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iInterview | Filmmaker SYDNEY FREELAND

A Profile in PRIDE

Filmmaker SYDNEY FREELAND has dedicated a career to pursuing authentic storytelling in Hollywood and succeeded. The Trans, Native American has given voice to the Marvel Studios’ character with the spotlight on “ECHO”.


There are few more coveted positions in Hollywood than to land a major franchise. If that franchise is within the realm of expanding the Marvel Studios Cinematic Universe mythology, then truly you’re in an orbit all of your own. Since its inception with the 2008 release of Iron Man (starring Oscar-Winner Robert Downey, Jr.), the head of the studio, Kevin Feige recognized the diversity and broad appeal of the blockbuster films based on many of the most iconic comic book characters in the long legacy of Marvel Comics launched by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and many other artists and writer.

After Marvel Studios’ first decade had solidified its place in the cultural lexicon, Feige began to recruit and corral a talent pool of creatives that embodied the myriad backgrounds of today’s diverse society, giving rise in recent years to characters like Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel who is a powerhouse superhero fan-girl from Jersey with Muslim heritage, Shang-Chi, the Asian martial arts expert and wielder of the mystical Ten Rings, and the storied African kingdom of Wakanda, the most advanced technologically rich country in the MCU, and the seat of power of the mighty Black Panther.

Sydney Freeland on the set and behind the scenes of ECHO.
Sydney Freeland on the set and behind the scenes of ECHO.

Marvel Studios has become a draw for creatives who aren’t afraid to bring their stories, especially those featuring marginalized characters or spotlight diversity in its infinite spectrum. Among those creatives are Emmy-nominated film and television writer Sydney Freeland, who as a director has worked on high-profile series like Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, the long-running Grey’s Anatomy, and Fear the Walking Dead, among others. Freeland also contributed writing and directing duties to the FX Reservation Dogs series.

The trans, Navajo Native American, has always been attracted to stories that support inclusivity and champion diversity authenticity and is especially proud of tales that focus on Indigenous Peoples. It’s not a surprise then that her latest effort has brought her to Marvel Studios, to give voice to Echo, a young woman whose roots are of Oklahoma’s Indigenous Peoples of the Choctaw Nation, but who is raised far away from home, and in the underground criminal element of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Freeland tackled Echo and revealed her heroic journey as a director and executive producer.

THE FANZITE recently had the opportunity to chat with filmmaker Sydney Freeland.

THE FANZITE: There’s a project you’ve worked on recently, that is most significant, especially for fans of Marvel Studios and that’s the ECHO series. Can you share how you came to direct and executive produce this exciting adventure series for Marvel?

SYDNEY FREELAND: The character appeared in the Hawkeye series (starring Jeremy Renner) that was for the MCU, but the character of “Echo” has existed since 1998, so there’s a little bit of mythology built around her. I got an email from Bert & Bertie, who were the co-directors on Hawkeye (around 2020), and they asked me if I knew any deaf and Indigenous actors, I said: “Nope, and good luck!” but they were trying to cast for the “Echo” character. That was my first inkling that the MCU was going to do this.

Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez in Marvel Studios' Echo, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2023. All Rights Reserved.
Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez in Marvel Studios' Echo, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2023. All Rights Reserved.

THE FANZITE: The character is unique in that Maya Lopez is a master assassin, who happens to be deaf and an amputee, trained in the deadly art of combat to serve as a henchman for the Kingpin, a New York City crime boss, and goes toe-to-toe with Hawkeye.

FREELAND: Yeah… She’s a badass in that series (as portrayed by actress deaf and Indigenous actress Alaqua Cox), and once they announced the “Echo” series, I had a chance to pitch Kevin (Feige). So for me, it was about leaning into those aspects that made the character interesting — she’s a “villain” and although Hawkeye was a little lighter in tone there was an opportunity to tell a story that was a little more grounded and gritty, a little more visceral, and Marvel wanted to see how far we could push it.

THE FANZITE: It’s great that Marvel Studios was so supportive of telling her story. Material like “Echo” reads better when it is told from a more authentic space. How did the creative team go about wrapping the story and giving “Echo” such a rich cultural background?

FREELAND: When I came onboard, and very early on in the process, we flew all of our department heads to Oklahoma and met with the Choctaw Nation. We presented the project to the Choctaw Nation and asked their permission, and sadly that’s often an afterthought when it comes to (portraying) Indigenous stories. I’ve heard several first-hand stories of how miserable people are treated — for myself, we needed to engage the Choctaw Nation early on to get their expertise, their language, their knowledge base, and traditions so that we could incorporate those into the script. That’s how we were able to create this dialogue and collaboration to hopefully tell things more authentically.

THE FANZITE: That authenticity becomes so impactful in ECHO and in telling Maya Lopez’s story. It heightens the drama and also adds to her additional challenges. The character is deaf and has a prosthetic leg, but is still a formidable force to reckon with and serves as the right hand of the criminal Kingpin (played by Vincent D’Onofrio). You chose some pretty creative means to illustrate those challenges and prove the advantages in her favor.

FREELAND: Yeah…we wanted to lean into what makes Maya Lopez different, but she’s a high-ranking lieutenant in the Kingpin’s army who is deaf and an amputee, but you don’t get to be at that level unless you’re a badass, yourself. She had to work twice as hard to be half as bad, y’know? We didn’t want to shy away from those things that make her unique — but that was the fun part. She comes in at a deficit, but once she pulls through it’s that much more satisfying.

“The characters I’m attracted to the most are on the periphery… on the margins. But it’s who I am.”

THE FANZITE: One of the most satisfying aspects of the series is that at its core, it’s about family and the complexity of family dynamics.

FREELAND: Family is a the heart of everything we were trying to do. If you look at [Maya Lopez] throughout the series, it’s an exploration of the definition of family. When we come into the series, Maya is more “New York” than she is “Oklahoma”. She has that “Kingpin” underground criminal family mindset — it’s all conditional. She thrives in that environment. When we get to Oklahoma, you inject the cultural elements, it’s great, because we get to challenge her preconceived notions of what family is.

THE FANZITE: And she’s very different by the time we get to the adventure-filled climax. If not for her connection to her family and its Indigenous traditions, she wouldn’t land on the next steps of her heroic journey. In your career, you’ve pursued these types of substantive stories, about family and identity that highlight these intimate themes. Are these the types of stories that you’re most closely drawn to?

FREELAND: It’s who I am. I’m Native American. I’m transgender. The characters I’m attracted to the most are on the periphery… on the margins. But it’s who I am. I come from two very distinct communities that have been misrepresented. In the media, you’re portrayed as exotic, or different, or “the other”, but for me — I’m kind of a “boring” person, but when you have a chance to sort of inhabit a character, you have to ask: what is the humanity behind that character? What is that internal life? I think that’s how you make a character accessible to an audience. Humanity is the one thing we all have in common.

THE FANZITE: Do you think the entertainment industry’s perception of marginalized individuals and the portrayals of trans, and other LGBTQ+ people, as well as Indigenous Peoples, in media, is changing? It feels like we’ve been getting into the spotlight a lot more often lately.

FREELAND: Yes — With a caveat. I had ten years of nothing! My first feature on paper was a contemporary, ensemble Native American piece, and the response from investors was that there isn’t a market. And I just finished directing now a 30 million dollar movie for Netflix that is a contemporary, ensemble Native American piece.

Sydney Freeland on the set and behind the scenes of ECHO.
Sydney Freeland on the set and behind the scenes of ECHO.

THE FANZITE: …stories now, it seems, are getting a lot of attention.

FREELAND: Before the recent strikes, people were looking for more and more unique stories, and points of view, and that’s how you get something like a Pose on FX, or Transparent on Amazon. You have those opportunities to tell those stories on the Indigenous Peoples side like Rutherford Falls and what sets those shows apart is you have native showrunners telling these stories — and that’s a huge distinction. That has historically not been the case. Authenticity is much needed right now, and hopefully, we can keep that momentum coming.

THE FANZITE: When someone has worked to achieve the success you’ve earned and is as visible as you’ve made yourself in the industry, it changes how minority communities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and Indigenous Peoples reflect on what is possible for them. What advice would you offer to other aspiring creatives?

FREELAND: Keep plugging away! Keep plugging away! One of the best pieces of advice I got was that no one is going to care more about your story than you.

THE FANZITE: Would you want to return to the world of ECHO?

FREELAND: Oh hell yeah! In a heartbeat! I wanna pick up right where we left off…

Marvel Studios’  ECHO  the entire 5-episode arc is available now for streaming on Disney+.

Cover Art

You can view the “Out Loud & Live!” podcast interview here:

This Profile in PRIDE celebrates those individuals in our world community who are proving the importance of sharing their stories and enhances the significance of visibility and living with pride. #ShareYourPRIDE2024

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