As Deadpool 2’s Russell Collins, an incarcerated mutant with pyrokinetic abilities, Julian Dennison is the youngest member of the Ryan-Reynolds-led cast and the new kid on the block. “I was very intimidated,” 15-year-old Dennison tells Polygon. While he fireballs his way into the X-Men universe, deep down the teen actor knew both the rabid fans and the studio chalking up big blockbuster bucks had high expectations of his performance.
But Dennison had two things going for him: Russell a.k.a. “Firefist” is a powerful, yet little-known character from the comics, and Dennison is a powerful, yet little-known actor from New Zealand. But if you saw him alongside Sam O’Neill in Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi’s 2016 adventure comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, you know why the guy has his fans.
For anyone scorched by Dennison’s surprisingly complex performance in Deadpool 2, here’s a little about both Firefist’s comic history and how he wound up in the role.
Firefist in the comics
In X-Men comics, Firefist is more commonly known as “Rusty,” or Russell Collins, one in the endless line of young mutants with a tragic origin stories who have been taken in and mentored by the X-Men.
Rusty’s story was particularly tragic: His abusive uncle shipped him off to the Navy at the age of 16, and his mutant powers manifested unexpectedly, harming the woman he was near at the time and the police officer who attempted to arrest him.
Eventually, Rusty wound up in the care of former members of the X-Men — as part of the group X-Factor — who helped him gain more control of his fire powers. He was around for some of the bigger X-Men events of the late ‘80s, like Inferno, but was killed in X-Men #42 in 1995, just shy of the 10-year anniversary of his first appearance.
Why Julian was perfect for the part
While Dennison ultimately threw himself into the role, he had trepidations over whether Deadpool 2 was a fit or not.
“Like I remember when we first were going to meet, I was like, oh, actually... there’s a lot of swearing,”Dennison said. “I’m not like that!”
Dennison is soft-spoken and well-mannered, unlike most of the character he’s played on screen. One of four children from a Māori family who grew up in southwest New Zealand, the actor’s been steadily working since he was a 11 years old, after a casting call plucked him from his middle school to costar in the NZ indie Shopping.
His big break came when Taika Waititi cast him in a role that essentially required an adult mind roaring out of a kid’s body. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople (available to stream on Hulu), Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a loud-mouthed delinquent who jumps from foster family to foster family as he lights whatever he can on fire. For fun, of course. Fate puts the Tupac-worshipping adolescent in the hands of Hec, a grisly, off-the-grid farmer (O’Neill), and after a failed escape, the two mismatched foster-father-son duo wind up on a backpacking adventure through the woods... that eventually leads to a country-wide manhunt.
Ricky’s destructive, abrasive personality is distilled from years of wrestling with the loss of his mother. Dennison thinks his Firefist harbors a similarly complex angst (a comment that, when you hear it out of a 15-year-old’s mouth, sounds all the more profound):
“You definitely see evil in [Russell],” he says. “He was so fun playing him though. I kind of think he’s like Ricky Baker, just one that shoots fireballs. He’s very angry in this movie. He’s very alone. I think everyone can relate. Everyone’s been alone in your life.”
Dennison’s greatest performance to date is his agile ability to keep his future projects close to the chest. Don’t ask how he’ll follow up Deadpool 2 or if Firefist has a future in the Marvel universe — just know that whatever he does next, it’s going to be great. Or he hopes so.
“With [Deadpool 2]I wanted to do a film that I wanted to do, not just for the money or something.”
Stay good, Julian Dennison.