the title character in the unaired Wonder Woman pilot, she was a cast member on the highly regarded, quickly canceled Lone Star, she was set to be a series regular on the WB’s Aquaman, and she stars as Lady Jaye in the oft-delayed, supposedly still forthcoming G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It’s been a frustrating series of delays for fans of her work on Friday Night Lights, where she spent three seasons (with the occasional subsequent guest spot) as emotionally damaged bad girl Tyra Collette. Now, however, at least one of Palicki’s long-delayed projects is arriving in theaters: Dan Bradley’s remake of the Cold War propaganda movie Red Dawn, which began production for MGM in 2009, and was shelved by the studio’s bankruptcy. Viewers who’ve waited for years to see Palicki (playing Toni, the role originated by Jennifer Grey), help the Wolverines repel a North Korean invasion of the United States will finally get their chance beginning on November 21. The day after the film’s world première at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, Palikir spoke to The A.V. Club about finding the human elements of Red Dawn, getting paid to become a badass, and what Toni, Tyra, and Wonder Woman all have in common.

The A.V. Club: Were you a fan of the original Red Dawn?

Adrianne Palicki: I was a little too young to appreciate it when it came out. Because of the Cold War—I didn’t really experience that. But I saw it for the first time after I booked this part, because I was like, “Okay, I should probably know what I’m getting into.” It’s an awesome movie. Even having not been in that situation, I can see why it’s such a cult classic. But it’s always scary to do a remake.


AVC: In the original, the women are really aggressive. Jennifer Grey is almost feral.

AP: Yes!

AVC: You play the part with a lot more warmth. Did you focus on that?

AP: Well, the thing about Toni was—it’s almost not as much of a remake as it is taking an idea and making it different, ultimately. The original Toni and this Toni are different, but the one thing I wanted her to be, and Dan [Bradley] wanted her to be, is a strong female character. And she starts off that way, but I think it’s a layer you have as a teenager, where you’re putting on a façade, and then everybody starts to break a little bit. You see people’s true colors, and what Toni had to do was stand up and be a leader, and get the group going and be strong for everybody.


AVC: Are you drawn to characters like that?

AP: They come to me. I guess it’s because I’m tall. [Laughs.] I must just look like a very strong woman. No, but I’m drawn to characters who have layers. Who are strong—Tyra, for example, on Friday Night Lights—she was broken, and had to try to be as strong as possible, but was still vulnerable. All these characters have beautiful vulnerability, and it’s fun for me to find that for the character that’s already written as very, very strong.


AVC: There are similarities between Toni and Tyra besides the fact that you play them both. Were you conscious of that?

AP: I was. I would tell people, “It’s pretty much Tyra with a gun.” And by the way, I don’t want to mess with that chick. There were definitely some similarities.


AVC: The original is well-loved, but it’s also a propaganda film. This one feels a lot more human—it’s about family, and hometowns.

AP: It’s funny, because I feel like the only true way for an action movie to work is to have character development, and for you to actually care about the people. If somebody dies off in a movie, and you’re like, “I don’t give a shit,” it’s a completely different experience than if you care about these characters. So there’s definitely a human element there. I think the fact that these people are coming in and trying to take over our homes, and we’ve had so much loss—that really resonates with people. If you witnessed your father die, or your brother die, or your sister die… Those are the things that elevate the film and make it more realistic, that these people have nothing to lose. They have nothing to go back to.


AVC: Toni takes to being at war very quickly, but we don’t see a lot of that on the screen. How much of that did you bring to the part?

AP: The montage is obviously very short in the movie—it had to be, to keep the movie going. But I think the situation was, “This is what needs to happen in order to survive, so I need to be the best I can be at doing this—at killing people.” I think that was kind of the same for all of the characters. These are your two options. But I grew up with guns, so I took to this pretty quickly.


AVC: What was the most challenging part of the shoot?

AP: Dan Bradley really wanted us to do our own stunts. It was almost a prerequisite to do the movie, which I loved. The challenge of that was awesome. I’d never had that experience before, other than little stunts on Friday Night Lights, but these were big ones. It was incredibly challenging, and scary—you’re close to these explosions, and they’re telling you, “Well, you could die… but I’m sure you won’t!” There were so many moments where I was like, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this!” and then there were other moments where I was like, “Thank God I’m getting paid to do this.” I think actually, the hardest part of the shoot was the cold. We were shooting in Detroit in the winter, in the middle of the woods, and we didn’t have heaters. We were wearing very limited clothing—Toni wears a little leather jacket, because of course the girls get screwed in all those movies—so I think that was the hardest part, being out in that cold for 14 hours, and trying not to, you know, die of hypothermia.


AVC: At what point in this process did you see the first cut?

AP: I saw the first cut probably a year after. It was very different from this. If they had kept the whole movie and all the footage, it would have been a four-hour movie. And rightly so, because they were trying to get all the elements—all the character developments, all the relationships, and also all the action—but I think there was a lot of story in there, which made you lose a little of that momentum. Once that action starts in this movie, it’s on. There are little bits of storyline, but the action is what really drives this film. They did some tweaking here and there, and it comes together much better and faster than it did before.


AVC: You’ve done a few projects like this, where, for whatever reason, people haven’t been able to see them. What’s that like on your end?

AP: It’s difficult. The one thing it does is, it really grounds you in reality. You can’t take anything for granted. The hardest thing as an actor is that you work really hard constantly for these roles, and you invest so much in it. And when they don’t come to fruition and nobody sees them, there’s a part of you that dies a little bit. It’s like, “Ah! But I worked so hard!” But that’s the business. As an actor, you have so little control over what happens. All I can do is go to set, be glad I’m there, be glad I’m working. And just pray to God that the movie comes out.


AVC: Watching you on Friday Night Lights, it didn’t seem inevitable that you’d be headed for action roles. Is that something you anticipated for your career?

AP: No, it wasn’t. But I think what you touched on before is that I tend to play very strong female characters, and action stars and superheroes are probably the strongest female characters. But it’s just been such a pleasure to get to play these. It’s super-fun to get to do your own stunts, and I’ve learned so much. With this, gun training. With G.I. Joe, I was trained by Navy SEALs for months on end. And for Wonder Woman, I was trained in hand-to-hand combat. It was like, “I’m getting paid to learn all these amazing skills!” And look like a badass doing it, hopefully. But Wonder Woman was pretty much the coolest. I’ve always dreamt about being Wonder Woman. I got to wear the costume. The lasso. Everything.


AVC: You’re also playing Lady Jaye in G.I. Joe. You were kind of Supergirl on Smallville [in the season-three finale]. How do you approach playing all these iconic roles vs. playing a character like Toni in Red Dawn, where the point is that she could be anyone in any town?

AP: I try to play them both like they’re the same. I know it sounds crazy, but I think that being a badass, or whatever—you still want people to root for you. I think being as realistic as possible is the way to do that. I want to pull on people’s heartstrings if I can. If I’m too up-here, it doesn’t come through. I try to do the same in all the characters, ultimately, and find the vulnerable place, so you can see the character for who they truly are. Even if they’re Wonder Woman.


AVC: Did you find the Tyra-like vulnerability in Wonder Woman?

AP: Yeah, I did. For Wonder Woman, it was hard that she was alone. She’s in this place by herself, and everybody’s looking to her as this big icon, this one thing, and she has to create an alter ego just to get by. And even then, she can’t have people around her, because it’s too dangerous, and nobody understands. She has her own demons and vulnerabilities as well.


AVC: Have you been approached about the Friday Night Lights movie?

AP: Everybody has been talking about this movie. I hope it happens. We’ll see—it’ll be interesting to see if all the characters can come together, and actually do it.


AVC: Between having done Wonder Woman, Smallville, and Aquaman, it seems like you’re eventually going to end up in a superhero movie.

AP: I really hope so. I would love to play Wonder Woman on the big screen. And if not, Supergirl. I know it’s not the coolest character, but I fell in love with her. My brother is a comic-book writer, and I was always in love with comics. My brother would always be reading all these comics with these dudes, and I was this little blonde, mousy-looking child, and I looked at this beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed chick, and I was like, “I want to be her!” She was one of the very few that I found. Or Rogue. I’d really like to play Rogue.


AVC: You’ve also done some comedy, between Robot Chicken and Brad Copeland’s Coffee Town. Do you want to do more of that?

AP: I just saw Coffee Town, and it’s literally—I’m not just saying this because I’m in it—it’s in my top-five funniest movies I’ve ever seen in my life. Half an hour in, I had a raging headache from laughing so hard. And I did that throughout the entire movie. It’s the funniest group of people I’ve ever been around. I love to do comedy. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Women In Trouble or Elektra Luxx, but getting to play a funny character in those movies was just fun to do. Sometimes when people see you in these action roles all the time, they’re like, “Oh, you can do comedy?” So it’s fun to do that too, and kind of shock people—and also myself. It’s not my comfort zone, so it’s good.


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