When Jennifer Holland wrapped filming on James Gunn‘s The Suicide Squad in early 2020, she put black ops member Emilia Harcourt behind her.
“I didn’t think I was going to play that character again,” Holland tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I just thought I got to do this cool role in his huge movie and have fun with him for a couple of weeks.”
So it was a bit surreal 11 months later when Holland found herself once again playing Harcourt, this time for a post-credits tag that would lead directly into Peacemaker, the new HBO Max show starring John Cena. That post-credits scene, shot in January 2021 on the Vancouver set of Peacemaker, was the opening salvo in six months of shooting for the team. The series, which debuted Jan. 13, centers on Cena’s Christopher “Peacemaker” Smith, with Holland’s Harcourt playing an integral role as one of his handlers working on a mission at the behest of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis).
Gunn, who has been Holland’s partner since 2015, penned the eight-episode series out of boredom during the pandemic, not knowing if it would even get made. Along the way, he let Holland know Harcourt would be back.
“I didn’t get my hopes up,” says Holland. Then WarnerMedia-owned HBO Max greenlit the show. “All of a sudden we are moving to Vancouver and he was prepping the show — it was a whirlwind.”
She found herself working closely with Cena, being wowed by his improvisational skills. He in turn found himself impressed by Holland.
“Jenn’s ability to flat out become her character was unbelievably impressive and ended up really rewarding me with examples of dedication to material and performance,” says Cena. “She knew her character so well and really fought to make sure those character traits stayed intact.”
The first episode includes a fight scene that sees Harcourt own a would-be attacker in a bar. Cena’s Peacemaker is instantly smitten, but Harcourt feels the opposite, particularly because he killed her colleague Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) in The Suicide Squad.
“She’s not an angel,” says Holland. “It’s not like she hasn’t killed people before. But you don’t kill your fellow soldier. So she starts off with absolutely no respect for this guy. She cannot believe that Waller saddled her with him on this team.”
Growing up outside of Chicago and other parts of the country, Holland was a good student who was serious about gymnastics and imagined a future as an architect. After discovering drama while in high school, Holland convinced her mother, a nurse, to let her finish school online. They piled their belongings into their Dodge Stealth and moved to Los Angeles shortly after Holland’s 17th birthday. She worked odd jobs as a hostess at restaurants such as Hooters and Outback Steakhouse while taking acting classes — sometimes as many as five a week. Eventually, she landed on procedurals (CSI Miami, Bones) and a direct-to-DVD American Pie spinoff. Some of the projects were good, some weren’t, but she was just happy to be working.
“Every role that got put in front of me, ‘Oh! I get to be in this terrible film!’” Holland recalls with a laugh. “I didn’t know the difference between quality. I had no clue. I was just so excited to be on set.”
Gunn came into Holland’s life in July 2015. The director’s friend Michael Rosenbaum, the actor known for playing Lex Luthor in Smallville, was dating one of Holland’s friends at the time. Rosenbaum offered to set them up after Gunn saw a photograph of Holland and inquired who she was. Rosenbaum’s then-girlfriend floated the idea to Holland, who had never heard of Gunn, even though he had become an A-list filmmaker with Guardians of the Galaxy the previous summer.
“She described James as a producer-director. I guess the fact that she put producer first or something, it just kind of gave me weird vibes,” Holland says with a laugh.
That initial hesitance changed when she looked up interviews of the affable filmmaker online. “He seemed so incredibly charming in interviews,” she recalls.
They went on a semi-blind date and clicked.
“I just told him my whole life story,” says Holland. “We spent like seven hours together and that’s it. That’s how it started.”
As she built a partnership with Gunn, he went off to film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in Atlanta in 2016, while she booked a role on the CMT ’50s music drama Sun Records as Becky Phillips, the wife of music producer Sam Phillips. She shot in Nashville, and would travel to Atlanta on the weekends.
While the series lasted just eight episodes, it provided a few full-circle moments for the actor. Holland and her onscreen husband, Chad Michael Murray, shared a manager when she first came to Los Angeles, while Kevin Fonteyne, who played Johnny Cash, also works as a physical trainer and got Holland in fighting shape for Peacemaker.
Though Sun Records was short-lived, Holland’s highest-profile role to date was just a few years away.
Gunn is known for writing parts with specific actors in mind, yet even those closest to him say they are oblivious to Gunn’s intentions until he offers them the role. That was more or less true of Holland, too, though she was privy to more than other actors in Gunn’s life might be.
“He is really sensitive about not telling anyone until he knows it’s 100 percent,” says Holland. “Until he 100 percent is locked on a script and he knows for sure nothing is going to change, any character could get written out at any time.”
When Gunn was penning The Suicide Squad, he had a member of the Squad’s coms team in mind for Holland. As the role became bigger, he named her Emilia Harcourt, a name DC readers would recognize. After wrapping The Suicide Squad, Gunn realized there was even ore for Harcourt to do in Peacemaker.
“I had absolutely no idea how important to the story she was going to be,” says Holland of Gunn’s Peacemaker writing process. “He’ll come down from his office and he’ll sort of bounce ideas off me when he is writing. I started getting a little bit of a teaser of what the character would be.”
As Peacemaker got underway, Holland’s pre-acting training as a gymnast came in handy for a much-celebratedfilmed for the opening credits. For comedian Steve Agee, who plays techie John Economos, having Holland around proved a comfort.
“We had to have several rehearsals for it. They broke us up into groups of three; so it was myself, Chukwudi and Jenn,” recalls Agee. “Fifteen minutes into the first rehearsal Jenn was good to go, she could have shot it right then and there, but every time we showed up to a new rehearsal it was like Chuk and I were trying these dance moves for the first time. That was Jenn for the entire shoot, always ready to go and always nailing everything she had to do.”
Holland’s journey that led her to Harcourt began years ago on that car trip to L.A. with her mother. And it may not be over, should Peacemaker return for a second season.
Says Holland: “I feel so grateful for the whole thing. The character is just awesome. I love her so, so much.”
A previous version of this article misstated where Peacemaker filmed.
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