Netflix's Atlas: Jennifer Lopez shows why dancers make the best action stars

Director of new sci-fi blockbuster, Atlas, explains why 54-year-old star's experience on the concert stage was more important than her decades in film

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Is your science fiction blockbuster in need a great action star? Don’t look to the gym – look to the dance floor.

That’s what director Brad Peyton just did. For his ambitious new film Atlas, streaming now on Netflix globally, the filmmaker was reportedly armed with the biggest budget for a female-led film in the platform's history – and needed a star that was up to the assignment.

Peyton wanted to create this generation’s Ellen Ripley from Aliens or Sarah Connor from Terminator 2. In his film, a female space pilot named Atlas gets stranded on an alien planet with only her mechanical suit to protect her.

“She was going to have to occupy a very uncomfortable place in terms of what she was going to have to do to achieve in this movie,” Peyton tells The National. “She had to be in an mechanical suit by herself with no actor opposite for seven or eight weeks in a row.”

“I needed someone who was going to have the courage and had a background with that skillset. And It couldn’t have been a massive learning curve for her, either.”

Where did he find his star? On stage at a Jennifer Lopez concert.

“Jennifer Lopez has been a massive star for so long,” Peyton continues. “She goes out on stage to a stadium of people and performs as that star. It’s that skillset and that background that allowed her to step inside of that suit, where a lot of other actors would feel deeply uncomfortable.”

Lopez, 54, has been in something of a career renaissance as an actress. The critically-acclaimed 2019 film Hustlers seemingly broke her out of a slump, and ever since the performer has again been a force in the world of cinema.

In 2023, her revenge thriller The Mother was Netflix’s most-watched original film of the year, and her self-funded $20 million film This is Me … Now and its accompanying documentary The Greatest Love Story Never Told each garnered positive reviews.

Atlas, however, did not just need her commanding screen presence, it needed her dancing skills to pull off the physicality and graceful movement that the role required.

“The suit was on a gimbal that was 10 feet in the air and motorised, and I had all these mechanical variations programmed into this device,” Peyton explains.

“Her dancing background allowed her to truly look like she's driving the device, even though the device is driving her when we're filming.”

Casting someone of Lopez’s skills is by no means a new strategy. The history of action filmmaking is full of stars who had a background in dancing – Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Charlize Theron and Zhang Ziyi.

“They know how to get physical,” Peyton explains. “They know how to use their body as a visual language in a way that I don't think … well, I certainly can't do it. They have an expressive manner that we take for granted.”

Peyton took that mentality from his hero, the aforementioned James Cameron, who has a history of working with great dancers in his big female roles, such as Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana.

“It was impossible for me not to love James Cameron,” says Peyton. “I grew up in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. When I was 13, and Terminator 2 came out, it rocked my world – I ran to a local Subway just to get the Terminator 2 cup so I could take it home. Then when I found out that he was Canadian and that he had done these movies. That affected me as a person. That opened my eyes to being a filmmaker.

“I love that he’d built such a strong female lead in Aliens, and I always wanted to do that. That’s actually how the project found me – I told people for years that that's what I wanted to do that,” he continues.

Perhaps surprisingly, this was Lopez’s first role of the sort. Understandably, Peyton explains, Lopez was a bit hesitant at first, but his confidence won her over.

“I've done action, and I'm very comfortable doing action,” says Peyton, who helmed Dwayne Johnson-led action blockbusters Rampage and San Andreas. “She had never done anything like that. I got the sense like she was like, ‘this is new. I'm wrapping my head around it.’ But I'm like, ‘Yeah, don't worry. We’re good.' And right away, I felt like she respected me.

“She’s very intuitive. Most of the time, I would help her a bit with the choreography, then I walked away and gave her the free space to perform and be in the moment.”

For most of the film’s runtime, Lopez only communicates with the AI named Smith hooked up to her suit. Rather than dub the voice in later, Peyton had the actor Gregory James Cohen record all his lines live, interacting with Lopez remotely.

“I had him in a soundproof booth next to my monitors on set, with his voice piped in through the speakers inside the mech suit,” Peyton explains.

“I would sometimes turn and say, ‘hey Greg. For this next line, keep an uncomfortable pause for two beats', just to see how she would react to it. She’s so intuitive, and that helped her to be even more emotionally present.

“I think that’s part of the reason that she delivers such a great performance. She’s so present. She allows herself to not just be a tough, badass character, but also really vulnerable in places.”

Atlas is streaming now on Netflix globally

Updated: May 24, 2024, 4:07 PM