From the beginning, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies were a personal project for James Gunn. The trilogy of films include some classic Marvel characters, but reinvent them for Gunn’s career-long theme about misfits finding their comfort zones and building found families. With Gunn moving on to co-lead DC’s movie operation, this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a goodbye to his iteration of those characters. But as a post-credits card teases, it might not mean the end of their stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
What does that mean for James’ brother Sean? Sean Gunn has been in all three Guardians movies as Kraglin, sidekick to former Ravager leader Yondu (Michael Rooker), and inheritor of Yondu’s Yaka Arrow, the whistle-controlled weapon that repeatedly crops up in the trilogy. Sean is also the on-set actor for Rocket Raccoon, the CG character voiced by Bradley Cooper, both in Gunn’s films and in crossovers like Thor: Love and Thunder and the Avengers movies.
Sean Gunn has been a TV and movie actor for more than 25 years — he tells Polygon that his favorite role was in Gilmore Girls, as quirky Stars Hollow resident Kirk Gleason — but he’s also been closely associated with his brother’s work, often taking multiple roles in James’ projects. Would he want to carry on as either Rocket or Kraglin now that his brother’s moved away from Marvel?
“It’s been 10 years I’ve been doing this, and the physical part of playing Rocket is something I know I need to retire from after this movie,” Gunn says. “It’s hard on my feet and ankles. [Playing him] is really challenging, really difficult. And it’s gotten harder as I got older. I was up for it, I was glad I was able to do it, I’m fortunate I was able to be there for it. But that’s something I’m happy to say goodbye to.”
Kraglin, on the other hand, he’d be happy to see return in a later Marvel movie. “I certainly never close any doors when it comes to that kind of thing,” he says. “I love telling great stories, and if there’s a way to get in on another great story, I’d certainly be open to it. There’s a sadness to completing James’ incarnation of the Guardians. But the Guardians are still alive, and the idea of the Guardians — what they stand for, in terms of finding family anywhere, and sticking up for the little guy, and ‘we’re all in this together’ — that idea lives on, and lives on strongly, so there’s always more.”
Polygon sat down with Sean after the debut of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to talk about his on-set experiences as Rocket, where he wants to see Kraglin go from here, and most importantly, whether he can actually whistle as well as Kraglin, who finally comes into his own in this installment of the series.
[Ed. note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.]
Polygon: With Rocket being such a central presence in this movie, and going through so much, was performing him significantly different this time around?
Sean Gunn: So in the previous movies, what I do is — the technical term is motion reference. Which means they don’t put me in the suit with all the colored stripes and balls and things like that — I’m just wearing a regular tracksuit. And the visual effects team is watching my performance, and animating Rocket based on what I do. But it’s not done digitally.
In this third movie, because we see young Rocket with other animals who are around his size, we shot that stuff on miniaturized sets, and did more traditional motion capture. So I did have the the motion capture suit on, and I was able to interact with Linda Cardellini [as Lylla the otter] and the other actors. When Rocket’s in the cage, we’re really shooting all that stuff, and fully capturing those performances digitally. So it was a little different from a technical standpoint.
From a performance standpoint, I prepared the way I always prepare. This one is maybe a little more emotional than the other ones, but that’s part of it.
Does James work with you differently for an on-screen role and a motion-reference role?
Not really. With every aspect of it, there are subtle differences. So when I’m doing motion-reference for Rocket, I’m basically just playing the role on set with the other actors. I’m primarily there for them so when they look into Rocket’s face, they’re looking at a responsive pair of eyes, not a tennis ball on a stick, or empty space. And then I’m there for the visual effects team, so they have a jumping-off point for the animation — they know where Rocket’s looking, what his hands are doing, and where he’s moving in space, along with these other characters. That stuff can always be changed in post, if necessary. Sometimes it isn’t, but a lot of it is.
The only difference in how James will work with me as an actor is that we know that there’s more flexibility with Rocket, because you can still tweak and adjust it as it goes along. The performance is only one part of what we see finally on screen, whereas with Kraglin, or any character that’s on screen, that’s most of it — once you capture it, it’s there, you’re not going to tweak it too much. But again, in terms of preparation, I prepare the way I do for any role. I look at them pretty equally.
Do you identify more with one of these roles? Do you put yourself into them in different ways?
I certainly identify more with Kraglin, because it’s me — it’s my voice and my face. Anytime you play a character on screen, there’s some part of you inside them. So there’s a much larger part of me in the final product of Kraglin, whereas Rocket, I feel a little bit more like a shepherd of sorts. I’m one member of the relay-race team that creates the character. James starts with the baton and passes it to me, and then I pass it to the visual effects team, and then they pass it to Bradley Cooper, the anchor who puts the whole thing together.
Is there anything you’d particularly want to see Kraglin do at this point, in someone else’s Marvel movie?
We’ve seen Kraglin get his sea legs in terms of being able to be a contributor. I’m curious to see where that would go, and how he could help with some of the other shenanigans that go on in the galaxy, and in the Marvel universe. But one of the things I love about being an actor is that I don’t have to think about that part of the storytelling, I let the writers take over, and then step in and do what I can. Fortunately, I don’t have to write the next one.
Fair, but at the same time, there are so many tremendous actors in the franchise at this point. Is there anyone you’d really love to get a scene with?
Oh, gosh, yeah — that list is enormous. I’m fortunate in that some of the work I’ve done as Rocket, doing motion capture in six movies, meant that I got to be on set during the Avengers movies, and work with all these phenomenal actors. There was nothing like being on set with all of them. But there’s always more. I would love to do a scene with some of the folks from Black Panther or Ant-Man. It would be the greatest. So yeah, bring them on.
I have to ask: How are you at whistling? Could you actually control a high-tech whistle-arrow?
[Laughs] I’m OK. I do my best, and sometimes some of it works, but I need a little love from the audio effects team to make it really pop. But you know, I do OK. I’m not embarrassing. Although, you know, what’s funny is, Michael Rooker, who plays Yondu, he believes that all of the whistling he does in the [Guardians] movies is 100% his own, and I have it on good authority that it is not. So at least I know where I get my help.