Michael Waldron is about to have one hell of a year. The Atlanta writer got his start on Rick and Morty as an assistant before eventually scripting a loose adaptation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea into one of the animated show’s best fourth season episodes. Now, he’s moved on to even bolder territory: The Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the head writer of the new Loki Disney+ series.
Loki picks up a thread audiences saw in Avengers: Endgame, as Tom Hiddleston’s God of Mischief absconds with the Tesseract, only to immediately wind up a prisoner of the Time Variance Authority (TVA). By existing outside of the natural timeline, Loki threatens to disrupt the flow of time unless the TVA erases him from existence. But while captive, Loki meets TVA Agent Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) who quickly makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Even in its premiere episode, the series is fully embracing the weirdness of Marvel Comics and Waldron is responsible for that.
Loki isn’t the only thing Waldron has on his plate—he wrote the script for one of the more hotly anticipated upcoming MCU films, the Sam Raimi-directed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and is also working with Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige on a project set in the Star Wars galaxy. GQ caught up with Waldron to talk about how Loki’s desire for control makes him like Steve Jobs, creating the rules for time travel, collaborating with Raimi, and why family matters in Star Wars stories. Oh, and heads up, spoiler warning for the Loki premiere.
What was it about Loki as a character that attracted you?
He’s just fun, for one. He has a very playful sense of humor about him. I like how he never quite lets you know what he’s thinking. Beyond that, what I connect to about him is the same thing the legions of fans do, which is his humanity and his vulnerability. This is a guy who—yes, on the one hand, he was the prince of Asgard, seems like a nice life—but his father, in fact, killed his actual birth father, adopted him, lied to him about his heritage and parentage his entire life, he was forced to live in the shadow of his oafish older brother who was born to be king. He’s experienced a lot of trauma, and I think that what he’s looking for is just a little bit of control over his life. Which he feels like maybe he’s never quite had. That’s something I think we can all relate with.
Was that element of control what you wanted to lean into with the series? Or was there something more specific you felt the show could explore that the movies hadn’t a chance to do?
It was certainly a big component of it. I love the Danny Boyle Steve Jobs movie. There’s a bit in there that [ Aaron] Sorkin pulled from the Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs biography, just talking about how Steve Jobs was adopted and how people who are adopted are out of control at the most important moment of their lives. And that movie is about how Steve Jobs is so obsessive about end-to-end control over all this technology. I drew a really interesting parallel between Loki and Steve Jobs: The desire to rule. “I know best. I want to rule. I want to be in control as an adult because I was, in fact, so out of control as a young Frost Giant baby.”
Beyond that, I really wanted to treat it like great TV, which is to say, self-reflection about Loki’s identity. Forcing Loki to really assess, “Who am I? Why do I do the things I do?” I don’t know if that’s stuff you necessarily get to do in a blockbuster, two-hour movie. But in a six-episode tv show featuring a blockbuster supervillain, it’s pretty cool to get to do that.
A lot of that self-reflection comes through the interrogation sequence with Owen Wilson’s Mobius. Can you talk about the process behind casting him and what you were looking for in a scene partner for Tom?
I wrote Mobius not with any actor in mind, just kind of conceptualizing an original character—which was fun because Loki himself was so well-defined as Tom. What was most important in casting Mobius was somebody whose energy was totally different than Loki’s. And then also someone who was likable. Somebody who had a sense of inherent goodness.
You know, I often reference Tom Hanks. Mobius is a character that a younger Tom Hanks would have played. The idea is that those two qualities would add up to great chemistry with Loki. My hats off to Kate Herron, our director, Kevin Wright, our senior producer, and Sarah Finn, our casting producer—it was that little brain trust that came up with the idea for Owen. As soon as that was put out there, it was like, “Oh my god, that’s so inspired.”
Then Kate had a conversation with him where she had to pitch this entire, very complicated show. He’s a writer himself and a really thoughtful artist. And Kate clearly sold the hell out of it because Owen signed up immediately. So thank God.
To your point about Owen being a talent in his own right, did scripts change at all once you had him on board in order to play more to his comedic strengths?
There was much less of that than you might think. I think what was appealing about the character to him was to play a little bit against type, to not be playing a character who was outright clowning around but instead is a just desk jockey. I didn’t go in and go, “Alright, I’ve got Hansel from Zoolander now, time for a setup and punchline.”
Instead, we knew what a great dramatic actor Owen is, and let’s trust the comedy is going to come organically with him, which it does. And yeah, Owen and I worked together on dialogue and stuff, and he riffed and improvised and everything. As with any actor, especially in the MCU, you’re working with them and building and shaping that character together.
Setting up rules for time travel can get pretty complicated pretty quickly. How did you strike a balance between expanding the depth and breadth of what’s possible in the MCU without it being too overwhelming?
That’s the trick, right? That was our biggest challenge. You don’t want to unravel the whole sweater that came before you. We worked really hard to create a shared institutional knowledge of how time travel was going to work in this show, which meant a lot of drawing of lines on whiteboards, and then other squiggly lines and everything.
Once we had that, then it was like, now let’s pretend we’re our grandparents watching this show and we’ve never seen anything in the MCU before. How can we now convey all this information in a way that’s understandable, gets the point across, but is also hopefully entertaining—but can withstand scrutiny. It’s a time travel show! There’s not a lot of those, probably for a reason— [because] the more episodes, the more opportunities for plot holes. That was the biggest thing we had to watch out for, but our writers were more than game, and everybody knew how important it was. We took probably two weeks out of the writer’s room early on and just said, “Let’s just lay that foundation.” Once we had that, we were off to the races.
I want to talk about who I thought stole the show in the premiere, and that’s TVA Mascot Miss Minutes. How did you all create her, and how did you cast iconic voice actress Tara Strong in the role?
Yeah, Miss Minutes! Obviously inspired by Mr. DNA from Jurassic Park, came from us having conversations in the writer’s room [around] how would the TVA let people know what they’re brought in there for and what’s the most non-threatening way to do that. Of course, this bureaucratic kind of Clippy—the old Microsoft paperclip—sort of character. That’s where Miss Minutes was born out of. I’m from the South, so I made her say, “Hey, y’all!” That’s my biggest contribution to the show [laughs] and a nod to my hometown.
Getting Tara—it was important to have a great voice actor in that role because we knew we were going to be delivering a lot of exposition, frankly, with that character. Literally what she’s doing to Loki is delivering exposition. So we wanted somebody who could do that in an entertaining way and also understood just the process of voice acting and animation. It’s like, “Alright, we’re gonna call you back several times because we’ll be rewriting this stuff down the wire.”
How did you settle on Loki being the villain of his series? Was that something Kevin Feige had already planned?
I think that was something I brought to the table in my pitch, that Loki is brought into the TVA and is in fact enlisted to help catch another rogue version of Loki.
When it comes to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, how did you make that character your own?
It’s like I’m standing on the shoulder of giants, truly, in both of these cases. Loki, that character had been refined and built up by Tom and then all the great writers and filmmakers who crafted those performances over the years. Same thing with Doctor Strange. Certainly, in the first Doctor Strange movie, the work that [director] Scott Derrickson did with [writers] Jon Spaiths and C. Robert Cargill, those guys told an amazing origin story for Doctor Strange that was one of my favorite MCU movies. That was the intro of this character into the MCU, so you want to continue that voice. I think also [writers Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely, the work they did with Strange in Infinity War—which feels like Doctor Strange 1.5 to me.
I think we’re all akin to comic book writers in that we keep inheriting the great work of our predecessors. It’s our job not to sell out what they did, but at the same time take chances and make them our own because that’s what the great creators who came before us did. So that’s how I approached it—with reverence—but hopefully a little bit of fearlessness as well.
Sam Raimi is such a beloved director. What can you tease about his specific approach to this movie?
I was on set for Sam for that entire movie, getting to watch him make it. That was an absolute dream come true. He is truly a conductor of the orchestra that is the movie, and that is the crew.. The way he moves the camera is, for me, just absolutely incredible to watch. I just keep saying, “It’s a Sam Raimi movie.” And it really is.
Speaking of working with different collaborators—whether it be Sam Raimi or Dan Harmon—you’ve also spent a lot of time with Kevin Feige with Loki, Doctor Strange, and now this Star Wars movie the two of you are working on. How has the collaborative process between the two of you grown and evolved over these three different projects?
It’s very early days on [Star Wars]. That’s probably the thing I can say least about, unfortunately. The thing Kevin Feige shares in common with Dan Harmon and with Sam Raimi is an absolute collaborative spirit and a remarkable lack of ego given what he’s accomplished. Kevin is a great listener. He wants to hear your ideas, take in how you might do something, and then help you make it better. Beyond all that, he’s just a cool guy.
What lessons have you learned from your time at Marvel that you’re looking to apply to Star Wars?
I think the success of the MCU is, for all the amazing science-fiction and concepts and all that stuff; ultimately the success is built upon the characters, their humanity, their very relatable conflicts, friendships, and the family that is the MCU. And I think Star Wars, at its best, is a story about family. Han, Luke, and Leia were a family; you love seeing them together, and you hated it when they were split apart. It’s great characters. That’s nothing new. I am not going to blow anybody’s mind with that headline—but that’s my biggest takeaway.