Dreaming of a Blanc Christmas?
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is ready to make your holidays merry and bright (and maybe a little murderous). But don’t expect this sequel to be just like the ones we used to know.
When the first Knives Out film — featuring Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, and Jamie Lee Curtis — premiered Thanksgiving weekend 2019, it was that exceedingly rare thing in Hollywood: a completely original script that captured the zeitgeist with its humor and its striking commentary on blue-blood buffoonery. Even more remarkable was how Rian Johnson’s wry, modern take on the somewhat creaky mystery genre managed to capture the attention of audiences, spawn a new movie franchise, and, most importantly, make cable-knit fisherman’s sweaters fashionable.
So naturally, when it came to write and direct a follow-up, Johnson had one rule: Start from scratch with the exception of one not-so-secret weapon, the unflappable Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).
“I wanted to establish right off the bat that every single [Knives Out movie] is going to be a very different animal,” Johnson, 48, tells EW. “Each one of them must have its own reason for being and its own theme. It’s not just repeating a formula, but using this genre to create a whole new formula every time. Sometimes with series or sequels, it can become weird, stratified, fossilized from the previous movies. The fun thing to me is genuinely creating something fresh and new.”
Something innovative (and massively entertaining) is, after all, Johnson’s milieu, as evidenced in his critically adored, risky, and refreshing entry in the Star Wars canon, 2017’s The Last Jedi. As for Knives Out, Johnson and Craig had no idea — and did not discuss — whether the first film would be successful enough to land them another case. But it exceeded expectations, ultimately earning Johnson a Netflix deal worth more than $400 million for two sequels (not to mention Netflix’s unprecedented move of releasing Glass Onion to all major theater chains for a special one-week engagement starting Nov. 23 before streaming it Dec. 23).
Even with that vote of confidence, Johnson sought to re-create the original’s feeling of breathless uncertainty. “If Daniel and I are going to keep making these, we don’t want to just spin our wheels,” the director says. “We want to be as jazzed and excited and terrified whether or not it’s going to work every single time.”
Craig, as the only returning actor from Knives Out, had to crack the case of Blanc again — finding his way back to the role and perfecting his Southern drawl with a dialect coach. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing something that I half-remembered,” says the 54-year-old. “I wanted it to be something that was stuck inside me that I could drop into anytime I wanted to and feel confident about. I just reminded myself of who he was.”
Inspired by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins’ groovy 1973 scavenger hunt The Last of Sheila and the star-packed 1982 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Johnson pivoted away from the cozy, autumnal vibe of the Massachusetts-set Knives Out, opting for a glamorous beach vacation filmed on location in Greece and at a studio in Belgrade, Serbia. “I wrote the movie during lockdown in 2020, so wanting to be on the beach influenced it more than anything,” Johnson says with a laugh. “But the setting was almost window dressing. The place it all started was the story and figuring out the narrative gambit that’s at the heart of this movie.”
Daniel Craig and Rian Johnson on Entertainment Weekly’s 2022 Holiday Movie Preview cover
| Credit: Kanya Iwana for EW
The new film brings together an entirely new cast of suspects: Tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) invites a group of his college friends, dubbed “the Disrupters” — and Detective Blanc — to his private island for a weekend of murder-mystery fun. But each of them, including his ex-business partner Cassandra Brand (Janelle Monáe), has secrets of their own, sending the weekend careening into something altogether more dangerous. The movie offers onion-worthy layers within layers — a panoply of wild, ridiculously starry cameos and a shattering dual twist.
Once Johnson had a vision of Miles as his game master, he was ready to move his well-dressed pieces around the board. “It’s not about tech billionaires per se, but power and big lies,” he explains. “And the big lie that can happen with power that gets validated by people who are benefiting from that power.”
Exposing the hypocrisy of that power is Blanc. Johnson created the sleuth for Knives Out, hewing him from a long tradition of gumshoes like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. He didn’t write the part with Craig in mind, instead leaving room for an actor to make Blanc distinctively their own. “I underwrote the character,” he says. “I tried to keep any big, obvious quirks out, [hoping] that the character would fill out with the actor.”
But even though Craig has — to steal a Knives Out metaphor — richly filled the hole at the center of the doughnut that is Benoit Blanc, he is just another, smaller doughnut with a hole at its center, because both Johnson and Craig are eager to ensure that Blanc remains an enigma.
Daniel Craig as detective Benoit Blanc in ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’
| Credit: NETFLIX
“It’s a mistake of the genre to think that your detective is your main character,” says Johnson. “Benoit Blanc is the constant North Star of all of these movies. But you have to think of him as the detective, not as the central character. The story has to function in terms of the suspects, the murder, and the victim. Benoit is weaving his way through that, but the dramatic stakes are never his.”
Indeed, though Craig has a fluid version of Blanc’s backstory in his head, he’s not interested in an origin tale. Even when Glass Onion gives a taste of Blanc’s home life (we see him living with a man, and Johnson has confirmed Blanc’s queer), it’s more amuse-bouche than main course. “I like the ambiguity of the character,” says Craig. “I like leaving him a little bit up for people to guess about.”
For Craig, the key to Blanc is his fascination with other human beings. He may be the smartest person in the room, but he’s not there to constantly remind you of that fact (unlike Poirot or Holmes). “He loves strangers,” Craig says. “The chance to go somewhere as amazing as Greece on this job is as good as it gets for him. I try to play him as unjudgmental as possible. He has to be open so people want to open up to him. He wants to disarm people — and to alienate people with his smarts goes against his technique.”
With the game once again afoot for Blanc, Johnson began assembling a (suspected) murderers’ row of fresh talent for Craig to play against, including Kate Hudson as former model Birdie; Jessica Henwick as her put-upon assistant, Peg; Dave Bautista as Twitch influencer Duke; Madelyn Cline as Duke’s arm candy, Whiskey; Leslie Odom Jr. as scientist Lionel; and Kathryn Hahn as Connecticut governor and Senate candidate Claire.
Norton said yes to Glass Onion sight unseen. In fact, the love for the first film was such that most of the cast also signed on before reading the script, due to the promise of piquant characters and Johnson’s reputation as an actor’s director.
“Rian creates characters that are terrible people,” explains Hudson, 43. “They do terrible things all the time, and it’s delicious to watch. As an actor, when you get to play things so far removed from who you are, this is what we love to do.”
| Credit: Kanya Iwana for EW
Henwick, 30, describes her character’s relationship with Hudson’s Birdie as a “toxic love/hate dynamic.” But the feeling couldn’t be more different behind the scenes, with the ensemble throwing around phrases like “theater troupe” and “repertory company” as easily as whodunit theories. Cline, 24, marvels at the cast’s familial lunches “that set a tone that we carried out through to wrap.”
“Rian doesn’t just pick people who are right for the parts,” adds Hahn, 49. “He picks people who are right for the ensemble. It feels egoless — everyone is on the same playing field.”
Filmed in 2021 as the Delta variant was raging, production was a tightly knit, isolated experience out of necessity. While Norton celebrates Johnson’s gift for cultivating a theater-camp vibe, he also credits the onscreen sense of abandon to emerging from lockdown. “Everyone was a little giddy with the fun of it,” says Norton, 53. “It’s partly because Rian’s written about old friends getting together, and there’s a lot of exuberance within the story. But you can feel that a lot of fun has gone into making it.”
| Credit: Kanya Iwana for EW
Johnson gave his cast a sandbox to play freely in, fostering improvisation and ingenuity, and encouraging them to lean into a near-slapstick level of physical comedy: “The script is a jigsaw puzzle, but it also allows you to find the fun in between the cracks and the bricks,” he says.
From riffs about room-temperature white wine, to Bautista’s pec-popping, to a duet of Norton and Monáe singing David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” there was no shortage of inventive moments. So many in fact that Johnson estimates that dozens didn’t make the final cut — including that Bowie number. (Psst, Netflix, can we get a supercut?)
Actually, we’re still not entirely sure if making Glass Onion was work or just a vacation with some filming on the side. The cast speaks of beach days in crystalline Grecian coves, intense chess matches organized by Odom, impromptu dance parties in the greenroom with playlists curated by Craig, Monáe, and Norton — and an effervescent sense of play that sparked from everyone. “This was the first movie I’ve done where people weren’t running off to their own trailer to get time away,” says Odom, 41. “We’d show up at the beginning of the day. We’d play some chess, play some music. We were there for the hang.”
Leslie Odom Jr.
| Credit: Kanya Iwana for EW
For Bautista, that exuberance was most marked in Craig, with whom he appeared in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre. “He was really put through it on Bond, and you could feel that he was under a lot of pressure,” Bautista, 53, recalls. “He didn’t seem like the happiest person on Bond, but on Glass Onion it was the complete opposite. He was so much fun and always smiling and happy.”
Craig, no stranger to long-running franchises, admits he’d probably make these movies forever. “As long as we’re having fun and Rian’s up for it, I’ll do it,” he says. “I should be so lucky.”
In perhaps the strangest, most gleeful instance of life imitating art, the cast spent their free time engaging in their own murder mysteries. Every Saturday night, they rented out the rooftop bar of their hotel and played Mafia (a card game–meets–roleplaying contest that involves trying to uncover a secret killer) as a way to blow off steam.
Johnson penned handwritten notes, inviting them all to the roof for a night of intrigue, with the instruction to “dress to kill.” Naturally, the sartorial supernova, Monáe, 36, came prepared. “Just in case I get invited to a murder-mystery party, I bring outfits with me — that’s just who I am,” she quips. (Confirms Johnson: “I feel like she must travel with eight steamer trunks or something, because she had elaborate costumes, like detective capes and Sherlock Holmes hats. And she had fake mustaches and pipes.”)
Monáe started a trend, prompting Cline to search local vintage stores for looks to join in on the costume fun, while Odom preferred to use his acting chops while serving as narrator. “One of my favorite ways to contribute was describing all the many different ways people would be picked off,” he laughs. “I would make sure that I made it gruesome and interesting. Each new death had to be something special.”
Credit: Kanya Iwana for EW
Most of the cast claims they were terrible at Mafia. Norton laughs at the recollection of Johnson’s wife, You Must Remember This podcast host Karina Longworth, seeming incapable of accusing Johnson of being a killer. He remembers the game nights as a more shambolic affair. “When you’re in Belgrade with not a lot to do except hang at the rooftop bar at a hotel, it starts to get into Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton levels of lubrication,” he says. “That definitely made the game funny, though I’m not sure anybody was able to remember who won by the next morning.” (He’s being modest since the rest of the cast names Norton the unequivocal champion.)
That electric mirth is still present on an early-September afternoon in the midst of the whirlwind Glass Onion world premiere and press tour at the Toronto International Film Festival. The cast and Johnson have gathered for an EW photo shoot that doubles as a holiday party, replete with crystal champagne flutes, a silver Christmas tree, and many, many candles. Hudson, Henwick, and Cline clink their glasses as they vamp for the camera, Hahn grabs a pepper shaker from the table and strikes a lewd pose, and Craig deadpans his way through it all — “I’ve got two looks, that’s it.”
They’re hours away from seeing the film with an audience for the first time, and there’s a potent anticipation in the air. They needn’t have worried. “A lot of us hadn’t even seen the movie,” Hudson says the next day. “You already have the anxiety and nerves of not seeing it and having the experience for the first time. And then, the laughter started, and it did not stop. It was the most engaged audience, and I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like that in a theater.”
| Credit: Kanya Iwana for EW
But those nerves are underneath everything, a heady reminder that beneath the romp and twists and turns of the Knives Out stories lies something more cutting: By lifting the whodunit into the modern age, Johnson gives audiences a movie with startling relevancy.
“Rian has really taken the form and applied it to the modern world. He’s weaved those old-fashioned pleasures of the detective/murder mystery into scenarios and settings that make it more resonant with the lives we’re living today,” reflects Norton. “They give you a special dimension of humor and laughter because you’re seeing a world that you know and you’re seeing reference points to what we see in the headlines. It walks that tightrope between a delightfully entertaining movie and commentary and satire to give it teeth.”
Knives Out did that with its biting observations on entitlement, inherited wealth, and immigration, and Glass Onion pulls no punches as it digs into climate change, race, appropriation, and the cult of the entrepreneur. Norton’s Miles Bron will feel familiar to anyone who’s watched the WeWork documentary or followed the Theranos/Elizabeth Holmes drama. “We’ve all seen those entrepreneurs who are doing something clever at best suddenly declare that they’re going to solve society’s ills,” Norton says. “I love that Rian sticks a fork in that idea of disruption, and of people who overcredit themselves with changing the system.”
| Credit: Kanya Iwana for EW
Cline says the skewering occasionally hit close to home while playing her social-media-obsessed influencer character. “Sometimes I catch myself being a little bit hyperaware of myself and criticizing what I do,” she admits. “I think especially living in L.A. and being the age that I am, being able to tap into that and incorporate that into [Whiskey] was really fun.”
Which brings us back, once again, to that central metaphor of the glass onion. “Rian will do something that’s funny, that’s got a certain satirical dimension to it, but it’s actually the way the film is constructed,” Norton says. “The idea of a thing that you peel back and peel back only to find an emptiness at the center does track through the film.”
| Credit: Kanya Iwana for EW
Ironically, revealing that hollowness only underlines the satisfying richness of Johnson’s work. If Blanc’s gift is his ability to read people, Johnson’s is one of tonal balance: an earnestness for process and form combined with a satirical gimlet eye. “He always manages to somehow make it relevant without being preachy,” says Craig. “There’s something to discuss at the end of it, not just the whodunit of it all.” Adds Monáe: “It has something to say without beating you over the head with it.”
For Johnson, all of that is as orchestrated as one of Miles Bron’s games (His motto? “Create a roller coaster, not a crossword puzzle”). But it’s plotted to ensure it never pulls focus from the joy of the viewing experience. “I put a lot of time and thought into making sure it’s an underlay to what’s hopefully a really fun ride,” says Johnson. “I feel like that’s an important balancing act with these movies. They’re set in modern-day America, and they’re engaging with stuff that’s on all of our minds. But they always need to be, first and foremost, entertainment.”
Photographer: Kanya Iwana; Gaffer: Han Radjawane; Photo Assistants: Josh Meek, Tom Wood, Nathan Valdez; Digital Tech: Chris Van Doorn; Production Designer: Lachlan Brown; Production: Pink Buffalo Films (Shawn Angelski, Alastair Waithe); Photo Director: Alison Wild; Creative Director: Chuck Kerr; Head of Video: Kristen Harding; Senior Video Producer: Ethan Bellows
Unusual Suspects playing cards — Director: Kristen Harding; DP + Editor: Ethan Bellows; Photo Director: Alison Wild; Creative Director: Chuck Kerr; Illustrator: Clark Orr
More from EW’s Holiday Movie Preview